The mindset of the person who affixes those stick figure family decals to the rear window of their car mystifies me.

I like to imagine the decision making process that goes on in someone’s mind when they make a choice that I think is fairly stupid.

Take those stick figure decals that you see in the rear windows of cars the serve as a representation of a family’s size and composition.

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Stupid. Right?

Of course they are.

Yet a disturbing number of people affix these things to their car windows with alarming frequency. This means that there was a moment in a person’s life when he or she decided to purchase these decals and thought that this purchase was a good idea.

What could they have been thinking in that moment?

“I want people parked beside me at the super market to know exactly how many people are in my family, just in case they think all this food is for me.”

“Janet’s minivan has decals like these, and I think Janet is just the coolest mother ever. I want to be just like Janet. I want my kids to love me as much Janet’s kids love her. Why don’t my kids love me like Janet’s kids love her? Why doesn’t my husband look at me the same way he did when we were first married? Was he staring at Janet’s ass at the PTO bake sale last week? How much do these decals cost?” 

“I’m a baby making machine, and I want the world (or at least the people stuck behind me at traffic lights) to know it, goddamn it.”

“Joe and I only had two children, because we are responsible citizens of this planet who only seek to replace ourselves and limit our carbon footprint. I want my vehicle to reflect this philosophy in the most obnoxious way possible.”

“I’m so proud of my family. The kids. The cat. Even my stupid husband. These stick figure decals are the perfect way to show how proud I am.”

“Look! A kind of family checklist that I can stick on my car, so I’ll never forget any of my kids at the amusement park or the laundromat again.”

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Love my readers

A reader from overseas sent me this collage my the covers of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, including two that I had never seen before.

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My aunts and uncles were once young and strong and infinite. This is how I try to remember them even when the shadows of my ongoing existential crisis creep in.

I’ve been thinking about my grandparents a lot lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the families that they raised and what life must’ve been like back then. In the not-so-old days.

I have an interesting family dynamic:

My mother married my father.
My mother’s brother married my father’s sister.

Two families more closely intertwined by marriage than most. And large families, too. 

My father was one of seven children.
My mother was one of six.

Until my mother and father divorced when I was about eight years-old, Dad lived in my childhood home, next door to his father, my grandfather. Dad’s grandfather (my great grandfather) and his uncle (my  great uncle) lived there as well. For much of his life, his brother (my Uncle Neil) lived there, too. 

Two  houses down from our home lived my father’s brother, Harold, and his wife, Cathy. Half a mile down the road lived my father’s youngest sister, Sheila, and her husband, Tim. Across the street from our house and across the street from my grandfather’s house were the homes of my uncle’s wife’s family.

Our street was a bit of a family compound.

The rest of the family, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, lived nearby. Both sets of grandparents lived in my hometown, as did most of the uncles and aunts. Until my mother’s sister, my Aunt Paulette, moved to South Carolina when I was young, every aunt and uncle with the exception of one lived within fifteen minutes of my home.

Today, the families are much smaller.

All of my grandparents are dead.
My mother and her older sister are dead.
Two of my father’s brothers and one of his sisters are dead.

Thirteen children amongst the two families now reduced to eight.

But I like to think back to a time, prior to 1978, when things were different. My father’s mother had died a few years earlier, but otherwise, the family was complete. It was a time when all thirteen of these children were alive and well. Some were married and some were single, but none had been divorced yet. The families were intact. For a tiny sliver of time, things were as they should be. There were no shadows at the family picnics.

My Aunt Carol, my mother’s oldest sister, passed away first, following her husband, my Uncle Norman, who died a little less than decade earlier.

My parents divorced. My father left the house and farm that stood in the shadow of his childhood home. He went from living next door to his father to living alone in an apartment behind a liquor store.

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Then my Aunt Sheila died tragically in a doctor’s office while receiving an allergy shot. She was still in her twenties and the mother of three.

My Uncle Neil died years later, followed by my Uncle Harold just recently. More divorces along the way. More families chopped in half. Reconstituted. Chopped again.

But I like to think about my grandparents and pre-1978: a time when all of their children were alive and well. When their marriages were intact and futures were bright. When death had not yet begun to cast its shadow across the landscape of the family and whittle it down, piece by piece.

It must have been a lovely time for my grandparents. A lovely moment, really. A few years in the sun before things began to crack.

It must be hard to watch a family fracture. Separate. Shrink.

A not-so-long time ago, thirteen children who would one day become my aunts and uncles lived in the tiny town of Blackstone, MA. They ran and played and laughed and grew. They found work. They fell in love. The sun was warm on their backs and the grass was soft underfoot.

I like to think about them like this. Young and strong and infinite. 

Now there are shadows where loved ones once stood. Aging bodies and broken hearts and lost love. Someday thirteen will become zero, and those once glorious and indestructible children will be no more.

One hundred years from now, they will be all but forgotten. Names occasionally uttered in discussions of family trees. Mentioned in soon-to-be-forgotten family stories. Etched into tombstones no longer visited.  

I would – if I could – reach back into time and tell those thirteen children, spread amongst two families, to hold onto their youth with every ounce of strength that they have. Cherish it. Grab onto one another and hold tight.

And I would tell them to run. Run fast and hard and with reckless abandon through fields and streets and wood  because some day running will be a thing of the past. I would urge them to run from those shadows that are looming closer each day and remember their time in the sun, because it is all too fleeting, and someday, thirteen will become none.

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This is how I survive meetings.

When I am forced to suffer through an agonizing meeting or a pedantic training session (of which almost all are), I stare at photographs like this to prevent my soul from being thoroughly crushed.

Photos like this are like a tiny light in a universe of infinite black. They serve as a reminder that the person speaking will eventually stop, the PowerPoint will thankfully run out of slides, and the hands of the clock will signal my freedom.

I don’t know how I survived meetings before I had children.

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My friends are incredibly odd. Complete outliers. I couldn’t be more happy.

It occurs to me that all of my closest friends are exceptionally non-materialistic.

Not a single designer anything in the bunch. Not one name brand plastered on anything that they wear or carry. Nondescript clothing absent of labels or markers of any kind.

And with the exception of a 1960’s Corvette – which my friend spent years restoring on his own – even their cars are modest. Even though all are gainfully employed and some are doing quite well, most of them buy used cars. Boring used cars.       

In addition, four of my closest male friends are not on Facebook or any other form of social media. They also are four of the only people I know who don’t have a presence on some kind of social media platform.

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Running into someone without a social media presence today is an oddity. It normally signals a troubled past or a stalker of some kind.

These four guys simply have no inclination to engage with people over a social media platform. They have no time for it. No desire to share photos of their food and pets and children and themselves with a constellation of friends, friends’ friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and relative strangers. 

This can actually be annoying sometimes – when I want them to be in the loop on something and have to email or call them separately – but there’s something great about it, too.

I’m blessed in many ways, but my friends are one of my greatest blessings. Extraordinary men who understand what is truly important in this world.

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How I teach storytelling

I did an interview with Jim Levulis of WAMC public radio on storytelling, and specifically, the teaching of storytelling.

If you’re interested, you can listen here.

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I think my wife married me to compensate for her lack of a sense of direction.

I’ve always been able to navigate well without a map.

Years ago, in a time before GPS, I brought Elysha – who was still my girlfriend – to Rhode Island to visit my mother. When we arrived at my mother’s building, I suddenly remembered that she had moved across town just a week before. 

In the distance, I could see my mother’s new building, a tiny speck on the horizon. We climbed back into the car, and using nothing more than my sense of direction (mostly the position of the sun), I found my way to her new home.

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Elysha, who is directionally challenged, couldn’t believe that I had navigated across town without a map and had managed to find my mother’s home. This is a woman who once drove halfway across the state of Connecticut, stopped for a cup of coffee, and then drove almost all the way back home before realizing that she was heading in the wrong direction.

When she told me about this, I asked why she hadn’t noticed that the position of the sun was reversed as she drove in the wrong direction.

I think she wanted to punch me. 

But as we pulled into the parking lot at my mother’s building that day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen her more impressed with me. I sometimes think that was the day she decided to marry me. My skills, in light of her deficiencies, were just too good to pass up.

It turns out that this disparity in our senses of direction is probably biological and therefore unavoidable. Scientists recently located the part of the human brain where our sense of direction is located and have determined that the strength and reliability of these ‘homing signals’ in the human brain vary among people and can predict navigational ability.

It turns out that my brain is just better than my wife’s brain.

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The best moment that I have ever spent at a football game. Maybe one of the best moments of my life. And it happened during a timeout.

My love of the New England Patriots doesn’t make a lot of sense.

A collection of men who I have never met take the field to play a game that I have never played professionally, and even though I have no tangible connection to a single person associated with the Patriots organization, my heart hangs on every play.  

And it doesn’t matter who is playing in the game. Last night, in Gillette Stadium, I cheered on running back LaGarrette Blount, who just weeks ago was playing for the Pittsburg Steelers before being released for disciplinary reasons. 

Had he returned to Foxboro in the brown and gold of the Steelers, I would’ve prayed for abject failure. Fumbles and missteps and bone crushing tackles to the ground.

But last night he wore the red, white, and blue of my team, so I cheered him on as he ran over the Indianapolis Colts and helped to bring the Patriots – my team – to another Super Bowl.

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As fan, we root for laundry. We are loyal to the uniform. Villains become heroes and heroes are made villains depending on the colors that they wear.

It’s almost religious. It makes no sense.

And yet I was standing in section 331, row 24, seat 5 last night, as the rain came down in sheets, euphoric as my team dismantled the Indianapolis Colts and punched their ticket to the Super Bowl.

Last week I watched the Patriots defeat the Baltimore Ravens in one of the best playoff games I have ever seen. In the end, the Patriots defeated the Ravens 38-34, but not before having to make up two 14 point deficits and pulling of some of the best and most unusual plays that I have ever seen. It was a frigid, dry night in Foxboro last week, but we forgot about the arctic temperatures. Ignored cold hands and frozen feet. There was too much  drama unfolding before us.

Yesterday was a different kind of game. Temperatures were near 50 for most of the night. Torrential downpours soaked is. The game was essentially over by midway through the third quarter. We were able to relax. Laugh. Celebrate. In my 10+ years as a season ticket holder, I have rarely laughed more than last night.

My favorite moment of the night, and perhaps one of my favorite moments ever spent in Gillette Stadium, was as the Patriots were driving to make the score 38-7. The rain was falling harder than it had all night. The wind was carrying it across the field in sheets. A timeout was called. The telecast went to commercial. Music began playing in the stadium:

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain.

In a downpour, almost 70,000 people rose and began to sing together. Our team was on the precipice of another Super Bowl, and we were fortunate enough to be there to watch it happen. In the driving rainstorm. On a dark and windy night. 

When the timeout ended and play resumed, the stadium stopped playing the music. Tom Brady stood under center, waiting for the ball to be snapped. Two teams were poised to resume battle. But the fans continued to sing.

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I have never felt such a collective feeling of joy as I did in that moment. Men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, sang a song that almost seemed to have been written for this moment. It was as if we had spent our lives listening to this song and learning the words by heart so that we could come together on this one night, in this singular moment, to sing in unison.

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When do you allow your child to quit an activity? Also, entering into contractual agreements with your child is insane.

In the Washington Post, Katherine Reynolds Lewis writes about when it’s acceptable to let your child quit an activity and how do you handle the anger that children express when forced to continue with something that they don’t like.

She and her his husband have used a  strategy that I will call contractual commitment:

We agree with our girls on the length of the commitment they want to undertake. Whether that’s an eight-week soccer season or 10-week dance class, they agree that they’re going to continue the experience to the end, even if they decide it’s not for them. We put this agreement in writing and everyone signs it. We hope this teaches the importance of follow through as well as the reality that activities cost money, which we’re not interested in wasting.

Once this system was in place, the first time our daughter claimed, “I hate this! You made me sign up!” we pulled out the agreement. Argument over.

May I suggest that rather than signing contracts with your children over the length of time that they will pursue an activity, perhaps your children should just listen to whatever you are saying and obey because you are the parent?

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This may sound like a novel approach, but if your eight year-old wants to quit the swim team or piano lessons or the Boy Scouts, maybe it should the parent who decides. Perhaps the adult, with years of wisdom and perspective and the well being of their child in mind, should choose how long an activity should be pursued.

Maybe a parent should just act like a parent.

Signing a contract with your child is insane. It’s a perfect way to undermine your authority and your child’s respect for it. It’s a weak-kneed, lily-livered, short-sighted, helicopter-parenting solution to avoiding difficult decisions, temper tantrums, and the measures sometimes necessary for enforcing  rules. 

It will also never work.   

Once this system was in place, the first time our daughter claimed, “I hate this! You made me sign up!” we pulled out the agreement. Argument over.

Seriously? An angry, outraged eight year-old child shouts, “I hate this! You made me sign up!” The parent extracts the signed contract and hands it to the child. He or she reviews the document, takes a deep breath, and says, “Right. I forgot this binding agreement that we drafted n the back on my spelling homework. Apologies. I will cease my argument immediately.

No. I don’t believe it.

Adults break contracts all the time, and these are legally binding documents. Breaking them results in lawsuits and financial damages, and still, adults break them all the time. Am I really expected to believe that a piece of paper will bring an end to a child’s anger or disillusionment or a temper tantrum?

How about instead of a contract, you say something like this:

“Mary-Sue, we think that swim class is important for both your future safety around water and your overall physical fitness. I understand that you don’t want to go, but we all have to do things that we don’t want to do. There are many days when I don’t want to go to work, but I must because we have to pay for our house and car and food. You’ve made your argument. We listened. We disagree. Stop arguing and get in the car or I will begin taking away toys from your bedroom, and I will not stop until you are doing what you have been told.”

Instead of acting like a lawyer, may I suggest that acting like a parent is the wiser course of action?

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A new definition for enthusiasm

I feel like one of these photographs could replace the words used to define “enthusiasm” in the OED.

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