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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Binder clip.jpeg

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.


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.

the best.jpg

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.   

raining evening.jpg

A bit of unsolicited, surely unwanted advice for my millennial friends

I have, on occasion, offended a millennial friend by making a gross generalization about their generation. I know that generalizations can be annoying, inaccurate, and offensive. I know that I should avoid them whenever possible. For that, I apologize.

But here's the thing:

I am a member of Generation X. When I was in my late teens and twenties, generalizations were made about my generation, too. We were called lazy. Shiftless. Aimless. Cynical. Disaffected.

“Slackers” was the word used most often. It was used a lot.

Movies like Dazed and Confused, Singles, Reality Bites, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Clerks, and Slackers were specifically made about us. They showed young people going nowhere, doing nothing, and not really caring about their lack of upward mobility. We were forced to listen to the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation before them deride our unwillingness to work hard, take life seriously, respect authority, and advance society. 

But here is the difference between my experience and what I have seen from my millennial friends thus far:

My generation didn't care. We didn't give a damn about what the previous generation said about us. We never concerned ourselves with what people a decade or two older than us thought. We were never offended or outraged by these descriptors, because we knew how to ignore them. Like the hippies before us, we did our own damn thing and let the haters hate.  

My generation popularized the phrase, "Whatever."

We paid money to watch those movies that portrayed us as slackers and losers. We loved those movies.

By contrast, my millennial friends, and even millennials in the media, seem so deeply offended by the mere suggestion that their generation might not be ideal. That perhaps they possess some fairly universal flaws. They lose their minds over the notion that the response to my latchkey generation was one that was coddled, bubble-wrapped, and perhaps not-so-ready to take on the world. They characterize any bit of disparagement as a possible hate crime.

They are the generation that popularized the need for trigger-warnings and coined the phrase “micro-aggression.”

Perhaps these generalities about millennial are also unfair. Maybe some of these assumptions about this latest generation are way off. Maybe millennials are poised to save the world.

If so, excellent. I wish them the best. We need all the help we can get. 

Either way, I just wish they would stop caring so much about what others think of them. I understand that millennials are the generation of digital approval - the like, the follower, the subscriber, the friend request, the participation ribbon - but enough already. I realize that they grew up in a culture where parents cheered at every single soccer game regardless of the weather and a failing grade was call for an immediate parent-teacher conference, but it’s time to let go of the need for praise.

Not everyone is going to like you, my millennial friends. A lot of us think you should grow up a little. Or a little faster. Either do so or just ignore us.

Or perhaps try on a little Gen-X cynicism. Become slightly more disaffected. Maybe spout off the occasional, "Go to hell, old man!" or "Why aren’t you dead yet?"

Or perhaps a simple, "Whatever." 


If you enjoy a glass floor, don't forget to look down and thank your lucky stars

"But for a couple of bad breaks, especially visited upon vulnerable people, the outcome of life would be so different." 

This is a sentence that Slate's Mike Pesca spoke a couple months ago on his podcast The Gist in the midst of an interview.

I wrote the sentence down immediately, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

the gist.jpg

Mike is right. As a person who has suffered from a couple of bad breaks while in a vulnerable position, I can assure you that it doesn't take much to send a life reeling into desperate, uncharted, potentially life-changing waters. 

It's so easy to judge the circumstances of others if you enjoy a proverbial glass floor: a familial support system that will prevent you from ever falling too far.

I've seen it more times than a can count. 

  • Legal troubles eliminated thanks to exceptionally skilled professionals paid for by parents
  • College tuition, mortgage downpayment, automobiles, and infusions of cash offered by parents in desperate times
  • Family owned businesses, legacy employment, nepotism, and second, third, and fourth chances given to someone thanks to the influence of a parent

If you're fortunate to be blessed with a glass floor, please don't forget how devastating a bad break can be for someone who isn't as blessed, and how incredibly stressful life can be for someone who is living without any safety net whatsoever.  

Think about this: According to a recent New York Fed study, one-third of Americans would not be unable to come up with $2,000 to deal with an emergency like an urgent home repair, medical crisis, or car accident.

This means that not only could they not raise $2,000 themselves, but they have no parent or family member capable of raising the money on their behalf, either. 

For many people, this situation would be unimaginable. But for almost a decade, I lived that reality, not because of bad decisions on my part or an unwillingness to work, but simply because of bad breaks. A cycle of poverty. A lack of support systems of any kind. The victim of a violent crime. An arrest for a crime I didn't commit. Homelessness. 

And I was lucky. I was physically and mentally healthy. Fairly intelligent. Capable of working 80 hours a week when necessary. I lived in a state with a strong social safety net. I had friends who put a roof over my head in a time of need. I wasn't the victim of racial discrimination.   

Still, I almost didn't make it.

Imagine what life could have been had my bad breaks had been coupled by mental illness. A physical disability. Addiction. Imagine if I had been unjustly convicted of that crime. Imagine how my life might be different had I been African American or female or any other marginalized member of society.  

It's so easy to see someone down on their luck, spiraling, and assume that they are to blame, when so many of us suffer similar breaks but are saved by the support systems that many don't enjoy.   

"But for a couple of bad breaks, especially visited upon vulnerable people, the outcome of life would be so different." 

It's so true. 

I performed stand up comedy for the first time for one very important reason.

Last year, a friend asked me to try stand up comedy with him. 

I said no and moved on with my life.

But knowing I had to follow my "Say yes to everything" philosophy, I called him back the next day and said, "Fine, I'll do it, but I won't like it."

We agreed that in addition to performing comedy, I wasn't allowed to simply tell a funny story. I have plenty of stories that could fill the five minute requirement and make people laugh throughout, but this had to be different. I had to tell jokes. Not stories.

I thought this was fair, but I was also terrified. 

Almost a year to the day after declaring my intent, I took the stage on Monday night at Sea Tea Improv in downtown Hartford to perform stand up comedy for the first time. 

open mic night.jpg

It went well. I was not fantastic. I performed for the requisite five minutes, telling jokes about parenting, marriage, Jewish food, and sex. People laughed. A few people complimented my performance afterwards, and a couple more found me online the next day to offer positive feedback. 

Most important, Elysha thought I was funny, and a couple friends in the audience were supportive as well.

A friend (but not the friend who challenged me to comedy in the first place) also took the stage on Monday and performed. He did well, too. As he pointed out later, some of the comics were asked by the host if it was their first time doing comedy.

Neither he nor I were asked that question. We were at least good enough not appear new. 

But it was a strange experience, too. I took the stage without any real plan. I had a couple opening sentences which I knew I could use to launch me into a riff on the realities of being a father, but after that, I was winging it. I said funny things that came to mind, but immediately after saying them, I knew that there was an even funnier way to say them. 

And I wasn't telling stories. I was telling jokes. Trying to make people laugh with words instead of story. 

And for the first time in a very long time, I felt nervous as I took the stage. Those nerves evaporated after I began speaking, but for a few moments, I felt the nerves that so many of my storytelling students feel just before taking the stage. 

I'll try stand up comedy again. I'll keep a running list of possible funny ideas as they occur to me, and when I think I have five minutes worth of material, I will prepare another set and give it a shot. Perhaps I'll take the five minutes that I did on Monday to another club as well. A producer at a comedy club in Manhattan has asked me to do 20 minutes at her club, and I could definitely stretch the 5 minutes that I did on Monday to a much longer set if I wanted. 

But here is the important part about Monday night:

I tried something that was new, frightening, and hard. That is why I did it. Complacency is tragic. Monotony is death. The absence of new horizons is an unfulfilled, wasted life.

I cannot stress this enough: You must find and try things that are new, frightening, and hard. This is the elixir of youth. Days filled with excitement and anticipation. A life absent of regret.

As a child, my life was filled with things that fit all three of these categories. I took new classes in new subjects every semester. Played new sports. Changed schools. Learned to drive. Asked girls to dance. Hiked up new mountains. Swam in new ponds. Made new friends. Played new musical instruments. Learned to speak a new language. Had sex for the first time. Earned my first paycheck. 

A young person's life is inextricably filled with things that are new, frightening, and hard. As we get older and experiences begin to pile up, those opportunities become fewer and farther between. People settle into routines. They establish patterns. Their zeal for risk taking wanes. 

Before long, they cannot imagine trying something new, frightening, and hard. They become set in their ways. They plod through life. They can't imagine staying up all night or driving to some faraway place on a whim or otherwise disturbing their routines.

They are getting older while getting old. 

I say yes to everything because I don't want to get old as I get old. I want the promise of days that are new and frightening and hard. I want to know that what I know now will not be all that I ever know.    

I cannot recommend the new, frightening, and hard enough. Stay young before you get old. 

Be kind to yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments. Have wild sex.

I've been speaking to a lot of writers lately. People who have written books and are hoping to find agents and editors and publishers who love their work and are willing to turn their words into physical objects that can be found on shelves in stores and libraries around the world. 

Throughout all of these conversations, something has become abundantly clear to me:

People are not kind to themselves. Writers and non-writers alike.

It might be true that you can't find an agent to represent you. Or perhaps you've found an agent, but you still can't find a publisher willing to buy your book. Maybe your spouse doesn't love the book. Perhaps your mother refuses to read it. Maybe your father thinks you're wasting your time. 

But here's the thing:

You wrote a book. You did the thing that millions of Americans claim that they will do someday but only a tiny fraction ever do.

You've joined the tiny fraction. You wrote a book. Celebrate, damn it. 

Early this week, I suggested to a group of unpublished writers that they throw themselves a party upon the completion of their first book. Lots of music and cake. Balloons, even. I also suggested that they hang a banner at the party that reads: 


Perhaps the banner is excessive, but I'm serious about the party. When engaged in a monumental task - writing a book, earning a college degree, raising a child, building a house, planning a wedding, climbing the career ladder - I believe in celebrating every step of the way. Positive reinforcement is important. If we wait to celebrate the final product, we may never get there. 

Honor the process. Acknowledge the struggle. Celebrate each significant step along the way. Even if you fail to achieve your goal, the struggle is valuable. Essential. Life altering. Honor it.   

That celebration can come in the form of a party (which I support wholeheartedly) or a dinner in a fine restaurant or a weekend in Vermont or even a night of wild sex.

If you're like me, it can also come in the form of positive self-talk:

The ability to look in the mirror and see someone who has accomplished something difficult and unexpected and unforeseen or uncommon and feel damn good about it. 

That "I wrote a book. I'm better than all of you" banner hangs over my proverbial head every day. It's a fact I reminded myself about constantly. It hangs right beside the banners that read:

  • You put yourself through college while working 60 hours a week and starting a business
  • You married Elysha.
  • You paid for your honeymoon through poker winnings. 
  • Your closet is clean and organized. 
  • You went from homelessness and jail to college graduate, teacher, and author.
  • Your in-laws love you. 
  • You're an elementary school teacher. You change lives every day.
  • Your children are kind. They love to read. They laugh all the time. They love you.  
  • You haven't missed a day of flossing in more than a decade.
  • You've won 32 Moth StorySLAMs and four GrandSLAMs.
  • You haven't ruined any of Elysha's sweaters in nearly five years.
  • You're still teaching despite the efforts of a small group of despicable cowards who tried to end your career ten years ago.  
  • You've published four books and have four more on the way.  
  • Your cat loves you most. 
  • You teach public speaking and storytelling all over the country. 
  • You didn't make anyone cry today. 

You have banners, too. Accomplishments worthy of celebrations or ice cream sundaes or wild sex. So often we fail to celebrate our achievements or the steps along the way. We discount our own success. We wait until a project is complete before daring to pat ourselves on the back.   

I'm not suggesting that you remind everyone everyday of the banners that hang over your head, but I'm suggesting that you remind yourself everyday. 

You'll rarely find me standing on a stage speaking about my own personal accomplishments. If given the choice, I'd prefer to tell you about my failures. My most despicable moments. My tiny acts of cruelty.

But in my mind, I'm constantly reminding myself of my accomplishments, great and small, particularly when the road becomes steep and bumpy. When deadlines loom large. When I'm feeling stupid or weak or incompetent. 

Be kind to yourself. You deserve it. 


Daylight Saving should be celebrated (or eliminated)

Daylight saving time should be eliminated. It's one of those things that we continue to do because we've always done it, but it's an asinine policy

But as long as we're going to keep Daylight Saving Time intact, could we at least allow the time change to happen when it can be appreciated and enjoyed?

I was awake in a hotel room in Kansas City at 1:59 AM on Saturday night, so I watched the clock kick back to 1:00 AM, but most people were asleep and couldn't take advantage of the extra hour.

Why not turn the clock back at noon? Just imagine:

You've just finished Sunday brunch, and as the clock is about to strike noon, it kicks back to 11:00. 

Time for second breakfast!

When I was younger, my best friend, Bengi, and I would always host a party on the evening of Daylight Saving because it meant an extra hour to party. To reinforce this idea, we set our clocks back at 6:00 PM so when people entered the house, they were already operating on tomorrow's time.

We understood the value of celebrating the extra hour instead of allowing it to tick by unnoticed.  

But short of this workaround. Daylight Saving goes almost unnoticed unless you have babies or small children whose sleep schedules are now fouled up. 

Let's stupidly, archaically shift our clocks back at a time that would at least give rise to a little joy. In a world where everyone is constantly whining about never having enough time (but doing little or nothing to eliminate that problem), an extra hour every year would be cause for celebration.