My less-than-private, not-so-well-appointed office

That same year, The Hartford Courant did a feature on me that included my writing space, which was and still is the end of the dining room table. 

Not much has changed since then.

I'm still on the end of the dining room table. Charlie is much larger now and more mobile, making him even more capable of distracting me with pleas to build railroad tracks, wrestle, or play "Star Whores." I've migrated from Windows to Mac. The bottom shelf of my bookcase is now filled with games and puzzles. 

But that's about it. Unless I leave the house to write in the library or McDonald's, I sit in the center of my home, head down, oftentimes with headphones blaring rock 'n roll to drown out the noise.

Those lovely, well lit, perfectly appointed writers' spaces featured in the New York Times?

I wish I could say I don't need a space of my own to work, but in truth, I want one so badly.

I dream of the day when I can have a door to close off the rest of the world. A simple door that would allow me to focus and concentrate on the work and not on the 10,000 other things going on around me.   

Until then, I get by.

I wake up at 4:30 so I can have a couple hours of silence. 

I hunker with headphones and mental blinders and write.  

I sit in quiet libraries and white-noise filled McDonald's and any other place I can find and work like hell so I can get home. 

But someday, maybe, I will simply shut a door in my home and work like those writers featured in the New York Times. 

Won't that be a blessed day indeed.

We adopted two cats. Our kids' reaction was... unexpected.

Last summer, our beloved cat, Owen, passed away. We lost Owen's brother, Jack, about eight years previously.  

It was a difficult loss for our family. A couple months after Owen's passing, the kids began asking for a new cat. I wasn't ready yet, and Elysha had sworn repeatedly - to anyone who would listen - that she would never own another pet.

To my surprise, she told the kids that she would think about it.  

The kids continued to beg. They asked repeatedly. They asked individually and they double-teamed us.  

We said again and again that we weren't ready. 

Eight months later, we were ready. Elysha found an organization that rescues Egyptian maus. In Egypt there is no system in place to rescue cats, so they are simply left to the streets. Rather than adopting two kittens from a shelter here in the United States, we decided to adopt two slightly older cats who needed a home from Egypt. 

Tobi and Pluto arrived via plane to JFK last night - much later than expected. 

Tobi is named after the cat in the children's book of the same name.

Pluto is named after the cat in Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Black Cat."

The kids had been asleep for about an hour when Elysha finally walked in the door with the cats. We had been waiting all day to surprise the kids. Elysha awoke Charlie, brought him into Clara's bedroom, and then it was time for the big reveal.

It didn't go exactly as we had expected. Not at all how we expected:

Meals on Wheels: My grandparents (and science) understand the importance for this program

My grandparents - my mémère and pépère - delivered Meals on Wheels to senior citizens for years. I once asked Pépère to explain Meals on Wheels to me. He said that he was visiting seniors. Saying hello, bringing them food, and making sure they didn't need anything else.  

"It's hard to get old," he told me. He said that the food was important to these people, but the smile and the hello was just as important. 

As you may have heard, Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts funding to Meals on Wheels, which feeds 2.4 millions seniors every year, including 500,000 veterans.  

Here's the good news:

  • Meals on Wheels receives most of its funding from corporate and private sources, so even if these cuts were to happen, Meals on Wheels would continue to exist. 
  • Presidential budgets are wish lists that are often "dead on arrival" to Capitol Hill. Given the scope of the proposed cuts, the opposition within his own party to many cuts, and his recent string of losses, this budget is especially "dead on arrival."
  • While Donald Trump may see this program as a waste of money, it is unlikely that Congress will cut its funding given the infinitesimal percentage of the budget that it requires.    

The most offensive aspect of Trump's proposed cut to Meals on Wheels is the accusation that the program is "just not showing any results.” 

If you want to argue that the money could be better spent, fine.

If you want to argue that more seniors could be helped if the money was shifted to a different program, great.

But lying about the ineffectiveness of a program that by all accounts makes an enormous difference in the lives of seniors is a disgusting and cowardly act. 

Research reported in the New York Times includes:

In 2014, researchers explored the evidence on whether home-delivered meal programs improved the diet and nutrition of older Americans. They found eight studies, two of which were randomized controlled trials. Six of the eight showed that programs like Meals on Wheels improve the quality of people’s diet, increase their nutrient intake, and reduce their food insecurity and nutritional risk. They also noted that the programs increased chances for human contact and improved quality of life.

It’s important to recognize that the program’s benefits are not merely nutritional. A 2016 study showed that participants in the Meals on Wheels program had lower loneliness scores. A 2013 study showed that spending on services like Meals on Wheels was associated with less reliance on institutionalized care, because more people could live independently at home. They may even have fewer falls at home and less worry about being able to remain there.

It’s important to recognize that the program’s benefits are not merely nutritional. A 2016 study showed that participants in the Meals on Wheels program had lower loneliness scores. A 2013 study showed that spending on services like Meals on Wheels was associated with less reliance on institutionalized care, because more people could live independently at home. They may even have fewer falls at home and less worry about being able to remain there.

Researchers conducted economic analyses in 2013 and showed that if all states had increased the number of older Americans who had received Meals on Wheels by just 1 percent, the states would have saved Medicaid more than $109 million. Most of those savings would have come from reductions in the need for nursing home care.

If my Pépère were alive today, he probably could've told Trump most of this without needing to spend a dime on research. He volunteered his time to help these senior citizens in need of help. He understood the importance of the program. He knew the people whose lives were substantially improved by this program.

As a person who has experienced food insecurity and hunger in my life, you can't underestimate the value of a dependable meal every day. 

Donald Trump grew up in a wealthy home and was given a multi-million dollar handout at the start of his career. He hasn't been hungry a day in his life.  

In the absence of my grandfather's advice, Donald Trump could follow this simple rule:

When you can afford to spend more than three million dollars of taxpayer money nearly every weekend in order to play golf in Florida (and then lie about playing golf despite photographic evidence proving otherwise), you can afford to continue to feed impoverished senior citizens and veterans who depend on this program for their daily nutrition.  

Beautiful but temporary: Why would an artist ever choose such a fleeting medium?

This is remarkable, beautiful, unbelievable, and maddeningly temporary. You must watch. 

It's hard to imagine why someone so talented would create art that lasts for such a short period of time. 

Perhaps he doesn't suffer from the existential crisis that plagues me.

A bunch of white men apparently too stupid to realize that they are all white men.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about my belief that the country would be in better hands if more women were in charge.

Perfect example:

This is the photograph of the yesterday's healthcare negotiations between Mike Pence and the Freedom Caucus, where attempts were made to negotiate away birth control, maternity care, abortion from the bill. 

Two dozen white men - apparently too stupid to realize that there were only white men in the room - determining how women's healthcare will be administered in the future. 

Their attempts to deny women of this basic healthcare coverage is horrendous.

Their obliviousness over the lack of women or anyone of color in these negotiations is equally appalling. And this was the photograph that the White House chose to release to the public.

Astounding. 

This is hardly the first time that Republicans (including Pence and Ryan) were this stupid.

Famous people who I've met thanks to storytelling

Louis CK: I said hello to him at The Moth Ball, an annual fundraiser for The Moth. He was the guest of honor that night.

He nodded in my general direction. 

David Blaine: I met David Blaine at The Moth Ball. I told a two minute version of my GrandSLAM winning story, which Blaine later asked me to tell again so he could record it with his phone. Then he did a mind numbing trick for me that convinced me and the New Yorker reporter who was standing beside me that he has made a deal with the devil.

Then he told me that he might want to speak to me in the future and said, "I'll give you my business card."

"Okay," I said.

"You already have it," he said. "Left breast pocket."

Low and behold, it was there, a playing card with his contact information hidden within the details of the card. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer: I met Dr. Ruth backstage at a TED conference in the Berkshires where we were both speaking. I said hello. She asked me how my sex life was. When I said "Fine," she told me that fine is a sad description of a sex life and offered me five tips for improving it.

Steve Burns (The Blues Clues guy): Steve has hosted two of the Moth Mainstages in which I have performed. We spent time backstage chatting before both shows. In all honesty, I never watched Blues Clues, so my friends and my children have always been more excited about me meeting Steve than I have been.

Samantha Bee: Samantha Bee and I performed in a Slate Live Show at The Bell House together and spent time backstage chatting. Her new show on TBS was starting soon, so we spoke at length about what she envisioned for the project. 

There is also a group of decidedly less famous people who I have met thanks to storytelling who I was at least as excited about meeting as anyone in the above list. They include

  • Author and Moth host Dan Kennedy, who has become a friend
  • NPR and This American Life's Zoe Chase, who I've appeared with on several occasions
  • NPR's Adam Davidson, who I met at a Slate Live show
  • Moth host, author, and comedian Ophira Eisenberg, who has become a friend
  • Slate's Mike Pesca, who has become a friend
  • The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, who has hosted two of the Moth Mainstages in which I have performed

Your compliments about physical appearance are meaningless. Try these instead.

One of my New Year's resolutions (and likely one of my lifelong policies now) is the following: 

I will not comment, positively or negatively, about physical appearance of any person save my wife and children in an effort to reduce the focus on physical appearance in our culture overall. 

I've been adhering to this policy since the beginning of the year, and I'm here to report that it is not difficult to follow.

It's fairly simple, in fact.

Other than a handful of times that I have wanted to point out the oddity of a person's appearance to a friend or family member, the elimination of comments related to physical appearance has been blessedly easy.

And in those cases when I have wanted to point out the oddity of someone's appearance, I reminded myself, "Who am I do judge how that person presents him or herself? People can be whoever they want to be. I left middle school behind a long time ago."

One of the more amusing aspects of this policy is how I am occasionally required to generate a compliment that isn't related to physical appearance when a simple comment on physical appearance would do just fine.

Though I haven't been forced to research possible alternative compliments yet, I have always loved this list and offer it here as an alternative to the standard comment on clothing, hair, or shoes, which in my experience are the most common (and frankly least meaningful) compliments offered in the world today.  

The 6 levels of humility

Below is my proposed list of the six levels of humility, beginning with the best and descending to the worst. While I think that human beings can fluctuate between these levels depending upon circumstances and needs, I think that most people tend to occupy one level most of the time. 

If you have any suggestions for additions, deletions, or re-ordering, I am humble enough to consider all ideas. 

1. Authentic, honest-to-goodness humility: This is a person who is authentically humble about his or her success, ability, and/or achievement, oftentimes crediting others for the role that they played during their journey and avoiding self-congratulatory statements of any kind. This is a person who knows that it is always better to allow others speak highly of you than to ever speak highly of yourself and would never dream of singing his or her own praises. 

2. Disingenuous but effectively feigned humility: This is a person who lacks humility for a variety of reasons but is wise enough to know that humility is an essential quality of a fundamentally decent human being. Therefore, this person convincingly pretends to be humble, thus appearing to possess authentic, honest-to-goodness humility. In effect, this person appears no different than an authentically humble human being. There may be absolutely no humility in this person's heart, but no one would ever know it. 

3. Ironic lack of humility: This is a person who expresses almost no humility whatsoever but does so in a tongue-in-cheek fashion for the sake of irony or humor. Their use of irony is a clear indication that the person understands the importance of being humble and likely possesses some degree of humility but chooses not to express it explicitly for the sake of amusement or humor. Kevin O'Leary (Mr. Wonderful) of Shark Tank fame is a perfect example of this type of person.  

4. Disingenuous and ineffectively feigned humility: This is a person who is not humble but understands the importance of humility but still boasts about him or herself even though the person knows better. This is the classic humble bragger who manages to sing his or her own praises in the midst of an expression of feigned humility. Sadly, most humble braggers are not aware of their transparency and believe that their feigned expressions of humility are perceived as authentic.    

5. Authentic, honest-to-goodness lack of humility: This is a person who is not humble. This person does not express humility, nor does he or she see any need to be humble. This person is direct and honest about his or her high level of self perception. You know exactly where this person stands and how this person feels about him or herself at all times.  

6. Unconscious lack of humility: This is the person who genuinely believes that he or she is humble yet repeatedly proves otherwise through comments that everyone perceives as lacking humility except for the person making the comments.   

What I try to teach my girls

As a fifth grade teacher, I am often shocked at the disparity in maturity between ten year-old boys and girls.

I've known many fifth grade girls who could effectively enter the workforce if they so desired. 

I've known many fifth grade boys who still can't get their food from plate to mouth without a sizable portion landing on their shirt. 

I shouldn't be surprised. Science has repeatedly shown that girls mature faster than boys. In fact, researchers have recently discovered that female brains mature up to ten years earlier than boy's brains.

As a result, I am equally shocked at boys' ability to somehow catch up to girls. Despite the enormous lead that girls enjoy in fifth grade, boys will somehow catch up to girls along the way, and as a result, we end up with a world ruled by men.

In the House, there are currently 362 men and 76 women.
In the Senate, there are 83 men and 17 women.
In the White House, we have had 45 men as President and 0 women. 

I have long thought that our country would be run more effectively if we flipped these numbers.

I know that many factors contribute to boys ability to catch up and surpass women when it comes to positions of power.

An entrenched, often religiously supported patriarchy.
Draconian laws relating to maternity leave and childcare.
Unchecked sexism in the workplace.

But I also think Amal Clooney is right when she suggests that women must stand together rather than competing and criticizing one another.

It's a message I send to my fifth grade girls every year:

Never fight over a boy. Boys are a dime a dozen, and most of them are worthless in terms of boyfriend potential until they're at least 24 years-old. 

Never insult another girl's physical appearance. You need to stand together. You can't allow the length of a length of a hemline, the height of a heel, or the size of a waistline get in the way of your much needed solidarity.

Compete with boys rather than chasing after them. Seek to push them off the mountain at every turn. The boys worth your time and attention will be the ones who respect your willingness to compete and desire for greatness.  

I don't know if these messages leave a lasting mark on the dozen or so girls in my class every year, but I hope so. They have so much potential and possibility when they are ten years old. They are ready to take over the world at this age.

I also know that hormones and peer pressure can be powerful forces, too.

But I dream of a day when this potential and possibility is fully realized, and women can take assume their rightful place at the mantle of leadership and steer our country along a more rationale, compassionate, and sensible path.   

I think Amal Clooney's message is a good one. Not the answer, for sure, but a small step in the right direction. 

Change can happen quickly. If you allow it.

This is a photo of my son, Charlie, taken last Sunday.

This is a photo taken of the same spot exactly three days later.

It serves as a reminder for you (and perhaps for you) that change can happen a lot faster than we can sometimes imagine.

Earlier this week someone told me that she was "thinking about finally going to college." 

I asked what she was thinking about? What was she considering? What was stopping her?

She told me that she just wasn't sure if she was ready. She wanted to "give it some time." 

"What a terrible idea," I told her. "The worst idea."

Far too often, people stall their lives, imagining what they could be doing rather than doing it, failing to realize how quickly their lives could be different and better if they took action. Instead they linger on the worry. Focus on the hard stuff. Debate a decision when they already know the answer in their hearts.  

In 2009 - just eight years ago - I had not published a book or spoken on the stage in my life. Nor did I think that either of these things would ever happen. But I wasn't waiting. I wasn't "thinking about it." I was constantly writing. And when given the chance, I took the stage and told my first story, despite my fear and uncertainty. 

Today I have published four novels. Two more are on the way, along with my first YA novel and a instructional memoir on storytelling. I'm the humor columnist for Seasons magazine. I've written a rock opera and three musicals. I'm publishing two more essays in Parents magazine this summer.

Since 2011, I have told stories on hundreds of stages large and small. I've won 28 Moth StorySLAMs in 52 tries and four GrandSLAMs. I've traveled all over the country telling stories and spent two weeks in Brazil last summer teaching and performing. I teach storytelling and public speaking to individuals, corporations, school districts, and universities. I've taught storytelling at Yale University, The University of Connecticut Law School, Purdue University, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and many other places. Along with my wife, I founded Speak Up. We produce more than a dozen shows a year. Most of them are sold out. I've spoken at half a dozen TEDx conferences.  

All this in just eight years.

And I'm not resting on my laurels. This year I plan to perform my first one-man show. I will try stand-up for the first time. I'll write my next screenplay. I'll begin my first book on teaching. 

If another opportunity arises, I'll seize it.

I don't expect my life to be the same eight years from now. I'm not sure how it will change, but I expect it to change, because I know that change can happen quickly if you let it. If you jump in head first. Stop the calculation and consideration. Embrace the fact that your life can be different and better in what will seem like the blink of an eye if you allow it. 

Don't be complacent. Don't settle. Don't mistake the life you have for the only life you can have. Change is a beautiful thing. You must fight for it everyday.  

Details matter. They matter a hell of a lot.

This was the fundraising letter sent to supporters upon Trump's announcement of the new travel ban, which was thankfully halted by a federal judge last night.  

The failure of communication from this administration is astounding. 

The first bullet, for example:

  • Temporarily Restricting immigration from six countries comprised by radical Islamic terrorism: Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yeman

The first two words of the sentence are capitalized, which also makes no sense. 

The first two words of the next bullet are also capitalized, but not the first two words of the third bullet. 

This is a mess. And the actual content isn't much better. 

Despite Trump's argument that this is not a Muslim ban, he indicates in this letter that these countries were chosen specifically because they are "comprised by" radical Islamic terrorism, which clearly implies (if you can get beyond the grammar) that one religion is being targeted over another (which is one of the very reasons the federal judge halted the ban), even though the majority of terrorist attacks in this country are committed by Americans.

In fact, no act of terrorism has been committed on American soil by anyone from these six nations since 9/11, and Saudi Arabia, where almost all of the 9/11 terrorists originated, is not on the list. 

And Iraq, the very center of ISIS activity in the world, has now been removed from the list. Logic would dictate that if your travel ban is essential for keeping terrorists out of America, the first country on the list should be Iraq. 

Of course this is a Muslim ban. Trump referred to it as a Muslim ban many, many times on the campaign trail and after the election. His own words have doomed these Executive Orders right from the start.

You may say I'm nitpicking here. Who cares about grammar and capitalization? But details matter. When a President who is attempting to change something as complex as the American healthcare system, details matter. They matter a lot. They are the difference between the elderly having access to affordable healthcare and the ultra-wealthy receiving massive tax breaks as part of the proposed plan.

For many Americans, the details in this healthcare plan will be the difference between whether they live or die.

Details matter. 

This administration doesn't seem to think so. 

Trump's Housing and Urban Development Cabinet chief, Ben Carson, recently referred to slaves as immigrants.

His chief White House counselor Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to the notion of an "alternative facts."

His national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was an agent for a foreign power who lied about communication with the Russians during the election - facts which Trump knew about for weeks before finally firing him. 

Trump accused a former President of wiretapping based solely on a right-wing report based upon the unsubstantiated claims of a right-wing talk show host. He claimed - once again - that his Electoral victory was the largest since Reagan, only to be corrected by a White House reporter again.

His response: "I was given that information. We had a very, very big margin."

"Given that information?" By who? The President's team can't conduct a simple Google search? Or more likely, Trump was either lying or spitballing because details don't matter to this administration.

His Electoral win, by the way, was not as large as George Bush, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama. In fact, it was one of the narrowest Electoral victories in American history. 

Details matter.

But when you have the resources of the Republican party and the United States government at your disposal and you can't produce a letter that is grammatically correct, you make it clear that details don't matter at all to you.

This might be the most frightening aspect of the Trump administration.

Say no to "more details."

Parents and teachers often tell students to "add more details" when commenting on student writing. 

It's one of the least helpful things that you can say to a writer. 

Have you ever finished a novel or essay or memoir and wished that the author had included "more details?"

Teachers and parents say this to students because so many of them are not writers and do not seriously engage in the writing process. As a result, they simply don't know what to say in the same way I could say nothing to a apprentice carpenter or a beginning skier.

If you don't engage in the craft, you will have little to say about the craft. 

So rather than talking about craft, parents and teachers see quantity as quality. They believe - with all their heart - that an argument that be effectively made in 250 words is automatically made more effective if written with 500 or 1,000 words. 

It makes me insane.  

To this end, young writers should remember this:

Don't seek quantity. Seek quality. Rather than waxing on for paragraphs about a person or place, find the two or three words or phrases that capture the essence of the person or place, and leave it at that.

The best writers don't choose the most words. They choose the right words.  

It is only snow and nothing more.

As I write this, it is snowing outside. Meteorologists are referring to the storm as a blizzard. Much of Connecticut is shut down (though I just returned from a successful trip to Dunkin' Donuts) and apparently the grocery store shelves are empty, but here's the thing:

Tomorrow, less than 24 hours from now, the storm will have ended. The sun will shine high in the sky. The roads will be clear. And though we may have a foot or two of snow on the ground, we have certainly seen this much snow before in New England and will see this much snow again.

Probably more. 

I despise the ongoing, never-ending, relentless conversations about the snow, the impending snow, the snowfall projections, and the incessant complaining about the snow. One of my primary goals in the teaching of storytelling is to make the world a more interesting place. If people know how to tell great stories and know the right stories to share, then the world becomes a more entertaining, connected, and meaningful place to live.

I believe this with all my heart. 

Conversations about the weather are the antithesis of this of an entertaining, connected, meaningful world. They are the death of good conversation. They are the enemy of the interesting.

My humble suggestion: Avoid these conversations at all costs. Change the subject. Do not engage. Walk away if necessary.

You will be the happier, and the more interesting, for it.

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Stories are so damn important.

Few things have felt truer to me than this quote from the late Alan Rickman:

I cannot tell you how many times a person has told me at the end of one of our shows that they feel like they have been renewed by an evening of storytelling. Their heart has been filled. Their mind has been put at ease, at least for a couple hours, and perhaps longer. 

Storytelling is magic. It is medicine for the mind. Food for the soul.

I've been telling stories all over the country and the world since 2011, and here is one of the strangest things that has happened to me in the course of my travels:

Twice I have stepped off the stage after telling a story at The Moth in which I expressed great vulnerability and been approached by a woman who needed to tell me about her recent miscarriage. In both cases, the woman had yet to tell anyone in her life about her loss but had somehow decided in that moment that I was the right person to tell.

When I told Elysha about this craziness (the second incident happened just recently), she said that it wasn't crazy at all. There is unknowable amounts of emotion wrapped up in the tragedy of a miscarriage. Grief, guilt, shame, despair, and unspeakable loss. Women oftentimes have great difficulty talking about a miscarriage, even to people who they know and love most.

In both of these instances, Elysha explained, these women likely saw me as a person willing to open my heart and share something sacred about my past. I shared a story about my life in a way few people are willing to do so openly. In the eyes of these two women, I became the perfect person to unburden themselves of their secret. Someone who they could trust. Someone who possessed an open heart. But also someone who they would never see again. In that way, I was safe. They could speak their truth and then leave it behind. 

Admittedly, I was surprised and confused when these women revealed their secret to me, but each encounter ended with a hug and many tears. And perhaps a bit of relief from something that these women were carrying alone before they met me.

Rickman was right. We need to tell stories about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.

Now more than ever.

End the scourge of the additional anus

I'd like to propose that we permanently retire the phrase "tore me a new one" and all its its variants as a means of describing a situation in which a person or persons have been savagely berated or abused by another person. 

The idea that someone would be berated or abused so badly that it would result in an additional anus is not only illogical, but it's fairly disgusting.

There are better ways to describe situations like this without adding to the digestive system in the process.  

Can we all agree that there is no place for this unfortunate phrase in our modern day lexicon? 

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Rules of Self Praise by the Brilliant and Handsome Matthew Dicks

Rule: If you have to say that you were the smartest person in the room, you were not the smartest person in the room. 

Not by a long shot. 

Corollary: Always allow others to sing your praise. Self praise is almost always disgusting. If you don't feel like you're receiving the credit you deserve, you haven't earned the credit you deserve. Try harder. Do better.

Corollary to the corollary: If you engage in self praise, please know that people will most assuredly disparage you when you are no longer present.   

Addendum to the corollary: Self praise is permitted in the private company of spouses, significant others, and in salary negotiations. But even in these cases, it must be deployed with grace, humility, and moderation.  

Additional addendum to the corollary: Sarcastic, exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek self praise is permitted when done to be amusing because humor trumps all.

Note about the additional addendum to the corollary: Donald Trump has permanently tainted the use of the verb "trump."