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How To Prevent Writer’s Block

Step #1- Don’t put your work-in-progress on top of the writer’s block. (image via wikimedia)

One problem with writer’s block is that most of the cures are really vague.  Some of the advice like “Write anything, even if it’s garbage” isn’t bad, but if your mind is already blank, that strategy might not be helpful.

In the video below, I explain how to prevent writer’s block in the first place.  I don’t give vague advice, like “Write drunk, edit sober” (which also isn’t that bad of an idea).  I tell you exactly what I do, and I think my advice works because I almost never get writer’s block.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather prevent a problem than deal with a problem.  You can’t prevent every problem in your life, but if you follow a couple steps, I think you can prevent writer’s block.

Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Profanity in Public Was Rare

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No matter where I go today, I hear profanity.  It’s on the television and in the movies, even when they’re supposed to be family friendly.  It’s on internet videos, even those marketed to kids.  It’s on the radio stations, even in music that’s marketed to kids.

It’s in the church, even in the services marketed to… okay, I’m kidding.  I haven’t heard much profanity in church.  But I’m beginning to dread the moment when it becomes acceptable.

I’m not necessarily complaining about profanity (except if it happens at church).  I don’t yearn for the days when I could turn on the television and everything was clean.  Looking back, some of that clean programming was awful.  But it was wholesome.  And back when I was a kid, it was tough to get away from wholesome.  You could do it, but you had to put some effort into it.  Nowadays, you have to have to work pretty hard to find wholesome.

Television had almost no profanity.  George Carlin had a famous comedic routine where he talked about the words you couldn’t say on television, but you had to buy the record album to hear it.  There were no Netflix comedy specials back then because there was no internet and hence no Netflix.  Comedians would actually make records and curse on them, and desperate consumers would actually buy them.  The George Carlin album was like gold because we could actually hear brazen profanity.  And it was hilarious.

Anyway, most movies were G or PG, and there was a huge difference between a PG and an R rated movie.  If a movie was rated R, we kids never got to see it.  There was no cable TV or internet and it was tough to sneak into movie theaters because there was only one screen per theater.

Back in the 1970s, I heard about movies like The Godfather, Animal House, and Flesh Gordon, but I knew I’d never be able to see them.  I had to listen to adults (or older siblings) explain the movies to me.  In other words, I had to rely on the storytelling skills of people I knew to understand what was going on in pop culture.  Some of those R-rated movies had violence, some had nudity, but all of them had profanity.

The original version of the movie The Bad News Bears was groundbreaking because kids cussed in it, and adults in the audience laughed.  Of course, this was the 1970s.  Parents in the 1960s and 1970s were known for having bad judgement. Parents in the 1950s never would have let the adults who made The Bad News Bears get away with it.

Then again, the parents of the 1970s were raised by the parents of the 1950s, so they had to get those values from somewhere.

The cursing in the novel The Catcher in the Rye used to be a big deal.  Back in the 1970s, teenagers (or young adults) would read The Catcher in the Rye just because of all the bad language.  Holden Caulfield was relatable, partially because of the profanity he used.  Now, nobody would give his language a second thought.  In fact, he’s kind of mild.  And he’s kind of a whiner.

Nowadays, profanity isn’t a big deal.  People might care about it, but they don’t care about it as much.  We hear it all the time, so it’s nothing special.  And it’s not funny.

I still don’t think kids should use profanity, but it’s okay for adults.  Using too much profanity, however, shows a lack of self-control.  I have a couple expletives that I’ll yell out occasionally.  Cursing up a storm for a moment can help out my nerves when I get ticked off at something or someone.  Once I get it out of my system, I’m usually calm again.  I’d rather curse it out and return to my normal calm demeanor than hold it in and be angry the rest of the day.

If you curse all the time, though, it can lose its effectiveness.  If you curse all the time, then you have to fall back on something else when you get really mad.  It might not be violence, but it could be something destructive.  I don’t know if there are any official studies that prove or disprove my theory.  I’ve become really skeptical of most studies anyway.  It seems like so many of them turn out to be wrong later.

When I was growing up, if a kid cursed in public, an adult would tell the kid to shut up.  Today, if a kid curses in public, a lot of adults pretend it didn’t happen.  Sometimes I feel like telling the profane kid to shut up, but it’s never my kid doing the cursing, so I’d come across looking like the bad guy.  Plus, I don’t like public confrontations anyway.  I’d end up having to explain to the kid that I grew up in a time when there wasn’t a lot of profanity in public.

And in today’s environment, that might be kind of tough to explain.

Physical Problems Caused by Writing (and how I deal with them)

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Some aspects of writing have become easier as I’ve gotten older.  It’s no problem to find topics to write about anymore.  The quality of my writing is a lot better than it was when I was younger.

The physical part of writing, however, is getting more difficult.  Sitting for too long makes my back hurt, even if I’m in my ergonomic(?) chair.  I get carpal tunnel type tingly hands and fingers.  My neck can get stiff.

When I first started having these problems years ago, my doctor said, “Stop writing.”  She might have been kidding.  She has that type of deadpan delivery that puzzles even me, an expert of deadpan delivery.

Despite my doctor’s advice, I haven’t stopped writing.  I haven’t even slowed down.  But I’ve had to make adjustments to the way I physically write over the years.  In the video below, I talk about some of the physical problems caused by writing and what I’ve done to solve these issues.

Awkward Moments in Dating: The Long Drive Home

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A bunch of awkward stuff had already happened on this date.  Jenny was obsessed with Garth Brooks, and I had never heard of the guy (in my defense, this was in 1991).  She had picked out a restaurant that her ex-boyfriend managed.  My nose had gotten runny during the meal.  I had made a cocaine joke that Jenny and the ex-boyfriend misinterpreted.  Then Jenny covered up her cleavage and announced that she wanted to go home.

On the drive home,  she leaned toward the door on the passenger side and didn’t say much.  As awkward as I felt, I knew this was the end of a short date.  That was good.  Sometimes bad dates lingered on too long, as if the women were trying to get me to spend as much money as possible before I took them home.  Then again, maybe that was just my paranoia.

“You pick the music,” Jenny said, her voice flat.  She had chosen Garth Brooks on the way to the restaurant, so at that moment it was my turn.

“Garth Brooks,” I said with forced enthusiasm.  “I dig Garth Brooks.”  Even if the date had turned disastrous, I still wanted to be a gentleman.

“You’re a bad liar,” Jenny said and pulled out a David Bowie CD from my mini-collection in the car.  “Let’s listen to the weird guy,” she said.

“You’ve probably heard the third song on that,” I said.

After the song started, Jenny was silent for about 30 seconds and said, “Nope, never heard it.”

“You’ve never heard that on the rock stations,” I said.

“I don’t listen to rock stations.”

“You only listen to country?” I said, exasperated.

“There’s nothing wrong with country,” she said.  “People always act like I’m the weirdo for listening to country.  You’re the one listening to this weirdo.”  She held up the David Bowie CD cover.

“He’s actually kind of relatively tame compared to a lot of musical artists.”

“Right,” Jenny said.  “Weirdos.  You don’t look like the type to like weirdo music.”

I laughed at the term weirdo music, but she was right in that I dressed and groomed myself very conservatively.  I just have that look, so I stick to it.  Jenny’s ex-boyfriend had had that look too.  I guess that’s what she was into.

Except for the music, there was a lot of silence on the drive.  I’d rather have the awkward silence than the awkward conversation.  Some people would rather talk over the awkward part, but that’s also when people end up saying stupid stuff that can be used against them later.  I’d rather have that awkward silence and not say something stupid.  But Jenny looked a little sad and uncomfortable.  Even if this date had been awkward enough for her to cover cleavage, I didn’t want her feeling sad and uncomfortable.

“I think Bob still has a thing for you,” I said.

Jenny smiled, her first sincere smile since the restaurant.  “Really?”

Okay, things were making more sense, I thought.  “Yeah, I think he sabotaged me by making my food extra spicy hot.”

“You can’t handle spicy hot?”

“I can handle spicy hot,” I said with authority.  “That bastard put something else in there to make my nose run.”

She laughed.  “No, he didn’t.”

“That bastard wanted me to have a runny nose in front of you.”

“He wouldn’t do that.”

“That bastard knows that a guy with a runny nose can’t compete with him.”

“He’s not the type to do that.”

“You’re gorgeous enough to make a guy that type,” I said.  “That bastard probably can’t stand it to see you with anybody else.”

I kept accusing him of sabotaging the date, and she kept denying it, but she never told me to stop using the word bastard.  Even if the date was almost over, I was glad it was ending on a good note.  She wasn’t silent.  She was back in a good mood, even though I was gently mocking her ex-boyfriend.

When I pulled into her apartment parking lot, I was expecting a quick good night.  That was all I deserved.  All I’d done was take her to a restaurant.  We hadn’t even gone to a movie, and we hadn’t gotten to the European vacation yet.  After the awkwardness of this date I thought the passenger door would have been open before the car had come to a complete stop.  It had happened before, more than once.

Instead, Jenny lingered.  “I’m sorry this date was so short,” she said.  “I’ve had a long week.”

“That’s okay,” I said.  “Maybe another night.  I can call you.”  As you know, that’s code for goodbye.  But I said it with dignity.

Jenny stared at me for a moment, started to say something, stopped, and then looked at me again.  I was going to ask if everything was alright, but then she said:

“Do you to come inside?”

*****

To be continued!

And start here to read Awkward Moments in Dating from the beginning!

Are These Old Books Too Ugly To Display?

This might be beat up, but it’s been in my family for over 50 years.

I don’t own as many books as I used to.  25 years ago, my home/apartment was filled with shelves stocked with books of all kinds.  Then I started a family.  Then we started moving a lot.  Then I realized that holding on to too many books was impractical.  I knew that I was going to reread only a few of them.  Decades later, I’m down to a fraction (I don’t know the precise fraction) of books, and most of them are really old and beat up and kind of ugly.

I like these old ugly books.  When we move again, I’ll be willing to pack these books and move them yet again.  Yeah, I’ll probably curse and throw a couple fits on moving day/week, but it will be worth it.

Anyway, we just finished repainting the interior of our house, and in order to get the hanging shelves painted, we had to move a bunch of old dusty books.  Now we like the shelves without the books.  When we put the old books on the newly painted shelves, the books don’t look right.  In fact, these old books look downright ugly.

I’m not getting rid of the books, but we might not display them either.  In the video below, I talk about several of the old books and why each one is important to me.  And I also get mad over the word relevant.

Relevant?  It just doesn’t look right.

 

James Patterson’s Cure for Writer’s Block

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It’s really too bad nobody got a video of this.

James Patterson was speaking on a panel with other famous authors such as Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Malcolm Gladwell when a struggling writer in the audience asked a question about writer’s block.

“What is the best way to get rid of writer’s block?” the struggling writer asked the panel.

Stephen King spoke first.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” he said, and everybody in the audience nodded at the profound statement.

But the struggling author was dissatisfied with the vague answer.

Next was famous author Malcolm Gladwell, who said: “I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent — and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent.”

Again, the audience nodded at the profound answer, but the struggling writer was frustrated at the vagueness.

Famous author Elizabeth Gilbert said: “I don’t sit around waiting for passion to strike me. I keep working steadily, because I believe it is our privilege as humans to keep making things. Most of all, I keep working because I trust that creativity is always trying to find me, even when I have lost sight of it.”

And before everybody could nod in agreement, she added: “Writing is f*cking great!” and everybody laughed because Elizabeth Gilbert said “f*cking.”

The struggling author still felt dissatisfied.  Surely a famous author on the panel could offer concrete advice or specific techniques for beating writer’s block.

“What about James Patterson?” the struggling writer asked.  “What do you do when you get writer’s block?”

The audience listened intently for James Patterson’s response.  If anybody had a cure for writer’s block, it would be the author who published more than 10 novels a year.  What was his method for dealing with writer’s block?  Every member of the audience sat in silence as they waited for his answer.

“So, what is your cure for writer’s block?” the moderator of the panel finally asked again.

James Patterson cleared his throat.  “When I get writer’s block,” he said with gravitas, “I have my coauthor write it for me.”

HAHAHA!

*****

I hate admitting this, but that might actually be the best way to beat writer’s block. Thank you, James Patterson!!

Like I said, though, it’s too bad nobody got a video of this.  As far as I’m concerned, if there’s no video, then it didn’t really happen.

*****

What do you think?  Do you have a better cure for writer’s block than James Patterson’s?  If so, what is it?

Dumb Kids Can’t Write

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If you’re an English teacher, you probably don’t want to say “dumb kids can’t write.”  An English teacher would probably get fired for that (and maybe the teacher would deserve it).  An English teacher would be expected to come up with a more diplomatic way to express sensitive thoughts like that.

The reason I say “Dumb kids can’t write” is because educators in New York are freaking out over the  state’s standardized writing test’s results. As you can probably guess, the results aren’t good.  A lot of students are failing the tests, despite a lot of money and time spent preparing for them.  Some critics even say students’ writing is getting worse.

It’s not just New York that has this problem.  Every state with a writing test probably struggles with how to teach and grade writing.  I live far far away from New York, but my daughters have had to take writing tests and they usually get mad at the results.  They’re good writers (I should know; I’m an excellent judge of writing), but they get frustrated with the lame topics (very generic so that every student in the state can write about them), the length (there’s usually a line limit), and unclear directions.

Writing has to be tough to standardize.  Every other test can be run through a computer, but you can’t grade an essay without hiring a teacher (or somebody even more bitter) to read/grade it.  My daughter has shown me the grading system that our state uses, and it’s pretty complicated.  Explaining it would give me (and readers) headaches.

Besides, I’m not sure you can teach writing like you can math or science.  In most classes, there are formulas and steps that can be standardized.  There is no writing formula.  Test makers have tried to design formulas, but then teachers teach to the formula and the writing becomes formulaic, which then makes it bad writing.

Plus, the scales of grading writing are confusing.  Adults think grammar, spelling, and punctuation should matter, but students are told that their ideas matter more, but without grammar, spelling and punctuation, ideas can’t be understood, so then everybody is confused.

The grammar, spelling, and punctuation is the formula that could make writing standardized.  Yet it seems like schools are getting away from that.  I don’t blame the teachers.  The administrators or school boards tell the teachers what to teach, and it’s usually a good idea to do what the people paying you tell you do, unless it’s unethical or illegal.  Maybe it’s unethical not to teach students more grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but I haven’t thought about it enough to have an opinion.

It’s probably easier to grade writing when you don’t have to focus on the grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  English teachers probably get headaches from red-marking all the grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.  Some teacher 50 years ago probably got tired of getting headaches, so he/she became a specialist/consultant/expert and just made up stuff about how unimportant grammar, spelling, and punctuation are.   Now fewer kids can write.  And insensitive bloggers like me are calling them dumb.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more skeptical of consultants/specialists/experts.  A lot of them just make stuff up, and then a bunch of people who should know better nod and agree because they’re getting paid to nod and agree.  If you don’t nod and agree, you get fired.  That’s the position teachers are in.  They know the standardized test stuff is a bunch of nonsense, but they have to nod and agree.  Even if they don’t physically nod and agree, they have to comply.  Then they have to make students comply.

I’m not badmouthing teachers.  Almost every job requires you to comply.  That’s why employees get paid.  Nobody likes to comply for free.  That’s the great thing about our governing/economic system.  Most people throughout history have had to comply and have gotten nothing but tyranny, poverty, and abuse.  At least now in the United States, we can get paid a decent salary to comply.

Anyway, back to writing.

I shouldn’t use the word dumb to describe students who struggle with written expression.  I should say students with below average verbal skills, but nobody would read a blog post with that title.  Instead of being taught grammar, students are taught to think critically, but students with below average verbal skills probably have a tough time expressing original thoughts.  And I’m not sure you can teach kids how to have original thoughts.  Where would a teacher start?

I don’t think I had an original thought until I was 17 (and even then I’m not sure the thought was truly original).  I was always told that I was a late bloomer.  To be fair to myself, I wrote a couple original pieces that impressed English teachers enough to put me into a writing contest, but I blanked when the pressure was on.  That’s why I like blogs.  No pressure.

Even though my verbal skills are way above average (at least they were 35 years ago), I probably wouldn’t score well on a writing standardized test today because I don’t use clear topic sentences, and I don’t use concrete examples (I’m often intentionally vague), and I ramble.  I can write sentences that are grammatically correct and I spell reasonably well (and I know the difference between the words good and well), but that doesn’t seem to matter much in today’s standardized tests.

I’m glad I’m not a student today.

*****

What do you think?  Are there any English teachers out there who can explain some of this standardized writing?

$20 a Month for an Online Subscription? Are You Insane?

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Everybody on the internet is asking for money.  Websites want you to pay for subscriptions.  Artists/creators want you to give to their Paypal or Patreon accounts.  A bunch of people have GoFundMe accounts or something like that.

I have nothing against the practice of trying to get money.  I have a couple books on Amazon, but that’s it.  I don’t ask anybody to give me money just for putting up content.  I figure if enough people buy my books, I’ll write more books.  I don’t want to go too far.

But here’s an example  of somebody going too far.  I was reading an article about an odd sub-genre on a publishing website, but after one paragraph, the article was cut-off and I was asked to pay $19.95 a month for an online subscription.

I laughed out loud.  I rarely laugh out loud when I’m online.  $19.95 a month for a publisher’s site?  That takes a lot of nerve, I thought.  Publishing sites are some of the most boring sites on the internet.  This particular publishing site doesn’t even try to make things interesting.

I don’t have an issue with a website trying to get paid subscribers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the print version were on the verge of cancellation.  Any income is a victory.  But $20 a month?  $240 a year?  Most people don’t even pay that much for porn.  I mean, they’d probably pay more for porn if they had to, but they don’t because there’s so much free stuff out there.  And if people won’t pay $20 a month for porn, they definitely won’t pay that for publishing.

I don’t want to name the website because I read it occasionally and it has never said anything bad about me.  It can be a useful site at times. It’s boring, but so am I, so I understand where it’s coming from.  The $19.95 a month subscription is probably the first time I’ve had an emotional reaction to the site (besides yawning).

I’m almost outraged.  I almost want to go to their offices and scream as people walk to the elevator.  “$20 A MONTH?  ARE YOU INSANE?”

I won’t go to restaurants and shout at them while they eat, but I might yell at an elevator.  And then I’d apologize for being rude.

I’ve had subscriptions to comic books (when I was a kid) and magazines (when I was an adult), and I always had to cancel them because the quality seemed to decline once they got my money.  I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve had a magazine subscription, but I know I never paid that time period’s equivalent of $20 a month for a magazine subscription.

The whole point of a subscription years ago was to save money.  Now it’s to get access.  But you can always find the information cheaper, most of the time for free.  If I were an online publishing website that absolutely had to try to get paid subscribers, I’d probably go for around $5.00 a month.

To be fair, I’m not sure how much I’d be willing to pay for an online subscription to a website.  I buy books.  I buy an occasional magazine.  I buy indie ebooks.  But I have a tough time subscribing to online content.

Netflix costs around $10 a month.  I might complain about the negative effects of streaming and binge watching, but Netflix has way more interesting stuff that that publishing website.  YouTube Premium, with some original content and no ads, is $10 a month and has way more interesting stuff than the publishing website.  Maybe the creators of the publishing site think their content is valuable.  To somebody else, it might be.  I don’t know.

Now I’m constantly visiting the website just to make sure the subscription rate hasn’t changed.  By doing that, I’ve probably doubled the site’s traffic and increased its ad revenue.  Maybe the subscription rate plan wasn’t so stupid after all.

Words I Still Can’t Say In Front of Kids

Sometimes I think my kids will laugh at anything. (image via wikimedia)

I fell for it again!  I was announcing my fast-food order in the drive-through line, and I didn’t stop myself from saying, “I’d like a number two meal!”

My daughter laughed.  It’s true.  My 16-year old daughter who prides herself on her maturity actually laughed when I said “Number two.”

She has been laughing at this number for many years.  You’d think her sense of humor would change a bit as she gets older, and in many ways it has, but there are still some juvenile words and phrases that she reacts to.

In the video below, I talk about some of the words that have made my kids laugh over time.  I wrote a lot of it in a blog post several years ago, but I guess some things will never change much.

 

Awkward Moments in Dating: The Misinterpreted Joke

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Despite everything that had gone wrong so far, the date wasn’t a disaster.  Yeah, Jenny liked Garth Brooks when I hated country music.  Yeah, we went to a restaurant that Jenny’s ex-boyfriend managed.  Yeah, my nose was runny at inopportune times because of the food.  And yeah, the ex-boyfriend was sitting in my spot across from her in our booth when I returned from the bathroom.

Still, I had a couple things going for me.  Jenny understood my humor.  She made coke addiction jokes as I was taking care of my nasal issues.  And she had astounding cleavage.  I know I’ve probably mentioned it too much in this story (You can read about it here), but there’s a reason.

“Hey, Bob,” I said as I approached the booth.  I tried to put some friendly inflection in my voice.  “Thanks for keeping Jenny entertained.”  I didn’t want to seem threatened by an ex-boyfriend, and I thought I had done a good job, but then a slight itchiness returned to the back of my nasal passages, and my nose twitched and I sniffed.

“Did the food get to you?” Bob asked proudly.

“He has a coke habit,” Jenny said.

I looked around the restaurant and spotted a couple other customers sniffing or grabbing water or laughing at somebody else suffering at the table.

“It looks like I’m not the only one here with a coke habit,” I said to Bob.  His expression shifted.  His smile disappeared, and he shot a glance at Jenny.  Jenny looked startled.   I’m not sure how to describe facial features of a startled person, but she actually seemed to flinch a bit.

Bob got up.  “I’d better get back to… managing.”  He glanced at Jenny again and then shook my hand quickly and left.  I was glad he left, but I wondered if I’d said something wrong.

I was puzzled by the sudden shift in mood.  What was the big deal?

“I meant other customers were sniffling,” I said to Jenny as I sat back down.  “I didn’t mean that Bob had the coke habit.”

“It’s okay,” Jenny said, but I knew better.

“I’m serious, look around.”  But she seemed dejected.  I wondered if she still had a thing for her ex, or if she was genuinely the type to worry about hurting an ex-boyfriend’s feelings.  I mean, she shouldn’t bring dates to a place her ex managed.  And if the ex is going to be proud of giving runny noses to his customers, then he should be prepared for coke habit jokes.  Hell, Jenny had even started it!  I hate it when someone starts the joke but can’t handle the follow up.  Of course, I couldn’t say any of that.  As a guy, you just stew in it.

“It got cold in here,” Jenny said and pulled a sweater from her purse.  At first, I sat in bewilderment, wondering how she could magically pull out a sweater out from her purse.

“Do you keep a rabbit in there too?” I asked.

She laughed as she placed her arms inside the sleeves and I was glad that she seemed to have her humor back, but then she started buttoning her sweater.   I wasn’t all that concerned as she began at the bottom and worked her way up, but her fingers moved quickly and I almost shouted “Nooooo!” as she fit the final two top buttons into place.

What?  I was almost outraged! The cleavage was covered.  And then I noticed that the sweater was ugly.  How could she cover such cleavage with an ugly sweater?  It was a crime.  I don’t remember the sweater’s pattern, but it hurt my eyes.  Then I noticed she had a blemish on her nose.  And my nasal passages had suddenly cleared up.

I wondered if I was allergic to her cleavage.  I almost asked her to unbutton her sweater just to see if my nose would start running again, but there was no tactful way to do that.

I left a generous tip on the table and let Jenny lead the way out.  Since she had gone silent and covered up, I wasn’t optimistic about the rest of the date.  We still had a movie to go to, and movies could be catastrophic on a bad date.  It’s true, you don’t have to talk during a movie, but you’re stuck, and a good movie is usually tough to enjoy.  Still, I was prepared to go through with it.

“It looks like we’ll get to the show a little early,” I said as I opened the passenger side for her.  “As long as traffic cooperates.”

But when I got in on the driver’s side, Jenny announced:

“I don’t feel like going to a movie.  Just go ahead and take me home.”

Maybe I should have been glad that this date was almsot over, especially since she was covered with an ugly sweater.  Unfortunately, I knew the awkward date wasn’t over yet.  Next up would be the awkward drive home.

*****

To be continued in Awkward Moments in Dating: The Long Drive Home!

And in the meantime, you can read Awkward Moments in Dating from the start.