I'm not stopping.

I’ve always thought that “No right turn on red” signs were stupid and therefore entirely optional.

I’m sure there is some reason why particular intersections have been deemed too dangerous to allow right turns on red, but I’m also sure that this is nonsense. Not unlike the addition of a four-way stop signs at an intersection following an accident.

Just because one moron can’t drive safely doesn’t mean that we all need to stop for now and ever more.

But last night, while driving Elysha and her parents home from a show, I took a right on red and my father-in-law said, “You know, you could get a ticket for that.”

“For what?” I asked.

“Taking that right on red without stopping first”.

The right turn in question was at a three-way intersection. I was traveling on a main road and turned right on red onto the intersecting road. But there was no road opposite of my intersecting road where another car might be coming.

“I have to stop my car before taking a right on red?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

My mother-in-law concurred.

The Internet also agrees. It’s a law.

Fascinating. I’ve been driving for 30 years and have never once adhered to this rule, which leads me to ask:

If I’ve been failing to stop before taking a right turn on red for 30 years without being ticketed, should I assume that I’m good for another 30 years, or should I acknowledge that I’ve been pushing my luck and conform to the law?

I’m going with the former, of course. While I certainly look to see if there is oncoming traffic before turning right on red, there is no way in hell that I’m going to start coming to a complete stop if it’s not necessary, particularly after three decades of avoiding the law.

Do people really do this? Do they really come to a complete stop? I’ll be watching now to see.

And if I’m turning right on red at a three-way intersection, where there can’t be any oncoming traffic (because there is no road), I’m definitely not stopping or even looking before turning.

Like I did last night.

This is because to stop and look to ensure that another automobile isn’t approaching from that stand of maple trees or that field of wildflowers or that school playground, or in the case of last night’s turn, that residential home, would be insane.

red.png

Three strange medical stories

In the spirit of “If something strange is going to happen, it’s probably going to happen to me” comes three medical anomalies that have occurred to me in just the last seven years.

I receive the pneumonia vaccine.

Did you even know that the pneumonia vaccine existed? I didn’t, and most people don’t. But after having contracted pneumonia four times over the course of ten years, my doctor said to me, “I’m going to give you the pneumonia vaccine.”

“The pneumonia vaccines?” I said. ‘I’ve never heard of the pneumonia vaccine.”

“Of course you haven’t,” my doctor replied. “It’s a shot we give to elderly women . And now you.”

A bunch of old ladies and me. Of course.

I get tubes put into my ears.

For reasons that no doctor could ever explain, my left ear began getting blocked with fluid a couple years ago. After having it cleared twice without success, my ENT recommended that I get tubes in my ears.

“The kinds you put in kids’ ears?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Those.”

It hurt like hell while he was putting the tubes in, so I asked, “How do you do this to kids without them flipping out?”

“Oh, We put them to sleep,” he said.

After suggesting that maybe I could’ve been put to sleep, too, I asked him how many adults get tubes put into their ears.

“I think you’re my first,” he said. “This never happens to adults.”

Of course.

I contract canine scabies.

About seven years ago, our now-deceased dog, Kaleigh, contracted canine scabies, which is an impossibility in itself since contracting them requires a dog to come in contact with an animal with scabies. Usually a fox or squirrel or some other wild animal. Kaleigh was never off a leash, and she never came in contact with any wild animal that I can recall, so how she managed to contract the scabies will forever be a mystery.

However, we had no idea that she had canine scabies. When rashes began appearing on all of us (including newborn Charlie), we feared that it was bed bugs. We had multiple bed bug companies come into our home to inspect, and the opinions differed amongst the experts,.

It was a summer of hell.

Eventually, Elysha took the kids to her parents to escape, and I was left to await bed bug treatment when I happened to bring Kaleigh to the vet for a routine visit, and the doctor diagnosed canine scabies almost immediately. There were so many live scabies on her body, in fact, that I was then asked to bring a sample of her hair and skin to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, who had never seen a live sample before (and doubted that they were even scabies until putting them under a microscope).

It was quite a visit.

Kaleigh’s treatment was two weeks of heart worm pills, which killed the scabies almost immediately, but the humans reported to the dermatologist for treatment

I asked the vet if I could just take the heart worm pills, too, and he said, “I might, but I can’t recommend it for you.”

The dermatologist examined our skin. On Elysha and the kids, the rashes were caused by the contact of scabies to their skin, as expected. An application of some head-to-toe cream several times would clear up the problem.

But on my body, and especially my forearms, the scabies had actually burrowed into my skin.

Nice. Huh?

The doctor then asked if she could take photos of my skin.

“Why?” I asked.

“You’re the first human being we’ve ever seen who has live canine scabies under the skin like this. We didn’t think it was possible. These picture will probably end up in a medical journal.”

Of course.

Offense kleptomaniacs

Someone recently introduced me to a term that I like a lot:

Offense kleptomaniacs

These are people who - no matter what was intended - will take offense, often unjustifiably.

You say one thing. They hear another.

You do one thing. They see another.

In my life, offense kleptomaniac often lift their ugly heads when I find a corner to cut, an advantage to seize, an opportunity to snag, or a new road to take. They become angry and outraged because I saw something before they did or I had the courage or daring or insight to try something that initially seemed dangerous or unexpected or unwise or against the rules.

I take an unanticipated step forward. They see it as me shoving them back.

Many years ago, when a large-scale initiative was first introduced at our school, I quickly put together my own team of teachers - all close friends who shared a similar skill set and who I enjoyed working alongside- before administration could assign teams. Then, as teams were being considered for the initiative, I presented our already-assembled team to administration and asked that it be allowed to stand.

It was.

Offense kleptomaniacs - people who could’ve done the same thing and still could’ve done the same thing after discovering what we had done - took this maneuver as a slight. An injustice. An outrage.

“How dare they assemble their own team?”
”No one said we could pick our teammates!”
”Why do they get to choose their teammates but we don’t?”
”Who do they think they are?”

Rather than seeing this for what it was - a colleague spotting a previously unseen opportunity and seizing it - they took offense to it. They saw it as someone taking advantage at their expense. They spun their wheels in anger and disgust. Grumbled and growled and cried foul instead of seeing it as a possible path for them to take, too.

Yes. I know these people. You probably do, too.

Also, I despise these people. I look forward to using this new phrase when dealing with them.

offsense.jpg

Parking lot artist

I pulled into the parking lot at my daughter’s middle school last night for their annual Open House. I circled the lot, looking for a parking spot and finding none.

I circled again. Still nothing.

I was so happy.

Once of my favorite things in the world to do is create a parking spot where one did not exist before.

I circled a third time, evaluating all of my choices, viewing the parking lot now as a canvas for my creativity,. I could extend a row of spot, affixing my car to the end. I could park on the grass. I could sidle my car along the edge of the driveway, reducing its width by half.

Then I saw it. A slight bulge on the far end of the lot, probably present to allow the passage of cars in both directions.

Not anymore. I pulled into the bulge, nuzzled my car up against the curb, and hopped out. As I did, I noticed that a car was pulling in behind me.

“Is this a spot?” the driver asked.

“It is now,” I said. “I invented it.”

He smiled.

It would be a fine thing if my love for inventing parking spots came from my desire to solve problems creatively (and there is probably a little truth in that statement), but mostly I think I love the ability to eschew authority, ignore expectations, and reinforce the idea that there is very little law and order in a parking lot. Sure, you can paint your yellow lines and plan your traffic patterns, but if you’ve run out of spaces and I need to park, there is little anyone can do to stop me from being creative.

Flaunting authority. That is why I love inventing parking spots.

When I exited the building a couple hours later, I was pleased to see that four cars had followed my example and parked in a line behind me, filling the bulge.

This is common.

When I park on the grass, others follow suit.

When I stick myself on the end of an aisle, others do the same.

When this happens, I always wonder:

Were these people inspired by my creative idea or somehow given permission to violate the norms of the parking lot after I did so?

parking_lot_paving_albany.jpg

Four reasons why I seem to get into so many arguments

I got into another fight at a local McDonald’s.

A man was attempting to ascertain the balance on his gift card. The McDonald’s employee - someone I see almost everyday while getting my Egg McMuffin - explained that she didn’t know how to determine the remaining balance on his gift card unless he purchased something. Then she apologized. “There really should be a way to do this,” she admitted.

Then the man began shouting, telling the woman again and again that she was unprofessional. Spouting off in a way that made it clear that he was not a highly functioning human being.

I was standing beside the man. I had already placed my order and was waiting patiently. Four men were standing behind us, also waiting for their order. An older woman with a cane was standing behind him, waiting to place her order. Everyone stared as this man continued shouting “Unprofessional!” over and over again.

I did not engage. This is my new policy. In the past, I would’ve eagerly leapt into the fray, but I’ve established a new, more mature policy:

Remain uninvolved unless the offending party involves me.

So I stood, waiting and hoping that he might someone engage me, too. Hoping for a confrontation.

Then it happened. The man turned to me and said, “This place is so unprofessional. Right?”

“No,” I said, quickly matching his volume. “Don’t bring me into this. I’m not on your side. I like these people. There’s only one person in this place who is acting unprofessional, and it’s you.”

The man was not pleased. He tried to argue his point, oddly repeating the word “unprofessional” over and over again. I was having none of it, and I was prepared with plenty of comebacks.

“Don’t try to co-opt my agreement just because you’re feeling alone. You’re alone because you’re wrong, buddy. I’m on the side of the good.”

“Stop talking to me. I’ve heard dandelions make more sense than you.”

“People who stand behind the counter, insulting employees like these, are cowards.”

At this, the man took an aggressive step toward me, apparently hoping to intimidate me. In response, I took an even larger, more aggressive step forward, trying to convey in both mind and body the idea that I would fight and win if necessary.

It worked. It always does. The man stepped back. He swore at me. He wished me dead. then he declared that “this town is a ghetto!” and left.

A couple minutes later, the police arrived. I didn’t know it, but the employees has called them when the shouting broke out. They explained to the officers that I was not the offending party. Then they refunded my money for my breakfast. “Oh the house,” she said.

Happy day. Admittedly not the wisest decision on my part, but happy day.

I told this story at my book club later that night. One of my friends asked, “How does this stuff always happen to you?”

It was a good question. I’ve wondered this myself. But then the answer became apparent to me as we discussed:

  1. I look for these confrontations. I stood beside the man, hoping he would involve me. I stared in his general direction. In the words of one book club attendee, “I would’ve been standing as far away from that man as possible, avoiding it all.” And it’s true. There were four other men also waiting for their food, and not one of them made any attempt to close the distance between them and the man. I stood as close as possible and hoped for engagement. Invited it.

  2. I’m good at this kind of encounter. I was a two-time state debate champion in college. As a teacher, DJ, writer, and performer, I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life manipulating language, speaking publicly, and using words to achieve desired results. I use words like other people use hammers and spreadsheets and stethoscopes. Also, I’m a serial nonconformist who lived for more than a decade with a verbally abusive stepfather, and my last name is Dicks. I’ve received an enormous amount of verbal abuse over the years, and so I’ve spent a lifetime sharpening my rhetorical sword. I know how to parry and slash and stab. I have a talent for knowing the worst thing to say at the right moment to produce the most pain in another human being.

  3. I have an inane sense of justice for low wage workers. Having managed McDonald’s restaurants for almost a decade, I am all too familiar with the abuse that low-wage workers suffer on a daily basis. As a manager, I always stood between my employee and the offender, offering sarcastic apologies to horrible people and occasionally going to war with them, too. I cannot stand to watch a customer insult an employee who is trying her best and has done nothing wrong.

  4. I’m in places where stuff like this happens. I pointed out to my book club friends that none of them enter a McDonald’s restaurant with any regularity. “Chipotle is probably your lowest version of fast food,” I argued, and my friend agreed. Another said, “You don’t just go through the drive thru?” No, I don’t. Service is almost always faster inside, and I get to see my people. I talk to Juan, the maintenance man, about football. I say hello to Janice as prepares my order. I chat with the old guy who is drinking coffee and reading the paper. If you’re not entering the realm of the low wage worker on a daily basis, you probably don’t see this kind of abuse.

So that’s it. That’s why I seem to get into more verbal altercations than most.

I look for them. I like them. I’m good at them. I feel the need to engage on behalf of others, And I occupy spaces where these types of encounters are more likely to occur.

See? It’s not me. It’s just circumstance.

All that said, I know it’s not the smartest thing to do. You never know how someone is going to react. It’s not that the world is a more dangerous place today, because it’s not. Crime has been on the decline for three decades. By all accounts, we’re living in the safest time in all of human history.

I know our pervasive media makes people think otherwise, but it’s true.

Still, you never know how someone will react. I should just keep my mouth shut, and more often than not, I do.

I’m getting better. More restrained and sensible. I’m evolving.

Slowly.

mcdonalds.jpg

I don't see stuff

A couple days ago, one of my colleagues pointed at the #21 on my classroom door and said, “Are you going to remove that number at some point?”

For the 18 years that I’ve been in my classroom, the room number has never been #21. This is a number from a bygone day.

But here’s the strange thing (but also not-so-strange):

I’d never noticed the number on my door. In the almost two decades that I have spent in my classroom, I had never taken notice of that number.

Sounds crazy, I know. Maybe even impossible. But I’m also the person who once argued with his wife over the color of our house on the way home from the store, insisting that our house - one that we had been living in for years - was yellow. Unquestionably yellow.

She claimed that it was tan. Light brown, maybe. But nothing even approaching yellow.

As we turned onto our street and our house came into view, I realized that our house is not yellow.

Not even close.

So failing to notice a number on a door for almost two decades sounds ridiculous and yet is also not surprising. Elysha is fond of saying that if we lined up ten brunettes of approximately her height in a line, I could not pick her out from the group.

This is not true, of course, but there is truth in what she says.

What does this say about me?

I’m not sure, but it’s not great.

Nostalgia in the Pacific Northwest

While visiting friends in Washington two weeks ago, we stopped by Sprinkles, an ice cream shop decorated in nostalgia. Sitting along one wall of the store were the monoliths of my childhood:

Video games.

I spend many hours and many thousands of dollars playing Defender, Pole Position, Pac Man, and many, many others. There was a time in high school when my friends and I would vacation in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire simply because of the quality of the Half Moon Arcade and Fun Spot.

I like to think that there was something special about those coin-operated video games. By having to pay 25 cents to play, the stakes were higher on those games, and thus, the gaming sessions more important and more memorable.

In later years, I spent an enormous amount of time playing computer-based games like Warcraft, Diablo, and Madden, and it was unquestionably fun. But those days in the arcade - when every game required a financial investment- those were very special indeed.

On the flip side, Sprinkles was also selling candy cigarettes, which struck me as an incredibly stupid idea. While nostalgia is something I adore, there are certain items of nostalgia that should never be brought back into today’s world.

“Irish Need Not Apply” signs
Mercury thermometers
Leaded gas
Segregated drinking fountains
Asbestos
The General Lee from The Dukes of Hazard
The Macarena
Lawn darts
Chlorofluorocarbons
Birth of a Nation

Candy cigarettes belong on that list.

What the hell are you thinking, Sprinkles?

A great problem to have. BUT STILL A PROBLEM.

This is one of those moments when I’m going to apologize for complaining about something that really shouldn’t be a complaint.

While visiting Pike Market in Seattle a couple weeks ago, we stopped in a great, little bookstore called Lion Heart Books, where we were thoroughly entertained by the owner, David Ghoddousi. His store didn’t carry any of my books, but it was small and eclectic. I was willing to forgive him.

Of course we bought some books for the kids (and a few for me). Clara and Charlie love books, and I’m always willing to spend a little money on the written word.

But for the next hour, Elysha and I had to demand that the children stop reading their books and “Look around!”

“Pick your heads up!”

“You can read anytime! You won’t see this place again for a long time!”

At one point Elysha popped into a Starbucks, so the kids immediately camped out on the corner, opened their books, and pretended that I didn’t exist.

I surrendered. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll look at the big, beautiful world and you can stick your noses into your dumb books.”

I know. I should be happy, and I am.

But still… look at them. What a couple of giant nerds.

Speak to strangers

On Wednesday night I’m standing at baggage claim in Bradley International Airport, waiting for the luggage carousel to begin turning,. It’s 10:00 PM. We left our friend’s home on the west coast at 5:30 AM, so it’s been a long day. I’m mentally urging my bags to appear when Clara sees a girl about her age off to the right and asks if she can go over and chat.

My first thought:

That’s weird. While waiting for luggage at an airport, you’re going to strike up a conversation with a stranger?

But we allow it, of course. Clara walks over to the girl and says, “Hi, my name is Clara. What’s your name?”

I cringe. I also worry that my daughter will be rejected. Embarrassed. Saddened.

Oddly, the two girls begin a legitimate conversation,. talking about where they began their day, their hometown, the upcoming school year, and more. I still think it’s weird, but it seemed to work out. I breathe a sigh of relief.

After finally extracting our luggage from the carousel, we begin heading to the airport shuttle when a man appears in front of me and says, “I just wanted to commend you on the parenting job that you’re doing.”

“Thanks,” I say. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I willingly accept all praise of every kind.

“The confidence that your daughter has,” the man says. “The way she introduced herself to my daughter. Her conversation skills. That’s not something that happens in the world today. It’s special.”

By now Elysha has pulled alongside me.

“Oh,” I say, realizing this is not a compliment for me. “Most of the credit goes to my wife,”

The man turns to Elysha, introduces himself, and repeats the compliment.

And it’s true. Most of the credit belongs to Elysha. Yes, I’m sure that I’ve helped to instill some of that confidence in my daughter, but that’s probably a 50/50 proposition at best. Just a few nights before, Clara and Charlie sat backstage, listening quietly, while I performed onstage to a sellout crowd in Seattle.

But in the middle of my performance, Elysha took the stage and played her ukulele and sang a song for just the second time ever in public.

Watching her parents do these things has probably helped Clara to become a more confident girl, but the ability to approach a stranger, extend a hand, and carry on a thoughtful conversation… that’s all Elysha. That is the result of Clara spending enormous amounts of time with Elysha in this world, watching her mother interact with all kinds of people in every possible scenario.

It’s not only confidence that Clara possesses. It’s social grace. It’s the difference between seeing an opportunity to engage in a conversation as potentially positive as opposed to thinking it weird.

And yes, the fact that Elysha was able to stay home with the kids for almost a decade probably helped this process, and for that, I can take a little credit. My endless procession of jobs helped to make that happen.

But more important, Clara needed a role model of social grace, and she had that in Elysha. All the jobs in the world can’t create a child who is confident enough to approach strangers and engage in conversation. As I told that man, most of the credit belongs to Elysha. Clara has watched Elysha engage with the world, and now she’s able to do the same..

The man said a few more kind things to both of us, shook our hands one more time, and returned to his family.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect vacation. It was one of those moments that I will never forget.

It was also a reminder of the power of the kindness of strangers. Clara wasn’t the only person engaging in conversation with strangers that night. That man, whose name I will never forget, took the time to chase us down and say something that caused our hearts to soar.

I know we teach our kids not to talk to strangers, and most of the time, that advice is sound. But when the moment is right and the space is safe, talking to strangers can be a beautiful thing.

I’m learning that from Elysha, too.

And Clara. I’m learning it from her, too.

sWCrNvqKT%OCn97Kagdhog.jpg

Since returning from the Pacific Northwest, I've noticed this.

Elysha, the kids, and I had the absolute pleasure of spending a week on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington with our friend, Plato. A perfect way to spend a week.

We miss it already.

Since returning from the Pacific Northwest a couple of days ago, a few things are immediately apparent to me:

  1. It’s really humid here. The air has a physical presence that I hadn’t really noticed before. I’ve been out west many times, but never to the Pacific Northwest. Even places in the midwest like Michigan, Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio are incredibly humid in the summer. But not Washington. I’d forgotten how oppressive the humidity can be here on a daily basis. It sucks.

  2. The crickets and peepers are incredibly loud when the sun goes down. Whidbey Island is surprisingly absent of both, making it so wondrously quiet at night.

  3. People drive aggressively here in the northeast, and particularly in Massachusetts. It’s dog-eat-dog on the roadways, and blessedly so. Pacific Northwest drivers are the worst. So polite and deferential and observant of speed limits.

KZHaHYwATAGCValToWyGdw.jpg

I am not experiencing enough stress (at least according to others)

Important (and astounding) information on aging from NumLock:

Telomeres are protective caps that prevent damage to DNA. They also shorten each time a cell replicates, and when they get too short cells know it’s time to wrap it up and self-destruct. This plays a role in the aging process, and every year telomeres shrink by about 25 base pairs per year. Turns out that stress can seriously accelerate this process: first-year medical residents saw a decline of 140 base pairs, on average. Those who worked over 75 hours per week lost 700 base pairs.

Less stress equates to a reduction in aging.

This is very good news for me, as I tend to experience very little stress in my life. Why I experience very little stress is a matter of conjecture.

I’m sure that my daily meditation and exercise regimes help.

Perhaps I’m also genetically predisposed to less stress.

Maybe my aggressively optimistic nature protects me from the stress I might otherwise feel.

I suspect that perspective plays a role, too. Once you’ve been arrested for a crime you didn’t commit and subsequently become homeless while awaiting your trial, the problems of everyday life often pale in comparison. Add a couple near-death experiences and a violent robbery that led to decades of PTSD, and it’s hard to fluster me.

Here’s one other thing that I know:

There are people in my life who are often annoyed and even angry at my lack of stress. These are actual human beings who have told me (and others behind my back) that my lack of stress is inappropriate, frustrating, and ridiculous.

People have actually complained to me and others that I’m not experiencing enough stress.

I suspect that those people are aging rapidly.

stress.jpeg

My little girl is a storyteller

My family and I have been in Seattle for five days now, and it’s been quite the whirlwind.

In addition to playing golf, walking beaches, eating delicious food, and visiting with friends and family, I have also been doing a bit of work.

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting with a book club of about 17 ladies who had read a variety of my novels and nonfiction. The conversation was great, the questions were insightful, and I was once again renewed by the joy of spending time with serous readers.

On Friday night my friend, Plato, his daughter and my former student, and I attended a Moth StorySLAM in Seattle. It was just as fun and exciting as any StorySLAM in New York or Boston. Plato and I had the good luck to take the stage and tell a story - back to back - and I won the slam and Plato placed a close second.

Not the first time we have taken the top two spots at a StorySLAM.

On Saturday, I taught a storytelling workshop at the Taproot Theater in Seattle. Three dozen present and future storytellers gathered to learn some of the strategies and techniques that I have used for finding, crafting, and telling stories. It was thrilling to find such a vibrant and close knit storytelling community here in Seattle.

On Saturday night, I performed my solo show for a sold out audience in the same theater. I told five stories - all but one brand new and including a story that I had begun crafting during the workshop earlier that day. After each story, I offered some insight about the finding and crafting of the story in hopes that the audience would walk away with some strategies that they could use when telling stories.

It was a blast.

Just before intermission, Elysha also played her ukulele and sang in public for just the second time ever, and for the second time, she upstaged anything I did that night. She was sweet and charming, and she sounded beautiful.

And the kids sat backstage in the green room throughout the show, listening to the stories while pecking away on devices to keep them occupied. Just before Elysha played, they joined the audience to watch their mother do something hard and beautiful.

On Sunday morning, we traveled to Tacoma to attend a storytelling brunch called Homegrown Stories. Hosted by a storyteller named John and my agent, Taryn, folks enjoyed delicious food as names were drawn from a bowl and stories were told. I met a number of storytellers who I’ve only had the pleasure of knowing via our podcast and email, and I met some new folks, too. Clara and Charlie joined us, sitting at our feet and listening attentively. We heard stories about the challenges of running for office, hiring a professional cuddler, transitioning from female to male, and finding your husband back in middle school while writing a story together about monkey guts.

One storyteller had even told a story that used something I had done the day before in my workshop as the jumping off point.

But the moment I will never forget was when Clara took the stage before 30 or so adults and told her very first public story. She poke about being excluded from a game at summer camp, and though I am admittedly biased, her story was incredible. It was vulnerable and raw. It contained humor and suspense. She handled dialogue brilliantly. I had the good fortune of standing in the back of the room while she was telling, and I listened as the audience laughed, held their breath, sighed, and groaned at all the right moments.

Best of all, she stuck the landing. Her final sentences were perfection.

I hadn’t even known that she wanted to tell a story. I wasn’t sure how she would do. I worried that she might collapse in a bundle of anxiety and nerves.

Instead, she told a four minute story that was artfully crafted and expertly told.

I’ll never forget it.

This has been a glorious week, thanks in large part to our friends who have been kind enough to host us in their beautiful home and show us the town. But it’s also been a week filled with talk of books and stories, which has also been lovely.

But that moment when Clara stood before that audience and shared a story… that is what I will remember most.

I don't return stuff

I can count the number of things that I have purchased and then later returned in my entire life on two hands.

Maybe one hand.

I know that this makes me different from most people, but especially the Germans, who like to order stuff online and then return it at a rate unmatched by other Europeans. In 2018, a whopping 53 percent of German online shoppers returned an item.

This beat out the Dutch (52 percent), French (45 percent), Spanish and Italians (43 percent) and the British (40 percent).

Even those numbers seem enormous to me.

Here in my country, about 40 percent of Americans returned an online purchase last year. More than 8 percent of all purchases made online in America were returned. That is a lot of returned merchandise, and it doesn’t even begin to include the purchases made at brick and mortar stores.

28% of all Christmas gifts in America are returned.

I can’t say that these numbers surprise me because I’ve personally witnessed the plague of the returned item. I’ve seen and known people who seem to return half of everything they ever purchase.

I find all of this a little crazy.

I can count the number of items that I have returned in my life on one or two hands for a few reasons:

  1. I’m not terribly discerning. I have no attention for detail, so I often overlook flaws that others will see.

  2. When it comes to clothing, there is very little variance in my wardrobe or size. I wear the same things, so when it comes time to replace clothing items, I simply purchase the same things again. My waistline may be 34 or 36 inches depending on the number of cheeseburgers I’ve eaten in a given month and I might need the extra large version of certain tee shirts because of my large neck, but that’s about all the variance I need to worry about.

  3. I don’t concern myself with aesthetic imperfection. We purchased an outdoor grill, for example, which has a dent in it. We’re not returning the grill because it’s large and unwieldy but also because I don’t care if it has a dent. Years ago, when my brand new car was dented on day three by a child’s bike, I didn’t care because I knew the car would be dented eventually and a crease in the fender didn’t matter to me.

  4. I always factor in the element of time when deciding if something should be returned. If I purchase a $10 item online and am dissatisfied, how long will it take me to return that item? Will I need to package it? Label it? Drive to the post office? Wait in line? It might be better in terms of time and material costs to simply trow the item away or give it away rather than return it.

Money is valuable, and $10 is not nothing, but time is our most precious commodity. That fact is always in the forefront of my mind.

return.jpg

"They call me Matt" is apparently no good

At the very end of the song, “Light My Candle” from the Broadway musical Rent, Mimi and Roger exchange names.

Roger sings, “I’m Roger.”

Mimi responds, “They call me Mimi.”

Driving in the car, listening to the song the other day, I turn to Elysha and say, “I’ve always wanted to introduce myself to people like that. You know… ‘They call me Matt.’ What do you think?”

“No,” she said, flatly, immediately, and without an ounce of uncertainty.

I really like the idea, but I’ve learned that when Elysha is absolute in her opinion, she’s usually right.

Also, I had apparently brought up this idea in the past and received a similar response. More than once. Apparently I’m hoping for a change of heart that isn’t coming.

She’s probably right.

Still…

rent.jpeg

I am not a monster

Over the weekend, friends and I were discussing a recent revelation on social media:

There are couples in this world who do sleep on the same side of the bed every night.

When someone on Twitter revealed this last week - obviously a monster - Twitter went crazy. People couldn’t imagine choosing random sides of the bed each night.

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 6.23.04 AM.png

Some of their responses included:

“I know what all these words mean but can’t make sense out of how you put them together.”

“I just want to add my voice here by saying yes, this is weird, but I’m happy you weirdos found each other.”

“So you have to keep moving your pillows back and forth? Exhausting.”

“I plan on marching on London to end this nonsense.”

“I thought I was a tolerant and progressive sort. But you have found my limit. A stone throwing mob needs to run you and Amy far beyond the city walls before you spread this contagion.”

But for every thousand or so people who declared their allegiance to their side of the bed, there was the occasional person saying, “Yes, my husband and I also don’t have predetermined sides of the bed.”

The world is apparently filled with monsters.

While discussing this insanity, one of my friends said, “What about all the stuff you keep on your side of the bed? Doesn’t that alone force you to choose sides.”

“I don’t have anything on my side of the bed,” I said.

“Nothing?” she said.

“Nope.”

“You don’t have a single thing on your side of the bed?” another friend said. “A book? A glass of water? A phone charger?”

“Nothing,” I repeated.

“Not one single thing? C’mon.”

“It’s true,” Elysha confirmed. “He has nothing on his side of the bed. It’s weird.”

My friend concurred. They concurred far too vehemently for me.

Suddenly I understood how Steve O’Rourke must’ve felt.

For the record, it’s not weird. What the hell do I need on my side of the bed? I climb into bed every night - on my predetermined side - and fall asleep almost immediately. Then sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 AM, I awaken, often without an alarm, and I immediately climb out of bed.

What could I possibly need while I’m in bed?

I know. I probably sound like Steve O’Rourke now, except I bet that lots of people don’t keep anything on the side of their bed.

Right?

Bizarre coincidences are not so bizarre when it comes to storytelling

This past weekend, one of my stories was rerun on The Moth Radio Hour.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have eight stories appear on their show, and after every one, I am flooded by emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from listeners expressing words of appreciation.

Storytelling audiences are the best.

The story featured this week was about my father, my stepfather, and my time spent growing up in Blackstone, Massachusetts.

Yesterday, I exchanged emails with a listener who had an odd connection to me.

Like me, the listener grew up in Blackstone, MA, and was a friend of my late Uncle Harold. The two graduated together from the “old high school” on Main Street in 1967. That high school eventually became my middle school, and today it’s the site of the public library, where my high school friend now works.

Back in 1967, Blackstone was a tiny town where everyone was seemingly related, and she knew “everyone who lived on Federal Street,” which is where I grew up, too.

Later in life, the listener became the assistant manager of a group home in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. Her manager was my former step father, whom she and most of the staff reportedly (and rightfully) despised.

In addition to working for my former step father, she also went to elementary school with him at St. Charles Elementary School in the neighboring town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

My step father’s father was actually her family doctor when she was a small child.

Did you follow all that?

I told a story about growing up in Blackstone, Massachusetts with my father and then my step father.

Then a woman living on the other side of the country heard that story on the radio and just happened to know my step father (as both a child and adult), his father, my uncle, and everyone else living on the street where my father and I grew up, including, presumably, my father.

“Small world,” she wrote to me.

“No kidding!” I thought.

But this is not uncommon. When you tell stories to hundreds and sometimes thousands of people at a time, remarkable connections and ridiculous coincidences are uncovered.

I once told a story to a group of healthcare administrators about nearly dying in a snowstorm while driving my mother’s Datsun B210 on December 23, 1989. When I returned to my seat, one of the administrators sitting at my table (the organization’s President) told me (in stunned disbelief) that he was also in a serious car accident during that very same storm while also driving a Datsun.

I once told a story at a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn about an encounter with my elementary school principal when I was in third grade. Someone in the audience knew my former principal (who I had assumed was dead) and reconnected us. We’ve since exchanged many emails. It turns out that a new middle school was built on Federal Street, about half a mile from my childhood home, and it was named after him. Miraculously, he remembered me, my siblings, and also my father and his siblings.

These are just two of many bizarre coincidences and connections that I have experienced after telling a story. Happily,. the world is far more connected than we could ever have imagined. We just don’t see those connections unless we happen to be a storyteller with large audiences of generous listeners who are willing to reach out and make that connection clear.

As I said, storytelling audiences are the best.

I have no idea where my children get these ideas

During our visit to Massachusetts earlier this week, we stopped by John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Blackstone, which I attended in grades K-3. Our kids played on the same playground that I played as a kindergartener. We peaked into my old kindergarten classroom, played on some playground equipment that I played on as a little boy, and stretched our legs after a lot of driving.

At one point, the kids asked me to play “Police Officers.”

I agreed.

It was quickly determined that I was to be the police chief, doomed to a life spent sitting in his office at the top of the slide. Charlie would be my one and only police officer, to whom I would bark commands and await his return. Clara would be a variety of private citizens, bringing problems to me that Charlie would ultimately solve.

Bank robberies? Speeding cars? Cats caught in trees? I wondered what kind of problems Clara would bring to me. I wondered how Charlie might solve them.

I wonder if this was the kind of thing I played on this playground so long ago.

Clara soon arrived with her first complaint:

The school closest to her home was not allowing certain students to attend because of their disabilities. “I need you to integrate the school so all children can learn,” she said. “Okay?”

School integration. This was the problem that Clara brought to me.

Charlie immediately offered a solution:

“I think I need to replace that principal,” he said. “It sounds like he’s too mean. And he’s definitely the problem because he’s in charge. I’ll go find a better principal and fire the other one.”

Did you catch that?

Charlie’s solution to the problem amounted to a visit with Human Resources. No gun battle. No arrests. No suggestion of handcuffs or jail cells. Just a simple removal and replacement of the person responsible for the problem.

I couldn’t decide if my children were exceedingly brilliant or astoundingly boring.

Either way, I’m fairly certain that as a boy, I did none of these things while playing on this playground.

It's gone, and I couldn't be happier.

Elysha, the kids, and I went on a nostalgic road trip to Massachusetts yesterday to visit many of the places where I grew up. This was partly to show my family the places that they have only heard about in stories, but it was also to help inform a memoir that I have been writing about the years between 1989 and 1993, which contain some of the hardest, best, most eventful moments of my life.

One of our planned stops was the city of Brockton, where I once managed two separate McDonald’s restaurants in 1990 and 1992. Both were extremely important to my life. I met (and hired) the people who would ultimately rescue me from the streets when I was homeless in one of those restaurants, and the other was the location of an armed robbery in 1992 that left me with a lifetime case of post traumatic stress disorder.

I told the story of that robbery at a Moth Mainstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in 2016.

Though excellent therapy has mitigated and even eliminated many of the symptoms of my PTSD, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I think about that robbery multiple times per day, every day of my life. The experience of having a gun pressed against my head and the trigger pulled has changed me in many ways - some good and some bad - but the moment has always loomed over my life.

Oddly, this made the visit to my old restaurant stressful for me. Even a little frightening, though I know that makes no sense. Nearly three decades stand between that moment in 1992 and today, and yet, as I exited off the highway and drove into Brockton, I could feel my muscles tense.

At one point, I looked down to check the seat heater, assuming it had been accidentally turned on. I was sweating despite the AC running in the car.

Then something unexpected happened:

I couldn’t find the restaurant. I drove to the location that I have visited so many times in my dreams, and it wasn’t there. None of it. No restaurant. No gas station behind the restaurant. No triangular parking lot on the corner. Nothing.

We drove a little further - just a few hundred feet - and then I spotted a McDonald’s. A McDonald’s that looked nothing like the one where I had once worked. In the wrong place.

“Maybe I’m confused,” I thought. “Maybe I’m misremembering its location. Maybe they remodeled.”

We went inside, and I asked the manager about my old store.

“They demolished that store more than ten years ago,” he said. “It was down the road a bit, I think. Before my time. This store is pretty new. They wanted to move it closer to the high school. Get the kids as they leave school each day.”

I couldn’t believe it. The restaurant that had occupied so much of my mind for 27 years was gone. The front windows that the men broke with rocks to come inside. The counter that they leapt over. The walk-in cooler where the Haitian brothers hid during the robbery. The safe that I could not open. The greasy, red tile floor where I lay with a gun to my head.

All gone.

I know this is crazy, but my first, instantaneous thought was of a moment in the 1994 film Forrest Gump when Jenny stands before her abandoned childhood home - the home where her father had once abused her as a little girl - throwing rocks at it until she can’t throw anymore.

Forrest watches this happen and says, “Sometimes I guess there are just not enough rocks.”

When Jenny dies, Forrest has the home bulldozed to the ground.

All of that filled my mind. The house. The rocks. The bulldozer. In an instant.

Crazy. Right? I haven’t seen that movie in 15 years. Maybe more. I asked Elysha if she remembered the scene, which takes place over the course of less than 30 seconds of a 2 hour and 22 minute film. She did not.

I hadn’t thought about the scene in more than a decade. Probably two. Yet it came to me with perfect clarity.

It took me a moment to be sure that I was happy that the McDonald’s was gone. A piece of my personal history had been destroyed. Reduced to rubble and carted away. A place that I can see so clearly in my mind’s eye is no more, and I wondered if that might upset me. If it was somehow wrong.

jenny.jpeg

But it didn’t upset me one bit. In fact, I was happy. I got back into the car and told Elysha that it was good that the store is gone. It was good that those greasy, red tiles have been broken and pulverized and taken away.

I only wish that I could’ve seen it happen.

I’m certainly not cured of my PTSD just because that place is gone forever. I still expect to have nightmares from time to time, and I suspect that I will think about the robbery every day until the day I die. But knowing it’s gone is a good thing. The world seems a little less dark today. Like some shadowy corner of the universe has been wiped away.

It’s crazy. It’s just a place. A stupid restaurant that sells hamburgers. Yet there was a reason why I had not returned to Brockton for more than 25 years. Why I did not return alone. It was like that town was haunted for me. Now a little less so. Maybe a lot so.

We had a great day visiting the places where I grew up. Blackstone. Milford. Attleboro. Brockton. I had some other interesting experiences that I’m sure I will share. I remembered a bunch of stories that I will someday tell.

But driving to Brockton to find a McDonald’s where I once worked and then discovering that it is no more… that made the entire day more than worth it.

It made it a day I will never forget.

Toni Morrison helped me feel like I belonged.

As you probably know, Toni Morrison died this week. The world lost a literary giant.

I read every one of Morrison’s novels - mostly in college - and they frightened the hell out of me. I remember finishing The Bluest Eye and thinking, “Damn I’m never going to be able to write a novel if this is what novels need to be!”

Happily, it turns out that you don’t need to be as talented as Toni Morrison to have a publishing career.

Toni Morrison was also at the center of one of my most memorable academic achievements in college, including a question I have wanted to ask her for 25 years.

Now I won’t get the chance.

It was my second year at Trinity College, taking a class centering on literature by Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer. Over the course of the semester, I read every book that Morrison had published. Though it made for an intense reading list, I was enjoying the work a great deal.

We had just finished reading Morrison’s Beloved and were discussing it in class. As the hour was drawing to a close, questions about the ending of the book eventually arose. Specifically, the professor wanted to address the way in which the ghost of Beloved inexplicably explodes near the end of the novel.  She explained that she had never understood Morrison's decision in this regard and hoped to one day meet the author and ask her about that ending scene.

The exploding ghost had seemed a little odd to me as well, and my classmates agreed. We ended class on that note, leaving the issue unresolved.

Fifteen minutes after class, with the idea still rolling around in my head, I had an epiphany.  I was eating a cheeseburger in the cafeteria when an idea struck.  In an instant, I thought that I understood Morrison’s decision completely.

The next day I came to class and raised my hand.

“I think I know why Beloved explodes at the end of the book,” I said.

Okay,” the professor said, sounding dubious.  Why?”

“Think about Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred,” I said and then recited the poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

“Beloved represents a dream deferred.  A murdered baby who never became the child that her mother wanted. Morrison is eluding to what might happen when a a dream like this is deferred.  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?  No, says Morrison.  It explodes.”

There was a silence in the class for a moment, and then the professor’s eyes widened. She smiled and said, “I think you got it. My God, I think you got it.”

Sadly, I’ll never know.

Whether or not I am actually correct is this assumption, it was a wonderful moment for me. I was six years older than any of my classmates and managing a McDonald’s restaurant full time while also attending Trinity College full time.

Even in year two of my Trinity career, I still didn’t feel like I belonged. It was ridiculous, of course. I graduated in the top 10 of my class in terms of GPA and was doing just fine in every one of my classes, but when you’re in the midst of people who are so unlike you, it’s easy to feel like an imposter.

A moment like this made me think that maybe I could do this work after all. Maybe I really did belong.

And it made up for all those moments in Feminist Literary Criticism when my four other classmates, all female, were talking about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in lofty, literary terms and I was still unable to understand a single word of the damn book.

toni.jpg

You don't know people

We live in bubbles, Sometimes we create them ourselves. Sometimes they are dictated by geography, profession, and other mitigating factors.

Sometimes you’re not quite sure how your bubble even formed. For example, I don’t have any friends (or spouses of friends) who smoke, yet 14 percent of Americans smoke. This means that I have unknowingly excluded myself from 14 percent of America.

Granted I can’t stand cigarette smoke, so I’m content to occupy this bubble, but it’s not as if I purposely jettisoned anyone out of my life for smoking. Perhaps because of my profession and my geography, I have somehow managed to exclude smokers from my bubble.

But I think it’s important to remember that we live in these bubbles, and in doing so, we oftentimes fail to understand people occupying different bubbles.

When I was a student at Trinity College and St. Joseph’s University, for example, I was attending the most expensive and sixth most expensive schools in Connecticut at the time.

But I was also on a full academic scholarship, so I wasn’t paying any tuition. While most of the students around me come from affluent families, I did not.

St. Joseph’s University was also an all-women’s school at the time, and I was (and continue to be) a man, so my presence at St. Joseph’s was also unusual.

Also, prior to attending these schools, I had been homeless and awaiting trial for a crime I did not commit.

So although I didn’t really belong in any of these bubbles, I found myself existing within them nonetheless. One was almost exclusively white and wealthy, and the other was almost exclusively white and female.

But at the same time, I was managing a McDonald’s restaurant in Hartford. This created quite a contrast for me.

While working at McDonald’s, I was almost always the only white person working in the restaurant at any given time. Most of my employees were immigrants - primarily Mexican, Chinese, Peruvian, and Dominican. Many were poor and struggling to make ends meet. Most did not own a car, so I would drive throughout the neighborhood at 4:30 AM, picking up my morning crew and bringing them to and from work. I helped many of them with tasks like filing their taxes, reviewing school forms, making doctor’s appointments, and helping them find second and third jobs.

It was a period of my life when on any given day, I could be sitting alongside wealthy, white English majors in the morning, affluent young women in the afternoon, and then I might spend my evening flipping burgers with non-English speaking immigrant mothers from South America and the Caribbean.

It reminded me - so very clearly - that people living in relative proximity to each other can exist within vastly different bubbles. It also reminded me that when it comes to bubbles, the people occupying the most privileged bubbles are most likely to not understand the bubbles that other people occupy or not realize that they even exist.

But they do.

For example, here are a few statistics that might surprise you depending on the bubbles in which you live:

  • 11% of American adults do not use the internet.

  • 65% of high school graduates attend college following graduation and only a third of Americans hold a four year college degree.

  • Less than half of all American children attend preschool.

  • 37% of adult Americans don’t drink alcohol.

  • 27% of Americans work between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM at least once a week.

  • 3% of Americans are adopted.

  • 36% of Americans don’t drink coffee.

Some of these statistics probably surprised you. Some surprised me. But they served as excellent reminder that as commonplace as certain things may seem to me, they are likely to be far less common than I think.

And maybe you think.

bubble.jpg