Speak Up Storytelling #61: Joe Basile

On episode #61 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, Elysha Dicks and I talk storytelling!

In our follow-up segment, we discuss our magical night of storytelling earlier in the week. We also update listeners on Charlie's health and remind listeners about our upcoming trip to Seattle. 

STORYTELLING SHOWS 2019

August 10: Great Hartford Story Slam at Hartford Flavor Company
August 17: Solo storytelling show at Taproot Theater, Seattle, WA
September 7: “Tests” at Real Art Ways
November 2: Great Hartford Story Slam, location TBD
November 23: Twenty-one Truths About Love book release, CT Historical Society, Hartford, CT
December 14: “Crafty” at CT Historical Society, Hartford, CT

STORYTELLING WORKSHOPS 2019

October 4-6: Storytelling workshop, Art of Living Retreat, Boone, NC
October 25-27: Storytelling workshop (beginners), Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
November 9: Storytelling workshop (Beginner), CT Historical Society
November 16: Storytelling workshop (Advanced), CT Historical Society
December 6-8: Storytelling workshop (advanced), Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
January 25: Storytelling workshop (Beginner), CT Historical Society
February 22: Storytelling workshop (Advanced), CT Historical Society

In our Homework for Life segment, I talk about a small moment on the edge of a pond during a sunset. . 

Next we listen to a story by Jospeh Basile (with interpretation by Julie Sharp).   

Amongst the many things we discuss include:

  1. Nonfiction content in storytelling

  2. Launching scenes in the right spot (and the elimination of process language)

  3. Combining anecdotes into a more cohesive narrative

  4. Holding back information to preserve surprise

We then answer a listener questions about diversity in storytelling and when you know a story is done. 

Finally, we each offer a recommendation.  

LINKS

Purchase Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling

Purchase Twenty-one Truths About Love 

Homework for Life: https://bit.ly/2f9ZPne

Matthew Dicks's website: http://www.matthewdicks.com

Matthew Dicks's YouTube channel:
https://www.youtube.com/matthewjohndicks 

Matthew Dicks's blog:
http://www.matthewdicks.com/matthewdicksblog

Subscribe to Matthew Dicks's weekly newsletter: 
http://www.matthewdicks.com/matthewdicks-subscribe

Subscribe to the Speak Up newsletter: 
http://www.matthewdicks.com/subscribe-speak-up

Subscribe to Matthew Dicks's blog:
http://www.matthewdicks.com/subscribe-grin-and-bare-it

RECOMMEDATIONS

Elysha:

Matt:

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Friday night magic

Some nights in your life are simply magical.

Friday night was one of those nights for me. After spending a week working with storytellers from China, British Columbia, San Diego, Chicago, Westchester, and a few locals, I had the honor of introducing them to an audience of friends, family, and fellow storytellers so that they could tell one of the stories that they had crafted and practiced during the course of the week.

For some, this was their first time standing before an audience, telling a story.

For others, this was another important step on their storytelling journey.

I watched some of my storytellers take enormous leaps. Courageous, personal leaps forward. For others, I watched them tell stories with such tenderness and vulnerability that I had tears in my eyes. Some had me roaring with laughter. Still others told stories that made me want to leap out of my seat and pump my fist in the air. Maybe shout an expletive to two.

Truly.

And yes, one of the storytellers - a man from China - proposed to his girlfriend - also a storyteller in my class - by crafting a brilliant story that ultimately led to the proposal. He had asked me for permission to propose during the show earlier in the week, so although I was aware that it was coming, it was a surprise to everyone else.

A wonderful, emotional, celebratory surprise.

Unforgettable.

Just before the story began, I leaned over to my teaching assistant, Jeni Bonaldo, and showed her a note that read, “You’re going to like this.”

She did.

But it was also - and just as important - a night of stories, and each one of them was brilliant. Truly. Every single one of those storytellers performed with magnificence, expertise, and grace. It was as good of a show as Elysha Dicks and I has ever produced, and I was so damn proud of each and every one of them.

If you want to get close to people quickly, spend a week with them telling stories. As our time came to an end and we prepared to go our separate ways, I was sad. I suspect most of my storytellers were, too. In just a few short days, I had learned so much and grown so close to them that it was difficult to say goodbye.

I suspect that I will be hearing from some if not all for a long time to come. I hope so. Each of them means the world to me.

These are the moments in my life when I step back and think about how the decision - made with great trepidation at the time - to tell a story at a Moth StorySLAM in New York City back in 2011 changed my life forever.

It’s a reminder about how our decision to launch Speak Up on a snow day in February of 2013 - also made with some trepidation - has brought us so many magical moments like the one we experienced on Friday night.

It’s a reminder about how writing a book about storytelling and later launching a podcast on the same subject led a couple from halfway around the world to Hartford, CT and a proposal that no one in that room will ever forget.

It’s a reminder to me about the importance of pushing forward. Seeking the next horizon. Imagining a new adventure. Finding the next thing that will bring magic to our lives again.

May I be so bold as to suggest that you do the same?

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You don't know people

We live in bubbles, Sometimes we create them ourselves. Sometimes they are dictated by geography, profession, and other mitigating factors.

Sometimes you’re not quite sure how your bubble even formed. For example, I don’t have any friends (or spouses of friends) who smoke, yet 14 percent of Americans smoke. This means that I have unknowingly excluded myself from 14 percent of America.

Granted I can’t stand cigarette smoke, so I’m content to occupy this bubble, but it’s not as if I purposely jettisoned anyone out of my life for smoking. Perhaps because of my profession and my geography, I have somehow managed to exclude smokers from my bubble.

But I think it’s important to remember that we live in these bubbles, and in doing so, we oftentimes fail to understand people occupying different bubbles.

When I was a student at Trinity College and St. Joseph’s University, for example, I was attending the most expensive and sixth most expensive schools in Connecticut at the time.

But I was also on a full academic scholarship, so I wasn’t paying any tuition. While most of the students around me come from affluent families, I did not.

St. Joseph’s University was also an all-women’s school at the time, and I was (and continue to be) a man, so my presence at St. Joseph’s was also unusual.

Also, prior to attending these schools, I had been homeless and awaiting trial for a crime I did not commit.

So although I didn’t really belong in any of these bubbles, I found myself existing within them nonetheless. One was almost exclusively white and wealthy, and the other was almost exclusively white and female.

But at the same time, I was managing a McDonald’s restaurant in Hartford. This created quite a contrast for me.

While working at McDonald’s, I was almost always the only white person working in the restaurant at any given time. Most of my employees were immigrants - primarily Mexican, Chinese, Peruvian, and Dominican. Many were poor and struggling to make ends meet. Most did not own a car, so I would drive throughout the neighborhood at 4:30 AM, picking up my morning crew and bringing them to and from work. I helped many of them with tasks like filing their taxes, reviewing school forms, making doctor’s appointments, and helping them find second and third jobs.

It was a period of my life when on any given day, I could be sitting alongside wealthy, white English majors in the morning, affluent young women in the afternoon, and then I might spend my evening flipping burgers with non-English speaking immigrant mothers from South America and the Caribbean.

It reminded me - so very clearly - that people living in relative proximity to each other can exist within vastly different bubbles. It also reminded me that when it comes to bubbles, the people occupying the most privileged bubbles are most likely to not understand the bubbles that other people occupy or not realize that they even exist.

But they do.

For example, here are a few statistics that might surprise you depending on the bubbles in which you live:

  • 11% of American adults do not use the internet.

  • 65% of high school graduates attend college following graduation and only a third of Americans hold a four year college degree.

  • Less than half of all American children attend preschool.

  • 37% of adult Americans don’t drink alcohol.

  • 27% of Americans work between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM at least once a week.

  • 3% of Americans are adopted.

  • 36% of Americans don’t drink coffee.

Some of these statistics probably surprised you. Some surprised me. But they served as excellent reminder that as commonplace as certain things may seem to me, they are likely to be far less common than I think.

And maybe you think.

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I am Springsteen

Huge conundrum, people:

Elysha compared me to Bruce Springsteen.

She told a friend - not even me, so it must be true - that I’m like Bruce Springsteen because the two of us are tough, rugged men who make great art.

While I admittedly can’t repair a hinge on a cabinet, change my own oil, or even hang a picture on a wall, I’m fully equipped to keep the family alive in the event of a zombie apocalypse or similar collapse of civilization. My years of Boy Scout training and my ruthlessness in the face of danger make me capable of keeping our family alive when it matters most.

Plus I write good books and tell good stories.

Not unlike Springsteen, who also appears tough as nails but writes and sings great songs.

Wrote a terrific memoir, too. You should read it.

My conundrum:

What do you do in your marriage when you know you’ve reached the absolute pinnacle and everything from this moment on is going to be significantly less perfect than this very moment?

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Resolution Update: July 2019

Each month I review the progress of my yearly goals and report on that progress as a means of holding myself accountable.

Here are the results for July.

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PERSONAL HEALTH

1. Don’t die.

Unless an asteroid destroys the planet, I’m not going anywhere.

2. Lose 20 pounds.

I gained two points in July because I suck.

I’ve lost 6 pounds in total.

3. Eat at least three servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day, six days a week.

Done! Admittedly it was mostly fruit and French fries, but I did it!

4. Do at least 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 3 one-minute planks for five days a week.

Done.

5. Do burpees three days a week.

I did 3-4 burpees per day, 3 times each week in July. My shoulder really, really hurts. I blame the stupid burpees.

WRITING CAREER

6. Complete my seventh novel before the end of 2019.

I met with my editor and the marketing and publicity team. The good news is that she’s very excited about my next novel idea. The bad news is that she didn’t choose the book that’s half done. So I begin anew with a brand new idea, making the likelihood that I’ll finish it this year unlikely.

But I’ll try!

7. Write/complete at least five new picture books, including one with a female, non-white protagonist. 

I’m currently working on three different children’s books. I like one very much.

8. Write a memoir.

Work continues.

9. Write a new screenplay.

No progress.

10. Write a musical.

No progress.

11. Submit at least five Op-Ed pieces to The New York Times for consideration.

I submitted a piece to the NY Times Modern Love column in April.

One down. Four to go.

12. Submit one or more short stories to at least three publishing outlets.

No progress.

13. Select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences on the blog.

I spent July strategically smiling in hopes that the biofeedback that a smile sends to the brain would alter my mood positively. I’ll be writing about the results later this week.

I’m in need of two more behaviors to adopt.

Suggestions?

14. Increase my storytelling newsletter subscriber base to 3,000.

68 new subscribers in July for a total of 769 new subscribers in 2019. My list now stands at 2,879 subscribers.

If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter, you can do so here:

15. Write at least six letters to my father.

One letter written in June for Father’s Day. One written so far this year.

16. Write 100 letters in 2019.

Five letters written in July. 19 overall. Still have a lot of writing to do this summer.

17. Convert Greetings Little One into a book.

A kind, generous, and amazing human being has begun work on this project.

I am thrilled.

STORYTELLING

18. Produce a total of 10 Speak Up storytelling events.

No shows produced in July. A total of 8 shows produced so far in 2019.

19. Begin selling Speak Up merchandise at our events and/or online.

Done! We began selling tee shirts and totes at our live podcast recording.

Next step is to make it available online.

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20. Pitch myself to at least 5 upcoming TEDx events with the hopes of being accepted by one.

Done! I’ve pitched myself to five TEDx conferences and was nominated for a sixth.

All have now passed on my pitches. No one wants me.

I’ll just keep pitching.

21. Attend at least 15 Moth events with the intention of telling a story.

I attended one Moth StorySLAM in July, bringing my total to 13 events so far.

22. Win at least three Moth StorySLAMs.

Done! I won my FOURTH Moth StorySLAM on 2019 and my 41st StorySLAM overall at The Oberon in Cambridge, MA.

23. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.

I finished in second place by a tenth of a point in a Moth GrandSLAM in Boston in January.

I finished in fourth place in a Moth GrandSLAM in Boston in March, but I think I might’ve told my best story ever.

I competed but did not win the NYC Moth GrandSLAM in June. Silent scoring (I’m not a fan) prevents me from knowing how I placed (though I may be able to call and ask).

I may be competing in one more Moth GrandSLAM in NYC this year depending on the timing of the GrandSLAM and the number of storytellers in the queue ahead of me.

24. Produce at least 40 episodes of our new podcast Speak Up Storytelling. 

Four new shows released in July. A total of 28 so far. We haven’t missed a week in 2019.

Listen to our latest here or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

25. Perform stand up at least four times in 2019. 

I performed at an open mic in July at The Elbow Room in West Hartford. It went well.

Three to go.

26. Develop and teach a Storytelling Master Class, in which participants have an opportunity to tell at least two stories over the course of the day  or tell a story and then retell it based on feedback.

Done on June 1! It went surprisingly well.

27. Pitch at least three stories to This American Life.

No progress.

28. Pitch myself to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast at least three times.

I wrote to Marc early in January, asking for him to consider me as a guest.

No response yet. I will write again this month.

I’ve also officially requested that my publicist assist me in this endeavor.

If you know Marc Maron, or know someone who knows Marc or know someone who knows Marc’s producer or booker, please let me know. I know that Marc and I would have an amazing conversation, and it’s currently my biggest dream to get on his show.

NEW PROJECTS

29. Host a fundraiser for RIP Medical Debt, which would allow us to relieve the medical debt of struggling Americans for pennies on the dollar.

No progress.

30. Complete my Eagle Scout project.

No progress.

31. Print, hang, and/or display at least 25 prints, photos, or portraits in our home.

We received our estimate from the painters. Depending on other expenses, we will likely be painting several rooms this summer or fall, at which point things can be hung on the walls.

32. Renovate our first floor bathroom.

Work will commence THIS MONTH. And not a moment too soon. The tile floor is falling apart.

33. Organize our second floor bathroom.

No progress. Summertime project that should commence soon.

MISCELLANEOUS

34. Cook at least 12 good meals (averaging one per month) in 2019.

I made no meals in July

Four down. Eight to go.

35. Plan a reunion of the Heavy Metal Playhouse.

I have a tentative date set. Attempting to confirm attendees now!

36. Ride my bike with my kids at least 25 times in 2019.

I did not tide my bike with the kids in July. A week at Disney and two weeks at camp have made any time at home limited.

37. I will not comment, positively or negatively, about physical appearance of any person save my wife and children, in 2019 in an effort to reduce the focus on physical appearance in our culture overall. 

While walking the streets of Disney World, I commented on people who were wearing sweatshirts and jeans in the 95 degree heat. I didn’t speak in derogatory terms, but I questioned why they were making those choices. Elysha says this should not count, but I did comment on physical appearance in a way I don’t want to even notice.

38. Surprise Elysha at least six times in 2019.

While vacationing at Disney World, I surprised Elysha by scheduling a second dessert party and VIP viewing for the Magic Kingdom fireworks. We had enjoyed this treat on our first night in Disney, but it was expensive. But the fireworks were also our favorite part of the entire trip, so I decided to surprise Elysha by repeating the experience on the last night of the trip, regardless of the expense.

It was worth every penny.

Five surprises accomplished so far.

39. Replace the 12 ancient, energy-inefficient windows in our home with new windows that will keep the cold out and actually open in the warmer months.

I’ve got a window guy now in the event we manage to cobble together the fund for this much needed project.

Maybe I should start a Go Fund Me campaign.

40. Clean the basement. 

The dumpster is supposed to be here TODAY. It is not. The company cancelled. They are excellent at taking the reservation but not so good at keeping the reservation.

I’m so annoyed. I’m also rescheduling.

41. Set a new personal best in golf.

I started taking lessons this summer, and I’ve committed myself to constant practice. The results are beginning to show, not so much in my scores this weekend but in my swing and understanding of how I should be swinging. It’s all very new, so it’ll be bad before it’s good, but for the first time, I have a path to playing better.

42. Play poker at least six times in 2019.

No games in all of 2019. I love poker. What the hell is wrong with me?

43. Spend at least six days with my best friend of more than 25 years.

Two days spent together so far. I’ve attempted a couple other days but schedules didn’t line up. Still trying like hell. I miss the guy.

44. Post my progress in terms of these resolutions on this blog on the first day of every month.

Done.

The world's real apex predator

Here’s an interesting observation via Numlock News:

For thousands of years, human beings have systematically conquered evert region of the globe, eliminating or taming all of the creatures that once threatened our ancestors.

Lions, tigers, and bears are now relegated to areas of the planet that we deem safe and acceptable, Though an occasional animal still rises up and kills an occasional human, the threat is essentially gone. If we wanted to eliminate these dangerous species entirely, we could with relative ease.

Except one.

While we have been busy convincing ourselves that we are this planet’s apex predator, the tiny mosquito has resisted every attempt by human beings to eliminate them completely and have continued to kill human beings at an astonishing rate.

Mosquitos - not human beings - are the apex predator of our planet.

There are 100 trillion mosquitoes on Earth at any given time, and through their transmission of parasites and pathogens, they kill about 700,000 people annually with this potent, biological weapon.

They don’t build cities or tame wilderness, but they evade our defenses, pierce our skin, drink our blood, and kill us by the hundreds of thousands.

We are the walking, talking, overconfident, unknowing cows of the mighty mosquito.

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That’s a lot of TV

In 2018, the average American spent 15 minutes per day reading for pleasure.

As an author, I’m appalled. I think.

If you read 15 minutes per day, that means you read 5,475 minutes per year. If you’re spending this time reading books, and it takes you about 10 hours to read your average book, that means the average American is reading about 9 books per year.

This isn’t great, but it’s also not terrible. It’s actually more than I would’ve guessed. Not high enough, to be sure, but it’s something.

I’ve published five books so far (with a sixth on the way in November), so it’s especially not terrible if five of those nine books are mine.

Meanwhile, the amount of time spent watching television was 2 hours and 50 minutes per day.

This number is horrific. This means that 45 days - 12% of the year - are being spent watching television by the average American. If you consider just the average number of waking hours per day, the number rises to almost 20% of the time. If you consider the average number of leisure hours per day, that number rises to an astonishing 56%.

More than half of leisure time in America is spent in front of the television.

But even that number seems relatively small compared to men over age 65. That particular group spends just over 5 hours of television per day in 2018.

Admittedly many of these men are retired and have more leisure time, but damn… retirement sucks.

Here’s the only positive spin I can find on these unfortunate numbers:

It doesn’t take much effort to use your time more wisely than the average American. When the average American is spending enormous amounts of time sitting on their couch, watching a screen, you can just get off the couch, go for a walk, and already be living a better life.

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Speak Up Storytelling: Eric Feeney

On episode #60 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, Elysha Dicks and I talk storytelling with special guest Eric Feeney.

In our follow-up segment, we hear from a listener who has found a surprising benefit to Homework for Life and another with storytelling advice for me. We also inquire about the possible existence of listeners in the Louisville area.

In our Homework for Life segment, I talk about the importance of collecting moments that don't always seem storyworthy because we never know when we're in the midst of a story. Also, Homework for Life has enormous value beyond storytelling.

Next we listen to a story by Eric Feeney.

Amongst the many things we discuss include:

  • Word choices, in terms of stakes and the preservation of humor

  • Describing elements of a story that everyone isn't entirely familiar with.

  • Humor

  • Pushing into scenes to clear the clutter

  • The importance of a clean ending.

We then answer a listener question about getting reluctant students to speak and tell stories.

Finally, we each offer a recommendation.

LINKS

RECOMMEDATIONS

Elysha:

Matt:

  • http://photorequestsfromsolitary.org

Feeney:

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The Baltimore Sun's response to Trump is astounding

In case you missed it, The Baltimore Sun responded to Trump's tweets from yesterday that attacked African American Congressman Elijah Cummings for conducting Constitutionally-required oversight of the executive branch and described Baltimore as "a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess."

A "very dangerous & filthy place."

A place where no human being would ever want to live.

Naturally, the residents of Baltimore did not take kindly to Trump's descriptions of their home, nor did the Baltimore Sun's editorial board.

The Sun's full response is terrific, but it's the last paragraph that I find extraordinary.

They write:

"Finally, while we would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner — or ruefully point out that he failed to spell the congressman’s name correctly (it’s Cummings, not Cumming) — we would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are “good people” among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity. Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one."

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Am I a jerk because I think this way?

This sign is affixed to the side of a local school. It’s got a lot of problems.

There is the obvious and tragic punctuation problem, of course.

“OWNERS” is missing a possessive apostrophe. Presumably someone (or hopefully many people) working at the school have noticed the mistake and decided to accept the error rather than ordering a new sign and having it replaced.

It’s not what I would do, but fine. I get it. Bigger fish to fry.

I just believe in frying a lot of fish, both big and small, and I can personally fry a lot of fish at the same time.

Also, “snow storm” is one word. I’m not sure if breaking it into two words is incorrect in the eyes of a grammarian, but it looks strange to me. I don’t like it.

But here’s my bigger problem with the sign:

Isn’t it always “prior to or during” a snow storm? I know I’m diving into semantics a bit, but as I write this, near the end of July, am I not “prior to” a snow storm?

Yes, the next snowstorm might be half a year a way, but still, this moment in which I currently occupy is prior to a snowstorm. In fact, haven’t I spent every single moment of my life either “prior to or during” a snowstorm?

I know. I’s a silly argument. We all understand what the sign means. The makers of the sign could’ve added an adjective to denote a specific time period prior to a snowstorm in order to appease someone as annoying and pedantic as me, but why bother? We all get it.

Even I get it.

Right?

Still, it annoys me. When I parked in front of this sign last week, it was prior to a snowstorm, damn it.

I think this line of criticism really says more about me than it does about the need to change this sign based upon this semantic complaint, but here’s my concern:

Is the thing it says about me positive or negative?

I worried that it’s the latter.

Either way, fix the damn apostrophe. You’re a school. The first thing a visitor sees can’t be a punctuation error.

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Book love

A couple bits of book love that have me feeling great this week:

One of the first reviews of my upcoming novel, Twenty-one Truths About Love, has arrived via Kirkus Reviews, an important book review magazine, and happily, it’s a good one!
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Dan Mayrock is in a bind: He has not yet told his wife, Jill, that his business is failing and they are almost out of money. He's kept this secret for 13 months now. A former teacher who left his job to open a bookshop, Dan struggles daily with not only the slings and arrows of economic instability, but also the existential questions of what it means to be a man in the 21st century. What if he can't provide for his family? How can he measure up to Peter, Jill's deceased first husband? Is robbery a viable, not to mention moral, supplementary career path?

Meanwhile, Dan's father, who left home when Dan was only 9 years old, is trying to reconcile. Too angry to even open his father's letters, Dan turns to Bill, a 72-year-old widower he met while scouting a bingo hall for theft potential. A Vietnam veteran who lost his wife to a carjacking and his son to cancer, Bill may be the friend Dan needs.

Told entirely through the series of lists comprising Dan's journal, Dicks' latest novel sketches surprisingly complex characters. Much like the famous six-word story often erroneously ascribed to Hemingway ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn"), these lists—and the silences they outline—conjure a tense world in which, no matter how hard Dan tries to gain control of his finances, his life, or his emotions, he continually gets stuck in simply recording the absurdities of life and making futile plans to become a hero to Jill. As the days pass, Dan's lists reflect his increasing desperation, ratcheting up the tension until life throws a potentially devastating curveball at him that pushes him to reassess everything he had thought to be true.

A clever, genre-bending portrait of a man under pressure.

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Then there’s this:

A staircase that features a features favorite books. Clever!

The reader sent it to me specifically because of the third step, which features the UK edition of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.

When I published my first novel a decade ago, I had no idea how kind, thoughtful, and generous readers could be. Such a beautiful surprise.

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I picked up a hitchhiker. Not everyone is happy.

I picked up a hitchhiker on the way to Boston yesterday.

While pulling out of the Charlton Plaza rest area on the Mass Pike, I saw a woman standing in the grass just before the rest area’s onramp to the highway with her thumb extended. She looked like she was in her early thirties. Smiling. A small backpack affixed to her back. Dreadlocks.

She looked a lot like she might be hitching her way to a Grateful Dead concert.

I’ve picked up hitchhikers before, but not in at least 20 years, partly because hitchhikers are far less common on the roads today and also because I tend to also be on a schedule. In a rush. Trying to get somewhere on time.

I’ve picked up a bunch of people in more recent years who were caught walking in a rainstorm or snowstorm, but these were people surprised by weather. Not actively trying to get somewhere with their thumb.

But my gut said that there was nothing to fear from this woman. It was broad daylight on a busy interstate, and she was young, smiling, and seemed to have someplace to go. Like me, she had a destination somewhere to the east.

So I pulled over and offered her a ride. She accepted. Her name was Sophie. She was from Utica, New York, making her way to Portsmouth, NH to surprise her mom with an unplanned visit. She was a perfectly lovely person, and for the 50 miles that we shared the road together before I dropped her off at the rest area in Natick, MA, we talked about our lives, our families, our careers, and our hometowns.

At one point, early on in our ride, I asked her if she worried about getting picked up by a crazy person. “There are buses,” I told her. “You could probably just take a bus to Portsmouth.”

She told me that she liked hitchhiking. It was full of adventure and surprise. She liked meeting new people. She also told me that she almost never accepts rides from men and that far more women offer her rides.

“Three out of four people who offer me rides are women,” she told me.

“Then why’d you say yes to me?” I asked.

“You looked nervous,” she said. “Like you were more afraid of me than I was of you. And you have a car seat and books in the backseat, so I knew you have kids. People with kids aren’t axe murderers.”

I learned a lot about Sophie, and while the 50 mile trip wasn’t exactly an adventure for me, it was something different. I met another human being, spent about an hour with her, and then I said goodbye.

I called Elysha to tell her about my decision to pick up a hitchhiker, thinking she would find this cool.

She did not.

On Facebook, she posted:

“Matthew Dicks just informed me that on his way to Boston this evening he picked up a hitchhiker. She didn’t murder him, which is fortunate for me, because when he gets home I am going to.”

I understand. I really do. I’m not sure if I would want her picking up a hitchhiker, but I still didn’t think what I had done was wrong.

The vast majority of comments on Facebook sided with Elysha, though a few agreed with my decision. One commenter wrote:

“The last time I picked up a hitchhiker was when I was in college. Cute guy hitched at the same entrance ramp from UConn Storrs every Thursday and I picked him up a few times. Never amounted to more than a few rides to Manchester. I have given rides to people I didn’t know when it looked like they needed one. Live without fear. Tell the kids too. There are many more trustworthy people than not.”

I liked this comment a lot. And there is statistical evidence to support this claim.

This Vox piece entitled The forgotten art of hitchhiking — and why it disappeared explains that our fear of hitchhiking was not formed from the murders of young women at the hands of hitchhikers but from a few specific sources:

  1. As cars became easier and cheaper to own, the perception of hitchhikers shifted from perfectly normal people in need of a ride to people who were probably problematic because they didn’t own cars.

  2. Starting in the 1960s and '70s, some of the first laws against hitching were passed, and local and federal law enforcement agencies began using scare tactics to get both drivers and hitchhikers to stop doing it, including campaigns describing hitchhikers as murderers and rapists even though crime statistics do not support this claim. Hitchhikers aren’t any more dangerous than anyone else in this world when it comes to criminal behavior. In fact, you are far more likely to be raped or murdered by a friend, family member, or coworker than a stranger.

  3. Movies featuring murderous hitchhikers lodged themselves in the American psyche in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

  4. The fear of strangers has dramatically increased in the last 20 years even though crime has continued to plummet for those same 20 years.

I also think that mass media plays a huge role. When I was growing up, the Blackstone Valley sniper (which turned out to be two men) fired rifles into the homes of unsuspecting victims for a period of almost two months. Four people were injured, two seriously, in the series of at least 11 nighttime sniper incidents around the 1986 Christmas holidays in Cumberland and North Smithfield, RI and Bellingham, MA.

All towns surrounding my hometown of Blackstone. The shootings stopped after Gov. Edward DiPrete called out the National Guard to patrol the North Smithfield-Cumberland area.

Think about that:

The National Guard was patrolling the streets of American towns because an unknown assailant was shooting at people as they passed in from of their windows at night, but I’ll bet you never heard of it.

Why?

News was local. The crimes were plastered across the front page of every newspaper in the area where the shootings were taking place. My mother had us crawling through the living room at night lest we get shot. People were genuinely terrorized. The judge who sentenced the two men to 95 and 115 years in prison respectively said the crimes were “nothing short of a reign of terror perpetrated by two men for some perverse sense of release.”

But it never received a mention on the national news.

Conversely, when two men were firing a rife at motorists in the Washington, DC area a few years ago, the entire country knew about the crimes. We heard about each and every incident.

Even though the world gets safer every day, we think it’s getting more and more dangerous.

I like to think that my decision to pick up Sophie was a rejection of that belief. It was an acknowledgement that the vast majority of people are good. It was an affirmation that when the time and conditions are right - a young woman hitchhiking on the side of a busy interstate in broad daylight - we can lend a hand to a stranger.

People are generally good and kind and safe.

Yes, a considerable minority of Americans may inexplicably be supporting a racist, ignorant, corrupt President who brags about serial sexual assault and is running a short-sighted, chaotic administration designed for personal profiteering, but that doesn’t make them dangerous people.

Just bad decision makers. Partisan voters. Tribal. Self-serving.

If Elysha doesn’t want me picking up hitchhikers in the future, I will probably honor her request. She’s my wife, and she has that right.

But if she ever tells me that she picked up a young woman named Sophie while heading east on the Mass Pike and spent an hour getting to know her, I don’t think I’d mind one bit.

The world is safer than we think. Strangers are better than we think.

In the world of one Facebook commenter, “Live without fear.”

Within reason, of course.

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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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Worst concert ever

On Sunday Elysha and I went to the Blondie/Elvis Costello concert at Mohegan Sun. I’m not an Elvis Costello fan, but Elysha loves him, and the tickets were a gift from me.

And I like Blondie.

Of all the venues where we could see a concert, Mohegan Sun is one of our least favorites. The arena itself is fine, but needing to walk through a smoky casino in order to reach the arena is not fun, and exiting the arena at 10:00 to find parents dragging small children between slot machines and craps tables is not the way I like to end an evening of music and frivolity.

The concert had one other distinction:

It was the loudest concert I’ve ever attended. Blondie’s volume was fine, but Elvis Costello was offensively loud. In fact, he was so loud that Elysha told me later that she had considered leaving for a moment. As a person who has never liked Elvis Costello very much, I had intended on spending the show listening carefully to his music and looking for things to like.

Instead, I couldn’t discern a single lyric, and the more closely I listened, the more my ears hurt.

I saw Guns N Roses at The Orpheum in Boston in 1988. That was a loud concert.

I saw Motley Crue at the Worcester Centrum in that same year. Also loud.

But 64-year old Elvis Costello was the loudest of all. Considering that Elysha and I were two of the youngest people at the concert, maybe Costello was playing for an older, slightly hearing-impaired crowd.

Otherwise why play so damn loud?

While attempting to withstand the wall of sound, I found myself wondering:

What is the worst concert I’ve ever attended?

The answer came quickly:

In June of 2000, I saw Creed with some forgettable opening acts at the Meadows Music Theater. It was an awful concert.

First, it was Creed. While they admittedly had some enormous hits in the 1990’s, they were never my thing. Overwrought lyrics packed with Biblical imagery and hints of Christian rock was never my jam. That really should’ve been enough to keep me away, but a girl wanted to see the band, so I agreed to go.

But it wasn’t the music that made it the worst concert I’ve ever seen. It was lead singer Scott Stapp’s decision to spend enormous amounts of time between songs talking to the audience through a sound system that often made him incomprehensible. Stapp was already a questionably charismatic lead vocalist, seeming a little too preachy for my taste, but being forced to listen to him offer his thoughts between every song was too much for me.

The Meadows - now the Xfinity Center - is also an open air area, and it was oppressively hot that day.

Worst concert ever.

The concert that I expected to hate but surprisingly didn’t was New Kids on the Block circa 1989. I did not like the band at all but agreed to take my sister to the concert to make her happy.

I entered the arena planning to despise everything about the concert, but damn if I wasn’t caught up in the band’s energy and showmanship. I didn’t end up liking New Kids on the Block, but for about two hours that night, I loved those guys.

What was your worst concert ever?

Someone doesn't like how happy I am.

I learned this week that someone doesn’t like how happy I am. This person actually complains about my general level of joy, my persistent optimism, and my tendency to believe that all will turn out well.

All of these things are true, of course. I’m a happy, optimistic person who tends to believe that there is more good than bad in this world. More right than wrong.

I love my life. It’s not without problems, of course, and I’ve most definitely had my share of struggle, but when I think about where I once was and where I am now, how could I not be thrilled with my existence?

But now that I know that someone is actually unhappy - even angry - with my level of happiness…

I’m even happier.

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Speak Up Storytelling: Chris Kriesen

On episode #59 of the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, Elysha Dicks and I talk storytelling!

In our follow-up segment, we inform listeners about my blog and consulting services, and we update them on dates for new shows and workshops.

In our Homework for Life segment, I talk about taking multiple moments from a single week and weaving them into a complete story, as well as the importance and value of telling stories even if they aren't the most profound and moving stories that you have to tell.

Next we listen to a story by Christopher P. Kriesen.

Amongst the many things we discuss include:

  • Launching stories with action, mystery, confusion, and wonder

  • The value and hazards of subtlety in storytelling

  • Physicality

  • Vocal techniques, including pacing, volume, and vocal modulation

  • Tips to increase the humor of a moment

  • Ensuring that a storyteller's moment of surprise is also an audience's moment of surprise

We then answer a listener question about ending stories in informal settings

Finally, we each offer a recommendation.

LINKS

  • Purchase Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling: https://amzn.to/2H3YNn3

  • Purchase Twenty-one Truths About Love: https://amzn.to/2xYQapE

  • Homework for Life: https://bit.ly/2f9ZPne

  • Matthew Dicks's website: http://www.matthewdicks.com

  • Matthew Dicks's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/matthewjohndicks

  • Matthew Dicks's blog: http://www.matthewdicks.com/matthewdicksblo

  • Subscribe to Matthew Dicks's weekly newsletter: http://www.matthewdicks.com/matthewdicks-subscribe

  • Subscribe to the Speak Up newsletter: http://www.matthewdicks.com/subscribe-speak-up

  • Subscribe to Matthew Dicks's blog: http://www.matthewdicks.com/subscribe-grin-and-bare-it

RECOMMEDATIONS

  • Elysha: Big Hero 6

  • Matt: The Moth's Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/mothstories

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I'm going to criticize you and then stop listening to you because I'm stupid.

Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s podcast The Gist, was responding to emails and tweets on Friday after listeners wrote to him in response to a segment he did on the likelihood of the pronoun “they” becoming a universally accepted, commonly-used singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Mike’s argument was simple:

It’s unlikely that a word as commonly used as “they” to indicate a plurality of people will ever become the gender-neutral singular pronoun that so many desire. It’s simply too ingrained in our lexicon as a plural pronoun for it to be accepted in a singular form.

Mike wasn’t opposed to “they” becoming a gender-neutral singular pronoun. In fact, he uses “they” as a singular pronoun when asked. He’s also not opposed to gender-neutral pronouns in general. He simply doesn’t think that a noun as ubiquitously used as “they” will shift its meaning in the direction that some people would like.

Some listeners who failed at listening thought that Mike was standing in opposition of gender-neutral pronouns and wrote angry screeds to him in response.

This is fine. Misunderstandings happen. Confusion is common. Feedback is always appreciated and helpful. Perhaps these listeners were doing the dishes, changing a flat tire, or operating heavy machinery while listening to the podcast and missed his point.

But what annoyed me was the listener who wrote to falsely criticize Mike for opposing gender-neutral pronouns and then informed him that she would no longer be listening to his until-now excellent podcast.

I hate this.

I hate it so much.

Why tell Mike that he is wrongheaded and then not bother to continue to listen to a podcast that you liked at least enough to be listening to in the first place to see if Mike responds?

When you tell someone that they have made a mistake, it’s only right and sensible to offer a chance to respond.

This annoys me because it’s stupid. But it also annoys me because it happens to me, too. In its most benign form, it's a follower on Twitter who is angry about something I tweeted. He fires off an angry tweet in response and then blocks me, preventing me from defending myself or clarifying my opinion.

It’s similarly happened in regards to a blog post. Someone doesn’t like an opinion that I expressed and writes to me in response, informing me that she is no longer subscribed to my blog nor will she be returning to my website ever again, offering me no opportunity to explain, expound, or clarify.

In its worst form, someone actually says to me, in person, “I’m going to tell you how I feel, but I don’t want to hear your response. I’m not in the mood for your logic or rhetoric. I just want to be heard, and then I’m moving on.”

Admittedly this does not happen often, but it’s happened often enough that I’d need more than two hands to count the number of times it’s been said to me, by colleagues, friends, a boss, my former step-father, a college professor, and an ex-girlfriend who said it to me quite often.

Not Elysha Dicks, of course. She is more than willing to listen to my stupid excuses and and bat them away.

Shutting off discourse and debate is stupid, but shutting off discourse and debate after you’ve engaged in discourse and debate is super-duper stupid.

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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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Verbal Sparring: If you don't like it, leave.

A reader contacted me yesterday, asking me to reprint a post I wrote back on September 26, 2016 entitled “Verbal Sparring: If you don’t like it, leave.”

I had no recollection of the post, which didn’t surprise me. When you write a post every single day of your life since the spring of 2005, you write a lot. 3,905 posts on this blog alone, plus another 1,000 or so on my two now-defunct blogs.

That’s a lot of thoughts, ideas, stories, and observations.

But it appears that I was very prescient back in 2016 in writing about a topic that has suddenly taken center stage in the national consciousness.

So here it is:

A post lightly edited from 2016 in my Verbal Sparring series offering advice in the event a racist imbecile like Donald Trump tells you tells you that your dissent of the status quo - the very foundation of our country - is an indication that you cannot love your country and should be reason enough for you to leave.

It's such a stupid argument, but it's one often used by racists against people of color and by other morons in a variety of contexts, so when it arises, it needs to be beaten back.

Here's how.

_______________________________________________

"If you don't like it, leave," in all its variations, is a coward's argument. It's an argument made by people who are afraid of debate, don't understand logic, and want to escape the fray as quickly as possible. 

"If you don't like, leave," implies that arguing for change is not permissible.

"If you don't like, leave," implies that dissent is unwarranted. 

"If you don't like, leave," implies that diversity of mind is out of bounds. 

There are many responses to this ridiculous argument and arguments like it. I’ve broken them down into four basic categories:

Refuse: "No, I'm not going to leave. You don’t actually have any power over my where I choose to live or work or even stand. I’m going nowhere. Instead, I'm going to fight."

Make the logical argument: "Telling me to leave implies that dissent and change are not permissible here. That is nonsense, of course. Change is constant, and it only comes through a diversity of opinions. This is not North Korea."

NOTE: This argument does not work in North Korea.

Attack: "It sounds like you're afraid of debate. Maybe your ideas suck and you know it. Maybe I intimidate you. Maybe you know that you're standing on shaky ground. Maybe you’re afraid of me. Yes, that’s probably it. I scare you. Either way, I'm not taking my toys and going home because I'm not afraid of a good argument and a weak-willed sap like yourself."  

Historical: "If that was an actual argument, then it would stand to reason that anytime someone was not happy with a policy or position, they should leave. Women don't like receiving 70 cents on the dollar? Leave. African Americans don't like separate but equal? Leave. A soldier doesn't like a general's decision? Leave. That's just stupid. It's not how the world actually works outside of your stupid head."

I tend to favor the attack strategy, but that may just be my nature.

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