Homer on the Run

Featured Image: “John William Waterhouse – Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)

Test time!

How much do you know about the Odyssey and the Iliad?

If you’re like me, the answer is – Nothing!  If you’d asked me yesterday to identify the author, I would have told you (after checking with Google), that it’s “Homer”.

But if you ask me today I might hedge, because Adam Nicolson, author of “Why Homer Matters“, says Homer is really a whole culture, not just one guy.

Which is strangely reassuring.

After all, the thought of a single person writing two timeless classics is inherently annoying to any writer who has taken pen to paper in an attempt to become known. It relieves some of the pressure to think the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey is actually a thousand-year parade of around-the-campfire spellbinders who memorized and refined tales that people wanted to hear.

But as a single individual, “Homer” may not have existed at all.

This casual dispatching of such a famous storyteller is completely in keeping with the contents of the Iliad, which is, after all, wholesale bloodshed. The story is a catalog of who impaled whom on the battlefield, and how the Gods were appeased by sacrifices that were flayed so their meaty thighbones could be cooked. Who knew someone would someday come along and flay the very idea of Homer himself?

Or as the author(s) might have said it:

“Adam sprang on Homer and took him alive as he was entangled in the crush; but he killed him then and there by a sword-blow on the neck. The sword reeked with his blood, while dark death and the strong hand of fate gripped him and closed his eyes.”

That’s it. No time to dally. So long, Homer, hello Oral Tradition!

I thought an epic poem should be written to mark the passage of this individual who probably never was, but of course I can’t write or recite an epic. I’ve tried and the result was excruciating for everyone involved.

The best I can do is come up with a bit of doggerel.

The guys who told the Iliad
were not much fun to know.

They’d memorized each stabbing
and each cutting, lethal blow.

They spat them out for listeners
who came to hear the gore.

An awful catalog of woe,
with spikes and blood and more.

Their plots had lots of detail

but their credits, a misnomer.

They were storytellers sure enough,
but not one guy named Homer.

How are you as a storyteller?

90 thoughts on “Homer on the Run”

  1. I enjoy oral tradition but as time goes on the tradition is replaced by books on tape. ted talks and my smartphones distractions.
    when I was a kid we wold drive from minneapolis to fargo oce in the summer and once in the winter at least. it was about an 8 hour trip an my dad would not let us listen to wdgy the top 40 hits radio of the day but instead would enourage discussion. he would tell stories of when h was growing up and how his dad would take them on trips in the car but how they were different. he would talk about the friends he grew up with and the stuff they used to do when they were little. following the ice truck, sharing a baseball glove with his brother who was 2 years older and a bicycle with the whole family.his dad was an interesting guy who lived a life worth telling stories about. he was a baseball pitcher who had to choose between traveling with the baseball teams of the day becoming a family man. he chose to become a bricklayer but id it with panache wearing a crisp white shirt and bow tie to work with a Stetson everyday and going home at lunch for a new shirt to look good in the afternoon. today we would have a different name for that kind of panache but it made for great storytelling when I was a kid. we always had questions and my dad always had more details to fill in. then he would talk about the hunting trips with his buddies before and after the war. the talk of the relatives from Ireland and the other things that came up along the way.
    today I try to have a talk with my kids and the ear buds are getting in the way. I tell of tradition and they have to be in the mood. they have seasons of mad men to watch on their ipad and video games to paly. the days of story telling are becoming a ting of the past. my wife was telling the kids the other day about how I was so impressed witht eh internet when I first met her that I told her about the world wide information highway and how it was going to change the world. faxes may even be replaced by email. the kids couldn’t believe we didn’t get it when the internet was introduced, how could we miss it. its easy looking back and kind of fun .
    remember sunday nights with ed sullivan and walt disney? those nights with family time and bowls of popcorn were a highlight of the week. that was how america lived. my baseball team had a practice on Tuesday and a game on thrusday, all the kids were form an area within 3 blocks of my house and we played 10 other teams of kids who lived within 3 blocks and had a 2 week championship series to proclaim the winner of bloomington athletic association. bloomington population 13,000 carved out of the cornfield in less than 5 years in 1957.
    stories take a different feel but not really
    epic poems about erma bombecke book the grass is always greener on the other side of the septic tank have a unique appeal to us boomers. the kids not so much

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I prefer to think your problems with your kids are something like a phase in their development, something they are living through now rather than their fixed relationship with you and your stories. Kids are so intensely self-absorbed in those years between childhood and maturity.

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  2. my dad he dove a station wagon
    I sat in the way back

    hed take us all to detroit lakes
    car games wed never lack

    alphabet from road signs
    counting railroad cars

    red cars were worth 25 points
    at night we learned the stars

    20 questions was a good one
    dad would tell about when he was a kid

    how different thing were in the olden days
    and all the different things they did

    I try to tell my kids a bit
    about the way it was

    when there were on three tv channels
    and our folks sent us outdoors because.

    we went out in the winter
    with sleds and skates dressed warm

    and we got to hear how far theyd walked
    when the grew up on the farm

    the kids of the new millennium
    research the past I think

    by googling the olden days
    and seeing how bad they stink

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    It is amazing that people have to believe that a particular myth/story/epic poem must be concretely authored by one true person. I don’t ever remembering trying to limit these stories to that when they are so much the story of civilization. (No, I never thought Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John individually authored those stories–I always thought they just were scribners of the myth–heresy, right?) So the news that there is not one true “Homer” doesn’t seem like news to me. Shakespeare? I will bet there was a group involved in those stories, too, a topic of wide speculation at least. This does not reduce the glory of the story.

    Meanwhile, no, I am not much of a story teller, although I love stories. I can only remember 2 jokes at any given time. As a small child my favorite thing was sitting with my dad’s family and listening to them gossip and tell stories. It was wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have been told there isn’t one true Lao-Tzu either – the quotes attributed to him are probably a collection of wise sayings that have been handed down generation after generation, without any concrete knowledge of where they came from. Some think that Lao-Tzu was a character invented to express those ideas.

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  4. I’m an ok storyteller as long as you don’t make me put in verse. Doggeral, limerick or dactyllic hexameter, I don’t do it. Best I can muster under duress is a spot of haiku, if I have to.

    My household is in an uproar. Not sure why I thought the first day back to school was ideal for an appment for the neurotic kitty to go for routine shots.

    But what really has our knickers in a twist is the dissing of our hero Homer. The Iliad is just the warm up band for the feature attraction, the Odessey!

    Child of mine was raised on it and knows more about it than most kids his age know about Sponge Bob.

    His comment about the nigh impossibility of Homer having 2 hits? Please, Dickens had at least a dozen and no one is disputing his claim.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Ach. Put IT in verse. I can tell a story if I don’t have to put IT in verse.

      for that matter, my writing is a bit dodgy too.

      UP ORAL TRAD!

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  5. I love storytelling as a performance art and would love to attend a national storytelling gathering. So many styles, so many stories, so many talented performers, and so much fun. Most of these stories are carefully crafted and delivered by experts who have honed their skill of presenting them.

    But the stories that I recall from my own life are woven of a different thread. I remember them because the were repeated endlessly. The same stories trotted out at every family gathering, mostly by men sitting together, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, and regaling each other with the same stories they told each other again and again. These stories are based on real people and real incidents recalled by the storytellers. Granted, over time the stories have been augmented and elaborated on with details that made for a better story, but true in their essence.

    What I didn’t understand then was that the charm of these stories was their familiarity. Everyone knew them and could chime in and supply a correction or a detail omitted by the teller; it was definitely a community affair. One of my favorite photos is a black and white snapshot of my dad, uncle Ejnar, and uncle Leo sitting on a sofa, each of them with a lit cigarette and a beet in a bottle on the coffee table in front of them. All grinning from ear to ear. The photo was taken by me at my sister’s confirmation (I had just bought my first camera), and it’s a photo whose merit I can’t attest to, except for it’s ability to elicit in me a powerful memory of family storytelling. I shudder to think that this tradition may be lost with all of the electronic gadgets that seem to have young people “communicating” with everyone and no one.

    Liked by 3 people

        1. I had the image of those hard-boiled eggs in beet pickle juice flash through my mind.

          Definitely a cultural icon of a particular culture.

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    1. I understand, PJ, your concern that storytelling might be replaced by electronic entertainment gizmos. But I doubt that will happen. Electronic gizmos haven’t put an end to stories any more than they have replaced singing. People still sing and people still tell stories. It isn’t “easy” to tell stories well, just as it isn’t easy to sing well. But people still appreciate them when done well.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently got two really great, fairly new, and extremely readable translations of both the Illiad and the Odyssey by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell writes that both were were written by two different people, neither of whom was named Homer. His introductions are worth the price of the books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Personally I have all the warm fuzzies for Fitzgerald’s verse translation of The Odyssey. With the orange cover, of course. That was the first version I read (I was twelve and still deep in love with Greek mythology), and the last (for my forever-incomplete MFA). After I’ve reread Haney’s Beowulf, I should give Mitchell a try.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Not as good as I’d like to be. I have a hard time successfully telling a joke with more than two lines it (such as “Knock knock.” and “Who’s there?”, let alone a detailed retelling of an event that took place years ago.

    Chris in Owatonna

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  8. I’m a storyteller. My family are all storytellers. I used to argue with my ex, who had a degree in English from Stanford and a Masters in Creative Writing from Hamline.

    She would pretty consistently tell me that I was breaking the “rules of writing.” These rules were a nebulous and never-defined list of “thou-shalt-not’s” that were invoked whenever she didn’t like something I’d written or, conversely, to justify something that I’d critiqued about one of her stories.

    My rebuttal to this “rules of writing” violation (and I was instructed that I was “not supposed” to rebut critique but accept it all, no matter the source or content) was typically a) it was the convention of the genres that I write in (hero pulp and noir detective fiction) that it’s just as much about the rhythm and feeling of the words to elicit a response from the reader as the words themselves and b) there’s a difference between ‘writing’ and ‘storytelling.’

    She did not like this distinction.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gotta love those English teacher folks, don’t you, going around offering free-will unsolicited advise?
      Pick up any art or writing magazine; you will see one of that type telling you what must always be true of some art form.
      As a long-time English teacher I will tell you that, in the context of the classroom, the teacher of an art form is a coach. A dialogue should take place. The student must understand that as well as the coach. One of my problems was students whose parent, usually the father, who had no background in writing, would teach a rule that the student did not want violate, because daddy had said so, like Click and Clack and all the things daddies tell their kids wrong about cars. At least once a year I would get a students who had a huge vocabulary, which means they were from a home with lots of reading and good talk in it, who had been told that the more polysyllabics you use the better is your writing. I often got calls at 10 at night telling me that I did not know anything about writing over that issue. And, of course, be told that I objected only because I had a small vocabulary.
      All art rules are limber but some less than others.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My ex always wanted to be a writer of science fiction. She came home when she started one of her classes and said she was not going to get along with one of her professors. She said that during the first class, as he was establishing his ‘ground rules,’ he announced that science fiction was not a true literary genre and that he would refuse any story written as such. And, yes, his class was required as part of a Master’s Degree program in -Creative Writing.- Nice, eh? That H.G. Wells…what a hack…[massive eye roll]

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh, such nonsense. I believe in getting a solid grounding in the rules, traditions, and history of your art, but once you’ve learnt the rules (I prefer to call them “tools” or sometimes “vocabulary”) you SHOULD break them in whatever way you need to, to serve the work. The work is the most important thing, followed very closely by the audience, and you do what you must to serve them both.

      Liked by 4 people

    3. I taught writing for six years, tgith. “Rules” in writing? Pizzlerot! I structured much of my teaching around debunking them. I’m not inclined to agree with anyone who claims to know what is “supposed” to happen, and I sure don’t agree when it comes to writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t there a rule about writing papers for school – that you write the outline first and then write your paper? Don’t tell anyone, but I almost always wrote the paper first and the outline last (How could I write an outline until I knew what I was going to say? And how could I know what I was going to say before I wrote it?)

        I imagine that if everybody who wrote a story tried to follow the rules for writing that there would be very little original work done. Being formulaic when writing a novel is not a virtue.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Indeed! I tried to make the point that not all stories should have a happy ending or -have- to be cyclical. Others in my writer’s group were just as hung up about “the rules.” I was told that POV absolutely cannot shift during the course of a story. Sure seemed to me to a pretty boring story when told from only one character’s perspective… Goes to show what I know. Still, our little group did pretty well. I got published by a ‘basement’ publisher, my ex got some short stories published, and another won the Writers of the Future contest.

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  9. I tend to the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness (and in bad need of editing) more than I ought when telling stories. I like to tell them, but I could use a little editor in my head between the brain and the mouth.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. It is also somewhat of a challenge to read scriptures aloud in Church when you are the assisting minister. I had to read the first few paragraphs of the Gospel of John the other day at an ecumenical Lessons and Carols service at the Episcopal Church, and that is a difficult text to read aloud and make sense of to the congregation. I get really distracted by poor readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Good morning. When I lived in Southern Minnesota I helped with putting on a few storyteller events. Those shows featured some people who belonged to a group of storytellers led by Michael Cotter who is nationally know for his storytelling skill. One of the people in this group was John Rezmerski, a poet from St. Peter who is someone Crow Girl knows.

    I could have joined that group and made an effort to work on my storytelling skills. I like storytelling and I think could have developed a little skill in this area if I had joined that group. However, I didn’t do that.

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    1. I was thinking of Michael Cotter when thinking about the question today.
      And John Rezmerski is one of those people I’ve only met once, but we hit it off right away and exchanged a few emails and had a great time talking.
      He was in a play at the Jon Hassler Theater years ago called ‘Chin Music’.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Michael Cotter is a scoundrel as well as a storyteller. However, he is a very likable scoundrel. Like you, Ben, I had a good time visiting with John Rezmerski and enjoyed his storytelling.

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  12. I am not a fan of storytelling. I prefer to read rather than listen, at my own pace and with my own interpretation. I might be so impatient with it because my dad was such a terrible storyteller–he’d start to tell a story about Ye Olden Days, and immediately get stuck on whether or not the neighbor from the north had been there or if it had just been the neighbor on the east, or if it had been January or February, or if he’d been stationed in England before or after he was stationed in Sicily…by the time he got to the point I’d stopped listening long since. I told him to write things down (I said so I wouldn’t forget, but mainly so I wouldn’t have to listen), but he never got around to it. I had gotten the impression from the family that his father was a great raconteur, but I read the couple of pamphlets the old man had published with the historical society press, and I was unimpressed. Might have been the annoying ethnic humor–remember the days when any stupid thing was funny so long as it was told/written in an exaggerated accent? Yeah…

    One of my dear friends–who justifiably has had a very colorful and peripatetic life–has a suitcase full of stories for every possible occasion. When she’s REALLY stressed, her conversation is a long string of reminiscences, barely touching on the present at all. These days I’m better at listening, partly because I know why she needs to do it, partly because I have more patience than I used to, and partly because, even if it is the eighth time I’ve heard that particular anecdote, she’s at least a better storyteller than my dad ever was.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Inconsequential details, yes, but many of the good storytellers manage to take so many detours and side trips along the way that you forget where the heck they were going. Many on Garrison’s best monologues do this. I sometimes marvel at how he manages to return the where he started out after a taking the most circuitous route to get there.

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  13. One of the startling epiphanies of my life came when I was beginning to write about my parents’ lives. I suddenly realized, “Gee, Dad was a storyteller! I had never thought about that as a category before. Then, at almost the same moment, I thought, “Hey, Steve, you are one, too.”

    There is a clear line of this in my family. My dad was a storyteller. I am one. My daughter grew up with a storyteller’s mind. And now Liam obviously is a storyteller.

    When I first realized that storytelling was central in my family, I thought of it as a good thing. As I have noted before on this site, when I reflected more I began to see how storytelling can have negative as well as positive impacts. For example, storytellers often talk too much, and they can be crashing bores. Worse, they often fail to listen well to what others have to offer. Those are now character flaws I work on every day.

    But I don’t want to overlook what can be good about storytelling. Storytellers–whether they want to or not–are compelled to see life in certain ways. Telling stories is a central way we identify beauty, humor and meaning in life. Having identified it, we share it with others, or try to. For all its unfortunate sides, storytelling is essentially a positive and generous approach to life.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Whether or not Homer was one person is an archelogical question not a literary question. I studied Iliad once and Odyssey twice in three different colleges. All three instructors stated the obvious fact that it is doubtful but unproven that homer was a person. But who cared? We were there about the story and story-telling.
    Nocolson sometimes gets carried away in his writing, as he does here a bit here.But, how could a person be the only shaper of a complex tale from the oral tradition? Not likely. We think the canon of Greek mythology was one thing. But who the gods were and what were their stories varied across the region and across time. My bet, after reading a bit on this topic over 50 years, is that Homer was the last shaper and that there was a man Homer, but he alone was not the shaper of the tale. Maybe the truly gifted shaper, because someone had a great gift. Hesiod, who most researchers consider a person, was a contemporary of Homer, most likely. But Hesiod we know was gathering up and codifying the Theogony.
    As for the stories, I said this in class and got hissed at for it, so you can hiss too: I am not a fan of either story. I call them “testosterone on parade.” But I am a fan of the story-telling, particularly in The Odyssey.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. As for the question: Dale is inside my mind again.
    I was well-known and liked as a teacher for stories I told as part of the lesson. A good teacher is often a good story-teller, as say for example Jesus and his parables. The great chemistry physics teacher with whom I taught used stories very well in his classes.
    However, one of my resolutions for 2015 is to quit telling stories. I think even my grandkids have heard them all by now. Plus, I have lost the knack I think.

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      1. Not to mention a loss to the baboons.

        Your paintings and your posts and comments here and your book – all of those are delightful. Maybe you could resolve to not tell stories when it’s obvious that your listeners are bored out of their skulls or when you’ve already said enough – but to totally stop? Don’t do that. Please.

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    1. that is the worst resolution i ever heard.
      start writing them down with your new dragon adapter.
      I love storytelling and hate the thought of it going away in any way.

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    2. How often do kids ask for the same story, again and again? In my nanny days it was not unusual for the kids to ask for a specific story, and heaven help me if I deviated from it, they would correct me.

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    3. Clyde, as the descendant of the stoic and taciturn, I truly hope that is a resolution meant to be broken.

      The family stories I have are more like the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls than anything else. Bits and pieces that give evidence that there was something, but not really enough of a framework to even embroider upon.

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  16. Morning–
    I’ve read these. Had a hard time with the Iliad, but the Odyssey is a favorite.
    I think all of us on here would be good at telling tales. But my problem is that doesn’t always translate into WRITING a good tale.

    I remember messing up a perfect opportunity in elementary school for telling a story. I knew a story about a house we were driving by on a field trip. And the entire bus turned it’s attention to me and I just blew it off. I regret passing up that opportunity.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. Like the Waterhouse painting. He painted lots of women from Greek mythology in his blend of styles. In some art gallery somewhere–was it KC?–i came across three or four of his paintings. Like all paintings, his are so much better in real life than in repo.

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  18. Two last comments and then out and about for most of the day: why has ho even reasonably-decent movie been made of either, or much from Greek lore?
    To understand, I think, the ancient Greek stories and how they developed, a person should ask the same questions of the Bible. And vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I wasn’t aware of my circular brain until my office partner lef ot go to the peace corp and told his replacement that I start off on something , stry for m the thought and come back around to it. not always today sometimes it is just a reference for next week or month or ever to be heard from again.
    I was out with my daughter the other day and she was quoting me from 8 or 9 years ago when she was little. it is interesting how the game of telephone gets involved. I didn’t tell her what she remembers isn’t what I said but it is interesting to see what she got out of whatever it was I said. I get in trouble today starting off on one subject and then sidetracking into something else non related and then maybe or maybe not returning to the original intended topic.

    you may have noticed

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is interesting, tim, to see how a child remembers stuff we told them. I learned (too late to do me any good) that my daughter was listening to me like a little tape recorder even when she didn’t seem to be paying attention. For example, I once tried to teach a few pointers on photographer to my daughter when she was a teenager. She protested, rolled her eyes, and made it clear that she wasn’t in the mood to be instructed; she preferred doing things her own way. Now roll the calendar forward about ten years. I was standing nearby when my daughter offered photography tips to someone else. To my astonishment, she was quoting me nearly word for word from that aborted attempt to show her photography lessons. In spite of all appearances, the little scamp had been listening!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I love listening to a good story teller. I find that here on the Trail, there are some great storytellers. And each of us has our moments; when a Baboon is telling of something s/he loves or finds fascinating, I “can’t put it down.”

    Our “honeymoon” was spent at a Storytelling Conference in Mineral Point, WI – a good friend was participating – and we had a ball. I love to hear Kevin Kling et al., and though I get tired of PHC’s formulaic skits sometimes, bless Garrison for bringing it storytelling back into the spotlight.

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    1. That’s a real hazard for storytellers, BiR: telling the same story too often. Every storyteller has a few great stories, a few that are okay, and maybe a few that are weak. When you hear from them too often, you begin to see the patterns and predict the outcome of the stories. This is made worse when a storyteller makes his or her living by telling stories, for they then will go on repeating themselves endlessly. This is often easiest to see in the works of a “columnist.”

      Does anyone here remember Jim Klobuchar? He is just one more example of someone who had a nice way with stories and a lot of interest in human nature, but in time he had written so many columns that he seemed to be repeating himself with each one. Every writer or storyteller or columnist struggles to avoid being predictable.

      I used to be a columnist. The need for freshness was almost an obsession with me. Maybe this story will show you how demanding it is to write columns on a regular basis. One of the worst events in my life was watching a car kill one of our dogs, a lovely yellow Labrador named Pukka. As I stood there crying over Pukka’s crushed body a little voice in the back of my head said, “Hey, you can get a column out of this!”

      Liked by 2 people

  21. I’ll admit I don’t listen to Garrison or the PHC as much as I used to. I give him tremendous credit, however, for his staying power. The current show is well rehearsed and professional in its presentation. The early shows were unrehearsed, and therefore a lot more unpredictable. Sometimes they were complete duds, others, shear magic.

    I cherish the memories of those early shows. Not only were they a great bargain, especially if you were a member of MPR, but because they came along just as my first marriage was falling apart, they were a life saver for me. For that I’ll forgive Garrison just about anything.

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  22. This is sort of Jungian, I suppose, but Mitchell talks of the themes of the stories in the Odyssey that are present in all sorts of culture, such as ‘the return of the hero, or husband” which suits Odysseus to a T. There are universal themes that storytellers glomb onto and make their own, just like the Odyssey poet and the Illiad poet did.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. A story my daughter just sent me re Mr. Tuxedo (The reference to giardia is that their new kitten came with the disease, now seemingly conquered).
    Jonah went rushing off to the bathroom tonight, which made me nervous since we’re watching for signs of giardia. He emerged from the bathroom carrying a very lacy pair of my underwear. It had been in his pants all day (having gotten deposited there in the wash, of course) and he knew something was uncomfortable but couldn’t figure out what it was. I sure am glad they didn’t fall out at school!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. that’s funny. poor kid. thanks for the clarification. I had your lacey underwear pictured as guys 10 year old underwear that’s so comfortable you cant throw it away even though the waist band is only connected in two small spots. ask to see my rag bag for working on the car out in the garage. there are some classics in there

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  24. Hi! I’ve been following your website for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Atascocita Tx!
    Just wanted to say keep up the gold work!

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