Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Went to the Dentist Today

Your first question is why. It's a fair question, one I asked myself about ten minutes into the ordeal. One answer is guilt. When it gets to be four years between appointments you start to worry that there might be something going on in there that you should know about. Like oral cancer. Which brings me to the real reason I went: fear. Specifically, fear of death and of spending a great deal of money all at once. Fear is a fine motivator. And the logical part of my brain said something like, "You know, Murph, the longer you put off going, the greater the possibility that whatever problems you do have in there are going to get worse. And that means it's going to cost a lot more to fix them, or it might be too late for you to fix them at all and then you'll die. So maybe you should go."

I went. Sometimes I listen to myself.

I had to have x-rays. You'd think this would be the easy part. I did too. But I have a really bad gag reflex. Whenever anyone tries to jam something down my throat that isn't designed to go down my throat, I gag. Crazy, I know. So the dental hygienist almost got barfed on. Three times.

That over and the vomit remaining in my stomach, she proceeded to show me my hard-earned x-ray results. They were surprisingly good. I was expecting the news to be something like, "You have oral cancer," or "we need to pull some teeth," or "you need a few root canals," so when she said, "See these pointy, shard-like things here and here and here and here and here? That's tartar."

Tartar? I laugh at tartar. I mock it in my dreams. I make fun of its spelling and mispronounce it on purpose. Tar-tar.

"We'll do a cleaning today and then another in a few weeks."

Say what? I have to come back? Because of tar-tar? But how can this be?

She started cleaning. I've cleaned things before (The wife may disagree , but really, I have). I've cleaned dishes (okay, not very often), and I've cleaned my car. I've cleaned our hot tub (once) and I clean myself nearly every day. The act usually involves water, some soap, and maybe some gentle scrubbing. This lady obviously had a different understanding of the term. Because never have I "cleaned" something by taking a metal prong and scraping the holy hell out of it for forty minutes. That's not cleaning, that's abuse, brother.

When she was finally done torturing me (I gave up nothing!), the dentist came in. As far as I can tell, the hygienist does all the work and the dentist counts the teeth. I think I could be a dentist. He counted, said some stuff I didn't understand (he's Asian), and then the hygienist said I was going to have to have two cavities filled.

Cavities? There had been no mention of cavities. I almost threw up three times and they couldn't tell I had cavities until the dentist counted my teeth with his bare eyes and a little pointy thing?

So I made the second appointment. It's over Christmas vacation. And I learned some lessons:

Lessons Learned:

1. It's better to be a dentist than a dental hygienist. Unless you're a sadist or can't count.
2. Don't make fun of tartar. It will have its revenge.
3. Cleaning teeth is not the same as cleaning other things. It hurts more.
4. X-rays are nothing compared to the discerning eye of a good dentist.
5. Going to the dentist sucks. Actually, I already knew that. So consider this one a lesson reaffirmed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Poem (Metaphor Included Free of Charge!)

Anita was bored, and since she's just about the only reader left, I should probably make her happy. Here's a poem I wrote (and got published, but they didn't pay me) a couple years ago:



Paul Murphy

There’s a stone at the edge of the graveyard

It isn’t much to see.

There’s a taller one to the left of it

that looks more important to me.

But mom never seems to notice

that its shadow falls on her face

when she kneels on the ground

and touches the name

of the person who rests in this place.

Note: Is it really that hard for programmers to make it so Blogger will accept my cut and paste from Word? These geeks invented phones that can accept credit cards but they can't reconcile formatting differences?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What I'm Revising: Qualifiers

Here's where I pretend I know what I'm doing and give writing advice. Something I've noticed about strong writing is a lack of what I'll call here "qualifiers." (If you know a better term then please supply it.)

Strong writers know what they're talking about and have confidence in their descriptions. Instead of writing, It felt a little like the short, disorienting fugue she sometimes got when sleeping over at a friend's house, the strong writer will authoritatively state, It felt like the short, disorienting fugue she got when sleeping over at a friend's.

Phrases and words like "a little," "sort of," "kind of," "about," "nearly," "sometimes," "like," and many others show weakness. Just say it and stick with it. Even the most discerning reader won't take offense to the mild inaccuracy of the revised sentence above. Sure, the girl probably doesn't always feel disoriented when she sleeps in a strange bed, but it's better to err on the side of conviction than to signal to your readers that even you believe the idea of description is weak.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Items

1. I got pulled over for speeding yesterday with my daughter in the car. She told me she was going to tell her preschool teacher about it. I said go ahead, because she was going to whether or not I gave her permission. This is one reason The Wife and I will never spank her. She would tell everybody, and I'm pretty sure something would be lost in the translation.

2. Overheard before school this week: A kindergartner and his mother were awaiting the start of the school day in the hallway outside my room. The kid was whining and carrying on about something. So the mom, pulling out the trump card all parents carry up their sleeves, says, "Stop it right now or you're not going to Wal-mart after school."

3. I've seen the future, and the future is postcards.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Guess the Hack: A Game

Introducing a new game today. Below you will find four excerpts. Three are cleaved from real live books written by real live professional authors. The other one I wrote. Can you spot the one written by the hack? Also, bonus points if you can guess the authors. (They're all famous.)

1. She turns, a gun glints, then sprouts a bright white flower. But the shot, in that dark, cramped corridor, goes wild. It ricochets, knitting a wild web of velocity trails across the corridor before settling, finally, into the meat of a conduit in the ceiling.

2. The embers of the fading day cooled on the horizon. And as the sun approached the end of its daily parabolic stroll, she knew she didn't want to be alone when night drew its heavy curtain.

3. For a minute or so he was quiet, catching glimpses of the big homes through the trees and manicured shrubs, all the places so clean and neat and not a soul around, nobody outside.

4. He paused, silent for a moment. Then without another word he turned away from the lights and voices in the fields and tents, and followed by his three companions went round into his garden, and trotted down the long sloping path.

Make your guesses in the comments. There are prizes, but this blog is not a participating location. Better luck somewhere else.

Speaking of which, if you'd like to post your own version, consider this express written consent.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Lesson from Michael Chabon

As you can see over there I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I've not read him before but I've heard good things. I picked up the book because Gary Trudeau, interviewed in my USA Today newspaper insert, said that he reads mostly non-fiction because if he reads someone like Chabon it'll take him three months to get through the book because he's so frequently knocked off his feet that he stops to analyze just what Chabon did that accomplished the knocking. So I pretty much had to read him even though I hate Doonesbury. (And most comic strips, really. Not funny. Like, hardly ever.)

Anyway, Chabon taught me something not to do.

He's an amazing writer. That much is clear a page or two in. But he does something at the beginning of chapter two that I have now promised myself not to do. I share it with you, free of charge:

Here's the end of chapter one:

Joseph Kavalier lifted his own head from the mattress and stuffed the pillow beneath it. "Thank you," he said, then lay still once more. Presently, his breathing grew steady and slowed to a congested rattle, leaving Sammy to ponder alone, as he did every night, the usual caterpillar schemes.

I was blown away by "caterpillar schemes." At first, it was one of those short phrases that in the course of reading strikes you like a hand to the chest. You stop, notice, and then really consider the thing. I went back and reread and, once having figured out the meaning, just kind of sat there for a few seconds thinking, Shit, that's good. Who among us hasn't, in our youth, lain awake night after night, considering how we might break free of our ugly selves and emerge fantastically into a new world of color and possibility? It's a perfect metaphor. I was left both bitterly envious and awed at once.

And then Chabon ruined it.

I was proud to have figured the thing out. I'm not a smart man, Jenny. When I understand a metaphor, I'm like to tell my wife about it. So I was feeling good about myself and feeling a fawning admiration for the writer when I read this at the start of chapter two:

It was a caterpillar scheme--a dream of fabulous escape--that had ultimately carried Josef Kavalier across Asia and the Pacific to his cousin's narrow bed on Ocean Avenue.

I was pissed. I wasn't immediately aware of why I was pissed, so I thought about it. And here's the lesson for the day, kids.

When you come up with something so incredibly fresh and awesome such as "caterpillar scheme" you don't repeat it. Use it once and get out quickly. Repeating it lets everyone know that you know it's fresh and awesome. It's a turn-off. It's a little like coming up with the perfect one liner at a dinner party and then saying it again.

Also, trust the reader. I wasn't educated at Harvard. I was not raised on the classics. I never took a college course that required me to analyze literary novels. But I understood exactly what Chabon meant and he cheapened my understanding by explaining it to me with "a dream of fabulous escape." I felt insulted. Trust your reader to recognize your brilliance. And if they don't, so what? It's their loss.

Some Thoughts on Stuff

I've been reading a lot more lately. This is because it's now cold outside, and my new favorite place to read is in the hot tub.

Speaking of reading, I read Michael Lewis's book The Big Short. It's about the subprime mortgage crisis. Although I understood approximately one-third of the book I still enjoyed it. Lewis obviously sees the Wall Street traders and ratings agencies as the villains, and he makes a strong case. However, I still can't excuse the actions of millions of Americans who took out loans that were obviously too good to be true. The greed wasn't only on Wall Street. There's a problem with society at large when that many people feel the need to impress their friends by purchasing what they had to know was too much house.

Has anyone invented a washer-dryer combo that allows me to avoid the physical transfer of the wet clothes into the dryer? This doesn't seem that hard. You put the washer on top of the dryer. When it's done, a hatch opens in the bottom and the dryer turns on. Come on, inventors. Quit dicking around with making phones do stuff I never want my phone to do and come up with something useful.

I voted. I got a sticker. It felt good. The voting, that is. The sticker didn't feel like much at all.

I have a new and what will surely be short-lived interest in high finance after reading the book mentioned above. And here's my advice: The Fed's 600 billion dollar stimulus is going to lead to more inflation than they hope. Buy gold.

I wrote a killer lead to my work-in-progress, but connecting that killer lead to the next sentence is proving difficult. The transition is sort of a let-down. Maybe that's why so many books I read don't really have very good leads.

Judy Blume overuses dialogue tags in the Fudge books. (I've been reading them aloud to my class and reading something aloud makes most dialogue tags feel superfluous.)

I can't explain it, but I'm really good at Wii Tennis.

Monday, November 1, 2010


I'm doing my civic duty and reminding you to vote. I would like to say that I don't care how you vote, but that's not true. I actually do care. Because the morons you people in other states elect can completely screw things up for the rest of us. (Talking to you, Massachusetts.)

Now, some people say that if you don't vote then you have no business complaining about how things turn out in the coming years. But that's just a bunch of nonsense that people repeat because it sounds good. The truth is, half of the people in this country who are able to vote will not. And guess what? A lot of them will bitch about all sorts of things in the coming months and years.

And they can. It's called freedom of speech. See, freedom of speech means you can say any stupid thing you want to and you can even say it if you don't vote. No one's checking. Seriously.

If you don't vote and then you complain about the results and someone says to you, "Yeah? Well who did you vote for?" you can simply lie to them and say you voted for the other person and things would be better if that person had won. It's really easy. You just pretend to have voted. And if you're the kind of person who's going to lie about voting then you're probably also the kind of person I don't really want voting in the first place. There are enough disingenuous turds in the political process already. So stay home. Liar.