Heather Havrilesky schrijft,

A few years ago, I was sitting around in my mother’s house during a summer trip back to my hometown (where I now live), and she pulled out a book written in Swedish. The book had passages about a small town where some of her ancestors lived. Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about genealogy.

So I picked up the book and began reading it in my best Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show” accent. Soon I stumbled on a series of intriguing words:

barn, barnbarn, och barnbarnsbarn

“Wow!” I said. “What do you think that means?”

“Probably children and grandchildren or something like that,” my mom said.

We Googled it and she was right. Barn is children, barnbarn is grandchildren, and barnbarnsbarn is great grandchildren. This struck me as incredible — as in almost fantastical. Imagine if this was your native tongue! 

Or imagine that you created this language. Imagine you started with a word, let’s say nerf, and then you assigned it a meaning, children. Now when you want to express your children’s children, you can just say nerfnerf. And when you want to talk about your children’s children’s children, naturally you’re going to say nerfnerfsnerf.

Now imagine you’re writing a book. Instead of writing “All of her descendants were in the room there, all the way down to her great grandchildren,” you write something like “Gathered there were her nerf, nerfnerf, and nerfnerfsnerf!”

So much better, really! You’re such a good writer.


For the rest of the day, pacing around my mother’s house, and at lunch, and later at the dinner table, I couldn’t stop saying those words. They sounded like a line from the Swedish Chef’s opening song:

Barn, barnbarn, och barnbarnsbarn!

My siblings and my husband and even my own children grew quickly annoyed with me. And maybe you’re annoyed, too. Maybe you hate Sweden and puppets and Swedish puppets the most of all, plus you’re still wondering whether or not my mother visited that basement in Salt Lake City where they keep all of the genealogy records. Yes, she visited that basement. My mother doesn’t half-ass that sort of thing. She flew all the way to Utah to look with her own eyes at those records, which the Mormons are keeping for all of us for some reason, possibly because they’re just super polite and helpful or possibly thanks to some fun little eccentricity of Joseph Smith’s that involves studying the genetic code of wicked heretics so they can be permanently erased from the planet at some blessed day in the distant future, leaving extra space for extra wives. Just for example.

Oh, I have many Mormon friends and Swedish relatives so I’m allowed to make fun of their religion and their language, respectively. The long hours I’ve logged with my Mormon friends — all of us throwing our heads back and laughing good-naturedly about quirky, delightful Joseph Smith and his fascinating notions about the apocalypse — have earned me this right. I’m also allowed to mock the Swedish language and to encounter an accent given to a puppet in 1976 as a useful map of how that language should sound, because my genes share some key genetic sequences with that puppet. So why don’t you stay in your not-related-to-a-Swedish-puppet lane already?

And listen, if it’s up to me, all of my barn and barnbarn och barnbarnsbarn will cultivate a rich family tradition of singing the Swedish Chef song every year at Christmastime, or as they call it in Sweden, FARFAR JUL TID, which means, quite literally, “Break out your vapes, kids, because ‘tis the season to GET LIT.


Once after a few lunches and dinners in my company, a very respected TV journalist said to me, “You’re not a collector, you’re an inventor.” This was her exceedingly polite way of saying, “You’re pretty full of shit” or as Logan Roy put it, “You’re not a serious person.” But she might’ve also meant “You’re an artist, not a journalist” or “You don’t want to gather facts, you want to pull something straight out of the deepest, darkest caverns of your ass.” But mostly what she meant was, “It’s sometimes hard to remember what purpose you serve, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for as long as it takes to finish this drink.”

Everyone I’ve ever known reaches this point with me. And to be fair, it’s hard for me to remember what purpose I serve a lot of the time. But that journalist friend was right about one thing: My ability to thrive depends on my ability to invent. I am unable to follow someone else’s map forward, and the second I start doing something that fifty other people can do just as well, I need to quit that thing and do something else.

This sounds competitive because it is. I am a competitive person. I would guess that most people who want to invent weird shit rather than collecting facts and stats and gluing the facts together with some quotes from local experts — see how I’m making most nonfiction writing sound like a second grader’s collage made from pictures cut out of magazines? — are also pretty competitive.

All I mean is that I’ve never had much respect for a giant collection of facts. A big messy pile of facts isn’t evidence of good ideas or liquid intelligence, it’s just a bunch of souvenirs from places you’ve been. So what? I can visit there, too, just by pulling out my phone and saying “SIRI, TELL ME ABOUT THE MING DYNASTY.” See how competitive? I don’t want to stand on the shoulders of my fader, farfar, och farfarsfarfarfar. I want to build my own ladder STRAIGHT TO THE MOON!

You can be so competitive that it makes you a little stupid. That’s me. I don’t want to know too much about a lot of things, because I’m worried that those facts could take up valuable storage space in my increasingly limited warehouse of a brain. Once upon a time, my brain was a vast, empty Amazon warehouse three blocks long and two blocks wide, so I could afford to learn about, you know, the French revolution or the horticultural practices in Sub-Saharan Africa. But these days, my brain is more like the trash compactor in “Star Wars”: There’s already so much random, pointless bullshit in there, and the walls keep closing in, and everything is getting smashed together and crushed to pieces. The French revolution used to have room to stretch its white-stocking-clad legs, but lately it’s been reduced to “Jefferson was there for a minute” and “People set up barricades in the streets kind of like they did in the second half of Les Miserables.” The French revolution inside my brain is mostly just Kirsten Dunst and Cosette eating a cake with pink frosting and singing “But the tigers come at night!

Not my fault. I don’t have the storage space to be a collector. I can organize my stuff better, sure. I can throw stuff out occasionally. But I can’t take in new facts. They don’t spark joy.

And look, my focus isn’t on information or knowledge anymore. Fuck knowledge! All that junk is just going to turn into splintered trash sooner or later. That’s not my top priority. Right now, my top priority is to keep my one little sea monster buddy alive for as long as possible. You know, the one who lives in the trash compactor? He’s the guy who makes all the magic happen.

I need him slithering around and pulling people into the murky trash water. That’s how we make the donuts around here. We pull people into the muck and listen to their screams. Wow, that was probably the inspiration for Dagobah, now that I think about it! George Lucas probably loved that trash compactor scene so much that years later, he’d stay up late at night, congratulating himself (masturbating) over how thrillingly creepy it was to see Luke pulled under the brown water.  

See how creative my stupid mind gets, when you send it the message that FACTS NO MATTER AT ALL and tiden är obegränsad?

My mind is a hungry garbage monster. It doesn’t want to eat crushed up facts. It wants soupy brown muck and tender farmer boys from Tatooine who dream of traveling to distant planets. Mmm, garbage monster love crushed dreams! So yummy!


Yesterday my husband wanted to tell me something he read about in the news. He’s always doing that, the absolute pest. He’s always reading the New York Times or Defector or some other shit and then recounting some part of what he just read. He sounds terrible, right? I mean, wtf, right?

I could practically hear the facts rattling around in his brain warehouse, ready to be blown out of his industrial dumbwaiter of a mouth.

“You know, yesterday I was…”

“If this is about politics or sports or something, I don’t want to know,” I said. “If it’s emotional or personal or it’s some idea or concept you’re turning around in your head…” (this was wishful thinking on my part) “then I want to hear all about it, but if you want to tell me something about RFK Jr. or Phil Mickelson or what David Roth said on his podcast, then no.”

My husband just looked at me. See, he’s with me because I surprise him all the time. Jot this down ladies: Keep ‘em off balance! They eat it up.

“You’re…” He was about to say impossible or annoying or the worst so I hushed him. I don’t want those harsh words weighing on him, giving him a guilty conscience. I want him to feel unencumbered, free, so I generously interrupted.

“I started writing a new book this morning,” I said. “And it’s all big ideas right now. Big, big, BIG ideas. And in order for those great big ideas to give birth to large-ish ideas which will give birth to smaller ideas, I need to steer clear of media pollution.”

I really did use those words: Media pollution. I meant frivolous factoids and weighty world events alike. I meant all news from the outside world is poisonous to me at this particular moment. I meant I need my garbage monster to eat a whole village full of tender farm boys who dream of far-away galaxies. I meant I need my garbage monster to grow fat on succulent twice-smashed dreams and fallen hopes three ways, fat enough to give birth to other slithering garbage monsters who will, in turn, give birth to even moregarbage monsters.

I meant that I need my pathetic trash compactor of a brain to be filled to the brim with slithering garbage monsters of all sizes, barn and barnbarn and barnbarnsbarn.

(The accent is on the middle syllable, by the way: barn BARNS barn.)

I need to get obsessed. That’s what I meant. Obsessed enough that I can swat away all insignificant information that is not nutritive to my garbage monsters. And the tiny little cracks filled with air and murky trash water in my trash compactor brain must go to my children and also to my friends and also to my mother. My children are teenagers and they need to talk about whatever, anything and everything, while I listen very closely and remember everything. My friends are new friends here, so they require close listening, too, particularly when you get two of them together and they’ve known each other for years and you have none of their shared history so you have to listen with all of your might, just to keep track of various first marriages and failed businesses and dead aunts and so forth. And my mother is 81 years old and she’s the most interesting person I know but many of the otherpeople in my family (not naming any names here) don’t listen to her closely enough (MY HUSBAND! Wtf, right? What an asshole!).

So that means that my husband needs to not say words out of his dumbwaiter mouth while all of my various generations of garbage monster, my skräp havsmonster barnbarnsbarnbarnsbarn, are feasting on my gigantic new thoughts and brilliant new ideas.


Now let’s use our imaginations. Imagine, for a second, being my husband and learning that you’re not allowed to say words unless they’re emotional orthey pertain directly to something your 81-year-old mother-in-law just said. I mean, what a surprise, to fall in love with someone young and charming and wake up more than a decade later to THAT? What a deliciously unexpected plot twist, right? What an absolute TURN ON, innit?

Keep ‘em guessing, ladies! Keep ‘em off balance, on their toes, trying to understand what the hell happened to their lives and who the fuck you are and what you’re even talking about. Pure seduction! First rule to a good marriage: BE INSCRUTABLE.

Second rule? Feed your garbage monsters. They’re the ones that keep the magic alive. Get obsessed with their mental wellness, their oral hygiene. Go full Tiger Mom on your garbage monsters. Make them take up the oboe. Send them to tennis camp.

That’s how you become a legend. Then your descendants don’t need to go to some dank basement in Salt Lake City to know that you’re their mormor or their gammelmormor or that you stole their farfarsfar’s jul and got high as a drake with Drake at jultid one year. Because it’s the stuff of legend. You wrote a whole goddamn book about it, a book packed not with neat little factoids and expert quotes but with ABSOLUTE FUCKING MADNESS, filled to the brim with garbage and garbage monsters alike, charmig and optimistisk and sexig and förförisk.

Normally I would not be so concerned with my legacy. But you have to be thinking competitively to start a book. It’s not possible otherwise. To make something truly great, you have to think of yourself as a legend. I learned that from Drake one fateful Christmas eve. Or that’s what my garbage monsters are telling me, anyway.

Legend, One monster’s trash is another monster’s treasure – Ask Molly