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How to Write a How-to Story

First, decide whether you’re an expert in something that other people might like to know more about. If you draw a blank on that one, try to think of something unique and interesting you’ve experienced, even if it didn’t make you an expert. And if you have something that fits either of these categories, and if you think it would make a good story, write it.

That, essentially, was the instruction given to the writers who contributed to this year’s How To issue. The result is 13 stories on 13 completely different subjects—united only by the fact that each is written from expertise and/or unique personal experience (or, perhaps, in one case, from spontaneous insight inspired by deadline pressure). Mostly, we do the How To issue because the stories are fun to write—and hopefully, fun to read.

So we hope you enjoy them. And if they actually help you learn how to do something, consider it a bonus.

How to Save the Earth from a Killer Asteroid

If only the dinosaurs had planned ahead a little. After all, it’s not that hard to stop a killer asteroid from slamming into the Earth. All you have to do is find the asteroid with enough lead time to do something about it, figure out what it’s made of and how fast it’s moving, and then launch a highly sophisticated mission to either blow it up or send it off-course so it misses us completely. (To learn about this stuff, you can read a lot of science fiction, get a master’s degree in aerospace studies, or marry a Ph.D. student specializing in the composition of potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. I’ve done all three.)

None of these individual steps is so difficult that the dinosaurs couldn’t have managed with a little foresight. Sure, you can’t actually spot these potential killers with the naked eye. A lot of them are literally blacker than coal, moving at incredibly high speeds against the backdrop of the darkest deep space. If you’re lucky, a little bit of sunlight might be reflected off the asteroid exactly when and where you happen to be looking.

Assuming, of course, that you’re looking at all. The best line in the otherwise scientifically laughable movie Armageddon occurs when Billy Bob Thornton tells the president that NASA’s $1 million object-collision budget allows the space agency to track about 3 percent of the sky, “and begging your pardon, sir, but it’s a big-ass sky.” And even if you build several more telescopes in the United States, nobody in the entire Southern Hemisphere has been looking for potentially hazardous objects since Australia shut down its last scope dedicated to that purpose in the late 1990s. While you’re watching for the right hook, that left jab can come out of nowhere.

And when you do find an asteroid on a collision course with Earth—and make no mistake about it; impact-cratering history on both the Earth and the Moon tells us we’re statistically overdue for a big one—well, you better hope you have several years of lead time, because weeks or even months won’t cut it. Your response must be tailored to the asteroid’s specific size, rotational period, and composition. The size and rotation can be determined using radar if it’s close enough (although that may be too late for us). Compositional analysis involves making telescope observations of sunlight reflected off the asteroid’s surface in the visible and near-infrared wavelengths, and painstakingly comparing the resulting spectra with Earth-based laboratory spectra of known materials. Of course, it helps if the weather and equipment cooperate so you can get good observations.

Once you’ve pinned down the object’s composition, you can decide on your mitigation strategy. If the asteroid is, say, a clump of gravel held together only loosely, as opposed to a single rocky or metallic object, the nuclear blast approach may not work because the “pores,” or open space between the bits of gravel, would absorb a great deal of the energy. While the nuke might compress the asteroid, its trajectory and speed may not necessarily change in our favor. A single rocky or metallic lump would probably be easier to deal with, although even those can take some nukes and keep on coming if they’re big and fast enough. With years of lead time, though, you might be able to set off some nukes in or near the asteroid’s path so that the shock wave simply nudges it off course. Do this early enough, and even a slight nudge could make the asteroid miss the Earth by the proverbial mile.

Assuming you can get the nukes anywhere near the asteroid, of course. After all, none of the space shuttles can fly beyond low-Earth orbit, or about 300 miles up. Since you won’t be able to take Bruce Willis and his space cowboys with you to kick-start the machinery, you’ll need a fully automated mission with plenty of redundancy built in. Unfortunately, we don’t actually have a delivery vehicle that can, on extremely short notice, manage a quickie delivery of nukes out to a fast-moving target while it’s still somewhere around Jupiter’s orbit.

You’re probably also considering other theoretical options, such as using lasers to divert the asteroid’s course, or even changing the asteroid’s albedo (how much sunlight it reflects rather than absorbs) so that its rotational heating and cooling alter its trajectory. But since these are highly theoretical concepts that are completely untested, you may want to stick with the nukes. We have had some experience blowing things up, after all. Besides, these other options would most likely require centuries of lead time.

As a recap, then, all you have to do is fund, design and implement a comprehensive asteroid detection program, an ongoing science program that will tell us more about these objects’ composition, and a flexible delivery system that can send also as-yet-undesigned mitigation technology to extremely distant locations on extremely short notice.

Like I said, all the dinosaurs had to do was plan ahead a little. Thank goodness that’s what we’re doing . . . oh, wait.

Never mind.

—Amy Sisson

How to Write a Book

First you have to write a few long manuscripts that suck so much they will never become books. At least that’s how it worked for me starting 30 years ago when I was a reporter for the old Albany evening paper, the Knickerbocker News, and was afflicted with what quaintly used to be called literary ambitions.

A few years later I dropped out of salaried journalism for good and produced a manuscript that a New York literary agent flogged to Doubleday, who published the gosh-darned thing—my first novel, The Wampanaki Tales, a dark comedy about kids at a summer camp. After that, I began to actually understand how to write books, and about 12 more followed.

Where fiction is concerned, there are three sets of principles that actually govern this enterprise: logistical, technical, and aesthetic. Among the first is the idea that a book is a self-informing work. You needn’t know all about the characters and everything that will happen to them, which is to say, the story. They will inform you who they are as the pages pile up and they will behave accordingly. You will become acquainted with them just as you would with new friends or colleagues. Your first sentence will inform you what the second should be, and the first page the next, and so on.

Momentum helps a lot, meaning the more regular your work habits, the more dependably the work will inform you what it is shaping up to be, and the more confident you will become in the process itself. Show up at least a few hours a day. Bear in mind Flaubert’s dictum: “If you want to be wild in your art, be bourgeois in your habits.” (So take weekends off, just as though you were still a salary mule.) My long-standing standard of accomplishment is to turn out two pages a day.

The technical matters are as follows. A novel consists of two basic ingredients: dramatic scenes and narrative exposition—showing and telling. It’s that simple. The purpose of dramatic scenes ought to be self-evident. Things happen. Characters engage in action and talk to each other. The story moves forward. The dramatic scenes are interspersed with chunks of narrative exposition, which has several jobs: to introduce characters, to comment on action that is about to be played out (also called setting a scene), and to comment on scenes that have already occurred.

There is no particular formula for the proportion of dramatic scenes to narrative exposition in any given novel. Great novels have been written that employ way more of one than the other or a balance of the two. These days, after nearly a century of conditioning by movies and television, novels tend to go heavier on the dramatic scenes and lighter on the exposition.

A further technical matter: In writing fiction it is not necessary to be correct, only plausible. The author’s job is to construct a believable world and characters who behave congruently with it. The objective is suspension of the reader’s disbelief, not journalistic accuracy. Feel free to make stuff up.

A final technical point: Do not trash your protagonist. The reader wants to identify with the hero of the story, and invests some emotion in the process, so to humiliate or ridicule such a character cheats the reader and turns him off. The otherwise brilliant Tom Wolfe is guilty of this strategic error, first with Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities and then with Charlie Crocker in A Man in Full. Both of them ended up shredded.

Now to the aesthetic principles. It is in the narrative exposition that a writer is most likely to establish a distinctive voice, which is to say a style of delivering the goods. This is the place where a story’s point of view and characters develop, and hence where a writer can exercise his or her special attitudes, tastes, prejudices, passions, beliefs, and most particularly where the author stands along the transect of comedy and tragedy. The composition of dramatic scenes entails stylistic artistry too, of course, but largely depends on the writer’s inherent grasp of behavioral psychology.

A nonfiction book, on the other hand, is just a long job of journalism, which is to say heavy lifting, like loading cinder blocks on a truck. A lively imagination helps, meaning not that one makes up history or facts—it is essential to be correct in nonfiction—but that one be able to imagine how other people might have felt in different eras, foreign places, strange circumstances, and so on.

That is all you need to know to write a book. Getting it published is another story.

—Jim Kunstler

Jim Kunstler lives in Saratoga Springs. His new novel, Maggie Darling, A Modern Romance, will be published by Grove/Atlantic Books in the fall.

How to be an Exhibitionist

It’s an all-too-familiar scene. Enter any one of the downtown bars and you’ll find her: the It Girl of the evening, holding court from her perch on the barstool, surrounded by admirers. Waving a cigarette in one hand, holding a drink in the other, she’s beaming with the assurance that she’s got them just where she wants them. She may be beautiful, she may be outspoken, or she may be an important member of the community. In any case, her circle is engrossed, and leaning in so close, they seem about ready to fall into her lap.

I’ve seen it many times, from the other side of the bar. I’ve “tsked” when they start talking to her cleavage. I’ve served the bottomless glasses of wine. Studying her perfect highlights and sniffing her Michael Kors perfume, I’ve listened, because I want to know what her gimmick is. It’s impossible to judge her when I realize I have been her, more times than I’d like to admit.

An exhibitionist by nature, I’ve displayed everything from my front-porch theatrical talents to my nude figure in a friend’s photo-class project. I’ve hula-hooped (pathetically) in the middle of the dance floor and entered a tongue-measuring contest (we found out I had the longest tongue). I’ve stood on the table in a high-school art class, loudly demanding to know who switched my Cure tape for Phish. I’ve worked it at every opportunity, because I do so enjoy the rush of being in the spotlight, even if for only a moment. Admittedly, I was a little reckless in my youth. These days, I enjoy the subtler outlets. An open journal on a public Web site usually suffices. But I never leave out the juicy details, and pass the link along quite freely and randomly.

The allure of the exhibitionist’s performance is undeniable. It’s participatory, it’s humorous, and really, it’s just plain fun. And if it’s pulled off well, no one gets left out; everyone benefits. There are varying degrees and endless techniques. I’ve seen it all: tit flashers, streakers, karaoke singers, situational lesbians, snappy dressers, punk-rock stars, open-mike readers, PDA lovers and strippers. What they’ve all got in common is an inate ability to slip into their ego. In theory, anyone can do it.

Self-awareness is the first rule of thumb. Holding the attention of a group takes guts and grace. You’ve got to know your limitations, and be willing to push the envelope a little. How far you want to go will depend on what you’re hoping to get out of it. Wearing a revealing outfit is always good for a few free drinks and a phone number. If local fame is what you’re after, starting a band and getting your photo in the local newspaper might satisfy you. Choosing a gimmick that isn’t so far-fetched that you couldn’t possibly sustain it is the best way to win the glory.

The classic exhibitionist wants first and foremost to be seen, and on a subtler level, to be seen wanting to be seen. It’s best to be honest about it if you want to function higher than the average fool. It’s been my experience that people will either love an exhibitionist because they can’t help it, or hate them because they wish they had it that good. You’ve got to be ready for the criticism as well as the buzz.

So be clear on your motives. You don’t want to wake up the morning after, asking yourself, “Why, oh why did I enter that whipped-cream bikini contest?!” Or having to call your best friend up to apologize for what you may, or may not, remember doing with your husband, on her front lawn. Be careful not to send the wrong message when you’re feeling the urge to display.

If you’re smart, use your position to show people what you’re really about. There’s nothing wrong with looking good to win influence, but there is an important distinction between superficial exhibitionism and meaningful exhibitionism. When you’re the center of attention, people want to know what you think. Meaningful exhibitionism acknowledges this, and gives you the perfect opportunity to back yourself up with ideas and actions. When all eyes and ears are on you, you’re in the best position to begin dialogues and learn about other people. Part of being a savvy exhibitionist means knowing how to return the favor. Tell people what they want to know, and then find out what they think. For as much as you can influence them, it’s possible for you to walk away feeling enlightened too. Often my own performances will spark debates, ideas and discussions that change my views. It’s the best way I’ve found to feel the fullness of the experience. I am an exhibitionist because I want to be known, and I want to know other people.

Of course, having all that attention lavished on you, and doling it back, can be a little exhausting. As much as you may love feeling the rush and basking in the glow, there comes a time to retreat and regroup. Every exhibitionist needs a safe place, out of the spotlight, to get real, and perhaps even feel a little average. At the end of my day, I still have to cook dinner for a picky 5-year-old, pack tomorrow’s school lunch, and do the dishes. But you can be sure, as soon as she’s in bed, I’ll be running to the computer to find out who’s been reading my online diary.

—Ami Lahoff

How to Sell your Junk on eBay

“EBay is the best thing ever to happen to the used-book business,” a fellow in that business confided recently. “I pick any old book out of the stacks, put it on display with some information that makes it sound important, and guaranteed someone is going to buy it to try to get more money for it on an online auction.”

During its nearly eight years of existence, eBay has become (according to their believable claim) the most-visited site on the Internet. “On any given day,” the company bio observes, “there are more than 12 million items listed on eBay across 18,000 categories. In 2002, eBay members transacted $14.87 billion in annualized gross merchandise sales.”

People spend their time doing little but selling stuff on eBay; I know people who seem to do little but browse the site. And I’ve been sucked into it, too, keeping track of auctions of things I really have no business pursuing—but there they are, and I know I can raise the money by the end of the week, and if I just sit tight and watch the listing . . .

That’s why there’s a new rule in my house. If you (meaning me) want to buy something, you have to raise the money by selling stuff first. And the experience I’ve gained during my past many months of doing so has helped me decide what’s worth selling and how I should list it.

After picking out a few things to sell, before writing or photographing anything, I check in to see how much each item has fetched recently. Do a search for your item, and when the listing screen comes up, look in the left-hand column for the box headed with the word “Display,” and choose “Completed Items.” You’ll probably see a fairly wide range of prices.

Take, for example, an old monkey wrench—the kind of thing that turns up in my basement. Here’s a vintage Winchester wrench that sold for $51; on the other hand, an old Ford Model T wrench went for $5.50. A copy of Nabokov’s Poems and Problems, similar to the one I bought 25 years ago for $8, sold for $100—so there may be valuable stuff on your own shelves, if you’re willing to part with it.

You’ll note that items with lower starting prices tend to win higher selling prices. Unless you’re selling something highly desirable with a known market price, consider taking a deep breath and starting it out cheap. As a note of personal preference, I’ve never run a “reserve bid” auction, in which you start the item at one price but secretly note a higher price below which you won’t sell. I like all the info out in front.

You know what you’re selling and you have a good idea what it sells for. There’s no question that a photo helps sales, and the Internet is filled with photos. If your item is commonly available, like a book or compact disc, you can borrow an acceptable image from an online retailer—but if it’s a rare book, you need to offer a photo of the exact item so the buyer can judge its condition. Likewise, avoid canned images that look too much like publicity shots. Buy and use a decent digital camera, and you’ll make back the investment in fairly short order.

I’m not one of those power sellers with auxiliary software and fancy graphics. I type in rudimentary HTML coding for different type sizes, boldface and italics, horizontal lines and bulleted lists. There’s a good help system within eBay’s system that shows how; you can also read the source code of existing pages if you’re ambitious.

But the text itself is what sells the product. You’re pitching to an anonymous customer base that has, typically, a week to think about it. Be as honest as you can—the buyer ultimately will be holding the thing, so you can’t really hide the flaws. And you’ll be praised for your honesty in the feedback ratings, which is eBay’s system of thinning the deadwood. Buyers and sellers are encouraged to leave feedback about their trading partners, and the number of feedback listings is displayed in parentheses after each user’s screen name.

Because the buyer typically pays the shipping charge, calculate something that’s fair. I have a 5-pound postage scale on my desk and a stamps.com account that allows me to print postage from my computer, which allows me to dispatch items quickly.

With your photo prepared and your text written, proceed to eBay’s “Sell” screen, enter your username and password, and navigate the screens that follow. Choose a selling category, craft a brief headline (make sure the most plausible search terms for your item are included), cut and paste your text, upload your photo, choose a starting price and auction length. Add postage info and you’re finished. I ignore the second category, featured item, auction counter and other such add-ons. My profit margins are low enough without incurring additional fees.

Once your item sells, pack it and ship it promptly. I’ve fallen into the common policy of not even waiting for checks to clear if the buyer has a good enough feedback rating.

It’s an addictive process that allows you clear a lot of shelf space, but you can’t sell everything. In fact, I think there’s a new definition for junk: It’s stuff you can’t even sell on eBay.

—B. A. Nilsson

How to Live with your Kitty in a Pet-free Apartment

In every city, I’m sure, there are apartment dwellers who defy no-pet clauses in their leases in order to harbor forbidden cats, dogs and other creatures. Every pet owner knows that animals can be a lot of work, but people who own unsanctioned pets have to work twice as hard—caring for their animal companions while scheming about how to keep the furry beasts a secret.

Several years ago in New York City, I witnessed the ultimate act of ingenuity and deception by a closet pet owner. While standing with my friend outside his sister’s Lower East Side apartment house (which had a firm no-pets rule), we watched a stylish young woman lug a bulging duffle bag down the building’s front steps. She crossed the street, cast a few furtive glances in either direction, and unzipped her bag. A pair of squirming pugs popped out of the duffle and squeezed their way under a wrought-iron fence that enclosed an art gallery’s sculpture garden. Looking down the street as if she were waiting for a cab, the woman affected an air of total nonchalance as her manic little pups raced around the garden, digging up divots in the carefully manicured lawn. After a few minutes, the woman whistled and her dogs dutifully returned to the bag, where they were zipped up and transported back inside like a wriggling piece of carry-on luggage.

Although the pug woman could be faulted for allowing her dogs to defile pricey objects of art with every lift of their short legs, I had to admire the ballsy way she flouted both the rules of her apartment building and the prissiness of the upscale art gallery. When I found myself, not long after, having to hide pets in my own apartment, I realized that the pug woman probably acted out of practiced necessity/desperation more than any sort of rebellion.

My own situation came about when, living in an apartment with landlords who were staunchly opposed to pets, I agreed to house my brother’s cats while he was out of town. It was an act of pity: The cats had spent the past several months cowering from my brother’s new dog. The dog—a bright-orange chow that had turned up stray in my brother’s yard with a bullet wound in its leg (the act of a deer-jacking hunter or a rifle-toting yahoo)—had many good qualities, but playing well with cats was not one of them. Needless to say, my brother’s cats enjoyed their dog-free vacation at my place. So much so that when my brother returned to pick them up, the cats caught a whiff of dog scent and wouldn’t come out from under the couch. From then on, by necessity and because I had grown very attached to them, the kitties were mine.

For the next year, I sheltered the illegal cat fugitives until my lease ran out. During that time, I learned a few secrets to successfully hiding feline companions in a no-pet apartment, though none so resourceful as the Manhattan woman who saw an outdoor sculpture garden and thought “dog park.” The following are three tips to housing pets in a pet-hostile building. (Note: If landlords would stop discriminating against our nonhuman friends, we wouldn’t have to resort to such measures.)

First: Maintenance people are your friends. I realized early on that most of the worker types who entered my apartment on behalf of the landlord—plumbers, painters, etc.—had little desire or motivation to rat me out. Rather, we were united, I think, by the fact that the landlord represented the Man. I figured this out the first time a worker entered my apartment to fix a clogged bathtub. I was caught totally unaware (home sick that day), and had a purring cat sitting in my lap. As the worker entered the apartment with his tools, I blurted out, “It’s not my cat.” The maintenance guy took one look at the curled up kitty, smirked and said, “I don’t see nuthin’. ” Bribes weren’t even necessary. The appeal of undermining the Man was so much stronger.

Second: Affect a rather urgent need to know, in advance, before anyone enters your apartment. Firmly tell your landlord that you need at least 24 hours’ notice before anyone keys into your place, for any reason. Your landlord may think you’re a bit uptight, but he’ll comply if you act truly neurotic about it. Who cares if he or she thinks you need time to stash your porn supply or your water bong—your furry friends are at stake. Which brings us to the last tip: Have a safe house. There will be times when your landlord, or a maintenance person you don’t trust, will have to enter your apartment. Since you’ve already demanded prior notification, you’ll have time to ferret your pets away to a friend’s place. Once, when the sewer pipes in my apartment building backed up, requiring several days of repair, I had to take my cats to work with me. Fortunately, my coworker was on vacation. I set the cats up in his office and shut the door, and no one ever noticed a thing.

—Kirsten Ferguson

How to Learn 1,000 Songs on Guitar in 30 Minutes

I moonlight as a wordsmith here, but my main line of work is teaching guitar and other instruments privately. So for a freebie introductory guitar lesson that will—no kidding—teach you how to play a thousand songs in a half-hour, get your ax, tune it up, and have a seat in a chair that doesn’t have arms.

Hold the guitar in your lap so the neck tilts up at about a 30-degree angle. Then place your thumb on the back of neck behind the first fret and parallel to it. The knuckle should rest on the middle of the neck with the tip of the thumb bent slightly. Curl the fingers of your left hand just above the strings, and place the tip of your middle finger on the fourth string (the strings are numbered from highest to lowest in pitch), just to the left of the second fret. The finger should not touch the strings on either side. If you have long nails on your left hand, clip them before proceeding further.

Press the string hard enough to get a clear note when you pluck the string. Leave the middle finger in place and then put the tip of the ring finger on the second string, second fret, which as before means just to the left of the fret bar. Next place the index finger on the second fret of the third string behind the other two, and scrunch it up as close to the second fret as you can get it without pushing the other fingers over the fret bar. This is an A major chord.

Take a pick and hold it in between the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Strum downward, and use the wrist as much as you can rather than the elbow. The strum should be quick and light; avoid either bashing the strings or letting the pick slowly ripple across them. Next, tap your foot at the speed of a slow walk and count from one to four. Strum the A chord four times, once per tap. This is one measure of A in 4/4 time, which is the time signature of most popular music.

Practice foot-tapping and strumming together, playing consecutive measures of A until you start to get the feel of playing with a steady beat. Do not pause in between measures.

Next come the D major and E major chords, which with the A chord give you the three primary chords in the key of A. The D chord is fingered as follows: first finger on the third string, second fret, second finger on the first string, second fret, and third finger on the second string, third fret. For the E chord, put the first finger on the third string, first fret, the second finger on the fifth string, second fret, and the third finger on the fourth string, second fret.

Now try playing the chords in the following sequence, strumming four times per chord: A-D-E-A-A-E-D-A. In the beginning you’ll find it takes a couple of seconds to change chords, but with practice you’ll be able to do it without hesitating. Here are some pointers for changing chords in the key of A: when going from A to D, or D back to A, hold the first finger in place (it is on the same note in both chords), lift the second finger, slide the third finger along the second string rather than lifting and replacing it, and then replace the second finger. For all the other changes—E to D, D to E, A to E, and E to A—lift the second and third fingers, slide the first finger along the third string, and then replace the second and third fingers. Now play the chord sequence again using these techniques while tapping your foot.

Once you’ve done that, play the following sequence of chords, again with four evenly timed strums per chord at a walking tempo: A-A-A-A-D-D-A-A-E-D-A-A. This is known as the 12-bar blues pattern, and was originated in the Deep South probably around 1890 to accompany the three-line-verse form of the blues.

So what about those thousand songs, you might be thinking. Well, the 12-bar pattern can be found in almost every kind of American music, including rock, folk music, country, bluegrass, and jazz. All you have to do is learn these three chords and the blues form and you’ll know literally thousands of songs on the guitar.

—Glenn Weiser

How to be an Expert

A few days into my first post-college, big-boy job with the federal government, my boss offered me one of the most profound bits of professional advice I have ever received.

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable. Meeting adjourned.”

Not much for a literal-minded office neophyte to work with, but I took his words at face value and looked for a field in which I could become an expert. As it turned out, this was right around the time that the federal government decided that fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement were bad things, and that agencies might want to consider implementing systems to ensure their organizations were free from such burdens on the taxpayers’ wallets.

Rules and regulations for what was dubbed “internal controls” fell from on high (most of them jargon-heavy codifications of such common-sense rules as “Don’t let the fox guard the henhouse” and “A penny saved is a penny earned”), and it fell to my office to figure out how we might satisfy the District of Columbiacrats, but without fundamentally changing our agency’s own culture (which was already prudent to a fault) or wrapping our engineers in cocoons of sticky red tape and paperwork. In short, we needed an internal-controls expert—and I saw (and took) the perfect opportunity to run with the wisdom my boss had imparted to me.

Over the years, I have parlayed my early success as that program’s internal-controls expert into a variety of interesting positions and opportunities. Of course, I’ve had to become an expert in many other things—budgeting, security, procurement, fundraising, public relations, art, music (see “How to write a record review,” page 18) among them—in order to keep myself fresh and marketable in changing work situations. But the fundamental lesson remains valid: As long as you’re the go-to guy for some necessary discipline in your professional field, you’ll always be in demand.

So how do you become an expert? First off, you’ve got to carefully pick your field of expertise. There are two optimal ways of doing this: either by picking a field that no one knows they need until you convince them otherwise, or by picking a field that everyone knows they need, but in which no one else wants to become the expert.

Once you’ve identified your field, research is the crucial next step—and you should seek the most primary core documents available, so that you can assimilate and spin them in your way and on your own terms, rather than relying on secondary spin by others. You’ve got to have a working comprehension of the field that will allow you to go several questions deep when challenged, and (perhaps most importantly) you have to possess complete mastery of the field’s lingo and jargon, so you’re not undone by an infelicitous slip in terminology at a key juncture.

Note well, though, that when faced in public with the unanswerable question or the indecipherable phrase, the true expert relies less on bluff-on-the-spot than on convincing others that he or she knows exactly where to get the right answer. It’s always better to say “I’ll find out, sir” (and then find out, fast) than it is to get caught in a tortured obfuscation of some point about which you’re uncertain.

You look far more confident and in control that way, and confidence is key to becoming an expert. If you don’t believe in your expertise, then no one else will either—and if no one else believes in your expertise, then you’ve failed in making yourself indispensable. You’ve got to market your expertise, too, since if no one knows about it, then you’re not doing yourself (or your employer) any good in having it. If you say something long and loud enough, it’s more than likely to become true (or to be perceived as truth, which is essentially the same thing).

This is why every waiter in New York will tell you he’s an actor. This is why freelance writers call themselves freelance writers, even when no one is (yet) printing their work. You’ve got to hang your shingle as soon as you can, probably before you’re really ready to do so, since you will gain more expertise by actual real-world work and interaction than you will by overstaying your time in an academic research mode. You’ll learn from your mistakes this way, too—oftentimes more than you’ll learn from your successes.

But you will have successes and you will learn from them, as will others: Once you’ve deployed your expertise with aplomb a few times, those who benefit from it will continue to seek you out, and will generally spread the word about your expertise to others, since everyone likes to get credit for being the first to spot something or someone useful. Success and expertise snowball from this point, one feeding the other—until the day when you realize that, holy crow, you really are an expert in your chosen field, and you really have made yourself indispensable.

And what do you do then? You look for a new field of expertise, since nobody wants to read yesterday’s news, everybody wants to know what you’ve done for them lately, and the only things constant in life are change—and the demand for experts to shepherd others through it.

—J. Eric Smith

How to Write Smut

I did it because I thought it was hilarious. The money wasn’t all that great, but at one time I was covering technology, reviewing Web sites, writing short fiction and maintaining an advice column—all for a variety of magazines typically relegated to the far end of the newsstand. Even as Sen. Exon was railing against Internet smut in Congress, I was telling readers where to find it.

And it was a challenge. It’s more difficult to write a convincingly erotic story than it is to craft decent mainstream fiction. Forget any notions of morality that might condemn the language and subject matter. When it comes to sex, the written word is affected by the same phenomenon that governs dirty movies: Once the sex starts, story and characterization tend to screech to a halt.

If you want to write smut, you have to read and enjoy smut. During my formative years, Penthouse magazine’s Letters column introduced me to the genre. Here was the playout of fantastic, first-person scenarios in which some average schlub—hey, it could’ve been me!—found an unexpected sexual encounter at a Laundromat/neighbor’s pool/campsite. The numbing sameness of the letters didn’t slacken my enthusiasm, and, like all genre fiction, there are formulas to be followed.

“Stories should contain a huge-breasted female character,” begins an old guideline from Gent magazine. “And this character’s endowments should be described in detail in the course of the story.” Other magazines can get even more particular, specifying how and when sexual encounters should occur. When I churned out fiction for Plump and Pink magazine, for example, I was cautioned not only to describe the females as lavishly overweight, but also to be sure that some of the sex acts—how do I put this delicately?—involved folds of flesh.

Write for Gallery and you’re proscribed from the following: “S/M, pedophilia, male/male sex, bestiality, sex with minors, incest, references to drugs and/or drunkenness, sex for money, and using authority to manipulate a subordinate for sex. Otherwise, you may be as depraved as you’d like. And please keep in mind that stories should get to the sex quickly.” (Actually, there are more restrictions, lactation and golden showers among them, that have to do with Canadian distribution, but that’s a lengthy dissertation all by itself.)

You won’t get rich off this genre, but it’s good for a steady stream of income if you’re quick and imaginative. About the best you can expect from those magazines that pay at all is upwards of 20 cents a word—that’s 400 bucks for a 2,000-word story.

Although you’re creating a fantasy, your story still needs a beginning, middle and end. You have to introduce convincing characters in order to engage the reader’s sympathy. Typical porn stories are told in the first person, so your narrative voice should be amiable and engaging.

During the course of the tale, a problem will be solved. I amuse myself by setting up some problem other than a wish for a sexual encounter that the encounter itself serves to solve, so there’s a bonus fulfillment.

For example: An unhappy male narrator complains that his wife doesn’t find him adventurous enough in bed. She mentions a porn film she likes and he goes off to rent it, but the seductive female video clerk gives him a tumble and teaches him a few tricks (encounter No. 1) that he is able to bring home to his wife (encounter No. 2), who, we learn, set the whole deal up in the first place (surprise payoff). Not great literature, but I can guarantee a more immediate pleasure from the finished product.

If you’re writing for a specific magazine, read the magazine. It’s simple enough to copy the tone of a story without aping the story itself. At the same time, you’ll learn to cringe at the clichés of the genre (rippling abs, perky breasts and on and on).

And be consistent with your terminology. Most submission guidelines specify that you should stick with whatever term you prefer for significant bits of anatomy, with only one or two synonyms per story for variety’s sake. Keep in mind that, in the porn world, it’s always spelled “cum.”

A covers-all-bases guide is Katy Terrega’s book It’s a Dirty Job, available online through her Web site (katyterrega.com), which gives the beginning writer a terrific overview of the process of writing in general as well as the particulars of writing smut—and she lists the better markets and contacts. It’s well worth the $10 investment.

With any luck, I’ll be able to read and enjoy your work someday. I have but one request, my porn pet peeve, as it were: Would you please refrain from the repeated-letter style of literary emphasis? “Ohhhhhhh, mmmmyyyyyy ggggggggodddddd . . . ” makes a character sound like an iiiddddddiiiooootttttt.

—B.A. Nilsson

How to Survive a Cross-country Train Trip

So you want to take the train on your next trip to the West Coast—good for you. It can be a terrific way to travel. It’s best that you prepare for the journey, however, with a mix of cheerful optimism and cool-eyed wariness. Maybe “survive” is too strong a term—but then again, maybe not. Since Amtrak, our own national passenger railroad, is usually operating with one wheel in the grave, this economic predicament necessarily affects service. So it’s sensible to approach a cross-country jaunt by train armed with some helpful survival hints.

When booking a direct coast-to-coast trip without stopovers, it’s probably easiest to use Amtrak’s Web site. If you’re planning stops along the way—and these can be the best reason to take the train—make your reservations by phone, with a real human being (not “Julie,” Amtrak’s talking computer/reservations agent). You can pay by credit card and have the tickets mailed to you, or pick them up at the station.

As for the trip itself, here are a few simple guidelines: Unless you’re going to Podunk, N.D., you can probably check most of your baggage through to your final destination. Your carry-on bag should contain four days’ worth of clothes—it takes three days to reach L.A., San Fransisco or the Pacific Northwest, and an extra day’s supply might come in handy. (More about delays later.) Along with the usual toiletries, bring your own towels. Unless you lay out the big money for sleeping accommodations, you won’t have access to a shower. There are enough large bathrooms on overnight trains, however, to be able to get cleaned up in relative comfort. Speaking of money, bring cash for the diner and café (though they do take credit cards). Finally, bring snacks. You may not like everything available from Amtrak.

From the Capital Region, the road leads to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. “Limited” means the train isn’t going to stop at all regular stations; “Lake Shore” refers to the route, which hugs the shore of Lake Erie before heading straight across Indiana. (A succession of trains with this name have plied this route for more than 100 years.) It has both a dining car and a café-bar car, which is one of the obvious advantages of the train. Traveling overnight in coach on the Lake Shore isn’t really that bad, but if you can meet the aforementioned high price of a room in a sleeping car, do it. (At last check, this can cost almost $200.)

Once in Chicago, if you’re not stopping over, you might have as much as a few hours’ layover. Take advantage of this to walk around, but be back an hour before your connecting train departs. Boarding trains headed west at Union Station can be complicated—except for the original Great Hall, Union Station itself is confusing and, basically, sucks—you’ll be assigned a specific seat based on your destination.

There are three western trains. If you’re going to Los Angeles, you’ll be on the Southwest Chief. It’s the route of the old Santa Fe Trail of western lore, across Kansas and south through New Mexico and northern Arizona. The Empire Builder travels a northern route through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho to Spokane, Wash., where it splits into separate sections for Seattle and Portland (a good reason not to switch seats on your own). The California Zephyr—the most scenic of the western trains—sprints across the heartland to Denver, where it makes a spectacular climb into the Rockies, travels through gorgeous canyons to Salt Lake City, and continues on to San Fransisco through the Sierras.

These western trains have Superliner coaches and sleepers—double-decker cars with plenty of space. The coaches are so comfortable, you really don’t need to get a sleeper. The bar car and dining car are similarly spacious—you may find yourself spending a lot of time there, meeting and greeting.

The most useful thing to have is patience. Expect the worst, and be ready for unforeseen delays. (If you have children, and they hate to wait, you might want to choose another conveyance—for your own and your fellow passengers’ sake.) Despite the railroad’s bad rep, most delays are not Amtrak’s fault. Amtrak does not own most of the tracks it operates on, and is at the mercy of the host freight railroads. (You haven’t really experienced North Dakota until you’ve had a chance to contemplate the same snow-covered wheat field for nearly three hours, waiting for Burlington Northern to haul its broken locomotive out of the way.) Don’t worry too much, though. The trip may go exactly according to schedule; I once traveled direct from Los Angeles to Albany, on two trains, arriving at the old Rensselaer station within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time.

Most of all, enjoy yourself—at its best, the train can be a marvelous way to get from here to there in no big hurry.

—Shawn Stone

How to Write A Record Review

It all starts with the listening, of course, ideally multiple times, ideally multiple ways: passively (play the record while you make fudge, grout the tub or knit a sweater for your cat) and actively (sit and really listen to the record, distracted only by occasional glances at its liner notes or maybe the artist’s Web site, so you know what the singer’s saying, and who’s playing what where). You hear different things when you listen different ways.

Once you’ve digested the disc in this way, but before you set pen to paper, it’s time for analysis—both internal and comparative. Internal analysis has three elements. You can label them past, present and future. Or you can label them objective, subjective and speculative. The past/objective analysis puts the disc in context, explaining whence the artist came and how the record to be reviewed fits in terms of the artist’s known history and existing body of work (if there is one). The present/subjective analysis is your very own spin on what the artist has accomplished with the disc in question. This is the heart of the review—and don’t let people tell you that subjectivity is a bad thing here, since at the core, a record review is a subjective assessment of how you feel about the work. The future/speculative analysis provides your take on where the artist might go next, or how music in general may change as a result of the artists’ success or failure.

Comparative analysis is designed to give the artist’s work context and meaning in terms of other artists or sounds with which your readers might be familiar. You can compare your artist to other artists, so listeners who are unfamiliar with the disc you are reviewing can get a sense of whether they might be interested in it or not. Or you can compare your artist’s music and lyrics to other poets or songwriters, or even to nonmusical sounds, movements or emotions. It’s helpful not to be needlessly obscure here, particularly if the record you are reviewing may be well off the beaten popular path itself.

Once you’ve listened and relistened and organized your analyses, it’s time to write. Note well that music criticism is one of the most cliché-heavy genres of journalism, and do your best to steer clear of stock buzzwords and catch phrases. Create your own imagery whenever possible, rather than relying on imagery you might have read in other reviews. If you’ve read something once in a record review, it’s probably been used a thousand times before you encountered it.

It’s better for guitars to sound like a rain of metal locusts or for drums to sound like a muffler dragging beneath a tank than it is for them to “jangle” or “thunder,” for instance. Avoid intellectual sounding, but typical meaningless, manufactured words involving the prefixes “retro-,” “proto-,” “neo-,” “aggro-,” “post-“ and “trans-.” Likewise the suffix “–esque.” Steer clear, too, of “seminal” and “erstwhile.” Use “eponymous” only at your own risk.

After you’ve written, it’s not a bad idea to tweak and tighten: Music listeners and readers are notoriously short-attention-span types, and they’re not likely to read deeply into a long review unless they’re already deeply interested in the record you’re reviewing, in which case you’re just preaching to the choir.

When you’ve got your review as lean and elegant as its going to get, then it’s time to publish, since a review is nothing more than a diary entry if no one else reads it. Of course, you may not have a print outlet, but that shouldn’t stop you from sharing your views with others. So put your reviews on your Web site. Or on somebody else’s Web site. Or e-mail them to your friends. Or bundle a bunch of them together (or with reviews by your friends), go to Kinko’s and make your own ’zine. Or send them out to media outlets in the hopes that they might actually get a traditional print outlet.

However you do it, it’s important to get your thoughts and words about music out into the public domain if you’re serious about wanting to review records on an ongoing basis. Before you know it, people will begin to incorporate your thoughts when making their own decisions on musical acquisitions and investigations, and at that point, you’ll be well on your way to being able to market yourself as an expert critic of music. (See “How to be an expert,” page 16, for more in this vein).

Happy listening . . . and analyzing, writing and publishing!

—J. Eric Smith

How to Appraise a Pumpkin

Half of our small town turned out on the day that we were finally going to cut the stem of my father’s giant pumpkin. It has become an annual event that cousins, neighbors and their children all look forward to. Donuts and cider were laid out on the tailgate of a pickup truck, and everyone was smiling as a few of the men began to tear away the mesh of wilted vines that covered the field. Six months earlier, my father had chosen one small bud to put all of his work into. Daily watering, attentive pruning and a few small tricks had all led up to this moment. The vine that fed that single bud now covered a quarter acre, and had leaves that were up to two and a half feet across.

There it was, resting on its bed of hay, clearly visible to the awestruck eyes of the children. Its bright orange ribs contrasted against the dying autumn brown. For those of you who have never seen a pumpkin that exceeds 500 pounds, it looks like a prehistoric visitor, something that God didn’t intend . . . something that just doesn’t belong.

My father had the honor of cutting the stem—a place of distinction that rivals the fanfare accompanying Grandpa’s laying blade to the Thanksgiving turkey. Then we gently rolled it onto a tarp, and everyone grabbed an edge to help lift it into the back of a pickup truck for its trip to Clarence, N.Y., and the World Pumpkin Weigh Off.

Our friends gathered around, sipping cider and eating donuts. People offered their well-wishes while my father rubbed his chin and said he didn’t think it was as big as last year’s. After everyone hads left and the truck was safely tucked into the garage with its precious cargo, we retired to the house.

4:30 AM.

“Carl, we’ve got to get going. We need to register by 10 o’clock.”

Somewhere around Utica, I assumed the proud, confident look of an ancient warrior dragging home the saber-tooth. I casually sipped my coffee as yet another car passed us with a saucer-eyed child, nose flattened against the safety glass, arms flailing, fingers pointing at our load.

I could read their lips. “Mommy, Daddy, look!”

Drawing closer to our destination, we encountered other pumpkin pilgrims on the road. As we passed one another, we solemnly exchanged the age-old Northeast farmer’s slow nod, conveying everything that can be understood from the phrase “Ahyep.” God, I wished I’d had a piece of timothy hanging from my mouth right then.

As is the case for many things in life, the journey is often more rewarding than the goal. I think my father was in third place, but that can hardly compare with the surreal feeling I had walking through a yard covered with huge vegetables of every kind. This is their Mecca, I thought. This is where they perform the ritualistic comparison of their . . . um, you know . . . squash. In my own twisted way, I was waiting for a dark-eyed child holding a butcher knife to emerge from the cornfield and start preaching to them. I was convinced that the man in coveralls with the waxed mustache would be his familiar.

My father was never a man of many words when I was growing up. He was quiet, but not stern. He was hard-working, but never too busy. In his semi-retirement, he has chosen to do the things that he did all of his life, but now they are at a slower pace, and sometimes even playful. He takes a lot of pride in his endeavors, like he has all of the work he’s done.

The pumpkin is just a metaphor of sorts, his means to an end in one leg of a Zen journey. Somewhere between the May planting and the October harvest, Dad sees the cycle that has been a part of his whole life. Things grow, and we can have a hand in it. Tractors replace mules and horses. Houses now fill what were once open pastures, and pumpkins fill a void left by a missing herd that he divested himself of 10 years ago. How do you grow a giant pumpkin? Put a seed in the ground and blah, blah, blah. I could bore you to death with the minute details. But there’s something even greater there, and I’m slowly learning it too. I can see it in his adolescent grin when he’s cutting the stem, and that’s how you grow something much more important.

—Carl Smith

Carl Smith, who lives in Albany, grew up on a farm in Charlton, where his mother and father still live.

How to Get your Bike Home from Paris

I feel obligated to tell anyone who’s looking to this article for any sort of instructional information that you will be disappointed. I am just relaying an obscene example of Murphy’s Law working at its very best. So you still might want to take the information I am about to share with you and use it to your advantage. How, you ask? Never travel with a bicycle. Just don’t.

My friends and I had just finished this huge cross-continent bike trip for charity. We started in Amsterdam and rode through Belgium and northern France, ending the trip in Paris. I won’t even get into how it rained every day, or even better, how it hailed (on the day we were to ride 112 miles—no kidding). And I won’t describe how we slept on gravel, cement and dirt, or how the only way to stay dry was to sleep on picnic tables in the dining tent. Or how we were fed pork at every meal, or how we weren’t prepared for the chilly European weather, or how we wore more Mylar in one week than could be used in a lifetime’s worth of birthday balloons. This story starts where that story finished.

Rebeccah had had enough when we reached Paris. She wanted to go home. Our friend Frank met us there and had a hotel room waiting for us. Nate and I wanted to stay in Paris for a few days to recoup and relax. So, when Frank had to leave the next day for home, Rebeccah decided to go with him. Nate and I found a hostel, deposited our stuff in our rooms, and set out to see Paris. The only contact we had with Rebeccah and Frank was via cell-phone voice-mail messages, and we said that we’d check messages to make sure they got off OK. This is probably a good time to tell ya’ll that we were flying non-rev (without reservations), because Frank is a flight attendant and we were flying on his buddy passes, which is a hell of a lot cheaper than buying tickets from the airline.

The first time we checked the messages, it was Frank informing us that there were no flights out of Paris for the entire day. They got a couple rooms at the airport hotel, and Frank met us downtown for drinks later that night before heading back to the hotel to prepare for another day in the airport, waiting for a flight home.

The next day, Nate and I hung out at the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur and Montmarte. We were convinced that our counterparts were flying somewhere over the Atlantic when we checked the messages later that day. What we learned was that Frank had taken the jump seat on a flight (an extra seat where the flight attendants can sit—not very comfy) because he absolutely needed to get home. Rebeccah was left alone in the airport, not knowing a word of French. Plus, her bike was checked already, under Frank’s name. She told us, via voice mail, that she was going to stay in the airport overnight. We left her a message saying we’d meet her in the airport in the morning and we’d all get a flight out.

The next morning, Nate and I took our bikes, our 80-pound packs and our sleeping bags, and took the metro to the airport. This is not as easy as it sounds, because there are no elevators in the Paris metro. OK, maybe one, but it wasn’t in any of the stops where we needed it. So we had to lug our bikes up and down all sorts of stairs. At least it wasn’t like the metro in Amsterdam, or the underground in London, where we had to buy separate tickets for the bikes.

At the airport, Rebeccah wasn’t where we had planned on meeting her. I got a bike box at the gate and start taking my bike apart and loading it while Nate called Frank. I had my bike halfway in the box when Nate returned and said, “Uh, Katie?” I looked up. “Where’s Rebeccah?” I asked. Nate said, “There’s been a slight change in plans.”

There were simply no more flights out of Paris for the entire week. We couldn’t afford to stay in Paris another week, so we had to go to London to get home. I think I laughed in disbelief. The crying came later.

Frank had told us to go get Rebeccah, who was at the hotel they had stayed at two nights before, so we hauled our bikes onto the shuttle bus and went to the hotel. When we got there, Rebeccah ran out to hug us, visibly shaken from her airport ordeal. I felt guilty that Nate and I had had such a fabulous time while she was trying to get home.

We told her that we now needed to get to London in order to get a flight home. She didn’t seem surprised—I don’t think anything could’ve fazed her at that point. She filled us in on how she had to fight to get her bike back—finally retrieving it at about 5 AM after convincing security that it was hers. We took the shuttle back to the airport, then the metro to the train station. We got our tickets, again having to get separate tickets for the bikes, and sat back to wait for the Eurostar, the train that travels under the English Channel to London. Then a woman informed us that our bikes needed to be in cases to ride on the train. We looked at each other, smiling (are you kidding me?), and looked back at her. “We don’t have cases.” The alternative, she said, was to take the front tires off, tape them to the bike, and cover the entire bike with something. Nate, our superhero by this point, left the station for about a half-hour and returned with a box of garbage bags and a roll of packing tape. We took our bikes apart and wrapped them and taped them. How this made anything better or easier for anyone, I will never know.

Now, we not only had our packs and sleeping bags to carry, we also had our bikes to carry (they don’t roll when wrapped). After going through two or three customs checkpoints, some angel came by and helped me carry my bike onto the train. When we got to London, we unloaded our bikes and tried to rip off the tape and bags to put our bikes back together; of course, my bike had the most tape, and it was impossible to rip off. We were getting yelled at to get off the platform, so, in pain and in tears, I dragged my bike behind me down the ramp and then put it back together. We all felt it was high time to throw our bikes off a cliff. But no, we had to get them home.

Ah, London. We could catch the underground at the train station, so we got directions to Heathrow Airport. Of course, we couldn’t take our bikes on the underground at that particular stop, so we had to leave the station and walk a few blocks (including over a bridge—with stairs) to a station where the bikes would be allowed on. “What can possibly go wrong now?” we asked each other as we rode the underground to Heathrow. “We need only to get to the airport, check our bikes, go to the airport hotel and order room service, and get on that damn plane in the morning.” If only we knew.

At 5 AM, the phone rang in our hotel room. “Hello?” I mumbled, wondering who the hell knew we were there. “Katie, honey, it’s Frank.”

“What’s wrong?” I said, my heart sinking. “Katie, you’re at the wrong airport,” he says. Laughing daftly, I handed the phone to Nate, simply stating that I couldn’t deal with this.

We had to take a van taxi to the airport, get our bikes out of storage, and ride about an hour and a half to Gatwick Airport. Then came the torturous process of putting our bikes in their boxes and checking them, and waiting to see if we could get on a flight. While we were waiting, some official-looking person escorted us out to the runway where we had to open the boxes for them and show them that no, we weren’t hiding anything suspicious in there. Finally, we got on the plane and flew first-class home (we upgraded for a better chance to get on the plane)—the best flight of my life.

So that’s the story of our odyssey from downtown Paris to London’s Gatwick Airport. All after a week of riding our bikes more than 500 miles.

Postscript: A couple of months after we got home, my bike was stolen.

—Kathryn Lurie

How to be an Optimist

First of all, don’t let a smile be your umbrella. It does not work. I repeat, it does not work.

Nor should you let a smile be your bath towel, your lunchbox, your tap-and-dye set, your surgical tape, your checkbook or your passport. Try that last one and you’ve got yourself an aggressive cavity search, and let’s see you be optimistic with a chilly gloved hand up your ass. (And, by the way, they will check the toothpaste tube, too, just so you know).

The smile, in other words, however broad and gleaming, is an ineffectual tool. The smile is window dressing. The smile has an only coincidental relationship to true optimism. So, enough with the smile already.

All you curmudgeons constitutionally opposed to the toothy grin can, therefore, take heart: We have an answer, a solution, and we’re not talking about dithering, vapid, new-age self-delusion and/or panglossian denial. There is a way, in this day and age, that you can be optimistic and practical. You don’t have to suppress your instinct to point out that the glass is, in fact, half-empty when the waiter brings you an $8 Merlot he’s been brazenly sipping on the way to your table. That glass is half-empty. Period.

So, do not feel obligated to stand in the pissing rain staring up at a dark and sparking sky looking for the silver lining, drenched straight through (as you will be, if you didn’t take the point about the smile and the cavity search. Pay attention!). Get inside where it’s warm, for crying out loud. Put your feet up by the fire. Finish off whatever wine that greedy waiter left.

And skip any of that fingers-crossed, what-goes-around-comes-around, quasi-karmic gibberish; and take a pass on its parochial equivalent, the God-works-in-mysterious-ways cop-out, as well. We will have no appeals to supernaturalism here. Optimism requires the supposition of free will, otherwise it’s fatalism—whether you’re an antsy Calvinist hoping that the beating you took when the dot-coms crashed isn’t evidence that you’re working God’s last nerve, or a C4-toting mule looking forward to an afterlife of willing virgins and an endless supply of American cigarettes. Optimism implies hopefulness, which implies uncertainty. Sorry, true believers, but that means you’re out.

As are the paranoiacs, whose twisted conviction of their own centrality to the functioning—albeit the malevolent functioning—of society is just a dopamine- deficient version of chosen-people narcissism. Once and for all, the universe doesn’t care enough about you to try to send aliens disguised as former game-show hosts to steal your reproductive organs. The tinfoil you’ve wrapped around your head protectively does not, therefore, count as optimism—though we admire the ingenuity, and wish you would share your tips for quieting cranial static with the zealously religious.

But, you—as a member of none of those groups—deserve to be told, given a so-easy-a-child-will-get-it lesson in optimism. With a bare minimum of fuss and ordinary household materials, you will kick start an unshakably positive outlook.

So, here is the proven, fail-safe, guaranteed method for instilling in yourself a sense of optimism. You’re merely a sentence or two away from possessing the tried and tested, verified and vested technique for developing your latent hopefulness. Just read a bit further and—whammo—a sunnier outlook is yours for the keeping. Think of it: In a dozen words, give or take, you’ll be bursting with anticipatory good cheer. You’re almost there . . .

—John Rodat


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