Speak Up #60 was a big night

Kind of an amazing night.

When Elysha and I launched Speak Up in May of 2013, we wondered if anyone would show up.

We wondered if our first show would also be our last show.

Our expectations were low and our vision for the future of Speak Up was dim. If some people came to our show and didn’t hate us, it would be considered a victory.

Last night we produced our 60th show at Infinity Hall in Hartford, and it may have been our best yet. The storytellers - four of whom were brand new - were outstanding. Filled with humor and heart. Our nearly sold-out audience ate them up.

And of course, the night was made even more special by the inclusion of United States Senator Chris Murphy, who I have been trying to get in the show for more than a year. Senator Murphy led off with a story about his time as an intern in Washington, DC. He stuck to our theme of “Walk of Shame: Stories of Embarrassment,” spoke from the heart, made the audience laugh, and honestly sounded just like any other storyteller onstage except for the fact that he’s a US Senator.

Just like the rest of the storytellers, he killed.

Prior to last night, we’ve only had a couple celebrity storytellers on our stage. Two years ago George Dawes Green, the founder of The Moth, graced our stage with a brilliant story, and we also had Catherine Burns, artistic director for The Moth, tell a fantastic story as well.

Though both of those human beings are luminaries in my mind, they are not nearly as well known as Senator Murphy. If you know and love The Moth, you know George and Catherine, but if you don’t know The Moth, you are tragically unaware of them and their remarkable work.

So last night was a big deal for us. The next time I ask a celebrity, politician, sports figure, or the like to tell a story for us, I’ll be able to say, “A United States Senator has told a story for us. Maybe you’d like to tell a story, too?”

There was a moment last night when Elysha and I were standing in the dark backstage, listening to the Senator tell his story, and I recognized how big a night this was for us. Someday, far into the future, when we are reflecting on some of the things we have done as a couple, we will remember this night with great fondness.

The night eight storytellers - one more than usual because of the last minute addition of Senator Murphy - took the stage and told stories that our audience absolutely loved, and one of them was the United States Senator who we love and support more than any politician in office today.

It was a big step for us, and as is always the case, I now find myself in search of the next big step. The next leap forward. The next moonshot.

Never stop looking for the next big thing.

What inappropriate things did I put in my mouth?

Tonight I’ll be taking the stage at Infinity Hall in Hartford to tell a story for Speak Up.

It will be our 60th show, stretching back to April of 2013 when we produced our very first show in an art gallery at Real Art Ways, and I have told a story at every one.

In addition, I’ve also told stories at all five of our Speak Up - Voices of Hope co-productions, as well as showcases for Unified Theater, West Hartford Public Schools, and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health,

That’s a lot of stories. In that time, I have only repeated stories twice.

Once accidentally, and once at Space Ballroom, our new venue in New Haven, CT, where we will be bringing stories first told in the Hartford area to a new audience.

Add to that the 22 Moth GrandSLAMs and 66 Moth StorySLAMs, half a dozen Moth Mainstage performances, and dozens of one-off shows. Some Moth stories have migrated to Speak Up, and some Speak Up stories have migrated to The Moth, of course, but it’s still a boatload of stories.

In all, I have told 116 different stories on stages around the country and the world.

“How do you find so many stories?” I am constantly asked.

My usual answer is Homework for Life, an exercise that first developed for myself and then began teaching. Add to that two other exercises that I detail in my book Storyworthy, and that makes up the bulk of my story finding techniques.

I also remember a lot. I have one of those memories for moments in my life. My sister is the same way. We simply recall more of our past than most people. Part of it has to do with the fraught, strange, challenging, ridiculous, and trauma-filled past that we both share.

If your life hasn’t been lovely and idyllic, you’re likely to remember more of it.

But also this:

I relentlessly look for stories. I seek them out. I turn over rocks to find them. So when I see this amusing carousel sign last weekend, I turn over a rock. I ask myself:

“What inappropriate things have I put in my mouth?”

Some have already been told onstage.

  • I swallowed a penny when I was about seven years-old, and I won a Moth StorySLAM with that story.

  • I choked on a bay leaf (and nearly had my chest cracked open by surgeons) about ten years ago. I told that story at Speak Up last year. I’m still waiting for the right moment to take it to The Moth.

  • I once drank spiked punch from a trashcan that contained a block of ice with roadkill at its center. I told that story at The Moth way back in 2011, failed to hear the timer, and spoke for eight minutes. I’ll need to re-tell that one someday.

  • I was once tricked into eating my pet rabbit by a girlfriend’s father. I won a Moth GrandSLAM with that story this year.

But then I thought:

  • I sucked my thumb well into third grade and only quit when a teacher shamed me, which led to me punching a kid in the head. That’s a story.

  • I once drank a mug of communal leftover drinks at a bachelor party and got so drunk that I started running around the VFW thinking I was being chased by evil men in bear suits. I also gave a guy a nickname that night that stuck for the rest of his life. That’s a story.

  • When I was a boy, I took communion at the Catholic Church, trying desperately to fit in but not realizing why I was even in line and what I was about to receive. The priest placed the wafer on my tongue, and I was so disgusted by the taste and the meaning of the ceremony that I spit the half chewed wafer into my hand and stuffed it into a Bible. That is a story.

  • At my best friend’s wedding, my friend, Scott, and I engaged in a stupid drinking competition which led me to drink 22 kamikaze shots over the course of eight hours and still lose the competition. That is a story.

  • Then I recalled the time about 15 years ago when my dog, Kaleigh, ate a Sudafed gel caplet. When I called the veterinarian (at 10:30 PM) to find out how serious it might be, she said, “You have about 10 minutes to get her to the hospital before her heart explodes.” That’s a story.

One sign. Five stories. Not bad.

Granted, the ability to craft these moments into full-fledged stories isn’t something everyone can do, but read my book, take a workshop or two, and start listening to stories like I do, and you’ll eventually be able to.

But the important part is to look for stories. Open your mind to them. Ask yourself questions. Explore your past. Until I saw that sign, I had forgotten four of those stories completely, and I hadn’t thought about the fifth in years. Even if I never tell them on stage, I’ve recaptured little bits of my life. I turned over a rock and found more of myself than I knew existed.

I love that. You will, too.

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I threw away my bathrobe after wearing it zero times

I threw away my bathrobe a few years ago. It was soft and warm and looked lovely, but I never wore it.

I never found a single moment to wear it in the five years I owned it.

This is not to criticize anyone who wears a bathrobe after they emerge from the shower. Perhaps the bathrobe sparks joy in your life and is a critical element to starting your day.

But it takes me about 30 seconds to dry off using a towel and about 30 seconds to get dressed, and for me, additional time - even if just minutes or seconds - always sparks joy in me.

Every time I reached for my bathrobe, I thought, "Why get involved in that added step? Get dressed and get on with your day, damn it."

If you’re wondering where you might recapture a few extra minutes every day (which add up quickly), consider tossing the robe. It may be sucking the life out of you. 

And owning less stuff is always a good thing.

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This sign is amusing but otherwise pointless

This sign can be found at the entrance to the historic carousel in Bushnell Park in downtown Hartford.

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There are so many things wrong with this sign:

  1. I don’t think the sign’s target audience - the kind of child who would put a ticket in their mouth - is willing or able to read this sign.

  2. I don’t think a parent would allow their child to put a ticket in their mouth, see this sign, and only then instruct the child to remove said ticket. Parents are either going to prevent the ticket-to-mouth connection from the start or they are the kind of parent who really doesn’t care.

  3. I don’t feel like there is any kid in the world contemplating putting a ticket in their mouth and then deciding against it upon seeing this sign. The ticket is either instantly in the mouth or not. There is no careful weighing of the pros and cons of a ticket in the mouth, so this sign would at best only limit the amount of time that the ticket might spend in a child’s mouth, but even that is highly improbable (see #1).

  4. This sign is at the entrance to the carousel itself. In other words, it’s positioned in the the exact spot where the child must relinquish the ticket to the ticket-taker. At this point, it’s too late. No child places the ticket in their mouth just seconds before handing it over to the adult in charge. If a ticket has spent any time in a child’s mouth, that happened long before the transaction between ticket taker and child takes place.

  5. I also find it amusing that the sign is placed beside a sign encouraging parents to host their child’s next birthday at the carousel. It’s a sign indicating that children are disgusting alongside a sign inviting parents to being many more disgusting children to the carousel.

  6. All that said, the sign brought joy to my heart, so at least in this regard, it was appreciated.

Own your domain, dummy

Wondering what kind of information Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh might include on BrettKavanaugh.com now that he has won his confirmation?

We’ll never know. He doesn’t own the domain.

The domain BrettKavanaugh.com is now a dedicated forum for helping sexual assault victims and ending rape. The website, titled "We Believe Survivors," was purchased by Fix The Court, which advocates for judicial transparency.

The domain and similar sites ending in .org and .net was purchased three years ago with the idea they could be "useful in any forthcoming Supreme Court confirmation battles," the organization's executive director, Gabe Roth, said. 

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Why Brett Kavanaugh didn’t purchase this domain years ago is beyond me.

Perhaps he was drunk with Squee at the time, writing crude, sexually explicit, and publicly shaming comments about Renate Schroeder in his yearbook.

Meanwhile, I own matthewdicks.com, as well as mattdicks.com and matthewdicks.net.

I also own my name on MySpace and Facebook, as well as the Twitter handle @MatthewDicks, the Instagram handle @MatthewDicks, and even the Pinterest handle @MatthewDicks.

When I see a new platform gaining steam, I grab my name just in case.

Even Donald Trump doesn’t own his Twitter handle. Instead, he is @realDonaldTrump.

I also own elyshadicks.com, claradicks.com, and charliedicks.com.

Someday Clara and Charlie are going to be very pleased about their genius father’s foresight and planning. To have a domain that actually matches your name is already unusual. It will only become more uncommon in the future, particularly when so much of our lives exist on the Internet.

I recommend that parents do this for their children.

I plan on telling my kids about this great news when:

  1. They understand the value of owning a domain like this

  2. I’ve said something regrettable or horrendous to them and need to find a way to get them to forgive me quickly.

I was a Boy Scout. I believe in being prepared.

Speak Up Storytelling #21: Don Picard

Episode #21 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast is now available for your listening pleasure.

On this week’s episode, Elysha Dicks and I talk about finding excellent stories in your everyday life using my strategy "Homework for Life." We discuss how a moment that didn't seem initially storyworthy can prove to be storyworthy with a little consideration. We also receive two outstanding Homework for Life recommendations from listeners. 

Next, we listen to Don Picard's story about his unusual family composition, followed by commentary and critique, including:

  1. Breaking longer stories into two or more shorter stories

  2. Encapsulating big ideas into small, specific scenes

  3. The funneling of a story from fast paced, episodic moments that advance time quickly to the specific heart of the story

  4. The purpose and effectiveness of summarizing unique, odd, and incomprehensible moments in story

  5. Preserving surprising by allowing your audience to draw their own conclusions

  6. The importance of maintaining time order to avoid confusion

Then we answer a listener question about what we do for a living when not working on Speak Up and our podcast.  

Lastly, we each offer a recommendation. 

If you haven't subscribed to the podcast in Apple podcasts (or wherever you receive your podcasts), please do. And if you haven't rated and/or reviewed the podcast in Apple Podcasts (who are the best people ever), we would love it if you did.

Ratings and reviews help listeners find our podcast easier, and it makes us feel better about ourselves and our work.

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Brett Kavanaugh and the photo that will never go away

You’ve probably seen the photo already, and even if you haven’t, you’re probably trying to put the Brett Kavanaugh hearings behind you, but I just couldn’t let the moment pass without taking a moment to highlight this remarkable image.

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I don’t know if Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Dr. Ford, but here’s what I do know:

  1. The percentage of false accusations against men by women for crimes of this type is exceptionally small.

  2. An enormous number of sexual assault victims do not come forward for many understandable reasons. Remaining silent is tragically common.

  3. Dr. Ford had a hell of a lot to lose (and did) by coming forward and had little incentive to do so. Even if her testimony derailed the Kavanaugh confirmation, Republicans would simply confirm a different, equally conservative justice. She was not going to change the political leaning of the court by her testimony. She’s also had to endure death threats and Trump’s mocking attacks at his rallies less than a week after claiming to find Dr. Ford to be a credible and sympathetic witness.

  4. For centuries, female sexual assault victims have been ignored, silenced, and condemned, so I have made it a point to be as open as possible to their claims. This is not a dangerous time for young men. It is an ongoing and endlessly dangerous time to be a woman.

  5. Even if Kavanaugh is not guilty of Dr. Ford’s allegations, he lied several times during his confirmation hearings, and that alone should have disqualified him from service on the court. Republicans ignored this because they have abdicated all moral authority in this country in favor of power and fear of the Trump base.

  6. This was not a trial. It was a job interview, so the standards of guilt and innocence do not apply here. If a woman had made a credible claim of sexual misconduct against me during my interview to become a teacher, and I had responded to the charges with anger, defensiveness, partisan attacks, victim blaming, and conspiracy theories, I would never have expected to be hired. Temperament is important for a teacher and for a judge, and Kavanaugh did not demonstrate a temperament required for service on the court during his testimony.

In short, I don’t think Kavanaugh deserved to be confirmed, and a majority of Americans in the latest polling agree with me. In fact, since his confirmation, the number of Americans who don’t believe that he should’ve been confirmed has increased.

This is why I love this photo. Kavanaugh might possess the power that he has sought for much of his adult life, but he will never enjoy all of the prestige of the position. He will always be the least popular Supreme Court nominee. A man who lied on the stand and lost his temper during his hearings. And the credible allegations of sexual assault will never be forgotten.

When an Internet search is conducted on Kavanaugh in the future, this photo is likely to come up every time, and happily so. It serves as a testament to the mockery of his confirmation process and the shame that Kavanaugh has brought to the Supreme Court.

Oddly, most of the scowling women sitting behind Kavanaugh support him. They are his wife, two friends, his mother, and a former law clerk, supporting him in the moment but doing him no favors in terms of posterity.

Perhaps this is the best karma could do given the circumstances.

Matilda vs. Donald Trump

This statue of the the classic British children's character Matilda staring down a likeness of President Donald Trump has been erected to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Roald Dahl's 1988 novel.

As the Roald Dahl Story Company prepared to mark the anniversary of the novel, it asked the British public to weigh in on a replacement for Miss Trunchbull, the villainous headmistress. A survey asked who Matilda’s present-day antagonist would be.

Topping the poll by a wide margin was, of course, Donald Trump.

Even in a nation an ocean away, with the likes of Piers Morgan and Nigel Farage from which to choose, the most vile person who immediately comes to the British mind is the same one who Americans despise in historically large numbers.

For the record, Matilda would kick Trump’s ass if given half a chance.

What is my obstacle?

I completed a questionnaire recently in preparation for a radio interview.

One of the questions asked was:

“What personal obstacles stand in your way from living your fully realized creative life?”

I stared at the question for a long time, trying to think of what is preventing me from living my creative life to the fullest. I imagined the possible answers that someone might give:

  • Procrastination

  • Focus

  • Writer’s block

  • Doubt

  • Fear

  • Inability to manage time

  • A lack of emotional support

  • Lack of inspiration

None of these things apply to me. Even when I lacked emotional support in my life, I simply used that as fuel to work even hard. Be better. Produce more.

Spite is quite the powerful motivator.

Time might come closest to describing my primary obstacle, but if I’m being honest, I think I use the 1,440 minutes I have each day the fullest. And if by greatest obstacle is time, it’s hardly personal. We’re all stuck with 1,440 minutes per day.

And I think I use those minutes quite well.

Elysha suggested that my personal obstacle is sleep, and while she’s right about how annoyed I am about needing to sleep, that need is not exactly unique to me. I also suspect that I couldn’t be creative without the cognitive benefits of sleep.

She also suggested that my day job (teaching) is standing in the way of my fully realized creative life, but I think of teaching as a part of my creative life. Not only does it fill my heart and soul with joy, but I think of teaching as a creative art, just as much as my writing and performing.

In the end, I wrote:

“My greatest personal obstacle to living a fully realized creative life is answering stupid questions like this one. They waste my time and make me feel like a jerk for thinking that nothing is standing in my way and that I eat personal obstacles for breakfast. It also probably makes other people like me a little less, too, for saying such things.”

I’m sure the interview is going to go splendidly.

Turkish publishers offer a small bonus to their readers

The Turkish edition of The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs has arrived!

It never stops being exciting to see the international editions of my books arrive on my doorstep.

Just this week we sold the Taiwanese rights to my next novel, 16 Truths About Love, which will publish in the fall of 2019. And The Other Mother, which will publish a year after that, will publish first in the UK in the spring of 2019.

Publishing internationally is something I never imagined happening when I published my first novel in 2009. In addition to the excitement of knowing that your story is traveling the world and the financial benefits of publishing a book in two dozen countries, I hear from international readers all the time, often through the magic of Google Translate.

Recently, Mexican teenage girls have been writing to me about my first and third novels, wanting to know what happens next.

It’s a strange, strange world.

I opened the Turkish edition of my book, mostly to see what Turkish looked like, and look what I found. Inside the book, affixed to the binding with a perforated edge, is a bookmark designed to appear like the cover of the book.

How clever.

Also, why don’t we get something like this in the United States? I’m suddenly feeling like our American publishers are letting us down a bit.

Eric Trump doesn't like me

As you may know, I was a part of the Knight Foundation’s lawsuit against Donald Trump which led to him being forced to unblock me on Twitter earlier this year.

One of the highlights of 2018 for me.

Though I had always been able to see the inane ramblings of the self-admitted sex offender and bigot currently serving in the White House, now I can respond directly to him when the need arises.

It’s usually when I’m so annoyed that exercising my freedom of speech and firing off a response to his stupidity makes me feel better.

Yesterday, however, I discovered that I have now been blocked by Eric Trump, the debatably stupidest of the two Trump sons.

I know most comedians portray Eric as the dumb one, and he certainly has a slack-jawed, mystified gaze about him, but after the enormous number of obvious lies that Donald Trump Jr. told about his meeting with Russians in Trump Tower, the title for dumbest Trump son became a lot less certain for me.

Since Eric Trump is not a public official but only pretending to be running the Trump Organization on behalf of his self-serving, racist father, I am not outraged by his decision to block me.

A little annoyed, perhaps, because he’s so easy and fun to insult (which is why I was probably blocked) but I certainly understand that he’s well within his rights to silence me on Twitter.

I suspect that Trump Jr. will also block me at some point if my tweets rise to his attention, and since he is not a public official but only a possible traitor to the United States who is also pretending to run the Trump Organization, I will not be outraged by his decision to block me, either.

Disappointed but not outraged.

Ivanka, however, is a government official. She has chosen not to take a salary, but she’s still working for the government, so she cannot block me based upon the principles of the Knight Foundation lawsuit.

Unlike her father and brothers, Ivanka is not nearly as stupid on Twitter. She did tweet out this photo of her and her son exactly one day after Americans learned that her father was separating small children from their families and placing them in cages on the border, which might receive the tone deaf award of the century, and she also supports her corrupt, sexist, and bigoted father, but she rarely says something so stupid on Twitter than I feel compelled to respond.

She’s complicit and therefore shares the blame for this disastrous and evil administration, but she’s not nearly as fun to insult.

Eric Trump was good for that, but alas no more.

Apparently my words stung a little too much.

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I love my jobs.

An exhaustive and depressing new study of the American workplace done by the Gallup organization indicates that among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported.

Only 30 percent of workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.

College graduates, now more than ever, earn far more than those with just a high school diploma. But the grumpiest, least happy people in the workplace are college graduates and baby boomers.

It would seem that Thoreau was correct.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” 

I’m so thankful that this does not include me.

I’m well known to have many jobs. In fact, on Friday of last week, I worked at least five jobs in a single day.

Early in the morning, before the sun rose, I wrote my column for Slate and sent it off to my editor.

Then I spent the day with my students. It was our last day at a YMCA camp in northern Connecticut, so we took a hike up Sunrise Mountain (really just a steep hill) and enjoyed a spectacular view of the Berkshire mountains.

After returning to school and getting my students safely home, I got on the phone and spent an hour consulting with a CEO on an upcoming speech she’ll be delivering next week.

Then I went home and worked on my next novel for an hour or so before my own children arrived home from school.

Later, while my kids were at Hebrew School building their candy sukkah, I met with the couple whose wedding I will be working later this month as both the DJ and minister.

Then, while I waited Elysha and the kids to return home, I worked on the new story I will be telling at Speak Up later this month.

After we read to the kids and then went off to bed, Elysha played her ukulele while I went to work on content for an app that I have been hired to develop.

Then I worked a little more on my novel before bed.

It was an unusual day for me. Most days don’t include so much variety and demand in terms of employment. Being away for four days and three night with my students had forced me to push a few things back, and that made for a busy Friday and a busy weekend in general.

The next day, Saturday, I would spend much of the day teaching a storytelling workshop at the CT Historical Society, recording our podcast, and completing another column for Seasons magazine.

When you disappear for a week, the next few days can be exhausting.

Though I admittedly never want to be as as busy as I was on Friday and Saturday, I enjoyed every bit of the work that I did. Not a single moment felt like drudgery.

Truly.

And before you think I spend all my time working, I also had plenty of time on this glorious three day weekend to watch a mediocre movie with the family, watch an excellent football game with Charlie, play golf with my friends, workout at the gym, meet with our bookclub and enjoy dinner together, clean out the refrigerator, read to my kids, enjoy meals with my family, read a book, do some grocery shopping, and help Charlie clean up his bedroom.

Much more.

I was busy, but I was happy.

And that’s the key. You need to be happy in the work that you do, and if you’re not, you need to start finding a way to be happy immediately.

Happiness is too important to delay.

That might mean quitting your terrible job and finding work that is more fulfilling. The current labor market is ripe for a change in career.

It might mean experimenting with other careers in your free time.

If you’ve always wanted to be a musician, find a band. Or form a band. Or teach yourself to play a new instrument. Start recording your original songs at home. Start making inroads into the industry.

If you’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, make a film. Many filmmakers get their start with the software on an iPhone. If you’ve always wanted to be an artist, starting painting or sculpting in your free time. If you’ve always wanted to be a farmer, plant a garden and get some chickens.

Start doing something.

If you’ve always wanted to own your own business, do it. Launch something. Find a partner or two. Start out small at first. Do the work in the evenings or on the weekends. See if you can grow it into something that allows you to quit the job you despise.

And if your dream career requires training or an education, go do that. Even if it takes you five or ten years to complete your degree, happiness is worth it.

Thoreau was right. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” 

Women, too.

I can’t imagine a worse fate. And yet according to Gallup, about 70% of Americans are suffering that fate every day.

I hope that doesn’t include you.

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The most re-watched movies of all time

Below is the list of the 25 most re-watched movies according to a national survey.

Some thoughts on this list:

I haven’t seen 8 of the 25 of the films:

The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, The Notebook, or Pride & Prejudice (though I read the book more than once) and The Avengers.

Probably a mistake to have skipped at least a few of them. I might need to see them at some point.

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This is blasphemy, I know, but I think Caddyshack and The Princess Bride are both overrated. I’ve admittedly only seen both movies once, so perhaps I might appreciate them more on a second viewing, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

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I can’t imagine rewatching Titanic or Pretty Woman. Forrest Gump is also a difficult movie to rewatch simply because it has not aged well.

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Which Star Trek film is the list referencing? All of them? Also, I can’t imagine rewatching any of them. With the exception of a couple, most of those films really, really suck.

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I understand why someone would want to rewatch Grease, but I am not one of those people.

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The movie I have rewatched the most often is probably The Matrix, followed by Pulp Fiction, Rounders, any of the Jason Bourne films, any of the Die Hard films, Good Will Hunting, Speed, and Jaws, which shockingly did not make the list.

How the hell does The Notebook make this list but not Jaws?

First words this morning

My nine year-old daughter, Clara, came downstairs this morning, and before saying another word, asked, “Dad, what started the French and Indian War?”

Why my daughter would start her day with this question is beyond me.

“Did you know,” I said, “that the French and Indian War wasn’t actually between …”

“I know, I know,” Clara said. “The French and Indians were fighting the British. I know that. I want to know what started the war.”

Just like that, she had stripped me of my best French and Indian War fact. But I was not to be deterred.

“Did you know that the war was also called..”

“Yes, the Seven Years War,” she said. “I know that, too.” Now she sounded annoyed. “I want to know what started the war.”

I told Clara that I thought the war began over the fight for land. “I think the French and the British were fighting over land in the west and control the fur trade in those areas.”

“You think?” she said. “Let’s look it up.”

So at 6:10 AM, with many other things to do, Clara and I did a deep dive on the French and Indian War. We discovered that I was correct. Though there are always many reasons for war, the control of disputed land in North America was the primary cause.

We also learned that 22 year-old George Washington led the first attack against the French at the Battle of Jumonville Glen.

We learned that the war began in North America in 1754 but expanded to Europe in 1756.

We learned that Britain gained control of parts of Canada, which was populated with 80,000 French residents, and that those people were deported following the war to make the land available to immigrants from Europe and migrants from the colonies to the south. 

“What a bummer for them,” Clara said.

Then I finally taught Clara something that she didn’t know. I explained that the French and Indian War cost Great Britain a lot of money, and to pay off their debt, the Crown tried to impose new taxes on its colonies. These attempts were met with resistance, until troops were called in to enforce the Crown's authority. These acts ultimately led to the start of the American Revolutionary War.

Great Britain won the French and Indian War, but it ultimately led to the loss of British colonies in North America and the birth of the United Stares.

“Cool,” Clara said and then skipped away. It was 6:35 AM, and she had to go learn about the composition of Neptune on Ready Jet Go.

Hydrogen, helium, and methane, if you were wondering.

Americans believe this

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 84.5 percent of Democrats and 51.9 percent of Republicans would support a policy of Medicare for All in the U.S. healthcare system. About 70 percent of Americans look favorably on offering some sort of baseline medical care in the U.S.

The most recent Gallup poll finds that 79% of Americans support a woman's right to choose in some way. 29% of Americans say abortion should be legal under any circumstance, and 50% say it should be legal under certain circumstances. 

When asked, "Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn its 1973 Roe versus Wade decision concerning abortion, or not?" 64% said no compared to 28% saying yes. 

When it comes to gun control, the most recent Gallup poll find that 67% of Americans want stricter control compared with just 4% that do not.

95% want background checks for all gun purchases and 56% would support a ban on semi-automatic weapons. 

I think it’s important to know and remember what Americans actually think and want in a time when our legislators and the President are so highly ineffective at honoring and respecting the will of the people.

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Ignoring your reviews is dumb

As an author, I have often been told that it is a bad idea to read my reviews.

Advice like this is quite common:

Simply Google the words "Never read your reviews" and you’ll find an endless list of posts from writers and the like explaining why they never read their reviews:

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I think this advice is ridiculous. 

Unless you truly don't care if your books are ever sold or read, how could avoiding your reviews possibly help your effort to sell books? 

As crass as this may sound to some, the responsibility of a author goes far beyond the application of words to a page. Writers are also business people. Salespeople. Advertisers. Marketers. Brand builders.

It is our job to help our books find a way into the hands of readers.  

It's our job to write and sell books.

One of the tools that we have to assist in this process is customer feedback. Whether this comes in the form of a review published in a magazine or newspaper or a customer rating on Amazon, all of this data is valuable to the author if he or she can stand a little criticism.  

In what other business would the creator of a product ignore the feedback from the customers?

When my first novel, Something Missing, published back in 2009, I read the reviews. Admittedly, they were good. The book was reviewed well in newspapers and trade publications, and it averages 4.3 out of 5 stars on Amazon.

Still, there was information to be gleaned from both the positive and negative reviews.

Primarily, I learned that the books starts out slowly. Even positive reviews comments on the importance of sticking with the story. Allowing it to develop. Waiting for the ball to get rolling. Thanks to my agent, I already knew this might be a problem, but reading reviews from readers helped to cement this notion in my mind.

I needed to get my story moving quicker in my next book.

My next book, Unexpectedly, Milo, was also reviewed well. Again, it averages 4.3 out of five stars on Amazon, and the newspapers and trades liked the book, too. 

But once again, negative comments centers on how the plot takes a while to get moving. Again, even positive reviewers advised would-be readers to "give this book a chance" and "just wait because as soon as the plot gets rolling, it never stops." 

I hadn't learned my lesson. I vowed to do better on the next book.

And I did. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend has been my best reviewed book to date, both in the press as well as by readers. Critiques often centered on the simplicity and repetitive nature of the text, but these elements were intentional. The story is being told by a five year-old imaginary friend. 

Gone were critiques on slow moving plots.

I learned to launch my stories closer to the inciting incident. I learned that shorter chapters make the reader feel like the book is moving along quickly. I learned that the methodical process of meeting the character and discovering his or her world before allowing the plot to take off is not how people enjoy reading stories.

It’s not how I enjoy reading stories.

I learned all of this by reading my reviews.

Writers cannot afford to be so fragile as to avoid reviews. They must learn not to take individual reviews personally, but they must also be on the hunt for patterns in the thoughts and critiques of their readers.

We don’t write books in a vacuum. You don’t write books for ourselves. We write books with the hopes that readers will find, read, and love our stories, which means we must be willing to listen to our readers. Find out what they think. Apply those lessons to future stories.

My children show me a world I often fail to see

One of my favorite thing about kids - mine as well as other people’s children - is how often I see the world in a new way through their innocent, creative, untainted eyes.

Like this. Who know raspberries could be so versatile? So decorative?

I’ve always thought of raspberries as a nonsense fruit. They last about 19 minutes before going squishy and gross. They have a ridiculous P in the spelling of their name. And they are the only fruit that must sit atop a diaper in their plastic container.

Following my children’s lead, I placed raspberries on my fingers (slightly harder given the size of my fingers) and never enjoyed eating raspberries so much.

Find a kid. See the world differently. Embrace it. Indulge.

Trump is many things, but let's not forget this.

There was a lot of things wrong with Trump’s comments to ABC White House reporter Cecilia Vega during yesterday’s press conference. .

If you missed the exchange, you can check out the video below, but this is the pertinent bit of the exchange:

Trump: "She's shocked I picked her, she's in a state of shock."

Vega: “I'm not, thank you Mr. President.”

Trump: "I know you're not thinking, you never do."

Vega: "I'm sorry?"

Trump: "Go ahead"

Obviously Trump’s comment was rude, condescending, indecent, unpresidential, and probably sexist. Nothing any former United States President has ever and would ever say to a reporter.

But that’s just the start.

Also notice the collection of mealy-mouthed jackasses standing behind Trump who laugh at this act of rudeness and condescension. They are complicit in this vile act. They are the meatheads who every bully depends upon for support.

Most important, note the cowardice of Trump. When Vega says, “I’m sorry?” she’s attempting to ascertain what Trump just said. She probably heard the words correctly but rightfully assumed that it couldn’t possible have been those words.

What President - or decent human being - would say something like that? And during a press conference?

But like the frightened, little bully that Trump is, he didn’t repeat his words when questioned. He laughs at the reporter for a remark he has made almost under his breath, and then he tells her to continue while his crew of complicit jackasses laugh along at her expense.

Trump is like the high school bully who calls you a name under his breath and then denies saying it when you try to call him out.

Trump is like the high school bully who says something terrible to you and then says, “Just kidding. God… can’t you take a joke?”

Trump is the kind of human being who tries to publicly humiliate a person on the world stage by mumbling an insult under his breath and then pretending it never happened.

What a goddamn coward.

This is a guy who fires people via Twitter because he can’t muster the courage to fire them in person. This is a guy whose flat feet kept him out of Vietnam but allowed him to play golf for his entire life. This is a guy who falls in love with dictators through letters, praises America’s enemies, and fails to stand up to adversaries on the world stage.

Trump is a lot of things. Crude, sexist, racist, thin-skinned, incompetent, inarticulate, self-serving, and condescending. A self-acknowledged sex offender who pays hush money to porn stars.

A serial liar.

But also, and let’s not forget this, a goddamn coward, too.

Resolution update: September 2018

PERSONAL HEALTH

1. Don’t die.

I’ve had a cold that lasted the entire month of September (and I’m still a little sick), but it didn’t kill me.

2. Lose 20 pounds.

I lost 12 pounds at the peak of my illness, then gained back 6 pounds as I started to eat again. I'm now 17 pounds down and 3 pounds from the goal.  

This insidious virus was good for something.

3. Eat at least three servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day. 

I had three servings of fruits and/or vegetables on 14 of 30 days in September.

Worst month so far. Primarily because I wasn’t eating much at all.

4. Do at least 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 3 one-minute planks for five days a week.

Done. With this cold, it was not easy.  

5. Identify a yoga routine that I can commit to practicing at least three days a week.

I spent a full week at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. I did not take a single yoga class. 

6. Stop using the snooze button.

Done and still highly recommended. Science is right. Snoozing is a terrible practice that you must end immediately. Get the hell out of bed once you are awake. You will feel a lot better.     

WRITING CAREER

7. Complete my seventh novel before the end of 2018.

Progress continues. Shipping off the first half to my agent this week, I hope.   

8. Complete my second middle grade/YA novel.

I've begun revising my first middle grade novel, and it’s going to take some time. Things were slowed down significantly because my editor left the company and my new editor needed time to get up to speed. Finishing a second middle grade novel is looking highly unlikely this year because of these unforeseen delays.  

9. Write at least three new picture books, including one with a female, non-white protagonist. 

I've begun work on a nonfiction picture book on a famous beaver drop in the 1950's.

I also have plans to consult with a well established picture book writer this month.  

10. Write a proposal for a memoir.

My agent and I have decided upon the memoir, and progress has begun. 

11. Write a new screenplay.

Writing has commenced.

12. Write a musical.

Writing has commenced.  

13. Submit at least five Op-Ed pieces to The New York Times for consideration.

Nothing submitted in September. Three submitted so far.

14. Write a proposal for a nonfiction book related to education.

No progress.

15. Submit one or more short stories to at least three publishing outlets.

No progress.

16. Select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences on the blog.

No progress. I'm still looking for possible behaviors to adopt. Suggestions welcomed.  

17. Increase my author newsletter subscriber base to 2,000.

I added 57 subscribers added in September, and a total of 378 added in 2018. I'm just 74 away from my goal. If I manage to acquire one subscriber per day, I’ll hit my goal with ease.

If you'd like to subscribe to my newsletter and receive tips on writing and storytelling, as well as links to the occasional amusing Internet miscellany and more, please subscribe here:

18. Write at least six letters to my father.

No letters written in September. Three letters written thus far.

19. Write 100 letters in 2018.

Just two letters written and mailed in September, bringing my total to 50 in 2018.

20. Convert Greetings Little One into a book.

I have begun researching the companies that convert blogs to books. I have not found any that I like.

21. Record one thing learned every week in 2018.

Done! My favorite from September, again from the Numlock Newsletter: 

Mosquitoes have been the bane of the human species for generations, but a controversial new gene edit could hypothetically wipe out an entire species if introduced. Essentially, female mosquitoes that have two copies of a specifically edited gene are infertile, while females with one copy can reproduce and males with any copy can reproduce. Tests were carried out on two groups of mosquitoes by mixing in genetically edited males to 12.5 percent of the total population. Soon enough — within 7 generations in one group and within 11 generations in the other — all the females were sterile, and thus the population collapsed. Further tests are being done, but the question is an interesting one: if we could eradicate mosquitoes, should we?

STORYTELLING

22. Produce a total of 12 Speak Up storytelling events.

One show produced in September: Our first show, a standing-room-only affair, at Space Ballroom in Hamden, CT.  

Our total number of shows now stands at 10. 

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23. Deliver a TEDx Talk.

Done! I spoke at a TEDxNatick salon event in May. 

24. Attend at least 15 Moth events with the intention of telling a story.

Two Moth StorySLAMs and one Moth GrandSLAM in September, bringing the total number of Moth events to 10 in 2018. 

25. Win at least three Moth StorySLAMs.

Two second place finishes in September. One victory back in February. 

26. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.

Done twice over! I won my fifth GrandSLAM in February and my sixth GrandSLAM in April.

I placed third in September’s GrandSLAM at The Music Hall of Brooklyn.

27. Produce at least 25 episodes of our new podcast Speak Up Storytelling. 

Episodes #19 dropped today and is now available wherever you get podcasts. Listen to a terrific story from storyteller Valerie Gordon. The reception to the podcast has been excellent, and our audience is growing fast.

Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts.

28. Perform stand up at least four times in 2018. 

Done!

I performed in three open-mic events while in Grand Rapids, Michigan, including one night when I was asked to perform a second set. This brings my total number of stand up performances in 2018 to six, including one paid gig.   

29. Pitch my solo show to at least one professional theater.

Done! I performed my solo show at The Tank as part of the Speak Up, Rise Up Storytelling Festival in NYC.

30. Pitch a new Moth Mainstage story to the artistic director of The Moth. 

No progress.

NEW PROJECTS

31. Write a syllabus for a college course on teaching. 

No progress.

32. Cook at least 12 good meals (averaging one per month) in 2018.

No progress. 

33. Plan a 25 year reunion of the Heavy Metal Playhouse.

No progress. 

MISCELLANEOUS

34. Pay allowance weekly.

Done! Kids are all paid up.

35. Ride my bike with my kids at least 25 times in 2018.

Ten rides in September, bringing the total for the year to 21. Charlie loves riding his bike, and Clara is getting a lot more comfortable on her big girl bike. 

36. I will report on the content of speech during every locker room experience via social media in 2018. 

Done. I only spent 16 days in a locker room in September, and I did not hear a single comment related to sexually assaulting women.  

37. I will not comment, positively or negatively, about physical appearance of any person save my wife and children (except in service of a story while appearance is relevant), in 2018 in an effort to reduce the focus on physical appearance in our culture overall. 

I broke my rule and declared that Serena Williams is beautiful after a bunch of knuckle draggers said otherwise. Other than that intentional rule breaking moment, I did not speak of physical appearance with the exception of my wife and kids in September. 

This included saying nothing to a student who colored her hair a light shade of blue.

38. Surprise Elysha at least six times in 2018.

Done! I've surprised Elysha a total of nine times in 2018.

39. 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.

I've received some more reasonable estimates for this project. It might actually be doable. Especially if I had more money.

40. Clean the basement. 

More than halfway done this job, but I’m going to need to invest a solid chunk of time completing this project.

41. Set a new personal best in golf.

I played many rounds of golf in September, but I did not come close to my personal best. 

Back in August, I played one round that was only four holes long due to aeration. I had three pars and a bogie for a total of 14. Technically my best score ever, but perhaps it should not count. 

42. Play poker at least six times in 2018.

No poker in September. Just two games all year. 

43. Spend at least six days with my best friend of more than 25 years.

My total stands at three. No progress in September. 

44. Post my progress in terms of these resolutions on this blog on the first day of every month.

Done.