to Write a How-to Story
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.
to Save the Earth from a Killer Asteroid
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
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
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
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,
to Write a Book
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
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
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
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
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
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 lives in Saratoga Springs. His
new novel, Maggie Darling, A Modern Romance, will
be published by Grove/Atlantic Books in the fall.
to be an Exhibitionist
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
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.
to Sell your Junk on 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
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
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
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
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.
to Live with your Kitty in a Pet-free Apartment
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
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
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.
to Learn 1,000 Songs on Guitar in 30 Minutes
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
to be an Expert
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.
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?”
doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something,
and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable. Meeting
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.
to Write Smut
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.
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
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
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.
to Survive a Cross-country Train Trip
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
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
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.
to Write A Record Review
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
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!
to Appraise a Pumpkin
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.
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, who lives in Albany, grew up
on a farm in Charlton, where his mother and father still
to Get your Bike Home from Paris
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 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,
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
to be an Optimist
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
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 . . .