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The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Mark Twain

Although he died a century ago, he continues to be quoted and his books continue to be read by each generation.  He has so many fans that Hal Holbrook has been successfully performing his Tony Award winning one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” every year since 1954. 

And, yet, the publishing and retail industries were stunned to learn that Mr. Twain’s autobiography would sell more than the originally printed 50,000 copies.  I shook my head in bewilderment.   Have they been living in an alternate reality?

I experience the same head shaking moment when people tell me their life stories aren’t interesting.  No one else has lived them.  That, in and of itself, makes them interesting.  Additionally, reading the biography of a celebrity is never as interesting as reading biographies of family members, because you’re related to them.

“You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography.”

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain

Have you begun dictating your autobiography?  Why not?

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As we move into the digital television era, I’ve been thinking about the old black-and-white TV my family had.  It had to warm up for a few minutes before coming on.  When you turned it off, the screen would slowly fade, getting smaller and smaller, until it became a tiny white dot, and then completely disappeared.  There were several glass tubes in the back that would periodically blow and would have to be replaced.

I had a skateboard which I absolutely loved, and was very adept at riding, including down our very steep driveway.  One birthday, I was given a wood burning set, which I immediately used to write my name on the skateboard, and anything else I could think of.  When I ran out of space, I looked around the yard and the street, for pieces of wood to release my creativity. Having run out of places, I realized the back of the television set was wooden and I could write something on it.  Since it was on the back, no one would know.

Until a tube burned out. 

My dad took one look at my creative drawing, and good-bye wood burning set.

What do you remember about the old television sets?

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Childhood pets can run the gamut from cats, dogs, hamsters, goldfish, turtles, etc., to pigs and ferrets.  If Mom and Dad don’t want to deal with an animal, they can get pretty creative, suggesting hermit crabs and ant farms.

 

My first pet was a cat, which I named Felix, after the cartoon.  We lived near a heavily trafficked corner and, sadly, Felix was hit by a car. 

Felix the Cat

Felix the Cat

 

 

My next cat, Boots (named after the story Puss n Boots), had to be given away because it gave me ringworm.   

Puss n Boots

Puss n Boots

Share a story about your first pet.

 

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I received my first camera – a box Brownie – when I was about 8 years old. It didn’t take me long to go through a roll of film. I took pictures of anything that moved.

My father’s camera didn’t have a flashbulb (early 1960s). Instead, he would hold a T-shaped bar with three very large bulbs that could light a stadium. He had to take our pictures quickly, before we were blinded.

When my uncle decided to become a professional photographer, he asked me to sit for him so he’d have some shots for his portfolio. He suggested a nearby park. I said, “Fine,” but, was secretly mortified. I was in high school, and was afraid someone I knew might see me. Ah, teen angst.

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We all have our favorite Christmas songs, standards, pop and novelty.

My father’s side of the family is Scandinavian, so each year we love listening to Yogi Yorgesson’s “I Just Go Nuts At Christmas” (or, I Yust Go Nuts at Kreesmus) and “Jingle Bells” (or, Yingle Bells).

My favorite version of “Frosty the Snowman” is sung by Leon Redbone and Dr. John, with their funky, raspy voices, especially the “thumpity, thump, thump …”

Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” is sexy.  Madonna’s version is stupid and annoying.  (Two cents.)

The standards of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, etc.  evoke a certain peacefulness appropriate for the holiday season.  My favorite – “O Holy Night.”

I love that satellite radio offers a few different Christmas stations so I can choose classic, contemporary, standards, etc whenever I want.  We can all revisit Christmas’ of our past, or enjoy where we are now.

What’s your favorite Christmas song?

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Legend has it that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words.   His response:  “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” 

Smith Magazine decided to tap into that creative exercise as to one’s life story, and produced a book of compiled six-word memoirs, entitled “Not Quite What I Was Planning.”  Examples of submissions:

404: Life could not be found.

 

Rode the hare instead of tortoise.

 

Found success, lost relatives, then friends.

 

Ignored instructions; still picking up pieces.

 

I still miss my big brother.

 

Took road less traveled. Skinned knees.

 

Always the last in from recess.

 

 

Submit your own six-word memoir here.

 

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Duplex Planet

Duplex Planet

If, for some reason, you’ve been out of the loop for the last couple of decades, I wanted to bring the wonderful “Duplex Planet” to your attention.  I bought this book about ten years ago, and share it whenever I get the chance.  It’s an example of why I enjoy the biography business.  You never know what someone is going to say.

As activity director of the Duplex Nursing Home, David Greenberg became friends with the residents.  He had the idea of asking common and wacky questions to the residents, from “How did you meet your wife?” to “Who was Frankenstein?” and record their responses.  Because it was a nursing home, the mental processes of the residents varied.  “… the names of their conditions of deterioration mattered little to me,” wrote Mr. Greenberg.  “What did matter was that this was someone still very much alive, very interested in conversing, in entertaining or being entertained, in connecting with someone else.”

 

Excerpts:

 

What’s the most valuable thing you ever lost?

 

Well, to me it was valuable.  It was a letter written to us extolling the virtues of my son from the Superintendent of Schools.  He said it could be used as a letter of recommendation anytime in his life.  It told that he was not only good scholastically, but he had good character as well.  I lost it somewhere. It fell out of my pocket.  To me it was valuable.

 

Herman Seftel

 

What can you tell me about the Beatles?

 

I don’t know nothin’ about the Beatles.  I can tell you more about the Salem Fire.  June 25th, 1914.  It burned seven days and seven nights.  We had doughnuts and coffee by the Salvation Army. I also wrote a book on the Salem Fire.  Worked with the Salem Public Works Department, fifteen years.

 

Walter Kieran

 

What’s the worst trouble you were ever in?

 

Probably I’ve been in plenty, but I don’t remember it.  My memory isn’t as good as it used to be.  Used-to-be.  How long ago is that, huh? 

 

Fergie Ferguson

 

Treat yourself to this insightful, humorous and poignant book of collected conversations of seasoned individuals.

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How accurate will your biography be? 

Dorothy Parker, writer and wit extraordinaire, was witness to two plays written about her.  One was written by Ruth Gordon, and the other by George Oppenheimer, which made her leery about writing her autobiography.  “If I did, George Oppenheimer and Ruth Gordon would sue me for plagiarism.”  Read the rest of this entry »

So, what?  Biographies are not just for “famous people.”  Every single person has an interesting story to share.  Everyone. 

Ask five people you know the same question and see what different responses you get.  For example:  “When you were a child, what was something you got away with?”

Share your results here.

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A fellow historian recently attended an aging conference in Switzerland, where she learned that, in Germany alone, there are over 10,000 residents over the age of 100.  One of them was quoted as saying, “I stopped worrying about my children when they entered rest homes.”

Who is your oldest relative?  What is his or her earliest memory that you find really interesting?

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