Thursday, March 23, 2023

My letter to Grace seeking grace

 This is the letter I wrote to the 10-year-old girl, an aspiring writer, after she gave me the only copy of her 22-page handwritten book to review and I lost it.

I had her father read it first. I thought there was a chance he’d hit me. Instead, he got choked up and shook my hand.

I gotta be honest: I gave a lot of serious thought to trying to lie my way out of this one …

Dear Grace,

When your father  asked if I’d  be willing to read something you’d written, I didn’t hesitate. I’m more than happy to encourage young writers like yourself to pursue the kind of life I’ve been lucky enough to have lived.. I’ve been writing for 40 years and I still tingle with satisfaction knowing I’ve crafted a sentence that people will want to re-read because t made them laugh or think.

He gave me the draft of the book you started — in one night — on Wednesday. On Thursday I did something wise followed by something unbelievably stupid. First the wisdom.

I teach creative writing at Point Park U. I told my students that I’d begun a new book and I began to read them what you’d written. I read them two pages and asked what they thought. One student said it was “imaginative.” One said the writing was “well-paced.” Two said for me to keep reading. They wanted class turned into story time. Then I confessed I’d lied. I told them the writer was the 10-year-old daughter of a Ligonier friend. And they were amazed. One said you must be a prodigy.  I said that’s the perfect word to describe what you’re doing.

Now for the stupid. I don’t know if you can forgive me but I lost what you put so much heart into. I have no excuse. The class is 3 hours long and leads to a sprawl of papers, but I should be more careful with something so precious.  You can be furious with me. I deserve it.

But I’m going to urge you to do something else. I’m going to urge you to take three deep breaths (through the nose!). And do it all over again. The best writers aren’t really writers at all. They’re re-writers. A first draft can be a frolic. Very loose. Almost stream of conscious. I’m not saying yours was, but a rigorous re-write shines with a discipline that demands respect

So you can curse me — I’d start with that — but I recommend you learn from this and add it as another rung on the ladder to success I’m sure you’ll ascend. Lastly, make copies of EVERY THING. It’s a lesson every writer learns. It was just my incompetence that gave you a particularly vivid lesson at an early age.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The perils of parallel parking


(578 words)

I’ve said before that a father teaching a daughter to drive is like a warden teaching an inmate how to escape.

So as of yesterday it was, “One-Adam-12! One-Adam-12! We have an APB for a female 16-year-old known to come to a complete stop even at desolate intersections. Suspect exhibits pathological disdain for having to parallel park.”

That comes from me. Here’s the sum of my parallel parking instructions:

“Accelerate past the vacancy to reduce the temptation to parallel park there. Drive in a relaxed fashion until you find a spacious surface lot with three adjoining spaces. Park in the middle one. Summon Uber and pay $5 or so bucks to drop you off at the front door of your destination.”

This was her second time taking the test. I told her (lied) 72 percent of test takers who fail do so because of a parallel parking failure. 

“Just like you!”

Citing the made-up statistic did nothing to ease her despondency.  I needed to say something wise and insightful. Here, after hours of deliberation, is what I came up with:

“You’ll get ‘em next time, kiddo!”

That’s it. It was like she was 4 and blew a chance to win a silly straw at an Aisle 6 supermarket promotion.

Happily, God is well-aware of my many shortcomings. He (pronoun from Biblical sources) sent me two examples that bestowed perspective and levity that helped deflate her tension.

The first was a timely recollection of an “Austin Powers” clip of him 

trying to execute a 3-point turn. It’s absolutely hilarious. Check it out right here.

The second example caught me by surprise. He’s not someone for whom I’ve ever felt any affinity. He was a bad husband to one of my favorite Hollywood lovelies (Jennifer Garner) and he’s currently imposing his New England mopiness on another (Jennifer Lopez).

Yes, it’s Ben Affleck. I normally wouldn’t pay any attention to Affleck news, but I was having a bad day and the way small-minded men like me feel better about ourselves is reading about people we envy having days that suck. The headline is  “Another Rough Day for Ben Affleck,” by Danielle Cohen in New York magazine. It’s terrific.

So what was the source of the Afflek’s angst? Did he and Garner have families to blend? Did J-Lo ask him to break dance in her next video?

No, the trouble was parallel parking. This is from Cohen’s story.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to parallel park, but it is akin to entering the fifth circle of hell, with the sixth being doing it while people watch. (This magazine’s official stance on parallel parking: “People should be allowed the grace to park alone without being perceived.”) So it only makes sense that Ben Affleck, who recently resumed his reign as the king of despair, was subjected to being not only watched but also filmed while trying to work his way out of a parking crisis.

“On Monday, Affleck found himself in the nightmarish scenario of attempting to wiggle his Mercedes-Benz out of a parking spot in Brentwood. Affleck knows better than anyone that we live in a cruel, cruel world, so of course TMZ managed to secure footage of the entire ordeal.”

We can relate.

I propose we alter the spelling of the hassle to better reflect all that could go wrong in attempting it.

It’s peril-l-ous parking.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2023

RIP Charlie Appleton: a great newspaperman, an even better man


(478 words)

Charlie Appleton, the extraordinary newsman, would have frowned at all the adulatory words being used to mourn the passing of Charlie Appleton, the ordinary family man. 

And just the sight of the word “adulatory” in a scrappy newspaper would have set him off.

He came from the man-bites-dog school of news gathering, but then raised the bar by becoming a de facto dean of the man-bites-dog-then-marries-the-bitch school of journalism.

He had a genius for finding the best, most compelling stories with just a phone and a rolodex of sources he’d painstakingly groomed to trust him implicitly. 

He was the first person to offer his friendship when in 1985 I started working at the Nashville Banner. We became very good friends.

If it sounds like I’m bragging, let me clarify.

Charlie was like Arnold Palmer. I used to brag I was friends with Palmer until it dawned on me that Palmer was friends with everyone.

It was the same with Charlie, the only reporter I knew that had his own catch phrase.

“… and in a bizarre twist …” 

He’d be talking in confidential tones before saying a courteous goodbye.Then he’d set the phone down and turn to the editor and share the facts of what at first would seem to be a routine crime story until, “… and in a bizarre twist …”

That’s when everyone in the newsroomleaned in to learn the bizarre twist. 

I remember one time the bizarre twist was a mother marrying her son — I remember it being in one of Tennessee’s less cosmopolitan zip codes. Strange, but true.

It’s always noteworthy when a senior newsperson dies to see his or her juniors compete to see who can compose the most reverential eulogy.

I’ve already read many fine tributes to this great man by so many dear old friends that I don’t feel compelled to add.

I will, instead, offer another sentiment that comes first to my mind when I think of  dear old Charlie.


See, Charlie is solely responsible for getting me the job with National Enquirer, the notorious tabloid that brought me in to chase the amazing tales I go back to time and time again when I know people are counting on me to be interesting.

I remember interviewing at The Enquirer’s Lantana, Florida, offices prepared for a day-long grilling over my resourcefulness, my tenacity, my ethics …

Kidding! They cared not about ethics — as long as you didn’t have any. I’d fit right in.

For me, there’d be no interview.

“Oh, the job is yours, if you want it,” she said. “Charlie Appleton vouched for you and that’s all we need to hear.”

So I’m thankful that Charlie recognized in me a kindred spirit for telling stories.

And coincidentally, for being a decent human being who will be loved and missed by one and all.

In a bizarre twist that’s what I aspire to one day  become as well.

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