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.
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.
(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.
(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.
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.
(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #46 (2006); 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 One: JUST PEANUTS TO SPACE
FOLKS, this is the tale of truly breathtaking ignorance. My ignorance. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Jeff, how can a hip zine publisher around whom at least four known cargo cults have formed be ignorant? The answer, friends, is simple: I simply haven’t been paying attention.
People have tried to educate me. They’ve tried to inform me. Wise men and women have occasionally taken me aside and tried to impart some wisdom to me. Failing that, they’ve tried to beat some sense into me. In each case, I have nodded politely and placed a serious, dour expression my face, thanked them for their interest, and forgotten whatever it was they had to say within moments of skipping away, probably in search of beer. Time after time, my would-be educators have failed, leaving me just as dull and ignorant as ever; perhaps more so, depending on the quality of their company and how dubious their wisdom was.
The great thing about modern society—or at least modern American society, which is the only society I am even slightly qualified to comment on—is that it is designed to be more or less idiot-proof. Ignorance will not kill you, usually, in modern day America, which staves off the claws of evolution long enough for someone like me to mature into an adult and wreak havoc. In prior eras, I would have been killed and consumed by wild animals within years of my birth, most probably running towards the killer beasts with a smile on my face, completely ignorant of the potential dangers. Thanks to society having formed around me like a protective chrysalis, however, I remain alive, despite knowing virtually nothing worth knowing.
Too many writers and columnists use their soapbox to try and look smart. It’s easy, after all; you can do research and feign all sorts of knowledge. I could have made the subject of this column String Theory, and spent a few months reading up on it—or, to be honest, a few hours cutting and pasting from web pages—and made it seem that I was knowledgeable and well-read. It’s entirely possible that every columnist and writer in the world is a moron like me, faking it. So I have come to a decision: This column will be about ignorance. I will be unflinching in my exploration of my own stupidity. I will be the one columnist in the world who flaunts his ignorance, who says, “Yes! I am sadly uninformed, frequently drunk, and often at a loss as to the location of my pants!”
First, I think it’s important to take a quick tour of the knowledge I do possess, so we can dispose of the subject and get on with the major work of covering everything I don’t know.
How much liquor I can drink on an empty stomach without throwing up.
Approximately twelve guitar chords.
One chess opening.
Enough French to mispronounce about six sentences.
Every lyric to every Iron Maiden and AC/DC song ever.
And that’s about it. Not very impressive, you’ll agree, and not very useful—is it any wonder I drink myself senseless every night? It’s the shame, I tell you.
How did this happen? I had a decent education. I had caring teachers who sometimes noticed me sitting there with the vaguely anxious expression I am known for on my face and tried to inflict knowledge on me. The schools I attended had good facilities and valued academic performance. My parents, beleaguered as they were by my tendency to get trapped down wells and lured away by strangers on the street offering to sign me to multiyear recording contracts, encouraged me—indeed, my brother Yan is so smart he is often impossible to talk to, his vocabulary apparently including several words that won’t be invented for years. So how did I manage to squeak into adulthood with a working knowledge of almost nothing except several elaborate and detailed imaginary worlds, of which I am invariably king?
The simple answer is, we live in a world where you pretty much don’t need to know anything. Or at least a world where middle-class people in first-world countries don’t need to know anything. There was probably a time where a lack of knowledge—whether of your environs, your past, or your neighbors—resulted in your immediate painful death, but those times are gone, at least for people like me living in New Jersey in 2005. You simply don’t need to know anything in order to survive—all the sharp edges and pointy things have been covered up by a thick protective layer of government and social services. You can easily coast from birth to natural death in this world with nothing more than basic speech skills and a winning smile. And I sure do have a winning smile.
However it happened, here I am, fully grown and suddenly vaguely alarmed at the whistling emptiness in my data banks. I can do one of two things in response to this epiphany. One, I could attempt to educate myself and pull myself out of this chasm of darkness. Two, I could wallow in my ignorance for the entertainment value my dimwitted adventures afford you, the good people of The Earth. I believe this is really not a choice at all, that the only possible way forward is the latter, because the Universe is just too big.
I’ll never be able to learn about everything there is in the universe. I’ll never even manage to learn about everything in the universe that my fellow men—brighter and more energetic than me—have cataloged and explored, which is a deplorably small data set in itself. As the saying goes, the universe is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space. There might have been a time in history when a man might aspire to being a Renaissance Man, back when the list of human knowledge was much smaller and simply being able to perform simple algebraic equations made you a mathematical genius—but those days, sadly, have passed, and I for one barely passed pre-calculus in high school, so no Nobel Prizes in mathematics for me. Since any feeble attempt by me to learn about it is doomed from the start, I have no choice but to choose the road more traveled, and simply try to eke out some minor entertainment value from my ignorance, which I will do here in this space. Since I can throw a dart at any encyclopedia and hit something I know nothing about, I shouldn’t lack for material.
Until next time then, consider your own ignorance—the things you use every day whose inner workings, origin, and manufacture are complete mysteries to you, the places and people in the world whose motives, language, and bizarre appearance fill you with worry and dismay, the mystery of where the food you’re eating actually comes from and what has to happen to it before you can pop it in your mouth and hum in satisfaction. Then, come back to read my next column, and I’ll dance for you. . .even though you can’t really see me dancing.
 Actually the same expression I use for pants-wetting fear, which gets me into no end of trouble.
I do this every day. It’s how I’ve remained employed for more than a decade.
 This is an overused in-joke from my zine. It will be over-used here as well, until you decide it’s funny from sheer insane repetition. I am a genius.
 This means I also know the lyrics to every Hayseed Dixie song ever, as well.
 And, of course, the shakes.
Including daily beatings by Jesuit priests in high school.
 Not his real name. People always get upset when I use their real names in my writing, so I make up ridiculous ones like “Yan” instead.
 It’s possible that this should really read “words that I won’t learn for years” but determining whether words actually exist or not would require soul-numbing research, so let’s assume Yan is using words he learns when he time-travels to the future and then back again.
 Unless, of course, a Hurricane hits your city, in which case you are fucked.
 Stolen shamelessly from Douglas Adams, of course, who sadly is no longer in any position to challenge me.
 Unless you live in Kansas, in which case just knowing that something called algebra exists makes you a Super Genius.
 My ignorance is so deep I am not even sure if there is actually a Nobel Prize in “mathematics” or if it goes under some other name, perhaps “Nobel Prize in Numerology” or “Nobel Prize in Rain Manology” or something. I could go to the library. . .so far away. . .or type something into Google and check. . .so sleepy. . .
So, today I had a religious experience: I got my hair cut without once speaking to the barber aside from my initial instructions and the final, murmured approval. In the words of Ice Cube, today was a good day. I went in with enough hair to stuff a pillow (out of laziness; over the summer between High School and Freshman Year of college I let my hair grow and then didn’t get it cut until the next year, and all I can say about having hair that long is never again) and came out looking like Don Draper, if you squint. And ignore the sallow jaundice of a boozehound and the physical fitness of Bluto from Popeye fame. Or Bluto from Animal House, either works.
Sitting there in blessed silence, I was able to contemplate the barber experience and the unnecessary formality forced on us. When I was a kid, there was one thing you did at the barber’s – got your damn hair cut. Later it dawned on me that you could also get a shave, which involved hot lather and a straight razor, so no thank you, psychopath. Now I know there are a lot of intricate things that go on at the barber shop. Shampooing. Neck scrapes. All sorts of fancy hair styling. And the slightly creepy hot towel and shoulder massage they always give you – again, no thank you, psychopath.
Of course, I’ve always been afraid of and intimidated by formality. When The Duchess and I first started dating she insisted we eat at real, actual restaurants. Places that had wine lists. I almost shit my pants, and entered the first few terrified that I would do something to mark me as a Jersey City Rube and be laughed out of the place. This was reinforced on our honeymoon when we entered a fancy restaurant and I was wearing shorts – this was Hawaii, people – and the hostess nearly had a stroke. After a hushed consultation with others she allowed us to be seated, but insisted I drape a napkin decorously over my hideous bare legs.
That didn’t help me get comfortable with formality.
Slowly, I’ve learned to not care so much. Luckily we live in informal times, and luckily most places are much more concerned with your ability to pay the bill after four bottles of wine and six generous whiskies. This is good, because I get itchy in formal wear. Suits never feel right on me, even when tailored. I still don’t know how to properly tie a necktie – no, seriously, I just make up a knot. Who has time for these things? I once started to read an essay on how to choose a suit and almost made it through the second paragraph, which discussed something about the width of the lapel in relation to … oh my god, who cares, you psychopath?!?
I’m a person who is exhausted at the end of every episode of Downton Abbey because of the formal clothing rules those people followed. Sweet Jebus.
So, the barber. I could get all sorts of grooming tasks done there and emerge the best version of myself – well, the best version of myself at this dilapidated age, that is. But who has time for shit like that? Not to mention the opportunity for conversation that sort of lingering would open up. If I never have another conversation with a barber about how I work from home and can get my hair cut any time I want, it will be fine by me.
This essay originally appeared in The Inner SwineVolume 17, Issue 1/2, Summer 2011.
Growing Up Somewhat Unsupervised
by Jeff Somers
IN 2008, newspaper columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote a column about letting her nine-year old son take the New York City Subway alone, without an adult. I don’t recall the details—where the damn kid was going—and can’t be bothered to research them. I do recall that it was a bit of a kerfluffle, because apparently in this sad modern age that’s insane, because as we all know the streets of New York (any major city, really) are lined with perverts and slave traders looking to either sell your child to Africa or engage in some CSI-style murderin’ with them.
This has since evolved into a ‘movement’ called Free Range Kids, which advocates letting kids organize their own free time and minimizing parental supervision and intervention in their lives. The idea being that this will cause kids to grow up super self-reliant and confident. Assuming they are not murdered or sold into slavery, of course. Although I’d like to imagine that some of the kids sold into slavery emerge years later as criminal masterminds on par with Keyser Soze or as Black Pirate Roberts types, hijacking cargo ships off the coast of Somalia.
I don’t have kids, and I don’t presume to tell parents how to raise their children. If you think your kid needs to be supervised constantly and should never be allowed to be alone, even in the bathroom, even while they sleep, until they’re approximately 24 years old, that’s fine. I have nothing to say, and heck, maybe you’re right. Maybe this kind of supervision will make your kid feel loved and safe and ensure they survive to the age of 24 without being, you know, murdered or kidnapped. Who knows? On the other hand, Free Ranging it feels better to me, because it’s closer to my own childhood.
Okey – I like House of Cards, largely because Kevin Spacey’s facial expressions in this NetFlix original are fucking-A priceless. The show itself is fucking-A ridiculous, and suffers from one fatal flaw that makes it almost – almost – an effort to watch. That flaw is simple: Frank never loses. Not only does he never lose, he never convincingly doubts the outcome, ever. Oh, the script pays homage to doubt. It walks doubt through a warm room and buys it a few drinks, flirting, but it never takes doubt home. Spacey’s performance, even when he’s reacting in rage or doubt, always hints that it’s just for show. And the writers always offer up a solution right away – a solution that is always exactly right.
So, you can be entertained by a show like that, but never really affected by it. Frank is a monster, and he always wins. If the final episode of this show in 2033 or whatever shows Frank in an old-age home, hallucinating that he once became President of the United States, that would not surprise me.
Richard the IV
Much has been made of House of Cards and its relationship to Shakespeare, notably its use of the aside as a narrative device and the parallels between several plays, such as Richard III, Macbeth, and Othello. The problem with these discussions is the fact that the plays being cited were tragedies, and while the protagonists did terrible things and often did so with black wit and a saucy lack of guilt, they generally could be said to have suffered for their hubris and power grabs.
Frank Underwood doesn’t suffer much. Now, maybe the next season will be all about Frank’s fall into disgrace and punishment (Ed: LORD I HOPE SO) but so far Frank is simply the smartest man in the room, and his mean-spirited and largely joyless attitude is justified by the fact that his superpower is always being right and never losing. He may be the least Shakespearean character in the modern tradition of using Shakespeare to imbue your characters with classic weight and gravitas.
And that’s the problem. Frank’s relentless success is fucking boring. The cycle the show goes through roughly every forty minutes is this:
Frank reveals sick, twisted plan to manipulate the shit out of everyone. Sneers at camera.
Unbelievably complex plan that relies on people doing the stupidest thing possible because Frank planted a hint in their ear about it five minutes of screen time previously succeeds completely.
Frank sneers at camera.
The details of the insane scheme are often entertaining, and Spacey is basically having the time of his life playing this character – it’s like going to the Zoo at feeding time to watch some lions devour raw meat in their enclosure. But there are no stakes. Because Frank is going to win, and you know that going in.
Now, plenty of shows require their protagonist to always win – because in TV land we must always have a main character to hang the next season of the show around. So, no points off for Frank actually always winning – but a setback would be nice. A believable threat. Maybe a solid half hour of screen time when it actually seems like Frank might be in actual, real trouble? And then some clever writing. That last bit is the tricky part.
Because, House of Cards is okay at a lot of things. Dialogue. Kevin Spacey Bitchface. Painting everyone in the universe as a sexual pervert and potential serial killer. One thing it is not okay at is plot. It treats plots like a box of feral cats it found on the street which keeps scratching its arms and puking on its feet. Everyone does what Frank wants because it’s the only way the writers on this show can think to keep the plot moving.
In the end, it doesn’t matter: The purpose of the show is to get you to pay Netflix $8 a month, and as far as that goes it works just fine. And there’s always the possibility that in Season 3, Frank will go full on Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone on us, having a threesome with his wife, his secret service agent, and the dead dog from Chapter 1 while he gleefully pounds the LAUNCH button, staring unblinkingly into the camera.
As a writer, I have a serious problem: I have the memory of brain-damaged potato.
This manifests in a variety of different ways. Have I walked out of the house without keys, wallet, or identification? Of course I have, and the end result is me on several Terror Watch Lists. Have I promised my wife The Duchess I would perform certain chores for her during the day without fail and then totally failed to even momentarily think about them? Yes, I have, and have the literal scars to show for it. Have I forgotten appointments, commitments, occasionally to show up to jobs?
But worst of all, worst by far is the simple fact that I forget my own life. I forget things I’ve done, places I’ve been, and people I’ve known. I literally forget people so thoroughly I sometimes can’t even remember them when I reminded. Based on a recent experience, let’s call this the LinkedIn Rabbit Hole Hell.
The LinkedIn Rabbit Hole Hell
A few years ago when I lost a job I joined LinkedIn, like everyone who loses a job does. In fact, the moment someone shows up on LinkedIn you can assume they have lost a job, hate their job, or suspect they will lose/hate their jobs very soon. It’s kind of amusing, when you yourself aren’t looking for a job, to see everyone wash up on LinkedIn’s shores like unemployed cosmic flotsam, furiously network for a few months, and then suddenly disappear once they’re employed again and all this networking rubbish is too much work again.
So, the other day I was “invited” to link in with a former co-worker. Since I do nothing with LinkedIn these days, I have applied my usual policy when it comes to social networks, which is to say I accept every invitation and request sent my way. Why not? I never go to LinkedIn and rarely read my Facebook Wall, so what the hell do I care if I have 200 friends I couldn’t pick out of a police lineup?
Anyways, this person I did actually remember and while we were far from friends, I popped over to LinkedIn to accept their invite and promptly fell down the Rabbit Hole of LinkedIn’s algorithms, as it reminded me of a million people I used to work with. Including one name that didn’t ring a bell. But the dates matched up: I had once worked with this person for a year in an office of five people.
I had zero memory of them.
None. Nada. Bupkus. I have every email I’ve ever sent or received since 1996, and I have emails from and to this person. We interacted on the physical plane. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about them. I have no visual memory of them, or any other memory.
It’s fucking creepy, sometimes.
Writer Skills: Activate!
For my writing career, there are two possibilities here. On the one hand, my terrible memory might be a super power, as it forces me to invent details constantly, keeping my alcohol-softened brain functioning and limber. On the other, having zero memory of things and people might mean I’m missing out on formative memories that I could be using to create my prose. Obviously I prefer to imagine the former.
Or maybe it has no effect at all. And it’s not like I don’t remember everyone: I can remember and reliably (I think) picture friends and teachers from Grammar School. But there are these oddball holes. Maybe they’re just folks who didn’t make much of an impression on me (in fact, it generally is these folks) but it’s still disconcerting. I lived those moments. I earned those memories. And I’ve been robbed.