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Ray's Tap Reading Series - Manners, Please, 3/16/13

Ray's is a great, if infrequent (maybe twice a year) Chicago show curated by Chris Bower. He selects a theme, then gives contributors source texts to which they write in response.

[Produce Complete Book of Etiquette]

Complete Book of Etiquette, by Amy Vanderbilt.

In preparation for this piece, I read this book cover to cover.

By which I mean I skimmed sections of it over the course of a series of poops.

Poops, I hasten to add, I should not be discussing publicly. Or privately. Or, in an ideal world, not be having at all.

If I were a person of breeding and good character, I would stop myself here to collect each of your addresses and send you a thoughtful and heartfelt handwritten note of apology for both the temerity of having expelled poops at all, and for the scandalously poor judgment I have here demonstrated by making public and now frequent mention of these poops.

See? There. I’ve done it again.

But I am a person of questionable breeding and low character. And as such, I not only make mention of having expelled repeated poops from this, my ass, which decorum demands that I not describe as caved in and chalky. And my family crest, our coat of arms, which appears at the top of every sheet of my stationary – is a slaughtered pig on a field of genital warts.

Which, if you knew heraldry, you would recognize as an enduring symbol of our nobility. But to the untrained eye just looks like a slaughtered pig on a field of genital warts.

So, I mean…

Ancestors. What’re you gonna do? Am I right?

But I was drawn to a section of Chapter 4: Other Ceremonial Occasions on Funerals, which contains the following line, in Some Do’s and Don’ts For Mourners:

When talking about death, stay clear of euphemisms like “he passed away,” or “she’s found her resting place.” Death is what it is. Pretending otherwise is unrealistic.

Now, it is unreasonable to expect realism of a book that devotes two full pages to what constitutes acceptable content while fox hunting, and has I-shit-you-not forty-five index listings under “Formal seated dinner with staff.”

But this line – this one line – I actually found beautiful, in its way.

The word “polite” comes to us from the Latin politus, which means “accomplished, refined, cultivated,” and derives from polire, “to smooth or polish.” As much of an abrasive dick-punch as I tend too often to be, there is a principle at the heart of politeness which I actually value a great deal, and which I find reflected in this line about staying clear of euphemisms.

I have no use, obviously, for the forty-five index listings under “Formal seated dinner with staff,” as it will never have any direct application to my experience thus far or any of my experience yet to come.

But the notion that life is a rough business, a rude and vexing trial, a lot of it – that requires of us the consensual adoption of a code of conduct, a shared idiom and a set of conventions that make life marginally more bearable. I believe in kindness – despite most of what my public conduct and insistent poop-talk would lead you to believe. But I believe a bit of polish – a mild burnishing – is worthy and needful. We are jagged, most of us, and thorny, and we need some grinding off of our sharpest quills.

I believe that life is a difficult and often quite excruciating business, and that if we can all agree to adopt certain sensible positions, and follow certain rational guidelines, then it becomes more possible for us to refrain from smashing each other with hammers while weeping bitter tears.

It is the difference, I think, between Civility and Propriety. Propriety is mostly ridiculous and unhelpful. Taken to its logical extreme, it culminates in place settings with nine forks and dainty minuets of protocol. Propriety is oppressive – those who know its particulars lord it over those who do not. It is ungenerous and persnickety; ostentatious and starchy.

But civility is quite wonderful, really. It is a means by which we reach some accord – we yield something of what we wish, and take care to take into account the wishes of someone else. On the face of it, this may not seem especially lofty or rousing. But when you think on it carefully, it becomes plain that it’s actually sort of astonishing. For a snarled mass of predatory and self-seeking primates to have hit upon a way to consistently avoid melee and ruin, a voluntary compact that results in an uneasy peace is downright amazing, really, given how swinish and hostile it is our natural inclination to be.

When talking about death, stay clear of euphemisms like “he passed away,” or “she’s found her resting place.” Death is what it is. Pretending otherwise is unrealistic.

In this line, we find much that’s worth striving for: plain speech; acceptance of reality, even, or perhaps especially, unpleasant reality; and an agreed-upon basis for proceeding, whatever difficulties may come.

I watched a movie with my kids not long ago. It had a scene where these knights in armor were fighting with swords. The way it was shot and the sound design really conveyed the sense of peril and pain. My son turned to me and said: “Man, people used to be a lot tougher than they are now.” No doubt about it.

I think the same is true about how we interact with each other. I think we were once a lot tougher than we are now. In the sense that we were much better versed in the art and science of disappointment. Setbacks were more expected, somehow. And as such did not dismantle us in the way they seem to now. We could know defeat, and our hopes would remain un-dashed.

Now, though. To avoid the pain and disquiet and self-disgust that now seems to attend every hindrance, we grow more grabby and piggish by the day. Which ensures only the hindrance and vexation of somebody else. Which renders them more retaliatory. Which exacerbates our own escalating sense that the world is populated by selfish douchey clowns whom we are right to snub and cut off and disregard. It would be a violation of our own interests, in fact, to be accommodating or agreeable.

Civility, though – it is not the permanent cessation of these hostilities. That asks too much. That assumes a degree of evolution and selflessness probably not possible. But civility permits a détente – a mutually assured pledge to stand down. Civility acknowledges that we are predatory and self-seeking primates, but permits a world where our hackles may always be up, our fangs may always be bared, but we agree not to strike.


WRITE CLUB, Shaken - 3/19/13

To be shaken is to be wrenched from safety. It is to come unmoored from custom and habit. It is to be jolted.

To be stirred is – at most – to have a bittersweet moment. A moment that causes one to dab at one’s eyes with corner of a hankie.

To be shaken is to have undergone a seismic event.

To be stirred is to remain substantively intact.

To be shaken represents upheaval, to be sure, but is it not during times of greatest upheaval that we are tested, where we may emerge trembling and ashen, perhaps, but we by God emerge knowing what we are made of.

There is violence in any good shaking, to be sure. Shaking cannot be done with pinkie extended. Not so stirring.

“Shaken” is how you describe yourself – even months after the fact – when you gotta ditch out on your bike because a truck is suddenly making an un-signaled right turn in your path. Even THINKING about it amps you up and sets you quivering. When you tell the story, your throat tightens over the words and your heart rate jumps.

“Stirred” is the compliment you feel obligated to give the pastor in describing your tepid feelings about the dreary sermon he just droned his way through.

If your assumptions are stirred, they remain essentially undisturbed. If your assumptions are shaken, there exists the real possibility that the landscape of your outlook will be altered. Perhaps even in some fundamental way.

Shaken is the cannon fire in the 1812 Overture.

Stirred is your nephew’s French horn recital.

Shaken is the voltage delivered by defibrillator paddles. It is the power that penetrates to the core of you, that reaches inside your ribcage to yank you back from the brink – a power that in another age would have been denounced as witchcraft.

Stirred is the mild discomfort of the tongue depressor. It is the rudimentary blunt instrument delving no further than your scratchy throat.

Shaken is the most harrowing slide at the water park. Stirred is a piss-warmed kiddie pool.

To be Shaken by your attraction for another person is to STRICKEN by their beauty; to find them HEART-STOPPING in their allure.

To be Stirred by your attraction for another is to be at most inclined to make a booty call. If you’re hammered enough.

I’m not gonna lie. There’s a downside to That Which Is Shaken.

There are the byproducts of trauma. There is potential for grave injury. I’ll admit it.

There is, for instance, no STIRRED Baby Syndrome.

Stirring is a weak gesture, a languid one. It’s limp and diffident. The degree of agitation it causes is minimal. That’s why if someone is a gossip, they are stirring the pot, or stirring up trouble.

When you shake shit up, though, you are gonna change things for good. Whether an individual life, or a society, tectonic plates, or humankind overall – the only way to bring about transformative change, the only way that the chrysalis will split and the new creature can emerge, is by shuddering apart – by shaking to pieces and rebuilding afresh.

It is not by accident that Bond specified Shaken.

Stirring affords no such transformation, and never will.

But perhaps most tellingly, Shaken rhymes with bacon, you guys. Stirred, on the other hand, rhymes with turd.


WRITE CLUB, Super Villain - 3/4/13

Who among us has not felt the urge to steal? Something small, perhaps. A candy bar. A pack of smokes. A pair of gloves.

And I know. That you have at some point succumbed to that urge. That one time – a series of times, some of you.

You know that tremor. At the base of your gut. That quiver, that… quickening.

And you have turned away from it.

You felt that quickening, and failed to apprehend its enormity.

The treasure is not the item. The target of your burglary. Is beside the point. Your ill-gotten gains – that candy bar, or pack of smokes, or pair of gloves; that car, or necklace, or identity, is incidental.

The point – of the entire enterprise – is that quickening. That quickening is the speck of grit that becomes the pearl; the ember that becomes the conflagration. That quickening is the seed of greatness.

Because there is larceny in every heart. There is mayhem curled in every set of entrails. Lawlessness and misdeeds are the fluid that cradle every brain.

Be honest. When you got away with snatching that candy bar, or pack of smokes, or pair of gloves – you felt vindicated, a little bit, didn’t you? Didn’t you? You congratulated yourself – RIGHTLY congratulated yourself – for outwitting the store clerk, or the security guard, or the firewall.

Or, alternately, when you got caught. You felt the sting of the unfairness of it. Pilfering that cash, or that stack of ingots, or those nuclear launch codes.

It has often been observed that if you want something in this life, you must take it. Is it not better to take that which you want in a scheme that involves chloroformed guards and outwitting security cameras than it is to just saunter in and snag it? Of course it is. Is it not better to surround oneself with a swarm of expendable henchmen who remain fanatically if inexplicably devoted to you than to do all the heavy lifting yourself? Goes without saying.

And is it not better to hold a municipality hostage with convoluted plots involving the detonation of bridges and careening armored cars than it is submit a request, or go through channels? You better believe it is.

Would not the right-thinking person rather do nothing so much as bring the nations of the world to the brink of utter destruction as they scramble to meet your unreasonable and escalating demands, while you laugh a throaty and demonic laugh, ensconced in your sub-volcanic secret base or orbiting in your space station – a space station, it’s worth emphasizing, that was privately funded, launched, resupplied, and maintained, and which, though quite massive, has eluded all detection until you unveil it for your nefarious plot?

Superheroes. Pssh. Buncha doofuses, man – buncha squares.

Who is more compelling – if you’re honest with yourself – Dr. Doom, or Reed fucking Richards of the Fantastic Four? Dr. Doom – who has a totally badass metal suit and menacing cloak, and lives in HIS OWN CASTLE in Latveria – a country that had to be made up to contain his villainy – or Mr. Fantastic? Who lives in a high rise in Manhattan and whose “super power” is that he’s stretchy? Dr. Doom – whose mask alone is not merely the perfect expression of robotic malevolence and is an undeniable precursor to Darth fucking Vader – who is a master without peer of both technology AND sorcery? Or Reed Richards? Who looks essentially like Bob from the Church of the Subgenius.

It’s no contest.

Who captures your imagination – The Red Skull, whose face, for the sake of clarification, is a RED FUCKING SKULL – or Captain Goddamn America? Come ON. Captain America – who wouldn’t even BE a superhero were it not for the injection of the that secret serum – I have it good authority, has an IQ of like sixty-two.

Batman – the one superhero with anything on the ball – he’s got the cave, he’s got the gadgets, he’s got a dark side. But even Batman’s villains kick the crap out of him on the coolness scale –

Joker? Fully clownface insane.

Two Face? Half of his face is burned right off!

Penguin? Penguin is a piece of shit and everybody knows it – doesn’t deserve inclusion in this company. Everybody hates Penguin - everybody.

GOD. Just THINKING about that egg-shaped little sack of crap makes me wanna smack somebody.


Even accepting for a moment that all the second- and third-tier super villains deserve a place at the table – and you know the super villain table would be awesome, like a slab of titanium flecked with lapis lazuli or something – if you stacked all the super villains up against all the superheroes, there’s no CHANCE you’d pick the superheroes. NO CHANCE.

Because taken together, what would strike you about the superheroes – whatever their different abilities and whatnot – would be how appallingly BORING they all are. Just so squeaky clean. With the moral rectitude. And the holier than thou. All the creativity of a pack of stenographers.

Where as the super villains all burn fever bright. They are men of initiative and drive and vision. Men who harness the elements and bend the world to their will.

And you’re like “Well, don’t they just define themselves in relation to their superhero enemy? Isn’t that sort of a pathetic way of framing your identity? Aren’t these people with a pretty big void at the center of their lives that they can only feel complete or fulfilled in relation to a nemesis, or, even more dumb and weird, with just indiscriminate destruction and the shedding of innocent blood? Is that any kind of rational basis for building a life?”










WRITE CLUB, Solid - 2/19/13

Aqua Man. Aqua Man is universally and rightly derided as the least qualified of the Super Friends – and here I’m including the Wonder Twins’ pet monkey Gleek. Even the colors of Aqua Man’s suit are ineffectual-looking. Orange and green? Come on. Orange and green is an acceptable combo if you’re working the drive-thru at an off-brand fast food place. Not if you’re claiming to be a superhero.  

From all quarters, Aqua Man is held in contempt as not even deserving the characterization SUPER Friend, instead, in the interests of accuracy, earning something like Friend Who, Though Perhaps Well Intended, And No Doubt Wishing To Help, Is Completely Fucking Useless In a Crisis. I mean, honestly: is there a catastrophe you could name where there is the urgent need for the ability to go for a swim and send out the rings of sonar communication circles from your head? Of course you can’t. Unless you are a porpoise. And the crisis involves an approaching school of fish.

As a super power, the ability to swim fast has been thoroughly debunked by Michael Phelps, who has demonstrated that it is possible to swim at a record-setting pace while doing prodigious bong hits. Plus, it’s well known that he’s part porpoise.

But those among us who are not porpoises can tell you that everything worth saving – everything worth fighting for – is here. On dry land. And if we need a blond and effeminate man to go for a dip and commune with fish, then it is too late for us. The tsunamis of the Extinction Level Event will have crested over the Rockies and we will all have perished. And Aqua Man, in that ugly fucking suit of his, will be the only human left alive to see it. And the dolphins and eels and tuna will all shun him, for as surely as he did not belong in the world of men, he does not belong in their marine world, either. He will die as he lived: a freakish orphan who makes everybody uncomfortable.

If you want to kill somebody, which is the honorable way: the certain and dependable steel of a blade, or gutless little droplets of poison? The solidity of steel, my friends – it trumps sneaky, sneaky poison every time. Poison is the coward’s way. Poison is how nurses kill people, man. If you aim to kill somebody – and I think we all do – and you want to respect yourself afterward, don’t be a punk about it. Stab them with a knife; bash them with a brick. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.

I know what you’re saying: “But what of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where the T-1000 is made of liquid metal?”

Yes, sure. Liquid metal is good for disguising yourself as a cop or whatever, but if you wanna kill one of the Sarah Connors you find in the phone book, you turn your hand into a giant bayonet. A giant SOLID bayonet. And at the end of the movie, you essentially end up being a shiny puddle. Which you deserve, because you didn’t have the goddamn sense to travel a little farther back in time and kill Jon Connor as a baby. Which you could have done with a fucking pillow. You idiot liquid robot.

And you’re like “Well, what about mercury? That’s a useful liquid metal.” Yeah, maybe. For vacillating inside a thermometer like an indecisive little bitch. Plus, mercury’s also a poison. That turns you stupid before it kills you.

And, besides, when Ashford and Simpson serenade us about their timeless and enduring love, what do they extol as the prime virtue of their union? It is that they are solid. Solid as a rock.

And when the Arab spring erupted and quickened our hope for liberty in Tunisia and Lebanon and Egypt, did we stand in liquidarity with our brothers and sisters throughout the region? We did not. To do so would have been an insult.

Because liquid lacks conviction. Liquid is a treacherous and noncommittal state of matter.

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. Because he will question your motives. But if you give that same horse a carrot, or and apple, or a cube of sugar, you will have earned yourself a friend, because even a horse can recognize an offer of substance.

To describe a person of character is to talk about their solidity – their principles which are unshakable, their good will which is unwavering. 

“He’s a solid guy,” we’ll say, by which we mean here is a man that can be trusted. The opposite of which is that someone is wishy-washy. Like liquid. Sloshing around without any fixed center or any consistent direction.

When we look to the future, and we like our chances, we’ll say that our “prospects are solid.” Likewise an athlete who shows great promise is called a “solid prospect.” And when we need a favor, especially one that matters, we ask “Hey – can you do me a solid?”

Whereas if you think of all those things that make each of us disgusting and sad – blood, tears, snot, bile, semen, sweat, pus, puke. Liquids, all. What is the one part of us that will last? Bone. It is bone and bone alone – the most irreducibly solid part of us – that has any chance of being exhumed and studied by future generations.

And let’s face it. For most of us, it’s too goddamn late in the here and now to have a life of any consequence. The best we can hope for is that our future bone fragments will be of moderate scientific interest. Because everything you are right now – all of it – will liquefy and disappear. Only your bones, your solid, solid bones will abide as the only evidence that you were ever here.


WRITE CLUB, New - Debut at SPACE, 1/7/12

Old hunkered by the mouth of his cave, as he had always done. His cave sat near the summit of a mountain. His mountain.

Old sat cross-legged in frayed robes, with a gnarled staff in his lap, a staff ideal for hiking – worn smooth by his grip, and just the right height for him to lean on when covering tricky terrain.

But Old had not been hiking for a long, long time. He could not recall the last time he had quit twirling his greasy beard by the fire to stretch his legs.

Old could remember a time when he had strode about this mountaintop, chancing upon all manner of wonderment and mystery – Old had seen eaglets accepting fresh-ripped meat from their mother’s hooked beak; Old had seen jagged towers of ice shearing off a glacier’s face and plunging majestically into the frigid lake; Old had seen just-laid tracks of the Yeti.

But that was an impossibly long time ago, however. Old had remained hunched by this fire at the mouth of this cave for a time beyond calculation.

Old’s legs calcified into a slack and unmoving knot; Old’s mind folded like the skin of a teepee around the spindly frame of the ideas he liked best, leaving all others outside it.

Old’s face creased not with laughter or worry or sorrow – it collapsed in on itself while he squints blankly into the embers.

Old ate the same rinds of bread, the same thin gruel, day upon day upon day.

Old dispensed the same threadbare wisdom to his dwindling number of visitors, and regaled them with the same pointless stories – stories rendered all the more pointless by the fact that his fidgeting visitors had heard them many times elsewhere. These pilgrims would lapse into silence as Old murmured these stupid, stupid stories. They had known him only an hour, but they had already come to hate Old a little bit.

They had climbed this goddamn mountain to hear platitudes from this toothless old bastard who managed somehow to smell like cabbage even though there wasn’t a head of goddamn cabbage within a thousand fucking miles of this cave.

These pilgrims would tromp back down the mountain the second they could. And they would never come back. And word would travel. And the pilgrims stopped coming altogether.

And Old grew more addled and lonesome and irrelevant. His yellowed and misshapen feet wore a shallow trough between his place at the fire and the nest of rancid thatch he slept on, and his narrow ass wore a shallow cove into the stone beneath him.

He cursed his longevity as he waited. He waited so long he forgot why he waited. What vestiges remained of his purpose dried out, curling away like onion skin and getting consumed by his dismal little fire. Old’s rheumy and unfocused eyes watched without understanding the cinders of his purpose borne aloft on tendrils of smoke.

Death was a mercy denied him. Each whistling breath was a cruelty. Each day’s waking a betrayal.

He grew more sunken and bowed and barren.

Then. One day. As the dawn was breaking, Old poked at the embers of his fire with a stick and peered down into the valley through the disconsolate smoke.

His heavy-lidded eyes opened wider than they had in a long, long time.

Down below the tree line, he could see movement. Ferocious and single-minded movement. And Old heard thundering footfall. And cracking tree limbs.

The first of the aspens dropped with a SHUSSSSSSSH and a BOOM. Then a pair of fir trees, sheared off like wheat under a scythe. And the trees kept falling in a march up the mountain.

Whatever was down there was kicking up a hell of a dust cloud. And dirt clods. And stones. And chunks of tree root.

Old gazed, transfixed, at the swath being cut up the mountain – his mountain.

Whatever that thing was down there, it was hauling ass for sure. Old could hear it growling, now.

A figure burst through the last of the trees, a figure whose features and form were tough to make out because of the staggering velocity of the guy. This guy was SPRINTING up the face of the mountain. But four-limbed like a primate – planting his knuckles, springing upward like a baboon burning with a need to kill you, just tearing up the mountain like demon.

Before Old could fully take in this figure – the bunched muscles, the bursts of sod and sticks, the blazing eyes – the demon primate was upon him, standing just the other side of his pitiful little fire.

The baboon demon thing was totally still – not inert, like Old, but coiled, thrumming, ready.

Old was so far past readiness, he didn’t even recognize it when it stood by his fire.

Old sat in stupid silence from a moment.

Finally, Old croaked in voice gritty with disuse:

“What’s your name?”

The stranger said nothing, just reached over the fire and grabbed a fistful of Old’s beard. He twisted the coarse whiskers into a knot around his fist, lifted Old off the slab of stone. He met Old’s eyes for just a second, his gaze volcanic with contempt.

Then he hurled Old off the face of that mountain.

And Old, as he cartwheeled through the air – before he shattered on the rocks below, and even though he was hurt and bewildered to have been chucked wordlessly off what had been his mountain – thought to himself:

“Whoa. That was pretty bad-ass.”