The ineffectiveness of signage

A rule of signage that people don't seem to understand:

Signs only work on people who obey signs.

I worked with teachers this summer who wanted to hang signs on campus to enforce rules that they already had the power to enforce. Parents who were visiting the school weren't adhering to the limitations outlined during orientation, so the teachers wanted signs so they could point to something in the event they were required to act as an authority figure. 

As if a sign would abdicate them of any responsibility and therefore eliminate any potential confrontation. 

"Sorry, sir. You can't be in this building. It's not me. It's the sign."

"Apologies, ma'am. But did you see the sign? It says you can't be here."

I tried to explain that parents already understood the rules and were purposely violating them. The signs weren't telling these parents anything they didn't already know. Therefore, additional signage would not change behavior. 

Human intervention was required.

I know this because I am not a rule follower. If I see a rule as arbitrary or ridiculous or unfair, I often disobey the rule. I plow through signs quite often. For people like me, a sign is irrelevant if we do not agree to the rule stipulated on the sign. A sign is merely a suggestion about how the world should operate, but if that vision of the world strikes me as unnecessary, inefficient, arbitrary, or a hindrance to the way I think the world should operate, a sign is not going to stop me. 

The authority behind the sign may alter my behavior. The parking ticket or the air marshal or the social pressure applied by friends or colleagues may convince me to adhere to the rules, but a sign?

No.

When people are knowingly disobeying the rules, signs will rarely stop them, and they do not afford an ounce of backup or support to the person required to enforce them.

As a person who has accepted the responsibility of your position, you must enforce the rules. You must confront people like me and explain the expectation is and the potential consequences of failing to meet these expectations. I know that for some of these teachers, that would be hard. An annoyed, angry, or entitled parent is not pleasant. Confrontations aren't always fun. 

But when you accept the job, you accept the responsibility that comes with it. 

Signs won't do your job for you. Nor will they offer any support when you're dealing with someone like me. Decent people who are also rule breakers will often abdicate in the face of authority. If pressed on the issue, we will usually alter our behavior.  

But not always.

I was photographing the menu outside the cafeteria at Kripalu, hoping to send it to Elysha so she could tell me what to try (since I recognized nothing on the menu). As I was snapping my photo, a woman approached.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But this is a cellphone free floor."

I considered debating her on the subject. "Listen, if I had a camera in my hand right now, you'd have no complaint. So can we just pretend that this is just a camera for a moment? I'd like to take a photograph of your menu and send it to my wife so she can tell me what I might want to try, since I don't know recognize anything on your menu. I'm a heathen. A man child. Uncouth."

Instead, I asked, "Are you going to take my phone away if I keep using it?"

"No," the woman said, looking befuddled.

I smiled. "Then I'm going to keep using it for a minute or two."

Never tell a rule breaker that there is no consequence to breaking a rule.  

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A possible (though not advised) replacement for heart medication

I spent a week at Kripalu Institute for Yoga and Health last week, teaching storytelling to a dozen remarkable people. 

On Tuesday night I performed my one-man show, and on Thursday evening, ten of the storytellers from class took the stage and performed.

It was an extraordinary night.

One of my storytellers had not spoken to a group of people in more than 15 years after suffering a terrible embarrassment in high school. Just standing in front of 50 people was an enormous accomplishment for her. I felt so honored to give her the space and support to help her conquer this enormous fear.

Then she proceeded to make the audience roar with laughter with a hilarious and moving story about her childhood. It turns out that she's a storyteller. 

Several of the storytellers stood before this audience of strangers and told stories about parts of their lives that they had never shared before. Hard parts. Haunting parts. The parts that require more bravery to tell than most people can muster.

There was laughter and tears. Gasps and guffaws. Hilarity and heartbreak. There were lines that I will never forget. "Golden sentences" one of my storytellers dubbed, and she was right. It was 90 minutes of beauty nestled in the quiet mountains of the Berkshires. It was dark outside, but each storyteller shone bright that night. 

After the show, a man approached me. He reached into his pocket, removed a small container, and held it out for me to see. He explained that he suffered from a heart condition, and this was his nitroglycerin. The medication he needed if his heart started "acting up."

"But I feel like I should throw this away," he said. "My heart doesn't need medication. It needs what you did on Tuesday night and these people did tonight. I've listened to all these stories, and my heart hasn't felt this good in twenty years. This is what people need. This is what I need."  

I suggested that he keep the nitroglycerin close in the event a storyteller is not available when his heart started "acting up" again, and he agreed. 

But he was right.

Stories are good for the heart and good for the soul.

Thoughts on hiring

I think we should hire people for any and all jobs using the following procedure:

1. Interview the last five people who served the candidate in a restaurant. Inquire about how the candidate treated them over the course of the meal.

2. Interview the candidate. Ask the following questions:

  • Please explain the Bill of Rights to your best ability.
  • Tell me about the last three books you read.
  • Tell me about one goal or aspiration that you have yet to achieve. 
  • Are you a good person?

Unorthodox but effective, I think.

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Tyrion Lannister got it right.

It's hard to acknowledge your privilege when you've enjoyed it for your whole life.

It's even harder to admit that your success is very much the result of that privilege, and that your self-perceived story of hard work, sacrifice, discipline, and skill might be entirely different absent your privilege of race, nation, gender, socioeconomic class, or health.

Someone who has been listening to me stories this week said to me, "It's amazing that you've come so far given where you once were."

I replied, "I'm a healthy, intelligent, white man in America. Even with the misfortune that I've suffered in life, I was already hugely advantaged from the get-go. Change the color of my skin or my gender or stick me in a third world country, and my story is probably very different. My path might have been hard, but it was a hell of a lot easier than most people of the world."

It seems to me that there are a segment of people in America today who enjoy the same or similar privileges but refuse to to recognize their good fortune. They feel like victims rather than the benefactors of a lottery that afforded them enormous privilege. They fail to see that the struggle of others is in large part the result of institutions that make their path more difficult because of their race, gender, or country of origin.

It made me think of these words, spoken by fictional Game of Throne's character Tyrion Lannister:  

This, too, shall pass.

We spent last week in Washington, DC. We visited with good friends, ate good food, toured the museums and the monuments, and had a grand time.

What I will always remember about this trip, however, is the way my daughter's insatiable curiosity, her incessant reading, and her mother's influence have transformed her into a student of the world.

Clara loves Clara Barton. This love began with the name they share, but it quickly grew into a genuine interest and love affair with this woman. She's read several books on Barton and can detail her life history if you have about an hour.

The Clara Barton home is coincidentally just a couple of miles from our friend's home, so we stopped to visit. We were sad to discover that the house is closed. Though it's designated as a historic site (it was also the first headquarters of the Red Cross), it's in disrepair, and it doesn't look like it will be open anytime soon.

We went to look at it even though we knew it was closed, planning on taking a photo of Clara standing outside the house. Instead, we were met by three men who were inspecting the building, and one offered to bring just Clara and Elysha inside. He gave them a private tour of the home, and he and Clara exchanged Clara Barton tidbits.  

It was almost better than the house being open to the public. Clara was the first child in a long time to enter the home, making the moment for her very special.

Later that evening, we were touring the FDR monument when Clara spotted a statue to Eleanor Roosevelt, a remarkable politician in her own right. Clara began spouting facts about this female American icon as well, but she also asked at least twice as many questions. 

We ended our tour of the monuments that evening at the Lincoln Memorial. Having lived in DC for six months, I'd visited this monument many times, but it was just as awe inspiring this time.

My son, Charlie, couldn't believe that we were allowed to step inside. He asked an endless stream of questions about the architecture and Lincoln himself. 

Elysha and Clara sat down in the north chamber so that Elysha could read her the Gettysburg Address aloud.

It's easy in today's political climate to become despondent over all that we see. It's not hard to lose hope and perhaps think that our country is spiraling in the wrong direction.

I am not immune to these sentiments from time to time, and I am an optimist and an anti-alarmist. 

But my trip to Washington renewed my spirit.

Abraham Lincoln led our country through the Civil War. Millions of Americans died on American soil in a battle for the future of our union.

Clara Barton served as a nurse during the Civil War. She witnessed horrors beyond imagination in a time when women did not have the right to vote and lacked many of the basic rights and privileges enjoyed by women today. 

Eleanor Roosevelt helped to lead our country through the Great Depression and World War II. 

These were some of America's most challenging times.    

Yet here we stand today. Our country persists. 

The not hard to imagine the despair that Americans must have been feeling during the times of Lincoln, Barton, and Roosevelt. I must have been easy for those men and women to lose hope in the future of their country. 

Yet they fought. They battled. They persisted. Just like we will.

My greatest hope comes from the wide-eyed, insatiable curiosity of my children and their inherent desire to, in the words of Abigail Adams, do good and be good. 

Lincoln, Barton, Roosevelt, and their generations of Americans faced enormous, almost unimaginable challenges, and they won. They preserved and protected this nation for future generations. 

Just like I know we will, for Clara, Charlie and their future generations. 

I don't sleep like a robot. Or Frankenstein. Do I?

I'm teaching storytelling at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health this week. 

This morning, I returned to my room to find a note from housekeeping:

"You don't need to make the bed."

I laughed. I didn't make the bed. When I went to sleep last night, I climbed onto the bed and simply fell asleep atop the sheets and blanket. It was a warm, summer night, so I had no need to slide beneath the covers.

When I woke up in the morning, I was still in the same position, lying flat on my back in the center of the bed. I stood up, leaving a perfectly made bed behind me.

I told some people in my workshop about the note, and they looked at me like I was a monster.

"You just fell asleep on top of the covers?" one woman asked. "Who does that?"

"I can't fall asleep if I'm not under the covers," said another.

"What kind of monster are you?" a third asked. 

There were mentions of Frankenstein as well, and one person suggested that I might be a robot. 

I really didn't expect this reaction. 

I've always been able to fall asleep this way. At summer camp as a boy, I often slept atop my sleeping bag because of the heat. I've taken naps at work when I was sick by lying down on the carpeted floor and falling asleep during my lunch hour. When I was homeless and living in my car, I slept on the backseat, where blankets and sheets were impossible. 

Is this really as strange as the folks in my workshop made it seem?

Religious folk shouldn't be filled with so much hate

A waitress with a pro-LGBTQ tattoo received this note from a customer. 

I realize I am a reluctant atheist, but in my lifetime, I have read the Bible from cover to cover three times (which is more than many ardently religious people), so I am familiar with the teachings of Jesus. 

And yes, while it would admittedly run counter to everything Jesus taught, I am fairly certain that he would at least want to punch this bigot in the nose for invoking his name in support of intolerance and hate.  

I like to think that even Jesus had his limits.

Heather Heyer: Patriot and hero of the first order

Her name was Heather Heyer.

She died when a car with an Ohio license plate rammed into a crowd near Charlottesville's downtown mall after the rally at the city park was dispersed. Heyer was one of the counter-protesters marching in jubilation near the mall after the white nationalists dispersed from the scene.

Heather Heyer went to Charlottesville to stand against torch-wielding, gun-toting, Nazi flag flying white supremacists who were there to protest the city's decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the Emancipation Park.

Now we know whose statue should replace the traitor and racist Robert E. Lee: 

Heather Heyer, an American patriot and hero who stood against hate, intolerance and violence, and paid the ultimate sacrifice so our country could be free and safe for all. 

Teachers: Writers never write one thing at a time. Stop ruining children.

When asked how to combat writer's block, my answer is always the same:

If you have writer's block, you don't have enough writing projects. 

My list of writing projects currently includes:

  1. A novel under contract
  2. A nonfiction book under contract
  3. A middle grade novel under contract
  4. A piece for Parents magazine
  5. A piece for Seasons magazine
  6. A picture book
  7. A letter to my father
  8. A daily blog post
  9. A screenplay

How could I possibly suffer from writer's block with this many projects underway. Stuck on one? Move to another.

While teaching a group of about 30 middle and high school students this summer, one of the students asked if it would be okay if she started something new.

"Of course," I said. "But why are you asking me for permission?"

The young lady explained that her teachers insist that she and her classmates finish one writing project before moving onto the next. 

"That's crazy," I said. 

"My teacher does the same thing," another student said.

"Me, too," said another.

My head hit the desk. More than three-quarters of the students reported suffering from similar restrictions, which is, of course, stupid.

I know many writers, but I have yet to meet a single one who is only working on one project. While my list of projects is admittedly longer than most, every writer has at least one project on the side, oftentimes in another genre. 

I can't imagine telling a writer who is suddenly excited about a new idea to finish their current project before trying something new. That is truly one of the stupidest teaching decisions I can imagine. 

There's nothing wrong with deadlines.

"I need that essay done by the end of the month."
"You must hand in three poems by Wednesday."
"Your research paper is due at the end of March."

But to expect that students will work on that one project until the due date is an outstanding way to kill any love that students will develop for writing. It places classroom management ahead of creativity, choice, executive functioning, and an authentic writing process.

I've said it before:

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. 

If you never do it in real life, can you expect to teach it to novices?

If teachers were writing, they would understand the need to have multiple projects in a writer's life. They would understand the insatiable excitement of a new idea. The need to turn away from a project when enthusiasm wanes. The ability for writers to manage more than one writing project at a time.  

I felt so much sympathy for the two dozen or so students who said that they would returning to classrooms in the fall where they could only write one thing at a time. I told them to rise up. Declare their writing independence. Insist that their needs be met. Demand to be treated like writers. 

I also gave them my phone number. "If your rebellion fails, tell your teacher to call me. I'll see what I can do." 

I'm expecting a lot of phone calls.

So many jokes. Such little ears.

Elysha and I brought the kids to Action Safari this weekend. Stretching the meaning of the words "action" and "safari," this attraction features a taxidermy museum that made me sad.

Even worse than the enormous number of stuffed animals was the moment Clara called out, "Daddy, what's a dik dik?"

You can imagine my confusion. 

It turns out that Clara was reading a plaque about an African antelope called a dik dik. 

Sadly, no adult was present to take pleasure in the enormous number of jokes that filled my brain, just waiting to spill out.

Last night, as Charlie was getting out of the bathtub, he looked down at his chest and apparently noticed his nipples for the first time. 

"What are these?" he asked, pointing.

"Nipples," I said. 

"What are they for?" he asked.

Once again, no adult was present for the flood of jokes that filled my mind, desperate to escape.

The right audience is everything.

Disconnect the easy way.

I played golf yesterday morning my two friends, Andrew and Plato. 

The sky was blue. The sun was low in the sky. The greens were still sparkling with dew. 

We walked and swung and talked about our kids and the way we had spent our week apart. We told stories. Ribbed one another. Laughed a lot. 

On the fourteenth hole, Andrew hit a chip that rolled into his own putter, which is had errantly placed on the green, costing him a two shot penalty and the lead.

First time I'd ever seen that happen. He took it well.

Plato lost a ball in the high grass on the seventeenth hole, handing the lead back to Andrew. 

On the last hole, Plato holed a 20 foot chip to win by one stroke. Plato punched his fist into the air, knowing he had probably just won the match. Andrew had a chance to tie with a long putt, but he left it short. 

I was a non-factor, having put five balls into four different ponds along the way.     

Here is one of the beauties of golf:

When was the last time you spent nearly three hours with friends and didn't look at your phone?

When was the last time you took a three hour walk with friends and didn't receive a call, answer a text message, or check email?

When was the last time you took a walk with friends and experienced moments you will never forget?

People are rather fond of championing the many ways to disconnect from the phone and the Internet. They love professing the value of being "in the moment." There are programs that will force your computer or phone off the Internet for designated periods of time to avoid the temptation of being connected.

I'm personally a fan of avoiding temptation by avoiding temptation, but if someone needs to tie their own hands by their back to stop themselves from clicking their device, so be it.  

Or maybe just play golf. It's a frustrating, inexplicable, seemingly impossible game to play, made more than tolerable by the fact it is played with friends between grass and sky, absent of life's technological distractions.

Just listen to this. Please.

I can't recommend this episode of StoryCorps enough. 

Entitled "No Barrier for Love," it features immigrants talking about what’s important to them — from falling in love to feeling like they do or don’t belong, memories of how they made their way to this country, and what they found when they arrived here.

It's really so much more. 

It's 16 minutes long and worth every second. 

It's also important for people to hear. Too many Americans misunderstand immigration on an economic, humanitarian, and historical level.

Too many stupid white men in the White House have embraced nationalism and racism over common sense, basic economic principles, demographics, patriotism, and basic human decency.      

My children will be listening to this episode soon, and in September, my students will be listening to it, too.

You should listen now. Then pass it along. 

Not unisex. Omnisex.

Like me, my friend, Charles, agrees with the implementation of unisex restrooms but makes an excellent point about the naming of these spaces. 

Shouldn't they be called omni-sex restrooms?

"Uni" is a prefix meaning "one, or having or consisting of one. 

"Omni" is a prefix meaning "all, of all things."

He's right. 

A unisex restroom is intended for all people, and yet the name we currently use implies that it is for only one person. 

All gender restroom works, too, but definitely not unisex.

Someone go fix this. Okay?

Commitment, persistence, and practice can look a lot like talent. Don't be fooled.

I love this video so much.

I love this guy so much. If I owned a company - any company - and was hiring, this is the person who I would hire. 

So much of life comes down to grit. Persistence. Commitment. Tenaciousness. Practice. Yet so few often seem to be willing to put in the time.

I write novels. Though some may argue this requires a certain degree of talent, I would argue that the most important attribute I possess is the willingness to commit my ass to a chair for a long period of time.

Truthfully, I believe that it's been my willingness to sit in a relentless, non-precious, non-idealized way for an incredibly long period of time that has led me to my writing career. 

I started writing in late November of 1988 when I was 17 years-old, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have written every single day of my life since then.

I have not missed a day.

Wedding day. Birth of my children. Death of my mother. Pneumonias. Honeymoon. Vacation. Concussions. Homelessness.

I have not missed a day. 

When I was younger, I wrote in journals. I wrote letters. Short stories, Newsletters. Poems. Zines. Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Comics. My classmate's term papers (my first paid writing gig). 

In 1990 I began blogging on an early version of the Internet known as a Bulletin Board System.

In 2004 I took a graduate level class on blogging and began blogging regularly, first at a blog entitled Perpetual Perpetuity, and then Conform Me Not, and now here. Since 2004, I have not missed a day.  

I started writing at the age of 17. I published my first novel at the age of 39.

Talent? It took me 22 years of constant, consistent, relentless daily practice before any publisher was interested in my work. Maybe I'm a talented writer, or maybe I simply forged myself through hard work into someone who looks like a talented writer.  

Call it a lie when it's a lie.

In a Wall Street Journal interview this week, Trump claimed that the head of the Boy Scouts called him to heap praise on the politically aggressive speech Trump delivered at the Scouts’ national jamboree last week.

“I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them,” Trump said.

At that point, all but the blindest of Trump supporters already knew he was lying. 

The Boy Scouts confirmed these suspicions. “We are unaware of any such call,” the Boy Scouts responded in a statement. They went on to specify that neither Boy Scout President Randall Stephenson nor Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh placed such a call.

Faced with this unequivocal denial, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that no phone call had taken place but said “multiple members of the Boy Scout leadership” approached Trump in person after the speech and “offered quite powerful compliments.”

Sanders explained the discrepancy Wednesday by saying Trump misspoke when he described the conversations as calls.

“The conversations took place,” she said. “They just simply didn’t take place over a phone call.”

In other words, he lied the first time. And he probably lied about the "quite powerful compliments" about "the greatest speech ever," too, considering the Boy Scouts apologized for subjecting the boys to his bizarre tirade. 

No, he definitely lied about that, too. He lies. He lies and lies and lies.

Even worse, his lies are so sad. He's lying about nonexistent compliments. He's lying in the hopes that people will like him more. He's lying because there is obviously something broken or missing inside of him that requires him to invent these self-serving statements. 

He did the same thing later that day when he claimed to have received a call from Mexican President Peña Nieto.

"Even the president of Mexico called me. Their southern border, they said very few people are coming because they know they're not going to get to our border, which is the ultimate compliment."

Sanders was later forced to admit that the call didn't happen. Her explanation:

Trump was actually referring to an in-person chat with the Mexican president last month at the Group 20 Summit in Hamburg even though Trump implied that the phone just happened.

So he lied. Again. Attempting to praise himself in the process.   

We should not be surprised. 

As you probably remember, in the 1990's, Trump would frequently pose as fictional publicist  "John Miller" or "John Barron" in order to say flattering things about himself

More than 25 years later, Trump would name his son Barron. Apparently his fondness for the name did not wane. 

Trump publicly acknowledged and apologized for these lies back then but denies it today.   

Another lie. 

Here's what I'd like:

I want the media to stop using phrases like "misleading statements" or "false statements" or "corrected statements. I just want them to say,

"Trump lied. The Boy Scouts never called."
"Trump lied. The Mexican government never called."
"Trump lied. He admitted to masquerading as a publicist in the 1990's and now denies it."

I want them to use the word "lie" when appropriate. 

I wrote on an island. Under a tree. In the middle of a parking lot.

I arrived at the dentist office at 1:40 PM for a 2:00 PM appointment. With a book due in less than a week, I was anxious to return to the manuscript. 

The dentist has a television in the waiting room, so rather than trying to write with a talking head yammering in the background, I took a seat beneath a small tree on an island in the center of the parking lot and worked for 15 minutes.

I finished a chapter and revised the end of another. 

I mention this for two reasons:

1. I meet a lot of people who claim that they can only write under certain conditions:

  • Only in Starbucks 
  • Only in two hour increments
  • Only with a cappuccino
  • Only in the morning
  • Only with ink and paper
  • Only while listening to jazz

I have yet to meet a published writer who suffers from any of these limitations. I also like to remind these tragically limited writers that soldiers wrote poetry, letters, and novels in the trenches of World War I while wearing gas masks. 

John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Field" after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

Thank goodness he didn't need a cappuccino to write one of the great poems of the twentieth century.  

2. I mention this because the question I am asked most often is "How do you manage to get so much done?" While I have many, many answers to this question, yesterday's writing session on the island of a parking lot is a good example of one of those answers:

I don't waste a minute. Rather than being precious about my time, I believe my time to be precious. Instead of waiting for ideal conditions to complete tasks and accomplish goals, I take what I can get, when I can get it. Time is our greatest commodity, so I don't wait a minute of it.