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The shameless truth of high school graduations

7 Jun

I am the father of a fresh high school graduate. If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend a commencement lately, do not panic. I will give you the experience now.

2:40 pm The commencement begins in twenty minutes here at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The crowd, a couple of thousand family members, is relatively low-key and quiet. It’s a lot like the crowds at University of Louisville Cardinal basketball games, which used to be played here.

A few people feel the basketball vibe and try to get the cheer “C-A-R-D-S” going. Instead, “CARDS” reminds dozens of parents they forgot to buy Hallmark cards for their graduates. Some hurry for the exit.

Even though we arrived twenty minutes early, we re are approximately 1.3 miles from the stage. I text Daughter #1 (D1) to let her know where we are sitting. I hear her phone beep in my wife’s purse next to me. Using my keen deductive skills, I determine my daughter will not receive my text. My wife looks at the message and ponders what our daughter is trying to tell us. We are not a very bright family.

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That’s my daughter, the one in white. There, in the next to last row.

3:00 pm The processional has started on time. This is a good sign. I’m trying to get a good photo of D1, but the lighting in the hall is weird. Everything looks a little blurry. Maybe it’s only my contacts. Since every third student is a slender Asian-looking girl with long brown hair, I may take a picture of the wrong graduate. Perhaps no one will know.

3:04 pm Six cops loiter near the back of the arena. They are prepared to quell any instance of  trouble. You know how a gaggle of math and science geeks can easily riot when they smell freshly-pressed diplomas.  Chaos worse than a calculator sale at Staples.

3:19 pm  It has taken nineteen minutes for all the students to process. My entire commencement didn’t last that long. This is going to be a long ceremony.  I order a sleeping cot online from Amazon. Even if I opt for free shipping, it should be here in plenty of time.

The graduates sit at the far end of the arena. The girls wear white gowns and the boys wear red.  They sit so that the red gowns form an “M” for Manual High School. Depending on where you sit, it could look like a “W” or a Sigma symbol. From where we sit, it looks like a melted peppermint.

I’m glad I wore a jacket. It’s a little cool in the hall. In case you didn’t know it, this—the Kentucky State Fairgrounds—has more air conditioned space than any other state fair. The State Fair Board promotes this fact every year at fair time because it sounds better than saying, “Sorry. We don’t have butter sculptures like the Iowa State Fair does. But we do have three chickens and a Holstein heifer.”

3:25 pm We obviously don’t talk about grades much at home because I have just learned D1 is a valedictorian. We have this in common because a valedictorian spoke to me once. I believe she said, “You rode the short bus, didn’t you?” This school has 113 valedictorians–all with perfect GPAs. There is one salutatorian. Slacker.

Since “valedictorian” literally means the person who gives the farewell speech, I guess we’ll hear 113 goodbye speeches. I hope Amazon delivers my cot soon.

3:31 pm School administrators and students make speeches generously peppered with quotes. Updike, Twain, Thoreau, Covey… By the end of this ceremony, I’ll be the only writer who hasn’t been quoted.  Unless… In the sage words of Ron D Smith, “Man, my butt is getting sore.”

3:47 pm It’s now time to hand out the diplomas. At least, they’re handing out diploma covers. There are no diplomas inside the cases. It’s a sham perpetuated every year at this time by the diploma industrial complex. They make you think you’re getting a diploma, but it’s only a letter saying final grades haven’t been entered, yet. The school also checks to see if the student owes anything. CNN should do an exposé.

Before the diploma covers are distributed, the class historian will make a short speech. She is telling all of us to shut up when our graduate’s name is announced. Seriously, she says. Don’t yell. This is a solemn event and the class doesn’t want all that noise. Families and friends are supposed to stand when their graduates are called. Seriously, the historian repeats, don’t yell. She is naive. These students haven’t listened to their parents for years. The tables will now be turned.

3:55 pm We’ve made it to last names that start with B. For the most part, the audience is respectful, with a few exceptions. Reaction pretty much falls along ethnic lines. The Hispanic families are most quiet, mainly because they’re not present. They are on their way to their second jobs. Because my family is mixed, we will have a combo reaction when D1’s name is called. Some of us will stand quietly, just proud that our graduate made it through high school. Others in our group will remain seated, too busy collating medical school brochures according to national rankings.

4:07 pm  Ace thinks he will have to go on the run again. A mysterious guy with a Russian accent has come to this Podunk Arkansas town… That’s not part of the ceremony. It’s in the book I’m reading as the announcer reads off the F names.

4:11 pm We’ve made it the H’s. I’m having hunger pangs. Must have food. Where are the vendors like at the basketball games? How about some pretzels at least? They’re missing a big opportunity to make a killing. Note to self: Set up “side business” at next year’s graduations.

4:20 pm  Hmm. I’ve never noticed that mole before. Should I have it checked? I’ll do the lick test. Oh, it’s just a chocolate smudge. When did I have chocolate? Two days ago? What does a chocolate plant look like? Is it brown? I’ll Google that.

4:32 pm  D1 gets her diploma cover. I think it’s her anyway. She’s too far away to tell for sure. I’m proud of somebody up there, whoever it is.

4:55 pm  The graduates are beginning to recess. I tell D2 that, see, she’ll get to have recess in high school, too. In fact, it’s the last thing she’ll do. D2 scowls at me. She does not think I am funny. Just like her sister.

Time to go. Another school holds its ceremony immediately after ours. I sell my cot to the highest bidder.

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A letter to the naïve doofus I was at eighteen

23 May

On the anniversary of my high school graduation:

Dear Ronnie,

First of all, why are you still going by “Ronnie?”  Have you noticed your friends are called Tom, Rob and Rod? They switched from Tommy, Robbie and Rodney in fourth grade. Unless you’re planning a career in professional baseball or bluegrass music, “Ronnie” has to go. If you still hold out a sliver of hope for pro sports or music, here’s a reality check: Your career Little League batting average was .137 and you sound like a constipated capybara when you sing. So it’s off to college you go, and you better be “Ron” when you get there.

Speaking of college, you were wise to avoid the disco era. Well done.  I congratulate you on being one of only three people not to buy a Bee Gees album. Bee_Gees_154.jpgDon’t worry. You’ll hear about punk and new wave very soon. Hang in there during this period of disco balls and oxymoronic soft rock. But the album Rock and Roll Over by Kiss will not go over well on your dorm floor, especially played on an eight track tape deck.kiss Sorry, that’s just the way it is. You will encounter audiophiles for the first time who play their music on high-priced turntables and actual reel-to-reel tape decks.

Your first roommate will be heavy into Styx. Even typing that sentence so many years later leaves me a bit unsettled. Other than the single Lady, you are unfamiliar with the musical output of this band. Don’t worry. That will change. Your roommate loves progressive rock, and Styx helps him relax as he does his Trig homework. You will soon know every song on every Styx album. Sorry, but the seventh one will come out your freshman year.  Also, your roommate will inform you that Carry On Oh Wayward Son was not the best song on the Kansas album Leftoverture. In fact, he will let you know that it was the worst song on the album. You will silently nod and take his word for it, because you don’t know any of the other songs on the Kansas album. You will decide fairly soon your freshman year that progressive rock is not your thing. (Except for a few weeks when you date that girl who loves Rush and is obsessed with their drummer. You’ll be a prog rock fan then. Oh, yes you will.) You will stow your opinion on Emerson Lake and Palmer and similar groups until you get a new roommate your sophomore year. By then, Darkness on the Edge of Town will be your antidote. (You will have a lot of roommates, by the way. You may want to do a little soul searching on that.)

About your chosen major of journalism, which you have had your heart set on for years. Consider this: Your parents have taught you to mind your own business, and prying into other people’s affairs is just plain rude. That pretty much defines the role of a reporter, doesn’t it? Good luck with that. And when that fledgling news operation CNN posts openings for news writers at your journalism school, maybe you shouldn’t voice the opinion that a national news outfit on cable will never succeed.

You’ll turn eighteen in a few days. In addition to all those cards from aunts and uncles, you’ll receive one from that girl you have a crush on. Inexplicably, you’ll think she’s sending you a card just to be nice. You’re too stupid to realize she’s sending you a very clear message, almost literally. This will not dawn on you for about twenty-five years. Such ignorance will be a recurring theme in your young life. You are a fool. Sorry to be so blunt, but the evidence is overwhelming from where I now sit.

I know you’re really excited to let your hair grow when you leave home, because your dad hates long hair and never allows it to cover your ears. You look forward to having cascading tresses, just like George Harrison.George If you have to, you’ll stay on campus during holidays just so your dad won’t make you cut it. Here’s the thing. The preppy era — with short hair — is arriving. You just don’t know it yet because you live in Eagleville, Missouri where “prep” refers to the process of warming a Guernsey’s udders before morning milking. Because you’ll become a preppy, don’t spend any more money on bell bottoms and polyester print shirts, Ronnie. You’ll just throw them away when you discover overpriced Lacoste shirts. lacosteYou’ll spend a lot of money just to have that little green alligator on your chest. And that denim jacket with the Woodstock patch on it? Unless you’re the bassist for The Grateful Dead, get rid of it.

You know how you say you won’t attend a high school reunion until you can come back in a Mercedes with a blonde on each arm? You will keep that promise, but maybe you should adjust the rules a bit. Maybe the car starts with an M? Instead of a Mercedes, perhaps you meant a Mazda. You’ll have one of those for awhile until someone rear ends it when your five-year-old daughter sits in the back seat. Don’t worry, she’ll be OK, but the car will be totaled. You’ll replace the Mazda with a Maxima. Maybe that’s the car you meant? You had a Malibu for awhile, too. In fact, you’ll own just about every M car but a Mercedes. And about those blondes. You’ll marry a Japanese-Filipino, and there’s not a lot of blonde hair in that gene pool. There’s still hope, though. At your fiftieth high school reunion, you could be escorted by two Norwegian home health aides named Stefan and Lars who keep your spare adult diapers for emergencies. Maybe one of them will drive a Mercedes.

Still, you’ll be lucky. You’ll fall in love a few times, and stay in love once. You won’t win any Father of the Year awards, but your kids will make you proud every day. You’ll never be rich or famous. But you won’t be infamous either, so there’s that. In all, life will turn out even better than you expected. I’m actually kind of excited for you.

 

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Thirty bits of advice about horses

3 May
Isabel & Gdad

My dad, daughter and Beezlebub’s Beast

Because it is the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, and because I live about ten minutes from Churchill Downs, I will share my vast expertise on horses.

First, my résumé:

My family had ponies as pets like other families had cats and dogs. Unlike a tall guy named Shorty, there was nothing ironic about the name of Mischief, our Shetland pony. She was Satan minus the cloven hooves. When I was six or seven, Mischief decided one afternoon to plop down without warning for a rest. Normally, I would not have denied her that privilege, except I was riding her at the time. Still in the saddle, my left leg was pinned beneath her. As I began to lose the feeling in that part of my body, I smacked Mischief’s neck and kicked her with my free leg. The beast would not budge. Buzzards had begun to circle by the time my brother came to rescue me.

After that, I decided I could find better ways to spend my time, and I was largely successful for several years in avoiding saddles and bridles. Then my grandfather, a horse nut, invited the family to join a saddle club. My dad and older brother loved horses and readily agreed. I wanted no part of it, preferring to spend my time in ways other than repeatedly riding a large malodorous animal in a figure eight formation. Plus, everyone had to wear matching turquoise shirts. Fat kids like me did not look good in that color. I didn’t look good in a cowboy hat either. Come to think of it, I didn’t look good in much of anything in those days. But my mother enticed me to give the saddle club a shot by promising to take me to our area’s only public swimming pool at the end of the summer. I did not like swimming any more than I liked horses. cx_milkshakeBut the pool’s snack bar had frozen MilkShake candy bars, which were impossible for a chubby kid to resist. Riding in the saddle club that summer had a coolness factor roughly on par with a crocheted toaster cover, but I survived. I have ridden horses several more times since, each time swearing it would be the last. I have kept my word now for more than ten years.

A few things I have learned:

  1. Horses are smart.
  2. They know they’re smarter than humans.
  3. But their willpower is weak.
  4. Even though they know you’re luring them with oats so you can halter them, they can’t resist.
  5. But they will hold a grudge (see galloping too close to a tree below).
  6. Horses know you don’t know what you’re doing.
  7. They know even before you get on them.
  8. Like when you improperly cinch the saddle.
  9. Or examine the bit and ask, “Where does this thing go?”
  10. When you grab the saddle horn, they say “Rookie! This will be fun.”
  11. They don’t actually say that, but they think it.
  12. Horses can’t talk, after all.
  13. They can smell fear.
  14. When they smell fear, they develop an urge to gallop.
  15. It’s much easier to take off in a full gallop if they rid themselves of you.
  16. If it seems they’re running dangerously close to a large tree, you are not mistaken.
  17. Their intent is to scrape you off their back.
  18. It’s best to jump/fall off before you reach the tree.
  19. It’s going to hurt either way.
  20. There’s  no cool way to fall off a horse.
  21. Forget what you’ve seen in cowboy movies.
  22. gra79-10intlIf you ride in a group, horses will talk about you with the other horses.
  23. They will not say nice things.
  24. Horses will hold their manure, waiting until the most embarrassing moment to release it.
  25. For example, when you trot by that cute girl you have a crush on in eighth grade.
  26. Or in the yard where you’ll have to mow later that day.
  27. If you want your horse to gallop, it will not.
  28. It will go as slowly as possible.
  29. Until you’re ready to turn back toward home, that is.
  30. Then the horse will run so fast it could out run a Derby champion.

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P.S., If you have a penchant for Norwegian literature that’s a little bit about horses and a lot about human relationships, read Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. It’s an aged man’s unsentimental look back at a turning point in his childhood.

The decision stunk, but the outcome wasn’t so bad

29 Apr

My younger daughter Sophia and I drove an hour or so east of our home yesterday to watch a college softball game in Lexington, Kentucky.  It was a good day. Sophia was chatty, and we had our usual conversations about the source of tofu and other deep topics. My mind wandered a lot to the distant past during our trip. My Alma Mater, Missouri, played Kentucky in that game. Lexington was the first place I lived after college.

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Roger Gafke, professor emeritus

When I graduated back in the Neanderthal days of 1981, I applied for a news reporter job at the ABC affiliate in Lexington. The TV news industry paid its young reporters in fame rather than fortune, and the offer was for barely more than minimum wage. I did a quick phone interview with the news director, who said the job was mine if I wanted it. I called my journalism school adviser Roger Gafke to ask what I should do.

“As your adviser, I advise you to keep looking,” Roger said. He didn’t like the sound of the opportunity. The money was too little, and the station seemed a little desperate. The station where I worked in college was the top-rated news operation in its market. The newsroom had just been expanded, the camera and editing equipment were new and plentiful, and the staff was comprised of dozens of  talented journalism students, many of whom would have careers at places like NBC, CNN and ESPN. Roger sensed I would be stepping into a much different situation.

“I will consider your advice,” I said.

I did not consider it. The Lexington job was the first I applied for, and I feared I would receive no other reporting offers. Ever. I imagined living at home and watching Andy Griffith reruns with my parents. I wanted a place of my own to watch Andy Griffith reruns.

My mother did not want me to live at home either, but she also did not want me to move far away.

“I read there’s an opening for a photographer at the newspaper in St. Joe,” she said.

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There was no such thing as a busy Bluegrass Sunday.

“I don’t think my TV reporting skills would get me a job as a print photographer,” I said.

“Then how about applying at the radio station in Bethany?”

I did not want to read noon livestock reports on the local FM station the rest of my life, so I packed my car and headed east.

Also yesterday, I made the deposit committing my older daughter Isabel to her college choice. That should have been a momentous occasion, but Isabel didn’t seem very excited about any of her college options. The university she selected is a good one. It’s  not too far away, and the scholarship award is generous. Unless Isabel goes nuts at the nearby Ikea store, she should still have money in her savings when she graduates. Because Isabel doesn’t seem excited, her mother and I feel some anxiety. We worry she won’t be happy with her decision. What if she doesn’t like the atmosphere? What if she doesn’t make lifelong friends like her mother and I did in school? What if she regrets everything?

After the softball game, I drove Sophia around Lexington for a bit. We passed the church where her mother and I were married. I pointed out the stained glass window that was familiar to her from our wedding picture. I tried to find the first apartment we lived in when we married, though I couldn’t remember where it was. Then we drove by the TV station on our way out of town.

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Timothy Shawn Patrick Doyle, one of the good guys who made WTVQ better

“It’s much different now,” I told Sophia. “The first time I came here, I thought I had made a huge mistake. The newsroom was small, the news vehicles were old, and the equipment was in terrible condition. The station was the laughingstock of Lexington.”

“So, did you make a mistake?” Sophia asked.

“Definitely,” I said, thinking how my career never really recovered.

Then I thought about the good friends I made, the wonderful person I married, the girl sitting next to me, and the other one back home preparing to graduate from high school.  None of which I would have without that poor decision long ago.

“Actually, no,” I said. “Things turned out quite well.”

The happiest place in the world, a fable

30 Mar

The happiest land is the world is one none of us can easily reach. It’s tucked away in a hidden valley in a faraway part of the world that does not appear on any map.

By happenstance, a hiker entered this remote place on his way to climb one of the highest mountains in that part of the world. He did not know it was the happiest land. The hiker, though still young, had traipsed across four continents. He had thrown a stone off the Great Wall, bathed in an ice-cold river in Patagonia, and watched antelope drink from a calm pool at sunset in Namibia. He still had much left to see and experience. He wanted to write a great novel, learn the paint, fall in love, and have his name etched in a monument at the end of his days. But he had only one lifetime in which to achieve it all, and he worried that he couldn’t achieve all that he wanted. Therefore, the man lived in constant anxiety, as he hurried from one experience to the next.

When he first entered the happiest land, he found nothing outwardly interesting about it. Its mountains were no more majestic than others he had seen. The streams were no clearer, the flowers no more colorful, and the animals no bigger or faster.DSC07710

As he found it rather dull, the hiker chose to spend no more time than necessary in this small land. After asking directions, he took the shortest path possible that lead toward the mountain he intended to climb. Along the way, all the natives treated the visitor warmly. This was nothing new to the man. He had traveled through many hospitable places. However, the people in this land seemed even happier and more relaxed than he had previously experienced. This made him uneasy. He was not used to such calmness.

The stranger also noticed that some people wore white t-shirts with calendar dates printed in black. Some dates were many years in the future; others were close at hand. He assumed the shirts were the current fashion in this land, but he did not want to reveal his ignorance about their meaning. Still, he decided to buy one as a souvenir. He entered the next shop he came to and asked where he could purchase a white shirt like the ones he had seen others wearing.

The store clerk was pleasant, but firm. “I’m sorry, sir. You cannot buy those shirts. They are a gift when a person reaches a certain age.”

The clerk suggested other apparel — plenty of well-made shirts in beautiful colors were available — but they did not interest the hiker. He left the store frustrated.

Near the far end of his trek through the land, the hiker met a middle-aged woman along the path. Just as all the others he encountered that day, the woman had a look of almost otherworldly contentedness. By this time, the visitor had become annoyed at the serenity he saw in all the people he met. He stopped the woman as she passed him.

“Everyone I have seen here appears to have such inner peace,” the hiker said. “Frankly, it’s starting to get on my nerves. It’s as though you think you have all the time in the world. Trust me, you don’t.”

The woman shrugged.  “We have enough time.”

“I don’t know how you could. Look at me. I have no responsibilities, I travel all around the world. and yet I still feel like life it too short.”

“I imagine you have been to many wonderful places,” the woman said. She pointed to a large rock just off the path.  “Why don’t we rest for a bit while you share some of your stories?”

“I wish I had the time,” the hiker said. “But I have a mountain to climb.”

“Why must you climb it now? Is this your last day?”

“My last day?”

“I have seen other people like you. Not a lot, but a few. They hurry on the last day of their life like they are in a race.”

“It’s not my last day, I assure you,” the hiker said. “I’m still a young man, and I have a lot more to do in life. Besides, how would I know if it were my last day?”

The woman sat on the rock to rest. She rubbed the calves of her legs, which were much weaker than when she was a young woman. “We all know our last day in this land,” she said. “For some of us, that day is quite close. For others, the day is well in the future.”

“How can you know the day you’ll die?”

The woman shrugged. “We just do. We are born knowing.”

“That explains the shirts I saw,” the hiker said. “You must be miserable to be cursed with that knowledge. What if the time of your death is soon? There is so much to do and see.”

“For most of us, it’s comforting to know when we will die,” the woman said. “It liberates us to live. We can experience life with calmness, because we already know how it will end. Instead of worrying about it, we focus on what happens each minute of this life.”

“You sound like you believe in a life after this one,” the hiker said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be so calm about it.”

“I do believe in a life after this one,” the woman said. “But that’s not for me worry about. I know for certain that I have been given this life. No matter how long it is, I make the most of it. That doesn’t mean I have to climb every mountain, though we have many beautiful ones here. It doesn’t mean I have to read every poem ever written, though we have wonderful poets among us. It means I must cherish the life I have.”

The woman stood again, ready to continue down the path.”You seem to be in a hurry to reach that mountain,” she said. “What is the point? If you knew you were dying tomorrow, would you want to be there? Or would you be somewhere else more important to you?”

“But I don’t know when my last day will come,” the hiker said. “What should I do?”

“The same as all of us here,” the woman said. “Love, of course. Love who you are, where you are and those around you.”

“I guess you have already figured out where you’ll be on your last day?” the hiker asked.

“In a place very special to me,” the woman said. “With people I love. I’m going there now.”

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From the other side of death

26 Mar

An excerpt from The Savior of Turk.

After I died, I figured I’d possess a clear memory of my whole life, from the day I popped out of my mama’s belly till they put a sheet over my head at the hospital. In eternity, I had in mind that I’d go back and forth over everything that happened to me like I was playing a movie, re-watching the nice parts and fast forwarding through the others until I about wore out the tape. But chunks of my life are fuzzier than others. Whole pieces got lost somewhere, things you’d think I’d remember. I recall but a few of the kids’ birthdays. Just a handful of Christmas mornings made the cut, and those memories are like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

BeachOther recollections are as clear to me as if they happened a minute ago, in vivid Technicolor. But they’re not necessarily the kind of memories you’d think would have stuck. Like the time our daughter Kimmie — I reckon she was around two because it was before Karl came along — got her fingers slammed in the door of our car as she was getting out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I took for granted that she was clear of the door when I shut it. She bawled bloody murder for close to half an hour. We’d crossed up to Iowa to spend a Sunday afternoon at a state park where there was a little sandy beach, and we had just parked the car when it happened.

For the occasion, Polly had bought Kimmie a purple swimsuit with a little yellow frilly thing around the waist that made it look like a tutu. Kimmie wore it to bed the night before. She was so hopped up about going to the beach that she liked to have never got to sleep. Then I had to go and ruin it by slamming her fingers in the door. Her right pointer and middle fingers swelled up like hot dogs. We had some ice from the cooler to help the swelling, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She sat next to her mom on a beach towel and whimpered the whole afternoon. Never got in the water. I didn’t either. I felt so bad and wished I could have done something to make it right.

I don’t know why a memory like that would be so clear to me, but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.

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A profane family history

15 Mar

I was nine or ten the first time I heard my granddad pepper his speech with cuss words. I could still point out within a five square foot area where I stood in his barnyard when he let loose one of those forbidden four-letter words in my presence.  I had crossed some invisible line of male-dom where Granddad decided my tender ears could hear those words without catching fire. I don’t recall being overly happy to hear that good man use those words, but I got over it soon enough.

Soon after that, I crossed the swear-word line with my dad, too. He was his father’s son when it came to cussing, following certain unwritten rules: Never overdo it, never swear in a house, and absolutely never swear in mixed company, particularly around the saintly woman I called Grandma.

By the time Dad started cussing in front of my brothers and me, I was already a semi-rehabilitated swearer. It seems quaint now, but I had a habit of inserting “damn” in every other sentence when I was six. My parents warned me to stop before I got in big trouble, but they never took serious action. I didn’t get the cure until after I cussed in front of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kraft. In addition to missing recess, she ordered me to drag my desk outside in the hallway and park by the classroom door for a while. She wanted me to spend that time to consider cleaning up that potty mouth of mine. That was Mrs. Kraft’s worst punishment for scofflaws like me, boys who were on a direct path to reform school because “damn” had become our favorite adjective.

Spending a bit of time in the hallway wasn’t such a terrible ordeal, except my dear father was also the superintendent of our tiny school. He rarely had reason to walk down two flights of stairs from his office to the first grade classroom in the basement. But I had only been serving my hallway sentence for a few minutes when he came by.CCI03022011_00002

“I hope you’ve got a good reason for sitting out here,” he said.

I considered saying I had been given the honor of Hall Monitor, but we didn’t have such a thing in our school. Even if we had, my dad knew that responsibility wouldn’t be trusted to me.

“Cussing,” I said, without bothering with specifics.

Dad said nothing, but he shook  his head and walked away. I had embarrassed him. Damn, I thought. I’ll never cuss again.

For the most part, I didn’t swear much after that until I reached twelve or thirteen. That’s a monk-like period of abstinence for a boy who grew up around people who tossed around profanities with the same deftness Peyton Manning throws passes.

Even then, I never cussed around my father. Still don’t. When my brother Jeff and I were teenagers, Dad took us aside one day to sternly reprimand us for using a word that  offended our mother. He warned we had better stop using this particularly foul word immediately or there would be serious consequences.

“What word are you talking about?” we asked Dad.

“I’m not going to say it, but you know exactly the word I mean,” he said.

“No, we don’t.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. Just quit using it.”

If the word was so offensive that even Dad wouldn’t repeat it, it must have been a doozy. Because we didn’t cuss around Mom, the word had us stumped. It had to be so terrible that even Jeff and I didn’t know it was a curse word. Jeff and I pondered this question for many years until we finally decided the word that offended our mother was… mother. As in, “That bolt sure is one tough mother to get off.”  We must have used “mother” that way several times a day.

My dad says he turns forty-eight today. This is amazing considering that makes him younger than me. But he suffers from AOBD (Adult Onset Birthday Dyslexia), which causes him to invert the digits in his age, so I’ll give him a break. Anyway I hope he has a damn fine day and one mother of a birthday party.

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Grammar Nazi reductionism, Indie Authors and the dreaded one star reviews (an essay by Tom Conrad).

6 Feb

Interesting take on grammar in writing. Where do we draw the line, or should we?

Grammar Nazi reductionism, Indie Authors and the dreaded one star reviews (an essay by Tom Conrad)..

“I possess a vision for the future.”

21 Jan

Words are good.

Knowing lots of them helps you win at Scrabble and finish crossword puzzles with a pen.

But something happens, usually in high school and definitely by college, where we think we have to use big, five-syllable words when we write, even if it’s an email to a colleague. We use words we would never pull out in normal conversation. Otherwise, we fear we will sound… oh, what the word I’m looking for… stupid.  Stupid to the reader. Instead, we make our readers feel dumb because they have to work harder than necessary to make out what we’re trying to communicate. In worst cases, documented most often in research facilities and think tanks, words such as ideate take the place of think or conceive. And believe me, dear readers, ideate should never see the light of day. Never. There’s good reason it is so similar to idiot.

Clear, clean language makes our point directly. This does not mean it’s plain. Simple language can be beautiful and powerful. MLK”s “I have a dream speech” is one of the most poetic pieces written. It’s almost as good on paper as when spoken. Imagine if it were his “I possess a vision for the future” speech instead? Would we still be referring to it fifty years later?mlk_200-17ead1145c260810da17ed2ed763a0b2bd2e6e49-s6-c10

Think of great quotes and how simply they were stated. What if they hadn’t been?

  1. The epoch was nonpareil, and yet also the most atrocious. (Dickens)
  2. Be the modification you seek to accomplish in this spheroid known as Earth. (Gandhi)
  3. Sentient experience is what occurs when you’re engaged in making other arrangements. (Lennon)
  4. It’s not loathing which has an opposite relationship to amity. Rather, it is apathy. (Wiesel)
  5. Experiences which do not eradicate us transform us into something more vigorous. (e.g. zombie hunters(Nietzsche)
  6. The human who abstains from reading holds no dominance over the human who possesses no capacity to read. (Twain)
  7. If you don’t actively countenance something, you will capitulate for anything. (Malcolm X)  
  8. A human being is a human being, regardless of his or her diminutive status. (Seuss)
  9. Don’t interrogate your sovereignty on what service it can provide you. Conversely, inquire what service you can provide it. (Kennedy)
  10.  I adulate mankind. It’s homo sapiens I ascertain to be abominable. (Schulz)

I found most of the original quotes at Goodreads should you like to check out the real ones and others. I’m pretty sure you won’t find ideate among them.

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The second reason I’m slightly less stupid than I was a year ago

18 Jan

Reason #2: I now know quality is not the biggest factor in book sales.

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Christopher Waltz with his Golden Globe for Django Unchained

According to IMDB, Austrian actor Christopher Waltz is 56 years old and has more than one hundred acting credits. Yet, most people outside of Austria and Germany never heard of Waltz until Quentin Tarantino cast him in Inglorious Basterds a few years ago.  He won an Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and a bunch of other awards. Does that mean Waltz was a middling actor all those years before? Is the only reason he hadn’t been “discovered” because he sucked at his craft? Thank goodness Tarantino came along and showed him how to do it right, huh?

The role in Inglorious Basterds called for an actor who could act simultaneously charming and homicidal, speak impeccable English and German, sound like he could speak impeccable Italian and handle a movie set that used copious amounts of fake blood in nearly every scene. Tarantino fretted he had written a character so specific that no one could play it. (Maybe Will Farrell came close.) If Tarantino hadn’t found Waltz, the actor would still be taking middling roles in German TV and film. Instead, his career took a big leap, and now he’s up again for big awards for Django Unchained. The guy is taking away more hardware than a thief at The Home Depot.

Waltz has been a good actor for a long time, but it took  him many years to get lucky.

It takes luck to sell books, too. I ignored this fact until recently. I thought if I wrote something I could be proud of, the battle for sales would be half won. That’s what I inferred from a lot of blogs on self-publishing. As long as I followed that with book blog tours, a handful of positive reviews from bloggers, a web presence, tweeting and all the other stuff the experts say you should do, the book printer wouldn’t be able to keep up with demand for my works. As Christopher Waltz might say, “Nein.” America’s forests are still safe.

I don’t know from one day to the next if my writing is any good. Some days, I think it’s more than passable. Other times, I’m a hack who needs to find something else to do. Every writer goes through the same ups and downs, but our goal is always to write our best. Last time was our best; the next time will be better. But none of it–the quality of the writing or the effort that comes afterward–guarantees success. It also takes luck.

How many actors in community theater could hold their own with Daniel Day-Lewis? How many of us know singers in church choirs who could put Taylor Swift to shame? Or how many Great American Novels are sitting on writers’ shelves collecting dust?

That’s another thing I’ve learned this past year. It doesn’t matter. As long as I get to write stories that I like, with maybe with an occasional word or two of validation from someone I care about, I don’t need the rest. I’m happy.

But I’ll keep working to get better. And  when our Quentin Tarantino comes knocking, I’ll be ready for my closeup.

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