There was a man known to my mother’s father who kept a notebook in his jacket pocket. In the course of his conversations with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, he would often pull out this volume, flip through and consult it, and then proceed to tell a remarkable array of entertaining, funny, relevant anecdotes, stories, and jokes. I assume some of them may have been off-color, but many were suitable for a wide audience, and they were so numerous and so apropos that people often commented on this clever volume. No one else was ever permitted to see its contents. This gentleman lived well and ultimately died a wealthy man, and when his will was ultimately read, while there was plenty of interest in the distribution of his assets, it was this slim volume which his family and friends all aspired to own. The deceased bequeathed it to a friend, who collected it in a manilla envelope from the attorney. Retiring to a quiet corner, he carefully unwound the cord which secured the flap, and withdrew this book that so many desired. Opening it, he flipped through and realized to his dismay that the book was not full of the many stories they all remembered so fondly. All that was written inside were the punchlines. The gentleman who had entertained so many over the years had required nothing more than these seed crystals to summon to mind each story in its rich complexity. The new owner and his friends recognized a few of the punchlines, but many of them were too obscure to mean anything, and the cryptic book ultimately offered little use to its new owner.
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My wife and I curb the time our children spend staring at screens. Sometimes I will tell them they should put down their gizmos and converse with their family, like the engaged, social creatures I imagine them to be. Recently, this comment of mine has become the cue for my middle and youngest kids to ask me to tell them a story. I am sure in many families a request like this is meant to elicit a story of knights and dragons, of ball players and clutch hits, of astronauts and steely courage. Oddly, in our house, the stories the children seek are my own very mundane tales – like the one of the trapped squirrel falling through the flue and into my living room a half-hour before my birthday party when I was very young. The kids like this one because that poor, terrified creature pooped in the middle of my mother’s pale yellow couch before careening off the walls and out the front door. Another favorite is how a classmate of mine came to realize the clocks in our school growing up were synchronized by ultrasonic tones. Combining this knowledge with a dog-whistle, he sprung us early from one of our classes for some time. We would watch the minute hand hasten forward over the head of the teacher and then carefully note the end of class and our need to leave for the next one, leaving the teacher to wonder why he could not get through his lecture notes with us.
My daughter and son will urge me to tell more stories, and I regularly need to remind them that the good stories from one’s past don’t often rise up unprompted, but need a catalyst to summon them to mind. This frustrates my kids, who figure if I am going to mandate conversation, then surely I must be ready to provide an entertaining floor show. What frustrates me at these moments is that the only stories that ever suggest themselves are the ones you don’t tell your children, or at least not for another 15 years or more. These involve the usual array of indiscretions – run ins with the law, boozy moments of hilarity that lose their humor when explained to anyone who wasn’t there, and various sordid deeds which backfired in various ignoble ways.
Those stories are good stories, of course. Yet this is a family blog, and I am not about to recount the roommate’s wolf howling ex-girlfriend from Brown story here – that would be indiscrete. Yet as I think about how this blog has petered out and lain fallow, it means there are a lot of stories not being told here, and that is a shame. Writing was a central and identifying skill of mine in school, and as I drift further along professionally, I write less and less. I have four friends who write regularly these days (1, 2, 3, 4), and it finally dawned on me that one of the feelings I have as I read their updates, beyond the deep sense of friendship, respect, and affection, is a mild tinge of jealousy. This is totally unfair as they have done nothing to suppress me in any way, but then I realized I was not jealous of their output but rather of their inspiration.
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When I started this blog years ago, I did so with no clear idea of what it would explore. Since then it has meandered a lot, and recently it’s been dead as a doornail, but even before I tired of the whole thing, even when I did write with some regularity, I never quite knew what to write. I love music, but I am no musician, so there’s only so much I can say about that. I am fascinated by public policy and the decisions we make as a society, especially about passenger rail, but since I work in that field, I feel compelled to comment with discretion about things as I am not a spokesman for my company. I adore history, but am too overwhelmed by the day-to-day to assemble any insights on much of anything.
So I thought I would listen to my kids, and tell a few stories. I cannot promise how funny or moving any of them will be, and of course keeping such an effort going will require more resolve than I have been able to muster for this blog in quite a while. Still, I think I have a few stories that might be worth a retelling, and perhaps this theme just might be enough to rekindle in me some of the pleasure in writing I used to feel so often. We’ll see. I very much hope you stick around to see where this goes.