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I was never a big fan of formal education, so when my son decided he had better things to do than attend his high-school classes, I supported him. He wanted to become a filmmaker, and I wrote notes to excuse him from school so that he could shoot film and go to the movies. He attended only enough classes to graduate, and I wrote many excuse notes, always to a woman named Ms. Finn. I pictured Ms. Finn as half librarian, half prison warden, frowning at my notes, scrutinizing every word, looking for some hole in the iron-clad excuses I had concocted. This battle of wits with Ms. Finn inspired me to write even better excuses, brimming with legitimacy. I raised the excuse note to an art form. Then one day my son told me Ms. Finn was not actually reading these notes. In fact, she was barely looking at them. Ms. Finn, it turned out, was a long-haired free spirit not much older than my son. The image of Ms. Finn as a carefree hippie sapped the intrigue from my excuse writing — until I came up with a new angle: I would write excuse notes so outrageous that even she couldn't ignore them. With each failed attempt, I turned up the heat, to the point where my notes lost touch with reality: “Dear Ms. Finn, Michael has yellow fever.” “Michael has grown suspicious of his pets.”

“Michael just learned that he has an evil twin.” But my personal favorite was the simplest.

On a large piece of paper, I wrote just three words: “No clean clothes.”