Recently watched The World’s End starring Simon Pegg and written by Pegg and frequent collaborator Edgar Wright. Didn’t love it, which was surprising because of the good reviews and the fact that I really enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and even liked Scott Pilgrim well enough despite not being familiar with the comic and it being sort of ridiculous. I thought I was going to fall in love with TWE and ask it to marry me.
Instead, I enjoyed the first part and got bored the moment the skiffy element was introduced. What started off as an interesting, funny, and surprisingly moving tale of grown men dealing with childhood disappointment and the mundanity of adulthood just sort of went all cockeyed, for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you loved it I have no argument to make.
It did make me think about some of my own early writing. This isn’t really a review of the film or even a discussion about it, it’s about my own writing tendencies. Which included a period where I would deal with emotional and character development issues by copping out and introducing a Deus Ex Skiffy.
DEUS EX SKIFFY (I Just Made That Up and Like It more than It Deserves)
What that means is, I used Sci Fi and Fantasy elements as a way of writing about things I was uncomfortable with, by not really writing about them at all. It went like this: I’d start a story about, say, a doomed love affair. After establishing the characters I’d get bored with/be afraid of where the story was heading, and would instead suddenly introduce a killer disease or alien invasion and pretend like this was what I’d intended to write about the whole time.
Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Either way, the Deus Ex Skiffy is a copout.
The World’s End sort of has this feel to me. What starts off as a melancholy story about a man who is just starting to realize that he peaked at age 18 suddenly turns into a rather confused, muddled story of alien invasion that, frankly, makes very, very little sense. The film’s still fun, and worth watching, but as a standalone effort it’s kind a mess. And I think it may have been a similar writing exercise as my own failed attempts at solving knotty character problems by introducing killer robots: They just got bored with the story they were writing and worried it was a little slow and dull, and so they changed lanes and ended a totally different story.
I mean, there’s pretty much zero foreshadowing in the story. This may have been intentional to keep the surprise factor, but if so it was a miscalculation, because it only adds to the sense of separation between two entirely different stories. Believe me, I know; I’ve done it.
It’s entirely possible that no one in the universe wants to hear my little compositions, but who cares. If I listened to that little voice of doubt when it concerns my own creative genius, we’d all be dead now, because it’s generally the same little voice concerned with my moral performance. Hear these songs or the world ends, is basically our only choices here.
(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #50; for a while I wrote a column there about ignorance in general and my ignorance in specific. It was a lot of fun and I figure I’ll post them here now and again.)
I USED to think I was the only jackass in the world. A lone jackass, doomed to a solitary life of jackassery, wandering this world in a haze of ignorance and unintentional destruction—cities burned to the ground, populations wiped out by disease, entire societies ruined and desecrated by some consequence of my ignorant jackassery. This was not an entirely unpleasant notion; after all, is it better to be forgotten and swept into history’s dustbin, or to be remembered as The Destroyer of Worlds? If that’s your only choice, bubba, I say go for Destroyer of Worlds. The title sounds pretty cool, and thousands of years after your death it’s almost guaranteed that cults will pop up to worship your memory. No one worships Jeff Somers, Jackass, but Somers, Destroyer of Worlds will get a lot of tithing, I think.
Ah, but I’m older now, and I realize that I am not, indeed, the only jackass in the world. In fact, I’ve come to realize that just about everyone has at least a moment or two of jackassery in their lives. You have the people who lead perfectly normal, uneventful existences until one day they decide to deep-fry their Thanksgiving turkey, or to investigate that gas smell in the crawlspace with an open flame for illumination. All of us have a Secret Jackass inside us, waiting to come out. We all just put a lot of energy into hiding it from each other, creating a sort of multi-level marketing environment of jackassery—we’re each passing on jackassery, deepening like a coastal shelf, in a desperate bid to hide it. My goodness, how often can I use the word jackassery in one essay? Let’s find out. Jackassery.
The secret ingredient in most jackassery, of course, is our old friend Ignorance. If you’re aware that you should turn the power off in your home before attempting to rewire a broken light fixture, you are less likely to be lit up like a sparkler later in the day. Thus, jackassery would seem to be an easy thing to cure; simply embrace education, eliminate ignorance, and we are living in an all-singing, tap-dancing jackass-free world. The problem, however, is that ignorance is like mold: You scrub at it and it seems to go away, but in reality it’s growing under the drywall and infiltrating every damn place. This is because most people are afraid to admit ignorance, and will pretty much pretend to know things they don’t in order to project a learned and wise demeanor.
We’re all ignorant of something, after all. Even if you know pretty much everything I bet I could think of some subject you know little about—even some everyday, practical things, things you probably haven’t even thought of. And I bet if I were to discover your secret ignorance, rather than admit it, you’d go to great lengths to cover it up and obfuscate it, to pretend you know something you don’t. That’s how ignorance maintains itself. My god, people, we live in an age where men have walked on the moon, where we’ve split the atom and mapped the human genome! And yet, we also live in an age where most people have no idea how the electoral college works and where grown men have only the vaguest idea how the technology that serves us works. I’m not talking about the complex physics of, say, electricity, here; I’m talking about knowing how something like jumper cables work. I’ve personally observed people who have the same level of knowledge regarding jumper cables they have regarding Tiny Poisonous Frogs of the Brazilian Rain Forest. The difference being your chances of encountering a Tiny Poisonous Brazilian Rain Forest Frog versus your chances of needing to use jumper cables.
Still, you’ll never know what people know or don’t know. Witness the various hoaxes concerning Dihydrogen monoxide—otherwise known as water (H2O). People happily signed petitions to ban this terrible substance once they’d been told all the terrible things it does (for example, inhalation, even in small quantities, may cause death) even though none of them, clearly, knew what the hell it was. They were handed a petition and challenged to either feign knowledge or admit ignorance, and they chose to feign knowledge. Because Ignorance is the most powerful force in the universe, and we’re all powerless against it. You might as well fortify your house, lay in stores of Spam and Twinkies, buy some guns, and prepare, because when the world ends it won’t be a huge red sun in the sky or a plague or a fundamental breakdown in our environment, it will be hordes of ignorant people convinced you are an evil spirit who must be destroyed, or that you possess an army of Tiny Poisonous Brazilian Frogs that threaten the universe. It will be an army of jackasses transformed into Destroyers of Worlds through sheer ignorance.
This does, I think, take some of the shame out of being ignorant, or at least it should. Next time you’re puzzling over some aspect of modern life that seems like something everyone but you understands—fashion, perhaps—take a step back and realize that it’s more than probably no one understands it, and we’re all just pretending to. It seems pretty likely that fortunes have been made off of such assumptions, but fortunes, sadly, are one of the many, many things I remain ignorant about.
 Remembered by who—since the world had been destroyed in this scenario—is a question for someone smarter than I.
 In my case, not so secret.
 The answer: Nine times.
 Leavened, most probably, by copious amounts of sweet, sweet alcohol.
 Admittedly, sometimes the universe conspires against you even when you admit you are powerless over ignorance: Witness the mysterious power line in my mother’s house that remains hot even when you turn off the master. I suspect it would remain hot even if we disconnected the house physically from the grid, and that it will kill someone someday. Hopefully long after we’ve sold the house.
 In my daily life, this is also known as Working My Day Job.
Plus, you can eat the tiny frogs, as long as you build up a tolerance first by licking one every day for about six months. Or maybe that was something I saw in a movie once, who knows? The world is a mysterious place.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydrogen_monoxide_hoax (a precarious place to cure ignorance, but the best my feeble researching powers can manage)
 Otherwise known as drowning.
 Contrary to popular belief, the shelf life of a Twinkie is actually only two months. Also, in the baking industry any small cake is referred to as a ‘Twinkie’. Also, I haven’t had a Twinkie in thirteen years.
Note: A version of this essay appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 4, Issue 2, circa 1998. I removed some meandering from the original essay but left in my juvenile abuse of dashes. You’re welcome. Also, 1998 was a hella long time ago and the Coen Brothers have released a lot of films since then, none of which factor into this essay.
Dislike and Disdain in the Films of the Coen Brothers
The Coen brothers, writers/directors/producers of the films Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, are, without any doubt, two of the biggest Swines to ever gain national distribution of their films. Put simply, The Coen’s absolute dislike and disdain for their fellow human beings is almost a palpable story element in every one of their films. They hate us. They make no bones about hating us. And we love them for it.
Up the Crazy by Jeff Somers – a Lifers/Chum crossover.
I released this a few months ago on Smashwords – it’s a tie-in to my novel Chum and my novel Lifers, which share a universe and some characters. Figured: Why not post it here as well?
Her name was Florence, and she was trying to kill me.
Trim had a brother. This was disturbing news on so many levels I didn’t know how to process it, I kept forgetting it like it was a fnord and then picking it up again a few hours later and marveling over it the way you’ll find some huge insect in your basement, something primordial and brutish, a remnant of an earlier stage of evolution when insects could pick up small mammals and carry them away and you’ll spend a few moments just in awe of its awfulness before crushing it under a rock. Every time I remembered Trim had a brother I went through the same cycle: Amazement, horror, and then putting it out of my mind as quickly as possible.
Fresh from the Christine Debacle, which had taken on Capital Letters and become an epochal moment in my life, apparently, Trim set me up. Through his mysterious brother, he had an acquaintance named Jessica whom he described as “all legs and marry me.” Jessica was not for me, though. Jessica in turn had a friend named Nancy, who was also not for me, but Nancy had a friend named Florence, and Florence was, Trim insisted, for me.
Trim, naturally, had a complete speech about Florence, the kind of speech Trim gave from time to time that convinced you he had dossiers on all of us with pre-canned speeches prepared for all occasions. The speeches were also curiously filled with strange stresses and obscure words and this also led me to believe they were basically toneless, rhythmless, rhymeless poems, the kind that Trim specialized in.
Florence, Trim told me, was too much woman for most men. She was tall. She was busty. She was, he insisted, a giantess – everything in proportion, but simply too much of it. It was overwhelming for most men, he said. Add to that red hair and a fuck yeah Florence! kind of attitude which gave her incredible confidence despite being a girl Trim was certain had been mercilessly mocked in her school days for being three or four times normal size, and you had a girl who intimidated all the men in her life and was therefore inexplicably single.
Trim then went on to tell me that I was no match for her, and the whole exercise was doomed, but she was the only girl he knew that was currently single and might find my sense of humor funny. And so, we were set up. I tried to protest that the dead-eyed sex with Christine and her stuffed animals had destroyed my libido and all I wanted to do was somehow get our ridiculous, complex, doomed caper off the ground, make some money, and become a monkish sort who lived off of like fifty dollars a year for the rest of my life. I’d be famous for it. People would come to hear my wisdom and bring me food I couldn’t otherwise afford, like bread. I was in no way ready to engage another female in sexual congress, and possibly wouldn’t ever again be ready, with Christine’s motionless body still fresh in my mind.
Trim, being a bastard, smirked and said “Even Chick?”
I didn’t say anything to that, but it occurred to me that the chances of Chick ever realizing I had a working penis were essentially zero, so the monk life it would be.
(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #49; for a while I wrote a column there about ignorance in general and my ignorance in specific. It was a lot of fun and I figure I’ll post them here now and again.)
Episode Three: META-IGNORANCE
The other day I was sitting in Hudson Bar and Books in New York City drinking single malt Scotch and reading, when I had an attack of Meta-Ignorance.
Hudson Bar and Books is one of the world’s greatest bars for whisky. It isn’t a boisterous place where you can order pints of beer and watch baseball games—I have plenty of other places for that—but rather a jazzy, quiet place with a chatty bartender, the most fantastic cheese plate I’ve ever had, and an seemingly endless supply of good booze. It’s the only place so far I’ve ordered Glenmorangie Madeira Wood and not been laughed at, beaten up, or derisively offered a Dewars. Of course, my visits to Hudson Bar and Books are not without angst-inspiring moments; there is a sign posted in the front window that reads, ominously, PROPER ATTIRE REQUIRED, and there has not been one time yet that I haven’t paused with one hand on the doorknob, staring blankly at this sign, wondering if I was properly attired. So far I have established that proper attire requires pants of some sort, but beyond that it all remains mysterious.
At any rate, I was sitting there recently pretending to read a big, thick book and scheming to hit the bartender over the head, exchange clothes with him, and do his job for the rest of the afternoon—meaning I would lean rakishly behind the bar, drinking directly from a bottle of Scotch, and implore anyone who wandered in to tell me their troubles, in-between humming tunelessly and checking my facial expression for appropriate levels of rakish charm in the mirror—and waiting for my lovely wife, The Duchess. When she arrived, she asked me what I was drinking.
ME: Scotch. TD: Is that whisky? ME: Yes. TD: Is bourbon whisky? ME: Yes. TD: What’s the difference? ME: . . .look! An elephant!
The problem is not so much that I am ignorant, but that I am ignorant even of what I am ignorant of. I simply don’t even know what I don’t know. The above exchange is a classic example: While I know what whisky is, and even have a vague idea of how to produce it, I can’t tell you much about why some is bourbon and some is not. Well, I mean, I can now, because I did some research. You’d think that over the years I’ve ingested enough of both kinds of booze that my underbrain could genetically analyze each and I’d sort of instinctively know the answer, but as with most situations where you’d think my underbrain would provide some sort of guidance, all I get is static and the occasional urge to take a nice long, hot bath. This leaves me defenseless against attacks of Meta-Ignorance.
Sometimes Meta-Ignorance rears its terrible horned head in situations where I really have no excuse—situations where I suddenly realize I am ignorant about things you might consider knowledge essential to my very survival. I’m not talking about the time The Duchess and I ended up hiking in the White Mountains of Vermont and were almost eaten by bears because I realized I was ignorant of things like which way is north and when lost in the woods what the hell do you do?
No thanks to you—or The Duchess—I now know the answer to the latter question is do not let your wife abandon you to be eaten by bears no matter how hard she tries.
But I digress—I was discussing moments of Meta-Ignorance involving basic knowledge you’d think everyone who manages to not be killed during their everyday lives must know, like what in hell a ground wire is. The Duchess and I recently bought our first house, and being a) concerned for my masculine image and b) one of the cheapest bastards you’ll ever meet, I naturally insist on doing all sorts of work around the house by myself, including wiring up light fixtures. Now, wiring up a light fixture does not require an advanced degree or even above-average intelligence, but I still managed to put my life and property at risk because when I opened the box and started the installation process, I had no idea what the extra exposed wire was for. Meta-Ignorance had reared its head: I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about electrical systems. How I didn’t electrocute myself and burn down the house remains a mystery, because I did some creative things with that wire before discovering the truth.
On a less immediately-threatening note, there is my Meta-Ignorance about my sad physical decline. Sure, I know that every year after you’re approximately 25 is just a steady boogie-board ride down the mountain to my eventual death, but the specifics of my bodily functions remain elusive and the only time I learn anything about them is when they go haywire. This kind of Meta-Ignorance can easily kill you, of course:
ME: Hmmmn, I have a painful welt on my ankle. TD: Want to go to the emergency room? ME: Nah, it doesn’t look too bad.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF META-IGNORANCE
The real problem with Meta-Ignorance is that it’s impossible to combat, because you don’t know what you’re ignorant of. Ignorance can be cured—all it takes is some research and perhaps a bit of experimentation, possibly a willingness to take risks, which I can usually attain by drinking a few alcoholic beverages in a short amount of time. But if you don’t even know what you don’t know, you’re screwed. Think about it: You might be doing something right now that is going to speed you on to your death, and you don’t even know it. Like reading this article. Decades from now stern actors may be appearing in PSAs warning against reading anything written by Jeff Somers, as his words are now proved to cause insanity and blindness and eventual death.
There’s also the hovering specter of humiliation due to unsupposed ignorance. Above and beyond physical harm and death, all men fear public humiliation, which is why we are all so willing to feign knowledge and fake our way through things rather than admit we don’t know something. Sometimes I am convinced that all men are as ignorant as I am, and we’re all just nodding wisely and repeating phrases we don’t understand in order to appear wise. Take, for example, escrow. What in hell is escrow? No one knows. But if you bring it up in the company of men, all of them will nod wisely and say something like “Ah, yes, escrow: Can’t do without the ole’ escrow account.” Much in the same way I once looked my mechanic in the eye and said, “Ah, yes, the solenoid. Can’t get far without one of those!”. But I know I’m ignorant about cars and engines and, well, physics. So whenever the conversation drifts to that subject, I start being cagey with my words—a lot of thoughtful nodding, as if I’m considering my options, replaces most verbal communications in these sorts of situations—and start building mental ditchworks to retreat behind if I get caught out. But what about subjects I think I’m fluent in? For example, my own family: I’ve started to realize I know next to nothing about my family, and anything I think I know that dates from before, oh, about when I was twelve years old is almost certainly bullshit I made up once long ago and have repeated to myself so often it seems true. Only to be revealed as bullshit the moment I relate it, authoritatively, to someone.
Of course, one of the things I may very well be Meta-Ignorant of is how obvious it is to everyone but me that I am ignorant. I like to imagine that with my eyeglasses, my hipster-gone-to-alcoholic-seed fashion sense, and constant clutching of tomes to my concave chest I appear somewhat erudite to people who don’t know me very well, but the truth is strangers on the street are probably moved to pity at the sight of me, and experience the sudden urge to take me by the arm and guide me across the street. If you see me wandering the street pretending to be non-ignorant, however, I’d advise you to resist that urge; if it’s before noon I am hungover and prone to bouts of sudden-onset retching, and if it’s after noon I am inebriated and prone to violence.
 My wife long ago ordered me to never use her name in my writing, so she is now known only as The Duchess. If you know what’s good for you, you will refer to only as The Duchess as well, even if you meet her in person.
 See The Inner Swine, Volume 10 Issue 1, “Don’t Be Eaten by Bears: Your Humble Editor has an Adventure”
 In fact, for all I know, I did electrocute myself and everything since then, including this essay, has been a delusion like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Although that would mean you exist only in the dying twitches of my brain activity, your poor soul.
 This is an imagined conversation, of course. in reality my wife’s response would be: Suck it up, silky-boy, and go fetch me some cookies. And my response to her would be: Yes’m. And then my futile stab at rebellion would be drinking half a bottle of whisky in the kitchen while fetching her cookies and passing out with my head in the dishwasher. Don’t ask how my head gets in the dishwasher. You don’t want to know.
 For example, tasting a sample of what’s in the mysterious Tupperware discovered in the rear of your fridge, that may or may not have been left there by the previous tenants.
 His look of frank pity remains clear in my nightmares.
 Like the fact that I thought my Mother was Lutheran, and told my wife so many times, only to have my outraged Mother correct me at a birthday gathering. The Duchess will not let me forget it.
SO, last night I was invited to speak at the first-ever Genre Night for Jersey City Writers. Now, I was born and raised in Jersey City and I currently live a 5 minute walk away from that city, but when I was a kid it didn’t have writer’s groups. It had gangs, yes, and Boy Scouts. But no writer’s groups. So this was exciting stuff.
The event was held at the Freshly Baked Gallery on Monmouth Street in JC – it’s a delightful little space in the middle of a sleepy block in a newly revitalized area of the city. If you click through you’ll see a lot of really neat pieces – The Duchess and I were really intrigued by a couple of them.
Naturally, I was awkward. We walked in and after greeting Meg Merriet, who organized everything, The Duchess and I sat up front trying to look casual while an alarmingly large crowd filled the space. I turned to the Duchess.
“Think there’s a window in the back I can fit through? I’m terrified. I think I just wet myself.”
She slapped me violently and warned me not to embarrass her in public.
(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #47; for a while I wrote a column there about ignorance in general and my ignorance in specific. It was a lot of fun and I figure I’ll post them here now and again.)
Episode Two: PERSISTENCE OF IGNORANCE
YOU may think that ignorance is a natural state that requires no upkeep, but you are so very, very wrong. Ignorance—at least at the professional level that I maintain—is difficult to keep pure and unsullied by information. The cosmos is always conspiring to educate and inform you; to remain uncorrupted you have to work pretty hard. And drink. If you drink often enough and in sufficient volume, remaining ignorant becomes fairly easy, since everything people say to you starts to sound like the adults from a Charlie Brown television special.
STAYING TRULY IGNORANT AIN’T EASY
This is necessary because there is information everywhere. Facts, figures, analyses—they’re all pouring from the airwaves all the time. Just walking down the street your eye will catch sight of headlines on newspapers attempting to inform you, stray audio from radio and television programs that try to educate you on current events and their implications, and even overheard conversations that reveal aspects of existence or modern life that you did not heretofore suspect. Staying truly ignorant ain’t easy. I make it look easy, but that’s because of the drinking and the temporary bouts of paralysis I suffer from because of it. It’s difficult to overhear knowledge when you’ve got to concentrate carefully just to avoid falling into the comfortable-looking gutter that calls your name. If I weren’t so hungover in the morning that any motion aside from my ragged breathing caused me considerable pain, forcing me to use all my mental energies to anticipate the momentum of the train and compensate on a second-by-second basis, I’d learn five or six things every day just by peering rudely over the shoulders of my fellow commuters.
And this doesn’t even include all the information I gain from my failed attempts at doing things—nothing teaches like a trip to the emergency room. Like the time I thought I might try to install a radio into my old 1978 Nova all by myself, professionals be damned, and learned all sorts of things about the electrical system, the idle, and the way the human body conducts electricity. Without even seeking to, I reduced my ignorance that day through simple experience. You begin to see how hard it is for most people to remain as pristinely ignorant as the day they were born.
THINGS TO NEVER EVER DO
This effort may explain why ignorance is so highly prized in the world. People are generally proud of their ignorance, and react to any sustained effort to combat ignorance with puzzlement and hostility. The easiest way to make some random stranger your enemy is to make them think you are trying to actively combat your own ignorance; somehow this makes you fancy.
I know this to be true because I am well aware of my own shocking ignorance—see my previous column for a succinct rundown of my mental frailty—and make doomed, frustrating attempts to combat it—this is easy enough to attempt, since I can literally choose anything at random and chances are I am almost totally ignorant of it—and thus encounter the world’s cold reaction to my attempts. For example, the other day I ran across a mention of World War I, and sure enough a quick survey of my store of knowledge of the subject revealed nothing but cobwebs, dancing bears, and humorous doodles of Teutonic men in spiked helmets. So, dedicated as I am to facing my ignorance like a man, I went to the bookstore and bought a book about World War I, which I carried around with me for a while, reading in my spare moments.
I had a dentist appointment one night after work, and was reading this book in the chair while waiting for the good doctor to come back and start scraping months of sin from my choppers. When she arrived, she glanced at my book and raised an eyebrow.
“You’re reading that for fun?”
I hesitated for a moment, because pissing off or irritating dentists is on my list of Things to Never Ever Do, because that same person was about to have a sharp metal stick in my mouth, and even when the dentist in question is perfectly calm, sane, and sober I am often horrified at the amount of pressure they put on that sharp pick lodged in my mouth while trying to unglue a particularly loathsome hunk of plaque or whatever they call it. The last thing you need is your Dentist muttering under their breath while they scrape away at your defenseless gums. Finally, though, I decided that my only alternative to the truth was to bolt from the room, and running just makes me sleepy. So I nodded as cheerfully as I could admitted that yes, I was not in any way required to read this book.
To her credit, my dentist tried to be polite. “Well,” she said with an expression of confused goodwill on her face, “well, that’s just super.”
This said with the same tone usually reserved for mental invalids and small, frightened children. There followed some awkward talk of self-improvement and how super it all was, though you could tell she thought anyone who would read a book on World War I for fun was about one inch removed from crazy, and when she started jabbing into my mouth I had a few pants-wetting moments of terror whenever she glanced at the offending book while working on my teeth. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d made an excuse and slipped away to call the Department of Homeland Security on me, which would probably take it pretty seriously, since historically the only people who read for pleasure are communists, terrorists, and child molesters of all stripes—like in the movie Se7en, where the cops utilize the deserted, forgotten library in order to track down the serial killer, who is apparently the only person in the world who still reads.
GREASING THE RIDE THROUGH LIFE
Maintaining ignorance greases the ride through life, there’s no doubt about that. Decrease your ignorance at your own risk, bubba. People will look at you strangely, give you nicknames like Shakespeare or Professor, and generally question your patriotism and trustworthiness. In order to maintain a high level of ignorance, I suggest the following battle plan:
1. Tune Out. Use an iPod or other music player all the time, wherever you go, set at sufficiently high volume to block any stray information that might otherwise squeeze into your ears
2. Be Vigilant. Remember, you can inadvertently learn anywhere—stay alert, and flee any radios or intelligent-sounding conversations you encounter. Watch out for people reading newspapers or books, although people reading Harry Potter books are probably safe. Don’t be afraid to stick your fingers in your ears and sing if you can’t make a quick getaway.
3. Drink Heavily. Booze kills brain cells, so any stray information that accidentally educates you will be. . .what’s the word. . .I dunno. Zapped. Zapped is good.
The struggle to maintain ignorance continues silently every day, with unsung heroes everywhere doing their part. Pull your weight in this epic struggle, my friends, and win the love and affection of your fellow man. Remember: Nobody likes a smartass.
 Hint: Extremely well.
 Some, I admit, have a special talent for forgetting life lessons immediately after learning them. Me, I relive these lessons over and over again, dreaming them, waking up in the middle of the night screaming “NO! NOT THE PANTS!”
 As a matter of fact, I think I’ve forgotten one or two of the dubious “skills” I listed on my mental resume in that column since its publication. HOORAY FOR BOOZE!
 I am disturbingly familiar with this tone of voice.
 Recently, someone sitting next to former Black Flag lead singer Henry Rollins on an international flight noticed Rollins was reading a book about terrorism and contacted the Australian government reporting him as a possible security risk. I don’t blame them for waiting to write a letter later; Henry Rollins looks pretty badass and even if he was
wearing sticks of dynamite and muttering under his breath while working on some sort of detonator, I’d probably wait until he was out of sight before reporting him, too.
 The Somers Consolidated & Immutable Rule of the World states that it will always be one of these two nick names. You will never be called, for example, Archimedes or Newton. A sub-rule does allow for the usage of Einstein if your perceived attempt at learning has a math or science flavor.
 This is a surprisingly enjoyable activity even if you’re not fleeing anything at the time.
“Glad & Big” was the first story I ever sold for real, actual money. Written in 1993, it was published by Aberrations Magazine in issue #34 in 1995. I was paid 1/4 cent a word, or $7.50. I never cashed the check and still have it. In 2014 dollars that’s $12.19. By the time I die I hope it hits at least $20 so I can start saying “I got paid $20 in today’s dollars!”
This is very clearly, to me, an early story, right down to the narrating protagonist who happens to be a bitter writer, because all lazy writers make their characters writers as well, because we don’t know anything about anything else.
Glad and Big
Life at Lee’s on second street had a pattern, one I liked well enough. It sucked at my heels with insistent attraction, pulling me back despite the heat and the same old people and the wooden seat worn smooth from years of my weight.
We usually played cards at the small square table in the big bay window, eating Lee’s filling specialties and drinking, smoking cigarettes, and ignoring everyone else. Sometimes I tried to stay away. It never worked. I always needed a drink and the only place to get one was Lee’s and my seat was always open.
That night it was raining and I felt pretty good. The conversation wasn’t too bad and it was warm inside, I was half-tanked all night and I had three packs of cigarettes to get through. Even in a crummy bar and grill like Lee’s, being inside with friends on a rainy night is a special kind of thing. Even being inside with people who drove you crazy like I was was still not bad.
It was an old, run-down place owned by a hundred different people so far, with a truckload of future owners down the line waiting to be suckered. You walked in, the old hardwood floor creaking beneath your feet, and the bar stretched off to your left, far too long, too far into the shadows, built in more optimistic times when booze was cheaper. Tables and the rickety wooden seats they required filled the rest of the floor, never crowded but always occupied.
The walls were three generations of photographs, mostly black and white. They stretched back into the past too far to be remembered; now they were meaningless portraits of people we’d never met, moments in time we couldn’t interpret. They wrapped around the back wall and behind the bar, big and small, some dated and some not. We each had our favorites.
Nelson, the crotchety old bastard, had a soft spot for Helen. She was a brooding, sad-eyed young girl in a bullet bra and a tight, tight turtleneck, sipping coffee, framed by the bay window. She had a Sixties hair-do and in the corner she had written “to Tony – always – Helen.” The steam rising from her coffee, the way she glanced away from the camera. It entranced the old fuck.
Terry liked the one with the big crowd. It was one of the oldest ones, and it showed old Lee’s filled with smiling, jostling, shoving people. There was pandemonium in that picture, static chaos. We all theorized that it had been taken just before a riot, just before the taps ran dry and drove the proles crazy. Terry didn’t have too much chaos in his life, but he desired it. The picture made him feel like it was all at his fingertips.
Me, I like the picture that had to have been the first one there, right behind the bar, framed. It was a dour, lean man wearing a bowler cap and a white apron, leaning behind the bar and staring at the camera fiercely. A small plaque on the frame declared him “Mr. Lee.” The first owner, I guessed. His name survived but not his memory – if asked I liked to say I thought he’d died in the great tapped keg riots of Terry’s picture. We were the only ones who got it, but then we were the only ones who mattered.
So, as mentioned in my other post, I did a reading the other night at KGB Bar in New York. Great bar, great venue, and the event was run very well by local MWA honcho Richie Narvaez. I’d rate my performance an “A” for the evening, because I was reasonably well-practiced, excited, and articulate, and I think I chose my material well (a chapter from Chum). My reading performances are generally all over the place; I’ve stammered and stumbled through them, and I’ve rocked them. This was one of the Rocked ones.
Still, readings are awful, aren’t they?
Writers are interior people, as a rule. That doesn’t mean we’re socially inept or incapable, it just means that we tend to be people who like to sit and tinker with words and get them right, and public performance as a rule isn’t our specialty. Some of us are better than others, of course, and you can learn a bit about public speaking to get better at it. Few of us do. IN fact, it’s rare that I’ve ever seen authors – even fairly successful ones – bring more than a few intimates to a venue.
So here’s a typical author performance at a reading: Head down, staring at a sheaf of papers. Reading in a monotone with very little inflection or variety. Stumbling over the occasional word, speaking too quickly, and diving in media res into a work – published or not – with insufficient back story for people unfamiliar with your work. In other words, who in their right minds thinks this is entertaining?
There are ways. Here’s my quick Idiot’s Guide to Readings, for both the idiots who attend them expecting entertainment and the idiots (like me!) who give them, expecting to sell books.
THE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO READINGS
BE DRUNK. This goes for both audience and reader. Holding literary events in bars is the best idea anyone will ever have, and both audience and performing monkey should definitely get drunk. If the reading ends with everyone singing along to The Leaving of Liverpool then you have won.
PRINT IT OUT. The moment I see a nervous author cracking open their own paperback, a part of me dies. The paperback is a great tool for reading on a train, and a terrible one for reading at a reading. Print that sucker out. A Kindle or similar device is okay as well – but isolate the section you’re reading, and
EDIT. I don’t care if you revised that section 1,057 times already. Read it out loud a few times and edit – remove things that don’t sound well spoken, and make sure it flows as a performed piece. No one will ever notice, or care, that you edited it from the published version unless you are famous and studied, in which case you are not giving a reading at a bar in Brooklyn on a Wednesday night.
PRACTICE. Sweet lord, if I have to hear another author stumble over their own damn words I will set the place on fire with my mind bullets, I swear. Once you’ve chosen your reading material, read it out loud at least three or four times. And, see #3 and edit any areas that don’t lend themselves to your velvety voice.
KISS. Keep It Short, Stupid. Five minutes is an eternity for people listening to you monotone your way through a short story. Ten minutes is the absolute high end. Get in, get out, keep drinking.
EXPECT NOTHING. As an audience member, don’t expect your author friend to have any performance skills. Laugh at their lame jokes and stroke their egos a bit – unless you want to see a grown adult cry.
AT LEAST PRETEND TO BUY A BOOK. Sometimes there are books for sale at the reading – the least you can do is feint at one, then realize you forgot your wallet. If you can’t even pretend to buy a book, fuck you.
DON’T HECKLE. One downside to reading in bars is the drunken heckling you get from people pissed off that they can’t play 27 Rush songs in a row while getting shitfaced. Don’t do this, authors will burst into penniless tears at the drop of a hat. Although -
IF YOU ARE HECKLED, HECKLE BACK. If you get some lout calling you names, stop reading and lace into them. Ignoring them won’t work. Get the crowd behind you. If that doesn’t work, smash a small bottle of gasoline on the floor and toss a match, shrieking expletives.
IDENTIFY YOURSELF. You’re not humiliating yourself in public for fun. Show the cover of one of your books, state your name and the title, and urge people to buy a copy or at least visit your web site. If you don’t do this you are basically the same as homeless people who recite the bible in the street.