Morning conversation scares me.

First words from my daughter today:

"Daddy, I noticed the word repair on a bottle next to your bed. Did you know that the r is an r- control syllable exception because the r is supposed to say 'er,' but in this case, it sounds like 'air.' Neat. Huh?"

I'm not sure which is more disconcerting:

That these are the kinds of things that Clara says to me every morning, or that I'm an elementary school teacher and have no idea what the hell she is talking about. 

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Which hot dog is best?

Summer is rapidly approaching. This means grilling outdoors and eating lots of my second favorite food in the world:

The hot dog.

On one of our earliest dates, Elysha and I went somewhere for hot dogs, and I discovered that Elysha and I had something monumental in common:

We don't like any condiments on our hot dogs. Plain is preferred. 

I remember thinking, "This is it. We were went to be."

I wasn't wrong. 

Last year The New York Times conducted a hot dog taste test, pitting 10 popular brands against one another for hot dog superiority.

I had issues with this article and their taste test in general. Specifically, they did not conduct a blind taste test. Judges knew what they were eating. How can anyone expect to be objective when they know the brand?

Dumb. 

I also had a beef with some of the results. For example, the two winners:

WELLSHIRE FARMS PREMIUM ALL-NATURAL UNCURED BEEF FRANKS, $7.99 FOR 8 “Smoky, herby — is this fancy?” was Melissa’s immediate response. We all loved its levels of garlic and spice.

I've never tried this particular brand of hot dog, but I have to be honest:

I've never wished for a "garlic and spice" flavor on my hot dog. It sounds awful. I'll make a point of trying one this summer, but this sounds like a hot dog that's trying to be something it's not.   

HEBREW NATIONAL KOSHER BEEF FRANKS, $6.29 FOR 7 “Classic,” Sam declared. “The people’s hot dog.”

This may be true, Sam, but it's not an actual assessment of the taste of the hot dog. Instead, it's evidence that you are not engaged in a blind taste test, and that cultural expectation and previous personal preferences have strongly influenced your perception of the hot dog. 

Sam's assessment is also incorrect. 

I like Hebrew National, too, but both Nathan's Famous Skinless Beef Franks and Oscar Mayer's Classic Wieners outsell Hebrew National by a wide margin, and neither is nearly as expensive.

Not exactly "the people's hot dog."  

The New York Times was taste-testing the kind of hot dog that you grill in the backyard, which is fine, but this also left off two of my favorite hot dogs:

The free hot dogs given out at the fire station after the Fourth of July parade in Monterey, MA, where my in-laws live.

There's something about a parade and a free hot dog that can't be beat.

The 7-11 hot dog, much maligned by people who have never tasted one themselves yet insist on mocking, disparaging, and dismissing these hot dogs because it is beyond their mental capacity to imagine that anything cooked in a convenience store could taste good.

This is a failure of imagination. An inability to see beyond their pre-ordained bubble. An unfortunate and regrettable degree of pretentiousness. A heinous prejudice against something they do not know or understand.

If you've tried a 7-11 hot dog and not enjoyed it, that's fine. Odd but fine. But to simply assume it's not good (and outwardly disparage it) is stupid.

For me, the 7-11 hot dog is tasty, convenient, and always there for me.

It's also a hot dog. My second favorite food. It's hard to screw up.  

 

Want me to find faith in God? Try a sex joke.

As a reluctant atheist, I find myself envious of those who possess an unwavering belief in a benevolent God and an everlasting life. 

I can't imagine how comforting that must be.

For the record, the actual God of The Bible is not exactly benevolent. I've read the book cover to cover three times, and I'm hear to report that the God portrayed in those pages does a lot of things that aren't close to benevolent, but that's an argument for another day.   

Occasionally I will meet people who try to convince me to believe. They share the good news. Assure me that God loves me. Encourage me to embrace a faith in a higher power.

At last night's Def Leppard/Journey concert, they stood on the street corners, warning me that I was about to listen to the devil's music.  

For more than a year, I lived with a family of Jehovah's Witnesses who encouraged me to enter into the ministry. Not only did they want me to believe, but they also recognized my ability to stand before an audience and speak clearly and convincingly, more than 20 years before I would discover this ability myself. 

Sadly, faith cannot be achieved on a cognitive level. You can't simply choose to believe in something that makes no sense to you. The belief in something we cannot see or touch cannot be achieved as easily as flipping a switch.

If you could, I would have done so long, long ago. 

But I will say this:

If you want to convince me to believe in a higher power, I'm far more likely to be drawn to the message of the first church than to the admonitions of the second.  

Threats are stupid. Warnings about the devil will never get anyone to believe in your message. A sign like this only manages to portray yourself as angry, frightened, intolerant, and awful company at a church picnic.  

But combine a little bit of religion with a joke about sex and I might be at least intrigued enough to pop my head into that church to see who was smart and bold enough to approve that clever and amusing sign.   

Speak Up Storytelling: The Podcast available today!

Elysha and I are thrilled to announce THE FIRST EPISODE OF OUR NEW PODCAST SPEAK UP STORYTELLING. 

Unlike most storytelling podcasts, which offer you one or more outstanding stories to listen to and enjoy, our podcast seeks to entertain while also providing some specific, actionable lessons on storytelling.

Each week we will bring our expertise in storytelling to you!  

In every episode, Elysha and I will listen to one of the many stories told and recorded at Speak Up over the last five years, followed by a lesson on storytelling based upon what we just heard. We'll talk about the effective strategies used by the storyteller. We'll offer tips on things like humor, stakes, transitions, suspense, and the ordering of content. We'll also suggest possible revisions to make the story even better.

Whether your goal is to someday take the stage and tell a story or simply to become a better storyteller in the workplace or your social life, this podcast is for you.  

In addition to story and instruction, we will also talk about finding stories in your everyday life, answer listener questions, offer recommendations, and try to make you laugh. We may also interview storytellers from time to time, as well as provide feedback on stories you submit to us. 

You can download the podcast wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Stitcher, Overcast, Google Play, or you can listen to the first episode here

We'd love to hear what you think about the podcast and any questions you'd like us to answer on the podcast, so please send any questions or comments to speakupstorytelling@gmail.com

We would also love for you to rate the show. Ratings help other listeners find the show, so please take one minute to jump over to Apple Podcasts (or wherever you listen) and give us a rating and/or comment. 

This podcast has been a long time in the works. We hope you enjoy!

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The threat of murder at midnight

Just past midnight, my friend, Rob spiked an unlikely flush on the river, causing Steve to shout for joy, Casey to clap loud and appreciatively, and Dan to sort of scream with surprise and and excitement. 

Tom, who had just been knocked out of the poker tournament by the unlikely diamond, said nothing. 

A moment later, I received a text message that struck honest-to-goodness fear in the men around the poker table. 

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It was one of those moments when you silently thank the universe for allowing you to somehow marry the bad-ass women capable of sending a text message like that. 

We went on to play for another two hours, but it was a much quieter bunch of guys after that.

One of the many most exciting moments as an author is the moment when the first copy fo your book arrives at your doorstep. This was the fifth time that I experienced such a moment, and I remember each of them with perfectly clarity. 

The tearing open of a box. The ripping of a mailing envelope. The nervous excitement as you reach for an object that took years to create. 

Behold. My first nonfiction title. I couldn't be more excited.

The forward is written by my hero, author and storyteller Dan Kennedy.

It's dedicated to the founder of The Moth, George Dawes Green, the host of The Moth's podcast, Dan Kennedy, and the storytelling genius and creative guru of The Moth, Catherine Burns.

It was written on the shoulders of Elysha Dicks, who supports everything that I do. 

Hidden within the pages is the editorial wisdom of so many of my friends, including Matthew Shepard, David Golder, Jeni Bonaldo, Amy Miller, C. Flanagan Flynn, and others who I am forgetting. 

It's filled with the lessons of storytellers who have stood beside me on stages around the world and students who have joined me in workshops to learn the craft of storytelling.

Each one of them has taught me so much and contributed so much to this book.   

Now it's real. It's been transformed from idea and thought to a device that is capable of conquering the barriers of time and space.

Think about it:

Ten years from now, in some city in northern China (where we recently sold the foreign rights to the book), a future storyteller will pick up this book and read the words of a writer living half a world away who wrote those words a decade ago.

Books are magic. I'm holding magic in my hands. I'm so excited.   

A surprise breakfast with their friend. Not a potential heart attack for their father.

The best part of my heart scare on Tuesday morning was our children, or more specifically, the way we managed them during this potential crisis. 

When we decided to call for an ambulance, a number of decisions were made:

1. When Elysha made the call, she requested that the ambulance refrain from using a siren so the kids wouldn't be frightened. The dispatcher said this wasn't possible, but when an EMT called back to check on my condition and request that I take aspirin immediately, Elysha again requested no siren. He agreed, so the ambulance pulled up in front of the house quietly. 

The kids were awake and aware that I was waiting for the ambulance, but it wasn't the loud, frightening version of an emergency response vehicle, but more akin to a medically-equipped Uber. 

Just a ride to the doctor for Daddy.

In fact, the kids never even saw the ambulance. Neither wanted to see it, knowing it would make them nervous, so instead they sat together in the kitchen, watching a TV show on the iPad as it pulled up in front of our home.  

2. Elysha told the kids that I would be going to the hospital via ambulance because "I wasn't feeling well" and "the doctors wanted to see me soon." I stood beside her as she explained, my chest in incredible pain and unable to catch my breath, nodding in agreement. 

In response to this news, the kids immediately hugged Elysha, leaving their Daddy to stand alone, wondering why they were hugging the person who was breathing just fine and not the guy who was afraid he might die at any moment.

Sometimes being a father is hard.   

3. Elysha called our friend, Kathy, immediately after calling the ambulance. She leapt out of bed and came to our house to get the kids to school so Elysha could join me at the hospital.

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My mom passed away 11 years ago, and I don't really know my father, and Elysha's parents live more than two hours away, so having someone like Kathy (or the many others who we could've called had Kathy been away) is such a blessing. Elysha and I are fortunate to have an enormous group of friends who our children love dearly and who would drop everything for us, and knowing that means the world to us.  

4. The one mistake made that morning was made by me. I found myself strapped to a gurney in the back of the ambulance in front of our home, preparing to leave, when I realized that I hadn't said goodbye to our kids. No kisses. No hugs. Nothing. In an effort to keep them calm, I just walked out the door when I saw the ambulance pull up. 

This might have been better for them, but for a father thinking he might be having a heart attack and wondering if he would see tomorrow, the idea that I was leaving my kids behind without a simple goodbye was crushing. I couldn't stop thinking about this until I finally saw them again later that day.

5. When I returned home that afternoon, Kathy and the kids were returning from some after school ice cream. When I asked them how their day was, both said it was great. They were smiling and happy.

Charlie's teacher (who had been alerted to my emergency) had made him "Star Student" of the day, which was a beautiful and I'm sure calculated decision that was also so appreciated.  

Charlie said that one of the best parts of the day was when Kathy showed up for breakfast. 

"That was a great surprise," he said.

"She should come for breakfast more," Clara said. 

In my children's minds, Tuesday was the day when their friend, Kathy, came over for a surprise breakfast and ice cream after school and their father went to an unexpected doctor's appointment. That was what they will remember most, and I'm so glad. While Elysha and I were under incredible pressure and feeling more frightened than ever before, they were happily enjoying breakfast with their friend. 

Later, Charlie asked me what it was like to ride in an ambulance for the first time. Clara took a ride in an ambulance years ago after a peanut allergy scare, and although Charlie was riding alongside his sister that day, he was still an infant and has no recollection of the incident. 

I laughed at his question. "It wasn't my first time in an ambulance, buddy," I said. "That was at least my ninth ride in the back of an ambulance."

Charlie shook his head in disgust. "You should really be more careful, Dad. Also, did you take pictures of the machines for me?"

I had not, of course. "I was a little busy," I told Charlie, but he was disappointed. A little annoyed, even. But if that was the thing that upset him the most on our frightening, painful, stress-filled day, I'll take it.  

I made two instantaneous, temporary friends yesterday, and it meant everything to me.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, a total of 20 healthcare professionals assisted me on Tuesday during my cardiac scare, and every single one of them was professional, kind, and skilled at their job.

I appreciated the efforts of everyone involved beyond measure. 

That said, some were better than others, and truly, all it took was a little bit of authenticity and connection to make me feeler safer, better, and less afraid.  

Two in particular:

My first nurse in the cardiac unit, whose name I cannot recall but who remembered my name and used it constantly. Rather than reverting to "Sir" or "Mr. Dicks,"  I was "Matt" every time she entered the room, which instantly made me feel known and safe. Elysha had yet to arrive at the hospital, so I was alone and more frightened than I was willing to admit. Having someone call me by my name without hesitation made me feel less alone.

It also gave me the courage to ask her how I was doing, which I had been afraid to ask until that moment. As she turned to exit the room at one point, I said, "Am I in trouble here? Am I going to be okay?" 

Rather than pausing by the doorway to answer my question, she stopped everything, turned, stepped close to my bed, and spoke softly. She said, "We don't know it it's your heart yet, but we have different pods here, and you're not in the red pod. That means you're not one of our most critical patients. I can't promise that there's nothing wrong with your heart, but the doctors can't be too worried about you if you're here. Okay? And I'll be here all morning, watching you like a hawk."

That moment meant the world to me. Rather than speaking to a medical professional, I felt like I was speaking to a human being who saw me and understood that I needed an honest, authentic connection with another human being.

For the first time all morning, I relaxed a little.  

It's also so easy to think that you've been forgotten when you're lying in a hospital bed in the cardiac unit, listening to the intercom constantly call for doctors and nurses to seemingly every corner of the hospital. There are hundreds of patients in need of care, and you start to feel like one of many rather than someone of import.

Time also crawls by in a hospital, so if your chest hurts like hell and you still think you might be having a heart attack, the absence of a doctor or nurse for even 15 minutes can be scary. "I'll be watching you like a hawk" were words that I clung to as I lay there alone and afraid.

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A nurse named Emily, who assisted with my stress test, treated me with equal kindness and authenticity. She had to remove about a dozen sticky EKG pads from my chest before shaving my chest and reapplying new pads. It was not pleasant. Others had already removed and replaced several of these pads in the cardiac unit, but Emily turned the ripping and tearing into a team effort. It wasn't something that she had to do. It was something we did together. She strategized with me. Apologized before each rip. Winced with each tear. Empathized with my pain. Celebrated when we were finished.

She was my teammate. My partner. We were in this together. 

As she shaved my chest, she never stopped smiling. She asked me questions about my wife and kids. My job. She cracked jokes about what Elysha would think of my patchwork of chest hair. When I asked what would happen during my stress test, the took my hand and told me that it was no big deal. A simple walk on a treadmill while doctors and nurses watched my heart. "A room full of people just for you."

Once again, I didn't feel alone. Didn't feel like one of hundreds of patients. I felt important.  

After she prepped me for the stress test, it was time for Emily to go to lunch, and I was honestly sad to see her go. The doctors and nurses who were present during my stress test were excellent, but Emily felt like a friend. I only spent about 15 minutes with her, but it was the easiest, most relaxed 15 minutes of my entire time at the hospital, despite the pain of ripping pads from my body and what could've been an awkward moment shaving my chest.

She was real. Authentic. Funny. Honest. I felt like she was a friend who also happened to be my nurse. She made me feel safe and known. She made the hospital feel smaller and less intimidating. She is someone I will never forget.

And she accomplished all of this in just 15 minutes. 

I've been working with patients, family members, and caregivers at Yale-New Haven Hospital this year, teaching them to tell their stories to doctors and nurses so patient care can be improved. I've been delivering keynotes at conferences for caregivers and other professionals in the healthcare industry, talking about the value of storytelling, connection, authenticity, and vulnerability when interacting with patients and their families. I've consulted with organizations who administer healthcare programs throughout the state of Connecticut. Next week I'll be delivering another keynote at a conference in Boston.  

I've talked about this topic with thousands of healthcare professionals, but yesterday I was able to witness it firsthand. I experienced the difference between a competent professional who does their job in a kind, respectful manner and a competent professional who is also authentic, real, and honest. I witnessed the power of a healthcare professional to put a frightened patient at ease with a few well chosen words and something as simple as physical proximity, the holding of a hand, the softening of a voice, and a smile.

We are at our most vulnerable when we are lying in a hospital bed, wondering if our life is about to change forever. Wondering if we'll ever see our children again. Wondering if the book we haven't finished writing will remain unfinished. Wondering if our dreams for tomorrow will ever be realized. Wondering if the professionals taking care of us are simply doing their jobs or really care about us. See us. Wondering if they want to know us as something more than numbers and beeps and a series of incomplete tasks.

Every single person who took care of me on Tuesday was excellent, but two women not only kept me safe but made me feel safe. They made me feel known. Important. They treated me in the same way I would treat a friend. For a brief moment, I felt like they were my friends. Instantaneous intimacy established through a moment of honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability. 

Two women who turned a day of fear and anxiety into something a little less frightening. They made a terrible day a little less terrible.

I'll never forget them.

Not a heart attack after all, but an eventful day nonetheless.

I woke up yesterday morning with terrible chest pains and struggling to breathe. I fed the cats, sat down at my computer to write, and tried to pretend that I wasn't in pain. 

About 15 minutes later, at 5:45 AM, I decided that I might be in trouble. I was starting to sweat and the pain was getting worse. I couldn't catch my breath. Just as I was debating what to do, I received a text message from Elysha asking me to come upstairs. It was 5:49 AM.

It was the first time in my life that Elysha texted me before 6:00 AM. Maybe before 7:00 AM. 

How did she know I was in trouble? Has she installed cameras that I don't know about? Are we so psychically connected that she can feel my pain?

No. She had heard a strange sound for the second day in a row and wanted to know what it was. We pushed that question aside for another day and finally called for help and I took my sixth ride to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.

I spent most of the day at Hartford Hospital, undergoing every possible heart test you can imagine. X-ray, EKG, an ultrasound of my heart, and a stress test to name a few. In the end, the doctors determined that my heart was not the problem. In fact, it turns out that my heart is in outstanding shape.

Instead, I had either pulled or slightly torn a chest muscle while hiking The Freedom Trail with students the previous day. I was carrying a backpack loaded with water, food, medications, and the like, and the weight of the backpack and the length of the walk had apparently done the damage. The damaged muscles tightened overnight, and when I awoke and started moving, the pain began.

The doctor explained that pulled or torn chest muscles and acid reflux are commonly mistaken for heart attacks, even by medical personnel, so although they, too, suspected a heart attack for a while, it wasn't surprising when they realized the true cause of my pain. 

Frightening possibility averted. My chest still hurts like hell this morning, and it's still a struggle to breathe, but muscle pain is nothing compared with the alternatives.  

As I went through an emotional, painful, and interesting day, I made several observations:

  1. A total of 22 medical professionals helped me over the course of the day, including a dispatcher, an EMT over the phone, 3 EMT's onboard the ambulance, 2 police officers, 4 nurses, a physician's assistant, a phlebotomist, 4 doctors, an X-ray technician, 2 medical transport personnel, and 2 unidentified hospital personnel. It makes you realize how impressive and extensive our healthcare system is. There are a lot of people just standing by at the hospital, waiting to help us in a moment's notice.  
  2. There is no authenticity in the back of an ambulance. EMT's speak like they are high on valium. Overly calm and syrupy sweet. They communicate with one another other in non-specific pronouns and silent signals. One of them said, "okey dokey" three times. They are persistently positive, even when they have failed twice to get an IV into a patient who is terrified of needles and is now bleeding down his forearm.
  3. I always find it strange how a person can spend 30 minutes making sure you aren't dying or 15 minutes carefully shaving your chest and assuring you that everything will be fine and then step out of your life forever like they were never there. Brief moments of intense intimacy followed by an instantaneous and permanent departures.  
  4. Two of my doctors were Speak Up fans and recognized Elysha and me. One of them said, "Don't worry. I like your stories too much to let anything happen to you." 
  5. Whether or not chest pain awakens a patient from sleep or begins after the patient has awakened naturally is apparently a very big deal. It was my most frequently asked question yesterday, followed by "Is your heart rate always so low?"
  6. I apparently have the heart rate of a world class athlete. 48 BPM when I was discharged,  but it went as low as 28 BPM at one point. When I asked if this was a good thing, my favorite nurse of the day said, "You're not exactly a world class athlete, so maybe not."
  7. I have been meditating every morning for more than five years. That allows me to calm my body and mind when things around me are hectic, terrifying, and even painful. Credit Plato Karafelis for encouraging this years ago. It's made an enormous difference in my life, especially on days like yesterday. 
  8. If the gym had doctors and nurses standing beside the treadmills offering encouragement like they did during my stress test, the world would be a lot healthier and a lot thinner. 
  9. The constant beeping of the cardiac unit surely drives those doctors and nurses to drink.
  10. I purposely changed into a loose fitting tee shirt and shorts while waiting for the ambulance to alive. I also grabbed a phone charger and my headphones. Even in the midst of what I thought might be a heart attack, I'm still a Boy Scout.  

I'll have some more meaningful and in depth comments about the day as the week goes on. As one of the doctors who knew me said, "I bet today is giving you some great new material."

Ruth and Bush

This is a photograph of future President George H. W. Bush and Babe Ruth in 1948. 

The cancer-stricken Babe Ruth donated an original manuscript of his autobiography to Yale University. He presented the gift during an on-field ceremony at Yale Field, where he was greeted by the Bulldogs’ baseball team captain, George H.W. Bush.

I love this photograph. I love to imagine what these two men - the greatest baseball player in history and the war hero-turned Yale scholar - were thinking this day. What were their lives like? Did they have any idea that the lives of two historic men were intersecting that day? Did they have any idea how they would both be forever remembered by history?

Ruth would die months later from his cancer, though his legacy and records have stood the test of time.

Bush would go on to be President of the United States, and 70 years later, is still alive and kicking. 

It's photos like this that make me yearn for a time machine so I could go back to that moment and see all that a photograph does not allow you see or experience.

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So many white people...

The White House hosted military spouses last week. Here is a photograph of the group, released by the White House.

Noticing anything odd? 

It's admittedly odd that the entire group appears to be female, given that about 15% of the armed forces is female, so there are presumably some male military spouses in America. 

But much more disturbing is the color of this group. America's armed forces are 40% non-white. The odds of a group of 52 military spouses containing no people of color are about 1 in 300 billion. 

My physicist friend Charles calculated it for me. 

The only way this group doesn't include a single non-white members is if the White House deliberately avoided inviting non-white spouses.

The blatant racism of Donald Trump and his administration never ceases to amaze me.

Then again, let us not forget the color of the White House and Republican Congressional interns for last year. 

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I'm not supposed to be happy today.

Charlie came downstairs this morning and said, "I just woke up Mommy and gave her all of her Mother's Day presents."

"I wish you had waited," I said, thinking that Elysha had probably wished the same thing. As cute as Charlie may be, opening his presents at 6:40 AM was probably not what she had envisioned when she planned her day. "I wanted to be there when you gave her your presents," I added. "To take pictures. And I haven't even seen your presents yet. You hid them so fast that I didn't have a chance to look at them."

Charlie groaned. Rolled his eyes. Shook his head in disgust. "Dad, it's Mother's Day. I don't have to make you happy today. You have your own day to be happy. It's called Father's Day. And it will happen someday. But you're not allowed to be happy every day. Don't you know that?"

I've apparently been far too ambitious with my life goals, at least according to my son. 

I guess there's something to be said for a low bar. 

I may be relegated to unhappiness and despair today (at least according to Charlie), but I hope that all you mothers out there have a happy, happy Mother's Day. 

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Elysha the Unstoppable

One day before Mother's Day, I thought I'd tell you a remarkable mother story about my wife, Elysha Dicks.

About five years ago, Elysha and the kids were having dinner at a local restaurant with a friend and his two children. Clara was four years-old at the time, and Charlie was still an infant.  

About 10 minutes after sitting down at the table, a waiter spilled a full glass of wine on Clara. She was drenched in red wine. She was not happy in a very four year-old way.

Elysha picked up Clara and exited the restaurant, leaving infant Charlie with her dinner companion and his two small children.

She brought our daughter to the car to clean her up and quickly determined that Clara’s shirt was not salvageable. She offered Clara one of her brother’s shirts, which happened to be in the car. It would be tight, but it might work.

Clara refused in a very unhappy four year-old way. 

She offered the shirt off her own back.

Clara refused.

She offered to reverse the unsalvageable shirt as a temporary solution.

Clara refused.

As any parent will tell you, forcing any of these shirts onto a raging four year-old would’ve been impossible.

Elysha needed a shirt of some kind for Clara so that they could, at minimum, reenter the restaurant to reclaim our baby and return home. 

Naturally, he phone was still at the table, so having our friend bring Charlie to the car was not possible. 

With no other options, Elysha crossed the street and walked over to the nearest house. She knocked on the door. A man and a woman answered.

Elysha explained the situation and asked the couple if she could borrow a tee shirt for the evening.

Take a moment and let that sink in. In need of a shirt for my daughter to wear so that she could reenter a restaurant and reclaim our baby, my wife walked to a nearby house, knocked on a stranger’s door, and requested a tee shirt.

The couple gave her a white tee shirt and sent her on her way.

Clara ultimately refused to wear the newly acquired shirt. Instead, she chose to turn her wine-strained shirt around instead.

Elysha and Clara re-entered the restaurant, calmed our now-screaming baby, and completed the meal, which ended up costing them nothing. 

She's incredible. 

Do you know any other person on the planet who would attempt such a thing?

I didn't think so, then it occurred to me that Elysha’s solution was remarkably similar (albeit more ethical and decidedly less criminal) to something I did when I was young and in desperate need of gas money in New Hampshire.

Nearly identical, in fact.

I’ve always thought that Elysha and I were cut from the same cloth. I was just cut from the raggedy, soiled edges of the cloth and she was carefully cut from the pristine middle.

Mohawks and Jessie Eisenberg

During my April vacation from teaching, I had the honor of traveling to Canada to teach storytelling on a Mohawk reservation. The Mohawk nation is paying Mohawks to learn their native language from a fellow Mohawk and native speaker who is also a world-renown native language expert.

Their goal is to preserve the Mohawk language and prevent it from fading away. 

The Mohawk language is unlike any of the European languages. The sentence, "I love you," for example, contains half the letters as the actual word "love." It's a language that constructs words from bits and pieces of other words, so it's impossible to you traditional language instruction when teaching it to new speakers.  

The man who hired me has developed his method of instruction over the course of 25 years after using it to teach himself the Mohawk language. He is a truly extraordinary human being.  

I was hired to help his students tell better stories. His hope was that in telling better stories, they might be more enthusiastic about using the language and would enjoy listening to one another more. 

As I stood before his class, ready to teach, I found myself thinking, "In the summer of 2011 I went to New York to tell one-and-only-one story for The Moth. Today I'm about two hours north of Toronto, on a Mohawk reservation, being paid to teach storytelling to Native Americans."

It's crazy where life can take you when you dare to do something difficult and frightening. When you refuse to stand still. When you insist on challenging yourself. 

Last night I was in New York, attending the book launch party of friend and podcast host Mike Pesca, when I saw the actor Jesse Eisenberg waiting for an elevator with his wife and child. Having read the chapter of Pesca's book that he had written, I stepped over to say hello and congratulate him on his success. After exchanging stories about former NBA player Dan Majerle and the video game NBA Jam, I quickly discovered that Eisenberg knew exactly who I was from my appearances on Pesca's podcast and talked to me about some of the stories he liked best. 

"It's you," he said. "The storyteller. I thought you'd be something else. You look so normal."

He was incredibly sweet and generous with his remarks.

I was a little starstruck.

Once again, I found myself thinking, ""In the summer of 2011 I went to New York to tell one-and-only-one story for The Moth. Now I'm chatting with Jesse Eisenberg about my time working at McDonald's and my methods for teaching storytelling to the masses."

It was a night I'll never forget.

And I'll never forget my three days of teaching on the Mohawk reservation, either. I met some extraordinary people, learned a great deal, and left with a new name. 

A Mohawk name:

Rakaraweyenhen

"Teller of great stories."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

Do the hard thing. Do the seemingly impossible thing. Never become complacent. Never stand still. Always look for the next hill to climb.  

Mike Pesca wrote his first book. I've started to perform standup comedy.

There's no telling where either of these new paths will take us, and that is a wonderful thing. 

Constantly frowning and avoiding dogs at every turn

Grammar is important, especially when it comes to the design of memorial plaques. Ignore a few basic rules of grammar and you could end up with this:

A woman who both never saw a dog in her entire life and never cracked a smile.

Quite the departure from what this foundation was presumably intending. 

When I asked my nine year-old daughter to read this and tell me what she thinks of Nicole Campbell, she said, "A grumpy, dead person."

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The best way to rewrite this plaque is probably this:

In loving memory of
Nicole Campbell
Who never saw a dog that didn't make her smile

"Who never saw a dog without smiling" also works, but I like the seemingly irresistibility of dogs that the first option implies. 

Either is far better than portraying Nicole Campbell as some unsmiling monster who managed to avoid dogs for her entire life. 

When the words are important and permanent, you need to get it right. 

The Trump administration has been the most type-ladened organization that I've ever seen. Not only is Trump's Twitter feed ("official statements" according to his press secretary) filled with capitalization, spelling, and punctuation errors, but typos abound in this administration.

Just last week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a statement containing this:

“Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”

Unfortunately, the "has" was supposed to be "had."

Big difference. 

A statement from Sanders’s office on the death of former first lady Barbara Bush was dated April 17, 2017, a full year prior to her death.

A White House press release last May said that Donald Trump was traveling to Israel to promote “the possibility of lasting peach.” 

A lasting peach sounds great, but not quite as good as lasting peace in the Middle East. 

An ever-updating list of public typos and spelling errors, verbatim, from the Trump White House, can be found here.

 My favorite so far is Trump's official inauguration portrait. At a time when he was forced to lie about his lackluster inauguration attendance and his post-inauguration parade route was so visibly devoid of human beings, Trump released his portrait containing a typo so obvious that you had to wonder if anyone in the new administration had a brain. 

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I am competitive, which means I might be a jerk but also other important things

I had no idea that highly competitive, super serious tag was a thing. 

And what a thing it is...

I want to play this game, which should come as no surprise to people who know me well.

I like competition. I thrive on competition. 

My favorite form of storytelling is the slam. Stand on a stage and tell a story so a team of judges can determine if my performance was best. In fact, if given the choice between being paid to perform in a beautiful, thousand-seat theater or tossing my name into a tote bag at the back of a bookstore with the hopes of maybe competing in front of 200 people for free, I'd take the latter almost every time.  

My favorite card game is poker. Match wits against an opponent with actual cash on the line.

If competitive yoga was a thing, I suspect that I'd be a full blown yogi by now.  

When I was living in Brockton, MA in the 1990's, I competed in an underground arm wrestling league. Though I was not close to being the best arm wrestler on the circuit, I was only beaten once in my two year career. I wasn't always able to pin my opponent (in fact, I rarely pinned an opponent), but I became famous for always managing to wrestle to a draw. 

I couldn't stand to lose.  

And although I am a winning storyteller and poker player, I don't need to be good in order to enjoy the competition. I am a terrible golfer who routinely plays with excellent golfers. It is rare that I do not finish in last place in my foursome, but I return to the golf course again and again, ready to compete each time.  

I can't imagine not keeping score, and I refuse to play with a handicap. If I can't win straight-up, then I don't get to win.  

In college, I would try to not only score the highest on tests, but I would also tried to finish the test first, viewing speed as a positive attribute and knowing that if I finished quickly enough, I might demoralize my fellow students and bend the curve in my direction. 

Terrible, I know. This didn't mean that I would help my fellow students study or offer strategies and tips to be successful. Just like in poker or storytelling, I'm happy to help my competitors perform better through instruction, advice, and counsel. 

Hell, I'm publishing a book containing many of my storytelling secrets. You should preorder it immediately, by the way. 

But when it comes time to actually compete, I'll do anything short of cheating to win, and if that means finding a way to demoralize an opponent, I'll do it. I want to win every time. 

My mother told me time and time again as a child that "Everything is not a competition," but with two siblings and two step-siblings, it was fairly simple to turn almost anything into a competition.

Climbing. Running. Eating. Biking. Rock throwing. Sledding. Handstands. Pushups. 

I even turned seemingly benign activities like shoe tying, drawing, dishwashing, and splitting wood into competitions.

I would compete against my brothers to see if I could fall asleep faster than them.

In school, I worked like hell to be the fastest reader in class. The most accurate mathematician. The most fluent speaker of French. The best pole vaulter.   

One could argue that I was turning everything into a competition in a desperate attempt to get the attention that I so desperately wanted but so rarely received. In a world where no one was ever looking in my direction, I was just trying to find a way to turn the heads of my parents and my teachers. 

Others might argue that I'm just a competitive jerk. That may also be true. 

But what I also know is that I read exceptionally fast, and that was an enormous asset when I finally made it to college as an English major.

I can fall asleep almost instantly.

I paid for our honeymoon through poker winnings.  

My success at The Moth has led to opportunities to speak, perform, and teach around the world. It helped me land a book deal. It resulted in the launch of Speak Up. It changed my life in incredible ways that may have never happened had I not been so hell bent on winning story slams and perfecting my craft.  

And even though I almost never win on the golf course, some of my best and most favorite memories with my friends have taken place while trying to get that little, white ball in that terrible, little hole. I've even written a memoir about a summer of golf that will someday find its way to bookstore shelves.

So perhaps I'll find my way to a competitive tag tournament someday - hopefully just as intense as the tag on the video but perhaps with people a little less like superheroes and a little more like ordinary human beings.  

A former student's advice on avoiding procrastination

A former student visited my class last month to offer advice to my fifth graders as they prepare to embark on their journey to middle school.

His advice was fascinating:

In order to avoid procrastination, fill your life with after-school activities. Do as much as possible. Sports, drama, student government... anything and everything. Pack your day with excitement and adventure.

In this way, he explained, your time to complete homework and study will be limited. You'll have very specific and defined times each day when you can get your work done, and as a result, you will be forced to do your homework and studying during those times.

My former student's message is this:

When we have large amounts of free time available to us, we procrastinate. If we eliminate or restrict the amount of free time we have each day, we'll have no choice but to use that free time wisely. 

Kind of brilliant. Right?

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A dose of 1850's racial politics to start my day

Five minutes ago, at 5:34 AM, my nine year-old daughter, Clara, walked down the stairs, sat beside me, and the first words out of her mouth were these:

"Hey Daddy, I was reading about Harriet Tubman yesterday, and I was wondering:  Why did the northern states agree to pass The Fugitive Slave Law even though the north wanted to abolish slavery?"

Just how I wanted to start my day. 

I'm starting to think that she reads too much. 

The old fashioned way of breaking up is the right way to break up

When I was a kid, you had to break up with your romantic companion in person. If I even suggested to my friends that I might break up with a girl over the phone, I would be vilified. 

I like this. I support this.

Back then, breaking up with someone was civilized. Still difficult and fraught with emotion and distress, but accomplished with a modicum of dignity. You weren't allowed to spend time being naked with another human being and then just end the relationship with a phone call, voicemail, or text message.

You had to do it face-to-face.

It wasn't always easy.

I was once dumped in the middle of a high school dance. 
I once drove three hours to New Hampshire just to break up with a girl.
I once broke up with a girl, got back together, and broke up her again in the same night. 

I once broke up with a girl on a Saturday night, knowing full well that we were supposed to be visiting my grandparents on Sunday afternoon. After breaking up with her, she offered to accompany me to my grandparent's house anyway, knowing that my grandmother liked her a lot, was looking forward to seeing her, and didn't want to upset my family with our sad news. 

Crazy. Right?

And it wasn't an easy breakup. She was upset. Enraged, even. A little blindsided. Still, she found a way to awkwardly muddle through the day with me for my grandparent's benefit. 

Today people often break up with their romantic partners via text message. Or tweet. Or email. Or worst of all, they simply ghost the person. They stop returning calls. Ignore emails. Never respond to text messages. 

People break up with their romantic partners today in the same way Trump fires administration officials:

He tells others to do it for him. He waits for them to see it on CNN. He tweets their termination to the world. For a guy who became famous for firing people on reality TV, he's a damn coward when it comes to terminating employees in real life.  

Don't be like Donald Trump when breaking up with a romantic partner. Don't act like a damn coward when breaking off a relationship. Do the hard thing the hard way. The old fashioned way. The right way.  

When my children begin dating at the ages of  28-34, this is what I will tell them. I'm going to make damn certain that they understand the importance of treating their romantic partners decently, even if that romantic relationship has come to an end. 

Ending a relationship via text message is the act of a coward. Ghosting a romantic partner is indecent and pathetic. You don't get to have fun while being naked with another human being and then treat them poorly when it's time to move on.

I'm old fashioned that way. 

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I did a backbend. Now I can do anything.

I did the impossible this week. I did a backbend. 

Maybe you know me well and would agree that this is impossible to imagine. Or maybe you don't know me as well and think that a backbend hardly constitutes a significant achievement. 

Either way, it was a moment I'll never forget, and it's no exaggeration to say that it changed my life.

I was wandering around the playground at recess earlier this week when I saw some students, including a pair of twin sisters, doing backbends.

From a standing position, they bent all the way down and all the way back up.

I joked with them that a backbend was no big deal and I could do one whenever I wanted. When they challenged me to do one, I came clean and admitted I had never done a backbend in my life and never would.

That was all these girls needed to hear. In an instant, they were surrounding me and encouraging me to try. I laughed again, assuring them that I was not built to perform a backbend, but they persisted, insisting I try. Eventually I agreed to attempt the first step - raise my hands over my head and look backwards - thinking this would placate them.

Instead, it emboldened them. Through a level of persistent positivity and a torrent of encouragement that I have honestly never experienced before in my life, they continued to insist that I try. They did not harass or taunt or tease. They simply expressed an unwavering conviction that if I tried, I would succeed. 

I fell. They helped me up. I fell again. They spotted me, two girls on each side, wisely fleeing when I started to collapse. One girl took an elbow to the head and shook it off like it was nothing. Over the course of 15 minutes, I went from a man who would never do a backbend in his life to a man trying like hell to do a backbend because the positivity and encouragement of these girls had pierced my belief that this was impossible.

They had turned me into a believer. 

Then I did it. Starting from a standing position, I reached back and continued bending until my feet were on the ground and my hands touched the ground behind me.

I couldn't believe it. I had done something that I had thought impossible just minutes before. I had thought it impossible for my entire life.

I've been walking on air ever since.  

I know. It doesn't seem like much. And I've certainly done difficult and even seemingly impossible things before.

I managed a McDonald's restaurant full time while simultaneously attending college full time, (earning degrees at two different schools and finishing near the top of my class), launching a business, working part time in the school's writing center, serving in school government, and writing for the school newspaper.

Honestly, I don't know how I did it. I was just so happy to be off the streets and making my dreams come true that I would've done anything to succeed. The work seemed like nothing compared to all that had preceded it.

Even more impossible, I somehow convinced Elysha Dicks to love and marry me. And to keep on loving me more than a decade later. A woman who I desperately admired from afar but never dreamed of dating somehow agreed to spend the rest of her life with me. 

Astounding.       

Compared to those achievements, a backbend might not seem like so big a deal, but you would be wrong. The actual backbend might not be as momentous as my other accomplishments, but the way I had been transformed from a nonbeliever to a believer through relentless support and endless positivity was astonishing to me.

The way those girls encouraged me was inspiring.  

They had gotten me to do something that I never thought possible. That many people thought impossible. 

I'm never going to forget that moment in the grass beside the tree. I walked away thinking about all the other possibilities that I had closed off from my life, wondering what other impossibilities I need to tackle.

I did a backbend under a tree on a spring day, and now I feel like my potential is boundless. 

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