"We were pieces of a bigger puzzle. We fit snugly into the design where life had pitched us. Old St. Paul was wrapped in history and money, riveted to the mid-century moment of our mid-continent midsize city, the time-place where my father's decency was a fragile assurance, my mother's growing ferocity and evening befuddlement were a terrible claim, my brother's dark frustrations and my own inchoate ambitions were barely perceptible fissures in the smooth surface.

"We glided across the ice rink of family life, trusting we left no gashes as we went round and round the tended circuit of days. We had faith — in everything. Faith was a form of stasis, not transcendence. We didn't live in a movie, the narrative building to climax. We lived in photographs, as nostalgics do, a sweet moment snapped and set on the mantel by the piano where it keeps time at bay, covertly aging in full sight. We believed in love and happiness and small domestic pleasures, duty, and work. Work especially. Work, of course, included school. Education was the height of work.

"We didn't talk about ourselves as if we were projects, works under construction. Nobody had a 'self.' That all started when I went to the University. Only then did it seem that you — you yourself — were detachable from the tableau of family and especially of this family in this city in sublimely static Minnesota, situated at the nosebleed north of the country.

"Our life was boring (my point — let me out of here). Or it was beautiful (my father's fervent belief, a man who began the day by humming 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning'). Mother didn't enter into these constructions. Cigarette in hand, she followed the heartbreaker Twins on the radio, read her histories and political biographies that proved to her satisfaction the victim status of the Irish, giving over to a furious sense of the world's essential unfairness."