The Today Show: Educational television at its best

I no longer wear a necktie unless specifically required to do so. They are ridiculous artifices of the past and literally (and perhaps figuratively) nooses around the neck of anyone who wears one.

If you enjoy wearing ties or like the look, more power to you.

If you are forced to wear a tie but despise them, my condolences. You take at least take solace in the fact that sales of neckties and the wearing of them have both been in a steep decline for the last 20 years. Like the hat that men once wore whenever they left the house, ties will one day be a thing of the past. 

In the past ten years, I have worn a necktie exactly three times: 

My sister-in-law's wedding (I was in the bridal party) and two weddings that I officiated and was specifically asked to wear a suit and tie.

But when I wore ties more often, when working in banks and managing McDonald's restaurants, I had to tie them daily. Oddly, I learned to tie a Windsor knot by watching The Today Show one morning when I was in high school. I happened to own exactly one tie at the time, and being a Boy Scout, I saw the segment as an opportunity to learn a new knot. I grabbed the tie, tossed it around my neck, and followed the steps described on television. 

Two minutes later, I was able to tie my own necktie.

Sesame Street taught me about community and the alphabet. 3-2-1 Contact taught me about science. But it was The Today Show circa 1988 that taught me a practical skill that remained useful to me for many years.   

Though I don't wear neckties anymore, I still tie them often for my students before graduation ceremonies, concerts, and school picture day. A small part of me hates to do it, feeling like I'm helping indoctrinate these kids into this bizarre and dying custom of wrapping patterned polyester around their necks because it supposedly looks good. 

Our President is a sex offender or pretends to be a sex offender.

I have many thoughts on this historic Inauguration Day, but here is one that I will carry with me for the next four years:

Our President - who has not released his tax returns and will violate the Constitution on his first day in office under the emoluments clause - has either admitted to being a sex offender or pretended to be a sex offender. 

If he did what he described, Donald Trump's name would be on a sex offender registry today.

If he was lying about his actions in an attempt to garner the approval of others, Donald Trump thinks that pretending to be a sex offender is an effective means of getting attention.

There is no third explanation for his behavior. It can only be one or the other. 

Donald Trump is either a sex offender or pretended to be one.   

Thankfully, the countdown to the end of his Presidency begins today.

A short-sighted and fairly presumptuous name

I've recently learned that Occidental College received it's name from the fact that it was the western-most institution of higher learning in the United States at the time of its establishment in 1887. 

Occidental (from the root occident) means "the countries or lands of the West" (in contrast to "Oriental," which implies countries or lands of the East).

This strikes me as a short-sighted and fairly presumptuous name, particularly since it is no longer the western-most institution of higher learning. 

Unless you are absolutely sure that no college will ever be established west of your position, naming your college based upon it's far western position is destined to look silly when someone builds something a block father west than you. 

I might know more about education than Trump's nominee for Education Secretary.

Betsy DeVos is Donald Trump's nominee for Education Secretary. Here are some facts that emerged from yesterday's Senate confirmation hearing:

  • She called the public school systems a "dead end" even though she did not attend a public school, did not send her children to public schools, and never taught in a public school. 
  • She has no experience with college financial aid- either from the personal or administrative side.
  • She does not understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • She doesn't know the difference between proficiency and growth as it relates to student learning (an important distinction and a major debate in education today).
  • She supports Trump's plan to rescind gun-free school zones and refuses to say that guns do not belong in schools.
  • She refuses to say that she will enforce the gainful employment rule - a law that prevents fake institutions of higher learning like Trump University from receiving federal dollars.
  • She claimed that her 14 year position as Vice President of family.org, an anti-LGTB organization, was a "clerical error."

I think we deserve a whole lot better than this.  

To her credit, she also acknowledged that the behavior described by Donald Trump on that bus with Billy Bush constitutes sexual assault. I'm sure that if pressed, she would attribute his bragging as "locker room talk" or some other nonsense, but at least she acknowledged that if it actually happened, Trump would be labeled as sex offender. 

The again, we all knew that already.

Unfair assumption #29: Football fans are more effective in emergencies

As we left the house last night, our 19 year-old babysitter was settling in to watch the end of the Atlanta Falcons - Seattle Seahawks playoff game.

She'd been watching the first half of the game at home before coming over.   

When I arrived home from the show five hours later, she was sitting in the living room, watching the Patriots - Texans playoff game. She was kind enough to turn the game off as I entered the house so I could watch it on tape delay (after ensuring that her father was recording it at home as well), but still, she was watching intently when I walked in the door.

Just so we are clear: She watched NFL football on her own for almost the entire time that I was gone.

I know it's entirely unfair to assume anything based upon her viewing preferences, but if the house suddenly caught fire, a bear clawed its way into our home, or the Russians invaded our town Red Dawn style, I can't help but think that this 19 year-old woman would handle the situation with ease.

Or at least more competently than the babysitter who spends the evening watching the Kardashians or The Family Feud.  

An unfair assumption to be sure, but it's a gut feeling that I can't help but think is at least a little bit true.  

When I explained my assumption to Elysha, she informed me that our babysitter is also attending Harvard University and is home on break.

Perhaps my gut instincts are more accurate than previously thought. 

Springsteen on parents (and perhaps a path to my salvation)

We honor our parents by carrying their best forward and laying the rest down. By fighting and taming the demons that laid them low and now reside in us. It’s all we can do, if we’re lucky.
— Bruce Springsteen

I have walked for a long time in the shadow of parents whose decisions I could not understand. Decisions that still hurt me to this day.  

I have been unable to find the forgiveness required to put the past behind me and move forward. Perhaps I never will.

But these words have perhaps shown me a path to that forgiveness. A means by which I can step outside that shadow and find some light.  Whether I can ever take those steps is still uncertain, but for the first time in my life, I feel like I can see the way. 

The best thing about my wife's family might surprise you (but shouldn't)

There's many things I love about the family that I have married into. 

  • Their absolute acceptance of me despite our many differences
  • Their support and encouragement of my teaching, writing, and performing career 
  • Their unbridled love for my children

There are also some quirky aspects of the family that I have grown to adore.

  • Their insistence of a full account of every one of my medical or proposed medical procedures (and their subsequent demands for a fourth opinion).
  • Their reverence for the morning-after-the-visit breakfast of bagels and locks (necessitating an overnight stay when I could've just as easily driven home the night before).   
  • Their need for gifts to be opened as absolutely soon as possible (once before I even removed my coat).

But the thing that appreciate about them most is perhaps this:

No one in my wife's family has ever proposed that we run a 5K on a holiday.

No Turkey Trots. No Ugly Sweater Runs. No Snowflake Shuffles. No Jingle Bell Jogs. No "Ringing in the New Year" Runs.   

I can't begin to imagine the agony and ruination of the poor soul who marries into a family who thinks that they best way to spend a Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year's Day morning is to drag their asses to some arbitrary starting line in the freezing cold to run alongside a bunch of equally brain damaged lunatics.

Sometimes it's the little things that matter most. 

Spare your parental advice unless you know how to give parental advice

If you're a parent of a child of any age, I would like to suggest that before you dispense with any parental advice to fellow parents, you carefully consider if you're qualified.   

Much of the advice that I am offered or overhear has one or two problems:

  1. It presents a bleak future. 
  2. It's often inaccurately bleak. 

Rather than talking about the joys that come with raising a child, so many parents seem hell-bent on assuring anyone who will listen that the diapers will be endless, the costs will only rise, the middle school years will be torturous, the high school years tumultuous, and you will be exhausted at all times. There will be talk of cracked nipples, late-night feedings, vomit and snot, never-ending carpools, and the inability to ever see a movie in a theater again. 

It's a lousy way to represent parenting to someone whose children are younger than yours or whose child has yet to be born.

No, lousy is not the word. It's a selfish and ignorant way to present parenting. It's despicable.  

Even if it were all true, it's still a rotten thing to do.

But it's also so often an inaccurate depiction of parenting, for one of two reasons:

1. It suffers from human being's tendency to remember the bad and forget the good. You go on a weeklong vacation to Bermuda and come home talking about the three hours spent on the runway when the plane needed repair or the lost luggage or the two days of endless rain, and you fail to mention (and sometimes fail to even remember) the five or six perfect days of sun and fun. 

The same thing happens with parenting. You stare into your baby's eyes and experience a love that you have never felt before in all your life. You rock your baby in your arms and become convinced that you could remain in this chair with your baby forever. You understand the meaning of bliss for the first time in your life.

Six hours later, that same baby vomits all over you. When someone asks the next day for parenting advice, you talk about cleaning up vomit instead of love.

I hear parents do this all the time. It's awful and unkind and unfair.  

2. The advice is also wildly inaccurate because parents assume that their experience will be everyone else's experience, when this is almost never the case. Every parent and every child is wildly different from the next. If every input is different, how could the output possibly be the same?

I was told by many friends, for example, that my children would invariably sleep in my bed for a sizable portion of their young lives, whether I liked it or not. I was told that it would be impossible for me to keep them off of my pillows. One of my friends became angry with me when I suggested that perhaps he didn't need to be sleeping in his kids' beds more than his own.

"You just wait and see," he said. "It isn't as easy as you think!" 

Today my kids are seven and four years-old, and other than about half-a-dozen late night bad dreams, neither child has ever slept in our bed. All of the doomsday advice that I received about sleeping - from many apparently well-meaning parents - was nonsense.

These inaccurate, self-assured descriptions of parenting are endless. 

I listen to the parents of teenagers warn the parents of infants about the hazards of social media, failing to realize that social media will be entirely different and probably unrecognizable in ten years.

I listen to them warn about nightly homework battles and restaurant temper tantrums and sullen. silent teenage boys. I hear about the pressures of high school and the ubiquity of drugs and alcohol and the battles with teachers over this and that.

I don't doubt that these things happen. But they don't always happen. Just because they happened to you doesn't mean they will happen to anyone else.

As a teacher for almost 20 years, it has become abundantly clear to me that children come in a multitude of varieties, and although the notion that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree is sometimes true, it's also true that parents and kids can also vary in surprising ways. The most capable, competent, consistent parent can raise the most challenging child, and the most ineffective, uninformed, inconsistent parent can raise the most respectful, responsible child ever.  

To think that your experience with your child will be like another parent's experience with another child is ridiculous. 

So if you want to give parents advice, here is what I suggest:

Be positive. When asked for general advice, I often start by telling parents that parenting is better than most people say or believe. I tell them to remember that whatever their child is doing to make them crazy is probably temporary. It will eventually be replaced by something equaling annoying, but children's behaviors tend to change rapidly. Don't think that anything is forever.  

I tell them to avoid the perils of the false threats. If you tell your child that you are going to do something, do it every time no matter what. Don't make promises you can't keep. 

I tell them to take as many photos as possible. Write down the hilarious and clever things that their children say when they are young. Drop everything and play with them whenever you can and every time they ask. I tell them to smell their child's hair and pick them up as often as possible while they still can. I tell them to invest in a self-rocking cradle and to remember that making mistakes is normal. It's exceptionally hard to break a child.

I don't tell them about the difficult times unless they ask, and even then, I try to keep it positive if possible.

Yes, my son spent two years biting Elysha, but eventually it stopped. And I was kind of jealous he only bit me once.

Yes, my daughter still won't eat a chicken nugget or any leafy vegetable, but she's growing like a week and as strong as a bull. She'll find her way.    

And yes, the two people in the world who I want to see more than anyone else - even when they are acting like rotten little brats - are my kids. I love them in a way I didn't think possible. It's glorious.

And yes, we're incredibly busy today. Hardly a free moment. But I put myself through college - a double major - while working 40-60 hours a week managing a fast food restaurant. I was once homeless and in jail. Tried for a crime I didn't commit. 

Busy? Sure. But this parenting thing is a hell of a lot more fun than anything I've ever done before. I'll take as much of it as I can get. 

This is what I tell parents. It's what you should tell parents, too.  

Speak about the joy. The laughter. The love.

If you have to speak of the vomit or the diapers or college tuition, find a way to be positive.

Either that or keep your mouth shut. 

How many phone numbers do you know?

The ubiquity of cell phones have caused people to stop memorizing phone numbers. Scroll through a list of names or start typing their first name and you can be calling a person in seconds. 

Many of my students don't know a single phone number save the landline at their home (if they even have a landline). In fact, as part of a basic skills test that I give kids every year, I insist on having them learn a back-up phone number in addition to their parent's number.

It led me to wonder what phone numbers I still know or can recall. There was a time when I knew the phone numbers of most of my friends and many of my family members. Dozens, I'd guess. Today there aren't nearly as many, and most of them are vestiges from a time before cell phones. 

  • The phone number attached to my childhood home (defunct)
  • The phone number attached to my first apartment in Attleboro, MA (defunct)
  • The phone number of the Milford, MA McDonald's where I once worked (still in operation) 
  • The home phone number of my best friend's parents in Milford, MA (still in operation)
  • The phone number attached to my first apartment in Connecticut (defunct)
  • The phone number attached to my first home in Connecticut (defunct)
  • The phone number of the Hartford, CT McDonald's where I once worked (still in operation)
  • My father's phone number (still in operation)
  • My friend Jeff's cellular phone number, memorized only because I use his name and phone number when renting golf carts in the event I don't return one someday (still in operation) 
  • My wife's cellular phone number (though it occasionally slips from my mind) (still in operation)
  • Our current landline (unfortunately still in operation)

Not many. 

I don't even include my own cellular number on the list because I often have to look it up. 

When I tell my students that I once had dozens of phone numbers memorized (as a means of berating them when they don't memorize their multiplication facts), they find this incomprehensible. 

Dozens of seven-digit combinations? They can't believe it. 

I almost can't believe it, either. 

The countdown begins...

In his first post-election interview with The New York Times, actor Alec Baldwin said that despite his contentious relationship with the president-elect, he does not "hate" Donald Trump.

“I’m a performer, an actor that’s here doing a show. It’s a great part," Baldwin said of his portrayal of Trump on Saturday Night Live. "I don’t hate him. I want him to enjoy his life. I just want him to not be the president of the United States — as quickly as possible.”

Baldwin added on Twitter, "We are not far from the day when the most reviled candidate in our history will become President. Unwanted by a significant majority of of voters. A man who has projected little other than an empty braggadocio and synthetic rhetoric about both his qualifications and plans, but Inauguration Day means the beginning of the countdown to when he will be gone. And he will be gone. January 20. The countdown begins." 

I like this sentiment a lot. 

This correction could only be found in a New York Times wedding announcement

I'm not a fan of the New York Times wedding announcements.

Based upon some number crunching by The Atlantic, it's clear that these announcements amount  to lists of white people who graduated from Ivy League schools, work as Congressional staffers, and/or work as elite attorneys.

Not exactly scintillating reading.

Not exactly folks in need of any more attention than they're already received in life.

There's actually a website designed to a searchable database of nearly 60,000 NYT wedding announcements from 1981 through 2016 that allowed you to plot n-gram frequency and visualize trends across 30+ years of nuptials.

The website creator's goal: The New York Times’s wedding section is a perfect natural experiment designed to answer the question: What do the world’s most self-important people think is important?

All you have to do is watch how phrases like "Prospect Park," "magna cum laude", "hedge fund," and "met at Harvard, Yale or Princeton" have soared in popularity in the last 10-20 years to know who you are dealing with in these announcements.

While this correction from an October wedding announcement is certainly not indicative of every New York Times wedding announcement, I suspect that it could only happen in a New York Times engagement announcement.

Best introduction ever

I find myself speaking on stages quite often these days. Prior to taking the stage, I am often introduced by a host of some sort, and the introductions are often quite lovely. Kind words, generous anecdotes, and long lists of accomplishments.

It's great to hear someone speak so highly about you in such a public way, but it can also be a little daunting. It sets a very high bar for my performance and raises expectations considerably.  

Sometimes a low bar is a very good thing. 

The best introduction I have ever received was for a TED Talk last year. A couple minutes before taking the stage, the emcee asked me how I wanted to be introduced. I said, "How about telling them that I'm one step above an idiot? Let's set a low bar."

I never thought she would listen to me. She had my bio in hand. But as she took the stage to introduce me, she said, "Our next speaker is Matthew Dicks. He describes himself as one step above an idiot."

It was perfect.

As I walked over to that classic TED red circle, the audience was already laughing. I had made them laugh without saying a word.

I had also demonstrated a combination of self deprecation and confidence that I know is appealing to most people.

Best of all, her introduction set a low bar. Rather than the bestselling novelist who has won 28 Moth StorySLAMs and was once named Teacher of the Year, I was just a regular guy trying to do a good job. 

My wife and in-laws were in the audience that day, and they questioned my choice of introduction, and rightfully so. When you love someone, you don't love hearing them referred to as "one step above an idiot," and it's probably not an introduction I can get away with again.

But for that one day, I couldn't imagine a better way to take the stage.   

This is the worst thing you can do to a storyteller

As a storyteller - and perhaps a human being - one of the worst things that can happen to me is for someone to doubt my story.

I have stood on stages all over the world and shared some of the most difficult and painful moments of my life. Embarrassing situations. Despicable decisions. Immoral acts. Heartbreaking, life altering events. And I've also shared the occasional triumph. Important revelations. Those tiny steps forward.

I don't hold back. I always share the truth. The uglier, the better. 

Nevertheless, five times in my life, someone has expressed doubt in one of my stories. 

At a Moth StorySLAM in 2014, I told the story of cheating in my high school's science fair and placing third, propelling me onto the state finals at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After leaving the stage, a man approached and said, "Good story, but I don't know if it's true." 

After telling a story at Speak Up about the time I taught my students to lie in order to win a school-wide penny drive, a man said, "Funny story, but I have a hard time believing it." On that night, my former principal - who played a key role in the story - was in the audience. I offered to bring the man to my former principal for verification, but he passed. Not surprising.

A magazine editor once rejected one of my stories, claiming that she doubted that my moment of revelation was as succinct and powerful as I made it out to be. 

I won't go into details regarding the other two incidents (though one story involves my best friend, who remains annoyed about someone doubting our adventure to this day), but rest assured that all five expressions of doubt cut me to the bone. Not only did they hurt me in the moment, but they lead me to wonder if they are just the tip of the iceberg.

How many more people out there doubt my stories?

People who take my storytelling workshops quickly understand how and why I have so many stories to tell. I teach strategies and exercises designed to find and develop stories from our lives. I've dedicated my life to finding these story-worthy moments, and as my wife is fond of saying, I am often able to turn many seemingly small moments into fully realized stories. 

I've also led a story-worthy life, which is not necessarily a great thing. I was homeless. Jailed. Arrested for a crime I did not commit. I went through a windshield. Died and was brought back to life following a bee sting. Rescued from a burning home by firefighters. I was the victim of a horrific armed robbery and an unprecedented attempt to slander my reputation and destroy by career. I have witnessed and experienced violence that most people only see on TV and film. I suffered through crushing poverty more than once in my life.  

It's not the life I would have necessarily chosen, but it is mine. It's my truth. It's me.  

So to doubt my stories is to doubt my life. To doubt my truth. Doubting my stories means that the struggle and pain and terror and embarrassment that I have suffered is called to question. It means that my scars - both physical and emotional - are irrelevant. That the vulnerability I am willing to brave onstage is meaningless.

It hurts. It hurts more than you could imagine. 

I have been to hundreds of storytelling shows, and I have heard a few stories that I doubt. Perhaps more than a few. But I always listen with an open heart and mind, and if I doubt the veracity of a story, I keep my mouth shut, because I don't know for sure. I will never know for sure. And I know how much it hurts to doubt a story that is true. 

It requires courage to stand on a stage and share your most private and painful moments.

It requires almost nothing to stab that storyteller in the heart with a dagger filled with doubt. 

It's only happened to me five times in five years, and yet each one of those expressions of doubt still hurts me today. I remember them like they are yesterday. 

It's hard to live a hard life and be told that you are not believed. It's no fun to work on a story for days, weeks, months, and even years, only to be told by someone that they don't think it's true.  

Words so rarely hurt me anymore. A lifetime of fight and struggle have blunted most of their power to me. But these words of doubt - these small moments of skepticism - are piercing and permanent to me.