All About Cars and Trucks

In 1998, I wrote and illustrated a five-page book called All About Cars and Trucks.

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It was a national best-seller, read by millions of children across the country and later, the world. But then, some years ago, the books all went missing. No one knows what happened to them. Until … right now. I am happy to report that the investigative team at jfleishman.com recently uncovered a rare copy of the book, buried deep underground in the tombs of el-Mahalla, Egypt.

It has been re-printed here with the author’s permission:

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One day a boy named Mike was born. Then 30 years later he was into trucks. 5 years later he started getting trucks and cars. Most people called him Mike Alexander. The kinds of trucks…

We meet our protagonist, Mike Alexander. I imagine Mike had many hobbies as a kid, but it took him until the age of 30 to realize that he really likes trucks.

But it wasn’t until he was 35 that he actually started buying trucks (and cars). Why did it take five years? What happened between the ages of 30 and 35?

Let’s take a moment here to look at the illustrations. They are … odd. And why is there a note that says ‘year 2000’ on top of the truck? And what is that thing in the middle of the page? How could something so hideous possibly be smiling?

It was shortly after this doctors realized the author was colorblind.

Let us read on.

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…he had were Kenworth arrowcab, and old Lincoln, and Hun-v, Chevy dumptruck, and a Kenworth that was black. The size of the trucks were 200 tons. The sleeping cab in the Hun-v was as big as a station wagon’s trunk.

The book fails to mention that Mike is currently being smashed in between the Lincoln and the Hun-v*, which must be incredibly painful.

*Yes, this is meant to be Humvee, but I like Hun-V better.

Mike Alexander went a bit overboard with his purchase of cars and trucks. A Lincoln, a Hun-v, a dumptruck, and two Kenworth trucks. Why does one man need that many cars and trucks? What do you possibly need a dumptruck for?

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The size of the Kenworth’s sleeping was as big as one very small car, as small as a Ford Fiesta sedan. There was also one more truck that Mike Alexander had. It was an International.

Well, why didn’t you mention this in the beginning? International’s aren’t cheap. So now Mike Alexander has six cars and trucks. I imagine this didn’t go over well with Mrs. Alexander.

Mike Alexander: Hi honey, I bought some stuff.
Mrs. Alexander: Oh God, not again…
Mike Alexander: Just a Lincoln, a Hun-V, a dumptruck, and two Kenworths…
Mrs. Alexander: What, why…

*five hours later*

Mike Alexander: Oh, I also bought an International.
Mrs. Alexander: I want a divorce.

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The sleeping cab was as big as a Saab 9-5 or a Saab 9-3 1999. The Saab 9-5 have side airbags and go up to about 150 miles. The trucks go up to 70-75 miles an hour.

OK, I swear that’s a car on the right and not some severely deformed male nether-parts.

And as far as I know, Mike doesn’t own a Saab 9-5, so why do we need to know that it has side airbags and goes up to 150 mph?

And wait, are those supposed to be birds in the sky?

Time for the big finish:

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The Saab 9-3 goes up to about 150 miles. My dad’s 1988 Saab goes up to 175 miles. My dad’s 1988 Saab has 100,000 miles on it. My grandpa’s Mercury Grand Marquis has 5,500 miles on it. Three years later Mike Alexander died. The end.

Wait, WHAT! No! You can’t end the story like that!

My seven year old self was not kind to the characters he created. My stories often ended in terrible, unspeakable tragedies. They also ended with more questions than answers, leaving the door open to sequels and trilogies and epic series that were, sadly, never written.

The story-telling on this last page gets very complicated, as the narrator breaks the fourth wall and address the reader directly. For a moment, we forget about Mike and focus on the narrator’s family. His dad has a 1988 Saab with 100,000 miles on it. It goes up to 175 mph. His grandfather has a Mercury with 5,500 miles on it. It’s an odd interlude with absolutely no connection to the larger story at hand.

But then, the narrator brings us back, harshly. Mike Alexander is dead. He was 38.

Rest in peace, Mike.

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A short story

Here is part of a short story I wrote when I was 12.

Let me know if you like this, and I’ll share a few others. I’ve got dozens of old stories I started and never finished. Some of them are pretty bad, but I enjoyed this one. I have no recollection of writing it.

An abnormal day was not unusual for Lee, whether he awoke in the sky or he accidentally knocked over his breakfast. Lee had lived his previous twelve years always making mistakes such as these, and some of them he could not explain. The thing was, Lee was cursed. He had always been cursed from the time his existence on Earth began. Since then, strange things have happened to him.

His parents, Donald and Hilary Hubert, cared for Lee, but they were often scared of him. They hardly talked to him, for the fear that they might be zapped to another world or worse. Donald had jet-black hair, or at least he used to, but now he was going bald, and Hilary had bright blonde hair. Donald was rather chunky (he did not eat very healthy), while Hilary was relatively skinny.

Donald worked at a used-car dealership while Hilary owned a bridal shop. The family was wealthy, but they hardly bought Lee much. He had his room, his few valuable items, but nothing flashy to show. He had white walls with nothing on them and a plain bed. Lee’s parents didn’t buy him much.

Lee was not very social – he had no siblings or friends. Somehow, the rumor that he was cursed spread around school, and so no one talked to him or stayed near him. Except for the bullies.

But Lee still did not have boring days. Because of his curse, Lee often went through the unexpected. One morning, he awoke in the Taj Mahal, where he was forced out by guards, and other days his homework had suddenly disappeared. Because of his curse, he also was prone to accidents – whether it was knocking food over or tripping or falling down at random moments.

Lee had asked his parents numerous times how his curse began, but his parents just said his great-grandmother was a witch. He did not believe in witches, but nevertheless, his parents said she had “magical powers,” and put a curse on the family. Lee had an eerie feeling that his parents were lying to him.

But there was no doubt he was cursed. From the moment he was born and turned the doctor into a frog, the family has believed Lee to be cursed. Lee felt like an outcast; he did not want this curse. He had been an innocent and reserved child his entire life. And, as his adolescent years approached, it seemed this curse was getting worse.

Some thoughts on writing

A few people have asked me how I learned to write so well. What’s your secret? Where do you come up with all this stuff? Why don’t you write a book? 

Well, first of all, I don’t consider myself a good writer. If I was, I would be getting paid for it. I do appreciate the compliments, though. It is certainly something I enjoy. I do consider myself a prolific writer. I have written quite a lot on this blog over the past few years (over 200,000 words) and I can’t even imagine how much stuff I’ve written in my life.

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To start, I had good teachers. And I read a lot. My sixth grade English teacher actually made us log our reading hours every night, and have a parent (or guardian) sign off on it. And sure, I could have lied and probably gotten away with it, but I inherited a terrible conscious, so I couldn’t just do that. So I would read – every night – and I would write down exactly how much I read – every night – and after awhile it just became routine to spend my nights reading something. I was also, and continue to be, profoundly curious about this world. So that helped too.

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People view writing as a chore. I happen to disagree. But I understand the mindset.

Back when I played baseball in middle school, we used to run as punishment. Missed practice? Run. Made a mental error?* Run. Insulted the umpire?** Run. This is true in most sports – if you screw up, you run.

*Thankfully this didn’t apply to physical errors. Because I made a lot of them. I was good at keeping score, though.

**We had some pretty terrible umpires.

And then I stopped playing baseball and started, well, running. There were no punishments in cross country, other than running more. And, eventually, I started liking it, I liked the competitiveness of the races, the bluish haze of an early morning meet, the way your body felt after running three, four, five miles. It never became easy, running is never easy, but it didn’t hurt as much.

And when you are really committed to something, even if the thing is hard, then it shouldn’t hurt anymore. It’s no longer a punishment, it’s a reward, an accomplishment. It becomes a hobby.

Anyway, that’s how I feel about writing.

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I have always been a proponent of the oxford comma.

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This was a sentence from a paper I wrote in high school*:

Through Laura Wingfield’s character, Tennessee Williams represents a fragile woman brutalized by life in a newly industrialized society for which Romantics in the early nineteenth century felt escalating sympathy.

I don’t even know what that means.

There are obviously many different ways to make a point, but I think good writing is about making your point as simply as possible. Big words, superfluous statements – they don’t add anything.

*The paper was about The Glass Managerie, which as I’m sure you know is a Tennessee Williams play from 1944.

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I used to love the semi-colon. I would use it in place of periods, in place of commas, and it eventually became the only form of punctuation I would use.

I don’t use semi-colons anymore.

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I never put two spaces after a period. This borders treason.

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I have tried to mimic the styles of many different writers. I first noticed this when I read Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket used a lot of hyphens and asides and he would routinely break the fourth wall. I started doing this in essays before realizing that, uh, trying to break the fourth wall in a sixth grade paper is not a good idea.

When I read Harry Potter, I started using British words and would actually write my papers in a British accent.

When I read John Grisham, I began introducing legal proceedings to my papers.

I read Roger Ebert and suddenly I wanted to review every classic movie.

And then there are the great sportswriters – Joe Posnanski and Tom Verducci and Pat Jordan and Roger Angell. I have taken something from each of them. The asterisks that have become a staple on this blog? That’s from Posnanski. The style of my interviews? That’s from Jeff Pearlman. I don’t plagiarize, of course, but I do stand on the shoulders of giants and try to turn their style into my own. As I’ve said before, everything is a remix.

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Sometimes I will write a really long sentence, a sentence that is at best a run-on and at worst a rambling steam-of-consciousness, and I will really milk that sentence for all it is worth, and maybe there will actually be something of value in there, and then I will follow with a really short sentence. Just like this.

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Here are some things I used to write about:

– The New Jersey Marowaks, a baseball team I created when I was nine*. I would write books on the team, and I would make up players and stats, and I kept this going until about 2004. In my room at home, I have an entire drawer dedicated to the Marowaks.

*Eventually I created a whole league. Let’s see if I can still name all of the teams.

EAST

New Jersey Marowaks
New York Youngs
Florida Manatees
Vermont Mountaineers
Boston Birds

CENTRAL

Michigan Toonamis
Detroit Silverlakes
Minnesota Greatlakes
Cleveland Firebirds
Kansas City Tornadoes

WEST

California Eighties
Montana Condores
Phoenix Stars
Denver Mountains

Yep, still got it.

– My sister and I created a fake family, and I would write stories about them. See if you can spot the trend – there was Please, the main character. The mother was Your Welcome. The father was Manners. And the sister was Thank You (Please also had a friend named Marney). Please and Marney would go out on these ridiculous adventures and save the world. I’m not kidding when I tell you I wrote an eight part saga that spanned pretty much all of my middle school years.

– I created a comic, Two Toes and Fatboy. Two Toes was just a guy who wanted to sit on his couch and watch TV. Fatboy was his (fat) friend who would constantly invade Two Toes’ house and start shenanigans.

– Our fifth grade teacher used to have us write weekly short stories and then present them to the class. Man, those were fun. I still remember some of the topics: getting locked in school, time traveling to historic baseball games, kidnapping George Bush’s pimple cream (yes, I wrote a story about that), burping disease, meeting God. Just some outrageous stuff for a fifth grader.

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And so you may ask yourself how I find the time to write in this space or why I write about some absolutely random, inane topics, and the truth is that I’ve always done this. Now I just do it in a slightly more public spotlight. This blog has taken over as my loose-leaf paper. It certainly beats the eraser marks.

Getting the lead out

Two lead-related thoughts on this Monday.

I am reading a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s written by Bill Bryson, who also wrote A Walk in the Woods, which I read about seven years ago and loved. This is a very different book. Bryson does not have a science background, but he attempts to understand the oldest, biggest questions of our universe and ourselves. He writes about time and space and chemistry and geology and psychology and some other ologies, and he does so in a way that is digestible for simple-minded folk like me. It’s a good read.

I was particularly drawn to a chapter on Thomas Midgley, Jr, who takes the title for the most important person of the 20th century that I had never heard of. This is a guy who led a fascinating life, but he made some unfortunate discoveries, the effects of which are still being felt today (and will continue to be felt forever).

In the early twentieth century, Midgley developed an interest in the industrial applications of chemistry. In 1921, while working for the General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, he investigated a compound called tetraethyl lead and discovered that it significantly reduced the juddering condition known as engine shock.

The world would have been a safer place without this discovery.

As you probably know, lead is a neurotoxin. If you get too much of it in your system, you’ll irreparably damage your brain and central nervous system. Even in 1921, most people knew that led was dangerous (even though it was found in many consumer products), but nothing gave it a greater and more lasting intimacy than its addition to gasoline. Which is exactly what Midgley did. And it worked.

Lead is terrible, yes, but it is easy to extract and very profitable to produce industrially. So in 1923 three of America’s largest corporations (General Motors, Du Pont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey) formed a joint enterprise called the Ethyl Corporation. Their goal – to produce as much tetraethyl lead as the world was willing to buy. This proved to be, like, a lot.

Shortly thereafter, productions workers began to exhibit some odd behaviors – confusion, insomnia, staggered gaits. Rumors circulated about the inherent dangers of this new product. The corporation denied any wrongdoing, and Midgley himself decided to hold a demonstration where he poured tetraethyl lead over his hands, then held a beaker of it to his nose for sixty seconds. He said he could repeat the procedure daily without harm. Of course, Midgley knew the perils of lead poisoning and never went near the stuff if he could help it.

But Midgley wasn’t done inventing terrible things. After the success of leaded gasoline, he turned to another technological problem of the 1920s. At the time, refrigerators were very risky because they used dangerous gases that sometimes leaked. Midgley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and safe to breathe. Bryson writes: With an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny, he invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.

Yes, it is pretty amazing that the same man invented leaded gasoline and CFC’s.* Shortly after their invention, CFC’s went into production and found applications in everything from car air conditioners to hairsprays to deodorants. And then a few decades later people noticed that it was devouring the ozone in the atmosphere. Even then, it took a long, hellish campaign by scientists to get them out of the market (they were banned in 1974). Leaded gasoline was banned in 1986.

*If you think that is some bad fortune, then his death is the cherry on top. After becoming crippled with polio, Midgley invented a contraption involving a series of pulleys that automatically raised or turned him in bed. In 1944, he became entangled in the cords and suffocated.

Well, the bad thing about lead is that it lasts forever. Those of us alive today have about 625 times more lead in our blood than people did a century ago. And, lead is still released into the atmosphere every day (legally) from mining and smelting and other industrial activities. And, unfortunately, CFC’s last for about a century, so they’re still around too.

I guess the point is that Thomas Midgley had a profound, lasting impact on our lives and our planet. I mean, you could make the case that this man singlehandedly spearheaded global warming. I don’t think that was his intent, but, well, that’s what happened. Still, no one knows who he is. I don’t remember hearing about him in school. I think that’s too bad because it’s an interesting story.

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Led Zeppelin won its first-ever grammy last night – best rock album for Celebration Day. At this point it’s more a lifetime achievement award for them. Their award-winning performance wasn’t even from the past year – it’s from their reunion concert in 2007. Still, I was going to write that it’s pretty awesome that we are now in 2014, and Led Zeppelin is still winning grammys … but then I learned that this is their first.

Well, history is full of these kind of things. Leonardo Dicaprio has never won an Oscar. Derek Jeter has never won an MVP. Until yesterday, Led Zeppelin had never won a Grammy. This doesn’t diminish their greatness.

Hopefully this will spark one last get together for the surviving trio, but that’s doubtful. They have played together once in the last 30 years. But one can hope.

My summer reading list

Here are a few books that I’m planning to read this summer:

I started this a few nights ago. It combines two of my favorite things: John Grisham and baseball.

I actually read all of the first book (400+ pages) on the plane ride back from Australia. The book does such a good job of describing the desolate and hungry post-apocalyptic world of Panem  that, in comparison, the plane food was quite appetizing.

I’ve heard great things about this book. I ordered it from Barnes and Noble* a few days ago, and it should be here soon.

*Barnes and Noble is one of those things that most people don’t pronounce correctly (it’s not Barnes and Nobles). Other phrases that fit this category include intents and purposes (not intensive purposes) and et cetera (not excedra).

John Green runs the excellent vlogbrothers channel that I mentioned a few posts back. He is also a best-selling author. The Fault in Our Stars was released earlier this year, and it reached #1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

I’ll start with those four (well, three, since I already finished The Hunger Games) and will hopefully fit in a few more by the end of August.

The Tender Bar

Last night I finished JR Moehringer’s The Tender Bar. I started it on my trip to New Orleans and plowed through the ending over the last week.

Moehringer was the guy who wrote Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open. I really enjoyed that and had heard good things about The Tender Bar. I vowed I would read it when I had the time. That was two years ago.

Well, I finally finished it last night. In a word – brilliant. There’s more to it than this, but the book is a memoir of Moehringer’s life growing up in Manhasset and his love for a bar just 142 steps from his house (or sometimes more when he zig-zagged home).

I think what made the book great is that the writing is truthful. And funny when it needs to be. Moehringer doesn’t take himself too seriously.

After I finished it I did something that I could only do in 2012: I went onto Facebook, sent the author a quick message, and then went onto Google Maps and checked out the street view of the bar (which has since been re-named but is still around).

In other news, I leave for Sydney in two weeks. Stay tuned.