Vermont getaway

I write these words from the sitting room of a beautiful bed and breakfast in the town of Dorsett, Vermont.

Three days ago, I told Elysha that I was surprising her with a weekend getaway to an undisclosed location. “Pack a bag for the weekend. We’re heading north.”

It’s been a glorious three days, thanks in large part to our friends, Kathy and Eddie, who are entertaining our children while we are away, and especially Kathy, who also recommended this particular location and helped make it happen.

This is just the second time in ten years that Elysha and I have gotten away alone. We traveled to Kennebunkport, Maine, three years ago to celebrate our tenth anniversary together, but I had pneumonia during our trip - a fact that I concealed from Elysha until we returned home- so that trip was a little more challenging for me.

This one has been splendid. We’ve met remarkably kind and interesting people and seen remarkable things. We visited Hildene, the former home of Robert Todd Lincoln and the Lincoln ancestors, with its stunning views and fascinating history. We drove to the summit Mount Equinox to take in the views of four states from the top. We’ve visited little shops, spectacular restaurants, and our old friends at Northshire Bookstore. We’ve dined on the sweetness of maple candy and watched the Yankees less-than-sweet loss to the Houston Astros, thus ending their season.

There were a few other bumps along the road, including:

  • After dinner last night, we drove around, searching for something called the Festival of Darkness and failed to find it. Perhaps that was a lucky thing.

  • We stopped by a goat farm that really didn’t deserve a single moment of our time. Why would anyone think that watching goats be goats could be entertaining?

  • We listened to an exceptionally loud server on the other side of a restaurant talk about putting her dog to sleep. She’s retiring tomorrow after a multi-decade career - a fact we also leaned thanks to her volume - so in this case, our timing was off by a couple of days.

  • I walked in on one of the other house guest while she was sitting on the toilet, because that is what I do.

Mostly Elysha and I have held hands and enjoyed the foliage of Vermont while thinking about our kids.

My postage stamp mia culpa

Yesterday I shared a series of text messages between my wife and me that did not go well. While standing in the post office, I watched a woman spend five minutes examining all of the possible postage stamps, hemming and hawing, before choosing the one that she liked. As I watched this happen, I sent a text message to my wife declaring that all people who engage in this behavior insane.

She responded a moment later, informing me that she engaged in this very same behavior on a regular basis.

“That’s me,” she wrote. “I love pretty stamps.”

As this post was disseminated on my blog and social media, the response was almost immediate.

Lots and lots of people engage in this behavior, and all came running to Elysha’s defense. Apparently there is an enormous number of people who want to put pretty stickers on envelopes before sending those envelopes away forever.

I was shocked.

While I would like to officially retract the accusation of insanity, I’d also like to take a moment to explain my faulty rationale. It comes down to one simple belief:

I couldn’t imagine anyone of sound mind wasting a precious second choosing a stamp that will eventually be ignored or forgotten.

In short, I can’t imagine not making almost all decisions based upon the preservation of time.

And yes, I understand that it’s requires an exceptionally short period of time to choose a stamp. I also understand that these stamps often represent works of art. I even understand that the stamp you place upon a letter might even say something about you, but in almost all things - but especially in all chores, tasks, errands, and the life - I always default to the fastest, most efficient method of completion.

It’s why I shop for groceries while almost running through the aisles. It’s why I have experimented to determine the fastest way to empty a dishwasher. It’s why I try to keep my showers under 100 seconds by counting while washing. It’s why most of my clothing decisions have defaulted to set “uniforms” for each part of my daily life. It’s why I live my life by routines that allow for the least number of wasted steps and lost time.

When it came to purchasing stamps, I simply could not imagine spending one second longer in the post office that what was necessary.

I understand that not everyone focuses on the preservation of time like me. I also understand that people value things differently than me. I also understand that running through a grocery store or timing the emptying of a dishwasher or wearing the same thing on stage every night might seem a little crazy, but I think of time as my most precious commodity, and I want to spend as much of it as possible with the people I love and the work that I adore.

This means that I’ll take those flag stamps if it means I can arrive home two minutes earlier and therefore spend two extra minutes with Elysha or the kids or the cats.

I’m not saying that I’m right in this approach. After all, I’m a guy who takes cold showers that are less than 100 seconds long. I choose the shirt that I’ll be wearing for work based upon whichever shirt has migrated to the top of the pile. I try to take the inside lane while walking in hallways and cut corners as often as possible, knowing that doing so might save me a few seconds on my trip.

Perhaps I am the one suffering from insanity, which is why I once again retract my previous statement. If the pretty stamp that you affix to your water bill or perfunctory thank you note makes you happy, who am I to cast aspersions?

A crazy person. That’s who.

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Shortcomings and Flaws: 2019

Years ago a reader accused me of being materialistic after I wrote about my lack of a favorite number, specifically criticizing me for saying that when it comes to my salary, my favorite number is the largest number possible.

After properly refuting the charges of materialism, I acknowledged that I had plenty of other shortcomings and offered to list them in order to appease my angry reader. Then I did. Then I added to the list when friends suggested that I had forgotten a few.

Nice friends. Huh?

So began an annual tradition of posting my list of shortcomings and flaws, starting first in 2011 (the list only had 10 items that year), and continuing in 201220132014201520162017, and 2018.

I'm happy to report that although the list remains relatively long (33 items this year), I'm removing one item from the list.

*** I take little pleasure in walking.

Somehow I’ve managed to find an appreciation for walking. I’d still rather be running, playing golf, or anything else to make the walk more productive, but stick me in a forest or on a mountain and I’ll happily walk.

I also thought that I might remove:

*** I can form strong opinions about things that I possess a limited knowledge of and are inconsequential to me.

Elysha says no. She points out that I enjoy staking opinions for the sake of debate, even when I’m not prepared to stake out a position.

Fine…

I also wanted to remove these two:

*** I drink too much Diet Coke.
*** I wear my wireless headphones way too much.

I’ve stopped seeing either of these as a negative., but I know that the rest of the world does (actually, my doctor has no problem with my Diet Coke consumption), so I’ll accept their assessment for the time being.

Many new flaws and shortcomings were proposed - some in jest - but quite a few in reality. A couple that were seriously considered:

*** I don’t sleep enough.

I’ve certainly heard this one before, but when this accusation is leveled against me, I always respond by asking if I ever appear tired. Do I complain about being exhausted? Am I not productive enough during the day because of fatigue? Do I look like I need more sleep? Did you know that I often awaken without an alarm clock and pop out of bed like a jack-in-the-box? Did you also know that even though I only sleep 4-6 hours every night, I spend almost every moment of that time asleep? I don’t watch television or read in bed, and I fall asleep almost instantly. I don’t waste a moment of time while in bed.

If I felt tired or fatigued or lethargic, I would sleep more. I just don’t.

*** You correct people when they didn’t need to be corrected.

This was something someone noticed me doing to Elysha on the podcast, but I asked Elysha if it was true, and she says no. When I correct Elysha on the podcast, it’s for very specific reasons, mostly related to the fact that thousands of people listen to each episode, and if you allow an error to stand, you’re going to get email about it or mislead people in an annoying direction.

I would expect the same from here.

*** You may be too presumptuous in assuming that your followers (both nice and naughty) care all that much about your self-crested lists of flaws.

This made me laugh, but it’s not an assumption I make. Some of my posts - like this one and my monthly resolution updates - are admittedly written more for myself than my readers. I’m holding myself publicly accountable, but I never think that a post like this will be popular or well read (though my resolution updates are surprisingly popular).

Therefore, for just the second time ever, no new items have been added to the list. I may finally be evolving into a better human being.  

If you would like to propose an addition to the list, please let me know, and it will be considered.

Matthew Dicks’s List of Shortcomings and Flaws

1. I have a limited, albeit expanding palate (though I'd like to stress that my limited palate is not by choice).

2. I am a below average golfer (but showing rapid improvement this year).

3. It is hard for me to empathize with adults with difficulties that I do not understand and/or are suffering with difficulties that I would have avoided entirely.

4. I have difficulty putting myself in another person’s shoes. Rather than attempting understand the person, I envision myself within their context and point out what I would've done instead.

5. I do many things for the sake of spite.

6. I have an unreasonable fear of needles (though my PTSD definitely plays a role in this).

7. I become angry and petulant when told what to wear.

8. Bees kill me dead.

9. I become sullen and inconsolable when the New England Patriots lose a football game.

10. I lack adequate empathy for adults who are not resourceful or are easily overwhelmed.

11. I can form strong opinions about things that I possess a limited knowledge of and are inconsequential to me.

12. I am unable to make the simplest of household or automobile repairs.

13. I would rarely change the sheets on my bed if not for my wife.

14. I eat ice cream too quickly.

15. I procrastinate when it comes to tasks that require the use of the telephone (visual voicemail has corrected this problem on the cellphone but not on my landline at work)

16. I am uncomfortable and ineffective at haggling for a better price.

17. I am exceptionally hard on myself when I fail to reach a goal or meet a deadline.

18. Sharing food in restaurants annoys me.

19. I drink too much Diet Coke.

20. My dislike for ineffective, inefficient, or poorly planned meetings causes me to be unproductive, inattentive, and obstructionist at times (I’ve adjusted the language on this one to acknowledge that some meetings are necessary and acceptable)

21. Disorganization and clutter negatively impacts my mood, particularly when I cannot control the clutter myself

22. I am overly critical of my fellow storytellers, applying my own rules and standards to their performances.

23. I think less of people who nap (though I've come to accept and even embrace the 10-15 minute power nap in the middle of the work day, I still think that anyone who is napping on a Sunday afternoon for three hours or comes home from work and naps until dinner is at best a disappointment).

24. I lack patience when it comes to assisting people with technology.

25. I don't spend enough time with my best friend (I’m trying like hell to fix this).

26. I have a difficult time respecting or celebrating someone's accomplishments if economic privilege, nepotism, or legacy assisted in their success in some way.

27. I believe that there are right and wrong ways of parenting. 

28. I love saying, "I told you so" so freaking much.

29. I wear my wireless headphones way too much.

30. I consistently screw up my wife's laundry regardless of how careful I think I am, 

31. My blog entries contain far too many typos, despite my loathing of typos.

32. I leave my credit card at restaurants far too often.

33. I don't ride my bicycle - alone and with my kids - nearly enough.

I'm worried that Frost's poems will someday die

I dreamt last night that the Earth’s orbit was temporarily shifting towards the sun, which would briefly raise temperatures high enough to kill nearly every living thing on the planet.

Great dream, Huh?

Actually, in my dream, Paul McCartney had built some kind of refrigerated house, so he thought he might survive, but experts doubted it.

I spent great portions of this dream trying to find way to avoid death for me and the family while simultaneously imagining the horrors of being cooked alive and watching my family suffer a similar fate.

You can see why I don’t love sleep.

And yes, I know that the orbit of the Earth would never bring it in temporary proximity to the sun, though there might be a scenario in our future where sun spot activity could wipe out most of our electronics and send us back to the Dark Ages for years.

In fact, it nearly happened in 2012, but please don’t Google it. It’s terrifying.

But here was the moment of the dream that interests me most:

It occurred to me - in the dream and now while I’m awake - that if every human being on Earth died, then all of Robert Frost’s poetry would die, too. So, too, would the music of Springsteen and the plays of Shakespeare and the philosophy of Plato and the fiction of Twain and Morrison and Atwood and Vonnegut and Rowling.

All of our art would be lost.

Human beings die all the time, but our greatest art lives on forever. Unless, of course, the human race ceases to exist. Then our art will also cease to exist.

Two roads will only diverge in a yellow wood as long as there are humans alive to read and recite those lines.

The loss of that great art suddenly seems even more tragic to me than the end of our species, and just like that, the timeless nature of our art seems a lot less timeless.

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Seeking submissions for my annual list of shortcomings and flaws

Years ago a reader accused me of being materialistic after I wrote about my lack of a favorite number, specifically criticizing me for saying that when it comes to my salary, my favorite number is the largest number possible.

After refuting the charges of materialism, I acknowledged that I had plenty of other shortcomings and offered to list them in order to appease my angry reader. Then I did. Then I added to the list when friends suggested that I had forgotten a few.

Nice friends. Huh?

So began an annual tradition of posting my list of shortcomings and flaws, starting first in 2011, and continuing in 20122013201420152016, and 2017, and 2018.

The time has come to assemble my list for 2019, which means I will be reviewing the 2018 list carefully, hoping that I might be able to remove a few and looking to add any that I think might be missing. 

As always, I offer you the opportunity to add to the list as well. If you know me personally or through this blog or my books or my storytelling or my podcast and have detected a shortcoming or flaw to add to the list, please let me know. I will be finalizing and publishing my list in about a week, so don't delay. 

I look forward to hearing about all the ways in which you think I suck. 

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I'm not stopping.

I’ve always thought that “No right turn on red” signs were stupid and therefore entirely optional.

I’m sure there is some reason why particular intersections have been deemed too dangerous to allow right turns on red, but I’m also sure that this is nonsense. Not unlike the addition of a four-way stop signs at an intersection following an accident.

Just because one moron can’t drive safely doesn’t mean that we all need to stop for now and ever more.

But last night, while driving Elysha and her parents home from a show, I took a right on red and my father-in-law said, “You know, you could get a ticket for that.”

“For what?” I asked.

“Taking that right on red without stopping first”.

The right turn in question was at a three-way intersection. I was traveling on a main road and turned right on red onto the intersecting road. But there was no road opposite of my intersecting road where another car might be coming.

“I have to stop my car before taking a right on red?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

My mother-in-law concurred.

The Internet also agrees. It’s a law.

Fascinating. I’ve been driving for 30 years and have never once adhered to this rule, which leads me to ask:

If I’ve been failing to stop before taking a right turn on red for 30 years without being ticketed, should I assume that I’m good for another 30 years, or should I acknowledge that I’ve been pushing my luck and conform to the law?

I’m going with the former, of course. While I certainly look to see if there is oncoming traffic before turning right on red, there is no way in hell that I’m going to start coming to a complete stop if it’s not necessary, particularly after three decades of avoiding the law.

Do people really do this? Do they really come to a complete stop? I’ll be watching now to see.

And if I’m turning right on red at a three-way intersection, where there can’t be any oncoming traffic (because there is no road), I’m definitely not stopping or even looking before turning.

Like I did last night.

This is because to stop and look to ensure that another automobile isn’t approaching from that stand of maple trees or that field of wildflowers or that school playground, or in the case of last night’s turn, that residential home, would be insane.

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Three strange medical stories

In the spirit of “If something strange is going to happen, it’s probably going to happen to me” comes three medical anomalies that have occurred to me in just the last seven years.

I receive the pneumonia vaccine.

Did you even know that the pneumonia vaccine existed? I didn’t, and most people don’t. But after having contracted pneumonia four times over the course of ten years, my doctor said to me, “I’m going to give you the pneumonia vaccine.”

“The pneumonia vaccines?” I said. ‘I’ve never heard of the pneumonia vaccine.”

“Of course you haven’t,” my doctor replied. “It’s a shot we give to elderly women . And now you.”

A bunch of old ladies and me. Of course.

I get tubes put into my ears.

For reasons that no doctor could ever explain, my left ear began getting blocked with fluid a couple years ago. After having it cleared twice without success, my ENT recommended that I get tubes in my ears.

“The kinds you put in kids’ ears?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Those.”

It hurt like hell while he was putting the tubes in, so I asked, “How do you do this to kids without them flipping out?”

“Oh, We put them to sleep,” he said.

After suggesting that maybe I could’ve been put to sleep, too, I asked him how many adults get tubes put into their ears.

“I think you’re my first,” he said. “This never happens to adults.”

Of course.

I contract canine scabies.

About seven years ago, our now-deceased dog, Kaleigh, contracted canine scabies, which is an impossibility in itself since contracting them requires a dog to come in contact with an animal with scabies. Usually a fox or squirrel or some other wild animal. Kaleigh was never off a leash, and she never came in contact with any wild animal that I can recall, so how she managed to contract the scabies will forever be a mystery.

However, we had no idea that she had canine scabies. When rashes began appearing on all of us (including newborn Charlie), we feared that it was bed bugs. We had multiple bed bug companies come into our home to inspect, and the opinions differed amongst the experts,.

It was a summer of hell.

Eventually, Elysha took the kids to her parents to escape, and I was left to await bed bug treatment when I happened to bring Kaleigh to the vet for a routine visit, and the doctor diagnosed canine scabies almost immediately. There were so many live scabies on her body, in fact, that I was then asked to bring a sample of her hair and skin to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, who had never seen a live sample before (and doubted that they were even scabies until putting them under a microscope).

It was quite a visit.

Kaleigh’s treatment was two weeks of heart worm pills, which killed the scabies almost immediately, but the humans reported to the dermatologist for treatment

I asked the vet if I could just take the heart worm pills, too, and he said, “I might, but I can’t recommend it for you.”

The dermatologist examined our skin. On Elysha and the kids, the rashes were caused by the contact of scabies to their skin, as expected. An application of some head-to-toe cream several times would clear up the problem.

But on my body, and especially my forearms, the scabies had actually burrowed into my skin.

Nice. Huh?

The doctor then asked if she could take photos of my skin.

“Why?” I asked.

“You’re the first human being we’ve ever seen who has live canine scabies under the skin like this. We didn’t think it was possible. These picture will probably end up in a medical journal.”

Of course.

Offense kleptomaniacs

Someone recently introduced me to a term that I like a lot:

Offense kleptomaniacs

These are people who - no matter what was intended - will take offense, often unjustifiably.

You say one thing. They hear another.

You do one thing. They see another.

In my life, offense kleptomaniac often lift their ugly heads when I find a corner to cut, an advantage to seize, an opportunity to snag, or a new road to take. They become angry and outraged because I saw something before they did or I had the courage or daring or insight to try something that initially seemed dangerous or unexpected or unwise or against the rules.

I take an unanticipated step forward. They see it as me shoving them back.

Many years ago, when a large-scale initiative was first introduced at our school, I quickly put together my own team of teachers - all close friends who shared a similar skill set and who I enjoyed working alongside- before administration could assign teams. Then, as teams were being considered for the initiative, I presented our already-assembled team to administration and asked that it be allowed to stand.

It was.

Offense kleptomaniacs - people who could’ve done the same thing and still could’ve done the same thing after discovering what we had done - took this maneuver as a slight. An injustice. An outrage.

“How dare they assemble their own team?”
”No one said we could pick our teammates!”
”Why do they get to choose their teammates but we don’t?”
”Who do they think they are?”

Rather than seeing this for what it was - a colleague spotting a previously unseen opportunity and seizing it - they took offense to it. They saw it as someone taking advantage at their expense. They spun their wheels in anger and disgust. Grumbled and growled and cried foul instead of seeing it as a possible path for them to take, too.

Yes. I know these people. You probably do, too.

Also, I despise these people. I look forward to using this new phrase when dealing with them.

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Parking lot artist

I pulled into the parking lot at my daughter’s middle school last night for their annual Open House. I circled the lot, looking for a parking spot and finding none.

I circled again. Still nothing.

I was so happy.

Once of my favorite things in the world to do is create a parking spot where one did not exist before.

I circled a third time, evaluating all of my choices, viewing the parking lot now as a canvas for my creativity,. I could extend a row of spot, affixing my car to the end. I could park on the grass. I could sidle my car along the edge of the driveway, reducing its width by half.

Then I saw it. A slight bulge on the far end of the lot, probably present to allow the passage of cars in both directions.

Not anymore. I pulled into the bulge, nuzzled my car up against the curb, and hopped out. As I did, I noticed that a car was pulling in behind me.

“Is this a spot?” the driver asked.

“It is now,” I said. “I invented it.”

He smiled.

It would be a fine thing if my love for inventing parking spots came from my desire to solve problems creatively (and there is probably a little truth in that statement), but mostly I think I love the ability to eschew authority, ignore expectations, and reinforce the idea that there is very little law and order in a parking lot. Sure, you can paint your yellow lines and plan your traffic patterns, but if you’ve run out of spaces and I need to park, there is little anyone can do to stop me from being creative.

Flaunting authority. That is why I love inventing parking spots.

When I exited the building a couple hours later, I was pleased to see that four cars had followed my example and parked in a line behind me, filling the bulge.

This is common.

When I park on the grass, others follow suit.

When I stick myself on the end of an aisle, others do the same.

When this happens, I always wonder:

Were these people inspired by my creative idea or somehow given permission to violate the norms of the parking lot after I did so?

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Four reasons why I seem to get into so many arguments

I got into another fight at a local McDonald’s.

A man was attempting to ascertain the balance on his gift card. The McDonald’s employee - someone I see almost everyday while getting my Egg McMuffin - explained that she didn’t know how to determine the remaining balance on his gift card unless he purchased something. Then she apologized. “There really should be a way to do this,” she admitted.

Then the man began shouting, telling the woman again and again that she was unprofessional. Spouting off in a way that made it clear that he was not a highly functioning human being.

I was standing beside the man. I had already placed my order and was waiting patiently. Four men were standing behind us, also waiting for their order. An older woman with a cane was standing behind him, waiting to place her order. Everyone stared as this man continued shouting “Unprofessional!” over and over again.

I did not engage. This is my new policy. In the past, I would’ve eagerly leapt into the fray, but I’ve established a new, more mature policy:

Remain uninvolved unless the offending party involves me.

So I stood, waiting and hoping that he might someone engage me, too. Hoping for a confrontation.

Then it happened. The man turned to me and said, “This place is so unprofessional. Right?”

“No,” I said, quickly matching his volume. “Don’t bring me into this. I’m not on your side. I like these people. There’s only one person in this place who is acting unprofessional, and it’s you.”

The man was not pleased. He tried to argue his point, oddly repeating the word “unprofessional” over and over again. I was having none of it, and I was prepared with plenty of comebacks.

“Don’t try to co-opt my agreement just because you’re feeling alone. You’re alone because you’re wrong, buddy. I’m on the side of the good.”

“Stop talking to me. I’ve heard dandelions make more sense than you.”

“People who stand behind the counter, insulting employees like these, are cowards.”

At this, the man took an aggressive step toward me, apparently hoping to intimidate me. In response, I took an even larger, more aggressive step forward, trying to convey in both mind and body the idea that I would fight and win if necessary.

It worked. It always does. The man stepped back. He swore at me. He wished me dead. then he declared that “this town is a ghetto!” and left.

A couple minutes later, the police arrived. I didn’t know it, but the employees has called them when the shouting broke out. They explained to the officers that I was not the offending party. Then they refunded my money for my breakfast. “Oh the house,” she said.

Happy day. Admittedly not the wisest decision on my part, but happy day.

I told this story at my book club later that night. One of my friends asked, “How does this stuff always happen to you?”

It was a good question. I’ve wondered this myself. But then the answer became apparent to me as we discussed:

  1. I look for these confrontations. I stood beside the man, hoping he would involve me. I stared in his general direction. In the words of one book club attendee, “I would’ve been standing as far away from that man as possible, avoiding it all.” And it’s true. There were four other men also waiting for their food, and not one of them made any attempt to close the distance between them and the man. I stood as close as possible and hoped for engagement. Invited it.

  2. I’m good at this kind of encounter. I was a two-time state debate champion in college. As a teacher, DJ, writer, and performer, I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life manipulating language, speaking publicly, and using words to achieve desired results. I use words like other people use hammers and spreadsheets and stethoscopes. Also, I’m a serial nonconformist who lived for more than a decade with a verbally abusive stepfather, and my last name is Dicks. I’ve received an enormous amount of verbal abuse over the years, and so I’ve spent a lifetime sharpening my rhetorical sword. I know how to parry and slash and stab. I have a talent for knowing the worst thing to say at the right moment to produce the most pain in another human being.

  3. I have an inane sense of justice for low wage workers. Having managed McDonald’s restaurants for almost a decade, I am all too familiar with the abuse that low-wage workers suffer on a daily basis. As a manager, I always stood between my employee and the offender, offering sarcastic apologies to horrible people and occasionally going to war with them, too. I cannot stand to watch a customer insult an employee who is trying her best and has done nothing wrong.

  4. I’m in places where stuff like this happens. I pointed out to my book club friends that none of them enter a McDonald’s restaurant with any regularity. “Chipotle is probably your lowest version of fast food,” I argued, and my friend agreed. Another said, “You don’t just go through the drive thru?” No, I don’t. Service is almost always faster inside, and I get to see my people. I talk to Juan, the maintenance man, about football. I say hello to Janice as prepares my order. I chat with the old guy who is drinking coffee and reading the paper. If you’re not entering the realm of the low wage worker on a daily basis, you probably don’t see this kind of abuse.

So that’s it. That’s why I seem to get into more verbal altercations than most.

I look for them. I like them. I’m good at them. I feel the need to engage on behalf of others, And I occupy spaces where these types of encounters are more likely to occur.

See? It’s not me. It’s just circumstance.

All that said, I know it’s not the smartest thing to do. You never know how someone is going to react. It’s not that the world is a more dangerous place today, because it’s not. Crime has been on the decline for three decades. By all accounts, we’re living in the safest time in all of human history.

I know our pervasive media makes people think otherwise, but it’s true.

Still, you never know how someone will react. I should just keep my mouth shut, and more often than not, I do.

I’m getting better. More restrained and sensible. I’m evolving.

Slowly.

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I don't see stuff

A couple days ago, one of my colleagues pointed at the #21 on my classroom door and said, “Are you going to remove that number at some point?”

For the 18 years that I’ve been in my classroom, the room number has never been #21. This is a number from a bygone day.

But here’s the strange thing (but also not-so-strange):

I’d never noticed the number on my door. In the almost two decades that I have spent in my classroom, I had never taken notice of that number.

Sounds crazy, I know. Maybe even impossible. But I’m also the person who once argued with his wife over the color of our house on the way home from the store, insisting that our house - one that we had been living in for years - was yellow. Unquestionably yellow.

She claimed that it was tan. Light brown, maybe. But nothing even approaching yellow.

As we turned onto our street and our house came into view, I realized that our house is not yellow.

Not even close.

So failing to notice a number on a door for almost two decades sounds ridiculous and yet is also not surprising. Elysha is fond of saying that if we lined up ten brunettes of approximately her height in a line, I could not pick her out from the group.

This is not true, of course, but there is truth in what she says.

What does this say about me?

I’m not sure, but it’s not great.

Nostalgia in the Pacific Northwest

While visiting friends in Washington two weeks ago, we stopped by Sprinkles, an ice cream shop decorated in nostalgia. Sitting along one wall of the store were the monoliths of my childhood:

Video games.

I spend many hours and many thousands of dollars playing Defender, Pole Position, Pac Man, and many, many others. There was a time in high school when my friends and I would vacation in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire simply because of the quality of the Half Moon Arcade and Fun Spot.

I like to think that there was something special about those coin-operated video games. By having to pay 25 cents to play, the stakes were higher on those games, and thus, the gaming sessions more important and more memorable.

In later years, I spent an enormous amount of time playing computer-based games like Warcraft, Diablo, and Madden, and it was unquestionably fun. But those days in the arcade - when every game required a financial investment- those were very special indeed.

On the flip side, Sprinkles was also selling candy cigarettes, which struck me as an incredibly stupid idea. While nostalgia is something I adore, there are certain items of nostalgia that should never be brought back into today’s world.

“Irish Need Not Apply” signs
Mercury thermometers
Leaded gas
Segregated drinking fountains
Asbestos
The General Lee from The Dukes of Hazard
The Macarena
Lawn darts
Chlorofluorocarbons
Birth of a Nation

Candy cigarettes belong on that list.

What the hell are you thinking, Sprinkles?

A great problem to have. BUT STILL A PROBLEM.

This is one of those moments when I’m going to apologize for complaining about something that really shouldn’t be a complaint.

While visiting Pike Market in Seattle a couple weeks ago, we stopped in a great, little bookstore called Lion Heart Books, where we were thoroughly entertained by the owner, David Ghoddousi. His store didn’t carry any of my books, but it was small and eclectic. I was willing to forgive him.

Of course we bought some books for the kids (and a few for me). Clara and Charlie love books, and I’m always willing to spend a little money on the written word.

But for the next hour, Elysha and I had to demand that the children stop reading their books and “Look around!”

“Pick your heads up!”

“You can read anytime! You won’t see this place again for a long time!”

At one point Elysha popped into a Starbucks, so the kids immediately camped out on the corner, opened their books, and pretended that I didn’t exist.

I surrendered. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll look at the big, beautiful world and you can stick your noses into your dumb books.”

I know. I should be happy, and I am.

But still… look at them. What a couple of giant nerds.

Speak to strangers

On Wednesday night I’m standing at baggage claim in Bradley International Airport, waiting for the luggage carousel to begin turning,. It’s 10:00 PM. We left our friend’s home on the west coast at 5:30 AM, so it’s been a long day. I’m mentally urging my bags to appear when Clara sees a girl about her age off to the right and asks if she can go over and chat.

My first thought:

That’s weird. While waiting for luggage at an airport, you’re going to strike up a conversation with a stranger?

But we allow it, of course. Clara walks over to the girl and says, “Hi, my name is Clara. What’s your name?”

I cringe. I also worry that my daughter will be rejected. Embarrassed. Saddened.

Oddly, the two girls begin a legitimate conversation,. talking about where they began their day, their hometown, the upcoming school year, and more. I still think it’s weird, but it seemed to work out. I breathe a sigh of relief.

After finally extracting our luggage from the carousel, we begin heading to the airport shuttle when a man appears in front of me and says, “I just wanted to commend you on the parenting job that you’re doing.”

“Thanks,” I say. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I willingly accept all praise of every kind.

“The confidence that your daughter has,” the man says. “The way she introduced herself to my daughter. Her conversation skills. That’s not something that happens in the world today. It’s special.”

By now Elysha has pulled alongside me.

“Oh,” I say, realizing this is not a compliment for me. “Most of the credit goes to my wife,”

The man turns to Elysha, introduces himself, and repeats the compliment.

And it’s true. Most of the credit belongs to Elysha. Yes, I’m sure that I’ve helped to instill some of that confidence in my daughter, but that’s probably a 50/50 proposition at best. Just a few nights before, Clara and Charlie sat backstage, listening quietly, while I performed onstage to a sellout crowd in Seattle.

But in the middle of my performance, Elysha took the stage and played her ukulele and sang a song for just the second time ever in public.

Watching her parents do these things has probably helped Clara to become a more confident girl, but the ability to approach a stranger, extend a hand, and carry on a thoughtful conversation… that’s all Elysha. That is the result of Clara spending enormous amounts of time with Elysha in this world, watching her mother interact with all kinds of people in every possible scenario.

It’s not only confidence that Clara possesses. It’s social grace. It’s the difference between seeing an opportunity to engage in a conversation as potentially positive as opposed to thinking it weird.

And yes, the fact that Elysha was able to stay home with the kids for almost a decade probably helped this process, and for that, I can take a little credit. My endless procession of jobs helped to make that happen.

But more important, Clara needed a role model of social grace, and she had that in Elysha. All the jobs in the world can’t create a child who is confident enough to approach strangers and engage in conversation. As I told that man, most of the credit belongs to Elysha. Clara has watched Elysha engage with the world, and now she’s able to do the same..

The man said a few more kind things to both of us, shook our hands one more time, and returned to his family.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect vacation. It was one of those moments that I will never forget.

It was also a reminder of the power of the kindness of strangers. Clara wasn’t the only person engaging in conversation with strangers that night. That man, whose name I will never forget, took the time to chase us down and say something that caused our hearts to soar.

I know we teach our kids not to talk to strangers, and most of the time, that advice is sound. But when the moment is right and the space is safe, talking to strangers can be a beautiful thing.

I’m learning that from Elysha, too.

And Clara. I’m learning it from her, too.

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Since returning from the Pacific Northwest, I've noticed this.

Elysha, the kids, and I had the absolute pleasure of spending a week on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington with our friend, Plato. A perfect way to spend a week.

We miss it already.

Since returning from the Pacific Northwest a couple of days ago, a few things are immediately apparent to me:

  1. It’s really humid here. The air has a physical presence that I hadn’t really noticed before. I’ve been out west many times, but never to the Pacific Northwest. Even places in the midwest like Michigan, Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio are incredibly humid in the summer. But not Washington. I’d forgotten how oppressive the humidity can be here on a daily basis. It sucks.

  2. The crickets and peepers are incredibly loud when the sun goes down. Whidbey Island is surprisingly absent of both, making it so wondrously quiet at night.

  3. People drive aggressively here in the northeast, and particularly in Massachusetts. It’s dog-eat-dog on the roadways, and blessedly so. Pacific Northwest drivers are the worst. So polite and deferential and observant of speed limits.

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I am not experiencing enough stress (at least according to others)

Important (and astounding) information on aging from NumLock:

Telomeres are protective caps that prevent damage to DNA. They also shorten each time a cell replicates, and when they get too short cells know it’s time to wrap it up and self-destruct. This plays a role in the aging process, and every year telomeres shrink by about 25 base pairs per year. Turns out that stress can seriously accelerate this process: first-year medical residents saw a decline of 140 base pairs, on average. Those who worked over 75 hours per week lost 700 base pairs.

Less stress equates to a reduction in aging.

This is very good news for me, as I tend to experience very little stress in my life. Why I experience very little stress is a matter of conjecture.

I’m sure that my daily meditation and exercise regimes help.

Perhaps I’m also genetically predisposed to less stress.

Maybe my aggressively optimistic nature protects me from the stress I might otherwise feel.

I suspect that perspective plays a role, too. Once you’ve been arrested for a crime you didn’t commit and subsequently become homeless while awaiting your trial, the problems of everyday life often pale in comparison. Add a couple near-death experiences and a violent robbery that led to decades of PTSD, and it’s hard to fluster me.

Here’s one other thing that I know:

There are people in my life who are often annoyed and even angry at my lack of stress. These are actual human beings who have told me (and others behind my back) that my lack of stress is inappropriate, frustrating, and ridiculous.

People have actually complained to me and others that I’m not experiencing enough stress.

I suspect that those people are aging rapidly.

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My little girl is a storyteller

My family and I have been in Seattle for five days now, and it’s been quite the whirlwind.

In addition to playing golf, walking beaches, eating delicious food, and visiting with friends and family, I have also been doing a bit of work.

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting with a book club of about 17 ladies who had read a variety of my novels and nonfiction. The conversation was great, the questions were insightful, and I was once again renewed by the joy of spending time with serous readers.

On Friday night my friend, Plato, his daughter and my former student, and I attended a Moth StorySLAM in Seattle. It was just as fun and exciting as any StorySLAM in New York or Boston. Plato and I had the good luck to take the stage and tell a story - back to back - and I won the slam and Plato placed a close second.

Not the first time we have taken the top two spots at a StorySLAM.

On Saturday, I taught a storytelling workshop at the Taproot Theater in Seattle. Three dozen present and future storytellers gathered to learn some of the strategies and techniques that I have used for finding, crafting, and telling stories. It was thrilling to find such a vibrant and close knit storytelling community here in Seattle.

On Saturday night, I performed my solo show for a sold out audience in the same theater. I told five stories - all but one brand new and including a story that I had begun crafting during the workshop earlier that day. After each story, I offered some insight about the finding and crafting of the story in hopes that the audience would walk away with some strategies that they could use when telling stories.

It was a blast.

Just before intermission, Elysha also played her ukulele and sang in public for just the second time ever, and for the second time, she upstaged anything I did that night. She was sweet and charming, and she sounded beautiful.

And the kids sat backstage in the green room throughout the show, listening to the stories while pecking away on devices to keep them occupied. Just before Elysha played, they joined the audience to watch their mother do something hard and beautiful.

On Sunday morning, we traveled to Tacoma to attend a storytelling brunch called Homegrown Stories. Hosted by a storyteller named John and my agent, Taryn, folks enjoyed delicious food as names were drawn from a bowl and stories were told. I met a number of storytellers who I’ve only had the pleasure of knowing via our podcast and email, and I met some new folks, too. Clara and Charlie joined us, sitting at our feet and listening attentively. We heard stories about the challenges of running for office, hiring a professional cuddler, transitioning from female to male, and finding your husband back in middle school while writing a story together about monkey guts.

One storyteller had even told a story that used something I had done the day before in my workshop as the jumping off point.

But the moment I will never forget was when Clara took the stage before 30 or so adults and told her very first public story. She poke about being excluded from a game at summer camp, and though I am admittedly biased, her story was incredible. It was vulnerable and raw. It contained humor and suspense. She handled dialogue brilliantly. I had the good fortune of standing in the back of the room while she was telling, and I listened as the audience laughed, held their breath, sighed, and groaned at all the right moments.

Best of all, she stuck the landing. Her final sentences were perfection.

I hadn’t even known that she wanted to tell a story. I wasn’t sure how she would do. I worried that she might collapse in a bundle of anxiety and nerves.

Instead, she told a four minute story that was artfully crafted and expertly told.

I’ll never forget it.

This has been a glorious week, thanks in large part to our friends who have been kind enough to host us in their beautiful home and show us the town. But it’s also been a week filled with talk of books and stories, which has also been lovely.

But that moment when Clara stood before that audience and shared a story… that is what I will remember most.

I don't return stuff

I can count the number of things that I have purchased and then later returned in my entire life on two hands.

Maybe one hand.

I know that this makes me different from most people, but especially the Germans, who like to order stuff online and then return it at a rate unmatched by other Europeans. In 2018, a whopping 53 percent of German online shoppers returned an item.

This beat out the Dutch (52 percent), French (45 percent), Spanish and Italians (43 percent) and the British (40 percent).

Even those numbers seem enormous to me.

Here in my country, about 40 percent of Americans returned an online purchase last year. More than 8 percent of all purchases made online in America were returned. That is a lot of returned merchandise, and it doesn’t even begin to include the purchases made at brick and mortar stores.

28% of all Christmas gifts in America are returned.

I can’t say that these numbers surprise me because I’ve personally witnessed the plague of the returned item. I’ve seen and known people who seem to return half of everything they ever purchase.

I find all of this a little crazy.

I can count the number of items that I have returned in my life on one or two hands for a few reasons:

  1. I’m not terribly discerning. I have no attention for detail, so I often overlook flaws that others will see.

  2. When it comes to clothing, there is very little variance in my wardrobe or size. I wear the same things, so when it comes time to replace clothing items, I simply purchase the same things again. My waistline may be 34 or 36 inches depending on the number of cheeseburgers I’ve eaten in a given month and I might need the extra large version of certain tee shirts because of my large neck, but that’s about all the variance I need to worry about.

  3. I don’t concern myself with aesthetic imperfection. We purchased an outdoor grill, for example, which has a dent in it. We’re not returning the grill because it’s large and unwieldy but also because I don’t care if it has a dent. Years ago, when my brand new car was dented on day three by a child’s bike, I didn’t care because I knew the car would be dented eventually and a crease in the fender didn’t matter to me.

  4. I always factor in the element of time when deciding if something should be returned. If I purchase a $10 item online and am dissatisfied, how long will it take me to return that item? Will I need to package it? Label it? Drive to the post office? Wait in line? It might be better in terms of time and material costs to simply trow the item away or give it away rather than return it.

Money is valuable, and $10 is not nothing, but time is our most precious commodity. That fact is always in the forefront of my mind.

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