“but I’m bailing water and bailing water
’cause I like the shape of the boat.”
—”Hindsight,” The Long Winters
I pocketed my notebook, because I often get story or essay ideas at performances like these. I thought about wearing the T-shirt with the ninja girl on it, went with one witha keyboard design on it, promoting Technoir, instead. I fussed with my hair, so I’d look good for the people I was accompanying to the show—and to make a good impression at the signing. I slipped a copy of The Bones into my bag, thinking I would give it as a gift, just as I gave him Things We Thing About Games at a previous signing for his previous book.
The author is John Hodgman. The new book is the last volume of complete world knowledge, That Is All. The event is the Chicago stop on his End Is Nigh tour, which I’d been following via his Tumblr, Areas of My Expertise dot com.
I thought about what I might say at the signing after the performance. As I put my shoes on, as I rode with my friend, Anne, up to the venue, as I appreciated the stark jacket design for That Is All—a departure from the designs of his previous books—as I drank my beer, I thought about what I would say. I wanted to be memorable and supportive, to show my appreciation for his work. I wanted to tell him that his move from squalor to literary agent, from literary agent to freelance writer, from freelance writer to popular author, gives me a measure of hope. I wanted to tell him that his work on This American Life, where he drew out the comedy and the humanity in the ridiculous, is a ruler against which I gauge other essays. I wanted to tell him how well his work works.
I, too, want to eventually come out from behind other people’s books and offer up my own. I, too, want to share a stage with the writers, artists, and musicians I know, whose work deserves to be seen. I, too, want to be complained at for my appearance on Battlestar Galactica. Well, okay, not so much that.
By this time, the show had started. Scott Adsit came out and captured the room, revealing his role as majordomo to Hodgman’s deranged millionaire. (When I hear “majordomo” I often think Bib Fortuna.) Adsit read out ground rules for us in the audience, so that we would not upset our guest.
So, yes, I fretted what I would say. I had to do that for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to be at my best. Second, I had to do that. Because I can’t help it. I fret.
The fear is that I’ll babble. The other fear is that my anti-babble systems will kick in and I’ll go quiet, forget everything I wanted to say, and just say words like “cool” and “rad” and “awesome,” over and over. It’s difficult to predict.
I’ve done it before. In the presence of talent I admire, I’ve been awkward and eager, foggy and dazed. I was an overeager fan when I first met famed and talented game designers Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws and now I’m proud to say I’m an overeager fan who counts them as my boon companions. I was nervous as all get-out, rattling off nonsense when I first met Wil Wheaton in person, but he didn’t hold that against me, and now I’m glad to call him a friend and cohort. So there’s hope for me, maybe.
By now Hodgman was off on a happy digression, telling stories that didn’t seem rehearsed but must have at least been well practiced from many tellings. I loved these stories because they involved things like Homicide: Life on the Street and the pull on the guts that comes from seeing talented people succeed while you wallow and doubt. Hodgman laughed and we laughed with him.
We laughed about nerdery and sports jokes, about Ragnarok and the coming global superpocalype. As Hodgman mocked people who wear Boston Red Sox caps since they’ve become winners, the guy in front of me pretended to hide the actual Red Sox cap on his actual head. A bottle of Malört moved through the audience, having emanated from Hodgman on stage, and we poured ourselves tastes and smiled at our neighbors as the bottle migrated.
Hodgman left the stage for a spell and John Roderick played a few songs. One of them: “Pushover,” the song that happened to introduce me to The Long Winters. I first heard it through a Barsuk Records sampler I downloaded from Amazon at Wil’s recommendation. I dig that song.
I thought maybe I’d talk to Hodgman about my own nerditry. I thought maybe I’d talk about how I’d been reading and writing a lot about the heartbreaking questions he raises when he talks about Ragnarok. About how, when your loved ones are gone and you’re the only one left and you’re in the blackened remains of your kitchen, envying the dead, how are you going to survive? That seemed awfully melancholy for small talk, though I could tell him that I’m such a nerd that I’d been reading about the apocalypse so that I could write a roleplaying game about it.
Soon, Hodgman was back on stage, directing local friends of his, like Dmitry Samarov and Scott Adsit, in a short portrayal of his idea for a reality show, which I shan’t spoil here. Ere long he was tossing mayonnaise packets into the audience, so that we would be prepared with mayonnaise for the days after Ragnarok. (Why mayonnaise? I imagine That Is All explains it.)
I picked a packet off the floor and pocketed it quick.
Hodgman ended with a bit that was strikingly sweet and sweetly deranged, leading us in the audience in a singalong, joisted with the themes of Ragnarok and capturing life while the world’s still here. Hodgman played a ukelele and he sand and we sang and John Roderick played the piano and it was goofy and good. It was halfway between the act of a deranged millionaire who thinks he can expand his show into anything, because why not, and a heartfelt callback to Hodgman’s earliest readings, when that song was sung by Cynthia Hopkins, a musician who would become his friend. It was earnest, so who cares if we stumbled a bit through the song?
With that the show was over and I got in line for the signing. It ran from the signing table, down some stairs, across the lobby, rebounded off the front doors to Piper’s Alley and made the shape of an umbrella handle. My companions had to work the next day, so they left. I took their books to get them signed and I settled in to wait. I was near the end of the line and wished I was actually last, to buy time to think beforehand and to buy time to talk when I got up there.
While in line, I tweeted out the question, “Who wants to guess how I’ll embarrass myself?” I tossed around tweets about the weather and tweets about hashtags. Inside, a butterfly took flight.
I texted my friend Liz, to consult on what I should say. She’s knows how to keep cool around people whose work she admires. She works with a lot of amazing people and wears it well. I mentioned how I was nervous, exhilarated, and sleepy. She texted that I sounded like a bunch of dwarves.
I offered to let the people behind me go up first. They had been yawning and thinking about leaving, so I tried to save them some time. No dice.
Dice! Right. I still had a copy of The Bones in my bag. “Can I give you something?” I’d ask. “It’s like a This American Life episode about dice that’s not about dice at all.” I’ve said that to a hundred people. Maybe that’d break the ice.
We reached the top of the stairs, nigh upon the front of the line. Hodgman sat at a table with Dmitry Samarov and I wished I had the cash on hand to buy a copy of his book, Hack: Stories From A Chicago Cab. Scott Adsit stood nearby, chatting with someone.
Someone ahead of me had two books to be signed. “I like your style,” Hodgman said. I had three books. Too many?
I winced as I watched one of the guys in front of me do that thing where you tell someone about a joke you loved that they did that one time and you tell them by doing part of the joke yourself even though you both know the joke already. I felt a wisp of relief. At least I wasn’t going to do that.
The time came. Just as I was about to step up, Hodgman exchanged a few words with someone outside my eyeline. I waited, books in hand. He nodded to whoever it was, I didn’t look, and called me forward. I held out a book in each hand.
Now things get fuzzy. He asked for names for the books and I gave them. Mine’s made out to Stardate, a joke (about my knowledge of stardates) from that previous signing when Hodgman called me “Stardate,” which I’ve dragged out (i.e. beaten to death) online because what else am I going to do?
I mentioned a couple of friends we had in common, which is to say I dropped names like a dufus. By which I mean: I didn’t work them into the conversation so much as I opened my mouth and let them fall on the signing table like a slobbery dog toy.
Hodgman, for some reason, chose not to pick up that slobbery dog toy.
I said something—I don’t remember exactly what—about how my friend was looking forward to the signing and was sorry she had to leave.
Hodgman apologized that things had taken so long.
I said something like, “Totally worth it.”
I did not say anything about Hodgman’s wit or talent. I didn’t mention his early work. I didn’t really thank him for anything except his signature. “Thanks so much,” I said, holding up two copies of That Is All. I can hear myself saying it, can feel the books in my hand, but I have no mental image to go with most of this, you understand.
I told Scott Adsit, at least, that I love his work. I meant it.
At the bottom of the escalators, I felt the empty relief as the possibilities floated away. Whatever I might have said was done and now I was stuck with what I did say and it was nothing. Or if not nothing, the same weight and worth as nothing.
I put the signed books in my bag and found a copy of The Bones still there—forgotten in the fog.
In the cab on the way home, I’d forget my disappointment for as long as one minute. I’d watch Chicago go by. Then I’d remember and smile at the silly immutability of it all. Then I’d forget again, remember again, and smile again.
I thought about how, one time, at a game convention, I had signed an RPG book for someone. This was early on in my gaming career. After I’d signed it and handed back, he smiled and said this to me: “Word!” Like it was a code word. I suppose it was. I used that word a lot—maybe too much. It said he’d been reading my work. It said something, I don’t know what exactly, but something good.
“Thanks very much,” I said. I meant it.
The cab dropped me at the corner. Walking home, I slipped my wallet into my pocket and found there something soft and crinkly—a mayonnaise packet.
But it wasn’t a memento. It was a mayonnaise packet. The experience was the experience and nothing else is.
Music: “Pushover,” The Long Winters