I teach my students to collaborate. I believe that collaboration is a good and useful and a productive means of getting things done. It's good for people and the world and all of humankind.
And yet... doesn't this also seem ABSOLUTELY TRUE?
I teach my students to collaborate. I believe that collaboration is a good and useful and a productive means of getting things done. It's good for people and the world and all of humankind.
And yet... doesn't this also seem ABSOLUTELY TRUE?
You should write.
Regardless of your self-perceived skill or experience, you should absolutely write stuff and stick it on the Internet. This is what I have been doing for more than a decade. Every single day since 2005 - without exception, I have posted a thought or an idea or an observation to the Internet in the form of a blog post.
Many remarkable things have happened as a result of this.
My blog posts were also excerpted, misquoted, and presented out of context by a lunatic or a small group of lunatics in attempt to destroy my life and the lives of others, but that was a unicorn. An "impossible-to-believe of act of insanity" in the words of one attorney. A one-in-a-million disaster that could only happen to me.
It also resulted in a Moth story that won me a GrandSLAM championship and ended up being heard on the Moth Radio Hour by millions of Americans. Listeners reach out to me all the time about the story. It's become a story that the victims of hate-mongering, prejudice, and cowardly anonymous attacks listen to for solace, hope, and inspiration.
So it wasn't all bad.
Then there are the bizarre, the unexpected, and the unbelievable things that have happened as a result of writing stiuff and sticking it on the Internet.
Here are just a few:
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post advising Hillary Clinton to take certain strategic steps in her next two debates with Donald Trump. That post made it into the hands of a senior staffer on the Clinton campaign and was passed around. I don't know if Clinton herself read it, but I like to pretend that she did.
I have yet to be offered a speech writing job, but I haven't given up hope.
In June of 2010, a wrote a post about the Blackstone Valley sniper. When I was a child, a pair of men spent almost two years firing bullets into windows in my hometown and the adjacent towns, forcing us to turn out our lights at night and crawl under the picture window as we passed through the living room. We lived in fear for a long time. There was a total of eleven shootings from 1986-1987 (in addition to acts of arson and burglaries), and though no one was killed, four people were wounded in the attacks.
The two men guilty of the shootings were sentenced to prison in 1989 and were released on probation in 2008.
Five years after writing that post, the girlfriend of one of the shooters saw the post and wrote to me, complaining about my disparaging remarks about her boyfriend, who was turning his life around.
It was an interesting exchange of ideas.
In April of 2011, I wrote about my desire to become a professional best man. I declared myself ready and able if anyone needed my services.
Since I wrote that post, four grooms and one bride have attempted to hire me (scheduling prevented those bookings from happening), and a fifth groom actually hired me for his wedding but cancelled later on.
I've also been contacted by three different reality television producers about the possibility of doing a show in which I would be a professional best man at a series of weddings. None of these shows came to fruition.
In 2015, comedian Kevin hart wrote to me upon the release of his film The Wedding Ringer, in which he plays a professional best man. He acknowledged that it was my idea first.
In 2012, I wrote about my desire to find my first library book. I recalled a few details about the book - the color of the cover and a few details about the plot - but nothing terribly specific.
Two years later a reader correctly identified the book. It now sits on my bookshelf.
One day later, I was informed that she is 94 years old and still going strong.
By the end of that day, I had been given her home address by a reader. I sent her a letter last week telling her how much she meant to me and how I think about her every time I tie my shoes.
I'm waiting to hear back.
In a piece entitled Pain Is Silly! Be Prepared With Your Own Mini-Pharmacy, Slate's Mark Joseph Stern writes:
Why should you have to experience minor pain?
How about this:
The world is getting soft. Too soft. Also overmedicated. Overindulged. Coddled.
I attended college full time, earning two degrees simultaneously at two separate universities while serving as the Treasurer of the Student Senate, President of the National Honor Society, and columnist for the school newspaper. I did all this while managing a McDonald's restaurant full-time, working in the school's writing center part-time, and launching a small business that is still operating today.
Minor pain? Give me a break.
And I certainly wasn't the only one I knew who was doing everything possible in order to excel.
I had friends who worked two and even three minimum wage jobs in order to avoid living at home with their parents. I had friends who joined the military and fought in Operation Desert Storm for the sole purpose of paying for their college education. I had friends living three and four and five in a single bedroom apartment to make rent. My best friend graduated from Bryant University (with honors) with a degree in computer science and then took jobs as an assistant manager at a department store and an overnight cleaner at a fast food restaurant for almost a year until he finally landed a job in his chosen field.
These were not men and women who worried about minor pain. These were not soft people. These were not folks prone to medication in order to relieve a sore back, a wrenched knee, or a stubbed toe. These were individuals who stepped over pain and suffering and sacrifice like it was a meaningless, insignificant nuisance in order to make their dreams come true.
I like Mark Joseph Stern. I read his work in Slate quite often. I listen to him when he appears on their podcasts. He's an excellent writer and an interesting thinker.
But I am not a fan of this piece, nor am I a fan of his idea of carrying a mini-pharmacy wherever you go or medicating every minor pain you experience.
In Stern's own words, neither is anyone else.
Ironically, I'm a person who believes in being prepared for almost everything. My years in Boy Scouts drilled this habit into me. The trunk of my car contains a first aid kit, blankets, and an extra set of clothes. My backpack has office supplies that I will probably never use. I stock every type of battery in my home at all times. I have 20 gallons of water stored in my basement in case of an emergency.
But in a world where children are now wrapped in bubble wrap and treated like China dolls, where playground surfaces are made of rubber and the idea of turning off a cell phone for the duration of a movie is unthinkable, and where young people would prefer to live at home rather than work long hours at terrible jobs for terrible pay, a little bit of minor pain strikes me as something that we could use a little more of in this world.
There's a lot to be said in favor of toughness. Grit. Tenacity. Relentlessness. Resilience. Physical, mental, and emotional fortitude. The acceptance of struggle and hardship and pain on the road to success.
There is no room for mini-pharmacies on that road.
Grin and bear it. Accept a little minor pain every now and then. You'll be the better for it.
This is not meant at a slight in any way, but it strikes me that the men and women who play professional mini golf would fit perfectly into any one of my novels.
Charlie: Dad, you took off my pajamas, and then you put on other pajamas.
Me: Those are pajamas?
Charlie: Where's Mom?
I have no definitive favorite first line of a novel, though I am partial to the first line of Slaughterhouse Five:
"All this happened, more or less."
Also, Fahrenheit 451:
"It was a pleasure to burn."
Of all my books, I like the first sentence of Chicken Shack, my unpublished novel that will hopefully see the light of day someday, the best:
"They tried not to receive corpses on the same day as chicken, but since it was impossible to predict when a logger might fall from his bucket truck and break his neck, the two deliveries occasionally coincided."
I like to think that it works well because it’s unexpected and a little mysterious but contains enough specificity to make the initial image real for the reader. Why chicken and corpses would arrive anyplace on the same day is strange, but the specific image of the logger’s fall is enough to also establish the reader within the story.
At least I hope.
I also like the first sentence of Unexpectedly, Milo:
"The moment that Milo Slade had attempted to avoid for nearly his entire life finally arrived under the sodium glow of a parking lot florescent at a Burger King just south of Washington, DC along interstate 95."
Again, the sentence contains that combination of mystery and specificity that I like. The moment that Milo has been trying to avoid for his entire life is left undefined, but the setting is clearly established. In doing these two things simultaneously, I like to think that I both intrigue and ground the reader in the story at the same time.
However, this sentence was not originally the first sentence of the book. Prior to the addition of the prologue, this sentence appeared closer to the end of the book than the beginning. The original first sentence was:
"When he spotted the video camera the first time, sitting on the end of the park bench beneath the dying elm, Milo didn’t take it."
While I like the new first sentence better, this isn’t bad. The use of the phrase "the first time" lends an air of mystery, yet I again attempted to make the specifics of the scene (park bench beneath the dying elm) clear to the reader.
The first sentence of Something Missing reads:
"Martin opened the refrigerator and saw precisely what he had expected."
I don’t like this one nearly as much, but it accomplished the goal at the time. Compared with the other two books, I put in significantly less thought into the first sentence of Something Missing, but my intention was to begin with action, knowing how much of the story would take place within Martin’s head. I also revised the sentence much later to include the words precisely and expected, knowing how appropriate they are to Martin’s character.
The first sentence of The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs is a good one, too:
"Caroline Jacobs rose, pointed her finger at the woman seated at the center of the table reserved for the PTO president and her officers, and said it."
Truthfully, though, it's really the first paragraph as a whole that works well. The first sentence contains that same blend of mystery and specificity, but it works even better in concert with the four other sentences that make up the first paragraph.
The same holds true for Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. The first sentence is:
This is what I know:
My name is Budo.
This is the beginning of a list of nine things that comprise the opening page, and these items work well together. In fact, the last item is the sentence that hooked by editor when she was considering the book.
Sometimes a first paragraph is more relevant than a first sentence.
One of my favorite first lines of a book (and many people's first line) comes from Charlotte's Web:
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
It’s probably my favorite because author EB White appears to have the same goal in mind as I do when writing a first sentence. "Where’s Papa going with that ax?” is certainly intriguing, but White also firmly establishes character and setting in the second half of the sentence.
My wife’s favorite line is the classic line from Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
I recently attempted to challenge the merit this line, claiming that it may have a foundation in sexism, patriarchy, and materialism, but my wife threatened to go out to the shed and get Papa’s ax if I said another word.
But still, doesn’t it?
An alternative to this line can be found in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the retelling of the Jane Austin classic with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem!” Expectedly, the famous first line of Austin novel was re-written for this retelling:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.
No question of sexism there.
Do you have a favorite first line to share? If so, please do.
I despise these two words.
It's not that I don't say them, but when I hear myself saying them, I despise myself. I remind myself of how stupid I sound. I'll even apologize for them if the moment is right.
"Yeah, but.." is never good. It's a disingenuous agreement. An artificial attempt to move on. It's the language of those who cry over spilled milk. People who perseverate over past injustice. Individuals who are incapable of putting the unchangeable and implacable behind them and moving on.
It's also the language of the unaccountable. The complainers. The blamers. The finger pointers. Those who cannot give credit where credit is due. Those unable to acknowledge the wisdom or success of others. It's the blunted, ineffectual weapon of the jealous. The envious. The small minded.
"Yeah, but..." is also often a leap into an illogical argument. An unreasoned appeal. An emotion-riddled mess of verbal detritus.
No one likes a "yeah, but..." person. These people are the whiners of the world. They are the people who make bring moments of genuine productivity to a grinding halt.
Seek out the "yeah, buts..." in your own conversations and remove them whenever possible. Despise them as much as I do.
Make the world a better place.
Springsteen is an obvious musical genius. A brilliant writer and musician and performer. My favorite.
It also turns out that he also has the clearest of windows into my soul.
It's crazy that some people - mostly men - object to women breastfeeding in public.
Some of these people are downright despicable about it, making passive-aggressive comments to these mothers or aggressively chastising them for exposing some or all of their breast.
Their objections are inappropriate. Disgusting. Sexist. Stupid. Narrow minded. Ignorant. Inane, Cruel.
None of those are unfair assumptions. They are simply facts.
But it's perhaps unfair to assume that the people who object to public breast feeding are small minded ignoramuses. Mealy-mouthed twits. Unlovable cretins. Stupid, friendless losers. Creepy slime balls. Worthless bags of beaver dung.
One or two of those might be unfair. Maybe.
Two or three years ago, this prototype of a bike helmet would have meant nothing to me. I didn't grow up with Playmobil toys. I wouldn't have even recognized this as Playmobil hair.
Now my house is filled with these tiny, plastic things. In fairness, most of them have been purchased by my seven year-old daughter, who diligently saves her money and buys purchases them for herself.
Despite the fact that I step on Playmobil pieces all the time, this bike helmet does not appeal to me. It's clever and amusing, but I would never consider wearing it.
I hate bike helmets anyway.
But the Internet went crazy over this helmet last week. People clamored for it to move beyond the prototype stage and onto store shelves. Adults dreamed of a day when they could wear a helmet just like this as they ride down the street.
I thought they were a little crazy, but I also understood.
I think that some things - toys, foods, books, movies, specific places - become a part of us as children and never leave. They become infused with our DNA and maintain a powerful hold on us for the rest of our lives.
For me, it's canned cranberry sauce. The Twilight Zone. Yawgoog Scout Reservation. Star Wars. Treasure Island. The Atari 2600. The New York Yankees. Whiffle ball. Not wearing a bike helmet.
These are just a few of the passions of my childhood.
But if we miss out on the opportunity to interact with these things as kids, it's much harder to understand or feel the same level of attraction to these things later on.
There is something about childhood that makes things bigger and brighter and better. More permanent, too.
Playmobil didn't play a part in my childhood. The toys existed, but I can't recall ever seeing a single Playmobil set or even watching a Playmobil commercial on TV. For me, it's just a helmet. A weird looking helmet.
It might mean something more to my daughter, though. She may love it someday. She may become one of those crazy adults clamoring for its existence beyond the prototype.
That said, this video on how the helmet was made was pretty fascinating.
I spent last weekend in the company of Elysha's 94 year-old grandmother. We call her Nana, and I always love speaking to her. In the midst of our chat, I was reminded of a conversation Nana and I had a couple of years ago.
Nana told me about a game that she had played with friends called "How Poor Were You?" Players were challenged to provide evidence as to the extent of their poverty at some previous point in their life, and accolades were given to those who could prove themselves to have been the most poverty-stricken.
The game wouldn't have gone well during our visit, as I suspect that Nana (who grew up during the Great Depression) and I were the only people present to ever feel the sting of real poverty, but it sounded like a fun game just the same.
But I also recall that Nana said something to me in the midst of this discussion that I understood fully, and something that I do not think those who have not experienced poverty could ever truly understand. She said, “We were poor, but there were times when it was fun to be poor. You had to be really creative to survive, and to even eat, and there’s a certain joy in that.”
I couldn’t agree more. There have been times in my life when I was barely able to feed myself, but it was often fun trying to do so.
So in the spirit of "How Poor Were You?" I thought I’d offer some of my poorest moments here.
From kindergarten through high school, I was eligible to receive free breakfast and free lunch from our school system, and during the summers, I also received free lunch from the park service. I can recall enormous blocks of WIC (Women, Infants and Children) cheese being delivered free-of-charge to my home for much of my childhood, and there were days, and perhaps weeks, when this cheese made up a good portion of my diet.
I received my first pair of snow boots at the age of nine after many New England winters spent in tennis shoes wrapped in bread bags.
After high school my roommate and I were so poor that we could not afford to turn on the heat in the winter. We would eat boxes of elbow macaroni (5 for $1) and sit under blankets together on the couch, huddled to keep one another warm while we watched The Simpsons on an ancient black-and-white television set atop an old baby-changing table. The apartment was so cold that the pipes burst in the bathroom and we could routinely see our own breath.
After being homeless and living in my car, I was taken in by a family of Jehovah Witnesses who allowed me to share a converted pantry off the kitchen with a guy named Rick (who spoke in tongues in his sleep) and their indoor pet goat. I did this for almost two years.
I like to think that these challenging times in my life helped to make me the person and the writer that I am today. The constant, almost daily struggle, the need for persistence and perseverance, and the opportunity to experience a varied range of the human condition, from hunger and near homelessness to enormous success and accomplishment, have equipped me with a vast storehouse of memories, experience and understanding from which I can draw.
Sometimes I feel sorry for the people who were born into relative comfort and ease.
Nana was right: Being poor can be fun.
Anyone else experience poverty in their lifetime?
If so, want to play "How Poor Were You"?
There's nothing wrong with an adult drinking white milk.
Nothing at all. Truly.
Still, it just seems so wrong to me. Insanity, really.
I have been teaching at the same elementary school in West Hartford, CT since the fall of 1999. The way that this school and its people have become intertwined in my life astounds me.
Just over the course of the Columbus Day weekend:
Eleven different people in all over the course of four days.
Sometimes a job is just a job. You come and go. Make a friend, perhaps. Eat lunch with coworkers. Share cake in break rooms to celebrate birthdays. You might go home and tell your spouse about so-and-so at work, but the relationships rarely extend beyond the walls of the workplace.
But sometimes a job becomes a part of you. The people who you work with become a part of your life and your soul. They become embedded in all that you do.
They are some of the most important people in your life.
I'm not sure if it's the nature of teaching or the length of time that I have spent in one place or simply the extraordinary people with whom I have worked and whose children I have taught, but many of the most important people in my life were met under the roof of my school.
Teachers. Parents. Students.
I often marvel at how different my life would be today had I not been hired for a teaching job at my school on a morning in May almost 20 years ago.
I have a friend who approached me a couple weeks ago and said, "Do you know why Michael Jordan never endorses political candidates? Because Democrats and Republicans both buy shoes."
He went on to say that he was surprised that I was writing so many politically-minded posts when I have books to sell. "Everyone reads," he said. "Democrats and Republicans."
I understood his point. While I always stand on a platform of authenticity and extreme honestly, I have been more politically minded on my blog this year than any other year before, but I explained to my friend that this election cycle is different. These are not two serious-minded, highly qualified people with differing opinions about the direction of our country. Donald Trump is the first candidate in my lifetime who was not fit to hold the office of President (or any position in government). If I did not speak out against this ignorant, racist, misogynist in order to sell a few more books, I couldn't live with myself.
This is why I am so disappointed in Tom Brady, who was asked by a reporter yesterday how he would respond if his children heard Donald Trump's version of "locker room talk."
Brady thanked the reporters and stepped away, dodging the question completely.
My hope is that Brady refused to answer the question because it required him to speak about his children, and he often avoids questions related to his family. Perhaps today a reporter will simply ask, "What did you think of Donald Trump's version of locker room talk?" and he will answer.
I hope so. But I also know that Brady and Trump have been friendly over the years. My fear is that he dodged the question because of their previous and perhaps ongoing relationship.
I hope not. I love Tom Brady and expect a hell of a lot more from him.
I wish more athletes would speak out against Trump's attempt to excuse his claims of sexual assault as "locker room talk." I wish every athlete in the world would.
I realize that they all have shoes to sell and games to win and fans to appease, but there are times in life when you must stop caring about the dollar and start caring about this country.
About the perception of how men behave in private.
About the way we want our sons to speak about girls and women.
About what constitutes sexual assault.
In November of last year, I told this story about my high school sweetheart at a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to have the story air on the Moth Radio Hour and their podcast a couple months later. I can't tell you what a honor and thrill that is.
I hear from listeners all the time about the stories that have aired on the radio and podcast - at least a few emails each week - but this is the story that people contact me about most often by a wide margin.
In my 18 years of teaching, I have been insulted by students in countless times in countless ways. Playful banter, of course, never meant to hurt and often in response to my own purposefully amusing hubris and declarations of supremacy,
Basically, I walk around, telling the kids how great and powerful I am and allow them to respond accordingly.
It's actually an ideal strategy for bringing the more introverted students out of their shells. These are kids who have so much to say and are often funnier and more clever than their classmates have ever seen because they have such difficulty finding doorways into conversations, discussions, and debate.
In an attempt to open one of those doorways, I offer these kids a large target and permission to fire away. They often charge right through. I cannot tell you how many formerly "quiet" students have opened up and become leaders in the classroom by first finding ways to tease me, mock me, and insult me in the spirit of humor and friendship.
It's also an effective way of bringing a class of students together by providing them with a common enemy. The enemy happens to love them and want them to succeed, and my bluster is meant to be more entertaining than sincere, but the kids quickly see me as someone who must be defeated, and they rally around each other as a result.
In eighteen years, you can imagine that I have heard a great many things from students as a result. One of the best pranks ever played on my by a student became a story that I told on This American Life. Others have become stories that I have told on stages for The Moth, including stories involving an endless supply of raisins and a betrayal under the stars that will never be forgotten.
But last week, I think I heard the greatest insult of all time from a student.
With the utmost of sincerity, this young lady looked up at me and said, "Mr. Dicks, I'm just curious."
I leaned in. Curiosity. A quality I want every student to possess. How exciting.
"When you wash your face, how do you know when to transition from face soap to shampoo, since you have so little hair left and it's hard to see where your forehead ends and the top of your begins. It's all one big patch of skin.?"
She pulled me in with her expression of curiosity and her dripping sincerity, and just as I was open and ready to respond, she stabbed me in the heart with her words.
I was so impressed.
In the past four years, in addition to working with the hundreds of storytellers who have performed in our Speak Up shows, I've also been working on a fairly regular basis as a coach for other types of public speakers.
I've assisted people with TED Talks. Helped corporate types prepare presentations. Advised professional storytellers and other performers and writer in the polishing of their material. Guided managers and other leaders in crafting memorable speeches and effective messaging.
Last week I wrote a piece advising Hillary Clinton on debate strategy that actually found its way to campaign staffers.
I'm still awaiting a job offer from the Clinton camp.
In all the time I have been coaching people, one thing comes up again and again that makes no sense to me:
People tell me that they rehearse their stories and speeches in front of a mirror.
I am always baffled by this statement.
Why a mirror? When you're standing onstage, speaking to an audience, you're never looking at yourself. You're looking at other people. In fact, the only person in the room who you can't see and will never see is you.
The only place in the world where you shouldn't rehearse is in front of a mirror. It's the only time that you are guaranteed to be seeing something that you will never see while speaking.
Not only will practicing in front of a mirror not help, but I suspect that it might actually hurt your performance. The very last thing you should be worried about while speaking is what you look like. It's your words, your inflection, your tonality, your ease of speech, and your choice of vocabulary that matter. The tilt of your head, the twinkle in your eyes, and the angle of your smile are all irrelevant. If you're thinking about your appearance while speaking, you're not dedicating all of your concentration to the one thing that matters.
Storytellers often ask me what to do with their hands when performing. My answer:
Nothing. Let them be. Allow them to do what they will do. If you're thinking about your hands, you're thinking about the wrong thing.
Mirror practice only encourages attention on your physical appearance. Don't do it. Practice in front of anything but a mirror. You have a greater chance to seeing a Canadian goose than you have of seeing yourself while you're speaking. Instead of a mirror, practice in front of other people. Or in front of pictures of other people. Or a wall. Anything, really. Anything but you.
Why would you practice doing something in a way that will never happen in real life?
Note: The one exception to this rule is if you are performing at Oberon in Cambridge, MA. There is a large mirror behind the bar at the back of the theater, so you can see yourself fairly clearly. It's awkward and disconcerting the first time you notice yourself, staring back at you, so perhaps in this one and only time that practicing in front of a mirror makes sense.
My latest humor column in the fall edition of Seasons magazine published this weekend. You can read it online here if you're not lucky enough to receive home delivery.
Scroll to the back page of the magazine.
Very apropos subject as Tom Brady returns to the field today to take on the Cleveland Browns.
For the first time in one of these humor columns, my friends Matt and Tony make an appearance.
I'm sure they're thrilled.
I have been in many locker rooms and on many golf courses over the course of my life. I have worked in fast food restaurants and diners and on construction sites. I have attended hundreds of college parties. I have been poor and homeless and lived on the streets.
I have never heard a man speak like Donald Trump on the recently released Access Hollywood recording.
Not a friend or an acquaintance or a stranger. Not once. Not even close.