Celebrating Victory with the Living (and the Dead)

On Superbowl morning I went to Forest Hills Cemertary wearing my Eagles jersey.

It’s February in Philadelphia and it’s cold and raining and my son is standing by my side and we’re looking down at the plaque marking the birth and death of my grandparents. Mike and Doreen.

I tell them about how the Eagles are playing in the Superbowl tonight. How they’re underdogs, been underdogs throughout the playoffs. A real Philadelphia story.

Never having performed the earthly art of speaking to the dead, my son stares at me and then quietly drifts towards the car.

I tell my grandparents I’m a bundle of emotions. Excited, nervous.

I tell them I think we’re finally going to win.

I tell them I’ll be thinking about them tonight.

I can feel Chase watching me. His nose pressed up against the car window. His 7 year old mind convincing itself that his father is a little stranger, a little more mysterious then previously thought.

An hour earlier, before the rain, I was staring out my kitchen window into the calm, gray morning and listening to sports talk radio.

Mary from Doylestown said she was going to wear her brother’s Eagle’s jersey tonight. She said her brother taught her the Eagles fight song and how after high school he enlisted in the Army and how on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber.

Bill from Broomall said he’ll be watching tonight’s game from his recliner and with his father’s urn propped beside him. Like he’s done all season.

Then two things happened before the Jim from Norristown could finish his story about going to his first Eagles game at Franklin Field in 1960 with his parents who are now both deceased:

One, I was on the verge of tears. Serious man-tears. And two, I had a sudden urge to visit my grandparents.

My grandparents were casual sports fans. They celebrated when Philadelphia celebrated.

My grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer and would tell me stories about being down on the Veterans Stadium field, working security during Eagles games. How after the game he would visit the locker and talk to the players. Which, when you’re a kid, is just about the coolest thing in the world  –much cooler then talking to wet cemetery grass.

Beyond that, I don’t remember any conversations with either of them about sports.

But that’s not the point.

My grandparents were fans of life. Fans of their children and grandchildren. They taught me the importance of togetherness, community, celebrations and traditions. And since sports is a freeway that connects people, on Superbowl Sunday, I wanted my grandparents to feel a part of the biggest game in Philadelphia sports history. To feel a part of the living story again.

Later that day the Eagles defeated the Patriots to capture the first Superbowl title in franchise history. A franchise founded in 1933.

When the clock settled on 0:00, I hugged my mom and dad. I hugged my brothers. I hugged my wife and children.

Later that night, when the celebration quieted, I thought about my grandparents.

And I’m sure Mary, Bill and Jim were all hugging the spirits of their loved ones late into the night as well.

As children, our parents told us not to stress over striking out or missing a shot. They told us not to take it so hard. They told us that it’s just a game.

And now, as parents, we pass down the same sentiments to our children.

Don’t take it so hard. Let it go. It’s just a game.

Yet I know it’s not just a game. And my son now knows it’s not just a game.

Because hours before the Superbowl he listened to me talk to the dead.

Because inside the earthly boundaries of the game, rests something ethereal that connects the living to the dead.

A magical spell of muscle and bone that coaxes the dead sit up and smile and celebrate the joy of sports, the joy of life with us once again.

Be well,

Jay

Here are some Superbowl and parade pictures:

 

“She doesn’t read your blog anymore.”: The Most Important Lesson I Learned in 2017

I can live for two months on a good compliment.— MARK TWAIN

When I was a kid my mom would hang my school art projects on the refrigerator door.

She would tussle my hair, look down lovingly at me and tell me how great my art was. How it brightened up the kitchen. How I was such a creative boy, destined for creative fame.

In fact, 32 years ago, mom had a picture I drew in kindergarten glazed onto a plate. To this day, she still eats off the plate.

Thanks to Ikea, my wife and I continue the parental tradition of displaying and praising our children’s school projects. We have a decorative steel-wire clothes lines near our kitchen table where we show off all the finger paintings and paper-mache’ Christmas trees.

Praise and affection should not be reserved for children. Adults need praise and affection too. They are fundamental human needs. They strengthen our self-esteem, they help to refine our self-worth.

The best-selling book The Carrot Principle examines a 10 year study revealing how boss-to-employee acknowledgement and praise were the two most important and persuasive factors regarding employee retention, production and satisfaction.

Good parents acknowledge and praise their children.

Good bosses acknowledge and praise their employees.

But what happens when someone acknowledges and praises the work of a hopeful writer?

Last year a colleague told me that her aunt was a big fan of my blog.

How her aunt looks forward to a new post every Friday. How my writing makes her laugh and cry and think better about her life.

I was flattered. Honored. Proud.

Someone, not my mom, was a fan of my work.

I was building an audience. Creating a buzz. My writing was going places. Like Mark Twain, I floated on that compliment for months.

A few weeks ago the same colleague told me that her aunt doesn’t read my blog anymore.

“What do you mean she doesn’t read my blog any more?”

“I mean, she doesn’t read your blog anymore.”

I smiled. Laughed it off. Said, “oh well” and went about my day.

But I was bruised. A once avid reader decided that my words were not a valuable use of her time.

I spent the following days in a bad place.

I was edgy. I didn’t want to read, write or teach. The kids were bringing home drawings of snowmen and gingerbread men they made in school and I didn’t care.

My work felt cheap. As if instead of hanging my work on the refrigerator, mom balled it up and threw it in the trash and told me to give up.

I felt sorry for myself, which is the dangerous first stroke in the messy art of self-sabotage.

I know my colleague’s aunt was not the first reader to stop reading but it was the first one I heard about which made it feel real.

I sulked and did the immature thing of equating one person to everyone.

Why am I sacrificing so much time writing things nobody was reading?

I thought about canceling the upcoming Write-a-thon. An event which I’m unapologetically proud of.

I doubted my abilities as a writer.

Why should anyone listen to me? What qualified me to offer my voice and writing knowledge?

I guess, in a weird way, I began feel like a real writer — questioning the value and necessity of my work.

Days later a different colleague gave me a Christmas card.

They told me how much they enjoyed reading my writing. How my words were making an impact on people.

Later that day I confirmed a date for the Write-a-thon (January 19, 2018!) and even later, I went home and began writing this post.

As 2017 unfurled, I had some nice successes. Received some nice recognition.

But it was in the cold, final week of 2017 that I began to understand the polarizing power acknowledgement and praise.

I learned that if I’m creating work just to hang it on the refrigerator I’m not a real artist. I’m just another glory whore in a world filled with glory whores.

I’m glad my colleague’s aunt isn’t reading my work anymore. Her dumping me was one of the best things to happen to me this year.

Writing is a contradictory experience.

Writing is more about the reader then the writer. Yet the fate of the relationship is solely the writer’s responsibility. The writer has to sacrifice and bleed and refuse compression for the relationship to work.

There were times in 2017 I didn’t bleed for you. Sometimes I winced. I wrote for clicks and likes and shares. I wrote easy. I was a glory whore.

In 2018 I resolve to do a better job writing for myself. I need to write hard. I need to bleed for me. Not for recognition. And not for you.

This is not to shut you out.

I need to be more selfish, more self-examining to engage you on a more honest, more visceral level.

In 2018 I promise to work on me so that we can work on us.

Together I hope we find better ways to appreciate our lives, to tell our stories so when the time is right–we may find our way back to each other.

Be well,

Jay

What my 7 year old son and a friend with a terminal illness said about happiness

I’d like to thank the Lexus “December to Remember” commercial for fueling my recent obsession with happiness.

You know the commercial: On a perfect snow sparked morning a well groomed man finds a new Lexus topped with a big red bow trophied in his sprawling driveway. The man smiles then hugs and kisses the hood of his new toy as his tall, attractive wife and their beautiful blue-eyed children stand nearby and smile and dote and radiate with plastic happiness as a voice tells you how easy and affordable it is for you to own a sleek, well-equipped Lexus.

The message is simple and clear — If you buy or lease a Lexus this holiday season you can buy or lease happiness.

Now that’s a good looking family…but it’s an even better looking Santa Claus!

The commercial then gives way to the football game my 7 year old son and I are watching. We’re curled together on the couch, sharing a blanket. It’s a rare scene, especially for December. My son, the Energizer Bunny, is almost always moving, always playing. And with the promise of Christmas so close, his energy seems even more boundless. But at this moment, he is still, as if someone removed his batteries, and I know this might just be my only time to ask him.

“Hey Chase can I ask you something?”

The quarterback drops back to pass. Chase delays his response long enough where I think he’s ignoring me. The quarterback completes a 12 yard pass to a receiver who’s shoved out of bounds by a streaking defender. First down.

The teams huddle and the referee sets the football at the line of scrimmage and without unlocking his eyes from the television looking Chase says, “Okay.”

A little surprised he was even listening, I nod and smile and ask, “What makes you happy?”

The quarterback drops back to pass again and Chase turns and looks thoughtfully at me, as thoughtfully as a 7 year old can look, smiles and says “ I guess…spending time with you and mom.”

“Really?”

“Yeah like when we all went to the movies last week. That was fun.”

He smiles.

I smile.

Touchdown.

I didn’t want to text my friend. She’s dying.

My friend Deb Dauer was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2013. Before her diagnosis, she was an elementary school teacher in the district where I teach and an early supporter of Write on Fight on. Now she’s chronicling her inspiring fight with ALS on her blog Not Gonna Be a Debbie Downer. 

Though my interactions with Deb have been mostly through email and Facebook, I feel a kinship with her. We are parents and teachers and writers who, for better or worse, wear our hearts on our sleeve.

I felt like an asshole bothering Deb with my pretentious existential crisis. I mean, she’s warring with one of the most hellacious diseases we’ve never cured. Clearly, she’s busy.

But the question lingered then gnawed. What would someone with a terminal illness say about happiness? 

It took me almost an hour editing and revising and second-guessing and ego-checking before I finally braved up and sent the following text…

“What makes you happy? Lately I’ve been obsessing over natural vs. plastic happiness and would value your sentiments. But please, no obligations. Be well.”

True to her awesome self, Deb responded with…

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

In the heart of the Lexus “December to Remember “ sales event Chase and Deb confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.

Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?

And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Checkout this 6 minute feature on the Write-a-thon! I want to thank all my colleagues and students who made this awesome event possible.

You Can’t be Happy and Ungrateful at the Same Time: 50 Things from My Gratitude Journal

Happiness and gratitude are a package deal. You can’t be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Show gratitude and you’ll find happiness.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, has spent his career researching the impact gratitude can have. Emmons stresses, “Gratitude is not merely a positive emotion; it also improves your health if cultivated. People must give up a “victim mentality” and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness.”

How often, in these hyper-speed times of ours, do we fail to slow down to appreciate moments and things that afford us happiness? How often do we feel discontented with our material possessions? How often to fail to give thanks for the gift of life?

In an attempt to grow my gratitude, to find new levels of happiness, I recently adopted the morning practice of writing down 3 things I’m grateful for. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just a pause every morning before the chaos of the ensuing day to acknowledge 3 things I’m grateful for. Some things are deeply personal and others are observatory. But all, in some way, have added to my happiness.

Here are 50 things from my gratitude journal:

1.The first sip of morning coffee.

2. A job.

3. Seeing my children smile on the first day of school.

4.That Paulo Coelho shared my review of his novel The Alchemist on his Twitter feed.

5.When old friends you haven’t talked to in awhile call.

6.That a healthy diet is relieving my chronic joint pain.

7. Inside jokes.

8.Talking sports with my dad.

9.Having a fair and honest work evaluation that provided meaningful feedback.

10.Sunday dinners with my parents and brothers.

11. My wife’s willingness to listen to my repetitive (and probably boring) work stories.

12.When former students return from college and visit.

13.Watching my parents teach my children how to play poker.

14. When strangers hold doors, smile and say things like, “Good morning” and “Have a good day.”

15. Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”.

16. Having people read and share my writing.

17. My parents making me get a job when I was 14.

18. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning for teaching me that real hope only arises when we find meaningfulness in our suffering.

20. Amazon Prime.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
― Epicurus

21. Thank you notes.

22. The snooze button.

23. Listening to the staccato rhythms of my youngest son reading.

24. One of my students getting accepted into their dream college.

25. My son being voted Class President of the second grade.

26. Hot showers.

27. That my parents are still alive and have been married for almost 40 years.

28. Three day weekends.

29. The patter of my children’s rushing feet in the morning.

30. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien for teaching me about the power and humanity of storytelling.

31. Seeing my daughter score a goal in her soccer game.

32. That my wife supports me.

33. Having the financial ability to pay bills.

34. The ability to write and tell stories.

35. Mousetraps.

36. Seinfeld reruns.

37. The Philadelphia Eagles for currently exceeding expectations.

38. Listening to my children invent and tell their own jokes.

39. The freedom of choose how I respond to any given circumstance.

40. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey for making me consider ways to improve upon my relationship with myself and others.

41. The Tim Ferriss Show podcast for reminding me that asking questions is a pivotal practice for growth.

42. Urgent Care facilities that are open late on Saturday.

43. Sam Adams Octoberfest.

44. Having a wood burning stove.

45. Falling asleep on the couch.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

46. Classroom laughter.

47. Classroom silence.

48. Well-insulated travel mugs.

49. Christmas wishlists.

50. My health.

Thanksgiving week is a great time to express gratitude. However, I’ve learned that sustainable gratitude is work. Like anything else gratitude requires daily attention, daily maintenance. This holiday season I hope you find time to focus on daily gratitude. It’s proven to boost your mood, deepen your relationships and if not for anything else — make you smile just a little bit more.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be well,

Jay

The Pilgramage (or why I really went to Atlantic City last week)

“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.

“No.”

“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.

Be well,

Jay

The Scary Work of Redefining Yourself

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.

Here’s why.

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.

Be well,

Jay

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...

 

The Day the Girls Were Given Tampons

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 what?”

“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.

Be well,

Jay