These are better days

“Better Days” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s most underrated songs.

At the beginning, Springsteen sings about “sitting around” and “waiting for life to beginning.”

A position I’m quite familiar with.

Yet as the song continues, a rock transformation happens. He acknowledges that every “fool’s got a reason for feelin’ sorry for himself.”

He knows that for “better days to shine through” he must engage with his own life.  He has to quit the self-pity, the self-victimization charade that we’re all guilty of entertaining.

The song concludes with Springsteen announcing he’s “halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell” but he’s “ comin’ home” as he repeats, with his all his raspy New Jersey spirit, “these are better days.”

It’s catchy, convincing.  A 4 minute reminder that better days only arrive when we finally  brave up and accept our lives, for better or worse. Nothing can be excluded. We must accept the good and bad, the joy and pain, the pride and shame.

Better days will only dawn when our flawed past is fully accepted.

Be well,

Jay

The smartest student I ever taught was also the dumbest

This is a Micro (life) Lesson.

Micro (life) Lessons are simple, compressed stories (under 250 words) that, like good teachers, continue to teach long after graduation.


If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. – Confucius

I once taught a student who turned down scholarships from several Ivy League universities.

She chose to attend a small, progressive college that I never heard of.

What a shame, I thought.

I couldn’t understand why such a promising student would decline scholarships from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

So one day after class I asked her.

She smiled, “Because I want to go a place where its okay fail. Where failure, not success, is the teacher. I want to go where I can be dumb.”

Last time I heard, she was doing exceptionally well.

Be well,

Jay

A Culinary Failure

Warning: This post contains images that might be disturbing for some readers. 

For my 38th birthday, my mom surprised me with a three week subscription to Purple Carrot.

Purple Carrot is a vegan, meal-in-a-box company that delivers-to-your-door all the necessary ingredients for preparing and cooking a nutritious, plant-based meals.

You simply unpack the food from the box, follow the easy 6-step instructions and in 30 to 40 you have a fresh, restaurant quality meal.

When I married my wife I assumed the role of cook.

I learned how to cook a variety of meals, most involving meat: beef sliders, steak fajitas, zesty barbecue chicken, roasted chicken, ham and noodle casserole and rustic pork chops.

(For health reasons, 8 months ago I baptized myself in coconut milk and converted to veganism. My family are not vegans, so most nights I have to cook two dinners– one for them, one for me.)

I stake myself as a good cook. I’m fairly confident in the kitchen. Yet what I do lack in culinary flair, I make up in my ability to uncanny ability to read a recipe.

On this night I attempted to cook Purple Carrot’s “crunchy and lightly-browned” Eggplant Mousakka.

Mousakka is a Greek dish. A casserole layered with eggplant, crushed tomatoes and topped with a creamy tofu spread.

The picture looked delicious. 

I went to work.

I peeled and sliced the eggplant into 12 silver dollars pieces. I then dropped the tufu brick along with finely chopped garlic, smoked paprika, dried oregano, a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper into a blender and blended until it was all one smooth dream.

Next, I browned the eggplant in a hot sea of olive oil. When the eggplant was crisp, I removed the eggplant with a pair of tongs, layered the bottom of a Pyrex baking dish with the eggplant, added a layer of crushed tomatoes, added another layer of eggplant and topped it with a smooth layer of the tofu blend. 

I popped it in the oven, set the timer and waited. 

It smelled good.

Real good. So good that my chicken tender children remarked how good it smelled.

“Dad, it smells like a restaurant in here!”

Twenty minutes later, when the timer sounded, I slipped on an oven mitt,  opened the oven, retrieved the Pyrex dish, removed the foil and found this:

Before anyone could catch a glimpse, I threw the tinfoil back over the Pyrex, cuffed the edges and forced the monstrosity back into the dark oven for another 5 minutes.

For the next 5 minutes I guarded the oven, spatula in hand.

I was there to prevent anyone from looking the big oven window and, god forbid, if the eggplant monster smashed through that big oven window I was there, like a Royal Guardsman, armed and willing to protect my family.  

When the timer sounded, I slid on the oven mitt, removed the dish from the oven, uncuffed the foil and found this:

I tried to convinced myself–“Maybe it tastes better than it looks?”

Because it looked awful. So awful, the kids remarked, “That looks awful.”

I read the recipe out loud and as my index finger drew imaginary lines under each word.

I went outside to the trashcan and fished out the original box the meal came in, looking for an ingredient, the one I clearly forgot to add.  The one that would surely make my Eggplant Moussaka look like the one in the picture.

The box was empty.

I moved back inside, to the kitchen, to the counter, looked down at my eggplant abomination, took a deep breath and concluded that I did something wrong.

I scooped out an eggplant wheel and dropped it on a plate. Feeling the eyes of my family on me, I forked a wedge the eggplant, said a quick prayer and slid it into my mouth.

They watched as I chewed, then swallowed.

“How is it dad? Is it good?”

I ran a napkin across my lips, leveled my eyes and said, “No. It’s awful. It’s really awful kids.”

It’s such a sobering moment, especially for us adults, when our final product fails incredibly short of our imagination.

When we Ziploc creativity, vacuum-seal boldness, tritely follow directions and yet still we fail.

It’s as if everything we learned about achieving success, whether in the kitchen or in life, was suddenly compromised.

I did what I was told, followed the instructions and still I failed. 

And in the end, you can only stand over the kitchen sink, force Dr. Frankenstein’s Eggplant Moussaka down the drain with a kitchen brush, listen to your stomach growl and realize you’re not as good as you once believed.

Be well,

Jay

The Air Max 90 (Or The First Time I Learned About Envy)

This week’s publication is dedicated to my friend and fellow writer Deb Dauer, who recently passed away from complications caused by ALS. 

Although my time with Deb was brief, she taught me to live, to write with courage and spirit and that true happiness can only be found in the connections you make. 

Thank you and be well my friend. 

What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.—Deb Dauer 


At 10 years old I learned about envy.

It was 1990 and Nike had just released the Air Max 90 sneaker.

To the uniformed catholic school boys, sporting navy blue slacks, yellow dress shirts, navy blue ties all accented with black pleather shoes, which were sold exclusively at a local mom-and-pop shoe store that resembled a shoe museum rather then a working shoe store, fashion-wise—gym class was a big deal.

A pre-adolescent parade of parent-bought sneakers.

In a corner of the gym, a gym which was actually an oversized classroom,  stood a loose ring of cool boys— all wearing Air Max 90s.

They were fingering their soles, the soles with the little plastic window that might have been windows into their young souls because the boys were outwardly happy—laughing and smiling and worshiping the Made-in-China-Manna stitched with a Swoosh, that fell from Heaven and slid onto their feet.

Picture courtesy of soletheory.com

Across the gym/classroom I stood on my assigned red dot, alone, staring down at my  pedestrian sneakers.

I felt something sour inside. A sudden smallness. An inferiority.  A failure to appreciate what I had.

 It had nothing to do with running faster or jumping higher.

The Nike Air Max 90s were cool. And at 10 years old, I was learning the world was cruelly split into two— the cool and the uncool.

At 38, as a parent and writer I’m constantly comparing myself to others.

Which makes me feel like I’m in gym class all over again—standing outside the circle of well-laced people, hoping for inclusion.

Let me be clear—comparison is not a healthy practice. Comparison will always prevent you from discovering and maintaining lasting happiness.

I teach my children and my students that envy is a corrosive emotion. A cancer that will always lead to dissatisfaction which often trigger destructive behavior. Yet I’m guilty of envy, of comparisons.

I told you last week I meet a young woman who was an aspiring fitness blogger.

She had a defined blogging niche and a growing audience. She was 15 years younger than me, had been writing for only a few months and spoke with a confidence and coolness that I was envious of.

After she pulled from our conversation, waited at the bar for another Pinot Grigio, I couldn’t help but feeling like I was back standing on my red dot in gym class, looking down at my unbranded sneakers, feeling small again.

I know self-inflicted comparisons hurt. Yet this knowledge doesn’t stop me.

Like knowing too much tequila triggers  nuclear hangovers and liver disease and bad decisions yet still we fasten our sombrero, throw caution to the wind and drink more than we should.

A year later, in 1991, Nike released the Air Max 91. When my neighbor got the Air Max 91s, I bought his Air Max 90s for $20.

I remember how that night I went home and tried out my new/old shoes in the backyard.

The Air Maxs didn’t make me run faster or jump higher. I didn’t feel cooler or happier with them on my feet. It fact, I was uncomfortable. The shoes were a size too big and insoles were molded to the topography of my neighbor’s feet.

As a father and writing teacher, I want my children and students to be authentic and honest with themselves. Be affable to their dreams. Invest in their uniqueness and voice.

I want them to know no matter what products the world flexes on them, no matter the level of success their competition achieves, sustained happiness is purely a product of authenticity.

Now, like an adult, it’s my responsibility to heed my own advice.

Be well.

Jay

The Great American School Experience: Hide In The Closet, Stay Quiet, and Hope Not To Die

They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.

“We would hide in the closet.”

“Really? That’s all?”

“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”

I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.

I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.

Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.

As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.

Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, spinning their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.

In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.

I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.

We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.

It couldn’t. This was America.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.

“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”

The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.

The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.

“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”

My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born.  There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.

Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”

As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.

I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”

“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”

These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.

Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.

She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.

The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.

It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.

And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.

The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.

Be well,

Jay

How to Cross a Threshold

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.–Marcus Aurelius

I saw my neurologist today.

After reviewing a recent MRI of my brain, he informed me that the deterioration that plagued my cerebellum appears to have stopped.

“That can happen?”

“Yes. In some cases, brain atrophy can stop.”

“Well, I guess that’s good news.”

He flashed a smile, leaned back in his chair and said, “That’s great news. Four years later…your brain is showing signs of stability.”

Like every previous visit, my neurologist put me thorough a series of tests.

Follow his finger with my eyes. Touch my nose, touch his finger. Open my mouth, stick out my tongue, cluck my tongue. Snap my fingers. Clack my heels on the floor. Stand up, sit down.

He opened the examination room door, turned, “you know the drill,” and I stood up and followed him out into the hallway.

I walked to the end of the hall, arms by my side, made a controlled turn–as if vying for my driver’s permit– and walked back to him.

“Your gait looks good. You’re walking more confidently then you have in years.”

“Thanks.”

We moved back into his office and sat down. He picked up a microphone that was corded to his computer and began dictating the results of my tests. Despite extensive cerebellum damage, the patient’s gait has shown improvement… . 

I commented how when I first meet him, four years ago, he had to scribble down test results and appointment notes by hand.

He smiled, “Yes, this will definitely stave off carpal tunnel for a few more years. But to be honest, I miss the old-fashion thrill of physical note-taking.  But…things change. Do you have any other questions?”

“I do. This may sound weird…I get a little uneasy around thresholds and doorways. You know, like I’m afraid to transition or something.  Is it normal for people with cerebellar damage to have trouble crossing thresholds?”

He leaned back into his seat and crossed his legs, “The brain is wonderful mystery. Even a healthy brain can find thresholds problematic. It’s something primitive. Like the fear the primitive man must have felt while standing barefoot on some rocky ledge, looking for someplace to go.  Crossing from room to room, from one plane to next has always troubled people. Evolution has ingrained it in our psyche. We’re simply afraid of transitions.”

Of course it wasn’t intentional, but he just conducted an unauthorized, in-office autopsy on my life.

“Do you have any advice on how to cross a threshold?”

“Crossing a threshold is often mental. The initial fear of just transitioning from one place to the next often prevents us from progression. But when you find the nerve to finally cross, you realize there was nothing to fear at all. ”

I stood up, shook his hand, said I was looking forward to seeing him in six months. He smiled, spun away, opened the door and disappeared.

I slipped on my coat and strode through the threshold, from the examination room into the hall and back into life.

A life born of thresholds, waiting patiently for us to simply brave up and cross.

Be well,

Jay

Nobody Cares and Other Truths I Learned During My Two Years of Writing

This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.

Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.

But such is the writing life.

When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.

Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.

When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to  guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.

Vanity? Absolutely.

But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.

The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.

Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned writers are architects.

We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.

We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.

I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.

I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.

I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.

However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today,  here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.

This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.

The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.

The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.

The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.

Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.

The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.

The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.

The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.

The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.

She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.

And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.

This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.

Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.