I’ll be speaking at the NYC Public Library Main Branch alongside storyteller Erin Barker… join us!

I’ll be appearing at the main branch of the New York City Library on Wednesday, December 26 alongside the great Erin Barker to talk about my book Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling.

About the event:

We are always telling stories. In communicating with family and friends, we are constantly narrating events and interpreting our personal feelings and actions. We make choices about what to emphasize and what to gloss over. We tell stories to entertain, express ourselves, and make sense of the world. Elementary school teacher, author, and award-winning Moth storyteller Matthew Dicks believes everyone has a story to tell, and has tips and techniques for narrators of all stripes on constructing, telling, and polishing a tale. He will be in conversation with writer and editor Erin Barker, two-time winner of The Moth's GrandSLAM and the artistic director of science storytelling organization The Story Collider. 

The event is free, but register here to guarantee yourself a seat.

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Why a poached egg is funny

I performed in a show in Maine earlier this week called Sound Bites. In addition to telling a story, I also served as the emcee for the evening, introducing storytellers and bantering a bit between stories.

Doing my best Elysha Dicks impression. 

During one of the stories, a storyteller talked about how she can't cook a poached egg. When her story was done, I took the stage and told the storyteller that not only could I not cook a poached egg, but I don't actually know what a poached egg is, which is sadly true. 

The audience roared with laughter.

Later on, I asked myself why.

Why was that funny? I knew it would be funny, and I knew if I delivered it well, it would be really funny, but why? 

I've become a little obsessed with humor recently. Doing standup and constantly being asked in workshops to assist storytellers with being funny, I've become interested in looking closely at what makes things funny.

Here's what I think about my poached egg joke:

I think it's funny because it's a moment of surprising vulnerability. I think it was a combination of unbridled honesty, uncommon authenticity, and a willingness to speak about something that most would not.  

Yes, it's also a self-deprecating comment, which is often funny, but I think it's more than that. 

In that moment, most people don't admit to not knowing what a poached egg is. It's not some rare Tibetan cuisine or a fruit that only grows in the South Seas. It's a poached egg. I've heard about poached eggs all my life, as have most people, and yet I have no idea what that is. Most people would worry about sounding foolish or naive or even dumb to admit this, especially when standing before more than 100 people. When I acknowledge this surprising truth, they laugh. But they don't laugh at me. They laugh at my unexpected vulnerability.

I see this at comedy open mics all the time. A comedian is bombing, but with a minute to go in his set, he says something like, "I didn't realize how silent not laughing can be" or "Thank God I don't have any friends to invite to these disasters" and the audience (mostly comics themselves) roar with laughter. Sometimes they don't even say these comments to the audience. They are speaking almost under their breaths to themselves.

Yet it's the funniest moment in their set. 

Unplanned moments of vulnerability. Unexpected peeks into a comedian's soul.  

Yes, the content is also amusing, and their facility with language is strong, but it's when the comedian drops his guard, ceases his schtick, and stops cracking jokes when we laugh. 

This is why people laughed at my poached egg comment. I was shockingly vulnerable. I said something that most don't say. I spoke to a place in the hearts of the audience where they hide their own shame. Their own poached egg ignorances. I opened that door and let in a little light. Made them feel a little less foolish. Perhaps even a little happier with their own state of being. 

Most important, I made them laugh.

It's not funny that I can't identify a poached egg. It's funny when I tell you that I can't identify a poached egg. 

There's a lot more I could say about comedy, and there is a mountain for me to still learn, but this I know is true:

The best comedians speak the truth. When they say something like, "I was talking to my girlfriend the other night..." they were really talking to their girlfriend the other night. Not the girlfriend of a friend whose story they heard five years ago but have taken on as their own because it's funny.  

They are speaking the truth. Because of this, they have the opportunity to be vulnerable with the audience. Surprisingly, so. With that vulnerability comes the opportunity for a laugh. A big one. A memorable one. One that might even touch the hearts of their audiences, too. 

I love storytelling because I am afforded an opportunity to speak my truth, and when that truth is unfortunate, embarrassing, shameful, or disastrous, even better. People want this. They crave the failures and disappointments. They want to hear about our epic disasters and moments of awkwardness and shame.

Finding someone to brag about themselves in this world is not hard. Finding someone who is willing to tell on themselves is much harder to find. This is why people are drawn to the art and craft of storytelling.

It's honest, authentic, and vulnerable.    

The more unfortunate the moment, the more vulnerability required to tell it. 

Admitting that you have no idea what a poached egg is in front of an audience of 100 people is an act of vulnerability.

It's also funny. For that very reason, I think. 

Book clubs on boats. Book clubs in cars. Book clubs complete with game shows and nudity.

In the past nine years, I've attended hundreds of book clubs to talk about my books. It is by far one of my favorite ways to meet readers, because unlike a book store or library appearance, these folks have already read my book and are prepared to ask some interesting questions.

I've also learned that not all book clubs are alike. I've seen some strange and fascinating things over the years while visiting with book clubs, including:

  • Game shows - complete with theme music and large, colorful props - designed to test book club members' knowledge of the story
  • Power point presentations arguing in favor of the next book
  • Buffets only containing foods mentioned within the book
  • Skinny dipping (admittedly, that was my own book club, and not me)
  • End-of-year, Academy Award styled awards shows for favorite books and characters from the previous year (voted on by secret ballot by members of the book club)
  • Heated arguments (and one woman storming out of the house) over disagreements about themes and plot points, (even though the author was there to definitively answer the question)

I've attended book clubs in living rooms, restaurants, backyards, libraries, community centers, and churches. I've joined book clubs via Skype with people from all over the country and the world. I once spoke with a group of Saudi Arabian women wearing head scarves that covered everything but their eyes.

Twice I've attended a book club hosted on a boat.

Perhaps the strangest book club I ever visited was one who I joined while driving through the Bronx. Elysha and I were on the way to a Moth StorySLAM and planned to arrive early so I could join the group via Skype on my phone to answer a few questions before the show. Traffic slowed us, so the call from the book club came as I drove through the Bronx to the show. 

Elysha pointed the camera at me, and as I navigated my way through the streets, I answered questions about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. The group even asked Elysha some questions about being married to an author.

We spoke for about 15 minutes. In that time, I found the theater, parallel parked, and wrapped up the call in the car while Elysha went to get a spot in line. 

I've often thought about writing a book about my wide and varied experiences with book clubs: both my own book club and the ones I've visited. It wouldn't be a terribly long or especially profound book, but that might make it the perfect book for book clubs everywhere.  

Water Street Bookstore appearance

This summer I spoke at the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, NH about my latest novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs. A local television news crew recorded the event and posted it to YouTube. 

If you've always wanted to attend one of my book events but haven't been able to, here's your chance (though honestly, every book talk is different because I tell different stories at each one).

Still, better than nothing!

Book Club Adventures on Planes and Trains and Automobiles (sort of)

Since I published my first novel in 2009, I have attended well over 100 book club meetings both in person and over Skype with people from all over the world who have read my books. While I love speaking in book stores and libraries whenever given the opportunity, it's always a special honor to be invited to one of these book club meetings. These are folks who have already read my book and are armed with interesting comments and questions that I love to listen to and answer.

What I have discovered over the years is that no two book clubs are exactly alike. Each possesses a unique personality and culture that is often surprising and oftentimes unimaginable.

Simply put, I have witnessed a great many things over the years while visiting with book clubs. Occasionally, Elysha will join me for a book club meeting, making these experiences even more fun.

The methods by which book clubs choose the books they read are fascinating. From debates to democracy to diplomacy to the simple process of taking turns (the preferred method of my own book club), these decisions are fascinating to watch and sometimes a little overwhelming. I have witnessed two PowerPoint presentations at the end of book club meetings, filled with slides arguing why a particular book should be chosen next. I've watched people read book reviews aloud in an effort to win over their fellow book club members. And I've watched one woman offer to buy the book for all of the ladies in the club if they agreed to read it next.  

I have participated in living room game shows of sorts, designed by book club members to test their fellow members' knowledge of the plot and characters of the book. One of these games included theme music, an enormous scoreboard, and electronic buzzers.

I've attended book clubs where the only food served was food mentioned in the book.

I've attended book clubs where members skinny dipped in the adjacent pond. Granted that was my own book club, and one of the skinny dippers was my wife, but still. 

I've visited the book clubs of colleagues and friends. High school classmates and former students. Elysha's first babysitter. My ex-girlfriend. A fellow author.   

I visited a book club that rates the books they read on a 10-point scale, and these scores are averaged, giving the book a final score. In addition to assigning a number, each person also gives a reason for their determination. Members not present who finished the book can email in their rating and rationale. One of their members on the night I was there was in Korea but still took the time to email a score and a paragraph explaining her thinking.

At the end of the year, this book club meets for an awards night of sorts. The members vote on the books read during the year in categories like best and worst book, best passage from a book, best and worst male and female character, best discussion, best cover, and more. They run this awards gala like the Oscars. Members vote, and presumably one member (unless they also enlist the services of Price Waterhouse) collects the votes and places the winner’s names in Oscar-like envelopes for the dramatic reveal.  

I've Skyped with readers in at least half of the 50 states, plus Canada, Mexico, the UK, Denmark, Brazil, and Germany. I've spoken to a bookclub of women in Saudi Arabia who were all donning full burkas for the entire discussion. I've spoken to students in on the other side of the country and prisoners behind bars. 

I've often thought that I should write a book about my book club adventures. I have more than enough stories to fill the pages, 

And I continue to experience new and interesting moments with book clubs all the time. Last week I had two such experiences.

Early in the week, Elysha and I were invited to attend my first book club meeting on a boat. We traveled to Coventry, CT, where we boarded a small boat on Lake Wangumbaug and went for a ride on a warm, summer evening with about half a dozen ladies and two of their husbands. Barbecue chicken and other tasty morsels were served, as well as Blackstone wine, in honor of my hometown and the setting for The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs.

It was a beautiful summer evening and a picturesque setting for a chat about books, writing, schooling, and more. We met some fantastic people that evening and hope to see them again sometime soon.

Later in the week, I was scheduled to Skype with a book club in Strasburg, Ohio, but a mix-up on my part regarding the date of our meeting caused me to be double booked. I was supposed to be at a Moth StorySLAM at the National Black Theater in Harlem that night while also speaking to a group of library patrons who had just finished reading Something Missing.

So in another book club first, as we drove into Harlem, Elysha called the group via Skype on my phone and pointed the camera in my direction while I sat behind the wheel. While I navigated the surface streets of Harlem, I answered questions from the group about Something Missing and my writing process. And when things became dicey because I was traveling into unfamiliar sections of the city and needed to consult my GPS, Elysha turned the phone on herself and answered questions from the group.

Book clubs folks love to ask her questions. 

One of the questions asked was this:

"Is Matt as funny at home as he is in his books?"

Elysha's response:

"No, not really. But he makes like interesting."

Two weeks later and I'm still stinging from that answer.

But it was my first book club conducted from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, and while it caused Elysha to panic a few times, it was exciting, and the readers in Ohio got a kick out of listening to me speak while catching glimpses of New York that they only see in TV and movies.

I like to think that I turned a problem (double booking the evening) into something better than originally planned.  

I also offered to do a more traditional book club meeting with them anytime they want.

I've yet to meet with a book club while on a plane, train, bicycle, or horseback, but I'm sure that day will come. 

If you'd like to invite me to one of your book club meetings, either in person or Skype, simply send me an email. I'd be happy to get together with you and your fellow readers.

A very special chair and a recommendation to librarians everywhere

I visited the Townsend Library in Massachusetts this week. I spoke to some lovely people about my path to becoming a writer, ordered them to go home and write, answered some interesting questions about my books, teaching, and the writing process, and then listened in as a book club discussed The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs

It was fascinating to listening to people talk about my characters as if they were real people. In my mind, they are absolutely real, but rarely do I get to hear others talk about them in the same way I think about them.

They loved Polly. Argued about Emily. Identified with Caroline.

They all claimed to love the story, but I was sitting about three feet away, so perhaps they were being kind.

The book club consisted of about ten women and one man, who amusingly had to raise his hand in order to speak. Apparently it's difficult to get a word in edgewise.   

I was also permitted to sit in a chair that very few people are allowed to even touch. Apparently one of the librarians - a woman named Molly - is fairly protective of this commemorative chair, going so far as to placing a warning sign on the chair which contains a picture of the chair in the event the sign somehow falls off the chair. 

I was told more than once how fortunate I was to be sitting there.

Before I left, another librarian, Stacy, showed me the shelves containing my last book: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.

So rarely have I thought that a library or bookstore has the right number of my book.

In the case of the Townsend Library, they nailed it.

Librarians around the world may want to take note.

TEDx Berkshires: Homework for Life

Watch my most recent TEDx Talk, "Homework for Life," below. 

In this talk, I discuss a simple strategy - stumbled upon accidentally - that you can use to slow down time, find greater meaning in your life, and give your future self one of the best gifts imaginable. And if you're a storyteller - on the stage or at the dinner table - there is an immeasurable bonus.  

All I ask is for five minutes a day.  

TEDxNatick: "Live Life Like Your 100 Year-Old Self"

I'll be speaking at TEDxNatick at the Natick High School in Natick, MA on January 23, 2016. 

The conference begins at 9:30 AM and wraps at 3:30 PM. Lunch is provided. Tickets to the conference are selling fast. They can be purchased here

I will be speaking on the topic: "Live Life Like Your 100 Year-Old Self." 

A list of other speakers can be found here

TEDxNatick

The oddities of becoming a somewhat (but not famous) public figure

I am not a famous person, regardless of what a couple of my friends may insist. I am not even close to being famous.

I am not even fame-ish.

I've had the honor of occupying the same space and even spending time with famous people this past year.

A long backstage chat with Dr. Ruth.
A backstage discussion with The Daily Show's Samantha Bee.
A conversation with the magician David Blaine.
An elbow rub with Louis CK at an event where we shared the same stage. 
An email exchange with Kevin Hart.

These are famous people. I am not because none of them knew who the hell I was. 

Nor does anyone else.    

But thanks to my books and storytelling and public speaking, I am a bit of a public figure, and that means that every now and then, my name pops up in strange places, oftentimes unbeknownst to me until someone else points it out.  

Elysha recently found my name attached to a lemonade recipe, apparently inspired by my latest novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs. Characters drink lemonade on two separate occasions, which was enough for someone named Ingrid to create her own lemonade recipe and share it with the world. 

lemonade

Earlier this week, this splash card was forwarded to me by a friend on Facebook. I'm not entirely sure what it means, but it's always odd to see my name attached to something as seemingly random as this. 

My visit to Northshire Bookstore: Cakes designed to look like books and a mysterious comment left unexplained

A couple weeks ago I visited Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, as a part of my recent book tour for The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs.

Northshire is one of my favorite bookstores in the world. My wife and I take an annual pilgrimage to Northshire in the spring and always love our weekend spent in the bookstore. They certainly didn't disappoint this time around, either. I spoke to a warm and engaging audience, and after my talk, there was a cake auction to benefit children who need books in the home. 

Cakes were designed to represent books. Here are what a few looked like:

After the talk, I was approached by a woman who said, "You are a lesson in contradiction, sir."

Before I could ask her what she meant, she was gone. But she bought two of my novels on the way out, so I'll assume it wasn't meant to be too bad. 

Northshire is also the only bookstore that I have visited that has a special case for the pens that authors use to sign books. I like it. Made me feel very important despite my actual import. 

Stop saying that women are beautiful.

I was speaking at a conference recently. There were seven speakers in all - five women and two men. Each of us was introduced prior to our talk by one of the organizers.

During the introductions of three of the five female speakers, the organizer mentioned the woman's physical appearance.

"... the brilliant and beautiful..."

"... not only is she beautiful, but she is a published expert in her field..."  

"... a beautiful woman with a bold vision..."

Pay attention to the way women are introduced at events like this in the future. Their physical appearance is often mentioned as a part of the introduction, and almost always by other women.

Conversely, men's physical appearance is never mentioned. I have been introduced hundreds of times prior to a speech, story, or talk, and my physical appearance has never been included in the list of accolades or accomplishments. 

This needs to stop, for a few reasons:

  1. It's inappropriate. Physical appearance is irrelevant and should not be touted as a means of introducing a speaker. Doing so implies that beauty is just as important as the woman's professional accomplishments or academic pedigree. The last thing anyone should be talking about is what a woman looks like prior to listening to her speak.    
  2. When you mention the beauty of one female speaker but fail to do so for another female speaker (or even a male speaker), you risk hurting the feelings or offending the speakers whose physical appearance was unmentioned. I couldn't help but wonder if the two women whose physical appearance was not mentioned at that recent conference noticed the difference in introductory content. It was also interesting to note that the two women whose beauty was not mentioned were African American, while the other three were white.   
  3. Mentioning a woman's physical appearance during an introduction is sexist. The notion that we would include female appearance but not male appearance in an introduction implies that a woman's appearance is an important and relevant part of her value to society.   

Even if you can't agree with these first three reasons (and I honestly can't imagine any sane person not), here is one based solely on logic:

Unless the audience is comprised of blind people, mentioning that a woman is beautiful before she takes the stage is simply stating the obvious. The audience members are about to see the woman, and her beauty will therefore be apparent. From a logical standpoint, mentioning the physical appearance of a speaker is redundant and meaningless, because that beauty is about to take center stage.

This may seem like a small thing to you, but it is not. The perpetuation of the notion that a woman's physical appearance is an important part of her value and worth to society must be stopped whenever possible. This constant, public acknowledgement of the importance of a woman's appearance seems innocent enough, but it represents and reinforces the sexist, shallow, and stupid notions that we have about what is important in our culture. 

If you're introducing a female speaker, say nothing about her appearance. 

If you're a woman who is about to be introduced, make a point of asking that your physical appearance not be mentioned as a part of your introduction.

End this stupidity today. 

My "Diet Coke and aggressive attitude" didn't exactly match the yoga aesthetic, but I somehow managed to fit in anyway.

Last weekend, I performed 90 minutes of storytelling to a capacity crowd at Kripalu, a yoga and fitness center in the Berkshires. I spent the weekend at Kripalu, teaching a weekend-long storytelling workshop to about two dozen people, but the show on Saturday night was open to the general public.

The room was crowded and hot, but it went well.  

My weekend stay at Kripalu included a room, meals, and all of the amenities that the facility has to offer. I actually participated in a sunrise yoga session and spent an afternoon hiking around the lake. Despite the fact that my workshop attendees began to refer to me as a "yogi" and repeatedly assured me that my philosophies about storytelling, productivity, and mindfulness fit perfectly into the Kripalu philosophy, it didn't take me long to realize that I didn't exactly fit into the Kripalu aesthetic.

The first thing I noticed was that I walked at least three times as fast as everyone else. I was charging through the hallways like a bull on fire while everyone around me was walking slowly and contemplatively. 

When I looked at the extensive lists of breakfast options, I could not identify a single item on the menu. NOT ONE. Instead, I left the facility and enjoyed an Egg McMuffin and a Diet Coke at a nearby McDonald's.

I definitely swore more than anyone around me, and I am not a person who typically curses with any regularity. However, no one spoke a single swear word in my presence for the entire weekend, but in the course of my performance and my teaching, I swore a lot by comparison. During my performance, I fired off an expletive in the general direction of a couple people in the audience, causing Elysha to shake her head and offer me a disapproving stare.    

Silent breakfast was impossible for me. It turns out that I make noise even when I'm not speaking. I sigh loudly. Hum. Laugh to myself. Tap my feet. Pound on my keyboard. Audibly scoff. Constantly. 

Also, the concept of silent breakfast struck me as fairly insane. 

But the clincher came at the end of my performance on Saturday night. When the lights came up, a long line of people approached to chat. One woman began to ask if the stories I had told were really true but stopped short, noticing the scars on my face and quickly realizing that the story about my car accident (and therefore the rest of the stories) were true. She traced the scar on my chin with her index finger and said, "You lovely man."

This is something that could only be said about me at a place like Kripalu.

Another woman approached and said, "I wasn't sure if I wanted to come for tonight's show. but you walked into the room carrying a Diet Coke, a McDonald's bag, and an aggressive attitude. These are all things we have never seen before at Kripalu, so I knew it was going to be good."

It was odd to be in a place that seemed so right for me and so wrong for me at the same time.

It's true that the teaching I do as it relates to finding stories in our lives, exploring their meaning, and bringing that meaning to bare in a performance aligns almost perfectly with the recent mindfulness movement (though the word "mindfulness" is kind of stupid and the movement tends to lack the kind of specific, highly targeted, easy-to-follow strategies that I teach). Though I didn't initially believe it, it's true that the philosophies espoused at a place like Kripalu align quite well to my own.  

But at the same time, it's also true that I am happiest and most relaxed when I am doing something. Moving forward. Making progress. Affecting change. Eating a cheeseburger. Hitting a golf ball. Shoving an opponent under the basket. Tickling my kids. Hitting on my wife.  

The quiet, contemplative, farm-to-table, macrobiotic existence is not for me. That level of quiet and thought, absence movement and action, makes me crazy.  

At least for now.  

The most difficult (and possibly inappropriate) question asked on book tour thus far

If you've ever attended one of my author talks, you'll know that I encourage strange, difficult, inappropriate, and challenging questions during the Q&A portion of the evening.

I even award a prize for the most challenging of questions: foreign editions of my books, books I have read and will never read again, and once $2 because I had forgotten to bring a prize. 

This tradition was started in honor of a woman at my very first author talk who asked, "How do your ex-girlfriends play a role in your fiction?"

Surprised by the question, I responded, "Why do you ask that question?"

Her answer: "You look like the kind of guy with a lot of ex-girlfriends."

I'm still not sure if that was meant to be a compliment or an insult.

Either way, her question gave me the opportunity to tell a couple of funny stories about my ex-girlfriends, which is what I always do when asked a question. I tell a story.

During the most recent book tour for The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, I've been asked a fair number of challenging questions, including, "How many of your students have been inspired enough by your success to become writers themselves?"

I think the answer is none, though in fairness, the oldest of my former students are still in their early twenties. I didn't become a published author until I was 37.

But the most surprising, challenging, and possibly inappropriate question asked so far came a couple of weeks ago at a bookstore when a woman said, "You're such a sarcastic person. Do you ever make people cry?"

Sadly, the answer was yes, followed by a couple of funny stories about times when I ended up in trouble because of my mouth.

Recommended Reading

When I visit a bookstore or library or book club to discuss my new novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, I also recommend books as a part of my talk. Audience members have recently asked for a list of the books that I am currently recommending, so here there are, in case you can't make it to one of my upcoming appearances. 

Details about why I am recommending each below.

The Official Boy Scout Handbook: I still have my original Boy Scout Handbook, which is now more than 30 years old, but I still think it's one of the best books ever written, particularly for a young person. Turn to any page and you will discover something fascinating. Learn to build a fire. Identify poisonous snakes. Properly fold a flag. Build a lean-to. Purify water. Sign language. First aid. Astronomy. It's an amazing book that any young person would love, whether he or she is a Boy Scout or not.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo: This is the first gift that my wife ever gave me, on our first date, and it's a book I love dearly. Written for children but perfect for adults, it's the story of a mouse who dares to be different in a world that expects him to conform. It's a perfect story, perfectly told, that has remained in my heart ever since I read it for the first time.

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath: If you're a teacher or a parent or someone who needs to convey information or skills that must be retained, read this book. It's the single greatest teaching guide ever written. It makes ever book about teaching that has ever cluttered by bookshelf look ridiculous by comparison.  

Ballisitics by Billy Collins: Collins is a great poet an a former Poet Laureate of the United States. This may make him sound impenetrable, but it could not be farther from the truth. Collins is amusing, insightful, and simple. I recommend that rather than buying the book, purchase the audiobook. He reads it beautifully. Create a playlist with songs you love, interspersed with poems. It's a joy to be driving down the highway listening to a Beatles or a Stones song and suddenly have Billy Collins reciting a poem to you. 

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker: I love Baker's work, and this is one of my favorites. It's the story of a man who can stop time, and he uses this power to undress and then dress women, so they never know that they were naked. This description does not make it sound compelling, but it's a terrific story of a man who desperately wants to connect with the world, and when he finally does, the surprising results. 

Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon: This is a book of flash fiction. Though I love this book specifically, I am recommending it more as an attempt to get readers to give flash fiction a try. Flash fiction is stories written in a couple hundred words at most. It's an incredibly challenging way to tell a story, but when done well, is truly brilliant.   

The Moth edited by Catherine Burns: This is a collection of 50 of the greatest Moth stories, originally told on stage, and lightly edited for the page. If you don't want to start reading at the beginning, start on page 200 with Erin Barker's brilliant story about her family. You'll soon encounter one of my favorite lines from the thousands of Moth stories I've heard over the years.

My book launch party was filled with many surprise guests and references to Dungeons & Dragons

My most recent novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, published ten days ago on September 8. Originally my book launch party was slated for September 10, but that was the date of the Patriots home opener at Gillette Stadium, and I have my priorities.

My publicist understood completely, so the launch was moved to September 14.

A few weeks later, I had to point out that September 14 was Rosh Hashanah, and given the fact that my wife and many of my friends are Jewish, this date would also not work.

Please not that it wasn’t my wife or my in-laws or any of my many Jewish friends who noted the conflict, even though the date was made public and added to calendars for more than a month. It was me, a former Gentile turned reluctant atheist, who first realized the problem.

After I realized the conflict with Rosh Hashanah, we moved my launch again to September 17, which was last night. It meant that I needed to leave Colebrook, CT in the midst of a weeklong trip with my students to a YMCA camp to return home for a few hours, but that was fine.

Better than missing the Patriots game or disrespecting my wife’s holiday.

It was a terrific evening, and I thank each and every person who attended for making it a fantastic night. One of my friends counted well over 100 people in attendance, and I had many surprise guests, including:

  • My aunt Paulette from South Carolina, who I haven’t seen in almost ten years and have only seen a handful of times in the last 30 years. She and her husband were traveling to Niagara Falls to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and made a detour in order to attend the event.
  • Sarah, a high school student in Rhode Island who I have been corresponding with for almost two years about writing and publishing. I visited Sarah’s high school last year – where my former high school vice principal and nemesis is now principal – and she returned the favor by making the almost two hour trek to Connecticut to join us for the event.
  • Sara, my friend and author from Vermont, who has now driven more than two hours to attend my last two book launch events.  
  • My superintendent, who told me that he would try to attend the event, but knowing the schedule of someone in his position must keep, I hardly expected him to make it. His willingness to give up an evening to support my work meant a lot. 
  • Many of my fellow teachers and colleagues, including one who had just returned from our YMCA trip hours earlier and was sitting in the front row.
  • Maybe best of all, dozens of my former students, many all grown up and some who left my classroom just last year, all sitting or standing (there was a large standing-room-only contingent) in support.

Rather than reading from my latest novel, I spoke about how a high school teacher and an assignment on satire turned me into a writer and launched my first business, and how 20 years later a friend's request that I play Dungeons & Dragons with him and some buddies saved my writing career. I also recommended some books (including The Boy Scout handbook), took some questions, handed out some prizes, and signed many books. 

It was an incredibly fun night and well worth the wait.  

The hardest part about my visit to Brazil

So much about my trip to Brazil this summer was outstanding. The people who I met and the places I visited will remain with me forever. 

Here was the hardest part:

These are all photos that Elysha sent to me while I was gone. Constant reminders of the people I love most, half a world away.

Don't get me wrong. I wanted the photos. I needed the photos. But boy did they make my heart ache every day.  

When in Brazil, go see Judy.

I met a person in Brazil named Judy. If you ever travel to Sao Paulo and need a fascinating person to guide you, Judy is the person to hire. She is a Canadian who has been living in Brazil for almost a decade after having spent the previous decade backpacking solo in more than 40 countries around the world.

Judy is the only person who I have ever met who has stories that rival mine. For every horrific and unbelievable and ridiculous thing that has happened to me, Judy has a similar story to share.

Unfortunately, Judy is also the worst food describer on the planet. When trying to convince me to try acai, she told me that it tasted like earth. "Kind of like dirt. Gritty."

Despite her terrible description, I tried it anyway and liked it. 

Later, when trying to describe a dessert to a friend, she said, "Have you ever wanted Gummi Bears, except you really wanted a healthier version of Gummi Bears?"

"No," I explained. "No one has ever had that thought in all of human history."

Not only was the description ridiculous, but the dessert turned out to be nothing like Gummi Bears, healthy or otherwise.

These are just two of several examples of Judy's problem. I saw it happen over and over again. The woman has no vocabulary when it comes to food. 

But if you're in need of an entertaining guide while in Brazil and can overlook this one glaring flaw, there might be no better person to hire than Judy. I spent a day walking the streets of Vila Madalena with her, taking in the street art and swapping stories about our lives, and over the course of my week in Brazil, she joined me twice for dinner. I always had a good time when I was with her and learned a great deal about the country in the process.

Of course, Judy's not actually a tour guide. In real life, she's a middle school teacher, but since she's also Canadian, she could probably be convinced to escort you through the streets of Sao Paulo if you needed someone to guide you.

Those Canadians are too damn nice for their own good.    

Observations from a week in Brazil

Brazil was only the second country outside the United States that I visited, so some of my observations may apply to many other places and probably do. But in terms of my experiences, here is a list of notable observations from my recent trip to Brazil:

  • Dessert is a big deal in Brazil. It's eaten after every lunch and dinner. This is not a complaint. 
  • The mall is a serious piece of business in Brazil. Brazilians flock to the mall in droves. They are like American teens in the 1980's when it comes to their affinity for the mall. 
  • The motorcycles in Sao Paulo are insane daredevils. They weave in and out of traffic like it doesn't exist. I'm told that two motorcyclists die each day in the city.
  • Elevator banks lack a central calling button. You press the button on one of the elevators and then watch all three or four, waiting for one to arrive. Many elevators also have an additional door that swings on a hinge before stepping into the car. I have been told that this is a safety door, but I can't for the life of me figure out how it makes the elevator any safer. 
  • Service in Brazil is outstanding. A waiter is standing beside your table for most of your meal.
  • A chair is set aside at restaurants for purses and other bags, because it is considered bad luck to place your bag on the floor. It has something to do with money escaping your bag if it's placed on the ground.
  • There is no Diet Coke in Brazil as far as I can tell. Coke Zero rules the country. 
  • American music (in its original English form) is the dominant form of music played in all public locations.
  • American restaurant and retail chains dot the landscape, including Outback Steakhouse, Starbucks, McDonald's, car dealers, and dozens of stores in the mall.
  • When eating pizza in a restaurant, the waiter serves you a slice and then removes the pizza from the table. When you have finished your slice, the waiter returns almost immediately with another slice. It is slightly unnerving how efficient they are.  
  • I ate in a total of nine restaurants during my visit. I saw one female hostess but no female members of the waitstaff. I am not sure if this is the result of a low sample size or evidence of a demographic reality. 
  • Many houses are built behind walls in much of Sao Paulo. Many of these walls are topped with electrified wire. It is a reminder that despite its beauty, there is still a great deal of poverty in this country. 
  • I am not a fan of shopping of any kind, but the Mercado Municipal in central Sao Paulo turns shopping into art. Stained glass windows and foods of all kinds make it feel as if you are walking through a painting, and the streets outside the Mercado, while slightly wilder than the Mercado's interior, are just as alluring. 


Worst TEDx luck ever

I have spoken at four TEDx conferences over the past three years.

None have turned out exactly as I had hope. 

In 2013, I delivered a talk at TEDx Litchfield called "Speak Less. Expect More." The talk actually went extremely well. A representative from TED told me that he loved it and thought it had a chance on getting on the TED channel. Then we discovered that the sound on the recording of the talk was compromised. You can understand what I'm saying, but it ain't easy.

That same year, I spoke at a TEDx Western Connecticut State University on the topic of personal productivity. Once again, the talk went very well. I was excited to see the results.

The organizers - all college students - never posted any of the videos to the TEDx site. They posted photos to a Flickr album, though. 

Not really the same at all.

In 2014 I delivered a talk entitled "Say Yes" at TEDx Somerville. This talk also went well, and the organizers were tremendous in their preparation and execution. Even the recording of the talk is solid. But the timer on stage was incorrectly set for 9 minutes (my originally allotted amount of time) instead of the revised 15 minutes that I had been assigned, and since a TED Talk can never exceed 18 minutes, I suddenly had no way of judging how long I was speaking or if I was even supposed to be speaking for 15 minutes.

I should've waited. Asked for the timer to be set properly. Taken a moment to ensure that everything was ready before I opened my mouth. I didn't. 

You may watch this talk and see nothing amiss, but when I watch the recording, I see myself rushing through sections, dropping entire sections out of the talk, and generally disengaged with the material. I was so consumed with the mental gymnastics required to change the content of the talk mid-speech that it wasn't the performance that it could've been.  

It wasn't a bad talk by any stretch of the imagination. I've received a great deal of positive feedback as a result of the talk and the subsequent video.

But it wasn't exactly what I wanted.

This year I spoke at TEDxBU on the topic of education. Once again, the talk went extremely well. I heard from many people in the days following the talk, telling me how much it meant to them. But when the video of the talk was released a couple weeks ago, I learned that the first minute of the talk was lost due to technical malfunctions and one of the cameras was not running at all. The video looks terrible, and the loss of the first minute makes the rest of the talk a mess. I couldn't bring myself to even watch the whole thing.

I'm currently being considered for two TEDx Talks in 2016. 

All I want is an opportunity to speak and end up with a quality recording of the talk that I had originally planned on delivering.

I never thought a goal like this would be so damn hard to achieve.