Tag: high school

From Book Reports to Blogging: On Writing Essays

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In addition to teaching me (almost) everything I know about science, Isaac Asimov taught me that essay collections are poison at the box office. He then went on to become the exception that proved the rule by publishing scores of essays collections. Prior to reading Asimov’s essays, my general perception of the form was that it was something dull. I distinctly remember wondering why anyone would commit an essay on purpose.

This began to change for me in 10th grade. Prior to that, essays were things written for standardized tests. Or they were book reports. They were formulaic, the formula being one part introduction, two parts argument, one part rebuttal, and one part conclusion. This was how one made an argument in writing. Rhetoric, it was sometimes called. In older times, it was referred to as a “theme.” Good letters to the editor would often be comprised of the five paragraph essays in the measures listed above. Really good letters would also have five sentences to ensure publication.

In high school, this all changed. I went to a humanities magnet high school in which I was surrounded by a lot of really smart kids–although I didn’t know it at the time. Instead of the usual curriculum of English and History, we rotated through a core of four interdisciplinary subjects that wove through one another: Philosophy, Literature, Social Institutions, and Art History. A key component of the program was that we never had a test that was not an essay test.

A typically essay test for, say, 12th grade philosophy, might go something like this: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the page before you finish, you can’t get an A.” That latter part, while actually stated aloud to us by our philosophy instructor, Ray Linn, was understood to be hyperbole. But the first part was legit. We had to write an essay to prove that we didn’t exist.

Studying for these essay tests meant reviewing everything we’d read, and trying out arguments. There was no way a five paragraph essay would work here. These essays had to be factual and creative. They were also intensely competitive. Upon completing an essay test (we typically had 2 hours to write our essays) we would meet in the hall and commiserate with one another. Instead of the usual, “What did you get for number 12?” we would hear things like, “I managed to write eleven pages. How many did you get?”

Keep in mind, this was the late 1980s. There were no iPhones or iPads. There were no laptops. We had paper and pen and our grades depending partly on our knowledge of the subject, partly on how well we communicated that knowledge, and partly on pure stamina: the literal blood on the page from blisters after two nonstop hours of writing. Still, we were encouraged to be creative and it was the pressure of the essays and the encouragement to be creative that began to change things for me.

In college, I never worried about essays that I had to turn in. Cleveland had prepared me for them. I often waited until the last minute to write them, but Cleveland Humanities Magnet (now Cleveland Charter School) had prepared me well. Typing a 5-page essay 2 hours before it was do was nothing compared to trying to write a cohesive essay by hand in 2 hours while trying to one-up your classmates by seeing how wordy you could make it. Much as a newspaper journalist learns how to write on deadline, I learned how to write essays on command. And my essays stood out. Many of the essays I saw fellow students write for a political science class in college began with a typical, “Machiavelli’s The Prince is an instruction manual for autocratic leadership in…” Mine started with verse that I made up on the spot, on a whim. I worried about that one a little, until I discovered the professor had posted it on a bulletin board as an example of a unique and creative way to write a paper. (In college, essays were always called “papers” for some reason.)

Being able to write on command like that has served me well ever since. But when I began to write with the idea of selling what I wrote, the essay never entered my mind. It was poison at the box office. I wanted to write stories, and stories are much harder to write than an essay.

By then I’d read hundreds (if not thousands) of Isaac Asimov’s essays. They were colloquial, often humorous, and entertaining. I learned new things from them. I could see how he made his arguments in convention ways and unconventional ways using the essay form. I started to branch out. I read a lot of Harlan Ellison’s essays. I read Stephen Jay Gould. I read Martin Gardner. I got to the point where I enjoyed essays as much as short stories, when they were interesting and well-written. From there I moved onto John McPhee, who introduced me to long-form nonfiction essays. And of course, E. B. White, who is the single best essayist that I have read.

At some point in 2005, I began to want to write essays like the ones I was reading, but who would I write them for? Who would read them? It was the desire to write essays that inspired me to start writing a blog. I wrote my very first essay for public consumption on October 10, 2005. In the more than 16 years since, I’ve committed more than 7,000 additional essays for this blog. You’d think I’d be sick and tired of it (or at the very least, my audience would) but the more I write these pieces, and the more I read other’s posts and essays, the more I want to do it.

Those early posts are often embarrassing in retrospect. Not just the subject matter, but the writing. I leave them up for historical purposes. It shows me (and others) where I began, and how far I have come. I think my essays are better today than they were five years ago. I think the ones I wrote five years ago are better than the ones from five years before that. And I am hopeful that the ones I write five years from now will be better than the ones I am writing today.

I’ve said before that I was incredibly fortunate to get to attend Cleveland Humanities Magnet high school. There, I learned critical thinking, but I also learned how to write. Real, practical writing, not the kind of writing that allows you to pass a test. I’ve said that if it wasn’t for Cleveland, it is likely I never would have published any of the fiction or nonfiction pieces that I’ve sold over the years. Even more, I owe a debt to my teachers who taught me the importance of an essay, and how it could be so much more than five parts boring. They taught me how to write a creative essay and without that, this blog simply would not exist.

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Carefree Days

Sometimes when I need to relax, I think about the last carefree days that I can remember. When I think of these days, it is the summer after high school graduation that comes to mind. For me, these were the in-between months. My time in public school was finally over. Homework was over. (In college, we never called it homework, it was “studying.”) Standardized tests were over. I had gotten into a decent college and I never had to think about SATs and ACTs and AP tests again. I had earned my high school diploma and I had about three months of carefree living before heading off to college.

Those were great months in my memory. It was the summer of 1990 in Los Angeles. Everything seemed bright. The world seemed simpler and safer. It was more than a decade before 9/11. It was before the first Gulf War. I had a great summer job, working in a pharmacy just down the street from my house. I had the whole summer to spend with my friends before we all headed our separate ways for college. And then, of course, there was college itself. I was excited to move out on my own, and lived through the carefree days of that summer anticipating the day I moved into the dorms the way I anticipate an upcoming vacation.

I remember taking a drive out to Westlake Village, where we went to a bike shop, and I got brand new bike as a graduation present, a bike that would accompany me to college a few months later. I can picture that day so clearly, that has come to represent the pinnacle of carefree days in my mind. I had no anxiety, no worries, only possibilities that opened up before me like and endless highway. Driving back from that bike shop, on the 101 freeway heading east, I remember my grandfather in the passenger seat, commenting on how well I was driving. (“You’re not a white-knuckle driver,” he said.) The skies seemed unusually blue for summer in Los Angeles.

That summer, I worked during the days, daydreaming of being off at college when thing were slowing the store. In the evenings I spent as much time as I could with my friends, knowing that we’d soon be separated. Certain songs that came on the radio back then trigger some of these memories. Hearing Living Colour’s “Broken Hearts” reminds me of driving to Corbin Bowl in the evening to meet up with my friends. Phantom of the Opera was at its height in Los Angeles at the time, and hearing “The Music of the Night” reminds me of that drive back from the bike shop.

I’m sure I had worries, but they were still the worries of a teenager, and they didn’t register in the way that adult worries do. I imagine I worries that I wouldn’t see my friends as often, and wondered if we’d drift apart. Indeed, for a few years, we did drift apart, but only for a few years. I am writing this piece early in the morning, sitting at the dining room table of my friend Eric’s house in Albany, New York, one of my best high school friends from those carefree days. Our days aren’t as carefree anymore, and neither of us have lived in Los Angeles for years, but here we are, still hanging out, and our kids are also hanging out, and they are getting to the same age that we were when we first met.

Thinking about those last carefree days before college always helps to put me in a good mood. I may not experience days as carefree as those were (as a parent, you never completely stop worrying about your kids), but I think my kids might still have some carefree days ahead of them. This road-trip vacation we are on, for instance. If we can help give them a few days like that in the years left before they head off to college, then it is almost like having a few more carefree days ourselves.

My friend Andy and me at our high school graduation.
My friend Andy and I at our high school graduation, the peak of our carefree days.

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The Pharmacy and the Tobacco Shop

In my senior year of high school, and during the summer of my freshman year in college, I worked in a local pharmacy. This wasn’t a chain pharmacy. It was large, and in addition to filling prescriptions has aisles with the usual over-the-counter medications, bandages, and other appurtenances of first aid. There were aisles with makeup and hair products, dental products. There was some stationary, and aisle with the latest magazines. There were almost always customers in the store. The pharmacist and owner was a nice fellow, who was good to chat with. He treated us well. He gave me the first and only holiday bonus I’ve ever received.

Since that time, I’ve had a fondness for local pharmacies, few and far between though they are. There are a couple in our town that compete with the dozens of CVSs, Walgreens, and Rite-Aids within a fairly small radius. It’s not that these pharmacies are bad in any way. Indeed, if they keep their employees for any length of time, they can be good. We’ve known the people in our nearby CVS pharmacy for years, and they know us. But I suspect that is rare in a chain pharmacy, and it is what makes the little ones so special.

A few months ago, one of the small local pharmacies put up a “going out of business” sign. I’d never been inside that particular pharmacy (something for which I felt retroactively guilty after seeing the sign). Their customers were transferred to a pharmacy in Safeway just down the street. Afterwards, for months, the place lay empty, with the name of the pharmacy above like letters carved into a gravestone, a reminder of what was once there.

My experience with pharmacies and pharmacists has been overwhelmingly positive. They are a force for good. They not only fill prescriptions (and know all about side-effects and drug interactions) but they get and answer a wide range of questions from customers, will work with doctors, and always put health and safety first.

So there was something of an irony this morning when I passed the old pharmacy to find a new sign replacing the PHARMACY letters that had been there so long. The new sign read “Smoke & Tobacco” and beneath it was a white banner with red letters that read “Now Open.”

A tobacco shop had replaced the pharmacy.

It is so ironic, that if I were writing a story about this, I might have a pharmacist who made a Faustian bargain to obtain his pharmacy, only to discover that when the bill came due, his pharmacy was turned into a tobacco shop.

The pharmacy that I worked in more than thirty years ago is long gone. It was swallowed up by one of the pharmacy conglomerates. For a time, after selling the business, the owner went to work as a pharmacist for the big company, but I think he retired soon after.

I suspect that a tobacco shop will be more lucrative than the pharmacy was. But it also seems somehow to change the character of that little shopping center. Before there was place that helped people get better. Now there is a place that sells things that can make people sick. I was sad to see the pharmacy go, and a little sadder to see the tobacco shop spring up in its place.

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Humor for a Tuesday morning

Tuesdays seem like they are neglected, so I decided to post something funny in honor of the fact that it is Tuesday. (And in truth, seeing my high school class group revived on Facebook spurred the idea.) So without further delay, here is a picture of yours truly, taken in either the fall of 1989 or the spring of 1990. I’m not sure which. I was either getting ready to go to homecoming or prom. Note the hair! It’s incredible that what seemed so cool back then looks so ridiculous now. Compare that to my author photo–more or less what I look like today.


And don’t forget to leave your ridicule, mocking, teasing, and any other thoughts you have in the comments. Happy Tuesday!

A grumpy sense of humor?

I had to spend a few hours fixing some code for the rollout that is in progress this weekend (I won’t bore you with the technical details, which involve database cursors, asynchronous operations, and pessimistic locking) but I finished that up and once again returned to my high school year book to read what everyone else wrote about me. (Perhaps I read it all 17 years ago; but I don’t remember any of it.) Two common threads run through just about everyone’s notes:

  1. I have a good sense of humor. That’s nice to hear. I always thought I had a pretty good sense of humor but it’s nice to know that a bunch of 17/18-year olds thought I did too.
  2. Apparently, I was a grouch in the mornings. So much so that several people mentioned this in their year book notes to me.

All these years later, I can only hope that I still have a good sense of humor. I know that I’m not a grouch in the mornings anymore. I’m up at 4:30 AM and I am caffeine-free for more than three years, but I’m not a grouch.

Now Doug, on the other hand, if it’s a Sunday morning…

The Cleveland Crew: Part Deux

Okay, I simply cannot resist posting here what strausmouse wrote in my year book because when I read it just now for the first time in 17 years, it had me laughing so hard I was nearly in tears. So, without further preface or delay, here’s what Eric had to say:

There once was this guy
Jamie was his name
He met some dude named Eric
And never was the same.
They were too busy writing stories
To pay attention in class
So when they got “C”‘s
Their parents kicked their ass
But that was only part of the fun
That those two guys shared
Like on the beach basking in the sun
Or making Rhonda scared
Heavy metal became the best music
But no one else liked it
So in that respect they were normal
(That is, the two guys who liked it)
The Aerosmith concert was pretty awesome
Um, remember when you brush your teeth
Afterwards, floss ’em
Uh, er, Ms. Cohen was a drag
That we all know
But the little kid in me
Thinks the taste steals the show
Uh, oh boy (I’m reaching here)
Well, it’s been a great year
Full of laughter and even some fear (?)
(Help) Uh, er, well Metallica is cool
Don’t fall in a pool
You bloody fool
Get Tawnya in the sack, er, man
Always remember *

So the last words of the last line are written in a language that Eric and I learned playing Ultima and used it for writing in code. When I read this today, it took me only five seconds to recall how to read it and it is very funny, but I’ll leave it to Eric to decide if he wants to reveal what it says.

The Cleveland Crew: Then and Now

I came across my high school year book while doing my spring cleaning. It’s one of the things that I decided not to get rid of and, in fact, I got side-tracked skimming through it, reading what people wrote and looking at pictures. Hilarious pictures. Riotous pictures. Keep in mind, this was nearly 17 years ago. The great thing is that I am still very good friends with most of the people that I was friends with back then. And because I fear you won’t believe just how funny some of the pictures are, I’ve arranged for you to see a Then and Now of the Cleveland crew. Keep in mind that I photographed these from my yearbook and some of the pictures are fuzzy. And to be fair, I’ll start with myself.

Then Now

See the rest of the crew

Something Dumb…

The web provides a convenient means for posting and publishing all kinds of nonsense and I figure I might as well take advantage of some of that capability. I have had, collecting dust since high school, a series of stories that some readers of this blog will be familiar with. The Something DumbTM series of stories were written by me and strausmouse between the years 1988 and 1990 at Cleveland High School in Reseda, California.

It is my idea to make these stories available online and to have Eric and I comment on them to explain some of the references and other interesting items about these stories.

These stories were never intended for submission to magazines, real publication, or anything more than entertaining a handful of our friends and ourselves. Many of the stories, including the first one we right, “Something Dumb”, we written in very small print on a brown paper bag book cover during various classes, when we should have been paying attention to the teachers. The stories are highly influenced by Douglas Adams, but also have elements of existentialism to them that were not obvious or intentional when we wrote them. Furthermore, you can tell by reading them that they are dated. There are humorous references to blowing up classrooms, which would probably have gotten us expelled today, but which were taken as mere metaphor eighteen years ago.

We would trade off, writing several paragraphs each, and then handing it off to one another to do more. In reading through these again, I can sometimes identify what I wrote and what Eric wrote, but not always.

The stories in the series are:

  1. “Something Dumb”
  2. “Um…
  3. “We Haven’t Thought of a Title for It Yet”
  4. “When You Need To Clean Up, Hire a Maid”
  5. “Something Dumb II: Something Dumber”
  6. “Everything You Wanted To Know (And Less)”
  7. “Not So Popular Entertainment”

I should point out that the humor style in these stories, while often derivative, also anticipates The Simpsons, South Park, Dumb and Dumber and many other similar comedies. Why we never decided to become writers in Hollywood is beyond me.

Anyway, look for more information, coming soon, about where you can go to read these masterpieces of high school comedic literature.