“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact But maybe everything that dies some day comes back. Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”
Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City
Last Friday I made the 60 mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Atlantic City, New Jersey to present my writing workshop “Learn to Write like No One is Reading” at New Jersey Educators Convention.
The workshop, a culmination of strategies and experiences I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years of teaching, explores how teachers can use storytelling as an instructional practice to deepen student learning while helping students further embrace the writing process.
The workshop was well received by the audience. They actively participate, smiled, laughed at my jokes and from what I could tell, left with at least one new strategy to use in their classrooms.
For the last few months I’ve been making presentations at various professional learning seminars. And I’ve come to really enjoy talking literacy and helping educators facilitate classrooms that promote writing and storytelling so to inspire their students to become better writers.
But if I’m being purely honest — the real reason I went to Atlantic City last week to present a writing workshop was a purely selfish one.
The Real Reason
In September of 2013 an MRI revealed that I had suffered significant brain damage.
However there was no clear catalyst — a car crash or a fall — to warrant such loss of brain matter so quickly.
In October of 2013, after the Director of Neurology at Jefferson University Hospital examined my MRI he acknowledged majority of my cerebellum had died, suggested I start testing for every known debilitating and fatal disease and then asked if I had long-term disability insurance.
“I can’t predict what will happen to your brain,” he paused and looked over at the MRI still displayed on his computer screen, “but if you can somehow acquire long-term disability insurance I think you should.”
The Silver Lining
During its annual Convention, the New Jersey Educators Association has a no-physical-required, no-questions-asked open enrollment period for its long term disability insurance.
The only caveat was you have to enroll in person at the Convention in Atlantic City.
So in November of 2013, as mom drove the 60 some miles to Atlantic City, we outlined my plan — enroll in long-term disability insurance and brave on long enough for the paper work to process so that when I when inevitability lose the ability to speak or see or lose muscle function and can no longer work, my family would’t be so financially burdened.
When mom dropped me off outside the Convention Center, I told her to circle around the block because I wasn’t going to be long. I guess because when your life is undergoing a massive reconstruction sometimes you have no choice but to work as fast as you can.
I mazed through the Convention floor until I found the Prudential Insurance booth where I asked a few questions, looked at a few charts, enrolled in the long-term disability program, hustled back the way I came, walked out of the Convention Center, into the cold November sunlight and waited for mom to pick me up and take me home.
“The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.”
L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations
Last Friday I selfishly trekked 60 miles from the Philadelphia suburbans to the Atlantic City Convention Center.
In a way, I found something redemptive in those hard-earned miles. And though skirting pot holes and grinding through traffic can not repair the damage in my brain, it did remind me that somehow I’m still very much alive and that I still have a story to tell.
After a three year fight with the infamous steroid Prednisone — I’m proudly standing in the middle of the ring and raising my arms in victory.
In July of 2014 my rheumatologist prescribed a moderately high daily dosage of 35 milligrams of Prednisone to relieve my chronic inflammation and joint pain caused by the autoimmune disorder — sarcoidosis.
The morning after taking my first dosage I felt awful. Like frat party hung over awful. Nausea, headache, hot flashes, exhaustion.
Then, 48 hours later, while vacationing at the New Jersey shore I felt like Superman. Tossing the football around with my sons, swimming in the ocean, riding waves like I had never been sick.
Prednisone is not a cure. It’s a mask. A contradiction. It reduces inflammation and it improves the immediate quality of life while silently and slowly destroying bones and organs.
For the last 3 years I have struggled to reduce my dependency on Prednisone. Following my rheumatologist’s instructions I began slowly weening off the drug— 5 milligrams at a time. I worked down to 10 milligrams a day but every time I dropped below 10 the pain and inflammation would return and intensify.
My rheumatologist explained that I should prepare to for a life sentence with Prednisone.
While on Prednisone, I gained about 20 pounds. When I broke a bone in my foot, it took nearly 5 months to heal — tripling the amount of time it should have taken to heal. And though I was never diagnosed with depression, I did endure long bouts helplessness and loneliness which I believe was triggered on my dependency on a drug that was murdering months of my life away.
Over Labor Day weekend, my good friend Casey challenged me to a two-week vegan challenge.
At first I balked.
How could I, a life long carnivore, give up t-bones and hot wings? It wasn’t me. I wasn’t a vegan. I don’t wear sandals. I don’t hug trees.
I sent him a text saying I would think about it.
And I did.
I sent another text explaining that I would try to slowly ween off meat and dairy — one meal at a time.
Then I thought about it more. I thought about my future-self bloated, ripe with diabetes, brittle-boned and blind. I thought about my children. About playing football on the beach again. I thought about how helpless I felt. And I thought about dying young.
So in a flicker of bravery I said fuck it. Two weeks of no dairy, no meat. Cold turkey. Let’s do this.
Casey also told me to watch the documentary, “What the Health“, an unflinching look at how the meat and dairy industries are sleeping with the government and how meat and dairy foods trigger so many autoimmune and inflammation issues.
So I watched it. At first I was skeptical and even a bit naive. Why would my government, the one I Pledge Allegiance to every morning, lie about the importance of milk? Humans need milk. Milk does a body good. Right?
Understand, I’m not a doctor. I’m just a guy with a blog and autoimmune disorder who’s trying to live his best life. But if you’re struggling with inflammation or an autoimmune illness I would recommend looking at your diet. You may realize the food you’re fueling your body with is actually the stoking the fire of your illness.
After smashing through the two weeks, feasting on only plant based foods, something happened.
I felt good. Like really good. Like how I felt during the first few weeks on Prednisone. I was feeling so good I decided to abstain from Prednisone for one day to see what would happen. I did. And I felt great. Then one day without medication turned into two. Then a week without Prednisone passed. Then another week. And suddenly I was living a Prednisone-free life.
When I decided to forego my medication I did not consult my doctor. I made a simple, conscious decision to improve my own health.
I’m learning that the most unsatisfying thing is to be a spectator to your own life.
I’ve been vegan for 8 weeks. I’ve been Prednisone-free for almost 6 weeks. I wish I could tell you that it’s been a hard lifestyle change but it really hasn’t. Sure I miss bacon and cheeseburgers and bacon cheeseburgers but don’t miss the pain. I don’t miss the dependency. I don’t miss being a spectator.
I’ve lost 10 pounds in 6 weeks. My inflammation and joint pain have completely disappeared. And most importantly I no longer feel helpless. I have gained control over my health. I’m now in the ring, proactive in my fight, which is the most crucial step for anyone living with a chronic illness.
I’m not symptom free. Sarcoidosis caused irreversible brain damage that effect my balance and vision but since converting to veganism I’ve found a fighting spirit I thought I had lost.
I just think if you can find a reason to fight — and there’s always reason to fight — if you can make changes, if you can find the courage to roll up your sleeves and trade punches with your illness you’ll learn you’re a hell of a lot tougher then you ever thought you were.
And you may realize that you were the champion your life so desperately needed all along.
Be well (Eat well),
I want to thank my friend Casey for challenging me. I owe you brother. I guess some times we all need a push to find our better selves.
It was this week, last year that I published The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly). It was one of the greatest leaps I ever took.
Any writer who tells you they’re not worried about how their work will be perceived is lying.
Look dear reader, I want you to like my work. Scratch that — I want you to love my work.
I want you to read each post twice and share it three times.
I want you to think about me as you’re buttering your morning bagel or waiting for the elevator doors to open.
I want to make you laugh and cry. Give you chills and rock your soul and make you turn over the wonder and magic and mystery of your own life.
But in order to accomplish those Herculean things I need to be honest, authentic and share my story. I need to tell you things I’ve yet to tell my wife. That’s our agreement. And that’s why, sometimes, writing is incredibly hard.
In the quiet hours of life, I often think about my twelve weeks at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. About the new truths I learned. About how I learned I could no longer jump. About how quickly years of the personal definitions of me being a man strong and athletic crumbled to the cold linoleum floor on a gray December afternoon when an unassuming physical therapist asked me to jump.
What I tried to capture in The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump was the raw embarrassment and shame and sadness I felt in those rehab sessions.
What I didn’t tell you in that story was how scared I was.
The fall and winter of 2013 was the most terrifying stretch in my life. It wasn’t the thought of dying, which did hang heavy in those days, it was a fear of redefining myself. My brain was damaged and the doctors didn’t know why. But the scariest part was digesting the news that parts of me could only now be found in photo albums and in flickering reels of memory.
Take your parents or grandparents. Great people I’m sure. But they’re set in their ways. They detest change. They’ve got their favorite chair, their eternal pair of slippers. They’ve been buying the same toothpaste for 30 years. They’re comfortable. They resist to change. And it drives you crazy but they’re too advanced to redefine themselves. So you smile and accept it.
I knew that my season of physical rehabilitation was crucial. I knew I had to let go of who I was — an athlete, coach and begin the painful and confusing task of redefining myself as a writer — before it was too late.
Redefining yourself is not easy. It’s scary. You’re not a kid but you fear judgement and criticism the way you did in high school. And sometimes redefining yourself becomes dangerous work. Drugs, alcohol and other destructive habits become your new definitions.
But I’ve learned that if you redefine yourself positively and purposefully you can tap new potentials.
When you write your new definitions you find new ways to in be strong and empowered and your life is suddenly swirling with exciting possibilities. You discover new energies. New angles. You begin to realize your potential.
Aside from William Faulker, any writer will claim that editing while writing is a literary sin. You write and write and write then edit. They are separate adventures. But this is life. You can’t write, enjoy a cup of coffee, take a breath then edit your past. We must write and edit at the same time. You must redefine yourself as you go. And it’s unnatural. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard.
But dear reader, it might just be the most important thing you ever do.
The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly)
Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump...
Our sixth grade teachers divide us into two groups: boys and girls.
In the boys’ room, the teacher wobbles behind her podium and says words like penis, testicles, erection and sperm and I struggle to breath. I choke on my laughter. My face grows hot and my insides hurt and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die. But it’s okay. Because it’s just so damn funny.
When the teacher runs out of funny words to say, she hustles through the classroom doorway, into the hall, to either cry or laugh, and since we’re boys, and now we’re unsupervised boys — we explode. We laugh and squeal and shake and cry and whimper because it’s just so damn funny.
For 12 year old boys, the word testicles tops the list of funny words. Especially, when your teacher says it — testicles. And if I’m being honest, at 37, the word testicles still makes me laugh.
As girls file back in the classroom with bowed heads, silent, like they just witnessed an execution our laughter tinkles out. Each girl carries tightly a white wand and I think how unfair it is that they got a prize and we didn’t. But maybe we would’ve been awarded a prize if we hadn’t howled like hairless wolves.
A girl with shoulder length auburn hair pinned back with butterfly berets slides into the desk in front of me. I tap on her shoulder. At first she doesn’t turn so I tap again and wait and before I’m about to tap again she turns and levels her eyes into mine, “What?”
“What kind of prize did you get?”
“It’s not a prize.”
“Well what is it?”
“It’s a tampon.”
“A tampon. You know, for when I get my period.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about.
Naturally, men want titles. Titles that will raise both pinkies and eyebrows at cocktail parties. Titles that will earn free drinks. Titles that will get the girl.
As I toiled through my 20’s and into my early 30’s I felt that the most important titles a man could collect were titles like CEO, Supervisor, Manager, Principal, General, Admiral, Chief, Coach, Quarterback.
In our defense, society has taught men that to prove our worth we need to collect titles the way we collect imported cars or empty bottles of imported beer (depending on a man’s financial situation).
For girls, the title of mother comes painfully yearly. They menstruate, wonder why, and a soft, older voice explains they’re now biologically ready to become a mother. About the same time, the same voice explains that mother is the most important title a girl will ever know.
Further cementing the gravity of mother, high school girls endure home economics and child development classes and are evaluated on their ability to care for a plastic baby who cries when it’s hungry or a sack of sugar (depending on a school district’s financial situation).
I find it interesting and, somewhat sad, that boys are not offered classes on fatherhood.
Boys are often evaluated on their ability to build and destroy things. To give commands. To take orders. But boys are rarely, if ever, praised for their ability to nurture, care and empathize.
Maybe that’s why fatherhood is such a confusing ordeal for men. Maybe that’s why the expectations for fathers continues to be shamefully low.
25 years ago I was in 6th grade, clueless about the origin of human life, about collecting titles. I was just a catholic school boy, laughing like an infidel at the pronunciation of the delicate instruments that would gift me with the most important title I would ever hold: Father.
I’m just slightly embarrassed it took so long to realize such truth.
We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. — Howard Zinn
Morning routines are all the rage. They set the tone and increase optimal achievement throughout the day.
According to the ultra successful like Oprah and Tony Robbins — ice baths, hot yoga, soul-cleansing meditation, marathon journal sessions and frolics up a mountainside at sun rise are just a few things you’ll need to do before breakfast in order to be more successful, happier.
But what if an elaborate morning routine is simply not realistic?
What if you’re a working parent who, along with getting yourself together, have to wake up the kids and pack lunches and make breakfast and brush teeth and wipe butts and study for the looming tests and break up fist-fights in the hallway?
Proponents may suggest, “How about waking up earlier?”
Um…how about no.
I wake up at 5:15 every weekday, 6:30 on weekends. I get to bed around 10:30–11 during the week. And on the weekends, I often collapse on the couch by 9.
So if waking up earlier is simply not an option how can we — the breakfast-builders, lunch-makers, teeth-brushers, butt-wipers, teachers and referees of the household get our day started right?
Since I have only about an hour each morning before I leave for work, here’s what I do…
Every morning, for the last 45 days I have practiced a three point reflection.
It’s nothing elaborate.
As I’m having coffee I scratch down three things I am grateful for.
Here’s what it a page looks like…
Some mornings the three points come quick and my reflection takes less than a minute. Other days I have to sit longer and reflect deeper until I find 3 things I’m grateful for. But even on mornings of longer reflection, the practice is completed within 3–4 minutes.
It’s a simple habit which requires no special journal or pen. Just a legal tablet or notebook. But in 45 days I’m realizing the positive effects the practice having on my mental health.
Here’s what I learned…
My first thoughts of the day are positive
It’s so easy to wake up on a Monday morning and think negatively about the day ahead and about all the things you have to do before you limp back into bed at night. The 3 point reflection requires you to develop positive thoughts before the chaos of the day begins which helps you embrace and welcome the impending day.
I get to have me time
Parenting gives you little time to yourself. But as a parent you need to find time for yourself. You need to be constructively selfish. By doing so, by taking care of yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes, you will have more patience and energy for others.
I’m more present throughout the day
Identifying good moments each morning has trained me to look for good moments and appreciate good moments as I encounter them throughout the day. The daily chaos often distracts us from finding meaningful moments that we should acknowledge and celebrate. The simple 3 point reflection allows you to celebrate those moments which in turn inspires you to find more of those moments as the day stretches on.
I’m learning humility
It’s so easy to complain. It’s so easy to take your life for granted — to forget that you have electricity and running water and food in the refrigerator. It takes only a few minutes a day to recognize all of the luxuries you take for granted and how humbling it is to have such luxuries.
I just feel happier
Happiness and gratitude are a package deal. You can not be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Learn gratitude and you’ll find real happiness. The 3 point reflection is a daily emotional inventory that allows you to acknowledge things in your life that make you happy. It’s also a daily reminder that you need to give the present day your best effort so tomorrow, when you sit down to reflect, you will have three moments worth writing about.
Daily life is dizzying. Sometimes I feel all I do is run, run, run and sometimes it seems impossible to find a moment’s peace. But finding those quiet moments in the day are crucial for your mental health. It’s those quiet moments that help you to slow down, gain perspective, better yourself and realize that despite the impending chaos of the waiting day there are at least three things to be grateful for.
On a recent cleaning binge, my mom found my 11th grade report card stuffed in a file box along with old writings, homework assignments and a certificate announcing that I had passed Drivers Education class in August of 1997.
I’m 37 years old, and a high school teacher now, and everyday I witness the enormous pressures that 11th graders (and their parents) place on their still-rounding shoulders.
High school mythology decrees that 11th grade is the Acropolis. It’s the most important 10 months of your life. The make or break year. The one that demands academic greatness. The 11th grade transcript is the one colleges scrutinize and consider the most when deciding to accept or decline your admission. According to legend,11th grade is the year where your destiny is formed and fated.
Below you will find my 11th grade year end report card.
It’s apparent that at 16 years old I wasn’t overly concerned with achieving academic greatness. To be honest, my main concern was scoring a date with the pretty girl in Spanish class. Spoiler alert….9 years later I would marry that senorita… muy suave!
My Class Ranking
If my 11th grade report card is an approximation of my destiny, I’m destined to be stunningly average.
I ranked 168 out of 337 students in the 11th grade class. If you do the math (because, clearly, my algebra grade indicates I don’t math) 337/2 = 168.5
Analysis: In high school I was absolutely, fantastically, beautifully average.
Final Grade: 87
Analysis: Religion was my second highest grade in my report card. I believe the grade is slightly underwhelming given the fact this was my 11th year of Catholic education.
But like a true B+ Catholic, I knew the basics of the Bible, received the required sacraments and was a semi-annual church goer (Christmas & Easter) who pretended to go every Sunday.
Final Grade: 85
Analysis: This was a massive blow to my current (and slightly bloated) ego.
I have presented at writing workshops for college professors.
My article, “It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it”was recently retweeted by International Bestselling Author Paulo Coehlo.
Yet, in spite of all that, an unimpressive B in 11th grade English will forever be etched in the annals of time.
American History 3
Final Grade: 89
Analysis: Everything I know about American History I learned from watching Forrest Gump.
Final Grade: 74
Analysis: In high school I clearly did not understand algebra which, interestingly was the very last time in my life I was forced to multiply numbers by letters.
Final Grade: 84
Analysis: According to my teacher, Mr. Krier, I was “one of the top one of the students in the class.” I earned an 84. Either he was just being nice or I was, in fact, the one star in a constellation of street lamps.
Final Grade: 77
Analysis: I blame Cindy for this one. I spent the entire year distracted by her legs and perfecting such romantic expressions as “Coma estas, chica?” and “Muy caliente” in a deep, seductive inflection.
Analysis: One of my students once told me that he was going to be an accountant because in 11th grade he did well in accounting class. If 11th grade grades are indicators of future professions I clearly should have been a professional athlete.
Final Grade: 97
Analysis: Minus a shirttail infraction, which was sheer blasphemy in a Catholic school, I was absolute saintly.
It’s time to be serious.
I didn’t learn much in high school.
It’s nothing against my teachers but, aside from meeting Cindy and a group of friends I’m still close with, the educational experience was uninspiring.
In fact, I can’t name one high school teacher who inspired me to become a teacher.
So why did I become a high school teacher if my experience in high school was incredibly forgettable?
It’s a question I’ve tussled with lately.
Selflessly, I want to spend my days talking and teaching about reading and writing. But I also think I’m attempting to vindicate my own stale high school experience.
Work is a tricky thing. Immersing yourself in work for only a paycheck is a soul-sucking existence. Working for personal fulfillment is righteous but doesn’t pay the electric bill.
Maybe, if we look hard enough, we find work that fills a previous void.
Maybe, teaching is my attempt to provide students with experiences I never had. And maybe, selfishly, I stand and deliver in the classroom everyday attempting to fall in favor with the teacher, earn some extra credit and improve that 85.