One of my yearly goals was to select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences.
In October, I took a cold shower for a month. I'm still doing it today.
In November, on the advice of Jessica Stillman, I spoke to one stranger in a meaningful way every day for a month. Being married to a woman who speaks to random strangers (and befriends them constantly), I wondered what might happen if I did the same.
The results were shocking.
It turns out that I speak to a stranger almost everyday already.
I had no idea.
Between teaching, performing, producing Speak Up shows, coaching storytellers, teaching workshops, working out at the gym, and moving through my regular life, I meet new people all the time. Constantly.
And not just a simple hello. These are actual conversations. Names exchanged. Ideas shared. Connections made.
In fact, there were only six days in November when I had to actively seek out a stranger, and in each case, it was not hard. Three times I approached a parent in my school who I did not know. I introduced myself and inquired about their children.
I also spoke to a man in the waiting room of a doctor's office (we discovered that we had a friend in common), a man in line at a highway rest area, and a new employee at a McDonald's restaurant (where I know many of the employees already).
I can't say that I'm anything like Elysha. She has, on more than one occasion, made a lifelong friend in line at a Starbucks, a doctor's office, or a waiting room. She meets a mother at the playground or an attendant in a parking garage, and next week they are eating dinner in our home.
Last week, while purchasing our Christmas tree, I turned my back for a second to deal with the kids. In that time, Elysha had introduced herself to the salesperson, told him about my writing career, explained Speak Up, passed on a business card, and Lord knows what else.
I talk to strangers.
Elysha befriends strangers.
Still, it was a useful exercise. Before November, I had always viewed myself as entirely unlike my wife when it came to strangers. I thought I was an isolationist. Reticent. A loner. A guy who already had enough friends.
Not even close. My life, it turns out, is filled with new and interesting people. I may not drag these strangers home with me like Elysha does, but it turns out that I am not the isolationist I thought myself to be.
I was speaking to some of my former storytelling students - children of Holocaust survivors who had gone through a workshop series with me that culminated in a storytelling performance.
One of them told me, "Now I see stories everywhere. Everything is a story."
While I don't agree that everything is a story, I knew exactly what she meant. Our lives are filled with storyworthy moments. More than you would ever imagine. Those who mine their lives for these moments and develop them into a treasure-trove of stories constantly add depth and breadth to our lives and their own.
We are the ones who remember our lives best. We remember our lives through story.
But possessing so many stories has an added value. When you have a lot of stories, you have the potential to inspire, amuse, entertain, or change minds, regardless of circumstances. No matter the context or need, you'll always have something to say.
A couple years ago, I was in Indiana, speaking and performing at a variety of events at college campuses in and around Purdue University. I spoke about storytelling, writing, and personal productivity, and I produced and hosted a story slam for students.
A large conference on human trafficking was also underway on campus. I was asked if I'd be willing to close the conference with a speech to the attendees.
Two weeks before the speech, one of the organizers called and asked about my expertise in human trafficking.
"I have none," I said,
I'll never forget what he said:
"I guess that's what Google is for?" he said nervously. "Right?"
It turns out that when you have a treasure-trove of stories, you can speak to almost any audience regardless of the topic, purpose, or need.
Besides, after three days of speeches, breakout groups, and seminars on the topic of human trafficking, did his audience really want one more speech on human trafficking from a guy who had to conduct a Google search on the subject?
Instead, I told a funny story about how I helped a shy student emerge from her shell after years of withdrawal, and in doing so, I came to realize that although I had "saved" this one girl, there were many other shy, silent children who I had not, primarily because I had stopped trying. I had given up on them. I had presumed that someone else would come along and fix their problem.
Once the story was finished, I explained that when engaged in important work like teaching or seeking to end human trafficking - people work - we can never give up. We can never quit. We cannot assume that someone else will solve the problems.
More importantly, we can't afford to act slowly. We are not making widgets or selling keepsakes. The quality of a human being's life is in our hands. The very last thing we can do is allow bureaucrats, politicians, and ineffective administrators tell us that meaningful change takes time. Institutional transition can't happen overnight. We can't allow ineffective leaders to tell us that large ships don't change their direction overnight.
This might be fine if you're selling real estate, building furniture, or coding an app, but when you're dealing with the lives of human beings, these passive, placating statements cannot be allowed to stand.
As a teacher, I cannot be slow to action when a child's future is at stake. I cannot stop trying to save a child simply because every tool in my belt has failed.
Like me, the people who work to end human trafficking cannot afford to move slowly. Cannot waste a moment of time. The people of the world who choose to make a career out of saving lives must be the fastest, hardest, most dedicated people possible. They must be red tape destroyers. Bureaucratic assassin. Fast moving missiles of good.
I knew nothing about human trafficking except that it was too important to not work like hell to bring it to an end. Happily, I had a story that applied similarly and was filled with stakes, humor, and heart.
It went over very well. The organizer called me the following week to tell me that it was the only time all week that anyone laughed and that my message was heard loud and clear by conference attendees:
We are human saving warriors. We must move at lightning speed. We cannot allow anyone to stand in our way or even slow us down. Human lives are at stake.
If you are a person with a treasure trove of stories, you can speak anywhere about just about anything. It's hard for me to imagine someone calling tomorrow and asking me to speak on a topic that I couldn't find an entertaining, enlightening story and associated message that would work.
Want to become a person full of stories? I recommend Homework for Life:
I was sitting in the waiting room of the doctor's office yesterday, reading, when the gentleman beside me began watching something on YouTube without headphones.
I assumed that it was a mistake. His browser has opened accidentally. He would quickly close the app and maybe even apologize. But no, he just thought it perfectly fine that he fill this communal space with the sound of his own personal programming.
I was weighing the pros and cons of the polite request versus the direct assault on his character when a nurse called my name and the point became moot. I walked away, leaving the sound of the man's phone in my wake.
This was bad. The fact that these human beings exist is frightening. Even now, I regret the time wasted debating the proper course of action. I should have just leapt into action rather than dithering in my seat like an indecisive Hamlet. I should've launched my missiles. Commenced an all-out assault. Combined public shame with personal outrage to end this behavior forever.
I suspect that I hesitated because I am a teacher who was on his lunch break from work, so part of me felt like I was still operating in teacher-mode. Anything and everything I did was through the lens of an educator. I was mistakenly calculating and overly concerned with the feelings of another.
The responsibilities of my position caused me to falter in a time of need, and for that, I am sorry.
But here is the truly horrific part of this story:
I returned to school and told my fifth graders about this man and his offensive behavior. Of the 21 fifth graders in the room, 17 of them thought the man's decision to listen to his video in a communal space without headphones was perfectly fine.
They thought I was overreacting. They thought I had no right to be offended. They saw nothing wrong with this morally reprehensible behavior.
Please tell me that this faulty logic and failed set of ethics are the result of their blinding, unavoidable youth and not a shifting set of norms that will result in a world polluted by the sound of individuals' content choices.
I shudder to think of what the future will be like if this generation of children become adults who think it's perfectly right and just to listen to audio content in a public space without headphones.
I may never leave the house again.
Local television anchor Dennis House tweeted a photo of this sign from this hockey rink where his son was practicing .
This big, beautiful, wonderful, fantastic, brilliant sign.
My first thought: Put this sign on a shirt!
My next thought: Ask kids what they really want to say to adults. Stuff like this. Put that stuff on tee-shirts.
My third thought: Too bad I have like nineteen jobs because this feels like a good idea.
My final thought: If you steal my idea, I deserve 5% of your company.
Two years ago Kim Davis, the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, denied David Ermold a marriage license because he was gay, despite it being legalized.
Last week she had to watch as he signed up to run against her in the next election.
Alabama did the right thing last night. Let's hope Rowan Country, Kentucky can do the same.
I was listening to an interview with Bob Saget, who once starred in a show called Full House, which featured the Olson twins.
Other than what I just stated, I know nothing about this show. I never watched the show, and I wasn't even aware of its existence until well after it had ended its run. This may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that this show has enormous cultural relevance.
The Olson twins, for example. They seem to be everywhere. John Oliver makes a joke about them on his HBO show all the time, and every time, I think, "Is this just a twin joke, or is there something more to this joke that I don't understand?"
There was also a guy on that show who wore terrible sweaters (I don't know how I know this or if it's even true) and a bunch of other kids, and Bob Saget, of course, who I know as a comic who tells jokes that are definitely for an adult audience only but who somehow appeared on a TV show with little twin girls.
The show is a mystery to me.
I have similar problems with almost all of television, film, and music from the time when Full House was on the air.
Boy Meets World, for example. I once worked with an attorney whose son was a star of the show, but I had no idea that the show even existed. I also work with a teacher named Mr. Feeney. When I mention his name to people, they often laugh and say, "Like Boy Meets World!"
I have no idea what they are talking about.
This is because from 1992 until about 1994, I didn't own a television. I was homeless and then living with a family of Jehovah Witnesses, working two full time jobs in order to pay the attorney who would represent me in court during the trial for a crime I didn't commit.
Then, from 1994 until 1999, I was attending two colleges full time (earning two degrees) while managing a McDonald's restaurant full time and working in the college writing center part-time. I was also Treasurer of the Student Council, President of the National Honor Society, and columnist for the school newspaper.
In 1997, I launched my DJ company with my partner.
Looking back, I really don't know how I did it all. But one way was to stop consuming almost all media. Almost all popular culture from 1992-1999, and especially from 1992-1994, is lost to me.
This means I have no understanding about things like Saved By the Bell, Family Matters, Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks, Home Improvement, The Wonder Years, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and many more.
I've managed to catch up on Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Friends, but not until much later.
I missed out on all those 90's slacker films like Dazed and Confused, Clerks, and Reality Bites. I missed classics like Boys in the Hood, Pulp Fiction, and The Usual Suspects. I've since caught up on many of these films, but it turns out that if you're not watching a movie like Reality Bites in the early 1990s or Clerks when Kevin Smith is still a relative unknown, it's just not the same.
I missed out on the rise of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and Radiohead. Again, I caught up with them later on, but if you're not listening to Nirvana in the '90's, you can't help but feel a little detached to what they are singing about.
And then there are shows like Full House. I'm never going to watch an episode of that show. Even if I had the time, I can't imagine that it's worth my time. Instead, I will move through life slightly lost, wondering if the Olson twins were two separate characters on the show or body doubles for each other.
Wondering why so many children live with three men and one woman.
Wondering if Uncle Jessie is a Full House reference (he seems to get mentioned in conversation surrounding this show) or a reference to the Uncle Jessie from The Dukes of Hazard.
Wondering how a foul-mouthed comic like Bob Saget got cast to appear on a show alongside so many children.
When a Trump supporter (or this week Press Secretary Sarah Sanders) claims that President Obama deserves no credit for the current state of the United States economy, please have these facts and figures at the ready:
2016 under Obama: 196,000 jobs added per month
2017 under Trump: 170,000 jobs added per month
Unemployment rate when Obama entered office: 9.3%
Unemployment rate when Obama left office: 4.5%
Also, under Obama, the United States enjoyed a record 75 consecutive months of job growth.
Dow when Obama entered office: 7,949
Dow when Obama left office: 19732
Rate of improvement: 166.3%
Happily, there is also this bit of news:
A recent Quinnipiac poll asked, "Who gets credit for the current state of the economy?"
At least a majority of Americans have a reasonable understanding of the past and present.
"But for a couple of bad breaks, especially visited upon vulnerable people, the outcome of life would be so different."
This is a sentence that Slate's Mike Pesca spoke a couple months ago on his podcast The Gist in the midst of an interview.
I wrote the sentence down immediately, and I've been thinking about it ever since.
Mike is right. As a person who has suffered from a couple of bad breaks while in a vulnerable position, I can assure you that it doesn't take much to send a life reeling into desperate, uncharted, potentially life-changing waters.
It's so easy to judge the circumstances of others if you enjoy a proverbial glass floor: a familial support system that will prevent you from ever falling too far.
I've seen it more times than a can count.
- Legal troubles eliminated thanks to exceptionally skilled professionals paid for by parents
- College tuition, mortgage downpayment, automobiles, and infusions of cash offered by parents in desperate times
- Family owned businesses, legacy employment, nepotism, and second, third, and fourth chances given to someone thanks to the influence of a parent
If you're fortunate to be blessed with a glass floor, please don't forget how devastating a bad break can be for someone who isn't as blessed, and how incredibly stressful life can be for someone who is living without any safety net whatsoever.
Think about this: According to a recent New York Fed study, one-third of Americans would not be unable to come up with $2,000 to deal with an emergency like an urgent home repair, medical crisis, or car accident.
This means that not only could they not raise $2,000 themselves, but they have no parent or family member capable of raising the money on their behalf, either.
For many people, this situation would be unimaginable. But for almost a decade, I lived that reality, not because of bad decisions on my part or an unwillingness to work, but simply because of bad breaks. A cycle of poverty. A lack of support systems of any kind. The victim of a violent crime. An arrest for a crime I didn't commit. Homelessness.
And I was lucky. I was physically and mentally healthy. Fairly intelligent. Capable of working 80 hours a week when necessary. I lived in a state with a strong social safety net. I had friends who put a roof over my head in a time of need. I wasn't the victim of racial discrimination.
Still, I almost didn't make it.
Imagine what life could have been had my bad breaks had been coupled by mental illness. A physical disability. Addiction. Imagine if I had been unjustly convicted of that crime. Imagine how my life might be different had I been African American or female or any other marginalized member of society.
It's so easy to see someone down on their luck, spiraling, and assume that they are to blame, when so many of us suffer similar breaks but are saved by the support systems that many don't enjoy.
"But for a couple of bad breaks, especially visited upon vulnerable people, the outcome of life would be so different."
It's so true.
I first heard Jonathan Coulton's song "Code Monkey" about ten years ago. It's a song about a lovelorn computer programmer who is pining over an office receptionist.
After offering a soda to the receptionist and being told that she is too busy to chat, Code Monkey slinks back to his cubicle, "not feeling so great."
The final set of lyrics before the chorus go like this:
Code Monkey think someday he have everything
Even pretty girl like you
Code Monkey just waiting for now
Code Monkey say someday, somehow
Tragic. Right. Code Money is waiting for "someday, somehow."
How many people in this world spend their whole lives waiting for "someday, somehow?"
Ever since I first heard this song, my heart has ached for Code Monkey. Coulton's song has trapped him in this moment of yearning, dreaming, and loss.
Does Code Monkey ever escape the mindless drudgery of his job? The disregard of his superiors? Does he find the creativity that he desires to badly? Does he ever get his pretty girl?
It's stupid and ridiculous and a little embarrassing, but my heart breaks every time I hear this song, not for the Code Monkey of the song but for the Code Monkey beyond the song. The future Code Monkey.
Does he make his dreams come true? I want to know. I need to know. "Someday, somehow" are words that haunt me.
Here's the truth:
I don't think he does. I don't think Code Monkey gets everything. So few people do.
And it breaks my heart. Every single time.
Crazy. I know.
Speaking to a producer at a show in Boston last night, she asked me why I'm willing to share so much about my life on stage and in writing.
There are lots of answers to this question, but amongst them is my belief that vulnerability is a very good thing, both for me and for the people who listen and read my stories.
Vulnerability is a sign of strength. It's a willingness to open your heart and share your life with others, as odd or embarrassing or private as those parts of your life may be. For the listener or reader, it's an opportunity to connect to another human being in a deep and meaningful way. It's a chance to feel a little more normal.
We all walk through our lives at times, wondering if we are the only ones feeling the way we do. Plagued by embarrassment. Stewing in our shame. Feeling disconnected from the rest of the world. Believing that we are alone in our failure, fear, and weakness.
When someone is willing to be vulnerable and open up that which often remains hidden, we are all better for it. I know I am better and happier and more joyous about my own self when hearing others tell their stories.
"Is there anything you won't share?" the producer asked.
"I won't share parts of my life that might embarrass another person at the same time," I said. "I respect the privacy of my friends, my wife, and my colleagues. But otherwise, no. I don't think so."
So here was her challenge:
"Tomorrow, on your blog, write about things that make you sad. Things people might not know about you or be surprised to hear."
That request was made just seven hours ago, so I didn't have much time to think, but here are three to come to mind.
- I cannot think about my children and my mother (who died before meeting them) simultaneously without crying.
- I am fiercely proud of my independent, boot-straps, self-made-man existence, but it also hurts so much to think that there was a time when no one wanted to help me and no one believed in me.
- I can speak to people about my post traumatic stress disorder without becoming emotional, but I cannot can't listen to a story about the cause of someone else's PTSD without crying.
When I say crying, I don't mean that I become a blubbery mess when these things arise. I might choke back tears. Find myself unable to speak. That kind of thing.
I reserve the blubbery mess for things like the death of a pet, the end of Field of Dreams, the election of Barack Obama, the cracking of my wisdom tooth, existential thoughts involving my children, and New York Yankees World Series victories.
I've begun the process of choosing goals for 2018. It's a process that takes about a month because the decisions that I make now will in part shape the coming year for me.
If you have any suggestions for goals that are worthy of pursuing, please feel free to let me know. Suggested goals have been a staple of my planning for years, and many have been adopted, so fire away!
And if you're looking to accomplish more in 2018, I encourage you to begin thinking about goals now, too. You don't need to post them on the Internet like I do, but setting and revisiting goals throughout the year has been an integral part of my life for a long time, and it's helped a great deal.
Oddly, my monthly updates are some of my most popular blog posts. For whatever reason, people enjoy reading about my success and failure.
Probably just my failure.
But start planning now. You shouldn't decide upon your goals or resolutions in a day or two. Put some thought into them. Make it a meaningful process. Try to set goals that you have some control over.
For example, one of my goals for this year was to submit five pieces to the New York Times Op-Ed page. This is a better goal than, "Get published by the New York Times Op Ed page" because I have much more control over the former than the latter.
I admittedly don't do this with every goal. Sometimes I like to apply pressure to myself, particularly in areas of expertise. This year, for example, I set a goal of winning three Moth StorySLAMs. A better goal might have been to compete in X number of Moth StorySLAMs, but having won 32 of them, I didn't mind applying a little pressure to myself in this area.
Happily, I won four StorySLAMs in 2017, exceeding my goal.
Also, don't be afraid of failure. In the past 6 years, my success rates have been:
Not stellar. A 52.5% average.
But I'm comfortable with the failure because I know I am setting meaningful, challenging goals. I want to be pushing myself at all times. That would be impossible if the goals I set were easily attained.
Make 2018 a year when you set goals that put you on the path of making your dreams come true.
I was speaking to someone this week about being more productive, and over the course of accounting for his time, he informed me that he is "useless after 8:00 PM."
In short, the only way he could possible spend his time after 8:00 is by watching TV.
This is ridiculous, of course.
Had the person in question been working two jobs or working or playing in a sports league after work or volunteering in a soup kitchen during the dinner hour, I might understand this claim better, but this person works a typical 9:00-5:00 job, followed by dinner, dishes, and television.
This is not the way to live a productive life.
I'm not judging this particular life choice (out loud), but when you come to me hoping for advice on living a more productive life and tell me that you can't accomplish anything after 8:00 PM, I'm going to take issue.
Happily, I also have a solution to this after-dinner malaise:
Exercise is one of the most dependable mood-boosters. Even a 10-minute walk can brighten your outlook and increase your energy level.
It's counter-intuitive, I know. Spend energy to get energy, but anyone who exercises regularly will tell you that this is true. Exercise is an enormous energy booster, and on days when I am not able to exercise, I feel the sluggishness.
In fact, in warmer months, it's not uncommon for me to go on a 15 minute run around the neighborhood at 9:00 PM if my hope if to be productive and alert past midnight. That 15 minute burst of speed and effort does more for me than caffeine ever could.
Theoretically, at least. Caffeine sadly has no effect on me. I can drink a 32 ounce caffeinated drink and still be asleep ten minutes later.
My cross to bear.
Walking. Running. Playing a sport. Climbing aboard an elliptical or rowing machine. Coming over to my house and mowing the lawn or cutting up the enormous branch in the backyard that I still don't know what to do with.
Just 15 minutes a day can make an enormous difference.
When I work with people on personal productivity, I look primary at three things:
- Efficiency during the work day (can you complete tasks faster if more thought is put into planning/methodology?)
- Prioritization: Are you spending too much time on things that aren't important?
- Time: How are you spending those hours outside the typical work day?
Too often I discover that people lounge in bed after awaking (which hurts their ability to fall asleep quickly and maximize their sleep) and spend most (if not all) of their evenings in front of the television.
While I'm not judging these behaviors (out loud), they are certainly not helpful to the person who wants to be more productive and make their dreams come true.
Instead of plopping down in front of the TV, go for a walk. Try to make it a jog or even a run. When you return, you'll feel refreshed, invigorated, and prepared to take on the world. Ready to make your dreams come true.
It's not impossible. Just remember:
Those actors, athletes, comedians, musicians, and performers who you are passively watching from the comfort of your couch: They are making their dreams come true right before your eyes. They are doing what so many want to do but so few can do.
The writers and directors and producers of the show... same thing.
Visual evidence that making your dreams come true is entirely possible. But probably not if you're useless after 8:00 PM.
Politics is the only arena where a gutless coward like Mitch McConnell can say, "I'm going to let the people of Alabama decide” about whether he should work alongside a pedophile like Roy Moore.
IN EVERY OTHER ARENA, PUBLIC OR PRIVATE, Americans would take a stand.
Can you imagine a dental hygienist or a machinist or a nurse saying:
"Yes, this man has multiple female accusers claiming that he sexually harassed and/or assaulted them when they were underage, and yes, these women possess an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence supporting their claims, and yes, he was banned from a damn mall for harassing young women, and yes, he once called a girl out of high school math class to ask her on a date when he was a 28 year-old assistant district attorney, but if the boss thinks it's okay for him to work alongside me, I'm fine with that, too."
No, Mitch McConnell. You can have an opinion on Roy Moore regardless of what the voters of Alabama decide. That's called leadership, dumbass. It's called "having a spine." It's what good, decent people do everyday. We make moral choices instead of transactional choices.
Yesterday Donald Trump offered his full support to Roy Moore for the first time.
Last night the Republican Party followed suit, restoring their support for Moore after withdrawing it two weeks earlier.
The party of the religious right has abandoned every shred of decency and goodness in order to guarantee that their massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest Americans can proceed as planned.
This is a party whose leader has been accused of sexual assault by more than 20 women and who has admitted to sexual assault on tape. He is a man who bragged about going backstage during his beauty pageants in order to see women naked in their dressing rooms.
Now they are also the party that supports pedophiles for the United States Senate.
They are a party of transactional, gutless, immoral politicians who choose to sit on the sidelines and allow evil men to rise to power when it's convenient for their agenda.
Elysha attended Smith College in North Hampton, MA from 1993-1997.
I attended St. Joseph's University in West Hartford, CT from 1996-1999.
Both of these institutions of higher learning are women's colleges, though St. Joseph's recently decided to admit males beginning next year.
Elysha attended Smith because she is a woman.
I managed to attend St. Joseph's University thanks to the exploitation of a loophole.
I was a student at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, but Trinity is a member of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Learning, a college consortium that allowed students at any consortium school to take classes at any other consortium school.
Included in that consortium was St. Jospeh's University.
What normally happened was a Trinity student would discover that he or she needed a specific class that wasn't available during a particular semester. Rather than waiting to take the class or overloading their schedule in a coming semester, the student would find an equivalent class at one of the five consortium schools and take the class there.
When I was in school, the average Trinity College student would never take a class at a consortium school. Most would remain at their home school for the duration of their college career. But occasionally a student would take advantage of the consortium in order to fill a need.
I merely took advantage of this consortium arrangement to a degree never before seen. While earning an English degree at Trinity, I also enrolled in a full degree program at St. Joesph's University simultaneously, earning an education degree as well.
Thus I earned my education degree from an all women's college, where I sat in undergraduate classes every day as the only man.
It wasn't easy. I was also enrolled in an English degree program at Trinity, so I was taking a lot of classes in two different schools while also managing a McDonald's restaurant full time and tutoring students in the Trinity College Writing Center part time. But if you've dreamed of college for all of your life, and you've overcome homelessness and an arrest and trial for a crime you didn't commit, you feel fortunate to be able to work so damn hard.
My presence in those St. Joseph's classes didn't sit well with everyone. You presumably attend an all-woman's college to avoid having men in your classes. To find me sitting in the back of every one of your classes was frustrating to some, but I made some great friends, too.
It was quite an experience, and it proved very helpful when I became an elementary school teacher and had to work almost exclusively with women. I learned to operate productively in an all-female environment as one of handful of men. I learned to keep my mouth shut more often than it was open. I learned to collaborate. Listen. I discovered ways to forge positive working relationships with people who were not overly enamored with me.
I also used my degree from an all-women's college when trying to impress Elysha as we began dating. Knowing how much she adored her experience at Smith, I hoped that this commonality in our educational background might appeal to her.
I needed all the help I could get.
I never speak about myself in terms of getting old.
It's a common refrain. A colleague's knee is sore. His back hurts. A friend can't instantly recall a name or a place. A actor or musician who you adored as a teenage passes away. A younger cousin describes a dating scene that is entirely foreign and incomprehensible to you.
So often, the response to these moments is some form of the phrase, "I'm getting old."
I never say these words. Never ever.
I believe in positive self talk. I believe in a spirit of optimism. I believe that they way we think about ourselves will dictate how we act and feel and move through this world.
I believe that the first real step to getting old is to beginning to think of yourself as old. As soon as you say those words - even in jest - you begin to accept those words as truth. From there, the decline commences.
You feel old. You attribute ever sore muscle and every cognitive hiccup as a sign of old age. You start to play the role of an older person. You do less. You risk less. You slow down. You stop trying new things. You dreams become finite.
Never say that you're getting old. Don't accept or embrace that notion. We all know people who are 60 or 70 or even 80 who seem to possess more energy and enthusiasm as someone half their age. I have friends who are well into their 60's and 70's who I think of as my age because of the youthful way they live their lives.
I also know people who are 40 or 50 whose lives have already ground to a halt. They whine. They complain. They view their circumstances as fixed and unchangeable. Their days roll into one another with little variation or distinction. They have become creatures of routine and inaction.
It's an old adage that age is a mindset, but I believe it. I'm 46 years old, but in my mind, I'm the same person in terms of energy, enthusiasm, and mental prowess as I was when I was 26. In my mind, the only thing that has significantly changed in the past 20 years is my hairline.
I don't feel old. I don't even feel older. Truly.
I think part of this mindset is the enormous amount of positive self talk in which I engage, coupled with the avoidance of pessimism and negativity. It’s estimated that you say 300 to 1000 words to yourself per minute. That's an astounding amount of feedback and reinforcement that you are receiving every day.
How you choose to speak to yourself makes a real difference.
What you say about yourself to yourself can dramatically alter the way that you feel and act and move through this world. I believe this.
I don't say that I'm old. I don't even say that I'm older.
It's true. If you're a person who argues in favor of the banning of any book, I have unfairly assumed that you are a stupid person.
You're a loathsome, contemptible, ignorant person doing a very stupid thing, but you're not necessarily stupid.
I apologize for my unfair assumption.
1. Don’t die.
Feeling super alive this morning.
2. Lose 20 pounds.
One pound gained in November bringing total weight loss to 10 pounds. Another 10 pounds in one month during the holidays will be almost impossible.
3. Do at least 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups five days a week.
4. Practice yoga at least three days a week for at least 15 minutes each day.
I participated in a full week of yoga while teaching at Kripalu back in August. It was incredibly boring.
I have done nothing since.
5. Take the stairs whenever I am ascending or descending five flights or less.
I took an elevator up four flights in a parking garage, but the stairs were nowhere to be found and Elysha and I were attending a formal dinner and were dressed up.
Okay, Elysha was dressed up. I was wearing jeans, a tee-shirt, and a jacket.
6. Complete my sixth novel before the end of 2017.
I wrap the book up this weekend.
7. Complete my first middle grade/YA novel.
Work continues in earnest. Due date is the end of this month.
8. Write at least three new picture books, including one with a female, non-white protagonist.
I'm still working on a non-fiction picture book about the great Idaho beaver airlift of 1948. It's nearly complete.
I also pitched a series of picture books to my agent. She liked them. No work completed on any of them yet.
I've also begun a picture book about the primitive life before cellphones.
I've begun a children's book with a non-white male protagonist called Pink Stinks.
9. Complete a book on storytelling.
DONE! We have entered the copyediting portion of the process.
10. Write a new screenplay.
No progress. This is not going to happen in 2017. Extenuating circumstances related to my former film agent have admittedly played a role.
11. Write a musical.
I was not able to watch the debut performance of "Back in the Day" but I hear it went really well.
12. Submit at least five Op-Ed pieces to The New York Times for consideration.
I have submitted one piece to the Times so far in 2017. No luck.
Also, I suck in terms of this goal.
13. Write a proposal for a nonfiction book related to education.
Note-taking completed. My proposal will need to include some sample chapters, so that process has begun.
14. Submit one or more short stories to at least three publishing outlets.
15. Select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences on the blog.
On the suggestion of a reader:
I spent April praying to God at least once a day. Quite often three or more times per day. As you may know, I'm a reluctant atheist, so I hadn't prayed in a very long time.
In October, I followed James Altucher's suggestion about turning the water ice cold for the last few seconds of your shower. It sounds crazy, but science suggests it really might make you more productive for the rest of the day.
I spent the month of November speaking to one stranger per day. I'll be writing about it this month.
16. Increase my author newsletter subscriber base to 1,600.
I grew my list by 40 subscribers in November (and 296 overall this year). Total subscribers now stands at 1580.
I'm cutting this one close. I need to find 20 subscribers this month. If you have anyone who you think might be interested in writing or storytelling advice, please send them to my subscriber page.
And if you would like to subscribe to my newsletter and receive writing and storytelling tips, Internet recommendations, recordings of new stories, and more, you can do so here:
17. Write at least six letters to my father.
Five written so far.
18. Convert Greetings Little One into a book.
No progress. I am willing to hire someone to take the content of the blog and convert it to book format, but I have yet to find that person.
19. Record one thing learned every day in 2017.
My favorite thing learned in November is this:
It's a myth that no two snowflakes are exactly the same. In 1988, a scientist found two identical snow crystals. They came from a storm in Wisconsin.
I've been arguing that this myth was nonsense since I was a kid.
20. Produce a total of 12 Speak Up storytelling events.
We produced a show at the Greater Hartford JCC in Hartford, bringing our total number of Speak Up events in 2017 to 16.
21. Deliver a TED Talk.
I spoke about the important things that teachers do at The Pomfret School in April. I've also be selected to speak in two TEDx events in 2018.
22. Attend at least 15 Moth events with the intention of telling a story.
I attended a Moth StorySLAM in November at Flushing Town Hall, bringing my yearly total of Moth events to 18.
23. Win at least three Moth StorySLAMs.
I won two Moth StorySLAMs in Boston and two in New York in 2017. My win total now stands at 32.
24. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.
I had three chances to compete in a Moth GrandSLAM in 2017 and was unavailable every time. I will be unable to achieve this goal.
25. Produce at least 50 episodes of my new podcast Live Better.
I pulled down my first episode after receiving feedback from a friend who works in radio. That same friend has agreed to build me a template for the show.
26. Perform stand up at least once in 2017.
DONE! I performed a five-minute set at Sea Tea Comedy in downtown Hartford.
27. Write a one-person show.
The "writing" for this show is complete. I performed the show at Kripalu, altered slightly so I could teach lessons between stories.
I'll begin the process of booking a theater for a formal performance now.
28. Explore the option of teaching a college class.
I met with a professor from a local college and described my proposed class. She approved of my idea and promised to pass the information onto her department head.
29. Cook at least 12 good meals (averaging one per month) in 2017.
A friend has passed on ideas and recipes for meals that I plan to make. So far I have done nothing.
30. Plan a 25 year reunion of the Heavy Metal Playhouse.
The search for a location continues, though I am getting frustrated by the lack of forward momentum.
31. I will stand in vocal opposition to every negative comment made about age disparities between male and female romantic couplings because I choose to respect a woman’s choices of romantic partner regardless of their age or the age of their partner.
Nothing to defend against in November.
32. I will report on the content of speech during every locker room experience via social media in 2017.
Over the course of the month, I heard no man bragging about sexually assaulting women in any locker rooms (or anywhere else for that matter).
33. I will stop presenting the heteronormative mother-and-father paradigm as the default parental paradigm when speaking to my children and my students.
Not as hard as I thought. I switched over to "parents" in January and haven't slipped yet.
34. I will not comment, positively or negatively, about physical appearance of any person save my wife and children, in 2017 in an effort to reduce the focus on physical appearance in our culture overall.
I've also learned that at least seven other people have adopted this policy, which thrills me.
35. Surprise Elysha at least six times in 2017.
I surprised Elysha with a membership to Winding Trails, a local recreation area that we have been waiting to join for over a year.
36. Replace the 12 ancient, energy-inefficient windows in our home with new windows that will keep the cold out and actually open in the warmer months.
Our windows were cleaned by professionals, but this does not count.
37. Optimize our television for a streaming service.
Apple TV is alive and well in our home, thanks to Elysha.
38. Set a new personal best in golf.
I only played one round of golf in November.
39. Play poker at least six times in 2016.
I have a poker game scheduled in my home in December. This will bring the total number to four, which will still be two shy of the goal.
40. Spend at least six days with my best friend of more than 25 years.
Four days spent working as DJ's at weddings in total.
I invited him to attend my stand-up open mic with me.
41. Post my progress in terms of these resolutions on this blog on the first day of every month.
I like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Dumbo a lot.
These are stories in which protagonists who look decidedly different from their counterparts ultimately accept their oddities and differences, and in doing so, force the world embrace and celebrate their oddities and differences as well. These are stories in which differences are honored. Diversity proves to be essential.
At first blush, you might think that The Ugly Duckling is a similar story, but no. It's not even close.
The Ugly Duckling is actually a story about conformity, a process that I very much despise. In the end of the story, the ugly duckling transforms into a beautiful swan, thus unburdening itself of its oddities and differences through a blending in with those around him.
The duckling finds acceptance from its peers through that awful and pervasive process of conformity.
There are no celebrations of differences here. No glorious victory of the strange over the common. No big-eared, red-nosed act of heroism. Just a duckling-turned-swan who finds happiness by emulating others, and through no real effort of his own.
The message is clear: The solution to your problems, children, is to find a way to look like everyone else. Find a way to appear conventionally beautiful and your troubles will be over.
I found this utterly depressing. This classic children’s tale is nothing more than a treatise on the importance of conformity. Acceptance through imitation. The stripping of individuality in favor of submission to the collective.
It's a disgusting book. Truly.
I don't believe in the banning of any books, but if I were forced to ban a book from school libraries, it might be The Ugly Duckling. The duckling may be ugly, but the story itself is far uglier.
Dan Kennedy, writer, storyteller, and Moth host, tweeted earlier this week:
(@DanKennedy_NYC) Gonna get better at sending notes to people whose work means the world to me. Feels fanboy, but beats waiting to send an RIP tweet.
I like this advice a lot.
I receive emails, tweets, and Facebook messages almost daily from readers around the globe who have liked my books and/or have questions about my stories. Every time I receive one of these messages, my heart skips a beat and I find myself more excited than ever about writing.
It occurs to me:
Despite all of this generosity from my readers, I've never followed their example and done the same.
In short, I'm a jerk.
Dan says that reaching out to people whose work I love feels a little fanboy, and perhaps that's why I've hesitated from doing so in the past.
That, and I really am a jerk.
But as a daily recipient of these messages from readers - this morning from a teenage girl in Newberg, Oregon - I can assure Dan and everyone else that it doesn't feel fanboy at all from the recipient's perspective.
It's a joy. A blessing. A spark that often arrives at the moment I needed it most.
Next month I begin deciding upon my goals for 2018, and I think this will be one of them. I will write to at least one person per month whose work I admire every month in 2018.
It's a good goal.
As a warm-up for 2018, I'll mention that Dan Kennedy - dispenser of this excellent advice - is someone who I admire a great deal.
I first heard Dan's voice back in 2008 when Elysha and I listened to his memoir Rock On: A Power Ballad together in the car. We loved that book. I listened to it again a few years later on my own.
I heard Dan's voice again in 2010 on The Moth's podcast. Each week he delivered new stories to my ears.
In July of 2011, I met Dan for the first time when I took the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and told my first story for The Moth. By then he was an icon in my mind. I couldn't believe I was standing beside him. Dan hosted my first Moth GrandSLAM a few months later (I lost to Erin Barker, someone else who I admire deeply and will probably write to in 2018), and then slowly, over the years, I've gotten to know him better and better as I attended and performed in more and more Moth events.
Eventually we performed together on The Moth's Mainstage. I listened to him tell stories for the first time about the death of his therapist and his ill-advised trip to find an enormous snake, and I was blown away. Those stories are still trapped inside my heart.
Dan is a brilliant performer. An incredibly gifted storytelling host. A talented storyteller.
But it's Dan's most recent novel, American Spirit, that I love most. I listened to that book on the way back from Maine last year, and I have never laughed so much by myself. There are certain books that are so exquisite that you remember exactly where you were while reading or listening to them, and American Spirit is one of those books for me.
I will never forget that too-bright sun, that impossibly blue sky, the blessedly open road, and Dan's voice, making the miles melt away.
It's a hilarious, poignant, brilliant book. You should read it.
Thank you, Dan, for sharing the book and your voice with the world.
I hope this doesn't feel too fanboy.