Younger Readers

There were very few comments about a tag that Jennifer put on one of her stories, about two people listening to music so loud that they couldn’t hear trains coming. There’s a real and significant reason I publish such stories, but not everyone grasps that.

Here’s the story, from True’s 6 February 2011 issue:

Smash Hits

His car stereo blasting, a Missoula, Mont., man proceeded to drive through an intersection and onto the train tracks. Unable to hear because of the blaring music, the unidentified man in his 30s stated that he never saw or heard the approaching train — until it crashed into his car just behind the driver’s seat. Despite extensive damage to the car, the driver was not injured. Things ended differently farther down the line for Amanda Byrne, 18, who was jogging on the train tracks in Rowe, N.M., with her earphones too loud for her to hear the frantic signaling of the fast-approaching train. She was hit and killed. (JW/Missoulian, Reuters) …I was trying to remember the name of that song, and then it hit me….

Two Brief Letters

Premium subscriber Lucy in Texas: “You, sir, are an evil, evil man — and you must be encouraged. I laughed out loud — the second belly laugh of my morning. It is going to be a GOOD day. Thank you for that.”

The second was from “TL” in South Carolina, verbatim: “Your comment at the end of this article was a little over the top. While she should have been more careful and running on train tracks is always ill advised. Making fun of an innocent girls death is no laughing matter. I have been a free subscriber for quite some time and I have been amused by your comments on criminals and corrupt politician, but I think this is where we differ in opinion.”

Here We Go Again

Again, we have a reader who assumes (remember: When you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” but not “me”) that everything in True is meant to be funny. As anyone who has been paying attention knows, it is not.

While this one is black humor, it does have an underlying lesson in life, which I’ve spelled out before. If you think he’s sputtering now, imagine what he’d say if he realized there are lots of teens reading True!

My reply to TL was, simply, a link: (Go ahead and click it, read it, and then hit “Back” to finish this page. It’s fairly brief.)

His response was to say I was wrong, and he unsubscribed.

So, I’m wrong that True isn’t always meant to be funny?!

So he completely misses the point, and refuses to be prompted to think.

Oh well; I tried.

The Other Side of the Coin

So then I get letters like this, from Mike in Pennsylvania, which beautifully illustrates why I publish such stories:

I’ve been subscribing to the free edition of True since I was in middle school. As I recall, I found out about True from watching the long-defunct TechTV (admittedly, an unusual TV preference for a 12-year-old). Throughout middle school, high school, and then college, I made sure to read True every week and recommend it to everyone I knew. More than 9 years and a few different email addresses since originally subscribing, I’ve moved on to grad school. Now that I’m doing research and earning a stipend, I decided that it was time to spend the $24 on an upgrade. Thanks for all the laughs over the past several years (and for the ‘it would be funny if it weren’t true’ stories, too). I look forward to reading the full, unabridged issues from now on.

Many readers say they read the stories with their children. Those kids are getting real-life lessons on how people can and do make absolutely stupid decisions (like, say, jog on a railroad track with their iPod plugged into their ears?!)

When Mike was 12, he saw true examples of What Not To Do. He didn’t need someone to tell him the stuff he was reading about was stupid, he could see that. All he needed was for someone to tell him the truth, and he could see that it was true.

And in that environment, children can and do learn lessons about life, and inevitably, they learn something about themselves.

So many complainers want me to tone down stories, to not “make fun” of people doing stupid things. But how far ahead in life is Mike, and other people who have been reading these stories from a young age, because I won’t tone down the stories? I want them to learn the lessons! Maybe then, there won’t be so much stupidity — and death — for me to write about.

Yes: I Want Less Stupidity

I’d love to make my own job obsolete. Let’s just say I doubt that will happen. But if I can help just a small segment of the world — my readers? You bet: in fact, that’s one of my goals.

Sure, sometimes the stories “make fun of” some pretty tragic events, like the 18-year-old girl hit by a train. If, by writing about it, kids learn the lesson and, say, 2 or 3 (or 20 or 300) of them don’t die because they learned to be more careful from reading about someone like Byrne, that means her death meant something, doesn’t it?

I could ignore such stories, and maybe that lesson would never be learned by those 2 or 3 (or 20 or 300) kids, and then what did her death mean? I do know it would sting for the family if they read it, but if it was someone in my family, I’d want something positive to come out of it.

So yes: if (say) one of my nieces or nephews was the one hit by a train, you bet I’d publish the story in hopes that their death became more meaningful by providing an illustration for a young reader, perhaps saving their lives.

Yes: Kids Like the Stories

And why do young readers like the stories in True? Why do they read them? For the same reason you do: because they’re entertaining at some level. They (and you) wouldn’t read them otherwise, but while you get entertained (True’s first function), you can’t help but think about some of the stories too. That’s True’s second function: to provoke thought.

You can’t consistently get the second function without catering to the first.

It doesn’t have to be so extreme, of course. More likely a story of something less tragic — say, an arrest for an idiotic crime — will teach someone that “No, I can’t get away with it, and I don’t want my mug shot on the Internet!” Or maybe even something as simple as “I’m not sure I can trust politicians. Maybe I need to read up more about this guy before I vote for him.” And that’s not too bad, is it?!

So, I don’t know if Mike really learned anything or not, but I’d like to think so. I can say that I ran his note verbatim: I didn’t need to make a single correction for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. He was probably pretty smart already: after all, he chose to become a This is True reader!

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20 Comments on “Younger Readers

  1. My first memory of considering myself “mature” was around 16 or 17 when I felt it was important to learn from the mistakes of others. I feel it has served me well.

    I wonder what percentage of the population never has that realization? I’m sure it’s high enough to scare us all…. -rc

  2. All of life is tragic. You die from it.

    Some people work harder at making it happen even faster, and I find that pretty funny. That’s why we have the Darwin Awards.

    I don’t like other people telling me what I should find funny or not. And I’m tired of people using the proverbial nameless, faceless “children” as the excuse for dictating what I read or see. My kids handle it a lot better than many adults.

  3. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out stupidity that results in death. Hmm, time I checked Darwin Awards, there’s probably been an update…

    Most deaths around trains result from stupidity (or suicide – hard to know the difference once the person’s dead). Stupidity and lack of respect. When there’s 200 tons of solid steel moving at, say, 30km/h (we’ll be generous and assume it’s pulling in to a station), we’re talking millions of m kg/s. That sort of energy doesn’t dissipate any faster when you’re in front of it, and all you’re going to do is give the driver a traumatic day. I’m told that, in the city and suburbs of Melbourne, there’s one such death a week – at that rate, how long will it be before the city runs out of idiots to kill?

    With a good writeup, a story like this can entertain as well as scare, and as you say, that’s the first step – making people want to read it. Well, I think you’ve succeeded on that score. True is an extremely welcome break when it ‘dings’ into my inbox!

  4. Way back in the pre-telephone days, when communication was slow, stories like the ones in TiT were how common sense was spread. If some farmhand lost a finger because of some dumb move, or a horse died, or a barn burned down, word spread around, and others learned not to do that. I am sure there were many jokes, that’s just human nature. But it helped spread the word and educate people.

    So you are really an old fashioned kind of guy at heart, I think…

  5. Keep an eye on that Mike in Pennsylvania; Some half dozen (or hopefully many more) decades from now your great grandson, or whoever is running this show then, will need to give him an Honorary Unsubscribe, marking the outstanding life that he continued to lead.

    You’re probably right, Tony! But let’s hope he’s too famous to be in the H.U.! -rc

  6. Somehow, the idea of making someone’s death mean something always disturbed me. I’m talking about using it as an example after the fact, of course, not of deliberate sacrifice. I completely support the use of examples as a warning to others (I wouldn’t be getting my money’s worth from reading TRUE if I didn’t, would I?) and I, likewise, would want my own kin’s examples to warn others if appropriate, but to say that a death that should never have happened becomes more meaningful by preventing other deaths that should never happen? It doesn’t ring true for me. It seems to me that it’s meaningful to prevent pointless death if it’s possible to do so without dying in the process, which hopefully makes your job a very meaningful one. Keep up the good work!

    Well, *I* hope to help prevent pointless death without dying in the process! But I see and honor your point. I’ve been told by readers they have learned lessons from TRUE, and have even had a couple of people say it kept them from ending their lives (and I’ve published a few those, with suitable anonymity), so it’s proven to work. -rc

  7. While I appreciate the sentiment, I find it worrying that you think that anyone in their right mind needs to be educated to not run along train tracks listening to music through earphones. It should be obvious with only a modicum of thought that that’s a daft idea (along with riding a bike and driving a car under the same conditions). I suspect readers of True (ha, just realized (doh) why you don’t abbreviate it!) are capable of making that analysis. I fear you’re aiming at the wrong audience.

    No, adults in their right minds don’t need such basic lessons. Their kids do, though, and true stories like this which parents can share with their kids are great lessons. Parents probably won’t think to lecture “Don’t jog on the railroad tracks!”, but might they say “Look what happened to this dummy!” will not only be a great thing to communicate, but it’s something most kids will actually listen to. And, as I said, the lessons don’t have to be this extreme; there’s plenty of subtlety that (yes) even smart and common-sensical adults can learn from. -rc

  8. Thanks for the reminder to subscribe for another year. I love reading your stories. And I love to make fun of these dumb people. If I did the stupid things they did, I would have to expect someone to make fun of me. I don’t even remember how long I have been reading your stories. And I love getting more stories in each edition. Thanks again.

  9. One can make the same statement about people on the road, jogging, walking, biking with their ears plugged in to whatever is on their mp3 player be it music or news. You lose one key sense, hearing, which you really need with cars coming and going.

    No problem here on spelling out the obvious to me.

  10. One might think that it’s “obvious” and overstated, but I find that what’s obvious to me is not so to many more people around me. Ever hear a train horn, especially at close range? There’s no MP3 player loud enough to drown out THAT noise. If there were, it would make you deaf, which renders the concept of an MP3 player pointless in the first place.

    Speaking of deaf, being able to hear things around you is not a prerequisite for walking, jogging, biking or even driving. However, being deaf does require extra awareness using your other senses, at the price of self-preservation. And there’s the problem.

    Awareness is NOT a factor for most people, especially when driving. What with talking on the cell phone, texting, fiddling with your radio, trying to eat without dripping onto your legs, doing your hair or make-up, catching up on that company report on the seat next to you, or trying to read the Sports while you drive, or as one guy I saw, typing on his laptop computer, and I even heard about someone KNITTING while driving…. Well, with 2 tons of Killer Machinery in your hands and under your foot, moving at 88 feet per second, awareness is apparently NOT obvious to a vast number of drivers (nor to joggers on railroad tracks).

    Randy can keep on stating the Obvious, and 500 years from now it will be just as pertinent. Although [obviously] it will be his descendants keeping our descendants entertained.

  11. If you can’t make fun of crooks and such, I mean… There are many funny people in this world but from where I sit, and where I sat for a quarter century (Police radio desk), crooks have most all of ’em beat clear to jail. (Well, that is where many end up, but crooks get there first.)

    By all means do not tone it down… I need a good laugh from time to time and how do you “Tone down” stories like the one you ran, I think, last year, about the idiot who robbed the car wash, in Washington, in January.

    You’re close! It was in Portland, in January, and I made a video of that one. -rc

  12. Please take offense to anyone who wants to change the way you write. I have enjoyed your stories (and bought some of your books), and never once did I ever think man this guy need to tone it down. I have learned some things Not to do from This is True (not that I would do them anyhow). Your talent for writing is what our local news paper needs. Maybe if more reporters …err scratch that: then you wouldn’t be unique. Keep up the good work!

    I’m not quick to take offense (I get hate mail every week!), but I appreciate the thought anyway. -rc

  13. I can’t help but to wax nostalgic at your Honorary Unsubscribe. I guess it speaks to my own mortality, however, it’s more than that. It seems that all the great people are dying and there are none left to fill their place. Are there great people of today? Sometime I have a hard time remembering any.

    There certainly are! They’re just overshadowed by the shallow people the media lionize. That’s part of the point of the H.U.: to demonstrate the sort of people we should be paying attention to. -rc

  14. I have been reading This is True for about 10 years and have enjoyed most of them. I have so used some of your stories in sermons. A story about stupid burglars is a perfect introduction to the parable of the thief in the night. Sure I am sad to read the way you will sometimes seemingly mock people who are tragically killed. I cringe over the the “Get out of Jail Free” cards. Although it do make a good illustration about grace and mercy. To those who lob hand grenades at you, I say, “Learn where the unsubscribe link is located.” But for overall I enjoy getting a few good laughs once a week. Thanks for the service.

    You’re welcome, Reverend. I’ll note that many pastors find the Get Out of Hell Free or “GOOHF” cards so worthy of consideration that they carry them; we’ve sold them to men (and women) of the cloth of many, many denominations. -rc

  15. Personally, I’ve always thought that anyone who makes another person the instrument of their death — whether through stupidity (as in the case of iPod Girl) or deliberately (in the case of suicides) is phenomenally selfish.

    I’m not talking about accidents, of course; falling off a crowded platform is an accident, deliberately jumping in front of a train is selfish.

    The way I see it, for the deceased it’s over. For the train driver — or the car driver, the cop forced to kill in self-defence, whatever — it’s something they’ll have to deal with for months, years… maybe the rest of their life. It’s like people who commit suicide and leave their kids to discover the body. It’s selfish and inconsiderate.

    The girl with the iPod was stupid and selfish. Tragic, yes, but stupid. And it’s why I’ll never take a job as a train driver.

  16. I read This Is True because of your intelligence and wit. I like edgy. It simulates thought (and sometimes even action). Do we not need to be provoked off our complacent bottoms from time to time? Keep up the great work, Randy. You do make a difference!!

  17. We ALL should be so lucky/blessed to receive an Honorary Unsubscribe. This is just how I wish I could be: contributing, making a positive difference, without the fanfare feeding the ego. Thank you, Randy.

  18. I have never had a friend or loved one die in a “dumb” event. However, I HAVE injured a friend who was riding in my car. I was distracted by an object that fell off of the center console while driving, and rear-ended a tractor-trailer.

    Luckily my friend escaped major injury — just a goose egg and some glass embedded into his upper forehead. He was (self admittedly) stupid for not wearing his seat belt, and I was stupid for not waiting until I was stopped to pick up the object, or let my passenger do so.

    I talked to my coworkers about it because I want others to learn from my mistakes if possible. I would hope that if I ever do something fatally stupid, people will learn from it whether they made jokes about it or not.

    It was brave to admit you were at fault, and to use that as a “teachable moment” for others. Someone may as well get some benefit from the lesson! (In addition to you, I mean. 🙂 -rc

  19. In the town where I live there are 2 railroad lines that run through the town. At one point these lines converge so that there is one crossing for both lines. At this crossing is the standard ‘gate’ that comes down when the train is a pre-set distance from the crossing which prevents cars from crossing the tracks. When there are no trains coming the gate sits in an upright position. On this gate is a sign that says “Do Not Climb” in big bold letters.

    The first time I saw this sign I had to ask myself “WHY? Why would anyone WANT to climb that gate? It’s not terribly sturdy and it seems like a really DUMB idea.”

    Then I started reading your weekly newsletters (and the Darwin Awards and other such reports) and I realized that “Common Sense” is not so common any more. I watch TV shows like “Mythbusters” (where they basically they to blow stuff up in the name of proving or disproving some urban legend) and look at it for what it is: entertainment put on by people who know something about what they are doing and know how to be safe. I do not need the “Don’t try this at home” messages every 5 minutes because I have common sense!

    It is hoped that you will continue to write the stories like you do for a long time to come and it is also good to know that some of our young people are being taught good old fashioned common sense!

  20. Seeing this story mentioned again in the “10 Years ago in True” forced me to remember a sad incident back in 2006 where a 16 year old driver who was leaving her volunteer stint at a senior living facility pulled right out in front of an ambulance which was running hot to a call. Randy, you probably know of the incident as you may have still been in Boulder at the time. It was thought she had headphones on at the time and could not hear the siren and probably did not look both ways before pulling out. The parents sued the ambulance company and the driver. I do not know the outcome of the suit but hope that it was an unsuccessful one despite the tragic loss. I thought the suit would have made an appropriate Stella Awards story. I think True should be required reading in High Schools. Perhaps then we would see fewer of these senseless (NPI) tragedies happen.

    Just so. But no, I left Boulder in 2003, and didn’t hear about this one. -rc


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