My recommendation to you

On Tuesday night, I told a story at a Moth StorySLAM in Cambridge, MA and won.

It was my 40th victory in a Moth StorySLAM.

When I think back to my very first Moth StorySLAM - back in July of 2011 at the Nuyorican’s Poet’s Cafe in New York City, it would’ve been hard to imagine that 8 years, I would win 40 StorySLAMs and 6 GrandSLAMs.

I like to win, so it feels great, and I love entertaining audiences with stories of my life, but there were even better, more impossible-to-imagine moments from that night:

The person who accompanied me to the slam was a friend named Kevin. Kevin and I grew up in the same small, Massachusetts town on the same street - just one grade apart - yet we were never friends while growing up. But we managed to reconnect on Facebook years later, and back in 2013, when Elysha and I produced our first Speak Up show at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Kevin surprised us by driving from his home in Massachusetts to attend.

Since then, he’s attended several Speak Up events. I’ve appeared on his podcast. We’ve become friends. I never would’ve imagined becoming friends with someone from my childhood so much later in life.

Even better, the host of the StorySLAM and two of the storytellers who made it to the stage on Tuesday night have also appeared on a Speak Up stage, and two of them have also been featured on our podcast.

Moth royalty meets Speak Up.

Even better, there were at least eight people in the audience on Tuesday night who I had taught in one of my storytelling workshops. At least six of them were introduced to storytelling and The Moth via my workshops, and at least two of them had put their names in the hat.

As a teacher, it’s always thrilling to see your students engaging with the world, taking risks, and trying new things. Sitting amongst them and performing for them was a gift.

But best of all, as I was pulling open the door to my car at the end of the night, I was stopped by a young woman who had been sitting in the audience. She told me that she’s seen me perform many times in Boston, and that my stories convinced her to call her mother after years of estrangement. It wasn’t a story about my mother or anything related to parents or children that helped her make the phone call. It was just my willingness to share so much onstage.

“I figured that if you could tell stories like that to strangers, I could call my mother.”

That was the best part of the night.

In July of 2011, I went to a Moth StorySLAM in New York City with the intention of telling one story and never returning to the stage again. Instead, impossible-to-imagine things have happened.

Recently, while being interviewed for a podcast, the host asked me where I see myself in ten years. I told her that it was a ridiculous question.

Last year I was teaching storytelling on a Mohawk reservation to Native Americans. I was substitute ministering at Unitarian Universalist churches. Elysha and I had a United States Senator telling a story on our Speak Up stage. I went to work as a storytelling consultant for one of the largest advertising firms in America.

I could’ve predicted none of this.

Just this year I’ve taught storytelling at Yale, MIT, and Harvard. I had people drive from Kansas City, Maryland, Toronto, and Philadelphia to attend my workshops. This summer two people from China and a person from San Diego will be flying to Connecticut to attend my storytelling bootcamp.

It’s crazy.

Craziest of all, a young woman living in Belmont, Massachusetts is now talking to her mother again because I told some stories onstage.

There is no predicting.

But what I know for sure of that none of this happens if I don’t find the courage in 2011 to take a stage in New York and tell a story. I won my first StorySLAM that night, and as satisfying as it was to win my 40th slam on Tuesday night, the victories are a lovely bonus to a life transformed and made immensely more interesting and meaningful thanks to a stage, a microphone, and a story..

Thanks to engaging with the world. Taking risks. Trying new things.

I can’t recommend it enough.

This place that I love will soon be no more

In just a few days, the school where I have taught for 20 years will finally be bulldozing the “portable” classrooms that were affixed to the end of the building long before my arrival and had become decidedly less portable than originally intended.

This is a big deal to me because it means that they will be bulldozing Elysha’s old classroom, where we first met and fell in love.

I hate this.

I proposed to Elysha in Grand Central Station because she once told me that it was her “favorite room in the world. ” But I also chose it because I knew it would still be standing decades after my proposal. I wouldn’t have to worry about someday pointing to the site of some former restaurant and saying, “There it is, kids. I know it’s a sex shop today, but 18 years ago, that was the site of a lovely little Italian restaurant where I proposed to your mom.”

Grand Central will be standing for a long, long time, but Elysha’s former classroom, which for me is just as important, has only a few days or weeks left before it will be turned to rubble.

I stopped by the school yesterday to spend a few minutes in the space and take some photographs. The memories came back in waves.

The time - long before we were dating - when Elysha asked me to help her with her taxes. Wanting to date Elysha but never thinking it possible, I remember sitting beside her at a table in the back of the room, taking far longer than necessary to complete her 1040EZ just so I could spent a few extra minutes with her.

The afternoon when she first read to me a series of letters that she had collected from years before from a pair of overly-involved, possibly mentally ill parents who wrote the most hilarious, ridiculous, outrageous letters to her on an almost daily basis. Listening to her read and breathe life to these unbelievable parental requests and ridiculous protestations is something I will never forget.

The 2002 holiday season when I had paid money to a colleague to manipulate our annual Secret Santa so that I could be Elysha’s Secret Santa. I hid presents around her room, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet that eventually spelled my name.

She later said that she knew it was me from the very first gift.

After we were dating, the many times when I would leave her messages to her - on her white board, chart paper, hidden beneath papers on her desk - professing my love for her.

Those beautiful memories and so many more.

But the memory that I will always remember most took place the morning after Elysha had professed her affection for me for the first time in the parking lot of my apartment complex. Because I had just ended a relationship, and because she was ending one, too, I wasn’t sure what to say when she told me she liked me - mostly because I’m stupid - so when the girl who I already loved said those incredible, impossible words to me, I said, “Thank you,” and allowed her to drive away.

Realizing what I had done about five minutes after she was gone, I called her desperately, repeatedly,, but in those days, Elysha was famous for never turning on her phone, so every call went to voicemail. Absent the ability to send a text message or even an email, I left a voice message pleading for forgiveness and professing my affection for her, too.

“I like you! I like you! I’m sorry! I like you, too!”

The next morning, I raced to school and met her in her classroom before the school day began. As I charged into her classroom and approached her desk, she stood and handed me a letter.

“Did you listen to your voicemail?” I asked.

“No,” she said. Then before I could speak, she said, “I’m sorry. I know that was awkward last night. I hope we can still be friends.”

“No!” I said, snatching the letter from her hands. “I was stupid. I like you, too. I reject this letter. I was so stupid. Forget everything that happened last night, except for the part when you said you liked me. That was the only good part. Please forgive me for being so stupid. I like you, too. I like you a lot.”

Happily, Elysha was willing to see past my ridiculous, terrible, unforgivable “Thank you,” from the night before. We began dating.

It was March 31, 2003.

Eight months later, on December 28, 2003, I took a knee at the top steps in Grand Central Station while two dozen friends hid amongst the throngs of travelers below and proposed to the love of my life.

I never read that letter. I threw it into the trashcan as soon as I left her classroom, never wanting to see the words.

Now the room where all those wonderful and amazing things took place will be no more. Someday soon, I’ll find myself pointing to a spot in a parking lot and saying, “Look kids. See where that Toyota is parked. In that spot, a long time ago, your mother forgave me for being so stupid and gave me a second chance.”

It just won’t ever be the same.

The last day of school suddenly became very interesting

The last day of a school year can be a strange day for both teachers and students.

On the one hand, it’s a celebration. Students and teachers looking ahead at long, lazy summer days. But it’s also bittersweet for most of us. A breaking of a family that will never be whole again.

For my students, the last day of school also signals a momentous step forward to middle school. They are departing a place that has kept them safe and happy for six years.

For some students, it’s smiles and excitement.

For many, it’s sadness and tears.

As a teacher, I find myself wondering if I’ve done enough. Have I prepared them well enough for their middle school adventure? Are they ready to take on new challenges?

I worry about my kids. I can’t help it.

I found myself worrying a lot on Friday. It was the last day of school, and my students weren’t exactly being their best selves. As I tried to read to them, they were chatty and distracted. A couple of them made some poor choices as the day wore on. As I tried to make the most of our final hours together, I felt like some of my kids were doing the opposite.

It was frustrating and sad. And I worried. Are they behaving like this because I didn’t do enough?

A few hours later Elysha and I having dinner together on the patio of a local restaurant, talking about how challenging my day was, when the server arrived at my table and said, “Mr. Dicks?”

I looked up. Standing in front of me was a tall, young man who I didn’t recognize. He was smiling.

I stood up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Who are you?”

“It’s me,” he said. Then he told me his name. I couldn’t believe it.

Had you asked me before this moment to name the student who I worried about the most in my teaching career, this young man would’ve been on my short list. Maybe at the top of my short list.

I had taught this boy 14 years ago when he was a much smaller third grader. He was a smart boy back then, but he was challenging to say the least. For a multitude of reasons, his path did not seem very bright. I had thought about him many times over the years, and my heart was always filled with worry.

A couple years ago, I had even tried to find him online without success. A few mentions of a high school football career but nothing more.

Now he was standing before me.

We embraced. I asked him how he was doing. He told me that he’d just completed his junior year in college. Preparing to begin his senior year in September. Working his butt off this summer to save money.

College. I couldn’t believe it.

Near the end of the meal, when he brought me the check, he asked if I’m still teaching Shakespeare to kids. I told him I was. “The kids performed Macbeth this year.”

Then he quoted me a few lines from the play he had performed when he was a kid. The Taming of the Shrew. He even threw in a couple of lines from Macbeth that he had remembered for good measure.

Then he told me that he’s still playing chess, a game I had taught him when he was a boy.

I couldn’t believe it. All that worrying had been for naught. He had overcome his struggles and found success. He was on the path to a good career and a great life.

I was so happy for him. So relieved.

Sometimes, in a moment of great need, as you’re worrying that you haven’t done enough for your students, the universe can be very kind to you.

That was the case for me last Friday. That young man arrived exactly when I needed him most.

I still can’t believe it.

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The utterly unnecessary letter of recommendation

I was writing a recommendation letter yesterday for a friend and former colleague. It was the fourth such letter of recommendation that I’ve written in the month of June.

Though writing these letters takes time, I always find a great deal of joy in memorializing in words how I feel about the person to whom I’m recommending. Oftentimes these are people who respect and admire a great deal, so I’ve always viewed the writing of these letters of recommendation as a blessing. It’s my opportunity to let the person know exactly how I feel about them and how much they have meant to me.

It occurred to me while writing yesterday’s letter that I’ve been working at my present job for 20 years. For two full decades, I have been teaching elementary school at the same school, and for the last 17 years, I’ve been teaching in the very same classroom.

It’s been a long, long time anyone has written me a letter of recommendation.

As I was writing yesterday’s letter, I commented to a colleague who has also been working at our school for a long time how unfortunate it is that we don’t change jobs more often. While I write glowing letters of recommendation about my friends and colleagues all the time - letters that undoubtedly bring at least a little bit of joy to them - I haven’t had a letter like this written about me in forever.

Also, the last people to write my letters of recommendation were likely college professors and cooperating teachers who had only known me for a few months at most. Not exactly the kind of people who can speak with any authority or veracity about my skill and expertise.

I’m not saying that I need this kind of praise and validation of my colleagues and administrators. As some might attest, I probably feel a little too good about myself at times.

But still, it would be nice.

But since I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon (or ever), I may have received the very last letter of recommendation of my life.

But this has given me an idea:

In my ongoing campaign to write and mail 100 letters in 2019, I have decided to identify colleagues and friends who have been working in the same job for a long period of time and write them utterly unnecessary letters of recommendation:

Glowing reports on how dedicated, skilled, and talented they truly are even though they aren’t changing jobs.

Why should someone have to wait until they jump ship to find out how their colleagues feel about them? I’m going to let them know now, when it might mean even more to them.

I’m excited about this idea.

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The cusp of summer

He’s been waiting all year to make use of this gift.

The bathtub doesn’t quite cut it.

Just three more days until summer vacation for him, his sister, and his parents.

There are so many blessings to being a teacher, but as teachers with young children, there are none greater than the two months that Elysha and I will enjoy with our kids. My former principal, Plato Karafelis, used to say that choosing teaching as your profession is a lifestyle choice. You may not earn as much as your neighbor, but some things are more precious than dollars.

Summertime with your children is one of them.

This is a truly precious time in the lives of our kids, who won’t be little forever, and I’m so very happy to know that I will be spending so much of this time over the next two months with them.

I plan on making every moment count.

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Nevers

Knowing that I have a novel coming out in November written solely in list form, a friend recently offered me her “Never List.”

It was good.

So I made my own. I encourage you to make one and share as well. _____________________________________________

  • Never used an illegal drug in my entire life

  • Never bought a lottery ticket

  • Never smoked a cigarette

  • Never tasted coffee

  • Never watched a single episode of The Bachelor, The Real Housewives of Wherever, or anything involving a Kardashian

  • Never swore in the presence of my mother

  • Never shoplifted

  • Never taken a selfie

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Winners get ice cream. Losers get nothing.

I was sitting at Charlie's Little League game yesterday, thinking that we might get some ice cream if the game ended early enough, when I suddenly remembered something from my childhood:

When I was playing Little League baseball, you only went for ice cream if you won the game.

As a boy, this made sense to me.

To the victor go the spoils. Winning is rewarded. Champions receive trophies.

But just imagine what might happen if the Little League coaches of today decided that only the winning team of each game would be rewarded with an ice cream cone.

I think parents might lose their minds.

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

As a boy, I know this made perfect sense to me. I remember how exciting it was to pull out of the parking lot, waving my orange cap outside an open car window, knowing that I would be devouring victory ice cream soon.

I always wanted to win the game, but the ice cream was truly the cherry on top.

And I remember losing, too. Heading home absent any frosty reward, thinking that next time, we needed to win so I could get my ice cream cone.

Winners celebrated with frosty treats. Loser got nothing.

This all made sense to me. There were no tears. No pleading. No upset feelings. I think I would’ve been embarrassed to show up at the ice cream shack if my team hadn’t won the game.

The ice cream shack was a place for winners.

But today? I don’t know.

Charlie is playing in a developmental league right now. Coaches are pitching much of the game, and instruction takes place throughout the game. Runs are scored, but the number of runs scored doesn’t matter. Even the kids aren’t keeping track yet. But assuming that Charlie continues playing next year, he will eventually find himself in baseball games where box scores are kept and winners and losers are ultimately determined.

How I would I feel if only the winning team drove off for ice cream after each game?

I’m not sure. Honestly, I think it makes sense to me, but I’m writing while Charlie is asleep in his bed. I’m not faced with a downtrodden boy and his disappointment over his team’s failure to score more runs than his opponent. I’m not battling the notion that he tried his best, so perhaps effort should be rewarded, too.

Maybe I would crack. Maybe Charlie would get ice cream, too. I’m not sure.

But here is the one thing I know for sure:

I’m glad my parents and my coaches didn’t crack. I’m glad I only received ice cream if my team won. It made the victories that much sweeter. And it made sense to me.

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Chess boxing, people.

I am a founding member of the Blackstone Millville Regional Junior Senior High School chess club.

Quite an accomplishment.

I checked with my alma mater. The chess club no longer exists. Honestly, I’m not sure if it even continued to exist during my time at the school. But for a brief period of time, possibly a couple months, there was a chess club at my high school, and I played a role in its establishment.

As you can imagine, my membership in this esteemed organization did little by way of helping me get girls.

I also played chess with my unorthodox high school French teacher, Mr. Maroney, who I have written about before. I played more chess with Mr. Maroney than any other human being on the planet.

I also taught my wife to play chess while on our honeymoon in Bermuda.

We’re wild and crazy that way.

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Oddly, I have no idea who taught me how to play chess. I have no recollection of my parents teaching me or even playing the game, but by the time I arrived in high school, I understood the game well enough to think that a chess club was a good idea.

I teach my own students to play chess today. They love the game. Many contact me long after they have left my classroom to inform me that they continue to play today.

Chess has been a game that I have enjoyed for a long time, but I would’ve loved it more, and perhaps done better with the ladies, had chessboxing existed when I was younger.

Yes. You heard it right.

Chessboxing.

From a New York Times piece on chessboxing:

Opponents alternate rounds between chess and boxing, between a cerebral pursuit and a savage one. They will win by checkmate or knockout, or the judges’ scorecards.

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Can you believe it? Chessboxing is a real thing. It was invented by Dutch performance artist Iepe Rubingh as an art performance and has subsequently grown into a competitive sport. It’s especially popular in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia. It’s also become more popular among young, poor women in India where the sport has been seen as an alternative to traditional roles.

Just imagine:

Advance a pawn or two. Capture a knight. Punch your opponent in the head. Advance another pawn. Protect a rook with a bishop. Punch your opponent in the head again.

This is a sport made for me.

It’s not often that I feel like I was born at the wrong time in history, but this might be one of those rare times.

Never again. But a little sad.

I know this is a ridiculous waste of paper and money, and Elysha immediately went online to ensure that we would never receive a copy of the yellow pages again, but there’s a part of me that also loves seeing something old and nostalgic arrive on my doorstep once a year.

It would be fun to see items of nostalgia arrive every now and then.

Maybe a yellow, Memorex cassette featuring songs recorded off the radio, complete with the chopped-off DJ intros and the occasional American Top 40 theme song.

Elysha knew.

Here’s a crazy thing:

Apparently I make noise while listening to stories.

Elysha and I were driving home from a storytelling show recently. After each show, we run through the stories, discussing what we liked and perhaps didn’t like about each one. At one point, she said, “I know you didn’t like the ending of that story.”

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I heard you,” she said. “You make these sounds when listening to stories. I’ve learned to decipher them.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Yes” she said. “In fact, I know that you didn’t like the ending of so-and-so’s story, but then, at the last second, you changed your mind and loved it.”

I hit the brakes on the car. I couldn’t believe it. That was exactly how I had felt about the story. I hated the ending, but then, in the last three or four sentences, the storyteller flipped it and made it work beautifully.

“You can tell all that just by listening to me listening to a story?”

“Yup,” she said.

I was both elated that my wife knew me so well and absolutely terrified about what other possible unintentional auditory information I have been divulging on a daily basis.

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Can you judge a person by the quality of their spouse?

In the midst of a conversation about spouses, a friend asked, “Can you judge the quality of a person by their choice of spouse.”

My instant response was, “No. Of course not. That would presume that what you see in a person should be the same as what the world sees that person That wouldn’t be fair.”

Then I thought some more and added, “I also know some very fine people with some not-so-great spouses. And ex-spouses. Sometimes people make mistakes. Or people change. Or people settle. Or people have yet to figure themselves out. They can still be amazing people. So no. Still no.”

Then I added, “That doesn’t mean that someone’s spouse can’t make them awful to hang around when their spouse is also present, but that’s not their fault. It’s their awful spouse.”

Then I thought about my wife - Elysha - and quickly added, “Wait. Actually, yes. Maybe you can. You definitely can judge the quality of a person by their choice of spouse. In fact, you should. I hope you will.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if that equation balances as well for Elysha as it does for me.

I live with a stranger named Clara

The kids have just completed a screen-free week, thanks to the Newington school district’s initiative that encouraged kids to put away their devices and turn off their televisions for a full week.

To their credit, the school also hosted several events throughout the week like board game night and a nature hike as alternatives for families and to encourage them to find new ways to entertain themselves.

Happily, my children completed screen-free week without too much trouble. I’m sure they missed their tablets and TV, but they never complained. Instead, they filled the house with the Hamilton soundtrack (though they’ve never seen the musical) and spent lots and lots of time reading, playing with toys, drawing, and doing jigsaw puzzles.

It was really kind of lovely.

My favorite moment from the week took place on Wednesday morning. Clara - an early riser - was assembling a “Jigsaw Puzzler Museum” on the dining room table while simultaneously dancing to songs from Hamilton. When “You’ll Be Back,” King George’s song expressing his belief that the American colonists will crawl back to the British Empire once their rebellion is squashed, Clara started shouting back at the song.

“Yeah, right!” she said. “Forget it!” “Give me a break!” “Not true!”

It was hilarious.

Thus ensued a discussion about why she would’ve been a patriot in Hamilton’s day and why the loyalists had it all wrong.

A little later, she was working on a puzzle of the 50 states beside me. She said, “Look, Daddy, the thirteen colonies.”

Rather than filling in the full map, she had only filled in the territory that existed at the time of American independence. Kind of neat. A new way to approach the puzzle.

A few minutes later, she said, “Look, Daddy, the states of the Civil War.”

Once again, she had filled in only the states that faced off in 1861 during the Civil War.

I was impressed. I didn’t know that she possessed this knowledge.

A few minutes later, she said, “Look, Dad. The states of the Mexican —American War.”

“What?” I said. I had to pull up a map to confirm this one, but she was right.

Then, “Look, Daddy, the states of the Louisiana Purchase.”

I couldn’t believe it. She was right again.

Apparently her class is engaged in a map study in school, and even though she can’t put her clothing into the hamper on a consistent basis and leaves food wrappers in Elysha’s car almost daily, she can remember maps with an eerie degree of accuracy.

Little did I know.

It’s weird when your children start to become people who possess facets that you don’t know anything about.

There was a time when everything Clara knew came from myself or Elysha.

Then there was a time when even though other people were teaching her things, I still knew everything she knew.

Now she’s just a person in my house, in possession of skills and facts and opinions that I’m not aware of at all until I find myself sitting beside her before sunrise on a Wednesday morning, listening to her shout back at King George while filling in a map of the Louisiana Purchase.

It’s pretty amazing.

Attendance weirdos

When I was growing up, teachers would take attendance by calling your name.

Students would either raise their hand when their name was called or audibly respond to indicate that they had arrived safely.

When responding audibly, the vast majority of us would use the word “Here!”

On rare occasions, you’d might find yourself in a classroom with a student who instead responded with the word, “Present!”

I always thought the kids who responded with the word “Present!” had something wrong with them,

I still do.

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I was so angry at my wife, and then I wasn't.

I was speaking at an event a few months ago. A fairly prestigious event.

I wasn’t wearing a tie, and I was still wearing jeans and sneakers, but I'd put a jacket on over my tee shirt, so you know it was a big deal.

Just prior to taking the stage, the speaker before me said some things that I really didn’t like. He said some things that Elysha Dicks - who was sitting beside me - really didn’t like, either. He said some things that I suspect a lot of people in the room really didn’t like.

Not only were his opinions offensive and wrongheaded, but worse, rather than praising, he was punching.

Rather than expressing support for an institution by highlighting it’s benefits, successes, and esteemed record, he was attacking an adjacent institution that both didn’t deserved to be attacked and also wasn’t represented by anyone that night who could defend it.

It was a sucky, stupid, cowardly thing to do.

I was seething.

Then Elysha took my hand and whispered, “Don’t.”

That was all she said, but I knew exactly what she meant. Even though I had a prepared speech with stories to tell and a message to be delivered, she knew full well how simple it would be for me to reshape my talk onstage in order to either defend an institution in need of defense or - even better - attack this man for his stupidity and cowardice.

In fact, I could probably still do my assigned job very well while also blasting this terrible man and his terrible thoughts.

It would be easy.

I could switch stories. Reframe moments. Insert new lines or anecdotes. Lean stories in a certain direction. Alter my between-story banter. As a speaker, I’m flexible enough to be able to change things on the fly without much effort and still be effective.

I do it all the time. The audience would never even know that I was changing my speech. I could still sound just as prepared as I would be if I was sticking to my prepared remarks.

I could both perform my job at a high level while simultaneously making it clear to this man how stupid, nearsighted, and unfair his remarks had been.

And I was angry at Elysha for thinking that I would ever do such a thing.

This was a prestigious event, celebrating an institution deserving of many accolades. An institution that I greatly respected. I was honored to be speaking. Thrilled with the opportunity to entertain and sing the praises of this worthy place and the people who make it possible.

Did she really think I would dishonor these people by turning my speech into an assault on the previous speaker? Did she really think I was that selfish and stupid?

I was so angry. For about three seconds.

Then I realized:

  1. She knows I could do it. She knows I’m perfectly capable to verbally assaulting this man while still getting the job done. I might even be able to do so in such a way that only he would know what I was doing. She believes in me.

  2. She knows that I’m also the kind of guy who might just do it. She doesn’t think of me as some staid, perpetually appropriate, middle-of-the-road guy. She knows I have the courage and integrity to stand up for the little guy, even when the moment might not be right. She thinks I’m a rebel.

  3. She’s not entirely wrong. While tonight might be too prestigious and too important to go on the offensive, there are other times when I absolutely would.

In short, Elysha knows me. Believes in me. Even protects me from myself when she thinks it might be needed.

My anger was gone. I was joyous. Ebullient. Filled with appreciation and love.

Later, she stopped me from writing to this stupid man, explaining that my time is too valuable to waste my thoughts on surely deaf ears.

She was right about that, too.

I’m a very lucky man.

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I'm no scrub.

I’m driving somewhere when my phone rings.

It’s Elysha.

She’s calling to tell me that TLC’s “No Scrubs” is playing on the radio. She and the kids are listening to it. She tells me that she hasn’t heard the song in a long time. Then she says, “You’re the exact opposite of a scrub.”

That’s what she called to tell me. I’m no scrub.

And I kind of loved it.

That, my friends, is true love.

The complexities of baby naming, and some very bad baby naming decisions

I met a woman in Iowa last year who has five brothers and one sister. Her brothers are all named after Biblical characters whose names begin with the letter J:

James, John, Jesse, Jude, and Joshua.

Oddly no Joseph. Also no Jesus, though I suppose that might have set too high a bar for the poor kid. Job might’ve made for an interesting name, too, but perhaps her parents were ready to use all of those names if any additional boys were eventually added to the family.

Her sister's name is Anne. Named after their grandmother.

The woman who I met is named Amanda. When she was born, her parents hadn't yet chosen a name for her, so they asked a random mother in an adjacent hospital room what she had just named her newborn. The woman said, "Amy," so Amanda's parents named their newborn Amy, too. But because they thought that Amy sounded like a nickname and wouldn’t be professional enough for a possible future CEO, they officially named her Amanda but called her Amy.

When Amanda/Amy went to kindergarten, there was already an Amy in her class, so her teacher told her that she needed to be known as Amanda at school. So Amanda/Amy was Amy at home and Amanda in the classroom, which led to people occasionally think that Amy and Amanda were two different people. Amanda/Amy would occasionally be told things like, “Hey! I heard your sister Amanda did well in the science fair!”

“I’m Amanda,” she would say. “I did well.”

“Then who is Amy?” the confused person would ask.

It’s kind of crazy that Amanda’s parents invested such time and thought into the naming of six of their children but allowed the seventh to essentially be named by the person who happened to be occupying the room next door.

Right? Amanda is fine with it today, but I can’t help but wonder what her parents could’ve been thinking. Naming a brand new human being can be hard. I understand this. But this Amanda/Amy story struck me as especially crazy.

Then again, I’m also overly sensitive to the naming of babies given my last name. My father’s name, for example, is Leslie Jean Dicks. Leslie and Jean are more often girl’s names, so rather than using either one, my father decided to go by the nickname Les for his entire life.

Les Dicks. I’m not kidding.

Perhaps this seemed reasonable to him at the time. After all, his brother and his uncle were both named Harry Dicks.

Not Harold. Just Harry. I’m not kidding again.

My grandmother – their mother – was named Odelie Dicks, so perhaps these awful name combinations were simple acts of spite. “I had to suffer with Odelie Dicks for most of my life, so now it’s your turn to suffer.” My grandmother wasn’t the nicest person in the world, so this is entirely possible.

Like Amanda/Amy’s parents, my grandparents also had seven children, and the majority of her kids had more reasonable names:

Brian, Sheila, Diane, Nancy, and Neil.  

Five out of the seven named work just fine. Not a bad percentage, unless of course you’re Les and Harry Dicks.

As you might imagine, there are many other first names that do not pair well with my last name.

Jack, for example, which is a name I like but could not consider for my children. Also Holden. Richard. Abel. Scarlett. Basically any name that could also be a verb or adjective is dicey.  

My wife, Elysha, and I were keenly aware of this when she got pregnant and we began talking about baby names. 

Elysha didn’t have a name for three days after her birth. Actually, she had a name, but only for a moment. Her parents initially named her Jordan, but the doctor told them that Jordan was a boy’s name, and “life was hard enough already.”

If only he had been around when my father or uncle were named.

Adhering to the doctor’s warning, Elysha’s parents unnamed my wife. Then, only after the hospital threatened to put the name “Baby” on her birth certificate, did her parents finally name her. My father-in-law had a secretary named Alicia who neither he nor my mother-in-law liked very much, but they liked her name, so they changed the spelling (invented a new spelling, really), and finally my wife had a name.

As Elysha and I began tossing around possible names, she said that she loved the name Clara for a girl. It was the name of a character from Cynthia Rylant’s children’s book The Van Gogh Café.  

I thought she was kidding. “Clara?” I despised the name. It was an old lady name. It sounded like the kind of person who Betty White might play pinochle with on Wednesday afternoons.

I saw the fallen look on Elysha’s face when I said these words. I loved my wife. I still do. I hated being responsible for that face, so I offered to think about the name. “Don’t ask me about it again,” I warned her. “Maybe I’ll come around.”

Remarkably, I did. About two months later, I awoke one morning and found myself inexplicably loving the name Clara. I couldn’t believe it. But I didn’t tell Elysha that morning. I waited nearly a month until she called me from work one day. “I just had the worst day ever,” she said.

As she launched into a recounting of the day’s misery, I stopped her. “Wait,” I said. “I have to tell you something. I love the name Clara. If we have a girl, I want her to be Clara.”

The day’s misery was forgotten.

Clara’s middle name is Susan, named after my mother, who passed away two years before her granddaughter was born. It turns out to be a bittersweet name for me. I love knowing that my daughter carries my mother’s name with her, but hearing it spoken aloud is a painful reminder about all that my mother has missed since her death, including the birth of both of our children.

Three years later, my son was born. We named him Charles Wallace after the character in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Elysha and I are also fans of the poet Wallace Stevens so that was an added bonus.

And if you’re wondering about my name, I was originally meant to be Bartholomew.

Bart Dicks.

My mother said that she saved me from my father’s stupidity and convinced him that Matthew was a far better choice.

But perhaps it wasn’t stupidity on my father’s part. Maybe it was just plain old spite.

The fabled land of Inbox Zero

Behold!

If you’re using Gmail and also have the Gmail app on your phone, this is what you see when your inbox is empty of email.

Yes, I’m bragging.

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In truth, I’m almost always on the verge of Inbox Zero, that fabled land where no email awaits your attention. And lest you think I’m simply filing emails away for a later date, no, I do not maintain a file system in Gmail because I have Gmail.

Gmail allows everything to be archived and makes it searchable at all times. Why create folders when you can simply archive everything and search by name, subject or even single word contained within the email whenever you want?

If you’re not relentlessly trying to save time at all times, you are not valuing time enough.

However, I do reschedule emails to arrive at a more appropriate time, and if you’re not using this simple but powerful feature, please reconsider. It’s invaluable.

For example:

All tax related emails - receipts, royalty statements, foreign payments - are rescheduled to hit my inbox on February 1, 2020, when I will then forward them onto the accountant.

Tickets that I ordered for next week’s Moth StorySLAM will return to my inbox at on the date of the show at 6:00 PM, just before I need them.

Directions and details on a keynote speech that I’ll be delivering in New York in July will return to my inbox three days before the event.

Don’t allow things to clutter your inbox that you don’t need for days, weeks, or months later.

Also, emails that contain important information that I need to complete a project - things like editor’s notes, outlines for conference schedules, and vacation planning - gets moved into Evernote, where a file is created, expanded, and edited when needed. Rather than having six different emails from four different people containing important information about a conference I’m helping to organize, I simply cut and paste the pertinent information into Evernote and archive the emails.

Not only does this clear out the inbox, but it places all information on a single subject into a centrally located file, so I have everything I need at my fingertips when I find myself on a conference call or sitting down to work on the project.

If you’re a person with hundreds or perhaps thousands of email - read and unread - in your inbox, my suggestion is to declare email bankruptcy and start over. Accept the fact that you will never catch up with email unless you return your inbox to a manageable level. Simply open your email program, save the last two unread emails from your boss, significant other, and most important clients, and then archive everything else.

If you’re not using Gmail, create a folder called “Old Stuff I Should Not Touch” and drag it all into the folder. Don’t look at it for six months unless you are forced to find an old email for a very specific purpose.

Then immediately respond to the emails you preserved. Finish them off. Reach Inbox Zero and then commit to an Inbox Zero strategy like the one I’ve described.

Inbox Zero, my friends. It’s honestly not all that common for me to have zero emails in my inbox, but I’m also never more than half a dozen emails away from it, either.

Establish a system. Utilize the tools available to you. Save time. Remove clutter. Become more responsive to those who deserve it. Get more done.

A terrible decision even worse than my terrible decision

In the mid 1990’s, I was given a tour of ESPN by a programmer who I knew at the time. I sat on the SportsCenter set, shook hands with Stuart Scott and Chris Berman, and purchased a lavender SportCenter cap at the ESPN gift shop.

Or maybe it was given to me as swag as I left.

Either way, I wore that lavender SportsCenter hat for more than a year. I have no idea what I was thinking.

Lavender?
SportsCenter?

What did people think of me?

Looking back on that time, I’m embarrassed to think I walked through the world with that damn hat atop my head.

Then I saw this - the release of Windows 95 and the onstage excitement of Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and other Microsoft executives - and I suddenly felt like my wardrobe choice wasn’t the worst thing that happened in 1995.

Not by a long, long shot.

Last times

One of the books I hope to write in the next couple years will be a nonfiction account of my attempt to try things that I was once did in my youth but have not done for a very long time.

The book will center on the idea that so often in life, we do something important to us for the last time, yet we often don’t know or bother to notice that it’s the last time.

We don’t take the time or have the awareness to savor that final moment.

If you’re a parent, for example, you spend years picking up your children. Carrying them everywhere. Lifting them to hug and kiss them. Tossing them into the car. Then they get taller and heavier, and at some point, you pick them up for the very last time.

Can you imagine?

Happily, I have not reached that point with either of my kids yet, but that day will come.

Will I recognize that this is the last time I will pick up my daughter like a little girl?

Probably not. Except that every time I pick up Clara now, I savor the moment, knowing that she’s ten years-old and might stop asking to be picked up sooner than later. So maybe. I might get lucky and recognize that final lift for what it is. Maybe.

My book will be filled with slightly more exciting moments than picking up my kids. For example, for two years I pole vaulted in high school, becoming good enough to win the championship of our very small region that contained very few pole vaulters.

Most schools did not actually have a pole vaulter or pole vaulting equipment at all.

Still, I was a vaulter, and I loved it. I was looking forward to my senior season when a car accident in December of that year nearly killed me and ended my pole vaulting career short. As I recovered from my injuries, I wasn’t able to compete, and that ended my career.

The nature of pole vaulting doesn’t allow it to be a backyard or weekend sport. When I went through that windshield two days before Christmas, my pole vaulting days were over.

But I wish I had the chance to vault again. To spend some time enjoying and recognizing and savoring those final moments in the pole vaulting pit.

That is what I want to do. I want to vault again. Join a high school pole vaulting team for a season. Try to clear opening height. Enjoy this thing that I loved so much one last time.

This is what my book would be about. The chronicling of one man’s attempt to recapture his youth. Do those things that he might not be able to do anymore at all in the coming years.

I have a list of these things - about 10 in all - that I would attempt. Some are easier than others, but all would make great stories, I think. It would be a chance for me to both look into the past as well as tell stories about what’s happening in the present.

This idea has been kicking around in my head for about a decade. Last week someone sent me this video. An 84 year-old Vermont woman competing in the pole vault.

I couldn’t believe it.

Maybe time isn’t running out on some of these things as quickly as I once thought. Maybe there’s still time to do more things than I ever imagined.

Maybe there’s still time to pick up your child one last time.