How I fight crazy, strange, and beautiful people

Yesterday I wrote about my unusual Uber ride from the Jacksonville airport to Amelia Island.

In response to that post, friends and reader commented on how often I seem to meet such “interesting” and “strange” people and how my life can oftentimes seem more storyworthy than most.

This is not true, but I understand the perception. Two things make this so:

I open up a space for others to speak.

My Uber driver didn’t volunteer his conspiracy theories to me, and he didn’t launch into his misguided political diatribe unprompted. After getting into the car, I engaged in conversation. I asked him his name. I asked him if he drove for Uber for a living, which led to him describing his two other jobs.

Then I asked about those jobs. I demonstrated genuine curiosity. I learned a lot about the process of iPhone screen repair. I can now tell you the economics of mall kiosks in the Jacksonville area and the way that Apple ships parts to repair technicians. I can explain to you why repairing an iPhone screen is easier than repairing a Samsung screen, and I can explain how a nail salon can pay more than $200,000 in rent each year and still turn over an excellent profit.

All of this came from me asking questions and demonstrating a genuine interest in his life.

Then I asked him what he did in the little bit of free time he had. “Do have time for hobbies?” I asked.

“Do you like conspiracy theories?”

“Not really,” I said. “But I’d love to hear what you think.”

This is how I ended up with a story.

I open up space for people to talk and tell me stories. Instead of staring at my phone for the duration of the ride, which would’ve been easy, I decided to leave the damn thing in my pocket and engage with a human being. I did the same thing on the four flights to and from Florida. On each leg of the trip, I opened up a space for my seat mate to speak.

The first was not interested. He was watching a movie on his phone, so I did the same.

The next one spoke limited English, making conversation impossible.

The third, a young woman, fell asleep almost instantly and ended up awkwardly draped across my chest (a story in itself).

But the fourth, a man named Dave who lives in Meriden, chatted with me for a while, telling me the story of his visit with his ailing mother and “impossible sister.”

Not exactly conspiracy theories and iPhone economics, but he shared a story with me before turning back to his phone.

I talk to people. Part of this is a learned behavior after spending 15 years with my wife, Elysha, and part of it is my desire to hear stories. Engage with people. Make the moments of my life more meaningful and memorable than a screen ever will.

I tell my own stories.

While in Florida, I told a story about a challenging time during my childhood to an audience of a few hundred. I was honest, authentic, and vulnerable. I spoke about things that many are not willing to speak about.

In response, at least a dozen people shared their own stories with me. Some told me deeply personal stories about their own childhood struggles. I spoke to one man about our mutual love for the Atari 2600 game Adventure (and have since downloaded the game using an online emulator). The general manager of a hotel on the island offered me a free room if I bring my family for vacation.

One woman told me a secret that she had been carrying for more than 40 years. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke to me.

When you tell your stories, others are compelled to tell you their own, and as a result, connections are made. Doors are opened. The chance for storyworthy moments increases significantly.

It’s true that my life has been filled with some unusual moments. My life has been saved by paramedics twice. I was homeless for a period of time. Arrested and tried for a crime I did not commit. Carried from my childhood home in the middle of the night by a firefighter. Survived a horrific armed robbery. Been victimized by an anonymous, widespread attack on my character and my career. Fed my pet rabbit at Thanksgiving.

A lot of crazy stuff. You have some, too, I’m sure.

But eventually you tell all those stories. All those storyworthy moments from your past become known.

Then what?

When people say that my life seems more storyworthy than most, I point out my willingness to say yes to whatever opportunity crosses my path. My ability to see stories in moments that others do not.

But I also point out my willingness to listen. My desire to open up space and time for others to tell me their stories, and my willingness to share my own.

A storyworthy life is one filled with people. Connection and engagement. It’s about getting out of the house, turning off the television, lifting your face from the screen, and finding someone new. Doing something new. Opening your heart and mind to opportunities.

It means asking your Uber driver questions about his life rather than reading email or scrolling through social media. And finding out some disturbing facts about him in the process.

listen.jpg

I had a terrifying Uber right in Florida last night.

I spent about 45 minutes in the back of an Uber last night on the road between Jacksonville International Airport and Amelia Island.

It was almost 2:00 AM when I climbed into the back of the car, so perhaps that’s why things got weird.

My driver was quite the conversationalist and had a lot to say. He was also an avid conspiracy theorist who was anxious to spread his propaganda. Among this many beliefs were these:

THEORY #1

In the 1940’s, the United States began cloning human beings to serve as doubles for any human being who needed to be eliminated or replaced. The most famous of all these replacements:

Michael Jackson

When Jackson’s hair caught fire on a Pepsi commercial shoot in 1984, his face was also horribly burned. The only way for the King of Pop to continue to entertain was for the government to activate his replacement clone, and since the technology was not exact, that is why Jackson’s complexion seemed to change over the years.

When I asked why the government thought it necessary to replace Michael Jackson, the driver said, “Michael Jackson was amazing. The world needed him.”

THEORY #2

The Illuminati controls NASA, which is not actually a space exploration agency but instead is instead a secret bunker-building construction company designing hideouts for the wealthiest human beings for when the apocalypse comes.

His proof: NASA in Hebrew (according to him) means “To Deceive” and the Illuminati like to hide clues in the open.

“Why do they hide clues out in the open?” I asked.

“It’s cooler that way,” he said.

It was disconcerting to think that there are Americans who have been fooled into believing conspiracies like this (and so many more), but here was the most frightening of his beliefs:

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is a terrible human being because when Donald Trump gave tax cuts to corporations, lots of them gave their employees holiday bonuses but Amazon didn’t. He was working for Amazon at the time at a fulfillment center and wanted the $500 bonus that Trump had tried to put into his pocket.

Up until this point, I had only listened. But with this, I had to speak up. I said something like this:

“I’m not saying Bezos shouldn’t be doing more for workers, but instead of a a tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, how about just a plain old middle class tax cut? You know, the kind Trump promised during the campaign and then lied about prior to the midterms? Remember when Trump said his wealthy friends were going to hate his plans for taxes? They loved his tax cut on the wealthy. A tax cut for the middle class would give you a lot more than $500 in your pocket, and it wouldn’t be a one-time payment. It would help you every day.”

His response:

“Yeah, but when I’m one of the wealthiest Americans someday like Bezos, then I’m going to love me some of that tax cut.”

The man is 34 years old. He has three jobs:

He drives Uber overnight.
He does nails at his mother’s salon.
He repairs cracked screens on iPhones.

He works three jobs and has a 7 year-old daughter to support, and instead of wanting the promised middle class tax cut, he would prefer $500 in cash and a tax cut just waiting for him when he makes it big.

That was the scariest thing he said all night. He is a man who really believes that tax obligations should be apportioned with the thought that he and everyone else will someday be as wealthy as Jeff Bezos.

He’s not the only one. Again and again, Americans vote against their self-interests with some eye to a future that is unlikely for them and impossible for everyone.

Help middle class families who are living paycheck to paycheck or line the wallets of the ultra-wealthy because some day you might be wealthy, too, and until then, $500 will make you feel good.

Give me Michael Jackson clones and an Illuminati-controlled NASA any day.

amelia island.jpeg

She killed Springsteen

Early Sunday morning. I’m sitting at the table, working on my next book. Springsteen is playing on the Amazon Echo. Brilliant Disguise at the moment. One of my favorites of his songs.

My fingers are moving fast. Words are leaping on to the page. I’m feeling it.

Charlie creeps into the room, still bleary eyed. Tottering. Spiderman pajamas.

“Good morning,” he whispers.

“Good morning, Charlie.”

He walks over to me, hops into my lap, kisses me on the cheek, and says, “Can you stop this music and play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony?’

I nearly drop him. “You want what?”

“Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.”

“Who did this to you?” I ask, but before he can even answer, I know.

Kaia. The beloved much babysitter and dear friend of the family. My colleague. The musician who taught my wife to play the ukulele and apparently spent at least a portion of last night teaching my son about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and God knows what else.

Clearly not Bruce Springsteen.

Kaia. All she had to do was keep my son alive, cook him a little food, and send him off to bed.

Instead she’s taught my son to love a symphony that I will be forced to listen for about 20 minutes before he’s finally had enough and totters off to the living room to watch Captain Underpants.

Sometimes a babysitter can be too good.

IMG_4116.jpg

My wife is a teacher again.

Yesterday my wife returned to the classroom as a kindergarten teacher after spending the last ten years at home with the kids.

She worked part-time as a reading tutor between the births of Clara and Charlie, and she had a very brief stint as a teaching assistant last year, but this marks the first time she has returned to her role as a classroom teacher.

As lovely as it must have been to stay at home with the kids for all these years, Elysha’s place has always been in the classroom.

Elysha and I met while teaching in the school where I still teach. When I first saw her, I thought that she was beautiful, funny, smart, and utterly unattainable. She was like one of the cool kids - the coolest of the cool kids - and I was… me.

Our first real conversation took place about three weeks into the school year while walking around a lake at a YMCA camp with her students.

It took about a year for us to become good friends and another six months for us to begin dating.

Six months after that, we were engaged, and two years after that, Clara was born and Elysha left the classroom and became a stay-at-home parent.

When we were teaching together, our classrooms were less than 20 feet apart. As I walk by her old room each day, I am both reminded of that glorious time in our lives when we were first falling in love and saddened that I can’t simply walk up the hall and see her every day as I once could.

I have friends who would never dream of working alongside their spouses, but I am not one of those people. Teaching with Elysha was one of the best times of my life.

There were many reasons why I fell in love with Elysha, but one of them was the way she did her job. Elysha is an incredibly talented and skilled teacher who children respect and adore, and the way she partners with parents is second to none. She was born to be a teacher, and the impact that she has made on the lives of children is immeasurable.

Her dream was to return to teaching in a kindergarten classroom, and her goal was to teach in one of three schools in my school district.

She managed to achieve both, of course. A kindergarten position in one of her dream schools. Those kids and parents are so lucky. After almost a decade, Elysha is back doing what she does best.

As happy as Elysha feels about her new position, returning to the workforce after being at home for so long is a big change for all of us. That said, I am incredibly proud of the way we managed to find a way to allow Elysha to stay at home with the kids for so long.

We never really thought it would be possible, and it certainly wasn’t easy.

It was a combination of incredibly hard work, the good fortune to find publishers for my books at just the right times, and the timely launching of Speak Up, which has led me to teaching, speaking, and consulting work that has helped to keep us afloat.

Lots and lots of hard work. Also sacrifice. So much sacrifice.

It’s meant furnishing our home with hand-me-down and second-hand furniture. It’s meant staring at windows in need of replacement, floors in need of repair, and walls in need of paint and saying, “Someday…”

This meant driving cars into the ground, forgoing vacations, and finding happiness with less.

That last one was easy. It turns out that you don’t need much when you have the perfect spouse and two little kids.

The hard work and sacrifice have all been well worth it. Our kids are only little for so long, and I am so proud of the way we managed to take advantage of that precious time. Clara and Charlie will always remember their time at home with Mommy, and I know that it has helped them become the wonderful little people who they are today

My only wish is that I could’ve been home with them for all these years, too.

Elysha came home yesterday from her first day at school filled with stories about her first day. She was smiling and happy.

I am quite certain that her kindergarten students felt exactly the same way.

"Ask a Teacher" has become a permanent gig of sorts, and perhaps another step to my lifelong dream

I’m happy to report that my temporary role as columnist for Slate’s “Ask a Teacher” column has become permanent.

I wrote four columns of my own in the weeks prior to the start of school, and since then, the column has transformed into a something that a group of teacher-writers contribute to weekly, including me.

My longtime dream is to land a daily or weekly column with a newspaper, but given the state of newspapers, a column on a large, internet magazine might be a better option.

This isn’t exactly what I envisioned when I imagined myself as a columnist, but it’s a first step. My goal is for someone to allow me to write whatever the hell I want on a daily or weekly basis, but anytime someone is willing to pay you for thinking and writing stuff, it’s still a good day.

I’m also the humor columnist for Seasons magazine, which is more in line with my vision of a columnist, but this is a quarterly, regional magazine that can’t be purchased in the traditional means. Though it’s distributed to more than 60,000 households and has more than 200,000 readers, the magazine is direct mailed free of charge to all households within certain target geographic areas. 

seasons.jpg

I love writing for them, and I hear from readers all the time about those columns, but if you don’t live in the six regions where it’s delivered, you will never see my column.

Still, another great step, and it’s someone willing to pay me for my thoughts and words.

You can read all of my “Ask a Teacher” columns, including my latest answer about how to handle a student who loves to doodle in class, here.

What inappropriate things did I put in my mouth?

Tonight I’ll be taking the stage at Infinity Hall in Hartford to tell a story for Speak Up.

It will be our 60th show, stretching back to April of 2013 when we produced our very first show in an art gallery at Real Art Ways, and I have told a story at every one.

In addition, I’ve also told stories at all five of our Speak Up - Voices of Hope co-productions, as well as showcases for Unified Theater, West Hartford Public Schools, and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health,

That’s a lot of stories. In that time, I have only repeated stories twice.

Once accidentally, and once at Space Ballroom, our new venue in New Haven, CT, where we will be bringing stories first told in the Hartford area to a new audience.

Add to that the 22 Moth GrandSLAMs and 66 Moth StorySLAMs, half a dozen Moth Mainstage performances, and dozens of one-off shows. Some Moth stories have migrated to Speak Up, and some Speak Up stories have migrated to The Moth, of course, but it’s still a boatload of stories.

In all, I have told 116 different stories on stages around the country and the world.

“How do you find so many stories?” I am constantly asked.

My usual answer is Homework for Life, an exercise that first developed for myself and then began teaching. Add to that two other exercises that I detail in my book Storyworthy, and that makes up the bulk of my story finding techniques.

I also remember a lot. I have one of those memories for moments in my life. My sister is the same way. We simply recall more of our past than most people. Part of it has to do with the fraught, strange, challenging, ridiculous, and trauma-filled past that we both share.

If your life hasn’t been lovely and idyllic, you’re likely to remember more of it.

But also this:

I relentlessly look for stories. I seek them out. I turn over rocks to find them. So when I see this amusing carousel sign last weekend, I turn over a rock. I ask myself:

“What inappropriate things have I put in my mouth?”

Some have already been told onstage.

  • I swallowed a penny when I was about seven years-old, and I won a Moth StorySLAM with that story.

  • I choked on a bay leaf (and nearly had my chest cracked open by surgeons) about ten years ago. I told that story at Speak Up last year. I’m still waiting for the right moment to take it to The Moth.

  • I once drank spiked punch from a trashcan that contained a block of ice with roadkill at its center. I told that story at The Moth way back in 2011, failed to hear the timer, and spoke for eight minutes. I’ll need to re-tell that one someday.

  • I was once tricked into eating my pet rabbit by a girlfriend’s father. I won a Moth GrandSLAM with that story this year.

But then I thought:

  • I sucked my thumb well into third grade and only quit when a teacher shamed me, which led to me punching a kid in the head. That’s a story.

  • I once drank a mug of communal leftover drinks at a bachelor party and got so drunk that I started running around the VFW thinking I was being chased by evil men in bear suits. I also gave a guy a nickname that night that stuck for the rest of his life. That’s a story.

  • When I was a boy, I took communion at the Catholic Church, trying desperately to fit in but not realizing why I was even in line and what I was about to receive. The priest placed the wafer on my tongue, and I was so disgusted by the taste and the meaning of the ceremony that I spit the half chewed wafer into my hand and stuffed it into a Bible. That is a story.

  • At my best friend’s wedding, my friend, Scott, and I engaged in a stupid drinking competition which led me to drink 22 kamikaze shots over the course of eight hours and still lose the competition. That is a story.

  • Then I recalled the time about 15 years ago when my dog, Kaleigh, ate a Sudafed gel caplet. When I called the veterinarian (at 10:30 PM) to find out how serious it might be, she said, “You have about 10 minutes to get her to the hospital before her heart explodes.” That’s a story.

One sign. Five stories. Not bad.

Granted, the ability to craft these moments into full-fledged stories isn’t something everyone can do, but read my book, take a workshop or two, and start listening to stories like I do, and you’ll eventually be able to.

But the important part is to look for stories. Open your mind to them. Ask yourself questions. Explore your past. Until I saw that sign, I had forgotten four of those stories completely, and I hadn’t thought about the fifth in years. Even if I never tell them on stage, I’ve recaptured little bits of my life. I turned over a rock and found more of myself than I knew existed.

I love that. You will, too.

Zd8PnbkpSfmnyNF9w%xLXA.jpg

I threw away my bathrobe after wearing it zero times

I threw away my bathrobe a few years ago. It was soft and warm and looked lovely, but I never wore it.

I never found a single moment to wear it in the five years I owned it.

This is not to criticize anyone who wears a bathrobe after they emerge from the shower. Perhaps the bathrobe sparks joy in your life and is a critical element to starting your day.

But it takes me about 30 seconds to dry off using a towel and about 30 seconds to get dressed, and for me, additional time - even if just minutes or seconds - always sparks joy in me.

Every time I reached for my bathrobe, I thought, "Why get involved in that added step? Get dressed and get on with your day, damn it."

If you’re wondering where you might recapture a few extra minutes every day (which add up quickly), consider tossing the robe. It may be sucking the life out of you. 

And owning less stuff is always a good thing.

own less stuff.jpg

Own your domain, dummy

Wondering what kind of information Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh might include on BrettKavanaugh.com now that he has won his confirmation?

We’ll never know. He doesn’t own the domain.

The domain BrettKavanaugh.com is now a dedicated forum for helping sexual assault victims and ending rape. The website, titled "We Believe Survivors," was purchased by Fix The Court, which advocates for judicial transparency.

The domain and similar sites ending in .org and .net was purchased three years ago with the idea they could be "useful in any forthcoming Supreme Court confirmation battles," the organization's executive director, Gabe Roth, said. 

we believe survivors.png

Why Brett Kavanaugh didn’t purchase this domain years ago is beyond me.

Perhaps he was drunk with Squee at the time, writing crude, sexually explicit, and publicly shaming comments about Renate Schroeder in his yearbook.

Meanwhile, I own matthewdicks.com, as well as mattdicks.com and matthewdicks.net.

I also own my name on MySpace and Facebook, as well as the Twitter handle @MatthewDicks, the Instagram handle @MatthewDicks, and even the Pinterest handle @MatthewDicks.

When I see a new platform gaining steam, I grab my name just in case.

Even Donald Trump doesn’t own his Twitter handle. Instead, he is @realDonaldTrump.

I also own elyshadicks.com, claradicks.com, and charliedicks.com.

Someday Clara and Charlie are going to be very pleased about their genius father’s foresight and planning. To have a domain that actually matches your name is already unusual. It will only become more uncommon in the future, particularly when so much of our lives exist on the Internet.

I recommend that parents do this for their children.

I plan on telling my kids about this great news when:

  1. They understand the value of owning a domain like this

  2. I’ve said something regrettable or horrendous to them and need to find a way to get them to forgive me quickly.

I was a Boy Scout. I believe in being prepared.

What is my obstacle?

I completed a questionnaire recently in preparation for a radio interview.

One of the questions asked was:

“What personal obstacles stand in your way from living your fully realized creative life?”

I stared at the question for a long time, trying to think of what is preventing me from living my creative life to the fullest. I imagined the possible answers that someone might give:

  • Procrastination

  • Focus

  • Writer’s block

  • Doubt

  • Fear

  • Inability to manage time

  • A lack of emotional support

  • Lack of inspiration

None of these things apply to me. Even when I lacked emotional support in my life, I simply used that as fuel to work even hard. Be better. Produce more.

Spite is quite the powerful motivator.

Time might come closest to describing my primary obstacle, but if I’m being honest, I think I use the 1,440 minutes I have each day the fullest. And if by greatest obstacle is time, it’s hardly personal. We’re all stuck with 1,440 minutes per day.

And I think I use those minutes quite well.

Elysha suggested that my personal obstacle is sleep, and while she’s right about how annoyed I am about needing to sleep, that need is not exactly unique to me. I also suspect that I couldn’t be creative without the cognitive benefits of sleep.

She also suggested that my day job (teaching) is standing in the way of my fully realized creative life, but I think of teaching as a part of my creative life. Not only does it fill my heart and soul with joy, but I think of teaching as a creative art, just as much as my writing and performing.

In the end, I wrote:

“My greatest personal obstacle to living a fully realized creative life is answering stupid questions like this one. They waste my time and make me feel like a jerk for thinking that nothing is standing in my way and that I eat personal obstacles for breakfast. It also probably makes other people like me a little less, too, for saying such things.”

I’m sure the interview is going to go splendidly.

I love my jobs.

An exhaustive and depressing new study of the American workplace done by the Gallup organization indicates that among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported.

Only 30 percent of workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.

College graduates, now more than ever, earn far more than those with just a high school diploma. But the grumpiest, least happy people in the workplace are college graduates and baby boomers.

It would seem that Thoreau was correct.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” 

I’m so thankful that this does not include me.

I’m well known to have many jobs. In fact, on Friday of last week, I worked at least five jobs in a single day.

Early in the morning, before the sun rose, I wrote my column for Slate and sent it off to my editor.

Then I spent the day with my students. It was our last day at a YMCA camp in northern Connecticut, so we took a hike up Sunrise Mountain (really just a steep hill) and enjoyed a spectacular view of the Berkshire mountains.

After returning to school and getting my students safely home, I got on the phone and spent an hour consulting with a CEO on an upcoming speech she’ll be delivering next week.

Then I went home and worked on my next novel for an hour or so before my own children arrived home from school.

Later, while my kids were at Hebrew School building their candy sukkah, I met with the couple whose wedding I will be working later this month as both the DJ and minister.

Then, while I waited Elysha and the kids to return home, I worked on the new story I will be telling at Speak Up later this month.

After we read to the kids and then went off to bed, Elysha played her ukulele while I went to work on content for an app that I have been hired to develop.

Then I worked a little more on my novel before bed.

It was an unusual day for me. Most days don’t include so much variety and demand in terms of employment. Being away for four days and three night with my students had forced me to push a few things back, and that made for a busy Friday and a busy weekend in general.

The next day, Saturday, I would spend much of the day teaching a storytelling workshop at the CT Historical Society, recording our podcast, and completing another column for Seasons magazine.

When you disappear for a week, the next few days can be exhausting.

Though I admittedly never want to be as as busy as I was on Friday and Saturday, I enjoyed every bit of the work that I did. Not a single moment felt like drudgery.

Truly.

And before you think I spend all my time working, I also had plenty of time on this glorious three day weekend to watch a mediocre movie with the family, watch an excellent football game with Charlie, play golf with my friends, workout at the gym, meet with our bookclub and enjoy dinner together, clean out the refrigerator, read to my kids, enjoy meals with my family, read a book, do some grocery shopping, and help Charlie clean up his bedroom.

Much more.

I was busy, but I was happy.

And that’s the key. You need to be happy in the work that you do, and if you’re not, you need to start finding a way to be happy immediately.

Happiness is too important to delay.

That might mean quitting your terrible job and finding work that is more fulfilling. The current labor market is ripe for a change in career.

It might mean experimenting with other careers in your free time.

If you’ve always wanted to be a musician, find a band. Or form a band. Or teach yourself to play a new instrument. Start recording your original songs at home. Start making inroads into the industry.

If you’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, make a film. Many filmmakers get their start with the software on an iPhone. If you’ve always wanted to be an artist, starting painting or sculpting in your free time. If you’ve always wanted to be a farmer, plant a garden and get some chickens.

Start doing something.

If you’ve always wanted to own your own business, do it. Launch something. Find a partner or two. Start out small at first. Do the work in the evenings or on the weekends. See if you can grow it into something that allows you to quit the job you despise.

And if your dream career requires training or an education, go do that. Even if it takes you five or ten years to complete your degree, happiness is worth it.

Thoreau was right. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” 

Women, too.

I can’t imagine a worse fate. And yet according to Gallup, about 70% of Americans are suffering that fate every day.

I hope that doesn’t include you.

i-love-my-job.jpeg

How to handle a troll

While speaking yesterday at the Mark Twain House, a woman asked me how I handle criticism and the negative responses that I receive from people who read my blog, follow me on social media, watch me perform, and the like.

She pointed out that recently, someone disagreed with a position that I took on social media and was aggressive and possibly rude in their response.

It’s true. My wisdom, candor, and wit are surprisingly not always appreciated by the masses. Quite often the responses that I receive via comments on the blog, email, Facebook, and especially Twitter (where cowards hide behind anonymity) are not exactly thoughtful or respectful.

Here is how I manage to avoid allowing these unfortunate interactions to hurt me:

Most important, I am not opposed to disagreement. In fact, I thrive on it. As long as someone is respectful and sincere way in their response, I’m thrilled. Reasonable people can disagree, and the respective exchange of ideas is one of the reasons I write in the first place.

When it’s not respectful, I do this:

  1. I examine the preponderance of the evidence. I look at the responses to my writing as a whole. If the majority of people either support my position or disagree respectfully, then I focus on those responses and ignore the less thoughtful, disrespectful responses. The vast majority of people who respond to my work agree with my positions or push back respectfully. You can’t win over everyone, but if I can get most of them on my side, I’m perfectly capable of ignoring the occasional rude remark.

  2. I have always assumed that mean people are stupid. If someone responds to me with disrespect and vitriol, I simply assume that they are stupid. The world is filled with stupid people. Occasionally my words intersect with these unfortunate souls of limited intellect, and the results are regrettable but ultimately ignorable.

Assuming that mean people are stupid is a powerful and effective tool.

Admittedly, I’ve also always been a person who doesn’t care much about what other people think. As a serial nonconformist, I’ve walked to the beat of my own drummer for a long time. In fact, I look for opportunities to be different. To stand apart from the crowd. To go against the grain.

Honestly, it’s often embraced and even admired.

My favorite example is the time I attended a wedding and did not wear a tie. I don’t wear neckties anymore, seeing them for what they really are:

Pointless, decorative nooses.

It turned out that I was the only man at this rather large wedding who wasn’t wearing a tie. Halfway through the evening, a man approached me and said, “How did you get away with not wearing a tie?”

“I didn’t put one on,” I said. “I’m a grown up. I get to do what I want.”

The man instantly removed his tie and stuffed it into his pocket. It was like watching the unshackling of a grown-ass man for the first time.

I honestly don’t understand why people care so much about the opinions of others.

But if you’re not like me, the strategies listed above might help. What I couldn’t help but think after the woman asked me the question is how often people are being silenced by trolls. Human beings with important thoughts and ideas are hesitant or even afraid to do so because of the stupid people who say mean and stupid things.

Don’t allow the stupid people to stop you. They can’t help it that they are stupid. Sympathize with their lack of basic intellect. Feel sorry for their idiocy. Donate some money to an educational cause that might prevent future people from being stupid.

Move on.

The world needs your voice.

troll.jpg

Honest but kind. No, honest is kind.

An administrator once described her method of feedback to me as “honest but kind.”

“No,” I said. “Honest is kind.”

There’s nothing worse that receiving feedback from someone that is disingenuous, unnecessarily flowery, and ultimately unhelpful.

I want honesty at all times.

My literary agent is always honest about my work and my ideas for books. She loves some ideas. She does not love others. I always know exactly where I stand with her.

My wife, Elysha, is always honest about just about every aspect of my life. Sometimes this is rather unfortunate for me.

When I say something stupid, I hear about it. When I fail to load the dishwasher correctly again, she doesn’t let it slide. Earlier this year, when I proposed a few deletions from my annual list of shortcomings and flaws, she said no. Emphatically.

“No, honey. I didn’t fall in love with you for the way you look” also didn’t thrill me.

My standup audiences are brutally honest. If what I’m saying is not funny, there are no courtesy laughs. Not a second of generosity. Just slightly angry stares.

My students are aggressively honest with me. They point out every error that I make with zeal. They express their disappointment with every questionable decision I make. They tell me if I’ve gained weight. If I’m being unreasonable. They love to remind me of my age.

A few years ago, while reading about the singularity, I told my students that if I could, I would choose to live forever.

They were shocked. A bunch of them called me immature. One of them said that wanting to live forever was selfish and ridiculous. When I admitted that I would choose to live forever even if my wife and children could not, one boy called me a monster.

Last year a young lady asked for permission to see the nurse. When I asked why, she said, “Because I have something that you won’t ever have. Would you like to hear more? Or maybe you should just let me go to the nurse without asking any more questions.”

I no longer ask girls for a reason to see the nurse.

My friends are brutally honest with me about my golf game, my decision making, and everything else about my my life. Sometimes these comments hurt.

“Neckless stump with legs for arms” stung. So did “Arms like legs and legs like people.”

“You have arms like a T-Rex” proved to be incorrect after I measured my arms and proved that they were perfectly proportional to my height, but it still kind of hurt.

“You’ve actually elevated your game. You’re almost playing golf like a bad golfer now” didn’t inspire me.

“You don’t like all empathy. Just most of it,” was not my fondest moment.

Still, I’d take their honestly over glittering generalities any day. I like to know where I stand.

It may not always seem like it in the moment…

….or while you’re reflecting upon the moment later on…

…or while you’re recalling the moment years later, but honest is kind.

Always.

honesty.jpg

Many jobs. Many, many more dreams.

I met with a college graduate recently who told me that she doesn’t know what to do with her life. Has no career ambitions. Isn’t excited about any particular subject or field.

I’ll never understand this. I find it utterly incomprehensible.

I’m a person with a lot of jobs.

  • Elementary school teacher.

  • Author and columnist

  • Wedding DJ

  • Minister

  • Cofounder and artistic director of Speak Up

  • Professional storyteller and public speaker

  • Communications consultant

  • Life coach

I also occasionally earn money writing musicals and screenplays, performing standup, and most recently recording the audio version of my latest book.

My business card (designed by the clever Elysha Dicks) reads:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_d261.jpg

Despite all that I already do, the joyous and frustrating thing about my life is there is so much more I want to do. I keep a running list of careers that I would love to try if given the time and opportunity.

It includes:

  • Behavioral economist|

  • Bookstore owner

  • Therapist

  • Instructional coach

  • Attorney

  • Camp director

  • College professor

  • Financial analyst

  • CEO of Boy Scouts of America

  • Firefighter

  • Filmmaker

  • Newspaper columnist

  • Postal carrier

  • CEO of Girl Scouts of America

  • Professional poker player

  • Hot dog vendor at an MLB stadium

  • Bartender

  • President of the United States

Some careers are more realistic than others, and I’d be excited about some more than others, but I’m also passionate about every single one of them.

It kills me to think I might not be able to do them all.

With all the remarkable and fascinating and compelling things in this world, how could anyone possibly have absolutely no career ambitions?

Shouldn’t everyone have a list of possible future dream jobs?

Do you? Would you be willing to share?

A DJ, a preacher, and a bank robber, all rolled into one

I think this Venn diagram is hilarious.

venn.jpg

Also, rather oddly, I have occupied all sections of the diagram at one time in my life.

DJ: For the past 21 years, I have owned and operated a DJ company, performing more than 400 weddings and other events.

Preacher: Last year, I delivered a sermon at two different churches in Massachusetts, and next month, I will do so again at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Groton, CT. I’ve also married more than two dozen couples and conducted baby name ceremonies in my capacity as minister.

Bank Robber: In 1991, I was arrested and indicted on charges of grand larceny after a deposit of $7,000 went missing from the McDonald’s where I was working. Though my supervisors at McDonald’s did not believe that I had stolen the money and did not press charges, the police pressed charges on behalf of the insurance company.

In an effort to determine if the deposit bag might have been stolen from the bank’s night drop slot, my boss, Hope, and I attempted to steal deposits from the night drop using high test fishing line, wire coat hangers, hooks, and a magnet.

The results were less than spectacular. We were unable to extract a single deposit from the drop, and our repeated attempts resulted in about $5,000 in damages to the night drop mechanism.

Though I failed in my attempt, I was a bank robber for a moment in time.

Also, what the hell were we thinking?

I don’t drink. For my health and other good reasons.

Bad news for all you non-teetotalers:

There's no amount of liquor, wine or beer that is safe for your overall health, according to a new analysis of 2016 global alcohol consumption and disease risk.

Alcohol was the leading risk factor for disease and premature death in men and women between the ages of 15 and 49 worldwide in 2016, accounting for nearly one in 10 deaths, according to the study, published in the journal The Lancet.

Those deaths include alcohol-related cancer and cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, intentional injury such as violence and self-harm, and traffic accidents and other unintentional injuries such as drowning and fires.

For someone who drinks on only the rarest of occasions, this was great news. Not that I wish ill will upon all my alcohol-drinking friends, but validation of your chosen lifestyle is always appreciated.

If only the same thing could be found to be true about vegetables.

Though it’s great to hear that avoiding alcohol might be good for my health, here’s another reason why I’m glad I almost never drink:

Last week I was the first responder to a serious vehicular accident. I was sitting in my car, waiting in line at a traffic light in front of a McDonald’s restaurant. In addition to several other cars waiting for the light, there was a large truck, and then a motorcycle, and then me, lined up in a row, waiting for the light to change.

The motorcycle was partially blocking the entrance to the McDonald’s parking lot.

A car traveling in the opposite direction turned left in order to enter the McDonald’s parking lot and apparently failed to see the motorcycle between the truck and me. As a result, the car plowed right into the motorcycle, throwing the rider - who wasn’t wearing a helmet - onto the pavement and under his bike.

It was not good.

The driver of the car veered right, nearly hitting my car before screeching to a halt, but she did not exit her vehicle. Being the one closest to the accident and the only real witness, I put my car into park and jumped out, running to the man. His head, face, and hands were bloody, and he was in an enormous amount of pain. His leg was probably broken, and there were likely other injuries as well.

It was a bad scene.

I managed to get him out from under his bike when an off-duty police officer who was inside the McDonald’s appeared and immediately took charge of the scene. I assisted for a bit, holding a tee shirt over the man’s head wound, but the paramedics and police were on the scene in just a couple minutes, moving me away and thanking me for my assistance.

I gave a brief statement to a police officer about the accident and then returned to me car, blood still on my hands and forearms.

It was a scary scene, capable of traumatizing anyone, but being a sufferer of PTSD, I knew that it was going to create problems for me for quite a while.

I could already feel it in my bones.

When I told my friend, Shep, about the accident the next day, the first thing he said was, “That’s not good for yourPTSD. Huh?”

It’s good to have friends who understand you so well.

Elysha and the kids were gone for the weekend, which meant that I would be home alone that night and the next, making things even more difficult.

After arriving home and showering off the man’s blood, I suddenly and surprisingly found myself wanting to drink. For the first time in well over a decade, I had the genuine urge to consume alcohol. Rather than dealing with what I had just witnessed and all that it had stirred up inside me, my sudden desire was to numb the pain with alcohol.

I think the prospect of being alone for the next 48 hours had a lot to do with it.

But as I said, I don’t drink. Except for the occasional champagne toast, I rarely consume alcohol anymore. So even though I suddenly found myself wanting to drink, the fact that I’m not really a drinker made this desire to drink surprising, odd, and inexplicable but not realistic.

It’s just not a thing I do.

My sudden desire to drink probably wasn’t very different than the person who has a tough day at work and goes home for a glass or two of wine. Or the person who receives some bad news and ends up at the bar, downing a few beers with friends. Or the person who attends happy hour on a Friday as a means of blowing off a little steam.

All perfectly normal.

My desire was to avoid confronting the issues that the accident has caused within me. I didn’t want to think about the man, his blood, his screams, and all the things from my past that the accident had unearthed. While my desire to drink made some sense, alcohol would’ve only delayed my processing of these issues.

So instead, I dealt with my issues in the way I have been taught. And yes, I suffered some nightmares. I also found myself locking doors in the middle of the day. I had difficulty moving from room to room in my house that night. The ringing of the phone startled the hell out of me.

I was more than on edge for a few days.

But I dealt with it. I processed it and moved on. I was able to push aside any desire to relax with a couple drinks (or more) because I don’t drink.

This isn’t an indictment on people who do drink. Most of my friends drink to some degree.

Most of my friends don’t also suffer from PTSD.

But I’ve also always been someone who has avoided potential problems like these whenever possible. I’ve never used an illegal drug in my entire life for the same reason. Though I had many, many opportunities to experiment with drugs throughout the years, I always said no, fully aware of the potential devastation that drugs can cause.

Many people began their drug addiction through the desire to simply experiment. I wasn’t ever going to run that risk.

While I’m not opposed to the legalization of marijuana and have no issue with anyone who wants to use it recreationally, I don’t see myself ever using it. Why run the risk of finding myself wanting or needing it at some point?

When my doctor proposed that I go on a cholesterol-lowering medication because my cholesterol was slightly elevated, I opted to change my diet instead. I ate oatmeal for lunch for an entire year and lowered my cholesterol by 50 points. I didn’t want to become dependent on a medication that was avoidable with a change in behavior and a hell of a lot of fiber.

So it’s good news that my avoidance of alcohol might turn out to be a very healthy choice, but for me, it’s always been more about the freedom from ever wanting or needing to drink.

I’ve never wanted to be the person who needs a glass of wine to relax. Or a few beers to have a good time.

Or something to numb the pain of trauma.

red-wine-glasses-story-top.jpg

Not every service dog is equal

I was standing in line at CVS. The person in front of me, placing items on the counter, was blind. She had a service dog at her side. As the woman’s items were being scanned, the dog stuck its muzzle into the Snickers bars, pulled one out, and in seconds had bitten the candy bar in half and had begun eating.

I was astounded.

The CVS employee who was ringing up her items saw all this and alerted the woman to the problem. She apologized profusely and pulled the candy bar from the dog’s mouth.

A manager appeared a moment later. Remaining on our side of the counter, she told the woman not to worry about the candy bar and began expediting the processing of her items. As she did, the dog’s muzzle disappeared into the Hersey bars and was eating one of those in seconds.

Again, I couldn’t believe it.

The manager noticed this and alerted the woman, and once again, she pulled the candy bar from the dog’s mouth, scolded the dog, and apologized profusely. As she did, the dog grabbed a bag of peanut M&M’s, ripping the bag open and scattering M&M’s across the carpeted floor.

More disbelief. More apologies. More cleanup.

By now the CVS employee had finished ringing up the woman’s items and the transaction was complete. She and the dog, accompanied by the manager, retreated to the area by the doors to the store with the partially eaten candy bars, where they seemed to be trying to determine how much chocolate the dog had actually consumed.

I’ve met very few service dogs in my time. I’m sure that not every service dog is equal. Some are certainly more effective and obedient than others.

There’s probably a bell curve of effectiveness for service dogs, as there are with most things.

But I think I may have seen the worst service dog on the planet that day. A dog that actually makes life more difficult for their visually impaired owner.

Witnessing greatness is always thrilling, but witnessing the absolute worst ever is pretty entertaining, too.

CVS-Near-Me.jpg

Names are interesting. And confusing.

I met a woman in Iowa who has five brothers and one sister. 

Her five brothers are named after Biblical characters whose names begin with J.

James, John, Jesse, Jude, and Joshua.

Her sister's name is Anne. It was their grandmother's name.

The woman who I met is named Amanda. When she was born, her parents hadn't chosen a name, so they asked a random woman in an adjacent hospital room what they had just named their new baby. The new mother said, "Amy," so Amanda's parents named her Amy, too.

But because they also thought that Amy sounded like a nickname and was not professional enough for a possible future CEO, they named her Amanda but called her Amy.

Because this all makes sense.  

When Amanda/Amy went to kindergarten, there was already an Amy in the class, so the teacher told her that she needed to be called Amanda at school.

I once had three Matthews in my class (not including me) and three Julias in my class, but apparently this teacher couldn’t keep two Amys straight.

So Amanda/Amy was Amy at home and Amanda at school, which led to people occasionally thinking Amy and Amanda were two different people.

Remember: Amanda/Amy's parents named their sons in a very specific Biblical/alphabetical way. And they named her sister after a deceased grandparent. But Amanda/Amy, who was third born, received a name based upon the name of another random baby who happened to be born around the same time. 

Then she got another name, too, because that first name wasn't good quite enough but also somehow good enough, too.

Parents name babies in the strangest ways sometimes.

My wife almost didn’t have a name. Her parents originally named her Jordan, but the doctor told them that Jordan was a boy’s name, so they abandoned their choice. Then they hemmed and hawed about a new name for so long that the hospital threatened to put “Girl” on the birth certificate.

They finally settled on Elysha, which was the name of my father-in-law’s secretary. Apparently they didn’t love the secretary but liked the name a lot. They wrote all the various spellings of Elysha on the back of an envelope and then chose one.

My wife’s name would be Jordan today if the doctor hadn’t opened his big mouth.

Elysha and I took were slightly more purposeful in the naming of our children.

Our daughter is named Clara Susan. Clara is the character in one of my wife’s favorite children’s books, The Van Gogh Cafe, and Susan was my mother’s name.

Our son is named Charles Wallace, which is also the name of the character from A Wrinkle in Time, a book that my wife and I love. We also love the poet Wallace Stevens, who lived and worked in Hartford, CT, so Wallace was an added bonus.

As for me? I was originally going to be named Bartholomew, but my mother claimed to have “saved me” from my father’s terrible choice by telling the nurses that I was Matthew before he even had a chance to meet me.

Choosing a name without your husband’s consent. Also a strange way to name a baby.

baby names.jpg

Ocelots have a lot of sex. My daughter told me.

My daughter, Clara just told me that an ocelot mates up to 70 times each day.

My first thought: Sounds like a hell of a lot of fun to be an ocelot.

My second thought: Did my nine year-old daughter just tell me that the ocelot has sex up to 70 times a day?

My third thought: Does Clara even understand what mating (or sex) means?

My last thought: I really, really hope she doesn’t ask me to explain mating at 6:12 AM.

ocelot.jpg

Empathy vs. I believe in you

I’ve been accused of lacking empathy on more than one occasion.

This accusation takes many forms, but the most common one goes something like this:

I fail to recognize and acknowledge the struggles and limitations of others, as well as the advantages that I enjoy. As a result, I often expect more than is sometimes possible from others. Essentially, I believe that if I can do something, so can you. It’s merely a matter of effort, focus, and desire.

This, according to my accusers, is simply not always true and is the result of my lack of empathy.

Perhaps it’s true. I acknowledge that my viewpoint fails to take in a host of factors that might impact someone’s personal trajectory, many of which are beyond a person’s control:

Mental illness. Intellectual limitations. Physical disabilities. Aging parents. Family illness. Depression. Financial insecurity. Unavoidable, external forces.

All true.

But couldn’t this also be true:

I simply believe in people more than they believe in themselves. I fundamentally believe that almost every human being in the world - myself included - is capable of more than they are currently achieving and possesses the potential for greatness, just waiting to be realized.

Is my problem a lack of empathy or a belief in people beyond their own imaginations?

empathy.jpg

A job is a job. Only a douchebag would think otherwise.

Did you hear about Fox News reporting on former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens being spotted bagging groceries at a New Jersey Trader Joes?

The shopper who spotted the actor said that she was grocery shopping with her wife on Saturday evening when she recognized Owens and took some photos.

Then the news outlet decided to purchase those photos and make it a story.

This is awful, of course. Job shaming at its finest. Though Geoffrey Owens has continued to act and appeared in guest spots on TV shows such as "Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "That's So Raven" and most recently starred in an episode of "Lucifer" in 2017, it''s certainly not news if he's choosing to bag groceries when the acting jobs aren't paying the bills.

Job shaming is nothing new, and I hate it. I’ve experienced a bit of it in my time.

When I was 16 years old, I started working at McDonald's, and by the age of 17, I was a manager in the restaurant. I continued to manage McDonald's restaurants throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut from 1987 when I finally graduated from college in 1999. 

It's how I put myself through college. 

Though I've worked many jobs before and since then, including as a elementary school teacher, a novelist, a magazine columnist, a public speaker, a wedding DJ, and the founder and creative director of Speak Up, no job has come close in terms of difficulty as managing a McDonald's restaurant. 

Motivating 60-80 people - high school students, stay-at-home moms, immigrants, retirees, parolees, non-English speakers, high school dropouts, and side hustlers - to work together for little more than minimum wage was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Add to that managing labor and food costs, scheduling, customer relations, calculating P&L statements, equipment calibration and repair, vendor negotiations, training, advertising, board of health inspections, and being the best at every position in the restaurant - made this job incredibly demanding.

Both mentally and physically.

Yet when I left McDonald’s for teaching, people would say things to me like, “I don’t know how you did that mindless work for so long,” and “Thank God you escaped that hellhole.”

Hellhole?

McDonald’s taught me to manage my time effectively. Delegate responsibility. Prioritize. Communicate and collaborate with people from background entirely different than my own. I learned about responsibility. Integrity. Motivation. Hard work.

I learned to crack four eggs in two hands simultaneously. Clean and repair HVAC units. Swear in Spanish.

I believe that every Fortune 500 company - regardless of the nature of their business - would do well by identifying the most successful McDonald’s managers in the country and stealing them for their own companies. These are motivated, intelligent, and gritty people who would serve your organization well.

Once you can manage a fast food restaurant successfully and profitably, you can do anything.

Some of the finest people who I have ever known have been the McDonald’s managers who worked alongside me.

Yet I also know what people thought of me when I managed those restaurants. Some of the customers would say these terrible things right to my face.

Happily for Geoffrey Owens, his story has a slightly happy ending. In an interview, he explained that much of his financial struggle is the result of The Cosby Show being pulled from syndication because of the Bill Cosby’s sordid past coming to light.

But upon hearing about this incident, Tyler Perry spoke up, offering Owens a 10-episode deal on his own show, “The Haves and the Have Nots.”

Despite the opportunity, Owens also understands that he still may need to go back to Trader Joe’s at some point.

He explained that acting is calling. “I’m going to keep pursuing it,” he said. “I’m going to persevere. And even if that means, that eventually when all this hoopla dies down, I might need to take another job outside of the business. I’m still willing to do that.”

And no one should think there is anything wrong with that.

Matthew Dicks McDonalds.jpg