Audio memoir–part three

17976895_ml-with-xAs mentioned before, you don’t need to be a professional sound engineer to create an audio memoir. You do need to be patient and persistent. You also need to be willing to learn some new skills. Thankfully, they aren’t too difficult. Last time we looked at the cheapest recording alternatives. This time we’ll look at a couple more, one which costs a bit. But both programs take sound recording–in terms of the experience required to use them and the result–to a higher level. Once again, I’m beholden to Steven Whitworth for his help in sorting all this out.

He recommends one of two programs available on-line: Audacity and/or Reaper.

Audacity (available here) is open source shareware, meaning that the code is freely available to both users and developers. Though Audacity is available for your use at no charge, remember that many people donated their time and expertise to create and maintain it; the least you can do is pony up a few bucks in a donation aimed at encouraging them to keep the program viable.

(Side note: a major upgrade to the Audacity code was developed by Paul Licameli who is not only a brilliant programmer, but a gifted voice-over artist as well. He single-handedly produced the amazing Audible version of my short story collection, Christmas Beyond the Box, which you should rush out and buy right away! Or, you can order your copy here.)

According to Steve, Audacity provides a well thought out setup and a thorough range of features. I can attest to that, too. I’ve used the program to do soundtracks for book trailers. Below is a screen shot of Audacity in action. Try not to freak out over all the controls. It’s actually less complicated than it looks. The documentation for both programs is more than adequate, and if you take your time, you should have little difficulty navigating either one.


Reaper (get your copy here) has much more going for it than a creepy name. Once again, according to Steve, it provides an excellent set-up in their virtual mixer with adequate but easy to use enhancements–features somewhat superior to those on Audacity. You’ll have to pay for it, however. The standard home edition is listed on their website for $60. That’s an excellent deal.

Also note: Older versions of far more sophisticated programs like Logic Pro (for Apple) and Pro-Tools (for the PC) are available for download at greatly reduced prices. The cost is in the $30-40 range. HOWEVER, the learning curve is much steeper, and they take up a tremendous amount of space on your hard drive.

Either Audacity or Reaper will do a great job and are not much harder to use than a garden variety tape recorder. Their output can be markedly improved, however, by the use of some additional hardware, which we’ll discuss next time in the final installment of this topic.

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Audio memoir–part two

Thanks to the efforts of my writer/musician/watchmaker friend, Steve Whitworth, I finally have the information I need to finish addressing the topic of audio memoirs. Steve’s knowledge and familiarity with the art of sound recording far exceeds anything most folk need to create a quality audio rendition of their life story. But it never hurts to heed the recommendations of a pro. So here goes….

22107481_ml-plus-textThe kind of software you’ll need comes in two broad flavors. The first is browser-based, meaning that you need to go on-line and connect with a website, and do your recording there. The second option is software you download and install on your computer so you can use it anytime, without needing the internet. Which type you choose depends largely on your budget, the size of your recording project, and the quality level you’d like to achieve. Like everything else in life, there are trade-offs.

For the rest of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the browser-based products. We’ll get to the downloadable software next time around. Then, to wrap up any remaining loose ends, we’ll look at affordable options for hardware to dramatically improve the quality of your recording.

The goal of our audio editor search was to find something free (or very cheap) which a user with little or no recording experience could tackle quickly and easily. There are several browser-based programs that will do the job, but two stand out above the others for simplicity and ease of use. Your internet browser is already up and running, so zip on over to Hya-Wave and/or TwistedWave.

Both of these websites offer exactly what we were looking for: controls that mimic tape recorder buttons and very little else. The on-screen wave forms should be familiar to anyone who watches crime dramas on TV, and even if you don’t, it’ll quickly become clear what they represent. The downside to using these on-line programs is that you’ll be limited to short duration clips–recordings of 5 minutes each.

Presumably, you could digitally “glue” them together later, but that would require the use of another program, most likely one that came with your computer (both Mac and PC come with a variety of such applications) or one you’d have to download. So if you’re keen on recording your memoir, there’s very likely a new download in your future.

I tried both Hya-Wave and TwistedWave, with the built-in microphone in my computer and with an auxiliary mic I plugged into a USB port. (I used a Samson C01U studio condenser microphone which I purchased at a guitar store a couple years back for under $100.) The difference in sound quality was, and I’m not exaggerating, astounding.

When I used the built-in microphone, my voice sounded muffled and indistinct. It was equally bad in both systems. Most of those issues instantly disappeared when I used the “real” microphone.

I was disappointed by the quality of the Hya-Wave recordings which slowed down in playback, and I could find no way to speed them up. Though the second recording, done with the auxiliary mic was better by a thousand percent, the playback still sounded slow.

I had no such problems with TwistedWave and therefore recommend it as the better of the two systems.

Setting up an account with TwistedWave is free and easy. And, since you’ll need a great deal more than five-minute chunks if you’re going to record an entire memoir, it makes sense to pay for an upgrade. Five bucks a month buys the basic plan which allows for 20-minute files and a total of 10 hours of storage. That ought to cover most memoir projects. If not, an “advanced” package is available for ten dollars a month and provides 60-minute file capability with storage for 20 hours of recordings. If you need more than that, you obviously talk too much!

If your recording goal is to do it fast and cheap, this is the way to go. For a little more money, however, you’ll get a much better result using software that’s loaded directly onto your computer. We’ll discuss that next time.

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A Word or Two About Attitude

21699372_m MACI’m often asked why I teach. The pay, if there is any, is pitiful, and I usually spend more time preparing to teach than I do teaching (although I’m getting a little better about that). The answer is that I love being inspired. When I watch someone struggle to do something that’s relatively easy for me, my natural inclination is to offer assistance. When I see a student make the transition from someone wondering if they can write to someone who knows damn well they can write, my inspiration bucket suddenly overflows. They’ve accomplished something, and so have I.

I’ll never take credit for what they’ve achieved, but I’ll revel in the knowledge that I helped them do it. The feeling is amazing, and amazingly difficult to explain.

druidsCover_v06FRONTrgb300dpi-c12I remember the day I opened a box containing a shipment of my first published novel, Druids, a collaboration with my Canadian writer friend, Barbara Galler-Smith. We’d worked on the project for over a decade, and when I held a real, live copy of the book in my hands for the very first time, I wept. Not a very manly thing to do, I know, but I couldn’t have stopped those tears any more than I could have parted the Red Sea on command. (Druids is one helluva book, by the way. You can get a copy here.)

That was ten novels ago, and while I no longer tear up when a copy of a new book arrives, I still feel a thrill. And it’s not all that different from the feeling I get when a student of mine experiences the same tangible proof of their success. They’re holding something only they could have done, the product of their imagination and hard work. That book, and any accolade for it, belongs to them.

For me, that process begins in the classroom (mine are all continuing ed classes). It begins with a small crowd of hopeful, curious, and often doubtful people. They’re there to learn, to see if they’ve got what it takes, to see if they, too, can create something from nothing. Their doubts are based on fears, imagined or real. Some of them hated writing in school; for some, English is a second language; for still others, they’ve gotten the idea they’re too old to start working on something as difficult as writing a book–any kind of book. And yet, they keep coming to the classes. They keep working on their skills. They keep asking for more and better techniques, methods and strategies for improvement.

And they do improve!

They figure out how to bend the writing “rules,” such as they are, to their will. They learn what works and what doesn’t. They share their efforts with other students, offer insights and suggestions, make comments and evaluate the pros and cons of story, theme, setting, character, plot, and all the other elements that go into the stew. Learning to recognize the good and bad in the work of others makes it easier to discern it in their own. I can tell them what to look for, but ultimately they’re the ones who must find it.

Josh stocks ECUAnd every time they succeed, I succeed a little bit, too. It’s not altruism; I’m as unlikely a candidate for sainthood as anyone you’ll ever meet. I have an addiction; I thrive on the accomplishments of those I mentor. They inspire me, recharge my batteries, and motivate me to go back to work, whether it’s writing or teaching.

Over the past three years, six of my charges have published books–three of them twice! And another half dozen will join them before the year is out. That’s what I call inspiration.

God, how I love what I do!

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More on covers, not “moron covers”

bad coverI know your Mom told you not to judge a book by its cover, but frankly that’s absurd. If someone’s browsing for a book to buy, the cover is the first thing they see. If you can’t intrigue a potential reader during the nanosecond he or she devotes to your cover, you’ve lost a sale. Clunk. Done.

So, how can you make sure your cover works? Start by saving this list of suggestions and then try using them. Just remember, all of this is rule of thumb; it ain’t gospel. You might be able to get away with ignoring an item or two, but chances are you’ll have a better cover if you don’t.

1 — Try to find a single idea from your story to portray on the cover, then make it as compelling as possible. Give it the majority of space and importance. Don’t try to drop clues about other things that happen along the way. No extra photos, no floating props, no insider messages. Stick to the main point. (I think the point of Flightless Angels is that some people are seriously stupid.)

You’ve got very little reader consideration time to work with, so your cover has to be powerful enough to instantly convey the genre, the primary focus, and the tone of your story. Is it a mystery? An epic fantasy? A memoir? A textbook? Whatever you’ve written, the cover needs to make it obvious.

Sad cover2 — Chances are, you won’t ever find the perfect graphic, the one that absolutely nails what you’re trying to get across. But, if you’re intent on using an image of some kind, find one that doesn’t obscure your message. Look for a cover graphic that captures the feel of the story, whether it’s bright, gloomy or something in between.

3 — Don’t overwhelm the cover with colors. Stick with a limited color palette. There are a variety of them online. Take the time to review them if you aren’t sure what colors work best together.

4 — Your reader shouldn’t have to guess at the title. Use large, easy-to-read letters and a font that fits the character of the work for your title. (Never use Comic Sans, as in the first example’s byline.)

5 — If you can’t read the title on a thumbnail, make the title bigger. That thumbnail could be the only way your potential reader ever sees your book.

6 — Avoid using more than two fonts, and don’t put anything in all caps. You want to positively influence your potential reader. All caps means shouting. Do yourself a favor; don’t shout at potential readers.

Free to be cover7 —  Using homegrown artwork on your cover is generally a bad idea. Avoid the temptation. Cheap clip art is not an acceptable substitute! Spend a couple bucks on good art. You won’t regret it. The internet will open the door to an endless array of stock photo sellers, and most of them share a great deal of the same material.

8 — Your best bet may be to pay a professional to design your cover. The do-it-yourself variety tend to be pretty obvious, and that’s not the image you want to project.

[Note: the covers shown here are for non-existent works. I made ’em up as examples of bad covers. I can’t help it if some readers might actually want to read whatever might be inside of them, but the thought makes me shudder. –Josh]


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How to drive readers away. Cover fails…

cover gummyGood covers help sell books; bad ones almost never do. I say “almost” because you might find a cover are so utterly awful, amateurish or dumb that you’re tempted to buy it to see if the writing is just as bad. This is like hitting your head with a variety of hard objects to see which generates the worst headache. Don’t let your cover be one of them.

No matter what kind of book you’re writing, a bad cover can sabotage all your hard work. If you can’t think of a good illustration, a nifty font, or a way to typographically promote your idea, just use plain bold text on a color background. It might not be sexy, but at least it won’t completely suck. And people will be able to read the title!

Consider the Gummy Baby cover above. I have not read it, nor do I intend to, but readers of gruesome short stories featuring young children might like it. (Get your copy here.) I’m posting it simply to point out some of the issues one can run into when designing a cover.

Let’s start with the overwhelming background image and the photo overlay of lips and a tongue. Even assuming the mouth addition is a good idea (which I doubt), you’d be hard pressed to see it in the thumbnail version. The title also disappears amid the candy even though it’s big enough to stand out. The color is just… wrong. The blurb likewise dissolves in the confectionery madness as it does on a full-size rendering. Last of all, the author’s name is nearly invisible in a thumbnail, and doesn’t do much better full-scale. The one message we can’t escape is that this story has something to do with gummy bears. Yuck.

A good book cover should deliver a message, but it ought to be one that puts an idea in a reader’s head, and more specifically, an intriguing idea. You do, after all, want to sell what’s inside, so why make the wrapper appear toxic?

cover IsisConsider the cover for Isis: The Beauty Myth (buy it here). I’m going to crawl out on a limb here and guess the cover illustration was not done by a professional artist. Conventional wisdom suggests that a pretty face, which I’m guessing is the goal here, ought to include a nose, two eyes, and maybe even an ear. Isis here, despite a charming, albeit massive, pair of ruby lips, appears to be missing some of the aforementioned standard equipment. Maybe that’s the whole point of the story; I don’t know. I haven’t read this one either, and with this cover, I’ve no intention of doing so, which is sad because it might be a great story.

If I were re-designing this, I’d focus on the title font, enlarge it and find a compelling image to go with it. I’d also beef up the size of the author’s name so it’s not lost in the shuffle.

cover BigfootNext up is the cover for Bigfoot Bob (available here). Bob Smith is Bigfoot Bob, and I’m guessing the hirsute fellow on the cover is the author rather than one of the critters he’s after (or possibly a lost member of ZZ ZZ TopTop).

The large black box which, thankfully, obscures Bob’s nether regions tells readers exactly what this wannabe blockbuster is about. Unfortunately, it’s done in a font and color scheme that’s barely legible here let alone in a thumbnail, which is all most readers will see. Likewise, the image suggests this is what a bigfoot looks like rather than a bigfoot hunter. Why Bob hunts in the nude is a question for another day. This cover needs a makeover in the worst way. Sorry Bob. You, too, bigfoot.

cover DeadendZipping right along, we find the cover for  Dead End in The Pyrenees (get your copy here). I’ve got to say I love the background photo. I just wish the designer hadn’t quit right there. Would it have killed him or her to center the title? Or use a photo of a real Volkswagon instead of something from a freebie clip art collection? Or, at the very least, make the author’s name big enough to read, and in a font that doesn’t get buried in the background?

What’s also interesting to note (from the Amazon sales page): this is the fourth book in a series. I have no idea if the first three covers were similarly mangled, but I suspect so. There’s potential here, but all of it has been overlooked and/or misinterpreted. I also note that “Author Way” is the publisher. Evidently, they don’t know squat about covers either, or they’d never have let this one sneak by. My guess is they were done the instant they got paid.

It’s not that hard to come up with a good cover, even on your own. You can pay a designer to build one or use any of the cover construction tools available on the internet. I will revisit this issue soon with a list of things to keep in mind if you opt to design your own.


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Saving your family’s words of wisdom

I touched on this topic a couple years back, but it bears repeating, especially for those working on a memoir. For many of us, there are precious words of wisdom tucked away in our memories. Odd and typically quirky, these folksy lines played a subtle yet important role in our childhoods. We ignore them all too often today, because they haven’t been run through a Madison Avenue filter, nor are they used by the relentlessly Mid-western broadcast voices we hear every day.

If we’re lucky, we won’t have much trouble digging them up to share with our own progeny. BUT, we have to commit ourselves to doing so. Memoir writers, on the other hand, have additional opportunities. They can work these gems into their personal histories and leave these verbal riches for posterity.

“Wish in one hand, spit in the other. See which fills up first.”

Gramma02I’m channeling the wisdom of the diminutive Anna Gunderson Hasdal, the only one of my grand quartet to survive past my third birthday. Doubtless the other three could have provided similar proverbs if they’d only had the chance, and I ache for the memories of them I’ll never have.

Happily, Anna lived a long and bountiful life, and I have many great memories of her. Standing all of 4 foot 10 in her sensible, sturdy, little shoes, Anna left Norway at 18 and sailed to America. She shuffled through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century and made her way to Chicago where she sought her fortune as a housekeeper. She met and married yet another ex-pat Norwegian, and they had four children, one of whom was my late mother.

“Gramma” was a no-nonsense gal, and I dearly wish she could share her wisdom with me and my writing classes today. She could teach me so, so much about a world which no longer exists–the one she grew up in. What she learned about that world, however, still applies to this one.

“What you don’t have in your head, you have in your feet.”

This one annoyed me greatly as a child, because I heard it so often. I hated it because it was true; it’s still true today: forget the car keys? Walk back and get ’em; forget my class notes? Go back and get ’em. Forget the grocery list? Thankfully, parts of my memory still work, and I know I can survive without everything on the missing list. I’ve gotten quite a kick out of using the phrase on my own kids — and with any luck, they’ll use it on theirs, too. We’ll see.

“I have more time than money.”Gramma01

It was true for Anna, and it’s still true for me and my bride. Better still, it requires no explanation.

“We don’t count the food.”

Anna wasn’t the only one to dole out familial wisdom. The above line was one of my dad’s favorite expressions. The third of five boys in his family, they shared a house with their parents plus various aunts and uncles all through the Depression. There’s no doubt in my mind a limited budget demanded that all food be scrupulously accounted for. As an adult, Dad no longer had such concerns, and that provides everything I need to understand.

Anna Mpls 59“Chickens don’t praise their own soup.”

I seriously doubt my grandmother ever said this, but I can easily imagine her doing it, and I can almost hear that faint Scandinavian lilt in her voice, which was every bit as small and charming as she was. Best of all, this one takes a moment or two to absorb. And, seriously, shouldn’t advice be something one has to think about to appreciate? Otherwise it’s not much more than, “Be careful, or you’ll shoot yer eye out!” Okay, got it. Moving on now, sans BB gun. And self respect. Here’s another my great dame would surely have endorsed:

“Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.”

If only our elected representatives put this to use! In lieu of that, we must do what we can, and this is prime stuff for a memoir. It’ll go in mine, for sure, one way or another. Which brings me back to the beginning–spend the time it takes to dig up the sayings which got traction in your family.

“Cook ’em; don’t Shermanize ’em!”

This one I remember quite vividly; it was a favorite of my late father-in-law. Long ago, when I dated his youngest daughter, he would dispatch us to the backyard barbecue grill on Saturday nights with that one grand injunction. Saturday night was steak night, and you didn’t want to mess with that man’s favorite meal. Fortunately, we didn’t screw it up too often. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have had his blessing when I asked for permission to marry his sweet baby girl.

Please, do your best to capitalize on these things. They may help to keep alive the memories of loved ones long gone. Though the sayings may have been corny, or ungrammatical, or phrased with a degree of color rarely seen today, your memoir will benefit from them. And so will your readers.

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The Great Skippy Peanut Butter Factory Massacre

For too many memoir writers, the task is about recounting a life and nothing more. What these folks miss is the opportunity to share life lessons from a more mature perspective. I’m not talking about Monday morning quarterbacking. There’s a reason we remember some incidents in our lives and not others, and it isn’t based on the degree of trauma involved. Examining those episodes through a present-day lens can help put them in a more useful context. And, in some cases, may offer opportunities for humor–an all too rare commodity in most memoirs.

To wit: an excerpt from my own life story from the 1950s, which I refer to as “The Great Skippy Peanut Butter Factory Massacre.”

His name was Bennett, but I can’t remember if it was his first name or his last. He lived in the house at the end of the block, but I can’t remember what the house looked like. I can’t even remember what he looked like. But I do remember he was the luckiest kid on Earth, and the massacre was really all his fault.

Howdy podnuhBennett had everything: a big-screen TV (a full 13 inches, measured diagonally), no older brothers, a basketball hoop mounted eight feet off the ground instead of ten, and he had a spring board. Topping it all off, he had not one, but two junior-size Lakers basketballs, the kind an eight-year-old can almost palm if the rubber hide isn’t too dirty or worn too smooth. It’s not that I was a great fan of the Lakers, because I wasn’t; not many people in Minneapolis were, which probably explains why the team wound up moving to Los Angeles. But I sure liked those junior-size basketballs–and Bennett had two of ‘em!

When I was at his house, we could both take shots. We would drag the spring board out of the garage and set it up in strategic positions near the basket. We used leftover house paint to outline the square base of the spring board in several places on the driveway. (I recall Bennett’s mom saying something about that; she wasn’t pleased.) We took turns running down the short drive from the alley, leaping as high as possible and landing, heels down, on the spring board. The board catapulted us into the air and empowered us to make incredible dunks and miraculous saves. I could go from ground level to eyeball-even with the rim of the basket; I was Jerry West, Bob Cousy, and Peter Pan–all rolled into one!

Or I could stay at home. Our basket was ten feet high and our regulation-size ball was so smooth it was hard to hold with two hands unless it was wet, or unless you were one of my brothers or one of their friends. Turns were something they had three of for every one of mine, unless we were playing “Pig,” a follow-the-leader game where you got one letter of the game’s title word every time you missed a shot. When you had all the letters, you were out. I was out a lot. Bennett and I played the same game at his house, but we called it “Tyrannosaurus Rex” or “Duck-billed Platypus.”

Howdy_DoodyThe other thing I really liked to do at Bennett’s house was watch TV. When Buffalo Bob came on and asked, “Hey kids, what time is it?” we didn’t have to listen to my clever brothers say “It’s ‘Captain Video’ time!” which is what they always said at my house. They always insisted on using the democratic method to determine which program to watch. I think my brothers invented block voting. As I recall, we only had three TV channels back then, so there weren’t any other choices. If I wanted to watch “Howdy Doody,” I just about had to be at Bennett’s. 

Don’t get the idea my brothers and I never agreed on anything, even though there may be some truth to it. There was one particular show we never missed. Each week the whole family would gather in front of the old Zenith to watch “You Asked For It!” with Art Baker. It became something of a tradition.

The show’s sponsor was Skippy Peanut Butter, and in our house, it became something of a tradition, too. It wasn’t a case of the other brands not measuring up, they were simply never considered. But only creamy Skippy was acceptable. Somebody, probably my father, brought home a jar of chunky once, and it lived in the cabinet for years. Sometimes my mother would try to sneak some into a PBJ sandwich, but she never got away with it. There must be a law of nature that prevents chunky peanut butter from spoiling, ‘cause that jar lasted forever.

You asked for itLife would have been truly idyllic if only I could have spent the afternoons at Bennett’s. Alas, my folks said a family ought to be together at dinner time. Mom and Dad would sit at opposite ends of the big table; my brothers would be on one side and my sister, who’s the oldest of the four of us, would sit next to me. She and I got along great since the only thing we had in common was a last name.

Now, any kid who’s ever’ swished a shot from the foul line knows the best time to shoot baskets is during those special hours tucked between the end of school and the beginning of dinner. There’s a kind of magic in effect at that time of day, a special something that enhances a shooter’s aim, adds loft to a lay-up and takes the edge off the worst arguments about who fouled whom. As far as I can tell, it still holds true today.

Back then, the best way for me to follow up an afternoon of basketball was to watch the “Howdy Doody Show,” which is why I was frequently late getting home for dinner. When I eventually got home, my mother and I would observe yet another tradition, like a responsive reading, except we both had our parts memorized.

“You’re late,” Mom would say.

“I know. I’m sorry,” I would always respond.

“Don’t they have any clocks at Bennett’s house?”

“Sure, but you know, we were busy, and I sorta forgot to look.”

“You didn’t notice it was getting dark?”

“Well, yeah, but it gets darker earlier every day!” (After all, basketball is a winter sport, and the best time to get ready for it is in the fall. Finding a place to shoot baskets outdoors during a Minneapolis winter is tricky.)

“But if the sun goes down earlier, shouldn’t that give you even more time to get home?”

“I guess.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Okay, you’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“I’ve heard that before.” Which is true, I made the same promise every time. I suppose I should have said “It won’t happen again, tonight,” but I never did.

Skippy jar 1955One night, after we had observed the usual “You’re late/I’m sorry” ritual, Dad made an exciting announcement: his company had been hired to produce a training film for the local Skippy Peanut Butter factory. That was a shocker, we hadn’t known there was a local Skippy Peanut Butter factory! Dad planned to make arrangements to tour the facility, which was only open to the public on Saturdays, and wondered if any of us wanted to come along. He knew the answer in advance; even my sister wanted to go! The date was set: a Saturday some four weeks off. Who knew–Art Baker himself might even be there!

I believe it was the following day, an hour or two after resuming my usual occupation in Bennett’s driveway, that I really noticed how dark it was getting. I must have said something to Bennett because I remember him running to his garage, swinging his arm in a theatrical flourish and yelling “Ta-da!” just before he flipped on the newly installed floodlights. Sundown? Hah! We managed to get in at least an extra half hour. I returned home tired, but happy.

“You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sor–“

“Don’t say it!” My mom had a stare that could freeze water coming out of a spout.


“Don’t say another word. I’ve heard it all anyway.”



I shushed.

“Your father and I had a long talk about you. We’re tired of having to track you down every night before dinner.”

Track me down? Right. As if my location had ever been a mystery. But I opted not to respond as I could already feel little red chunks of ice bobbing around in my bloodstream.

“It’s about time you learned some responsibility,” she said. “So here’s what we’re going to do.”

I’ve always had a pretty vivid imagination so it wasn’t difficult to conclude that my trips to Bennett’s would soon be banned.

“The next time you show up late for dinner, you’re going to lose a privilege.”

“A privilege? You mean like stayin’ up late on a Friday night?”

“I mean like going to the Skippy factory.”

“The Skippy factory?”

All of a sudden the little chunks of ice floating around in my system decided to have a team meeting at mid-court–somewhere near my heart.

“Yup,” she said. I remember her voice was light, almost unconcerned, and wouldn’t have been any less incongruous if she had confirmed that one of my toes was about to be removed–at about the knee.

“I won’t be late again. I promise.”

“Good,” was all she said.

For the next two weeks, I was the most punctual child on the planet. There were times when I was even early. I figured I was storing up “earliness” like a squirrel stashing nuts for the winter.

Color TVIn all fairness to Bennett, I shouldn’t really blame him for what came next. While President Eisenhower was warning everybody about the “military/industrial complex” Bennett’s folks went out and spent their vacation money on the entertainment industry’s greatest achievement: color TV!

Somehow the magic went out of the junior-size Laker basketballs, the springboard, and the dwindling daylight. How could it possibly compete with the likes of “Crusader Rabbit,” “Tom and Jerry,” or “Huckleberry Hound”–in full and sometimes accurate, color? Dinnertime couldn’t compete very well either. I went home late.

Mom met me at the door. “You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sor–“

“You know what this means, don’t you?”

Even someone with extremely limited deductive powers could tell this was not a happy woman. “The Skippy trip?” I asked.

“The Skippy trip,” she confirmed. “Your dinner is in the kitchen.”

That’s all she said! Period. She didn’t ask why I was late or anything. There was no argument, no pleading, no tears, no second thoughts–nothing. And it was two whole weeks before we were going on the tour! There was no way in the world she could possibly remember I had been late that one lousy time.

If I had turned punctuality into an art form before, I became one of the “Old Masters” in the days that followed. I made sure I was home early every night, not just once in a while. I was the first one at the dinner table. I ate the liver. I even helped with the dishes when it wasn’t my turn. I wagered everything I had on the value of good works to dull the memory of my earlier transgression.

The long-awaited Saturday finally arrived. The house was a bustle of activity as we all got dressed and ready. I remember helping my sister clean up after breakfast as Dad loaded the Brownie with fresh film and stuffed his pockets with little blue flash bulbs.

We all prepared to troop out to the car when Mom pulled me aside and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”

That was definitely not a question I was prepared to hear. “The Skippy factory?” I suggested.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I told you what would happen if you were late one more time.”

I wept. I moaned. I sobbed. I rolled my eyes so far back in my head it hurt. I fell to the floor and actually begged. Oh, such pathosEveryone tip-toed by me, avoiding eye contact as if it would somehow ensnare them in my guilt. No condemned man ever created a greater spectacle than I did that morning, nor was any such protest less effective.

No reprieve. Mom was a rock, her face a mask of steely resolve. While my family spent the day reveling in Skippydom, I languished in my room.

That evening I discovered I represented only half of the casualties. Rounding out the massacre was my father, the very architect of the whole affair. His undoing came when a security guard spotted his camera and leaped to the conclusion there was industrial espionage afoot.

While I sat in my room, Dad sat in the car. (When he and his film crew arrived some weeks later there was a similar scene with the same uniformed enforcer, but the outcome was entirely different. I never did get to see the training film.)

Much later, I learned there were other casualties as well, including at least a part of my childhood innocence. And despite my considerable display of grief, my mother suffered most of all. In later years she confessed that saying “no” to me that day was one of the hardest things she ever had to do.


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