How Not To Be a Grownup: Nonfiction by Amanda Montell

“ham for dinner”


It’s my great-grandmother’s 90th birthday dinner, and the grownups are in stitches. Howling, exploding, wine flying from their glasses. Uncle Charlie’s just told a joke, and it’s absolutely killed, rendering all two-dozen guests at the banquet table unable to catch their breath.


I’m five years old, tiny and green-eyed, sitting in the corner of my mother’s chair, and I’ve missed the joke entirely except for the punch line: “Mamie Eisenhower.” Amid the sounds of my own gnawing on a green bean, this name is all I’ve heard. It’s a mouthful, peculiar. Mamie Einsenhower.


“Mom!” I beg, tugging on the sleeve of her shoulder-padded blazer, “What did I miss? What’s so funny?” I’m whining. “Mommy, tell me!!” She doesn’t bother, just puts her arm around my shoulders and squeezes, urging me to simmer. I’m tortured, can’t bear the thought of being on the outside of such a well-received joke. Fine, I whisper in a huff, I’ll just figure it out myself.


It’s very important that I prove my understanding of Uncle Charlie’s joke. I might only be five but I will not be excluded, underestimated. By the time dessert comes I’ve got it. Since the grownups burst out laughing immediately upon hearing “Mamie Eisenhower,” I figure the funny part must’ve simply been the name itself. I picture this Mamie character as a zany circus clown, a woman so funny that merely the sound of her name would reduce a room of 40-somethings to hysterics.


A few weeks later Uncle Charlie and his wife Francie come over for brunch. The perfect opportunity. At just the right moment I’ll retell the Mamie side-splitter, exceeding the grownups’ expectations and earning the same big laughs that Charlie received when he told it. That’s all I want. I don’t want an American Girl Doll or a Tamagotchi pet or a Power Wheels Barbie Jeep; I don’t want to fit in with the blonde girls who have their own handclap club at school. All I want is to be one of the grownups. This is my chance.


I gather myself in the playroom. Rehearse my routine. At noon the adults are piling lox on onion bagels in the breakfast nook, when I descend the staircase dressed in a bumblebee Halloween costume, a hot pink hula-hoop in hand. Circling the table, I twirl the glittering ring around one wrist, kick my legs like a can-can girl and shriek, “Ladies and Gentlemen! I’m Maaaaaamie Eisenhower! I’m Maaaaaamie Eisenhower!”


This version of the joke also kills. The adults laugh harder than they did at the original. The ground rumbles with approval, lox tumble off bagels. I feel very pleased that I’ve managed to decipher such an advanced joke and reinvent it successfully. Uncle Charlie pulls up a chair for me. Yes—I’ve earned my spot at the grownups’ table.



Of course hindsight reveals a slightly less winning rendition of this story. One where my interpretation of Charlie’s joke was about as accurate as an air ball—a pitiful (albeit adorable) cry for attention from a 35-pound child, who’d rather spend her time attempting to win over a pack of parents than swapping Pokemon cards with kids her own age. What’s equally sad is that seventeen years later, everyone at that brunch recalls my Mamie routine with ease, but can’t seem to remember if Charlie’s original even existed.


“I don’t think it was a joke at all,” Francie typed in a Facebook message during my nationwide investigation. “You probably just heard the name and latched onto it. You were such a performer. You’d do anything to impress us.”


Of course.


Because the Mamie incident wasn’t an isolated one. This shameless, often ill-informed tableside attention-seeking amidst the company of my elders was, and always has been, a habit. From the time I was in diapers I was obsessed, not with girls my age, not with boy banders, but with grownups. My parents, their colleagues—really anyone above the age of twenty. I was completely mesmerized by their long legs, their quick wits, their ability to catapult ideas back and forth rapidly and eloquently like a verbal paso doble. The dinner table was the one place where I got to observe it all at once; and like a kid with dreams of Broadway in the audience of “The Music Man,” I wanted to be up there with them.


Lucky for me, this was the 90s—a time when Baby Boomers were becoming parents and indulging their kids senseless, axing the philosophy of “children should be seen and not heard.” So even though I could never understand a word the adults were saying, much less contribute to their discussions of OJ Simpson’s acquittal or the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, I was welcome to slink over to the banquet table and try my very best. Hula hoop and all.


So I did.


And somehow, still, I do.


Today I’m twenty-two and in a position where my peers are aging into the next generation in charge, becoming parents in some states and app-inventing billionaires in others; but still, I consistently feel like a little girl in a bumblebee costume aspiring to be one of the grownups. At twenty-two, I can’t help but feel more than ever like I’m missing the joke, like I’m on the outside of this big secret that every other adult seems to know. As if throughout our interactions, my parents and my boss are just humoring me, delivering their nods and laughs while secretly withholding all the ingredients to success and respect and adulthood—withholding them potentially for so long that one day they won’t remember if they existed at all. And I don’t know if it’s our generation’s “lazy Millennial” reputation or my impatience or that fact that I’m still tiny and green-eyed—or maybe everyone secretly feels this way no matter how old they are—but I don’t know if the adults around here will ever truly see me as one of them.


It is very important that I get there. I might only be twenty-two but I will not be excluded, underestimated. I will sit long-legged at the grownups’ table wearing a sharp fitted blazer in a chair set just for me. I’ll strap on my conversational belt, ripe for the evening’s paso doble, and perfectly grasp every last word tossed across the silver plates. I will open my mouth and utter the most elegant, insightful one-liners possible. Politics, pop culture, philosophy, technology—no topic will stump me. I’ll tell the side splitter right. Then I’ll share a knowing look with my tablemates, and an admirer will refill my glass.


To be a grownup. I can’t wait.


Baby Amanda


Amanda Montell is one of the founding editors of FORTH, as well as a nonfiction writer, Angeleno and pizza enthusiast. She graduated magna cum laude from NYU with a degree in Linguistics and Creative Writing. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell.

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