Life Hack: How to Explain Your Grandfather's Hitherto Existence in 14 Easy Points
So you need to write a 14-point clickbait article about your late grandfather and you're lost in the sauce. We've all been there. Use this handy guide to help you on your way!
1. Start by describing his death. This is your hook.
Ex. It was a heart attack. He was six beers deep, and having lunch. Hot dogs. His last words,
uttered in reference to a CNN analysis piece that reiterated the high likelihood of a Clinton
general election victory, were “Well, that’s good to hear.” He had been released from Yale New
Haven Hospital earlier that day with an ostensibly clean bill of health. Months afterwards,
whispered suggestions of malpractice persisted among our friends and family.
2. Jump back to the very beginning by providing the basic details of his birth and parentage.
Sequencing works in your favor here; the juxtaposition of end and beginning will give your
readers a concise measurement of his puff to compare smugly with their own. Yep, made it
further than that guy.
Ex. He was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on June 22nd, 1943, to Robert and Ethel Lisowski.
3. Pony up some juicy details about his early childhood. Let the audience have some fun with
pop psychology here.
Ex. His father was an alcoholic house painter who would sometimes disappear for weeks on end
and then resurface, playing the piano—quite well—at the local bar. His mother worked long
hours cleaning wealthy people’s floors and mantelpieces. She had a fine touch, everyone said so.
They didn’t have indoor plumbing until 1951.
4. Make up something random. You’re working with a small Midwestern town in the 50s, so
maybe something about him chivalrously sticking up for a bullied classmate. Your loyal readers
are not averse to cliché. They’ll lap that shit up.
Ex. Every day, he walked home from school with his neighbor, Timothy. Stricken with polio at a
young age, Timothy had nearly succumbed to the disease, and still had to walk with the
assistance of a pair of ungainly braces. Wh-
5. Tiny Tim. You’re writing about goddamned Tiny Tim. You must be tired. Skip this. Save the
explicit bullshit for later. Granddad was in Vietnam, wasn’t he? There’s no reason he couldn’t
have been. Take a break. Have a beer. Have a nap. Naps are good for the creative process. Wake
up mid-afternoon and congratulate yourself on no longer working a seven-to-seven pseudo-Wall
Street job. Go back to your desk. White fir from the Yukon. Very nice. Talk about his
adolescence. Show us his rancor, show us his promise. This will supply your readers with the
pleasant reminder that they, too, were once angsty and gifted, and in the more important case of
the latter, still are.
Ex. He hated Nebraska. He hated the fields. He hated tractors. He wanted out. He hated the
pinching, Protestant fingernails of the women and eyes of the men as they spat tobacco spit and
looked up from behind their trucks at the filling stations, pupils like blotted ink, like lumps of
unburned coal, and you couldn’t tell whether it was from seeing terrible things in the wars or just
from a lifetime on the prairie. Long nights he sat up on the roof downing cans of Budweiser,
longing for somewhere else. He took to smoking out of a corn cob pipe. The process of packing,
smoking, and cleaning it calmed him down. He worked hard in school, and excelled. He was a
wonderful speaker and writer, everyone said so. Language was, he was sure, his ticket out of the state.
6. Start in on his love life. Render the physical features of his future wife in vivid, lovely detail.
Readers will get a rush out of the “And every fair from fair sometime declines” moment this
brings them. Pause. Mull over whether it’s weird to use your dead grandmother as an object of
titillation. Nah, seems okay, just—maybe take the meet cute route instead?
Ex. When he was 16 years old, a girl named Emily Heiden moved in across the street. It was a
ramshackle place, a droopy, porch-and-balcony laden white clapboard Faulknerian fantasy of a
house that hadn’t been consistently occupied since an out-of-hand moonshine bust had done in its
original owners some third of a century prior. Every weekday morning after breakfast, he would
crouch beside the sooty window in the half-hearted little foyer at the front of his mother’s house
and watch Emily Heiden’s door. She emerged each day at 8:08, hand-carrying her schoolbooks,
in brown and olive green dresses that flared out at the waist, the kind of dresses that were
popular in the late 50s, but not so much in towns like Grand Island, Nebraska. He’d wait for her
to come halfway down the block towards his house, and then he’d rush out, pretending not to see
her, fumbling with his hat and keys at the door before very decisively locking it and giving a
little nod to himself, somehow satisfied to have secured the domicile against the threat of
burglary, as if there was anything to be stolen inside or any burglars in the whole county to steal
it. He would then cross the street ahead of her and silently maintain a ten-step distance between
them for the duration of the walk to school. After two weeks of this routine, she acknowledged
You look a bit like Frederic March, she said.
I like Frederic March, he said.
7. Take another break. Have a beer. No, have a scotch. Add a splash of tap water for flavor.
Careful now, this faucet can be tricky. Fuck, fuck, you put too much in. You ruined the last of the
good scotch your old boss gave you, along with the promise of capital, in an attempt to influence
your testimony at trial. You stupid fuck. What are you doing? How can you use your granddad
like this? Him, a paragon of rhetorical ability and professional ethics. You, a bottom-feeding
investment lackey turned BuzzFeed contributor. Him, an officer of the court and sworn enforcer
of justice. You, a lying-to-shareholders, barely-cooperating, saving-your-own-freckly-ass
witness. Venture tensely over to the window. Look down. See Calgary, twenty-eight floors
below. Streetlights spread their flaxen glow over sheets of trampled white snow. It’s a cheese
platter. Colby on brie. Scrumptious. A lone homeless woman trundles her possessions along the
edge of a deserted parking lot. Her cart is probably filled with empty Molson cans. You imagine
them rattling with each freezing step. Surely it would be more pleasant for her to rattle her cans
in Omaha or Lincoln. Or Honolulu. Drink your watery scotch. Why the hell did you move to
Canada in 2016?
8. Have another drink—gin, this time. Your boss hated gin. Granddad hated gin. You think it’s
okay. Internally dialogue. Wrestle morally. Lather, rinse, repeat. Clumsily pivot and face the
desk. Stare down the keyboard. Advance wide-legged with your hands on your hips, as a bandito
in a silent film might. Stomp as you come. Linguistic truth is like a bear in the woods: you want
it to hear you coming from a long way off. Sit down. Assume the appropriate carpal position.
Dish with candor.
Ex. In 1971, he had things. He had degrees. University of Nebraska. University of Michigan.
Knowledge of the law. A wife who was a little smarter than him and already tired of his bullshit,
but was sticking around anyway, because it was 1971 and it was easier to stick around and deal
with a mild amount of bullshit than to go it alone and deal with the looks and the unreturned
calls. Two daughters who loved him unconditionally, for the time being. A box he kept hidden
away containing a bundle of letters and a boot knife inscribed in Khmer. Some other things he
didn’t talk about. Some money, not much. He had a whole new decade, the 70s. Some polyester,
not much. He had his health, but jeopardized this by also having a drinking habit. He hit the
bottle—and the cans—too much, everyone said so, but to his credit he was always careful to stay
away from pianos. They lived in Georgia, which he had a distinct dislike for. He didn’t like that
his daughters watched Gone with the Wind in school every year and that their teacher cried
watching it because she always forgot that the South loses the war. He had a private practice,
specializing in poverty law. Some of the plaintiffs he represented made him think of his father. It
was the prime of his life. His legs were long and strong—he had that. One day, while driving his
family over the Butt Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Georgia, he decided it was time to quit
smoking, and threw his lit, half-smoked corn cob pipe out the driver-side window and over the
side of the bridge.
“I can’t believe you just threw your pipe off the side of the Butt Memorial Bridge,” his wife said.
9. Pause. What more is there to tell, now that you’re telling honestly? What do you really know
about him? Pour another gin.
Ex. He was a drunk by the end, and that’s probably what killed him. He was a drunk by the middle.
10. True, but gimmicky. What else do you know about him with certainty? Pause. Confront the
immateriality of historical narrative. Contemplate your position, caught between a postmodern
appreciation for the impossibility of truth and the need to imbue life with a system of self-evident
meaning. You may write for BuzzFeed, but you’re not uneducated. You didn’t go to Yale or
anything, but hey, there’s no shame in going to a big, well-funded Midwestern state school, even
if you were a Project Management major. There are things you think you know. Do you? How
reliable are your sources? How good is your own memory? How good will it be in five, ten,
twenty years, fifty, when you’re his age and a life spent looking at other faces has whittled away
your image of his? But there are things you know.
Ex. 1943-2016. Caucasian male. Middle initial S. Just S. Lawyer and professor. Survived by one
wife and preceded in death by another. Survived by two daughters. Once threw his pipe off the
side of the Butt Memorial Bridge.
11. Philosophize. These slivers of irrefutable truth rest, half-buried, like the foundation blocks of
a building that has since eroded away, a testament to the feats of engineering that made the
structure possible, but devoid of the artistry that endowed it with value. You always wanted to be
like him, you know that much. At thirteen you brought up Socialism in an attempt to impress
him and he just looked at you with those sad prairie eyes. Years later, in the midst of Pi Kappa
Alpha Hell Week, you tried to decide whether his unwillingness to open up was an act of mercy.
Did he look at you and see the Nebraska fields? You found yourself drinking Natty Light from a
pledge brother’s shoe, and the moment passed without further comment. Rationalize. Is having
one’s life summed up in a particularly meta, moderately sensational BuzzFeed article really so
terrible? If our options are limited to extrapolation and reticence, it seems extrapolation is the
lesser of two evils. Thoughtfully stir the icy dregs of the second gin. Better a fictionalized legacy
than no legacy at all.
Ex. In 1962, he worried about the bomb. In 1965, his wife was pregnant. In 1989, he was hired
as an associate professor at Yale. In 1967, he was somewhere in Cambodia. In 1975, he
sometimes, but not too often, wore leisure suits. In 1959, his future wife wore dresses that made
her look like Liz Taylor and attracted the moderately disapproving attention of their town. In
1989, she died. In 1932, his father was looking for a job. In 1969, his wife was pregnant. In 1971…
12. Something simple.
Ex. He was usually kind and always polite, most people said so.
Ex. Well, that’s good to hear.
14. Have a beer. Have a Budweiser.
Ex. Can you believe he threw that pipe off the side of the Butt Memorial Bridge in Augusta,
Georgia, in 1971? Can you believe it was a pipe?
Miles Varana’s work has appeared in Typehouse, The Penn Review, and Passages North. He has worked previously as a staff reader and managing editor at Hawai’i Pacific Review. Miles currently works for WKBT News in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where he does his best to be a good Millennial despite disliking tandem bike rides.