Flaubert and the art of the day job

I just learned about Flaubert’s dictum:

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

I love this.

It is excellent advice for any writer, artist, actor, musician, or similarly creative person who hopes to launch a successful, profitable, sustaining career in their field upon stepping out into the world.

When I finally made it to college, I knew that I wanted to one day be an author. But I also knew that becoming an author would be easier said than done, so I would need a means of earning a living while I tried to start my writing career.

Thankfully, I had also always wanted to teach.

“Write for a living and teach for pleasure” was my dream.

So while in college, I earned an English degree with a concentration on creative writing while simultaneously earning my teaching degree, too. Not an easy task. Two degree programs is hard enough, but I was also managing a restaurant full time and working in the campus writing center part time as well. It also required exploiting a loophole that allowed me to take two full course loads at two different schools at the same time (including an all-women’s college), but it was important that I did both.

I knew that rent and food would not pay for themselves.

In Flaubert’s words, I knew that I would need to be regular and orderly in my life so I could be original in my work.

I started teaching at the age of 28. I sold my first novel when I was 36, and it published when I was 38. I’ve since published a total of four novels and a book of nonfiction, and I have three more books coming out in the next two years (including one next month). If I wanted to, I could retire from teaching today and earn a good living writing, speaking, and consulting.

But it took two decades after graduating from college to reach this point. It’s taken more than a decade since I sold my first novel to achieve this reality.

I had to be regular and orderly in my life for a long time before I could finally earn a living through my art.

The problem is that I love the kids. I love working with my students. Teaching them is an art in itself, and it’s not one that I’m willing to give up. At least not yet.

But I meet high school and college students all the time who are unwilling to do the regular and orderly work so they can be original in their own work. They want to be a writer or an actor or a sculpture and say things like, “I need to invest every ounce of energy into my art” or “I can’t try halfway” or “I need to do this when I’m young and not burdened by responsibility.”

This is all nonsense, of course. Einstein wrote his General Theory of Relativity while working as a patent clerk. John Grisham wrote his first two novels on legal pads while working as a lawyer. Harper Lee worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines while writing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Phillip Glass worked as a plumber and a cab driver while writing his music. Henri Rousseau was a tax collector, and even after his art began to sell, he would sometimes play the violin on the streets to make ends meet.

All of these people and many, many more - most artists of every kind - adhered to Flaubert’s dictum:

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

You have to eat if you want to create.

It’s good advice for artists, but there is another side to this coin. I think it’s also good advice for those who don’t see themselves as artists. Folks who may be creative in some way but can’t imagine ever making something or doing something that people would someday love and admire. Lots of people - most people, I think - start to see themselves in a singular light rather than finding the courage or strength or willingness to step out of that light and into something else.

These are the people who loved to write or paint in high school or college but gave it up when they began their career. They are the actors who performed in college plays or community theater but surrendered that love to the demands of the everyday world. They are the people who have always wanted to learn the piano or have thought about sculpting when they retire or have an idea for a business that seems impossible to get off the ground.

These folks are already adhering to the first half of Flaubert’s dictum. They are already regular and orderly in their lives. Maybe they just don’t know that they can be original and violent in their work, too. Maybe they assumed that all artists devote their lives to their art. Perhaps they envisioned artists as folks toiling away in studios and offices and theaters for every waking hour of their life.

Maybe they didn’t know that quite often artists are also attorneys and patent clerks and plumbers and teachers.

People just like them, being regularly and orderly in our lives so we can be creative and violent in our art.

Maybe they could be one, too. That is what I hope Flaubert’s dictum inspires people to do:

To see themselves as potential artists, not limited by their current career or station in life, just waiting for them to step out of their singular light and into something new.

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Discount men

Every year, Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland fields thousands of requests from scientists all over the world to use the Hubble telescope to advance their research.

Only 200 proposals are accepted.

In 2014, the Institute realized that 21.9 percent of proposals written by men were being accepted while only 16.9 percent of proposals written by women were being accepted.

As a result, a double-blind evaluation method was implemented wherein reviewers couldn’t see the name of the person who proposed the project.

The results?

The acceptance rate leveled out. In 2019 the success rate for proposals was 8.7 percent for female researchers compared to 8 percent for male researchers.

This is an excellent reminder that it’s still incredibly hard to be a woman and that a man’s success in almost any arena should be discounted to some degree by the presence of his penis.

If that penis happens to be white, double the discount.

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The pre-rain date

Here is my new, brilliant idea:

The pre-rain date. Allow me to explain.

The Turkey Bowl has become an annual tradition at my school. Students and faculty play a flag football game on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It’s great fun.

But last year, rain forced us to postpone the Turkey Bowl and eventually move it to the spring, when rain once again postponed it until we ultimately had to cancel it for the first time.

Disappointing for everyone involved.

My colleague suggested that we schedule this year’s Turkey Bowl on the Monday before Thanksgiving in order to allow us to use Tuesday as a rain date if needed. But Tuesday is a better day for the game. It's closer to Thanksgiving, and by avoiding the Monday, we give kids a better chance of being prepared for the game. Whenever you schedule an event on a Monday, you give children the opportunity to forget over the weekend, increasing the chances of them coming to school wearing something other than sneakers or wearing a skirt or dress.

Tuesday just makes more sense.

So here is what I proposed:

The pre-rain date.

Schedule the game on Tuesday and make Monday the rain date. Meteorologists have become accurate enough for us to easily look at the forecast on Thursday or Friday of the previous week and determine if Tuesday’s weather would be suitable to play.

If not, we move to the rain date. Monday. Less preferred than Tuesday but still a viable day before Thanksgiving.

Think about it:

Instead of always assuming that a rain date must fall after the originally scheduled date, why not allow rain dates to fall before the date?

It’s a little outside-the-box, I know, but in certain circumstances - like this one - I think it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s an added bonus:

This would make some people crazy. The folks who can’t stand shifting away from an expected norm will lose their minds, and that is always fun to watch.

Many years ago, my friend, Donna Gosk, and I went to a professional development seminar in our district. The instructor, a colleague at another school, asked us to work together to describe what excellent reading instruction looks like in the classroom.

It was a time-wasting, fairly pointless, nonsense request made by someone who had forgotten that we are adults, fulling capable of engaging in a productive discussion on the topic rather than engaging in an activity more suitable for children, but not a surprise. This happens all the time in education.

Adults who teach children all day long somehow think that they should teach adults using the same methods.

Donna and I grabbed a sheet of white construction paper and started drawing a picture of a classroom where great reading instruction was taking place. We thought it might be interesting to have a visual representation of this stupid assignment, and we thought it would be a more entertaining way of fulfilling this ridiculous request.

Meanwhile, everyone else in the room was making lists. Writing lengthy descriptions. Using words.

When we brought our drawing, complete with amusing speech bubbles and images of our favorite books, to the group, the instructor looked upon it with great disdain. “Oh,” she said. “You must be from that artsy school” and failed to acknowledge our efforts.

We left the seminar at the break, returned to our school, and told our principal that we didn’t want to go back the next week. To his credit, he gave us the option of doing an independent study instead.

There are people in this world who insist that everyone remain in their proper box. They want their days to be average and expected. They don’t want anyone upsetting their apple cart. They embrace tradition with all of their might.

The concept of a pre-rain date will make people like this crazy. They will hate it so much. They will roll their eyes, sigh dramatically, utter their favorite phrase, “Yeah but,” and generally be unhappy.

And that is always fun to watch.

The pre-rain date. Give it a try. Let me know how it goes.

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Be flexible.

During intermission at Cirque du Soleil last week, I saw a friend who told me that she was moving from her front row seats to the rear of the tent because she needed to leave early. Her step-father refuses to eat dinner after 7:00 PM, so they would need to leave the show a little early in order to make their reservations.

I was stunned. Leave early? A show like the circus absolutely saves their best for last.

She agreed, but this was a non-negotiable on the part of her step-father. “It’s fine,” she said.

But no. It wasn’t.

I started to think about how older folks can become set in their ways. Routines slowly calcify over time. Eventually fossilize. Before you know it, your life is filled with non-negotiables.

Where and when you will and won’t travel.
Sleeping schedules.
Holiday plans.
Arbitrary dietary restrictions.

But then it occurred to me that this is not an older person phenomenon. I know lots of younger people who have established rigid, unwavering routines, too. I have friends who can’t skip a meal or replace it with a snack. Friends who won’t adjust a bedtime in order to stay out late or wake up an hour or two early to play golf. Friends whose personal grooming regime requires an hour or more regardless of circumstances, preventing them from ever leaving the home in less time.

I have friends who have saddled themselves with certain driving and travel restrictions. They won’t drive into New York City. Refuse to be on the roads after midnight. Won’t take a subway. Won’t drive to a friend’s home because it’s too far away.

Colleagues establish routines that are inflexible and unwavering. A shift from an early lunch to a later lunch sends them into psychic spasms. They can’t imagine changing a homework routine. They cling to disproven methods of instruction because they’ve been doing it forever.

None of this is good.

And I’m a person with more routines than anyone I know. I aggressively and relentlessly seek out the most efficient way of doing something, and when it’s finally found, I do it that way every single time. Emptying a dishwasher. Folding laundry. Mowing the lawn. There is a fastest, best way to do each these things, and I have found the ways.

There are long stretches of the school year when my breakfasts and lunches are exactly the same every single day because it simplifies my life. I wear the same thing - jeans and a black tee shirt - onstage every time. When the event is slightly more formal, I throw a jacket over the black tee shirt. I’m close to wearing the same thing to work every day because all of these routines save me time, eliminate the need to make choices, and simplify my life.

Elysha and I were watching the The Founder, the story of Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s. In one scene, he is attempting to establish the perfect kitchen routine that will guarantee the most food produced in the shortest period of time. It was a ballet of movements that allowed kitchen staff to work in perfect concert with one another so long as they repeated their movements exactly.

Elysha paused the film. Knowing I managed McDonald’s restaurants for ten years, she turned to me and said, “Is this why you are the way you are?”

I laughed.

But maybe. I have admittedly structure much of my life like Ray Kroc structured McDonald’s:

Identify the most efficient means of accomplishing a task. Repeat those steps. No wasted movement.

Despite all of that, I am keenly aware of how important it is to be flexible. How flexibility opens the door to new experiences. Allows other people to intersect with your life. Allows you to find joy where there was once none.

Flexibility allowed me to begin playing golf, a game that I originally thought was boring, elitist, and ridiculous, but is now a game that I love with all my heart.

Flexibility allowed me to say yes to writing comic books and musicals, even though I didn’t think I could do either.

Flexibility landed me onstage, performing in musicals - singing solos - even though I can’t sing. It’s placed me in front of audiences at comedy clubs, even though it’s the one and only time that I feel nervous - even terrified - onstage.

Flexibility sent e to Canada to teach storytelling to the Mohawk people. It sent me to the forests of upstate New York to teach storytelling to 13 rabbis as part of a woodland retreat. It sent me to Brazil to teach storytelling at an American School. It sent me to a yoga center - the absolute antithesis of my fundamental being - to teach storytelling, and where I now teach a handful of times every year.

Flexibility allowed me to say yes when that first person asked me to officiate his wedding. It’s has landed me in front of church congregations, substituting for vacationing ministers. Conducting actual church services. Even ringing the big bell.

All of these things could have been easily avoided. All of them placed me outside my comfort zone. Required me to betray my routines. Demanded that I attempt to do something - oftentimes publicly - that I have never done before. They required alterations in routine and ritual. They asked that I do something that I could not imagine doing.

This was hard. I like routines. I love predictability. The basis for much of what I accomplish is my willingness to find and repeat the most efficient steps possible in as many things as possible. Routine, ritual, schedules, and extreme commitment to organization has afforded me the time to do all that I do.

But I also recognize the importance of breaking those routines and adding unpredictability to your life, even if it makes you anxious, uncomfortable, hungry, uncertain, or a little bleary-eyed the next day.

Telling me that you’d love to join me for golf but just can’t see yourself getting out of bed at 5:00 AM on a weekend - even once - is a terrible shame.

Telling me that you’d love to see a show in New York but need to be in bed by 11:00 PM every single day for the rest of your life is a little crazy.

Telling me that you can’t ever replace dinner or skip it altogether in order to hit the road on-time should never be a thing.

Telling me that you just can’t drive in New York City even thought you’ve never even attempted to drive in New York City is a minor tragedy.

Leaving the circus early - and making others leave early, too - because you won’t eat dinner after 7:00?

That’s insanity.

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As a Disney shareholder, here are a few improvements that the parks needs now.

As a Disney shareholder, I spent much of our recent vacation to the Magic Kingdom and its surrounding parks looking for ways to enhance the customer experience.

I found a few.

Many were related to specific rides.

My philosophy on a Disney ride is simple:

It needs to make my heart skip a beat, either through the sense of magic, wonder, excitement, or nostalgia that it creates. Many do. Most, in fact, do, making the failures even more pronounced.

The Tomorrowland Speedway, for example, is simply an inferior version of the go-karts that you can ride in my town. In fact, because they are affixed to tracks and are therefore limited in terms of movement, I would argue that they are aggressively inferior.

The Under The Sea ~ Journey Of The Little Mermaid is an uninspired slog through scenes from the film, absent a single moment of wonder or magic. I can’t believe that money and time was spent designing and building this ride. And this need not be so. The similarly themed Frozen ride in Epcot, Frozen Ever After, is a similar journey through scenes from the film but contains moments of genuine magic and wonder that would send me back again and again.

The Jungle Cruise is an astounding display of missed opportunities and possesses a level of un-wokeness that will undoubtedly cause problems for Disney at some point. It is a ride for another time, and that time has passed.

I won’t go through all the problematic rides that I encountered, but if Disney would like to hire me to infuse every moment of the Disney experience with magic, wonder, excitement or nostalgia, I await their offer. I am perfectly suited and uniquely talented for this position.

In fact, perhaps I’ll write a letter.

Four things unrelated to rides that also need improvement:

  1. The paper straws are an abomination. They fell apart with great rapidity and became useless fairly quickly. It took me 2-3 straws to finish every frozen drink that I consumed. I understand that straws are made of plastic and eliminating them helps the planet to some infinitesimal degree, but I also know that these paper straws sucked and the carbon footprint of 2-3 of them might outweigh that of a single, plastic straw.

  2. Disney is in serious need of better drinking fountains or - even better- water filling stations. It was exceptionally difficult to find reliable water sources in the parks. I understand that a sad, relatively inoperable drinking fountain means more purchases of water in the park, but having ancient, inoperable drinking fountains makes the parks look bad. Un-magical to say the least. Also, if you’re going to take away plastic straws to help the environment, how about all the plastic being used in those water bottles? Update the damn drinking fountains.

  3. Disney needs more buses. The most significant pain point for most customers was the wait time on buses and the number of people jammed onto every bus. And since most customers start and end their days on a Disney bus, this is a moment you want to get right. Small children and older folks often did not have seats on buses in an effort to pack as many people onto them as possible. More buses would make the start and end of every day a more positive experience and would go a long way in making folks feel great about their vacation.

  4. Disney misses out on easy opportunities to make the place a little more magical. The bus depots at our resort, for example, were named after the points of the compass even though they hardly corresponded to the actual compass points. The West Depot? Is that the best you can do? Give that depot a real name. Something that causes vacationers to think or imagine or wonder. Maybe name them after exceptionally minor Disney characters and encourage folks to figure out in which films these characters appeared. Or dedicate each one to a Disney employee who made a significant difference to the park. Put a plaque on the wall honoring their achievement. DO SOMETHING. West Depot is uninspiring and sadly pedestrian. Look to make every moment significant and memorable and magical.

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Bite, damn it!

I’m spending a week at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT, teaching 15 girls from all over the world to tell great stories.

I saw this sign on a wall filled with great signs during Sunday afternoon registration and loved it so very much.

The very last thing your future self would want is for you to pass on opportunities because you’re worried about biting off more than you can chew.

Fortune favors the bold. Life is too short. Do it all!

Or at least try to do it all!

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Your negativity sucks. Shut up.

Elysha and I are taking the kids to Disney World for a week. It will be their first time frolicking at the Magic Kingdom.

I can’t wait.

Elysha visited Disney World as a child, but I did not. My first visit came when I was about 19 years old. My best friend, Bengi, and I drove from Massachusetts to Orlando to visit the Magic Kingdom.

I spent most of my time chasing after a girl.

Elysha and I were fortunate enough to have our friend and Disney expert plan the trip. Our meals are planned. Reservations made. Fast passes are secured. Wrist bands and luggage tags have arrived. An Amazon Prime shipment of snacks and other necessities is scheduled to arrive in our room just as we land in Florida.

Everything is ready to go.

As we’ve mentioned our upcoming Disney trip to various friends and acquaintances, their reactions have fallen into two distinct camps:

  1. Excitement about our upcoming adventure

  2. Warnings about the potential pitfalls of a trip to Disney World

As you might imagine, I adore the people in the first category and am astounded and appalled by those in the latter category.

It’s shocking how negative people can be when you tell them that you’re planning a vacation to Disney. They groan. They complain about the heat and humidity. They warn you about the long lines and large crowds. They whine about the drudgery of dragging kids through the parks. One person actually warned me about how annoyingly happy everyone will be.

Sadly, these awful, negative jackasses outnumber the folks who are excited for us by at least 2:1.

What is wrong with these people? How awful and dreary must your life be to denigrate Disney World to an excited parent? How stupid and sad must you be to listen to a smiling, happy father talk about how excited he is to bring his kids to the Magic Kingdom and then spend the next ten minutes warning him about the heat?

These are probably the same rotten souls who tell glowing, pregnant women how challenging and impossible parenting will be. Probably the same sad sacks who spend most of the Christmas season complaining about the crowds and shopping.

If you are one of these people who thinks that warning parents about the pitfalls of Disney World is a good idea, STOP.

You’re not helping.

Also, no one wants to hear it. People probably don’t like you.

I certainly don’t.

I was explaining this post to my ten year-old daughter, Clara, when she said, “Sometimes I feel negative about things. I can’t help it. But I’d never try to make someone else feel the same way I was feeling, especially if they looked excited or happy. That would just be mean.”

Exactly.

So if you’re about to tell a parent why their trip to Disney won’t be as magical as they’re hoping, shut your stupid mouth. Take a lesson from my daughter. She gets it.

So should you.

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The utterly unnecessary letter of recommendation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, it would be nice.

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

But this has given me an idea:

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

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

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

I’m excited about this idea.

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Think different things. Just be nice about it.

Here’s a promise that I think every person in the world should make:

“If I love something but another person hates it and openly criticizes it, I promise not become angry and verbally or physically attack that other person because everyone gets to think different things.”

This means that when I say that I despise sushi, Donald Trump, The Police’s Roxanne, the New York Jets, mayonnaise, clothing affixed with a brand name, kugel, Ethan Frome, Dr. Pepper, gerrymandering, backing into parking spots, the mall, The Royal Tenenbaums, the billing of congregants by religious institutions, clutter, hubris, the structure of the US Senate, meetings, soccer, reality television, assault weapons in the hands of citizens, Mitch McConnell, conspicuous consumption, March, persistently negative people, conspiracy theorists, dress codes, traffic, and anything written by Virginia Wolf…

… you should not feel upset or offended or outraged or defensive because my feelings about these things have nothing to do with you. As long as my opinions don’t manifest into actions that harm the world, you should not become enraged. You should not call me infantile names. You should not threaten me with bodily harm.

Disagree. Debate. Offer reasons why I might be wrong, but don’t become angry.

Everyone gets to think different things.

You even get to think that I’m a moron. An idiot. A fool.

Just be nice about it.

To that end, I don’t even care if you’re a racist or a sexist or a bigot of any kind as long as you don’t attempt to manifest your vile and hateful opinions into structural change in our society. Think what you want as long as you don’t attempt to infringe upon the rights of others.

This is why I don’t become upset or angry when someone tells me that they hate Bruce Springsteen or the New England Patriots or Stephen King or snow days or The Matrix or President Obama or McDonald’s cheeseburgers or golf.

I might think the person is misguided or ridiculous or uninformed or lacking taste, but I don’t become angry or call that person names because we all get to think different things.

As a person who has been expressing his opinion on this blog every single day without exception since 2003 and out loud for most of his life, I can tell you that people forget this sometimes.

They forget this sometimes a lot.

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Fight to ascribe good intentions

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I hate this phrase. I hate it so much.

I understand the sentiment:

Good intentions do not always produce good results. The law of unintended consequences often demonstrates that that despite a person or government’s most noble intent, effects that are unanticipated or unintended will often happen. Sometimes the best intentions, like in the case of leaded gasoline, can lead to disastrous result.

But what would you have done instead? Act under bad intentions, hoping the law of unintended consequences will somehow turn your bad decision into a good one?

The future is unknowable. We do our best and hope that the results are what we hope.

For this reason, I fight like hell to recognize and credit good intentions whenever possible. I prefer to judge people not upon their actions and words but on their intent. 

Yes, that person said or did something that was hurtful or destructive, but was that the person's intent? 

It doesn’t mean I won’t stand in opposition to what the person has said or done, but if their intentions are righteous, I don’t have to be angry with them as I do so.

This makes life a hell of a lot easier.

In many cases, I’m able to instantaneously forgive the person and move on.

That makes life life far simpler and much happier.

I know some people think this is a ridiculous way to be, and still others are dubious of the the veracity of this claim. Some - including people quite close to me - have occasionally (and not so occasionally) mocked me for this position, claiming that I’m acting with unfounded righteousness.

I disagree. I think I’m acting logically. Selfishly, in fact. A life without anger or bitterness is a better life. In recognizing and crediting good intentions even when the results are not positive, I’m taking care of myself. Removing drama from my life. Allowing time for joy and productivity and achievement. Ridding myself of pettiness and spite.

I’ve seen the opposite of my position, and I don’t like it. I’ve seen the desire to become the victim and assume the worst. I’ve watches people discard a person’s good intentions because the results were unexpected or unfortunate.

I think it’s stupid.

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Theatrical wind chill factor

Credit Elysha Dicks for this gem:

When you ask how long a play or musical runs, you should receive two distinct times from the usher:

  1. The actual running time

  2. The play or musical’s wind chill factor

For example:

“The play runs for 83 minutes, but it’s not very good. Quite dreadful in fact. With the wind chill, it will feel like a little more than four hours. Enjoy the show.”

As we all know, it’s the wind chill factor that we should be most concerned about at all times.

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I want to be the blind man with the elephant.

Earlier this week, someone accused me of taking a position on an issue that I didn’t fully understand and suggested that I was acting like a blind man in the blind men and the elephant parable.

It’s not the first time someone has used this parable against me when suggesting that I’m taking a position on an issue that I don’t understand.

In case you don’t know the parable, it goes something like this:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, "is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

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The parable suggests that you can’t know a thing unless you know the whole of the thing, and while I agree in principle, I don’t agree in practice. Yes, it’s true that it’s hard to understand something without understanding all or most of it, but I don’t think that my lack of knowledge or understanding should preclude me from staking a position, for two reasons:

  1. It’s impossible to always know what we don’t know. I may think I have an understanding of an issue, only to learn later that I do not. This is not a terrible thing. It’s known as learning. I can’t be blamed for believing that I had enough facts to draw a conclusion, because you can’t always know what you don’t know.

  2. In the instances when this blind men and the elephant parable has been lobbed at me, I’m simply stating an opinion. Taking a stand. I’m not enacting policy. I’m not making an important decision. I’m not choosing a course for myself or others. I’m simply staking out an intellectual position and, as always, inviting criticism, agreement, and inquiry. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone taking a position on an issue they may not understand fully if they do so with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to be corrected by someone with greater expertise.

This is not easy for everyone to accept. I’ve been told many times that commenting, evaluating, assessing, or even judging things that I don't fully understand is wrong, foolish, and even offensive. It’s been suggested many times that I am opinionated, argumentative, pugnacious, and aggressively contrarian.

They say these things as if they are bad. They say them as if those words possess negative connotations.

Yes, I’m all those things. Absolutely. But in being all those things, I also openly invite correction. Retort. Argument.

I am happy to be the old man, feeling the elephant’s tail and thinking it a thick snake because the alternative is either remaining silent or reaching a level of expertise before ever opening my mouth.

I can’t remain silent. That’s just not me.

And I can’t always reach a level of expertise because, again, you can’t know what you don’t know.

If I’m wrong, tell me I’m wrong. Engage in debate. Teach me something new. Increase my level of expertise.

But please don’t suggest that I remain silent until I know enough. Just tell me what I don’t know.

Thoreau on regret

Henry David Thoreau offered this advice on regret:

“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

Thoreau believed in regret. He believed in tending and cherishing it. He believed in making use of it.

I agree with Thoreau. Although it’s quite popular to say that we should live without regrets - let the past be the past - I have always found my regrets as fuel for my fire.

It’s not unlike the fuel I find in those who have doubted me, maligned me, turned their back on me, let me down, and attempted to tear me down. When I am feeling less than energetic or lacking in motivation, all I need to do is think about the soulless cowards who tried to destroy my career or the guidance counselors who never spoke to me about college or the person who turned her back on me over something trivial and out of my control, and I’m suddenly filled with the desire to achieve and excel and crush the world again.

The same holds true for regret. Whether it’s regret caused by a failure of my own or is the result of something out of my control, I often remind myself of what it feels like to miss an opportunity, fail to achieve a goal, or fall short of making a dream come true.

That simple, painful reminder fuels my fire and sends me charging into the day.

Thankfully, I don’t have too many regrets. With Elysha, Clara, and Charlie, how could I? But I have a few - and a couple big ones - and I allow them to inform my current and future decisions. I allow their sting to incentivize me from never feeling regret again.

Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. I’m not sure if I would take it quite that far, but I would argue that the unexamined life is the deliberate and wasteful disregard of regret. It’s a missed opportunity to learn from your mistakes and use them as fuel for the next struggle.

I agree with Thoreau. Make the most of your regrets. To regret deeply is to live afresh.

Advice from The Beatles

So many times in my life, I see something clever, brilliant, or truly inspired, and I think to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Just last week, the trailer dropped for Danny Boyle’s latest film, Yesterday. It’s the story of a musician who wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed, except that he knows they existed. He knows their music. He knows their songs.

He’s the only person on the planet who knows their songs.

Suddenly he’s in a position to become The Beatles. He can claim every Beatles song for himself. He can become world famous on the backs of other great musicians.

What do you do?

Elysha told me to watch the trailer, so I did. When I finished, she said, “I knew you’d like it. It’s the kind of story you would write.”

I thought, “It’s the kind of story I should’ve written! Damn it!”

So clever. Maybe even brilliant. Also an idea just waiting for the taking, and I didn’t take it. Screenwriter Richard Curtis did.

I had similar thoughts when I saw this Beatles graphic a while back. So clever. So whimsical. And again, an idea just waiting for the taking, and I didn’t take it.

Sadly, I don’t know who to credit for this one, but take a peek. You’ll love it.

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Why you should embrace every snow day

We had our first snow day last week. A glorious, slightly unexpected day off.

Many teachers hate snow days, knowing how each one eats into our summer vacations.

A day off in February means another day of work in June.

But they are wrong to think this way for one simple reason:

It’s exceedingly presumptuous to believe that you’ll be alive in June. A multitude of disasters could beset you or the country or the planet, ending your life prematurely.

Take your days when you can get them. Assume nothing.

People think I’m kidding when I say this. They laugh. One person actually suggested that I use this rationale in my standup. “It would be a hilarious bit,” he said.

I’m not trying to be funny. I’m serious.

But I understand why people don’t think the way I do. I remember what it was like to walk through life so blissfully unaware of the razor’s edge.

For me, that all went away on an April night in 1992 when a man put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. That was the night that I stopped assuming anything about my future.

That was the moment when I started taking my days when I could get them. Taking hours and minutes, too.

I told this story at The Moth if you’re interested in watching.

On rare occasions, I encounter someone who I am certain would feel the same about snow days as I do. Someone who I feel as connected to as almost anyone in the world, even though in some cases, we’ve never even met. Someone whose experiences mirror my own.

Recently I heard Stanley Alpert tell a story on The Moth Radio Hour, and I experienced that feeling of connectedness. The belief that he and I move through this world with the same purpose and philosophy.

The certainty that he understands the razor’s edge as well as I do.

I can’t recommend it enough. You should stop everything and listen now. It’s brilliant.

My binder clip IQ test

Here’s a simple test to determine the intelligence of a small child:

Pry open a large binder clip. Ask a child to put their finger in the binder clip.

  • If the child puts their finger in the binder clip, the child is probably dumb.

  • If the child refuses the request, the child is probably smart.

  • If the child slides their finger horizontally into the space at the back of the binder clip, the child is probably a genius.

This test would probably work on adults, too, but it’s socially awkward to ask an adult to put their finger into anything, so I would advise against it.

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Be different

As a reluctant atheist, I’m not an easy sell when it comes to church attendance. At various times in my life, I have been Catholic and two different variations of Protestantism. I’ve also regularly attended Lutheran services and a church for Born Again Christians, as well as many Jewish services.

None of them captured my heart. In fact, the closest I’ve ever felt to faith has been while reading certain potions of the Bible (while recoiling at many others) and experiencing moments of incredible coincidence that have made me wonder if a higher power was not at work.

Not enough to give me the faith I so desire, but much more than any minister, reverend, rabbi, or priest on a Sunday.

Especially the bigoted ones who say that my gay friends are sinners who will burn in hell for loving whomever they want. Those are some of the stupidest and least inspiring leaders on the planet.

That said, had a local church posted this sign on their front lawn, I would at least be intrigued. Maybe even tempted to step inside its doors.

I first saw this sign this summer while teaching at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. I quickly showed it to my friend and teaching assistant, who was sitting across from me at the time.

We were in hysterics.

This is the power of daring to be different. Trying something new. Stepping on or even over the line at times to garner attention and make yourself known.

In a world where conformity is prized and people are often advised to “stay in your lane” and “don’t rock the boat,” a church that opts to be funny instead of staid and expected and oftentimes bizarrely threatening will invariable garner attention from people like me.

People craving something new.

The same holds true in life. Those who try to be different, blaze their own trails, and do something original and unexpected are the most courageous people in the world.

It’s easy to do what everyone else is doing. There’s no danger in following the predictable path. No bravery required to live the life that everyone else is living. The life that everyone expects you to live.

It’s remarkable but true: Many, many people follow a lifetime trajectory prescribed by parents and society. Their occupation, religion, political beliefs, style of dress, and even choice of spouse are often dictated not by their hearts and minds but by what others expected of them. Demanded of them.

It’s probably a far easier life to live - requiring a lot less courage and filled with much less kung fu fighting, for sure - but also offering far fewer rewards, too.

Well played, Harrah 1st Assembly of God. I won’t be traveling to Oklahoma to attend services, but I see that you podcast your sermons weekly. I’m tempted to give one a listen.

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A simple suggestion to improve 2018 and beyond

At the end of each year, in addition to reviewing the progress of my 2018 goals and setting my 2019 goals, I’ll be creating a Best of 2018 list. It’s a review of all the things that happened in 2018 that were notable for some reason.

Maybe they represented the first time I ever did something. Or an unforgettable moment. Or a shocking turn of events. A goal achieved. A door unexpectedly opened. A beautiful moment with friends or family.

It’s a great way to look back on the year and feel good about your most recent trip around the sun.

I highly recommend it.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been adding to my Best of 2018 list throughout the year, so perhaps this is something you might want to start doing in 2019, but I still encourage you to take a look back at 2018 and find those moments of meaning. A few ways of recapturing some of those moments include:

  • Go through your calendar to find moments you may have already forgotten.

  • Ask friends and family for ideas on highlights.

  • Scroll through the photos on your phone or computer.

I’ll be sharing my list with you in the coming weeks. I hope you will as well.

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Prankster satisfaction

Brilliance learned on the internet this week:

Scratch haunting things into bananas at the market so when people take them home hours later and the words appear they think a ghost knows their secrets.

Ingenious. Right?

The one problem with this prank is that the prankster is never afforded the opportunity to witness the results play out in real life. You must be able to find satisfaction in knowing that the prank will one day be realized, even if you never see it yourself.  

For some, this satisfaction is unattainable. They must see the prank play out in all its glory or its worthless.  

Not for me. I've always been willing to set things in motion and experience great satisfaction in knowing that the payoff will someday come, even if I never see it myself.

In sixth grade, I sat in the back of science class, removing dictionaries from the shelf along the back wall and replacing definitions with my own. I would cut and tape paper over the original definition and pencil in one that I thought more appropriate. 

Noting terribly clever, I'm afraid, given my age. Things like:

Moron: The teacher standing in front of you.
Ass: Stop looking up minor swear words in the dictionary, you loser.
Brown: The color of poop.

There's a good chance that no one ever saw a single one of my replaced definitions. Those books might still be sitting on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust, untouched. Or perhaps they have been long since been recycled and turned into cookbooks, toilet paper, and Marxist propaganda pamphlets. 

That's okay. I took so much joy in the act of replacing those definitions and found such a thrill in imagining the possibilities of the future.  

That was enough for me. Which it why I will be scratching creepy messages into bananas at Stop & Shop today. I'll never see the fruits of my labor, but just knowing that my actions will bear fruit will be more than enough. 

People stay home when it rains. How stupid.

This is a real thing:

When it rains, slightly fewer people attend our Speak Up shows. 

Also, when it rains, fewer people go to the theater. The movies. Even restaurants do less business when it rains. 

The same holds true for frigid temperatures. Even the mercury plummets below 20 degrees, people are far more likely to remain at home.

How sad. How incredibly, stupidly, sad.

Just imagine:

In an effort to minimize their discomfort during the time it takes to pass between their front door and the car, and their car and the front door of the restaurant or theater, a person will stay at home rather than going out for a night of entertainment and camaraderie. 

In order to eliminate the 2% of the evening that will be uncomfortable, people prefer to stay home and watch television or go to bed early. They are willing to forgo the 98% of the night that could've been fun because a tiny sliver of the night would've been less than perfect. 

That is not the kind of person you want to be. That is most definitely not the kind of person your past or future self wants you to be. Just imagine how disgusted your teenage self would be at this behavior. Imagine how angry your 90 year-old self will be to know that you have missed out on scores of possibly memorable evenings because of rain or the cold. 

The next time you find yourself saying, "It's raining. Maybe we should stay home tonight," please follow that sad, ridiculous statement with, "What am I saying? What kind of weak, shortsighted, stupid person am I? Am I really going to sacrifice a night on the town because I might get wet between the front door and the car?"

If the answer is yes, prepare yourself for the avalanche of regret that will surely overwhelm you when your opportunities for evenings out at the theater or the restaurant are fewer and farther between.   

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