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4th of July Story Strikes Again!

It looks peaceful, but they probably said horrible things about each other. (image via wikimedia)

The 4th of July is a bit different from other United States holidays. Hardly any stores close, and most daily routines don’t change that much.  Even so, it’s one of my favorite holidays, partially because of a childhood memory.

I’m over 50 years old now, and I don’t vividly remember many specific holiday moments.  Between all of the Christmases and Thanksgivings and Easters that I’ve experienced, a lot of childhood holidays have blended in.  One 4th of July memory stands out, however, and I’m going to retell the story now.

4th OF JULY STORY

Relax! This picture was created in 1902. It was okay for kids to fire off guns back then. (image via Wikipedia)

I was 10 when the United States turned 200 years old.  It was a big deal back then, but at the time, the meaning of the 4th of July was lost on me.  As an adult, I understand July 4th  is the annual celebration of the signing and approval of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress.

I understand how important the following sentence from The Declaration of Independence is:

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That one sentence had a bunch of concepts that were unique way back in 1776.

The Declaration of Independence is also known for John Hancock’s really big signature.  As an adult, I appreciate how momentous the signing of that document was and how it began the process of liberating the colonies and forming one of the greatest nations in the world. I also appreciate John Hancock’s really big signature.  Several jokes have been made about how a guy named John Hancock had a really big signature.

When I was a kid, I didn’t understand all this, including the John Hancock jokes.  Back when I was 10, the 4th of July was about shooting off fireworks.  And 1976 was a great year to shoot off fireworks.

(Read more here! )

A Blog Full of Schlock

(image via wikimedia)

Most of my writing is schlock.  I admit it.  That isn’t an insult to me or my writing.  A lot of mainstream writing that I see today is schlock too.

Most recent novels are really light and have major flaws that could have been fixed with more time and effort.  Major periodicals and click-bait websites have misspellings in their headlines and content that is poorly written.  Most television shows and movies have bad dialogue and plot devices that don’t make any sense, but hardly anybody cares.

Schlock is a mediocre product that can get churned out in high quantities.  Readers and viewers might not think of it as the word schlock, but they won’t care if you call it that.

James Patterson can write a bunch of schlock (or hire a bunch of writers to write it for him) because everybody knows he writes schlock.  They might not call it schlock, but they know Patterson doesn’t write the highest quality of fiction out there.  Nobody has ever gotten angry at me for criticizing James Patterson.  Even his fans know he deserves it.

Fans of the show  Game of Thrones, however, were furious with the writers after the final season because they, viewers, had high expectations.   Game of Thrones wasn’t considered schlock, but the writers treated the final few seasons disrespectfully.  You can treat schlock with a little disrespect, but not Game of Thrones.  Once readers or viewers have high expectations for you, though, you’d better deliver.

The thing is, I like schlock.   Life is easier if you like schlock because there’s always something to read or watch.  When your expectations are too high, then you can’t enjoy much.  But schlock, you can enjoy it, even if you know it’s not technically good.  I might criticize schlock, I might not finish reading it, but I’m glad it’s out there.  I’d rather have a glut of schlock than no schlock at all.

Even though I treat my writing with respect, and I put effort into it, I know most of it is schlock.    I’m glad people like schlock.  If people didn’t read schlock, then who else would read my writing?

Even though I’ve written a lot of schlock on my blog over the last few years, nobody has written as much schlock as James Patterson.  Speaking of James Patterson…

MY DAUGHTER PUNCHED OUT JAMES PATTERSON!!

(image via wikimedia)

My daughter didn’t really punch out James Patterson.  She punched out a life-sized cardboard figure of James Patterson.  The James Patterson had been placed near the entrance of B&M Booksellers next to a table with several of Patterson’s new books (I don’t remember which books they were because he has so many of them at any given moment).

Even if my daughter doesn’t like James Patterson, it wasn’t her life-sized cardboard figure to punch out.  It was the book store’s.  And that’s what caused the problem (Read more here).

The Best Self-Help Book Ever! How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

The cover says it’s “the only book you need to lead you to success.” That’s good enough for me!

If you’re going to read a self-help book like How To Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie , it’s better to read it when you don’t actually need self-help.  When you read a self-help book from a position of strength, you’re less likely to be tricked into following bad advice that might be in the book.  And if you actually need self-help, let somebody else try the advice first.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, the big self-help book was called I’m Okay-You’re Okay.  That title rubbed me the wrong way because it implied that everybody was okay, and even then I knew a lot of people who weren’t okay.  I wasn’t even sure I was okay.  If I wasn’t okay, then I knew a bunch of people around me were really messed up, and telling everybody that they’re okay doesn’t do anybody any good (except the self-help author who gets rich giving out bad advice).

When I review a book, I usually start with the title, and How To Win Friends And Influence People is a little misleading.  If I’m going to read a book about how to win something, it won’t be for friends.  To me, friends are something that you either have or don’t have; you can’t win them.  If I’m going to win something, I’d like to know how to win the lottery or maybe learn how to win at blackjack or how to win in court.  Maybe I’m being too literal, but How To Win Friends And Influence People is a very literal book.  There’s not a lot of figurative language in HTWFAIP.

Even though HTWFAIP was written in 1936, it might still have some relevant advice.  The chapter that most interested me was “An Easy Way to Become a Great Conversationalist.”  If there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s talking to people I don’t know.  To be fair, I’m bad at a lot of things, but making small talk is one my worst.  I was looking forward to great insightful advice, and all I got was “Be a good listener.”  That kind of ticked me off.  I’m already a good listener.

I need advice to get me to the stage where people will talk to me enough so that I can demonstrate my great listening skills.  After “Hi, how are you?” I’m accustomed to long awkward silences, especially if I’m talking to somebody else who is a great listener.  Two great listeners put together alone in a room can make a bad conversation.  When I was younger, I could have used a chapter about how to get the other person to start talking so that I can be a good listener. Instead, I had to figure it out for myself.

Back when HTWFAIP was first published, “be a good listener” was probably new advice.  Maybe very few people thought that being a good listener was important back then.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t around.  But maybe HTWFAIP seems irrelevant because the advice that was brand-new in 1936 has become so commonplace.  Again, I don’t know.  I haven’t read any pre-1936 self-help books.  Maybe pre-1936 self-help books suggested that you talk loudly and shout over people to get them to do what you want.  I’ve never read a self-help book that says shout people down, but it has to be in a lot of self-help books because I see people do it all the time.

One problem with HTWFAIP is that a lot of the references are old.  There are a lot of traveling salesman stories and lots of references to companies that no longer exist.  When I was a kid, traveling salesman stories usually ended up involving a farmer’s daughter.  If a story was really good, it involved more than one daughter and maybe some of her friends.  None of the traveling salesman anecdotes in HTWFAIP have any farmer’s daughters (or any kind of daughter) in them.  Having at least one would have made the anecdotes more realistic to me.

I’m also concerned that most of the companies and businesses that are mentioned in HTWFAIP don’t exist anymore.  I’m not sure what that means.  Did they stop following the advice given in the book and then fail because of that?  Or did they follow the advice in the book and still fail?  Maybe the stories and testimonials given in the book were all lies.  We know people lie in their books now.  I’m pretty sure people lied in their books back then too.  Maybe all of Carnegie’s anecdotes were fake too.  I have no proof, but it makes me wonder.

Is HTWFAIP the best self-help book ever?   Probably.  Most of its advice is commonplace now.  It reminds me of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in that everybody knows the white picket fence trick, but they read the book anyway.  HTWFAIP was the first of its kind (at least that’s what one of the many book covers says), and people still read (and argue about) it today.   And at least it didn’t destroy a generation like I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

*****

What do you think?  Is HTWFAIP the best self-help book ever?  What self-help books have you read?  Is “be a good listener” practical advice in the new millennium?  Have you read I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and is it as bad as it sounds?  If you’re reluctant to talk about self-help books, it’s okay.  Having an opinion about a self-help book is not an admission that you really need help.

*****

And here’s the video version with a slightly different perspective.

I Sold My Comic Book Collection, and Here’s Why

If you’re going to invest in comic books, you might start with this one.

When I announced to my friends a few years ago that I was going to sell my comic book collection, they warned me not to.

“That collection is worth money,” they said.

My friends were right.  I’d started collecting when I was in elementary school in the early 1970s, and I didn’t stop until the glut of the early 1990s.  If you’ve ever collected comic books, you probably know about the 90s glut that I’m talking about.  If you haven’t collected comics, the details would bore you.  At any rate, I had some relatively valuable comic books.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s why I’m selling them.  If they weren’t worth any money, I wouldn’t bother.”

One friend said, “Maybe your kids would want them.”

When I asked my daughter if she wanted my comics, she said, “NO!”  She likes superhero movies and will wear the occasional Marvel t-shirt, but she has no interest in my comics.

My friends also said, “You’ve had them since you were a kid.  How could you get rid of them?”

“Yes, I’ve had them since I was a kid,” I said.  “But I’m not a kid anymore.  And I can’t read all of them again.”

Plus, I’m using the money to get rid of some bad debt.  I’m not whining about money, but I have some annoying debt to take care of.  Some of it was from a bad decision I made years ago, and part of it is from circumstances that were out of my control.  Either way, I have to deal with it.

The way I look at it, I’m using my childhood to get rid of debt and pay bills.  I’ve heard of people who write letters to their younger selves, and I personally think that’s kind of impractical because if my past self read a letter from my present self, it could really mess up the time-continuum.  But if I did write a letter to my childhood self (and I’m not saying I would), I’d say:

“Thanks for saving all these comics.  Thanks for helping to pay off some bad debt.”

Or I’d say, “Thanks for saving all these comics, but you’re not getting laid for a long time.”

Despite what people might think, unintended abstinence caused by comic book reading isn’t so bad.  I’ve never had to worry about surprise pregnancies or STDs or crazy girlfriends sending older brothers after me.  When I got to college, I learned to hide the comic books, so potential girlfriends wouldn’t learn about the collection until it was too late, and by then I’d matured enough to not do anything too stupid with women.

Anyway, having a huge old comic collection was like having a stack of money in my closet while I have debt accumulating interest.  Why would I keep money in my closet?

Nobody would say, “Don’t sell your money!  It’s worth a lot of money!”

I know some people see comic books as an investment, but that works only for a small percentage of comics.  People who buy comics as an investment only can get frustrated really quickly.  A bunch of comic book investors learned that the hard way during the 1990s.

Years ago, I saw the Pawn Stars guy on television buy a bunch of worthless X-Men from the 1990s and then brag about how comics were a great investment.  I laughed.  It completely ruined Pawn Stars for me.  If the Pawn Stores expert didn’t know 1990s X-Men were worthless, what else didn’t he know?  Amateur.

It’s easier to sell a collection now than it ever has been.  25 years ago, there was no internet or ebay, so you had to go to a dealer who’d rip you off, and I understand the rip-off.  Comic stores have to pay employees and overhead.  That’s the good thing about selling online.  I don’t have to pay much for fees, and I’m my only employee.

I’m not saying everybody my age should sell their childhood collections too.  If everybody sold their collections, nobody would be buying, and we need buyers.  If you have comics and you still like reading them, keep them.  If you have family that you can pass them down to, keep them.  I’m just saying in my situation, selling them is the way to go, and some people don’t understand that.

I look back fondly on my comic collecting days, even though I was really socially awkward at the time.  I’m not sure if I was socially awkward because I read comic books or if I read comic books because I was socially awkward.  I’m still socially awkward (but not as much), and I still have a soft spot for comic books, but  I also like having a little more space in my house and a little less debt on my credit score.  Thank you comic books!

*****

Here’s the video version of this blog post, with several examples of great comic books that I might or might NOT part with.

Three Books That Made Me Feel Stupid

Even though I’m a pretty good reader, I have run across a bunch of books that made me feel stupid.  I don’t mind admitting that.  I’m usually open about my faults or gaps in my knowledge.

In the video below, I talk about three books that made me feel less than intelligent, and each book on this list made me feel stupid in a different way.  One book didn’t make any sense to me.  One made me wonder what the big deal about it was.  And another triggered an emotional reaction that made me question my intelligence.

I’m considered a pretty good reader, so I can’t be the only person who feels this way about these books.  Or maybe I am.  Either way, I don’t like feeling stupid after reading a book, no matter what kind of stupidity it is.

What do you think?  What books, if any, have made you feel stupid?

In Defense of the Adverb

Adverbs can be sneaky little words, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of them.

I have just decided to stop worrying about using too many adverbs in my writing.  According to conventional wisdom, the adverb is a sign that your verbs and adjectives are weak.  Instead of using adverbs, some writers proclaim, you should use stronger verbs and adjectives.  The adverb is the bad boy of grammar, but I think it has an undeservedly bad reputation.

Famous authors often malign the adverb and say its usage hurts writing.  For example, Stephen King’s most famous writing quote is:

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,…”

When the Modern Master of Horror equates a kind of word with eternal damnation, you have to take that seriously.  On the other hand, Stephen King uses plenty of unnecessary adverbs in his own writing.

I like to use The Shining by Stephen King as a great example of adverb hypocrisy.  The Shining is one of King’s most popular books, and it has a bunch of –ly adverbs in it (I have proof right here ).  If a famous author (who says he doesn’t like adverbs) uses adverbs in one of his most famous books ever, then maybe the adverb isn’t so bad.

Mark Twain also had a famous quote about the most commonly used adverb, ‘very.’  I’m pretty sure very is the most commonly used adverb.  I haven’t completed any statistical analyses to prove it, but I’m sure it’s true.  If it isn’t, it has to be close.  Anyway, here’s Twain’s famous quote about ‘very’:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

That’s decent advice unless you’re a student.  Replacing every ‘very’ with ‘damn’ might make you sound like Holden Caulfield, but teachers like Holden Caulfield only when he’s a character in The Catcher in the Rye.  Teachers don’t like Holden Caulfield in real life, and they don’t want students writing like him.  Besides, if ‘very’ keeps getting replaced with ‘damn,’ then ‘damn’ will soon be hated by elitist writers, and I can’t have that.  I like ‘damn.’  I like ‘damn’ very much.

I like Mark Twain too, but if you follow his advice you’d only be replacing an adverb with another adverb.

I like adverbs.  The adverb is one of the parts of speech that I learned in school, and it’s not necessarily easy to learn.  If every adverb ended with –ly (as some people believe), then learning adverbs wouldn’t be so bad.  Unfortunately, adverbs can be sneaky.  They can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  Adverbs can be almost anywhere in the sentence.  Adverbs can even look like prepositions, and that’s really confusing if you don’t know what a preposition is.

I stressed myself out learning adverbs.  I’ll be really ticked off if I went through all that for nothing.   What’s the point of learning a part of speech if I’m not supposed to use it?  I never hear math teachers explaining concepts and then telling students never to apply the knowledge.  I understand adverbs.  I understand the difference between ‘good’ and ‘well.’  I like applying knowledge in my personal life.  It doesn’t make sense not to use adverbs.

Some authors say that adverbs keep writers from finding stronger verbs.  Maybe, but so what?  Not every verb has a synonym that demonstrates the degree of intensity that the author is describing.  Some authors will then try too hard and apply a verb that doesn’t make sense in the sentence.  I’d rather use a weak specific adverb than a verb that makes the sentence sound awkward.  I believe writers can have the best of both worlds; use the stronger verb AND the adverb.  Why do we have to choose?

I think the adverb is a made up issue that is meant to divide people.  Stephen King is my proof.  King, one of the most popular authors of my lifetime, has lobbied against using adverbs, but he uses them constantly.  This is typical elitist behavior.  He gets struggling aspiring authors to worry about adverbs and to develop strong feelings either for or against adverbs, and then struggling aspiring authors argue about adverbs, losing sight of the bigger picture (such as their families and their own creative projects), and then Stephen King keeps using adverbs in his own books, knowing that it really doesn’t matter (and he probably laughs at us novices for falling for his trick… but I have no proof of that).

I think people should stop arguing about adverbs.  I mean, it’s not one of those divisive issues that breaks up families, but it makes writers doubt themselves.  True, I believe in a little self-doubt, but look at today’s successful authors.  Do you think James Patterson debates every adverb that he uses?  Does John Grisham?  Does Stephen King?  No.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not going to litter my writing with adverbs out of spite, but if I want to use an -ly word, I’ll use an -ly word.  If authors like Stephen King truly despise adverbs, they can stop using adverbs in their own writing.  And they can go first.

Bad Sentences in Classic American Literature

Classic literature is sometimes difficult to read because a lot of the books are filled with bad sentences.   Despite what critics might think, a bad sentence doesn’t have profanity or adult content.  A bad sentence is one that an English teacher would make corrections on if written by a student.

Here’s what I mean.  When I was in school, my English teachers did a good job explaining grammar and sentence structure, but then they would assign classic novels where the authors broke the rules that had just been taught.  If I tried to mimic the style of the authors I’d just read, my teachers would red-mark my paper.  To simplify matters, I simply took these sentences that students were not allowed to write and called them bad sentences.  Even if you don’t agree they are bad sentences, you probably understand what I mean.  Maybe you even relate.

Bad sentences abound in all kinds of literature, but today I’ll focus on classic American literature.  For example, Moby Dick by Herman Melville has a bunch of bad sentences, so many that I wrote an entire  blog post about it  several years ago.  Out of all the examples, this one at the end of Chapter 24 “The Advocate” is one of my favorites:

“And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Speaking of Yale and Harvard, if you’re taking your ACT or SAT writing, don’t write like Herman Melville.

Maybe the semicolon usage was correct back in 1850.  Maybe it was a stylistic thing.  I understand that, but it’s confusing to be taught one way to use semicolons in school and then see them used differently in classic literature.  If I had used semicolons the way Melville used them in Moby Dick, I would have failed my English classes.

Here is a bad sentence from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (which I’ve written more about here), this one describing Jordan Baker:

 “She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless and with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.”

I get the impression that this was a rough draft sentence that Fitzgerald never went back to finish.  She was balancing SOMETHING on her chin.  The word “something” is kind of vague.  If I had written that in college, my writing instructor would have demanded that I come up with another word for “something.”  “Something” is what you write when you’re not sure what word you want to put in in its place.  I kind of want to know what that something could have been.  If I am going to write that a character has her chin raised like she were balancing something that was likely to fall, I should be able to think of something that could be balanced on a chin.  A napkin?  A cocktail glass?  Several cocktail glasses?  A book?

The sentences in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne aren’t as long and ponderous as those in some classic literature, but there are plenty of other issues.  For example, in Chapter I, “The Prison Door,” Hawthorne starts the book with the following opener:

“A throng of bearded men, in sad colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”

That’s the first sentence?  That’s the hook?  First of all, I lost track of what the sentence was even talking about.  If you cut out all of the prepositional phrases and other interrupters, you have “A throng was assembled.”   There are over 20 words between the subject and the verb.  If I had ever written a sentence with 20 words between the subject and the verb, my English teacher would have red-lined it and pinned my essay on the Wall of Shame bulletin board.

And if I had used the phrase “sad colored garments,” my writers group peers would have criticized me for telling, not showing.  “What colors are sad in the 1600s New England culture?” they would have demanded.  And then the phrase “… the door of which…” is clumsy.  Just say “… with a heavily-timbered oak door studded with spikes.”

Of course, these aren’t the only bad sentences in classic American literature, but the average reader can tolerate no more than three at one time.  If you yearn for more bad sentences in classic literature, you can simply read classic literature.  All of it is public domain, and none of the books are expensive, unless you choose to buy the expensive versions.

Bad sentences in classic literature aren’t necessarily bad.  These sentences are written in a style that is rarely used in today’s novels and are part of what make classic literature unique.  English teachers might like these bad sentences when they’re found in classic literature, but don’t try writing like this in your essays.  If you do, you will be accused of writing… BAD SENTENCES!!

Book Trailer: The Writing Prompt by Jimmy Norman

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Maybe I should have made a book trailer for my ebook The Writing Prompt a long time ago.  I wrote The Writing Prompt about six years ago, and it’s (in a couple ways) one of the best stories that I’ve written.

Even though I don’t promote it much, the book still sells occasionally, and I’ve gotten good unsolicited feedback on my blog (I could use more Amazon reviews, but that’s okay; I don’t leave many reviews on Amazon either).

My trailer doesn’t have any spoilers.  Unlike most movie trailers, mine doesn’t give away the plot, so you can watch the trailer without any of the shocking revelations being revealed.  And then maybe you’ll want to read the book.  Or maybe you’ll want to make your own trailer.

Awkward Moments in Dating: The Cheapskate

(image via wikimedia)

It’s good to be a cheapskate sometimes, but not during a first date.  When I was in my mid-20s, I had a decent job, but I had blown all my savings and had maxxed out a couple credit cards on a really attractive girlfriend. Even though I knew at the time I was making a bad decision, I didn’t care.  But I cared after the really attractive girlfriend broke up with me.

When I told my platonic friend Suzanne (You can get more details here) that new prospect Kimberly wanted to go to a place called Ted and Johnny’s on our first date, she actually sounded excited.

“That’ll be fun!” she exclaimed.

“It’ll cost a fortune,” I said.  Ted and Johnny’s was a giant arcade place for adults with several restaurants and a bowling alley and a dance hall and a sports bar and everything was overpriced.  I could go with my friends and limit my spending to the video games, but once a woman got involved, things would always get expensive.

Suzanne didn’t understand that I was living paycheck to paycheck, trying to get my credit debt wiped out as quickly as I could.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been dating at all.  But if I waited too long, I’d start going bald.  Physically, I didn’t have all that much in my favor, except I was tall and had decent hair and could look okay in the right clothes.  Once I started going bald (I knew it was going to happen), finding the right woman would become even more difficult.  Suzanne knew about the balding in my family.  She didn’t know I was broke.

“Do I really need to let her win at everything?” I asked.  That was another potential problem with Ted and Johnny’s, the competitive focus of so many activities there.  If a man got too competitive, he could tick off his date or girlfriend.  If he let his date win, he could come across as a loser.

”50-50 is fine,” Suzanne said.  “But pay for everything.”

Of course, I was going to pay for everything.  I didn’t have much money (I pulled some cash from the ATM, which we actually had back in the 1990s), but a man always pays.

Kimberly wanted to meet me at Ted and Johnny’s, which struck me as weird because of her history of being stood up by guys.  We planned to meet at 7:00 in the Ted and Johnny’s lobby, and I arrived ten minutes early just in case.  I could have arrived just in time to make it look like I didn’t care, but I cared a little bit, and didn’t want to come across as a guy who would stand her up later.

When I walked in, she was already standing in the lobby, staring straight at me.  I was almost annoyed.  I had wanted some time to get a feel for the place, put myself in a strategic location, find all possible exits in case of emergencies, and get myself composed.  Plus, I wasn’t sure what our proper greeting should be.  A hug would be inappropriate, but standing there with a gap between us would target us as a first date to all the people watchers.  Despite being a people watcher (in an entirely appropriate way), I dislike being the target of people watchers.

“Where I work, 15 minutes early is on time,” Kimberly said.  “You’re late.”  She hit me on the shoulder.  I liked her for that.  It reminded me of horsing around in high school.

“Oh yeah?” I said with a fake tough guy voice.  “Hit me again.”

This time it was a solid punch in the exact spot as the previous punch.

I was glad she was already comfortable enough to affectionately hit me in public.  Then again, my previous girlfriend had pulled a knife on me right before we broke up.  Maybe violent women were attracted to me.  I told myself to worry about that later.

The date was fun, except for the money part.  Dinner by itself was almost $100 (and this was in 1993).  I made sure that Kimberly saw me tip at the restaurant.  Maybe I shouldn’t have worried about the tip, but it wasn’t the waiting staff’s fault that I was broke (or that I was a cheapskate).  I actually bowled pretty well, which was unusual, and she handled the losses graciously.  She watched my back in the shooting games, and ran me off the road in the racing games.  Most importantly, she was pretty good at pool.

“Do you have older brothers?” I asked suspiciously.  Most women I’d met who were good at pool had older brothers.

Kimberly smiled and nodded.

“Did they beat up guys for you?” I asked.

“A couple times,” she said.  “So watch your step.”

Ted and Johnny’s was a great place for a first date because we could walk around and interact and watch others.  We saw a nervous guy spill his drink in front of his date at the restaurant.  We saw a guy and his girlfriend get into an argument in the lobby as we passed by.  While we were bowling, we saw a boy (maybe eight years old) get yelled at by his mom, and then the dad laughed, and then the mom yelled at the dad for laughing, and then the dad yelled at the mom for yelling at him in public.

“Wow,” Kimberly said.  “A situation where everybody is unlikeable.”

“I blame the kid,” I said.  “I’m sure the parents were perfectly happy until he came along.”

Kimberly hit me on the shoulder again, same spot. “He might hear you,” she said.

“The guilt would probably do him some good.”  Just so you know, I was kidding.  Guilt is bad.  Kimberly knew I was kidding.

Despite my mood, I cringed a little every time I had to throw down another twenty dollars.  Even though I was having a good time, the money was adding up, and I had pulled out too much cash for this date.  I wasn’t going to mention it though.  If things worked out, dates could become less expensive.  I just had to get through the first couple of them.

After a few hours, Kimberly suggested we go to a late movie and maybe hang out after that.  I hadn’t expected a movie, but I couldn’t say no.  A movie wasn’t that expensive, unless she went crazy at the concession.  She said she had a newspaper in her car, and we could look up the showings and drive from there.  If an attractive woman wanted to extend a date, I’d let her, so I followed as she led me to her car.  For some reason, she had parked in a far corner of the lot, and it was kind of dark (not dangerously dark), but Kimberly just stopped as we approached the end of the parking lot.

“Did you forget where you parked?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything at first.  She took a couple steps forward, stopped, and then took a couple more steps.

“That’s mine,” she said.

I know nothing of makes and models of cars I don’t drive, so all I remember is that she pointed to an obnoxiously huge black pick-up truck.  I could see why she didn’t want to park it closer to the Ted and Johnny’s; the truck took up more than one parking space.

“Cool,” I said, even though I knew nothing about it.

“No,” she said.  “Not cool.”  Then she pointed to the back of the truck.

I walked closer and saw what she was pointing at.  The rear window of her truck was shattered, and a bunch of stuff was strewn all over the back.  It was an expensive truck.  It looked like expensive stereo equipment had been pulled out by thieves.  Even in the darkened parking lot, it looked like Kimberly was barely keeping her composure, and I felt that all too familiar sinking feeling in my gut.

Dang it, I thought, I really hoped Kimberly wasn’t expecting me to pay for all this stuff!

To be continued next week!

And in the meantime, start at the beginning with Awkward Moments in Dating: Just Friends .

Literary Glance: The American Agent: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear, author of the current mystery bestseller The American Agent, has a cool name.  As far as I know, it’s her real name.  If she’d had a boring original name, I wouldn’t have blamed her for using Jacqueline Winspear as a pseudonym.  It’s a cool name.

Fictional character Catherine Angelica Saxon from The American Agent also has a cool name, but then she gets killed off in the beginning of the novel.  That’s not a spoiler because it’s in the book description, and if it’s in the book description, it’s not a spoiler.  Anyway, I never understood wasting a cool name on a dead character.  If I thought of a cool name, I’d save it for a character who shows up a lot or one who can come back in other books.  Yeah, the cool name itself gets repeated a lot because the victims always gets talked about in mystery novels, but it still feels like so much wasted potential.

That’s not really my problem with The American Agent, though.  It’s the dialogue.  Sometimes a potentially great story is sidetracked by unnatural dialogue.  I know fans of Maisie Dobbs will disagree.  Detective/mystery fans can be the most loyal fans out there.  The most vicious insults I’ve received are from Sue Grafton fans after I said the author put too many daily routine details into her books (this was years before she died, so I wasn’t being insensitive).  Maybe it was also because I called the alphabet series a really dumb idea.  Looking back, I probably should have used language that was more diplomatic.

A lot of mystery novelists use dialogue for exposition, and in the case of The American Agent, it’s unnecessary.  In this early scene, Maisie finds out that an acquaintance of hers, a journalist from the United States, has been found dead.  It’s a predictable scene, especially since I knew the character would die before I started reading.  At this point, she is speaking with some guy named MacFarlance on the phone:

Maisie chewed her lip.  It wasn’t like McFarlane to request forgiveness.  She knew him only too well, and if he was rude, it was generally by design, not an error.

“Why are you calling me, Robbie? You’ve let me know you’re keeping tabs on me, but I am bone tired and I want to rest my weary head before I try to get some work done today, and then take my ambulance out again.”

“It’s about an American.  One of those press people over here on a quest to keep our good friends on the other side of the Atlantic informed about the war.  Name of Catherine Saxon.  In fact, Miss Catherine Angelica Saxon, to give the woman her full monicker.”

“Angelica?”

“No accounting for the Yanks, Maisie.”

Maisie rubbed her neck, following the path of an old scar now barely visible, and shivered.  “No, it’s just that… well, she was with us on the ambulance last night, just for a couple of runs because she had to make her first broadcast- she told us that she had previously only had her reports printed in the newspapers.  I can’t remember which paper she’s working for .  More than one.  Anyway, I was just listening to her on the wireless at Mrs. Partridge’s house- her report was broadcast for the Americans last night.  In fact, she told us she was very excited because it was also going out in London this morning, and she hoped she would get to be as popular as Mr. Murrow, who is as well known here as he is over there in America.  I’ve heard of him a few times myself.  Anyway, it’s just that she didn’t strike me as An Angelica, that’s all, even if it’s only a middle name.”  Maisie was aware that she was rambling, staving off whatever news MacFarlane had called to convey.  She’d wanted to escape war and death if only for the time it took to wallow in a hot bath.

Just so you know, Maisie spoke uninterrupted over the phone for 151 words.  That’s a lot of consecutive words for a conversation.  True, the author admits that Maisie knew she was rambling, but that doesn’t make the exposition through dialogue any more natural.  Did Maisie really need to tell MacFarlane that Edward R. Murrow was well known in England?  Did Maisie really need to explain her bewilderment over the name Angelica?

Here’s how this scene could have looked, with less dialogue but the same information:

Maisie chewed her lip.  It wasn’t like McFarlane to request forgiveness.  She knew him only too well, and if he was rude, it was generally by design, not an error.

“Why are you calling me, Robbie?” she asked.  “You’ve already let me know you’re keeping tabs on me.” Maisie was bone tired and wanted to rest her weary head before she tried to get some work done, and then take her ambulance out again.

“It’s about an American.  One of their press people.  Name of Catherine Saxon.  Miss Catherine Angelica Saxon.

“Angelica?”

“No accounting for the Yanks, Maisie.”

Maisie rubbed her neck, following the path of an old scar now barely visible, and shivered.  “No, it’s just that… well, she was with us on the ambulance last night, just for a couple of runs because she had to make her first broadcast- she told us that she had previously only had her reports printed in the newspapers.  I can’t remember which paper she’s working for.  More than one.”

Maisie explained the details as best she could, how she had been listening to on the wireless at Mrs. Partridge’s house- Ms. Saxon’s report was broadcast for the Americans last night.  Saxon had told them she was very excited because it was also going out in London this morning, and she hoped she would get to be as popular as Edward R. Murrow.

When Maisie caught herself rambling about how Mrs. Saxon hadn’t struck her as an Angelica, she knew she was staving off whatever news MacFarlane had called to convey.  Maisie wanted to escape war and death if only for the time it took to wallow in a hot bath.

Maybe I’m old fashioned for believing exposition shouldn’t be all dialogue.  Then again, a lot of old mystery novelists used the same technique as Winspear, so maybe she’s the old fashioned one and I’m just cranky and hypercritical.  Maybe it’s just my personal preference.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t like The American Agent.  It could still be a good mystery novel.  And Jacqeline Winspear still has a cool name.  No amount of block paragraph dialogue can change that.