The fabled land of Inbox Zero

Behold!

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

Yes, I’m bragging.

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A terrible decision even worse than my terrible decision

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

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

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

Lavender?
SportsCenter?

What did people think of me?

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

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

Not by a long, long shot.

Last times

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

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

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

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

Can you imagine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t believe it.

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

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

Unfortunate restroom encounters at MIT

I was teaching storytelling at MIT yesterday. It was a long but exciting day.

In addition to teaching two workshops, I received an amazing tour of their new nanotechnology facility, and I’m now convinced that nanotechnology is going to save the world.

You wouldn’t believe the things what scientists can do today with a few atoms.

I also met some incredible people, walked around the campus for a couple hours, taught about 100 students, faculty, and staff, and even reconnected with a couple of old friends, too.

At one point, I passed two young men in a hallway who were multiplying fractions aloud. It was the kind of thing that you’d only expect to see in a movie about a place like MIT, but no. These things actually happen at MIT. Students just walk around, calculating and debating mathematical principles in between classes. Chalk boards are filled with equations that I couldn’t begin to understand.

Very smart people walk the halls of that institution. I felt like a small, insignificant fool crawling amongst intellectual giants.

It also became readily apparent to me why I was not an MIT student. And both times, it happened in a restroom.

During our first break, I left the classroom and walked down the hall to use the restroom. I pushed open the door and walked in, only to find myself in the company of three young women. They turned stared at me, the looks on their faces indicating that this was not a gender neutral restroom. I paused, smiled, and said, “And this is why I’m not MIT material” and left.

Then I turned right and pushed open the door clearly marked “Men.” I stepped over to one of the eight urinals to take care of business. I was the only person in the restroom when I entered, but a moment later, another man entered. Of the eight available urinals, I was using the second from the end. The man stepped to the urinal beside me, which was strange. With six urinals to my left, most men would’ve chosen one farther away, creating some distance between us.

I thought, “That’s an aggressive move by this guy. What gives?”

Then I wondered, “Is this just some hangup that I have? Is this me being stupid and weird, or is this guy a little socially awkward? Who’s in the wrong here?”

Having just taught my class about the importance of recognizing small moments from our lives, I returned to class and told my students about my encounter in the women’s restroom. Then I told them about the aggressive, possibly social awkward man in the men’s room and my quandary over whether the guy was weird or I was being stupid.

Turns out the man, named Tom, was in the room. He was attending my class. I’d been staring at him for more than an hour.

As you can see, I am not MIT material.

Happily, we laughed about the moment, and oddly, he was having a similar moment at the urinal. He told me that he entered the restroom in a bit of a fog, chose the urinal without thought, and then realized that there was a man beside him. He turned, realized it was me, and quickly turned away, thinking, “Damn. That’s Matt. Now what? I can’t talk to him while we’re peeing like this. And why am I standing so close to him? Damn.”

Tom ultimately gave me the tour of the nanotech facility. He gave me some nanotech swag to take home to the kids. He offered to tour my family around MIT if we’re ever in the city,. He was generous at every turn.

I liked him a lot.

It all turned out fine.

But no, I don’t expect MIT to be inviting me to work with them for more than a day at a time. A person who can’t navigate their restrooms without incident really doesn’t belong amongst intellectual giants.

This is underwear

Elysha sent me this photo yesterday with a message that read:

“Taking the liberty of throwing these away, honey.”

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I want to go on the record as saying that:

  1. It took me a moment to identify this photo as underwear.

  2. I swear that my underwear did not look like that when it entered the washing machine. My underwear as clearly engaged in a washing machine rumble of sorts.

  3. Even if Elysha’s underwear looks as damaged as mine, I would not have thrown them away without her permission because I’ve ruined too much of her clothing already to take any chances.

  4. I was pleased to see that Elysha was folding my laundry, though I also know that so did so only to clear a path for her own laundry.

  5. Underwear is a weird word. Elysha can rightly say that she’s throwing away “these” even though she’s only throwing away a single item, or she could’ve said that she was throwing away “a pair of underwear” even though there’s nothing about underwear that would cause you to see them as two of anything.

Life!

Hope springs eternal!

After the tragic death of our crocuses last week at the hands of the little girl next door, Charlie discovered a single crocus emerging from the earth yesterday afternoon in the same spot as last week’s floral massacre.

It appears that she didn’t kill them all.

At least one more was waiting to emerge from the frozen ground.

It made us both so incredibly happy.

Spring! Then murder.

Spring has sprung!

Every March this tiny patch of crocuses bloom in our front yard. It's the first sign that winter is finally in the rearview mirror and warm and sunny days are ahead. 

On Sunday the crocuses finally appeared. Tiny, purple and orange bursts of life from an otherwise cold, lifeless ground. We were thrilled. We treasure these little flowers so much. 

Ten minutes later, while our backs were turned, the little girl next door ripped them the flowers from the ground and left them lying in a pile on the dead grass like trash.

She didn't know how much these little flowers mean to us. It’s not her fault.

Still, my children and I were upset. We really love this patch of purple and orange gold.

But I often while teaching storytelling that what’s bad for you in real life is often good for the story. Or as I’ve heard my friend, Catherine Burns of The Moth often say:

“You either have a good time or you have a good story.”

You can bet this moment made it onto my Homework for Life, and it's probably storyworthy as well. 

Amusing. Surprising. Joyous. Plus a little anger and some sadness and grief. 

Good material to start a story. Maybe not a story worthy of the stage (though you never know), but entertaining nonetheless.

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Physics and philosophy at bedtime

Before bed last night , Charlie, age 6 asks:

“When the Big Bang reverses and the universe compresses into a tiny dot again and then we have another Big Bang, will we all eventually get born again like this time, or will it be different?”

“That’s a big question,” Elysha said.

I wanted to say, “Who the hell has been teaching you physics and philosophy? Where in the hell did you learn enough to ask a question like that?”

Before I could say anything, Charlie answered his own question. “Probably not,” he said. "Probably not."

Charlie eventually told us that he was reading about the Big Bang in a book. Clara then reminded us that I had explained the Big Bang to both of them a few months ago. Charlie added that his babysitter, Kaia, had answered some questions about it, too.Before going to bed, I explained the possibility of entropy (let him go blow someone else’s mind) and touched on the theory of the multiverse.

But he’s only six years-old, so he might need a second lesson.

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19 Things I Heart: 2019

I’m an author whose next novel, which hits shelves on October 15, is written entirely in lists. List after list after list which tells the story of a man and his struggle for friendship, love, dignity, self-worth, and financial security.

I like lists.

Back in March of 2015, I wrote a list of 19 things I loved at the time. I just reviewed that list to see how much had changed over the span of four years.

I chose four years because it’s the length of time that the average person spends in high school and/or college. The differences from freshman to senior year can often be profound, so that four year timeframe felt right to me.

It’s important to note that the time of year clearly plays a role in the making of this list. If it was autumn, for example, you would see Patriots games, the Coventry farmer’s market, and golf on the list.

Had I written the list a month ago, Crashing, a now-cancelled television show, would’ve made the list.

Like my last list, I’ve set a reminder on my Google calendar to return to this list on March 21, 2023 to see how my tastes have changed. Maybe you could do the same? I highly recommend it.
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  1. Netflix on the treadmill

  2. Egg McMuffins

  3. Seth Meyer’s “A Closer Look”

  4. Watching my son dance

  5. Moth StorySLAMs

  6. My wife in a tee-shirt and underwear

  7. Doing stand-up

  8. Heavyweight, Hit Parade, and Reply All (podcasts)

  9. The Corner Pug

  10. Playing Sorry with my family

  11. Every other Friday when the cleaning lady comes to our home

  12. The cats sleeping alongside me and on top of me at night

  13. Listening to Elysha emcee a Speak Up show

  14. Bob Newhart

  15. Queen, Springsteen, and Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason”

  16. Walt Hickey’s daily Numlock News newsletter

  17. Tweeting at Donald Trump

  18. A&W Diet Root Beer

  19. Listening to my daughter read to my son

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19 Things I Heart (2015)

Exactly four years ago, I posted a list of 19 things I was loving at the time.

As a novelist who has written an entire novel in lists (preorder here), it’s not surprising that my blog and social media is peppered with lists of various kinds.

I especially like making lists like these because they allow me to look back four years later and see what has changed in my life. Back in 2015 when I wrote the list, I set a reminder in my Google calendar to check back on the list today, which was a very clever thing for the 2015 version of myself to do.

Good job, former me.

I wondered:

Am I still enjoying the same things, or have my tastes changed? Will I think the 2015 version of myself was odd? Stupid? Naive?

Am I the same person, or am I a completely new person?

The list, it turns out, breaks down into three categories:

  1. Things that I still love

  2. Things that I no longer love.

  3. Things that I now take for granted.

I’ll write a new list for tomorrow for 2019. Here is how the 2015 list breaks down:

THINGS I STILL LOVE

  • Chipotle burritos

  • Tickling my children

  • My wife in a tee shirt and underwear

  • Bruce Willis action films while on the treadmill

  • Carhartt socks in place of slippers

  • Moth StorySLAMs

  • Jeff (my friend)

  • Egg McMuffins

THINGS I NO LONGER LOVE

  • Listening to my kindergarten daughter read to me (she’s in fourth grade and prefers to read independently)

  • Better Call Saul (between seasons)

  • 1776 by David McCullough (I’m sure it was great but I don’t remember much about it)

  • The Lyle Lovett Pandora station

  • Cold water from a metallic water bottle

  • Holding my dog in my lap after work (she passed away last year)

  • Any day over 35 degrees (35 degrees? Give me a day over 50 and I’ll be happy)

THINGS I TAKE FOR GRANTED

  • Overcast (podcasting app)

  • The Memory Palace (podcast)

  • UNU battery pack (for my iPhone)

  • Squarespace

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I have opinions on a suggested 30 percent tip

When it comes to dining out, I am a good tipper. My standard tip is 20% rounded up, and if I am especially pleased with the service, I’ll add a dollar or two.

I don’t have a problem with tipping for service at a restaurant.

I also tip on the total bill, including tax, because I’m not an insane person.

On Saturday night, however, Elysha and I went to dinner with friends, and at the bottom of the bill were some tipping suggestions. I hate the mere existence of these suggestions, since calculating 15 or 20 percent of any total should not be difficult for any grown-ass human being.

Even if calculating 20 percent is challenging for you, we can all calculate 10 percent of a number, so at worst you can just add half of that amount for 15 percent or double it for 20 percent.

I find these tipping suggestions slightly insulting both especially unsettling. I worry that people actually need them.

But the suggestions offered on Saturday night were insulting for a whole new reason.

30 percent? This restaurant has added 30 percent as an option to the suggested tips?

Frankly, I think 25 percent is a little presumptuous, but 30 percent?

I often suggest that folks purchase my books by the dozen, but I’m not serious. I’m making a joke. I don’t ever expect anyone to do it, but these suggestions are not meant to be funny.

Someone somewhere thinks that a 30 percent tip should not only an option, but it’s an option so common and obvious that it’s worthy of suggestion.

It’s not.

For the record, I tipped $12 that night, making my tip a little more than 21 percent of the bill. A tip like this would normally make me feel good about my tip. Generous, even.

But not when the stupid restaurant presents 30 percent an option.

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Standing up in defense of comedy instead of decency

I was standing in the checkout line at Stop & Shop on Sunday, which was a mistake. A snow storm was coming, threatening to dump half a foot of snow on the ground, so the crazy people were out in force, stocking up on food and drink in case of …

I have no idea. The roads were clear by 9:00 AM the next day, like they always are.

The cashier, a young man in his late teens or early twenties, was running my items through the scanner, and a young woman, about the same age, was bagging. The man had just started scanning my items when he turned to the bagger and said, “Can you believe how dumb that old lady was?”

The old lady that her was referring to was the customer in front of me who had just departed. For some reason, this elderly woman had a difficult time using her credit card. Rather than inserting it into the chip slot, she first tried to hand the card to the cashier, and when he pointed at the machine, she tried to swipe the card repeatedly. Ultimately, the cashier had to show the woman how to insert her card into the chip slot and help her through the prompts.

I saw all this happen, and foolishly, I thought the cashier was being patient and kind.

Turns out not so much.

Hearing the cashier insult the elderly customer, the bagger replied, “You’re so mean!” But not in a serious or scolding way, but in a smiling, flirty way. She giggled as she said it.

“I’m not mean,” the cashier protested. “She was a real idiot.” He went on, explaining how “stupid” she was through each step of the payment process.

The cashier giggled some more.

I stood there. listening to this, and my first thought was how unprofessional this behavior was. As a former manager of a restaurant for years, I can’t stand when employees act like this in front of customers. The manager inside me seethed. These two were speaking as if I wasn’t even there. Had I been their manager, I would’ve been so angry.

But I said nothing. I wasn’t their manager.

Then something inside me shifted. I thought, “Wait. This cashier sucks. And so does this bagger. They’re just terrible people.”

Still, I said nothing. Given another moment or two, I might’ve finally spoken up, but before I could even make that decision, a third thought struck me.

“This kid thinks he’s funny. He’s trying to make this bagger laugh. And she is. She’s laughing. They think this is funny.”

That was it.

The former manager in me had remained silent.

The decent human being in me hadn’t said a word.

But the person who strives to be funny on both the page and on the stage couldn’t stand it anymore. I was so offended by this rotten, lazy, legitimately unfunny attempt to be funny that I finally spoke up.

“You know,” I said. “It’s pretty terrible to talk about people behind their back like you’re doing. It’s awful, really.”

“No,” the cashier said and attempted to launch into an excuse.

I cut him right off. “No,” I sad. “It’s terrible. And cowardly. And you think you’re funny. You’re not. You’re not even close to being funny. You’re just being terrible to someone who doesn’t deserve it and isn’t here. You’re not funny at all.”

The cashier broke eye contact and became exceptionally focused on scanning my remaining items. I turned to the bagger, and she was now looking down, treating the bagging of my groceries like the defusing of a ticking time bomb.

Anything to avoid eye contact.

They may have thought I was a crazy person. Or maybe they were worried that I would report their behavior to their manager. Or maybe they just wanted to get rid of me as quickly as possible without creating any more of a scene.

Maybe all three.

But in less than a minute, I was rolling away with my groceries.

I thought for a moment about stopping at the customer service counter on the way out to ask some inane question just to put the fear of reporting and termination in their minds, but honestly, I wasn’t feeling as good about myself as I usually do in situations like these.

I’m oftentimes elated after one of those encounters.

Maybe I would’ve spoken up when I shifted from manager-mode to decent-person mode, but I’m not sure. I certainly didn’t speak up immediately. It wasn’t until I became angry with them on behalf of comedy that I finally spoke up, and for that, I was feeling a little lousy about my reaction.

That elderly woman deserved to have someone stand up for her for better reasons than comedy.

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Dumb geographical luck

I often think how defining geography can be to a person.

Last week Elysha and I brought the kids to Boston to visit the Children’s Museum. We ate lunch, visited every exhibit hall, and walked through the streets as a light snow fell.

We left the house around 10:00 AM and were home by 8:00 PM.

I’ll be in Boston at least three times in March for a Moth GrandSLAM, a storytelling show at Harvard, and a consulting gig.

A day after visiting the Boston Children’s Museum, I was in New York City, consulting with a nonprofit in Manhattan. I left the house around 5:00 AM and returned home by 8:00 PM, which made for a long but doable day.

I’ll be attending a Moth StorySLAM and performing in New York again next month, and I’ll be meeting with one of my publishers in April.

Earlier this week, I was coaching hospital volunteers at Yale New Haven Hospital. I’ll be back next week to listen to their stories again and see how much progress has been made.

Next month I’ll be in Vermont, consulting with attorneys on storytelling.

I also work and perform in Maine regularly, and I’ve done work with with schools in New Hampshire, too.

Knowing all this, I can’t help but wonder what my life might be like had I been born in a place like North Dakota or Iowa or Nebraska. Big states that require hours to cross. Places without easy access to multiple large cities like New York and Boston and New Haven and multiple states like we do here in New England.

Places without large concentrations of people.

Maybe I would’ve eventually moved to the northeast or the west coast, but it’s hard to know. When you grow up in a place, that place can often define a person’s hopes and dreams.

If I grew up in Montana or Kansas, I’m not sure if I ever find my way to storytelling, standup, performing, and all of the work I now do this field with corporations, schools, hospitals, nonprofits, the clergy, and everyone else.

Fate can also play an enormous role in your life. Where you are born will often determine the course of your life, but decisions about where to establish your roots are often made less thoughtfully and far more randomly.

I came to Connecticut, putting me strategically between New York and Boston, because while leaving a Def Leppard concert at the Hartford Civic Center in 1993, my best friend, Bengi (who had already moved to Connecticut for work), saw a coworker from Travelers waiting to be escorted to her car by the now-defunct Hartford Guides. Bengi asked if she wanted to walk with us since we were both parked in the same Traveler’s parking garage.

She accepted his offer.

During that short walk to our cars, I managed to impress that girl enough that she was asking about me at work the next day.

I eventually came to Connecticut because of that girl. Though we didn’t end up together forever, everything that followed, including Elysha, the kids, Speak Up, my career, my other career, my other career, and my other career, and just about every else good in my life, resulted from my move to Connecticut.

It terrifies me to think how close I came to not having any of this. A simple walk to a parking garage changed my life forever.

And had I remained in the Boston area, I might never go to New York and start telling stories for The Moth. I might never perform onstage.

Hartford to New York is a two or three hour drive depending on the time of day, but Boston to New York is more than four hours. Impossible to get there on time for a show after a full day of work.

Yes, I could’ve moved to New York and had all the opportunities that the city affords, but losing easy access to the Boston area would’ve been terrible for me, too. Having a second market in which to perform and work has been tremendous, and almost two decades spent at Gillette Stadium with my friends, cheering on the Patriots, would’ve been wiped out by a move to NYC.

There are many days when I’m driving to Manhattan or Brooklyn and wishing I lived a little closer to the city. There are also days when I’m stuck in traffic on the Mass Pike and wishing the trip to Boston was a lot shorter. But by being nearly equidistant to both cities, I have access to both cities, as well as places like New Haven, Providence, and northern New England.

And I have Hartford, a place where I perform and work regularly as well.

Hartford may not be the most glamorous as places like Boston and New York, but its geographical position has positioned me well for many opportunities, and I don’t discount this good fortune.

Geography is, of course, one of the most defining aspects of a person’s life. Forget Nebraska or Iowa. Had I been born in Siberia or Syria or the Sudan, my life would be very different. I was exceptionally, exceedingly fortunate to be born in America, and perhaps also fortunate to be born in the northeast, and perhaps also fortunate to have landed in a place that affords me access to cities like New York and Boston.

I try to remind myself about this whenever possible. As hard as I have worked to get where I am today, it was also just dumb luck that I was born in America in proximity to multiple large cities that have given me opportunities beyond compare.

Dumb luck, folks. It’s what fuels more success than we are sometimes willing to admit.

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I don't remember what I see.

While teaching storytelling at Yale New Haven Hospital last night, I was trying to explain to someone about how I am a strong auditory learner and an exceptionally weak visual learner.

Essentially, I can remember almost everything I hear, but I have great difficulty remembering anything that I see.

I don’t notice a lot of things.

Elysha has argued that if she were standing in a lineup of brunettes of similar height, I would be hard-pressed to identify her. This is not true, of course, but there is some truth in what she says.

But this is true:

Elysha and I were at a party a few years ago when someone asked us what color our house is. I said, “Yellow.”

Elysha said, “Our house is not yellow.”

So began a debate over the color of our house, which I knew was yellow. We’d been living in the house for at least half-a-dozen years at that point, and I damn well knew the color of our house. It was clearly yellow. Unquestionable yellow. As yellow as the yellow of a yellow crayon.

A couple hours later, we turned onto our street and took a look at the house.

It’s not yellow. As you can see (below), it’s not even close to being yellow.

I’d been living in a house for years, and I couldn’t accurately recall the color of that house.

That is frightening.

Yes, it’s great to have an exceptionally strong auditory memory. Being able to remember everything that I hear and follow multiple conversations simultaneously is helpful. Elysha has caught me watching television and listening to an audiobook at the same time, and I can do so while maintaining focus on both narratives.

I’m sure that my auditory prowess has helped me with my writing and storytelling. I made me a debate champion in college (and a miserable person to argue with). It helps me analyze and dissect movies, television shows, and stories with ease because I’m able to hold large amounts of auditory information in my head for a long, long time.

All that is great.

But it would also be great if I could accurately identify the color of your house. Or recognize someone by their face rather than their voice. Or be able to tell someone what color shirt I’m wearing without having to look down to see.

That would be pretty great, too.

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New employment opportunity involves contracting malaria

Elysha is opposed to me taking on any new jobs, and I certainly understand her feelings. Between teaching, writing, storytelling, consulting, ministering, standup, coaching, and the occasional DJ gig, I am never short on work.

But I also understand my insanity.

When you’ve been homeless and hungry and facing the real possibility of prison, and you honestly believe that you will never live in an actual house again, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever more than a step or two away from the cliff at any moment.

And now that I have a wife and two children depending on me, the cliff is more frightening than ever. Terrifying, really.

This is why I seem to collect jobs. I’m building a bulwark against possible oblivion. I’m in a constant battle against possible economic disaster.

A little crazy, I know, but born from a former and very real reality.

Troy Carter of The Atom Factory calls this financial PTSD. "When you grow up poor, you suffer financial PTSD. You always have that fear."

I get that.

Despite Elysha’s admonitions, I actually managed to land three new jobs in 2018:

I started writing and consulting for an advertising company, I started consulting on documentaries, and I became a notary.

Huzzah!

In my defense, Elysha was excited about my opportunity to work on a national advertising campaign and fully supported it.

I'm not sure if she knew about my application to become a notary, but I don’t feel like that job will be terribly demanding of my time and energy. She’s probably fine with that one, too.

I’m not sure if she’s even aware of the work I’m doing with the documentarian. Until now.

Just last week, I learned of a new employment possibility:

Malaria vaccine volunteer

Yes, it’s just what it sounds like. Pharmaceutical companies are looking for test subjects to determine the efficacy of new vaccines. There’s no real danger to the subject, and it pays well too:

A vaccine trial through the Jenner Institute at Oxford, for example, pays about $3,200, to malaria volunteers. Over 1,000 people have been deliberately infected with malaria for research purposes so far, and they’ve all been perfectly fine.

I know what you’re thinking… Getting malaria on purpose sounds a little crazy, but I feel like it’s one of those jobs that I could do while doing other jobs, doubling my earning power.

Multi-tasking!

If Elysha doesn’t approve of this idea (and I see my chances as rather low), other job possibilities on the horizon include:

  • Professional best man (Five grooms, a filmmaker, and two reality show developer have tried to hire me for this position so far)

  • Unlicensed therapist (Two licensed therapists have given me the thumbs up on this idea)

  • Unaccredited sociologist (I have many theories to test and write about but no desire to earn a boring sociology degree)

  • Gravesite visitor (It’s a thing)

  • Double date companion (Alongside Elysha, we would offer the social lubricant needed to ensure a successful first or second or third date)

  • Futurist (I’m more than willing to be paid to predict the future)

now hiring.jpg

Great news, greater advice, and a cage

Today I offer you a bit of followup on previous posts.

First, and I think most important, is a comment that my friend, John, left on my blog yesterday. I met John through Speak Up, where he has become a bit of a regular, and a couple years ago I played in his day-long, 54 hole golf tournament.

John wrote this in response to my post about my slightly unorthodox version of self care:

_____________________________________________

This morning I ran 3 miles. I know, so what, many people can do that.

What if I told you I will be 66 years old in 7 weeks?

Yep, a fair number of 66 year olds can do that too.

But what if I told you the last time I did it was the morning of my heart attack?

What if I told you that 272 days ago a team of doctors sawed open my chest, stopped my heart and repaired it. At about this point you might tell me to stop bragging.

But Matt’s words this morning ring so true to me. “Whenever possible, I try to put myself in a position to feel like I am doing better than other people. Accomplishing more. Making the most of my day. Outpacing my fellow human beings.”

Many times during my running life when I was exhausted during a run or unmotivated, I would say to myself, “How many 45 year olds can do this? How many 55 year olds can”” Comparing myself to everyone born in 1953 and later would always get me to the finish line. And I am convinced that in a small way those thoughts kept me running through the years and maybe played a role in saving my life.

This is the day I have looked forward to since I could only walk slowly for 5 minutes without needing to rest.

This morning I ran 3 miles. I’m back.

_____________________________________________

Not only am I thrilled to hear that John is back, but I think his words are important for people to hear, myself included.

Last week, I wrote about the cage that my student built and gave to me for my birthday. The only photographs I took of the cage on that day were ones containing students, so here is what the cage looks like now, hanging above my desk.

A perfect collection of birthday presents

Yesterday was an especially delightful today for me. It was my birthday, and the gifts that I were given were brilliant.

It started off in the morning with Elysha. Her family has always given their gifts at the crack of dawn, which was decidedly different than the after-dinner gift giving that I was accustomed to for all of my life, but I’ve decided not to fight this tiny bit of crazy.

She’s excited. I get it.

Elysha gave me two gifts:

  • Tickets to the 20th anniversary tour of Rent, a favorite of mine. I saw Rent at least three times with the original cast when it debuted back in the late ‘90’s at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, and I can still sing all the song by heart.

I was thrilled.

  • A portrait of Kaleigh, my best friend who passed away in 2018. Elysha sent photos of Kaleigh to an artist who produced a beautiful rendition of my little friend of more than 17 years.

    She always finds a way to make me cry with her gifts.

Then I went to school and was greeted by my students who gave me some entirely unnecessary but delightful gifts. One student gave me a handmade ceramic bowl with a card telling me that I was to keep paperclips in the bowl for those moments when I might need to throw them at students.

Another student asked me what I wanted for my birthday earlier in the week, and my list included a bucket of kittens, a time machine, a lifetime supply of cheeseburgers, an addition to my home, a robot, and a cage to hang over my desk to imprison naughty children..

So she built me the cage.

Using baling twine and wooden hoops, she created a perfect replica of the kind of cage that the witch in Hansel and Gretel stuffed the children into as she prepared to cook them.

I immediately hung it over my desk, much to the delight of my kids.

A few hours later it was time for lunch. I’m a member of a secret birthday club at school, and my friend, Wendy, revealed that she was my birthday buddy. My gift was a surprise lunch, complete with a white table cloth, birthday centerpiece, Chipotle burrito, and my good friend and former colleague Rob Hugh.

She gave me time with my friend. An hour to catch up and eat.

What a perfect gift.

When I arrived home later that day, I was greeted by my in-laws, who had spent much of the day with our kids. They handed me a renewed membership to the kids’ favorite museum, where they had spent much of the afternoon, and had so many kind things to say about how well behaved and polite our kids were throughout the day.

Future fun with the kids and the knowledge that they had a great day together… I can’t imagine a better gift.

I’m not the kind of person who gets excited over gifts. I’m a minimalist at heart who doesn’t really care much about things. But yesterday I received the things that I value most:

Experiences. Originality. Creativity. Thoughtfulness. The happiness of my children. Storyworthy moments.

Every single gift that I received fit at least one of these categories. It was a day filled with beautiful gestures of kindness and generosity.

I couldn’t be more thankful.

I leveled up.

I both love and hate this little meme.

levels.jpg

I love the idea that I am leveling up today. Level 48. Yes, that’s badass. Severely badass.

I’m leveling up today.

But you’re certainly not an old person at age 43, and you’re also most certainly not an old person at age 48.

Correction: There are some 43 year olds who behave as if they’re old people, just like there are some 48 year olds who behave like old people, too.

I happen to know a 34 year old who acts as if he’s ready for the grave. Perpetually exhausted. Chronically cranky. Endlessly pessimistic. Unwilling to take risks. Incapable of trying new things. Unable to muster the energy to do anything after 8:00 PM.

Yeah, that guy is old.

The argument that age is a state of mind is not a new one, but I think there is a lot of truth to it. But it’s not only a state of mind. I think age is more importantly a reflection about how you spend your time. How you choose to live your life.

I know a 71 year-old man who has recently transformed his life by diving into something new and difficult and ultimately joyous.

I know a 74 year-old woman who runs her own online business and has recently revived her career in art and just started licensing her work.

I know a 72 year-old woman who retired four years ago and has launched an entirely new second act of her life. She is traveling, trying new things, and playing lots and lots of golf.

These three people are living younger lives than others who I know who are decades younger.

A positive, youthful state of mind is nice, but it’s how that state of mind informs your decisions and behavior that count.

Are you trying new things? Taking risks? Exploring perviously ignored corners of yourself? Are you still making friends? Trying to make the world a better place?

My students know that I’m turning 48 today. They occasionally take great pleasure in referring to me as old. They are obviously struggling with a limited intellect. But a young lady recently came to my defense after a boy lobbed one of these “old man” claims at me, shouting, “He does more stuff than all of us, and he can even do a back-bend!”

That young lady will never know how much I enjoyed that comment.

It was a lovely birthday present.