Skip to content

Truth, Embellishment, and Lying: My First Lie

It’s starting to come back to me.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t my first lie, but it’s the first lie that I remember. Growing up, I knew that my parents would punish me harshly if they caught me not telling the truth. My older sister had once brought home a rain-soaked report card from school and told my parents that the blotted out grades were all A’s and B’s. Unfortunately for her, my dad called the school and found out that two of her grades were D’s.

The punishment for lying was the belt, and that day my sister got a bad version of the belt. Back then, the belt was a common punishment. Every kid bragged about how bad his dad’s belt was. I had no frame of reference. I just knew my dad’s belt hurt, but I couldn’t compare his belt to anybody else’s.

Anyway, my sister got the belt, and I could hear her get the belt from her bedroom, and I knew I didn’t want the belt.

Still, no matter how cautious and quiet a kid can be, nobody could completely escape the belt back in the 1970s.

I don’t remember all the details of the first lie that I remember. I think it was summer because this had to have taken place on a weekday morning and I wasn’t in school. It was probably between kindergarten and 1st grade, and I was in my front yard, and a kid that I had known from school said hi to me as he was walking on the sidewalk past my house. I hadn’t seen this kid for a while, so I kept talking to him as he walked up the street. I don’t remember his name, and I don’t remember what we talked about.

I knew I was supposed to stay in my front yard. I’d always had to get permission from my mom before I left the front yard, and instead I’d followed this kid up the street. I knew I was breaking a rule, but I kept walking with this kid anyway.

The kid’s house was two blocks away, and as he stepped into his house, I turned to face my walk home, and my dad’s car stopped just in front of my house. I think he was on a lunch break from work, but he hardly ever came home for lunch. I guess this wasn’t my lucky day.

“Get in,” my dad said, or he said something like that. I think the passenger side window had already been down.

When I got into the car, my dad said something like, “Does your mom know that you’re here?”

“Yes,” I said immediately. It was a stupid answer. I had a delusion that he wouldn’t double check with Mom. Maybe something else would happen when we got home, I thought, and Dad would forget to ask her. I think I actually believed that delusion. I’ve believed in more far-fetched delusions since then, so I probably believed that one too.

As soon as we got home, Dad asked Mom if she knew that I had been two blocks away, and she said no, and I got the belt. I don’t remember much about the belt, except I know I got it.

When my older sister and brothers found out about me getting the belt, they laughed; I hardly ever got punished for stuff, so they were probably glad that I wasn’t safe from consequences like the belt.

Afterwards, I reflected on what went wrong. If I had told the truth to my dad, I still would have been punished, maybe even with the belt, because I had left the front yard without permission.

The Watergate scandal was going on around the same time (I didn’t know what it was about; I was just ticked off every afternoon because the hearings pre-empted afternoon cartoons on television.). After the scandal, political pundits always claimed that it wasn’t the crime, it was the cover-up. I don’t believe that’s true. I think it’s the crime and it’s who commits it.

I believe if I had told my dad the truth, I still would have gotten the belt. I believe if President Nixon had just outright said, “Yeah, those were my guys, and the Democrats deserved what I did, and LBJ did a lot worse than what I did and nobody gave a damn,” he still would have been forced to resign. I’m not sure my sister would have gotten the belt for a couple D’s on her report card, but she still would have been grounded for a week or two, so in her mind it was worth taking the risk.

This version of my first lie (that I remember) is kind of dry. The writer in me wanted to recreate the conversation between the kid and me. I could have made up his name. I could have made up dramatic details of the drive back home and the tension I felt as my dad discovered the truth from my mom. I could have added traumatic details about the belt. I could have thrown in a serial killer to make things really interesting.

I could have, but I didn’t… not this time.

So here’s what I’m getting at. At what point do an author’s embellishments become outright lies? Do embellishments really improve a story? Or is a story better if the author just admits that he or she doesn’t know all the details?

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die… Yeah, I’m not going to make it

1001 books? That’s a lot of pressure. (image via wikimedia)

When I saw 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die at the library, my first thought was, “What kind of arrogant prick put this list together?

Then I lightened up a bit and thought, “I’m probably not going to get to all of these books, but let’s see what’s on the list.”

Literary websites sometimes cover this topic, but they usually limit the books to ten. If there are ten books I must read before I die, I could probably get to all ten (unless I’ve severely underestimated my lifespan), but 1001 is a little aggressive. I mean, I understand that the authors have to sell books, and saying there are only ten books you must read before you die doesn’t give you much of a page count.

The international critics who contributed to this book discredited themselves by including The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen on this list. I started The Corrections, but I didn’t get very far, and I’m not going back to finish it. The Corrections is pretentious and usually the opposite of insightful. Plus, the author kind of acted like a jerk when his book was published. To be fair, that was 20 years ago, and he might have changed since then, but I’m pretty sure his book is still the same.

I’ll admit, I’ve learned about novels that I’d never even been aware of before by reading 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. For a reasonably intelligent person, I have astonishing gaps in my knowledge (and my brain glitches a lot, which doesn’t help), and these gaps apply to literature. I enjoy reading about books I’d never heard of. If anything, reading about these new books is probably more fun than actually reading the books.

For example, I’ve never had fun reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, but I enjoyed the listing in this book by the critic who pretended he’d read it. I don’t think anybody has actually read Finnegans Wake (I mean, statistically nobody has read it), but the critic was pretty convincing. If I didn’t know better, I might have believed that the international critics had actually read Finnegans Wake.

I’m never going to read Finnegans Wake. I know this. But if I absolutely had to read all 1001 books on this list before I died, I’d read Finnegans Wake last because that damn book would probably kill me.

I’ve been manipulated into believing a lot of things that I shouldn’t have believed in, but I’ve never fallen for the Finnegans Wake trap. And I didn’t fall for The Corrections hype either.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Truman Capote is also mentioned. Of course it does. Every BOOK YOU MUST READ list includes To Kill A Mockingbird. If I ever create my own 10 BOOKS YOU MUST READ OR YOU WILL ROT IN HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY list, I’d probably leave To Kill a Mockingbird off the list just to be different.

Unfortunately, the 1001 books you must read before you die list keeps changing. The first version of this book came out in 2006. Since then, several updates have come out, each with new books added and old books taken off the list. That means the list of 1001 You Must Read Before You Die is fluid. If I had read all 1001 books from the 2006 edition and then found out later that there were over 200 new books that I still had to read, I’d be kind of pissed.

I mean, if you’re going to make a list of books that other people must read before they die, you should stick to the list. It isn’t fair to change the list. Readers won’t take you seriously. The next time the international critics publish a new version of 1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die, I’ll think, “Make up your minds already!”

Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Giving Two-Weeks Notice at Work

One of them will quit tomorrow and not tell anybody. (image via wikimedia)

I work at a grocery story with a bunch of guys and girls in their 20s, and I’m occasionally baffled by some of the stuff they do. I’m in a low-level, high-turnover position (I’m easily replaced), and when these 20-year-olds quit, they just don’t show up for work. They don’t tell the boss ahead of time. They don’t make a scene and meltdown in front of everybody. They just don’t show up for work anymore.

A few weeks ago I missed a break because a guy had quit and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone. I had asked the shift manager if I could take my break, and the manager said “As soon as ______ gets here,” which was reasonable. The guy was already 10 minutes late, though, and I thought, “I bet he quit and didn’t tell anyone.”

Sure enough, nobody at the grocery store has seen _______ again.

Just so you know, I still took my break. There are ways to take breaks without management knowing about it; I mean, they might know about it, but they haven’t done anything to me about it yet (I use my powers judiciously).

I’ve always notified my bosses when I’m about to quit, even for the crappiest jobs. My first job was at an ice cream chain in the early 1980s. In May of my senior year of high school, I told my boss I’d be leaving, and I even recommended a couple sophomores who’d asked me about working there. Next, I worked at a crappy fast food hamburger joint, and even though everything about that job sucked (including my attitude), I gave the boss two-weeks notice.

I had a bunch of part-time jobs in college, law school library, telemarketing firm, local newspaper, and I gave all of them notice when I was leaving. I can’t promise it was two weeks, but I at least told them ahead of time.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not griping about the 20-year-olds not giving notice. I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong. Maybe I was brainwashed by these corporate/business entities into thinking I owed them more loyalty than they deserved. Maybe I was a chump for playing by their rules. Maybe these corporations deserve to be treated with no respect. I just think it’s kind of amusing when employees quit without giving notice (even when I potentially lose a break because of it).

I’ve grown up following the post-World War II mentality of showing up on time, saving money, and showing some loyalty to my employers (even though the loyalty was often one-sided). Some people call it a Boomer mentality, or a Boomer template, but I think it was set up by the powers-that-be the generation before the Boomers.

Even though I might sound like I’m a Boomer, I’m not; I’m Gen X. I came home after school to an empty house because both parents worked (Boomer mentality: my parents weren’t quite Boomers, but they were Boomer adjacent). I was alone a lot because of that, but I made some damn good mix tapes.

As a Gen X, I’ve benefitted from the Boomer template. I admit it. I collect my teacher pension. I have my grocery store job for extra income, and my wife works. I’m probably in a much better financial situation than the people I work with (but I’m not going around telling anybody that at work; they’ll think I’m a Boomer).

Anyway, the Boomer template won’t work for these younger generations. The pensions and 401Ks probably won’t be there for the Gen Zs or the Millenials. The old ponzi scheme systems, like social security and pensions, are set up against these younger generations, so they don’t feel like playing by the same rules, and I don’t blame them.

Or maybe they’re just too damn lazy to call the boss. Haha! Now I sound like a Boomer.

Anyway, I’m not sure what the new template is. I’m trying to figure it out for my daughter so that she doesn’t end up in a bad situation when she gets out of college. Going back to some old ways might help: stay out of debt, stick together with your family if possible, keep expenses down, maybe go minimalist.

No matter what the new template is, though, I’m pretty sure giving two-weeks notice at work has nothing to do with it.

The Line Between Embellishing and Lying: Asking a Girl To Prom

I didn’t look like this, not even on a good day. To be fair, she probably didn’t either. (image via wikimedia)

I’ve written a lot of stories on this blog. Some are basically true with a little bit of embellishment. Some are made up with bits of truth thrown in. Some are completely made up but might sound true because I’ve written the stories in first-person point-of-view.

Looking back, I wonder if I should have made it clear where each story stood as I wrote them. Sometimes authors get into trouble when they lie in their memoirs: I don’t want to be known for lying on my own blog. So now I’m going back to some stuff that I’ve written and being clear about what’s true, what’s embellished a bit, and what is completely made up.

The first one is…

*****

Awkward Moments in Dating: Asking a Girl To Prom (first published in Dysfunctional Literacy on February 21, 2019):

At the time, I thought that Francine was the right girl to ask to senior prom.  I’d known her since elementary school.  We’d always been friends.  Even when I’d been at my social low point in junior high, she’d hang out with me at lunch sometimes.  She’d laugh at my jokes, and she was as vulgar and sexist and bigoted as any junior high boy back in the early 1980s, so anybody could say anything around her and she didn’t care.

Francine became more attractive in high school (she was never ugly, but you know), and had a couple boyfriends (not at the same time) and had just broken up with some guy.  Since I was an old friend and had a car, I drove her home after school a few times a week.  We had an easygoing friendship.  I knew that asking her to prom, however, could mess that up.  I didn’t want to risk an almost lifelong friendship by asking her to prom.

On the other hand, it was senior year.  The best time to potentially destroy that friendship was the end of senior year.  I didn’t want to be a senior guy going dateless to prom, and I didn’t want to go with a sophomore girl who would go only because she’d be able to brag about going to prom as a sophomore.

My mistake was telling Keith and a bunch of friends on a Saturday night at a diner a few weeks before the big event.  Keith had announced his intent to ask Karla, and I’d agreed that was a good choice.  I didn’t want to reveal my own plans, but I guess peer pressure got to me (you can read more details here), and I messed up.

“I think I’ll ask Francine,” I said.

Keith stared at me, and then glanced around the table.  “That’s brilliant,” he said.

At first, I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, but he continued.

“She’ll go,” he said.  “And you two will have a good time.”

I nodded, relieved that he understood.

“You’re not gonna get any, but you’ll have a good time,” he said.

I grimaced.  “I know.  I’ll have a good time, but not THAT good of a time.”

Keith grinned and then turned to some other guy at the table, peppering him with another round of prom questions.  I let out a breath, glad to be done with my social interactions for the night.

The next day (a Sunday), I planned out how I’d ask Francine.  My best chance to ask her was when I was driving her home from school, but I’d wait until I pulled my car into her driveway.  That way, she wouldn’t feel pressured to say yes just to get out of the car safely.  I didn’t want her thinking that I’d plow the car into a tree or steer into opposing traffic if she said no.  I was pretty sure she’d know that I wouldn’t do that, but people did crazy stuff for prom.

I wrote out a mini-script with several variations and memorized them.  I was ready to ask her on Monday, just in case I drove her home that day.  I never knew ahead of time if she’d need a ride, so I wanted to be ready, just in case.  But that Monday, she didn’t talk to me, not even in the classes that we shared.  That was alright, I though.  I’d see her sometime during the week.

But nothing happened on Tuesday either.

Wednesday?  Nothing.

Thursday, I started to get anxious.  Three days in a row without talking to Francine was really unusual.  It could be a coincidence that this drought happened right after I’d told Keith about my prom plans, but I doubted it.  Most coincidences are intentional, I thought.  There was no way to prove it, but I was pretty sure this was no coincidence.

Anyway, that Thursday I was hurrying down a crowded hallway on my way to class (I don’t remember which one) when I spotted Francine walking side by side with a friend of hers.  We didn’t exactly make eye contact because I didn’t have time to, but I was aware of her amidst all the other students moving around me.  Her friend (I watched her from the corner of my eye and this happened quickly) looked right at me, said something to Francine while looking right at me, and then Francine… Francine… Francine…

Francine fake cried on her friend’s shoulder.

Her friend fake hugged her in consolation, and I rushed to class, pretending I hadn’t seen anything.  Aaaargh!  I was socially awkward, yeah, but I knew what that melodramatic hallway act had meant.

Francine knew I was going to ask her to prom.

And Francine was going to say no.

Even worse, the story isn’t over yet.

To be continued in Awkward Moments in Dating: Prom Rejection.

*****

THE TRUTH!

I hate admitting this, but I barely knew the girl I asked out to prom. There was a girl whom I occasionally drove home, but she was probably a little rough for a prom date. The girl I asked was almost random, just somebody that I got along with in a few classes. I added fake details into this story because I don’t remember much about the real girl. Maybe I should have just admitted that in the original version, that I chose to ask out a girl I barely knew.

I also don’t know why I picked Francine for a name in this story. I don’t think I’ve known anybody named Francine. I don’t even have an opinion about the name Francine. I don’t want to use real names because I don’t know how the people involved (if they’re still alive) would feel about these stories being told.

Most of the dialogue is made up. My friends discussed prom plans, and a friend who was NOT named Keith (though I had a friend named Keith) dominated the conversation with his plans for prom domination. Haha! None of them worked out.

*****

What do you think? Should I have been more honest about the details in the original version (even though the details make for a boring story)? When is it okay to make up details in a supposedly true story?

I’m Writing My Mom’s Obituary, and It Sucks

public domain obituary from 100 years ago (image via wikimedia)

My mom’s obituary sucks. I can say it sucks because I’m writing it. If somebody else were writing my mom’s obituary, I’d probably be polite and say that it was fine, but I’m writing it and I’m supposed to be a decent writer, but what I’ve written is just another crappy obituary.

And from a writing standpoint, obituaries suck. They tend to have too many weak verbs. There are too many names for a person unfamiliar with the family to remember. Obituaries are predictable; somebody’s always died recently. Frankly, obituaries are kind of depressing.

Despite all that, I’ve known people who would read the obituaries every morning. These people tended to be on the older side. You rarely see/saw young people read the obituaries on a regular basis. Obituary aficionados claimed they just wanted to see if they knew anybody who died. Some obituary readers joked that they wanted to make sure they weren’t in the obituaries themselves.

The people whom I knew who used to read the obituaries every morning don’t do that anymore because they’re… uh… they made it to the obi… well… they don’t have newspaper subscriptions anymore.

This whole obituary mess is because of an unusual situation. My mom’s husband, my stepdad, died in April this year, and my mom knew at the time she would be passing away soon (I’m not getting into all the details… they’re not important; it’s the obituary that’s important here).

Anyway, I wrote my stepdad’s obituary (which sucked, but it was my first one, so I wasn’t too hard on myself about it), and when I sent it in to the local newspaper, I had to also cancel my stepdad’s subscription. That was awkward. The last newspaper delivered to my stepdad’s doorstep was the one with my stepdad’s obituary in it. At least, that was the way it was supposed to work. Instead, the delivery guy kept dropping the papers off at my stepdad’s house every day, even though nobody was paying for them anymore.

Maybe the newspaper guy thought he was being nice by giving free copies out to a former customer. If that’s the case, it’s probably bad business strategy. If you are determined to give away free samples of your product, you should make sure your recipients are alive.

Unfortunately, my mom died about a month later, and I wrote her first obituary the night she passed. I don’t blame myself for a sucky obituary back then because I was caught in an intense phase of the grieving process. I’ve had time to think about this second obituary, and it’s still no better than the first one. It’s hurting my ego a little bit.

We need the second obituary because we’ve finally managed to schedule a combined memorial service for my mom and stepdad next week. The delayed memorial service is a bit complicated. We have two families and special arrangements for the service, even though it will probably be small (and hopefully short… in a respectful way). We need a new obituary to remind local friends and acquaintances of the service since it’s taken so long to set up. Unfortunately, the obituary hasn’t gotten any better.

The big problem with the obituary is that I can’t make it as personal as I’d like to make it. I think I’m more qualified to write a eulogy than an obituary. That’s what I’ll probably do, write a eulogy. And maybe I’ll post it on this blog.

I won’t post my mom’s obituary, though. It sucks, and it’s not going to get any better.

******

2021 has been a rough year for me. Both my mom and stepdad passed away, and I was close to both of them. Writing about my struggles with the obituary rather than the struggles with my grief might seem a little detached or inappropriate. Just so you know, writing this blog post is not the only way I’ve dealt with my grief; it’s just been the most relaxing.

The Lamest Mid-Life Crisis Ever

Here’s a mid-life crisis warning sign. (image via wikimedia)

The idea of a mid-life crisis is kind of dumb. A middle-aged guy comes to understand his mortality so he does a bunch of juvenile, irresponsible stuff. As dumb as a mid-life crisis sounds, I’ve seen it happen.

When my dad had his mid-life crisis in his 40s, he bought a sports car and had an affair with a woman 20 years younger than he was. To be fair, he married that woman a couple years later, but he had to divorce my mom first, and that caused a few family problems.

I’m 55 years old, and I’ve never had my mid-life crisis. I almost feel like I’ve cheated myself.

I might be going the opposite direction, though. “Opposite” doesn’t mean that I’m going to have an affair with a woman 20 years older than me. I’m sure there a few horny 75 year-olds that would consider me a good cheap one-night stand, but that’s not really my thing.

Instead, I’ve strengthened my faith and I’m following the teachings of “The Sermon on the Mount” as best as I understand them. I admit, that’s kind of lame for a mid-life crisis.

Having an affair with a horny 75 year-old woman is way more interesting to most people than “The Sermon on the Mount.” At least, it would be more unusual. When I talk about my renewed faith, people nod politely and change the topic. When I mention the possibility of a horny 75 year-old woman, they get more interested.

I didn’t just decide to start examining “The Sermon on the Mount” out of nowhere. About a year ago, I started reading The Bible with the intent of completing the whole thing. As I was reading, I realized that I wasn’t interested in the stories in The Bible. The only part that stuck with me were Jesus’s actual teachings.

I didn’t care if Jesus walked on water or fed the multitudes or even if he existed; I only cared about the guidelines about how to live our lives. Now I have three versions of The Bible just to study the minor changes in word choice in Jesus’s words. I’ve even printed a few versions of ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ because each version has a word choice or an expression that fits better than what is used in other versions.

It might seem crazy (or lame) to collect versions of ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’ I’d rather do that than put on fake hair or buy a sports car or chase women who are 20 years younger (or older) than I am.

The optimistic side of me thinks maybe I haven’t hit mid-life yet. Maybe I’m going to live to 110 and beyond. I don’t know if my body can make it to 110, though. I’ve already had back surgery. I feel like I have the beginnings of arthritis and tendinitis. My brain glitches a lot (but my brain has always glitched, so that might not be age related).

On the other hand, I can’t be getting too old yet because I don’t drive with the left-turn signal on all the time. I don’t want to be one of those old drivers who cruise down the straightaways with the left-turn signal on. There’s a good work-around for that; I just don’t signal when I turn. I’d rather turn without signaling than signal and leave it on while I’m driving straight. Fortunately, that’s standard driving behavior where I live.

Just so you know, I’m kidding about not using a left-turn signal when I turn left. Some people can’t tell when I’m serious and when I’m not. That’s probably not good when I talk about the possibility of chasing women who are 20 years older than me… or when I talk about following the teachings of “The Sermon on the Mount.”

*****

Every once in a while, I write a blog post called “Old Things That Are Tough To Explain, and I almost categorized the mid-life crisis as an “Old Thing That Is Tough to Explain,” but the mid-life crisis is such a dumb idea, I don’t want to sound like I’m justifying it. Maybe the mid-life crisis is still a thing and maybe it doesn’t need to be explained, but from my point of view, even though it’s worth writing about and discussing, it’s still pretty stupid.

30 Years of Teaching in One Blog Post

Just so you know, that’s not a picture of me.

I retired from teaching over two years ago, and I’m just now mentioning it on this blog.

Before today, I’ve referred to my former job as “a profession that has nothing to do with writing.” Maybe “nothing” was too strong a word. I taught 7th and 8th grade English for 30 years, but I didn’t do much writing myself (lesson plans and suggestions for improvement on student essay margins don’t count as writing).

Here’s the short version. I went into teaching straight out of college, not because I had a passion for education, but because I needed a guaranteed job. I didn’t want to be an unemployed writer with college debt and other bills to pay. I wanted to be a writer of some kind, but I still didn’t know what kind of writer and I wasn’t confident enough in my abilities to make that commitment.

My first semester of teaching was a disaster. I almost quit a couple times and even tried to get myself fired without getting blamed. My devious plan almost worked, but an experienced teacher interfered with it. If you’re a first-year teacher and you come up with a devious plan to get fired in a way that won’t follow you to other jobs, don’t tell an experienced teacher about it. I learned that lesson my first semester.

I got my act together during the second semester (with some help from that experienced teacher, to be fair), so much so that students who had given me grief during the first semester shook my hand or hugged me at the end of the year. My first impulse was “Back off; kid, don’t touch me!” but I didn’t want to be rude on the last day of school.

I was never a high-profile teacher. I was never nominated for awards like Teacher of the Year (I probably was never even considered). I never had a Mr. Holland’s Opus. In fact, I dislike teacher movies, especially those centered around supposedly true stories. Most inspirational teacher movies are based on personal accounts of educators who left the profession after their books/movies made it big.

If a teacher movie is based on a former educator who immediately left the profession (or became a consultant), then that former educator is probably a fraud. I don’t blame the former educators for scamming the public, but I don’t have to fall for it.

Even though I taught writing (kind of), I never mentioned my blog to any students or other teachers. This blog is filled with profanity (in dialogue or in posts about the etymology of bad words), and I’ve even written a sex scene. When you’re a public school teacher, you can’t go around promoting your blog that has profanity and a sex scene.

I didn’t mention my teaching on this blog because I didn’t want Dysfunctional Literacy to become a teacher blog. I was writing stuff to get my mind off of teaching. I’ve been out of the classroom for over two years now, but I still haven’t told anybody outside of my family about Dysfunctional Literacy, so maybe it’s not really a teacher issue.

I pretty much retired as soon as I could, but at the time I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. I was in a great situation at my school, and my philosophy has been to not mess with great situations. Still, I was struggling with certain aspects of teaching, and I wanted to try something different, so one morning late in my final school year, I asked the heavens for a sign. What decision should I make; continue teaching or retire?

That morning in second period class, a kid threw up in my classroom. One part of me was disgusted (the vomit had almost started a domino effect, but I’d read the room properly and gotten three kids out before they yakked too.). The other part of me was relieved. The vomit was my sign. At least, I interpreted it as my sign. That afternoon, I talked to my principal after school and told him my plans to retire at the end of that semester.

Since I’ve retired, my bloods pressure has gone back to normal (without medication). My arrhythmia is gone (without medication). Some of that is related to diet changes, but those changes happened because my mind has been freed up enough to consider making those changes in the first place.

So… thank you kid who threw up. I still remember his name, but I won’t put it on my blog. In my brain, I refer to him by his name, not as “kid who threw up.” Without him, I might not have had the guts to retire when I did.

*****

This morning I found some teacher memorabilia in my car, and I don’t know what to do with it. Even though I know I’m not going back into the classroom, I still feel wrong getting rid of it. Maybe every once in a while, I need to remember and acknowledge those days. I really don’t feel compelled to write much more about it, though. This might be it. Or this might be the first of many blog posts about my teaching years. I’m not sure yet.

How To Write an Award-Winning Novel starring… Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Whenever I finish reading an award-winning novel, I ask myself, “Why do other people think this so great?” Sometimes the answer is obvious. Sometimes it isn’t.

I originally read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry in the early 1990s because somebody whom I respected recommended it. I’ve started reading Lonesome Dove again recently just because I saw a copy lying around at work and I thought, oh yeah, I remember that.

This time while I’m reading, I’ve pictured actors Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as the main characters because of the television mini-series. I don’t like visualizing Hollywood actors when I read books. As far as that goes, I’d rather imagine Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove (good casting) than Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News (bad casting) or Robert Redford in The Natural (really bad casting, but nobody cares because it’s Robert Redford).

I don’t know if authors decide ahead of time to write award-winning novels. Maybe winning the Pulitzer Prize for Literature was Larry McMurtry’s goal when he began writing Lonesome Dove. Maybe just finishing the damn thing on time was good enough for him back then.

Regardless of all that, if you’re an author and you’re determined to write an award-winning novel, here are four aspects that the author of Lonesome Dove nailed:

1. Setting- The American West is a great setting for a Pulitzer Prize Winning book. Maybe it wouldn’t work as well for a British author trying to win a British literary award, but it’s great for an American literary award. Even though the title Lonesome Dove is the name of the small town/settlement in Texas where the book starts, the characters don’t stay there for long, and things get very interesting when the characters venture out West (or north… or wherever).

2. Lots of Memorable Characters- Lonesome Dove has a lot of characters, not enough to post a list of them at the beginning of the novel as some epics do, but a lot. And the author switches point-of-view frequently, often during mid-scene. Despite this, it was easy for me to keep track of everybody while I was reading. I’m not bragging about my reading ability; I’m giving credit to the author for managing a bunch of characters without confusing readers.

3. Great dialogue- A strength/weakness of Lonesome Dove is the details about frontier life, especially about how dull it could be. The dialogue, even though it’s overly clever at times, breaks up what could have been very boring slog. You don’t necessarily need great dialogue in an award-winning book, but you do if your book has a bunch of details that can bore your readers.

The novel Moby Dick might be more popular today if Hermann Melville had written lots of clever/humorous dialogue for Ahab and his crew.

4. Genre- Lonesome Dove is sometimes referred to as a western for readers who don’t like westerns. I have nothing against westerns, but it’s never been my first genre choice. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of fans of westerns didn’t like Lonesome Dove. Its pace is slower than that of most westerns. It doesn’t follow the typical western formula. And it’s a little condescending to its characters.

There really isn’t another book like Lonesome Dove. Once you’re done, there isn’t anything that I know of that is quite the same. Even the attempted sequel isn’t close to the same thing (but to be fair, I don’t think the author was trying to write another Lonesome Dove). If there had already been a lot of books like Lonesome Dove, then there wouldn’t have been any reason to award it with a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Unfortunately, the sequel to Lonesome Dove is really bad. I don’t remember the title, but I remember what happened to some of the characters, and I felt like the author was just throwing them away. I know people die in seemingly pointless ways in life (seemingly pointless unless you have a strong faith in God), but it still felt unnecessary in fiction, so now I pretend the sequel doesn’t exist.

Lonesome Dove isn’t perfect. It drags at the beginning. The writing gets a little self-indulgent at times, winking with condescension to the readers about a few characters who aren’t too bright. Some of the dialogue was unnecessary, but that’s okay. Lonesome Dove is still a pretty good book, and I can see why it was an award-winning novel.

*****

Enough about me! What do you think? Am I overpraising Lonesome Dove, and am I too hard on its sequel? What other novels did or did not deserve the awards they won or the accolades they received?

Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Playing A Game Called “Smear The Queer.”

image via wikimedia

A game called “Smear the Queer” probably sounds like hate speech today, but it wasn’t meant that way by the kids I knew who played it in the 1970s.

Smear the Queer was a simple game. All you needed was a bunch of guys and a football. You’d throw or toss the football, everybody would scramble for it, and the kid who picked it up would run around with it until he got tackled. Then the kid who got the tackle (or successfully scrambled for the ball afterwards) would run around with the football until he got tackled.

Whoever had the football would be the target. The target was the “queer.”

Smear the Queer was great because you didn’t need a particular number of guys to play. Anywhere from two to infinity would work. You could play it anywhere, in a yard, in a park, in the street. You could stop whenever you wanted, and newcomers could join. All you needed was a football and a bunch of guys willing to run around and get tackled.

Even though people today might associate the name with hate speech, “Smear the Queer” has a nice sound to it. The words “smear” and “queer” rhyme. It’s good to have a rhyme when you name your game.

“Tackle the Guy with the Ball” is kind of a boring name for a game. Yeah, it might not be considered hate speech and it’s an accurate description of the game, but it’s not very imaginative.

Despite the negative connotations of the word “queer,” even back when I played Smear the Queer, everybody wanted to be the queer. The whole point was to get the ball and then get tackled. It would have been a short game if nobody had ever gone for the ball. With no queer, there would have been nobody to get smeared.

Even if you think the name “Smear the Queer” is a form of hate speech, I’m not going to blame my pre-teen self for saying the name or playing the game. Somebody else named the game, and we didn’t have an alternative name. Maybe if we can ever find the person who came up with the name “Smear the Queer,” maybe we can blame him. Until then, I’m just the messenger.

I’ll admit, Smear the Queer would be considered sexist today because girls never played. We never asked girls to play, and they never volunteered. If a girl had ever asked, we probably would have let her play and then gone easy on her. If she had then lectured us about how she demanded to be treated equally, we probably would have broken her arm.

Not on purpose. It just might have happened that way.

I’m too old to play Smear the Queer now. I’d probably blow out my knee or get a herniated disc or do something else stupid. But I still have fond memories of Smear the Queer. I guess that when I talk about it from now on, I’ll have to call it something else.

*****

There was another game that we played when I was a kid, but I don’t remember the name of it. A group of us would sneak up on a neighbor’s porch, ring the door bell, and run away.

What was that called again? Uh, something to do with… knocking?

Uh…

Umm…

Yeah… Never mind. I just remembered what it was called. I’m not going to write about that particular game. That one would be way too tough to explain.

*****

Enough about me! What do you think? Is there another name for “Smear the Queer”? Is there anything wrong with the name “Smear the Queer”?

I Just Dropped My Daughter Off At College

(image via wikimedia)

My daughter switched radio stations as soon as she realized the song was “Manic Monday” by The Bangles.

“Ugh,” she said. “They rhymed ‘Sunday’ with ‘fun day’ and ‘run day’.”

We were driving to the university that my daughter is attending, and my daughter was in a hyper-critical mood. I had no problem with that. Even back in the 1980s, I disliked “Manic Monday.” Yeah, supposedly Prince wrote the lyrics, but he probably knew the lyrics sucked, so he gave them to some desperate singer. Everybody loved Prince so much that his fans thought his garbage was great. If you said anything by Prince sucked, people told you to shut up. At least, they told me to shut up.

I never said Prince sucked: I said some of his songs sucked.

Anyway, my daughter can get hyper-critical about pop culture stuff too, even when I’m not around. I’m proud of that.

My daughter has a lot of my personality. I think my personality works better for a female than a male. I’m not saying I want to be female. I’m just saying that my personality seems to work better for a female. My daughter has more friends than I’ve ever had. She’s more outgoing. She says the same kind of stuff that I do/did, but when she says stuff, people respond more favorably.

I STILL DON’T WANT TO BE A FEMALE!!

Last year I wrote a blog post about my daughter declaring that she might not go to college. Her indecision didn’t last long. She knew a few weeks later which university she wanted to attend and what she wanted to major in.

College isn’t for everybody, but it might be good for her. My daughter knows what she wants to do. The university she’s attending has a great program (the best, according to the university, if you can trust it) for what she wants to do. My daughter has already demonstrated a talent for what she wants to do. As negative as I can be about the university system (if it’s not a scam, it is at least scam adjacent), attending is probably the correct decision for her, based on what we know right now.

My daughter’s dorm room was just as tiny and muggy as I remembered mine decades ago. I recalled why some students panic in college; not everybody is designed to live like a lab rat. I was able to find quiet places and times (I was willing to get up earlier than most students), so I could fake some semblance of a quiet life.

My daughter’s college town was cool, but my wife and I have aged out of cool, so we just followed our daughter around and paid for stuff.

My wife told my daughter that we could visit her every few weeks, but that might not be a good idea, even though the university is less than three hours away. My wife would be a hardcore mom if I let her. A hardcore mom is like a helicopter mom but knows better. When I suggest to my wife that she should back off a little bit, she does without arguing about it but begins meddling again when I’m not around.

I understand why my wife is a hardcore mom. She didn’t have a lot of support growing up and had to take care of all her college details herself. Because of that, she missed out on some opportunities, and my wife doesn’t want my daughter to miss out. I get it. But still, my daughter is 18 and has to take care of most of the details herself now. We can help, but she has to do it herself.

Hugging my daughter goodbye in her dorm room was a little rough. She’ll probably be a different person the next time I see her, and I won’t have witnessed the changes taking place. I felt a wave of sadness when I walked into my daughter’s empty bedroom after we had returned home.

My wife, the hardcore mom, was more practical.

“Tomorrow,” she said, “I’m turning this into my office.”