Passing the days in '80s-era Kenosha, Wis., Andy Selsberg frequently looked to humor to illuminate the dark recesses of a suburban teenage existence — usually at the now-defunct Waldenbooks, tucked in the still alive-and-kicking Regency Mall in nearby Racine.
"My brother and I would go straight to the humor section," Selsberg says. "I guess I was always looking for people trying to say something real, but in a goofy way."
Selsberg has since found his own voice, weaving the droll, the poignant and the just plain goofy into a series of gigs — staff writer for The Onion, creator of the website Dear Old Love, and now, author of the upcoming "You Are Good At Things: A Checklist." On the checklist?
Avoiding parallel parking.
Reading skywriting before it evaporates.
Always having a new thing. ("It's my new thing!")
Making a big production out of yawns.
"The sum of these small virtuosities makes humanity human," Selsberg writes in the introduction, wherein he argues that while most of us aren't building cathedrals on par with Notre Dame, we are, nonetheless, contributing to the greater good.
Selsberg describes the list as: "A pat on the back, a flying high-five, a proud pair of guns in your direction for the things you do that fly under the radar."
Noticing new haircuts.
Sensing how many sheets the stapler can handle.
Knowing the right Bible verses to share at sporting events.
"I'm not actually saying, 'We've gone off course and I will right us with this list!'" he says. "It's just a way of looking at life that maybe trains you to start thinking, 'Hey, I am really good at eating entire apples.'"
Which is why, he supposes, "You are Good" is marketed as a self-help book.
"I feel like every book is kind of self-help," he says. "Even if it's to distract you for a while. Even if it just helps you pass the time."
This one, though, strikes an interesting balance of waggish (correcting the auto-correct) and eloquent (seeing it coming).
"Some of them (the entries) are kind of cosmic and beautiful and some of them are just silly," he says. "But I feel like that's how life is."
Selsberg says growing up in Kenosha ("not small town, but small city") taught him to savor the modest.
"It was really a make-your-own-fun kind of place," he says. "There was a lot of just wandering around and banging sticks on mailbox posts."
Chicago, though accessible via Metra, seemed a daunting venture.
"I grew up to be afraid of Chicago traffic and parking," he laughs. "It was like, 'Chicago, ugh!' All the traffic. My parents would listen to Chicago radio stations, and the traffic reports would bolt them to their chairs. Just hearing the words, 'Dan Ryan Expressway,' you could measure their stress levels rising. And I don't know if they've ever even driven on it."
New York City, Selsberg's adopted hometown, was beyond his parents' frequency, and therefore remained un-feared. And it turned out to be a wonderful place for observing things at which people are good.
"I carried a notebook around for a year or so and I'd just sit on park benches, ride the subway and write down what people were good at: Cutting up an apple with a pocket knife. Reparking when the original parking job was sloppy. Remembering to take your coffee cup off the top of the car," he says. "But I didn't want it to be too New York-y. I also went to Times Square, figuring, 'the world passes through here.'"
Which likely accounts for the scope of the book, which feels narrow, and yet infinite.
Having a little faith.
Ditching your sense of childlike wonder and picking up a sense of steely-eyed cynicism.
Risking everything for the truth.
"Maybe they're less monumental than the Chrysler building," Selsberg says, "but these skills are the undulating balcony of — you know, that's just goofy. Never mind."
Click here to download two pages of checklists from the book and take a moment to pat yourself on the back for the things you are good at.
This story originally appeared in the Printers Row Journal, a weekly magazine covering all things literary. Click here to learn more.
"You Are Good At Things: A Checklist"
By Andy Selsberg
Perigee, 224 pages, $11.95Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times