Tag Archives: Tony Hillerman

We Don’t Like Being A Kid


In a shadow box on the wall above my desk is the following quote:  “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But, when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”  Mark Twain, 1889.  It’s the only quote I have on my wall and I got the shadow box when I was in Virginia City, NV, one weekend when I decided I needed to visit my muse.  The definition you’ll find for muse is not what I am referring to here.  A muse in this context is a source of inspiration, a myth, dating back to Greek mythology, that artists and writers credit for giving them a spontaneous idea even when they weren’t looking for one.  Mark Twain is my muse.

 I have visited his boyhood home in Hannibal, MO, on two occasions, routing my trip through there just to stop and contemplate, stand behind the gold cord separating his bedroom from the upstairs hallway, stand by the white-washed picket fence, cross the street to Becker Thatcher’s house, walk down to the corner where Grant’s  drug store still stands, and the office of Justice of the Peace, J. M. Clemens.  The mighty Mississippi is a stone’s throw away.  You have to leave Interstate 70 to get there, so it’s a little out-of-the-way if you’re heading east, and it’s mostly two-lane highway from the exit.

That plastic wall to the left is covering the house.

The first time I visited Hannibal was during a cross-country road trip to Chicago with a friend of mine.  It was an arranged side trip, but still in the general direction of our final destination. I was terribly disappointed because Tom Sawyer’s (Sam Clemens’) boyhood home was being renovated and covered with a clear plastic tent.  They were rebuilding the structure board, by nail, by board.  I still felt good just being there, and it had been on my bucket list for a long time.

The second time I visited Hannibal, it was again a planned stop on the itinerary of the “Maiden Voyage of the Titanic” a very “used” 1982 Southwind motor home.  The exhaust manifold had blown loose for the third time and we had a real difficult time maneuvering the 32 foot box around Hannibal’s narrow streets, with the loud muffler-less V-8 roaring as we went.  We finally located a muffler shop, on a hill of course, that agreed to have it fixed in a few hours, for a fee that was not in our travel budget.  So we grabbed some lunch across the street from the muffler shop, then strolled through downtown Hannibal on foot and walked along the river.  The Clemens’ house was completed and we were able to walk through the rooms this time.  A National Historic Landmark, since 1962, the rooms have been painstakingly restored to how they would have looked when Sam Clemens lived there as a boy.  I’m not sure my wife and youngest daughter were as  captivated by it all as I was, but they humored me, and can now say that they have visited the boyhood home of Mark Twain.

The quote, though, calls attention, most appropriately, to me, and all my children, and grandchildren, and all that had life before me.  We all think we know everything when we’re in our teens.  We’re ready to be on our own.   Those parental units don’t know anything.  How could they be so ignorant?  My grandfather said to me when I was about that age, that I shouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow up.  “You should enjoy being young, and not having any responsibilities,” he said.  I scoffed at him.  I wanted to drive, I wanted to get a job and earn money, I wanted to move away from this small hick town we lived in, I wanted adventure, I wanted to travel, I wanted to go to Disney Land, and I wanted to see the ocean.  I should have listened to him.

The span of childhood is so short, yet we can’t wait for it to end.  We don’t like being a kid.  We want to be our own boss, and not be told what to do, where to go, who to go with, when, why, and you better be home by ten.  Then, in just as short a span, we figure it all out and wish we had listened, that we had to, once again, be home by ten.  It only took Mark Twain seven years to figure it out.  It took me a little longer.

Samuel L Clemens (Mark Twain), by Frank Millet, 1877

Tony Hillerman, accomplished journalist, mystery writer, professor and dean, once told me, after critiquing one of my short stories in college, and I quote, “You could be the next Mark Twain.”  It burned in my memory and over the years I have tried to understand what he meant.  I’m certain he didn’t think that my writing was so good, that I could, in fact, be the next American humorist.  What would it take to be the “next Mark Twain?”  Certainly you would have to write, have an ability to view, with understanding, everything around you, and tell stories that entertain, have a point, and make you chuckle from time to time.  I think Professor Hillerman was just trying to make me feel good, keep me motivated, and effectively raise the bar.  

So, whenever I have the chance, I visit my muse, hoping this will be the time when Mr. Twain visits me with a spontaneous idea for a story, even when I wasn’t looking for one.  


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Touché Cliché


The newly remodeled Journalism building at the University of New Mexico. This is the door that I walked through every day.

I’ve been noticing lately that I use a lot of clichés.  Warned about them constantly by my Journalism Professor,  Mr. Lawrence, and  by Tony Hillerman, the successful mystery author, who was a member of the Journalism faculty at the University of New Mexico.  I had the pleasure of taking several classes Mr. Hillerman taught, one being the “Art of Editorial Writing.”  I’m almost certain that I never learned the “art” but I do remember seeing the circled phrases on my editorials with a line out to the margin and the word “cliché” written in red ink, a lot of times.  Professor Hillerman hated clichés.

Cliché- obviously a French word because of the little accent mark that makes the e sound like an a –  is defined as “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser,  or strong as an ox.”  I’m not so sure I like it being called trite, but I know the reason I use so many clichés is my lack of originality, ingenuity and impact.  Need to work on that.

I’ll have to keep my nose to the grindstone, but not make a mountain out of a mole hill.  But when I use a cliché and I notice it, I can get madder than a wet hen at myself.  To make a long story short, I started thinking about this, like I said, and thought I should do something to stem the tide.  If I stick to my guns, I should be able to put a dent in it at least.  Somehow I think I’m fighting a losing battle, and am a far cry from making the grade.  I mean, I went to college a long time ago, so I guess I just missed the boat on this one.

I’m pretty sure if I look at boycotting the use of clichés in my prose, I might not have anything to string into a sentence.  At worst it won’t flow in concrete  sentences.  So I’ll have to lay my cards on the table, make my mark, let the cat out of the bag and lick my wounds.  Like a dog lost in high weeds.  Like it’s going out of style.  Like white on rice.  A loose cannon.

You see the reason I use clichés a lot is they are often used for comic effect, mostly in fiction, and I’m trying to be funny, often.  Salvador Dali – also French I guess because of the accent over the i so it sounds like an e – said “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”

And that’s the problem; repetition of a phrase that was originally very clever.  The rest of us rather unclever people just repeat clever things other people say, over and over and over.  That makes them a cliché.  I just like saying that word.  Cliché is a French word, as I mentioned, that refers to a printing plate of removable type.  The printer would have to set letters one at a time, so it would be easier and quicker to cast phrases that were used a lot instead of just single letters.  It it also called a stereotype.  From there it’s not much of a stretch to see how the ready-made phrases of printing type came to mean the overused phrases in language.  See I did it again.

What's with old guys and big glasses?

Hey, did you see where they “captured” James “Whitey” Bulger?  Got him in Santa Monica California in an apartment building where he was living with his girlfriend.  Whitey has been on the FBI’s ten most wanted list for 19 years, but he was on the FBI payroll for a longer time as an “informant”.  He informed on the other mob bosses in Boston to put them out of business.  I’m about as impressed with his capture is I was with the number one person on the FBI list, Osama Bin Laden.  Whitey was number two.  He’s 81 years old.  Probably didn’t even think about trying to outrun the cops.  And the beauty of it – there I go again – is that it was his girlfriend that got him caught.  She was a looker and when the FBI ran a local ad campaign for information they used her picture.  People recognized her.

Somebody just referred to what I was doing as being a “bump on a log”.  Do you know what that cliché means?  It means I’m lazy or don’t want to work.  Hey wait, that kind of fits.  Next time we’ll talk about euphemisms – not. 

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