Focus

Wyh Yuo Sholud Raed Mroe…


We’ve all seen the picture that goes around Facebook with words intentionally misspelled. The caption says something like, “If yuo cna raed thses wodrs yuo’re smrater tahn fitfy pecrent fo poeple on Eatrh.” These posts go viral because EVERYBODY can read it!

The only letters that matter are the first and last ones in a word. Turns out the spelling bee I lost in seventh grade didn’t count for as much as I thought.

But I think there is another underlying lesson to learn. Our minds are so attuned to reading that our brains can translate misspelled words without any thought; yet, many of us have stopped reading.

It’s a product of the environment we live in. Right now I’m stuck in an endless loop of Facebook, Reddit, and Candycrush. In writing this post, I’ve thought about looking for the next message, up-vote, or extra life that’s going to shoot a dollop—I’ve been dying to use this word—of adrenaline through me. You might be thinking the same thing as you read this right now.

And the obvious problem is we’ve lost some of our ability to stay focused.

So how do we improve that? Simple. We read. Take 30 minutes each day to open a book or magazine article. Anything from War and Peace to Cosmopolitan will do—reading is like going to a gym for the mind.

We aren’t going to stop using these apps—they’re fun—but we need to achieve balance. There are numerous benefits from reading but one of the most important is it teaches us focus.

And to build something truly great you have to stay focused.

So ptu dwon teh deivce yuo’re redaing tihs on; pick up a book, magazine, or iPad—if you can resist the siren of the internet.

Focus.


If yuo’re albe to raed tihs snetnece pelsae recmomned tihs airtlce.
Next Story — The Sub
Currently Reading - The Sub

The Sub

After the first period bell rang, I listened to the dull roar of high school students walking through the hallway and into my life. But like all first-time substitute teachers there was an an internal debate of great significance raging inside my head: should I be sitting down or standing up when the students arrive? Sitting down looks weak, I thought. I want to establish my authority. I stood up and folded my arms across my black polo shirt. Now I look too serious. Better to seem relaxed so they don’t think you’re a jerk. I put my hands inside my khaki pockets. Now I’m too relaxed. I let my arms hang naturally at my side. That’s perfect.

There are two high schools in the small New Mexico town I live in. One is for the students who have no trouble making the grade. But I didn’t choose this school. Rather, for my first day as a substitute teacher, I chose the high school for the students who are struggling to make the grade and graduate. These students, some of them being nineteen and twenty years old, are stuck in the cycle of failing grades, taking drugs, going to jail, or getting pregnant.

But I wasn’t a total amateur in the classroom. I taught in the Air Force for two years, where I instructed a six-week course that prepared junior airman to become noncommissioned officers. But when I was reassigned to New Mexico, I resumed my regular job where I fixed computers. But as the months passed, I found my desire to teach didn’t go away.

So I decided to become a substitute teacher. I went down to the school district’s office, filled out the application, and was hired on a month later.

I was excited to to teach again because while working back in my regular job, I always caught myself staring at the clock, wishing the day would end. But I never did that as an instructor. I would look at the clock every morning, and before I knew it, the day was over. I enjoyed this feeling, and wondered if teaching in the civilian world would produce similar results.

I also wondered if I would be able to hack it in a high school classroom, where I no longer had the positional authority that the military so clearly grants you with stripes on your sleeve or bars on your lapel.

But there was only one way for me to find out.

I left my house at six-thirty that morning, and arrived at the school early. The campus was small. A long hallway served as the main thoroughfare. All twelve classrooms, two bathrooms, and the administration offices connected to it.

I checked in with the secretary, and was shown to my classroom at the end of the hallway.

I sat down at the regular teacher’s desk and reviewed the schedule and lesson plans, just like my two-hour training course at the school district had taught me.

There were four periods, each one lasting ninety minutes. First period was government, where I’d be teaching the Bill of Rights. Second and third period were economics, where I’d be administering a quiz. And fourth period was New Mexico state history, where I’d cover topics like the state flower, crop, and tree — all things I knew nothing about.

I skimmed the lesson plans, trying to cram six hours of academics into thirty minutes of studying. I felt like a student all over again.

There was a timid knock on my door. A short, brunette biology teacher in her mid-thirties came by to visit me. It was her first year teaching, and she looked shell shocked. She said it had been an exasperating experience.

I asked for any tidbits of wisdom. “Get used to the f-word, the n-word, the b-word, the s-word, and any other swear word you can think of. And if you get a student that won’t listen, get on the radio and call for help,” she said, as she patted the handheld walkie talkie clipped to her waist. I was thankful for the street smart advice, the advice you don’t get in the training course. She headed back to her classroom two doors down.

The bell rang and it was then that I began debating the merits of sitting down or standing up. But the debate was short lived. The door opened soon thereafter and my first student arrived, a husky caucasian boy with a brown pony tail. There were six round tables in two rows of three that seated twenty-four students in the classroom. Ponytail went to furthest table away from me and sat down in a blue chair, turning his back towards me.

I got the feeling Ponytail had as much interest in learning as I did at his age. And in that moment I wished I was nicer to the all the teachers — both the full-time and substitute ones — when I was in school. If I had only known the anxiety they were feeling.

The rest of the first period students filed in with an air of curiosity, each student giving me an inquisitive glance before sitting at their respective table. A skinny white boy wearing a black hoodie and a flat brimmed Chicago Bulls hat came into the classroom and asked if I was “the sub.” I said I was. He snickered and left without saying anything else.

The bell rang again. First period was underway.

I believe the sub’s introduction is paramount to their success, as it sets the tone for the class. So I started off by telling the students they could call me “Mr. D.” and gave a short history about myself: twelve year Air Force veteran, married for five years, no kids and three dogs. I hoped my military service would slightly impress and slightly intimidate them into listening to me. But it didn’t.

There was a slight hum in the classroom. A few students continued talking, paying me no attention. I raised my voice and added a little military inflection, doing my best drill sergeant impersonation. I stood near the talkative students and maintained eye contact with them.

Surprisingly, it worked and they quieted down. I continued on.

I took roll. I made it a point to apologize beforehand if I butchered any of their names, and asked them to pronounce it correctly. About half the class was absent — only thirteen students were present.

I brought up the Bill of Rights slideshow on the projector screen, but I refused to lecture via death by PowerPoint, even though the slides were slathered with text. So I asked a question: why are the Bill of Right important?

Some students glanced around the room, others looked down at their books, but nobody said a word. I kept quiet. Let ten seconds pass, I thought. If one of them talks it’ll set the tone for the entire period.

A shaggy haired boy sitting next to Ponytail finally broke the silence.

“It’s to protect the rights of Americans from an oppressive government,” Shaggy said.

I enthusiastically agreed. First period took on this rhythm. I lectured about an amendment, and then asked an open ended question. After two or three students responded, I advanced to the next slide.

Towards the end of first period the principal, a man in his fifties with a balding head and a grey and brown beard, watched me from the doorway, his stoic face showing neither approval nor disapproval. He watched me teach a few amendments, but before leaving he gave me a thumbs up and mouthed, “Good job.” My confidence soared, and by the time the lesson was done, both the students and I had loosened up. We spent the end of the period casually conversing.

The bell rang. I wished them all a good day, and walked towards the threshold to watch the hallway, on the lookout for any misbehaving students. The principal headed towards me. He shook my hand.

“Most of the time we get babysitters,” he said. “But you were actually teaching in there. Keep it up.”

His words inflated my ego to unhealthy levels. I tried to keep it in check, but it began to balloon out of control. But if I’d known the students of second period, I’d have checked myself, as opposed to being checked in the classroom. But that’s the most exciting part about subbing, I found. Each period has its own unique problems to solve. And just when you think you’ve found the solutions, the period ends and you have to start all over.

The bell rang. Second period began.

When I went back into the classroom, I knew I was in trouble. Instead of thirteen students, all twenty four chairs were filled. The room overflowed with chatter, each table engaged in a lively conversation. But still brimming with confidence, I started off by giving a relaxed introduction. I made the rookie mistake of trying to establish rapport before cementing authority.

And during my introduction, a heavyset Hispanic girl in tight leopard pants propped her feet up on the table in a clear challenge to my authority. The leopard pants weren’t flattering to her plump body, and it looked like she was spilling out of her clothes. But she did have a nice smile and her dark brown hair was mixed with blonde highlights in the fashionable ombre style.

I asked Leopard Pants to kindly remove her feet. Her smile turned into a pouty face. She rolled her eyes at me and snarled, “How come the real teachers don’t care about this but the fake ones like you do?” Her verbal uppercut stunned me, but she did take her feet off the table. She put them in a friend’s lap with an exaggerated leg kick.

It was then that I turned around and noticed a humongous teenage man child sitting at an adjacent table. He had a full beard that’d make most men jealous and he was talking on his cell phone. I asked him to end the call. He didn’t. I asked him again and he gave me a long stare but hung up the phone, leaving his earbuds in. All this time, the noise level in the class hadn’t dropped a decibel. I tried using that military tone and inflection to wrestle back control, but it didn’t work. I cut my intro short and quickly took roll. I pressed on.

I told the class about the economics quiz and handed it out. I said there needed to be absolute silence, but they didn’t heed this instruction either. Each table conversed like I wasn’t there.

I spent the next thirty minutes going around to each table, reminding them to keep the noise down. I felt like I was playing a losing arcade game of gopher smash, because when one table quieted down, another table piped up. I now understood why the biology teacher kept the walkie talkie clipped to her belt.

It seemed like the class made an unspoken pact not to listen to a word I said. Their strategy worked — power derived from perseverance. The students eventually finished their tests, and I resigned myself to an unspoken truce if they could keep the noise down.

I sat down at my desk and watched over the class, looking more like a prison guard than a high school educator. Second period passed by slowly. It was eleven-thirty when the lunch cart trundled through the hallway — the school was too small to have a cafeteria. The principal came by to cover my room, so I went out to my car for a breather.

I called my wife for advice. I told her about the success of first period and the failure of second period. I questioned my abilities, and entertained a fantasy of abandoning the classroom and driving home.

But my wife reaffirmed me, like a veteran boxing trainer giving advice to their prizefighter in between rounds. She possesses an unemotional, analytical way of evaluating a situation. And once she determines what needs to happen, she tells me the truth, whether it’s good or bad. I can’t remember what she said but it worked. My confidence was restored.

I scarfed down my lunch, used the bathroom for the first time since school started, and rejoined the principal in the classroom. I felt reinvigorated. The third period passing bell rang and second period left the room.

The principal and I stood in the doorway and observed the hallway, looking for any signs of trouble. Something immediately struck me as odd. A group of boys congregated outside the biology teacher’s classroom. They spoke to each other in an electric, excited tone. It reminded me of the buzz in a crowd before the start of a prizefight in Las Vegas. The group continued to swell, and by the time I realized what was happening it was too late. The group of boys stormed the classroom like a SWAT team, and I heard the teacher scream for help. There was a fight underway.

The principal looked at me and in a calm command voice said, “Keep your students in the classroom.” He pushed through the crowd, and went to the teacher’s aid. Moments later, he emerged with a teenage boy, the boy’s face a bloody mess. The school security guards ran into the classroom and restrained the perpetrators. And just as soon as the fight had started, it was over.

When the bell rang again, most of the students were still making their way to class, each of them buzzing with excitement or terror. I was somewhere in the middle, but I went back to class.

It must have been a combination of a smaller group — twelve students — and the after lunch blues, but third period was surprisingly docile. The fight seemed to have no perceivable effect on them as if it was all just business as usual. I took roll and handed out the quizzes. With relative calm pervading I sat down at my desk and thought about what to do for fourth period. There was another slideshow and a mix and match worksheet for the students to complete. I decided the latter would not do. I wanted the students to have fun with New Mexico history, so I came up with a Jeopardy game to play after the slideshow.

When the third period students were done with their quizzes I told them to prepare and present a short speech on what they wanted to do after high school. They finished the presentations with twenty minutes to spare, and I let them do what they wanted with the remaining time. Most of them took out their smartphones. One boy drew on the whiteboard. I was just happy they were behaved.

The bell rang. Third period was over. One more to go.

The students moved through the hallway with no issues, one fight being enough for the day. A girl from my third period class spoke to one of my incoming fourth period students in the doorway.

The fourth period girl asked her friend if I was cool.

“Yeah,” she responded, “he’s alright.”

Fourth period was my favorite class of the day, probably because I would meet a boy who reminded me of myself when I was his age. It also helped that there were only fourteen students, and they were all college aged kids who were graduating in early December.

With this group, I managed to convey the right blend of professional and personable. After roll I told them the energy they brought to class would determine how well the last period went. And they brought it the entire time. We went through the slideshow, and then I had them get into teams for Jeopardy.

There was a chubby boy wearing glasses who sat at the front of the classroom by himself. His cheeks were pockmarked with acne. Any one of the aforementioned factors — chubby, glasses, acne — could make you a social outcast in high school. Having all three made it a guarantee.

Chub didn’t move, hoping that I had the eyesight of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and that if he stayed motionless I would ignore him. I didn’t. I told him to go to the middle table — comprised of the “cool kids” in class — which only had three students. He begrudgingly complied.

But when his team landed on a question that hadn’t been on the slideshow — a daily double at that — it was Chub’s time to shine. The question was: what is the state fossil of New Mexico?

And much to the Cool Kids surprise, Chub knew the answer. Everyone in his group gave him a high five. I asked him how he knew this off the top of his head, and he said he liked reading about dinosaurs.

And to make things even better, when we came to another question that hadn’t been on the slideshow — what is New Mexico’s gemstone? — Chub answered this question, too.

Again there were high fives all around. Chub’s cheeks blushed red with pride.

Fourth period passed by smoothly.

The final bell rang. I thanked them for an awesome period, and when the last student left the room, I sank down in my chair like a boxer after the twelfth round. I was tired, sweaty and exhausted. But I’d done it. My first day as a sub was over. And when I looked at the clock on the wall, I realized the day had flown by, just like it did when I was teaching in the Air Force.

So it was the same, I thought. I could get used to this type of day again.

I made notes for the regular teacher, detailing the behavior of each period. I cleaned up the classroom, turned off the lights and walked out to my car. I felt accomplished.

On the way out I poked my head into the biology teacher’s classroom, but she’d already left for the day.

When I arrived home I thanked my wife again for the lunchtime pep talk. I flopped down on the couch and regaled the day for her. While telling her about third and fourth period, I kept thinking how my first day as a sub resembled a boxing match, each period tantamount to one round in the ring.

Round one was a clear victory for me, scored 10–9 on the judge’s scorecard; round two was a resounding defeat, scored 10–8 in the student’s favor; round three had been a victory, scored 10–9 in my favor; and round four had been a draw, as both the students and I were victorious, an even 10–10. The aggregate of these numbers worked out to an overall draw of 38–38.

And for my first day as a sub, I was happy with a tie.

I soon fell asleep on the couch. It was only five o’clock in the afternoon, but I needed to recoup all of my energy for the following day. I was subbing in a kindergarten class the following morning.

Next Story — A Conversation (Fictional) with Cormac McCarthy
Currently Reading - A Conversation (Fictional) with Cormac McCarthy

A Conversation (Fictional) with Cormac McCarthy

I recently visited the Cormac McCarthy archive in San Marcos, Texas. The archive contains the most complete collection of McCarthy’s work — drafts, galleys, proofs, notes, correspondence — and is housed at Texas State University on the seventh floor of their library.

The reading room was splendid. A large wooden desk that could hold up to eight researchers was in the center of the room. Recessed lighting created a pleasant atmosphere in the room, and highlighted the portraits of authors like Cormac McCarthy, Sam Shepard, and Larry McMurtry to name a few. There were strict rules, though. You had to check your bag and cellphone with a research assistant, and you could only have a laptop with you. The research staff provided all paper and pencils. A rotating group of staff members sat at a nearby desk and watched over your every move to ensure that you weren’t getting pages out of order, or trying to steal any of McCarthy’s work.

I spent four days researching McCarthy, reading through the so called first draft of Blood Meridian and seeing his novels like Child of God and The Road in their formative stages. There was something inspiring about getting to hold the papers that McCarthy used to create some of my favorite novels. It was akin to a Yankee fan holding the bat of Babe Ruth. It was a fantastic experience, and one that taught me a lot about his exhaustive, in-depth writing process.

But a part of my research that particularly interested me was the handwritten correspondence that McCarthy kept up with two men for much of his writing career — Howard Woolmer and Peter Greenleaf.

Woolmer was a rare books collector who started corresponding with McCarthy shortly after his second novel, Outer Dark, was released. Their correspondence spans from 1969–2006 and , “contains 120 letters between McCarthy and Woolmer…The majority of the letters discuss McCarthy’s writing, but other topics include recommendations of books to read, reviews of McCarthy’s work, and the book collecting world.”

Meanwhile Greenleaf was simply a fan of McCarthy’s who decided to write him a letter to express his admiration for the author. The correspondence came into the possession of the archive after, “Peter Greenleaf donated eight handwritten letters he received from Cormac McCarthy between 1981 and 1988. In the letters McCarthy discusses his progress on writing, his reading interests, mutual acquaintances, and travel.”

I was interested in these letters for two reasons. First, I hoped to get a glimpse into McCarthy’s personality. The famously reclusive author has only done a few interviews throughout his life, and I wanted to know more about the man. Second, it’s enjoyable to read McCarthy in his own words, and to get a peek behind the curtain of his novels.

But how would I present this material? I didn’t want to copy and paste his answers verbatim without any flow to them. So I came up with this conversation (fictional) by extracting the interesting passages from McCarthy’s letters to Woolmer and Greenleaf.

Please take this interview with a grain of salt. Like I said this a fictional interview. Nothing will replace reading the actual letters and seeing them in their original context. But the passages I’ve pulled from McCarthy’s letters do present him in a revealing fashion.

I’ve added a few things in brackets during and after McCarthy’s answers for sentence flow. Please take note of the dates behind McCarthy’s response’s, as well. This will provide the overall timeline on where he was at in his career. The parts in bold after the answer are the citation information.

I hope you enjoy.

Interviewer: Thank you for responding to my letter, Mr. McCarthy, and for agreeing to this fictional interview. This is a true pleasure.

Cormac: Again, let me thank you for your letter. I think readers often shy off from writing to writers, but it is very nice to know there’s someone out there to hear from them. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, June 22, 1981)

Interviewer: Might I start off by asking about your penmanship? Your letters are difficult to read. What do normally use to correspond?

Cormac: I normally use a typewriter (you asked) and I think you can see why. (McCarthy to Woolmer, August 16, 1969)

Interviewer: I sent a letter to Random House asking about the status of some of your books. But I never heard anything back. Is this common?

Cormac: I’m not really surprised that you never heard from Random House. It’s a common complaint. The offices seem to be staffed with transients these days. I never hear from the same person twice. And sometimes, of course, not even once. Albert [Erksine] is semiretired and probably considered some sort of relic of bygone years by the functional illiterates now in command. (McCarthy to Woolmer, November 5, 1979)

Interviewer: It’s quite difficult tracking down your books.

Cormac: All [my] books [are] out of print except the most recent one. (This would have been Suttree) (McCarthy to Woolmer, August 12, 1980)

Interviewer: I recently spent fifteen dollars on a copy of The Orchard Keeper. It seemed a little steep for a book that was out of print.

Cormac: I’m sorry if you had to pay an exorbitant price for The Orchard Keeper. I suppose Random House sold them at about a dime a copy. (McCarthy to Woolmer, August 16, 1969)

Interview: There’s always a long gap between your novels. Why is this?

Cormac: I don’t know why things take so long. Partly it’s me just fiddling with the book and partly it just takes more time to get the thing processed through publishing and printing. (November 19, 1984 McCarthy to Greenleaf)

Interviewer: I tell all my friends about your work. I think your novels are fantastic. I hope you don’t mind that I do this.

Cormac: Please don’t apologize for trying to find readers for my books. It is your business and please feel free to ply it to any extent that the notion moves you. (McCarthy to Woolmer, May 25, 1983)

Interviewer: I’m sending a few of your novels out to people I know.

Cormac: By all means send copies of anything to anybody. We need to coax up the readership. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, Hotel Victoria Chihuahua Mexico)

Interviewer: I spoke to a person at Random House, Sharon Lane, who gave me the sales numbers for your books. How does these sit with you? (Lane to Woolmer, July 26, 1983)

Outer Dark — Random House edition pub. 8/68 $8.95 — sold 3,471 copies

The Orchard Keeper — Random House edition pub. 4/65 — $8.95 — sold 3,926 copies

Suttree — Random House edition pub. 2/5/79 $12.95–6,413 printed/2,705 sold

Cormac: I’ve been a full time professional writer for 28 years and I’ve never received a royalty check. That, I’ll betcha, is a record. (McCarthy to Woolmer April 8, 1989)

Interviewer: Have you been on any good trips as of late? I hear you’re quite the world traveler.

Cormac: Im just back from New Orleans where a friend of mine has been filming a new movie with Richard Gere. We went out one evening along Bourbon street interviewing strippers in the clubs for parts in the film. I don’t know why I mention this as it’s an impossible adventure to describe. (McCarthy to Woolmer Feb 25, 1986)

Interviewer: I also heard you were in Madrid recently?

Cormac: I thought I’d seen it all in Peru and Mexico city but the way they drive in Madrid beggars description. I didn’t even attempt it. We took cabs to get around and they often hit 120 kph down the main streets. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, November 19, 1984)

Interviewer: What books do you read? I have a friend who’s curious to know.

Cormac: I have read a lot of books and short of listing a few thousand titles, I don’t know how to answer your friend as to what I read. Damn near anything except bad novels. I have a great admiration for Moby Dick. I’d list the writers I haven’t gotten along with (but may in my old age, who knows) the list would be shorter, and would include D.H. Lawrence and Proust and Henry James and quite a few English Victorian novelists — but certainly not Hardy. Best new novel I’ve read in a long time is “Desperados” by Ron Hansen. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, December 16, 1983)

Interviewer: Anything new that you’re working on?

Cormac: I’m working on a couple of stories in filmscript from. Very good form for conserving the word. (McCarthy to Woolmer October 16 1985)

Interviewer: I heard you’ve been working on a play as well.

Cormac: I don’t [think] novelists in general do very well as playwrights, but I didn’t know what else to do with the story. What I’ll do with it now I have no idea. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, February 25, 1986)

Interviewer: I just turned thirty this year. Any advice for the way ahead?

Cormac: I think 50 is not as traumatic as 40. You’ve had more time to get used to the idea of being old. 40 [is] very hard on folks, be advised. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, December 12, 1983)

Interviewer: If I’m ever in your neck of the woods do you mind if I stop by for a visit?

Cormac: By all means if you even get within shouting distance of El Paso, shout. (McCarthy to Greenleaf, November 19 1984)

Next Story — The Campaign
Currently Reading - The Campaign

The Campaign

My life at elementary school provided me no productive outlets. My socially graceful sixth grade sister knew everyone who was anyone. In contrast, I spent my recesses meandering around the playground as a dorky third grader.

I had spent the better part of a year smitten over a leggy blonde girl named Valerie, and up until this point, I possessed little interest in school politics. But when our teacher asked if anyone was interested in running for student council, Valerie’s hand had gone up. I instantly saw how these two seemingly divergent interests could intersect if I developed a keen interest in politics. I declared myself a candidate for the hidden purpose of winning a girl’s affection. Valerie registered for the position of hostess; therefore, I signed up for host to increase the amount of time we would spend together. Each candidate had one week to campaign, advertise, and prepare a speech on why they should be elected to represent the student body.

He’s a pretty cool dude…

With no experience in politics, my first move was to hire a campaign manager. My initial choice of James Carville was committed to the recently inaugurated Bill Clinton, so I decided to recruit another bald liberal with glasses — my grandfather. No stranger to politics, he spent his retired years watching news television, complaining about George Bush (the first and later the second), and speaking frequently at local city council meetings to air his concerns about the air quality in his subdivision. These appearances were broadcast on local television and made him a celebrity in the family.

We set about developing a rousing speech to secure the student body vote. This being my first venture into public speaking, Grandfather decided to serve as my head speech writer, too. After hours of writing, erasing, and rewriting we came to the conclusion that I should stay away from education; instead, I needed to highlight the critical need for longer recesses and lunches.

My sister would make the perfect lobbyist but she didn’t want anything to do with me. I couldn’t blame her. I’d recently watched the movie Rad and become infatuated with BMX. My mother, trying to satisfy my infatuation, bought me a green BMX sweater. I loved this sweater so much that I decided it was a good idea to wear it to school every day and earned the unflattering nickname “uniform boy” from my classmates. But after a shady back room meeting I wasn’t privy to between my grandfather and sister, he was able to persuade her to publicly admit our blood ties and hired her as a lobbyist.

My father was ecstatic with my decision to campaign for office. I had temporarily suspended the old routine of pestering him to play a game of catch after he got home from making his two hour commute into the Bay Area. He preferred our new routine where he sat on the couch, ate his dinner, and watched me practice my speech while I stood on stacked yellow book pages in our family room. The night before my big speech I asked him if he’d be able to attend, and he told me it wasn’t possible due to his long commute.

Election day would be held outside on a sunny California afternoon. My confidence was sky high until I arrived at the school courtyard and beheld a sea of students sitting in neat rows of blue chairs. The hours I had spent practicing in front of my supportive family couldn’t have prepared me for speaking in front of hundreds of judgmental peers. I looked down at my piece of paper and mentally rehearsed each word as my sweaty hands smudged out my sloppy handwriting. The only exterior stimulus I took note of were the popular students receiving a loud applause. Unpopular students, my social caste, were shown pity with a polite golf clap.

As I heard my name called a tight knot of nerves formed in my chest. I slinked up to the microphone, not tripping on any stairs as I had feared, and started speaking. Halfway through my speech I sensed something was wrong. Most of the audience had puzzled looks on their faces; a few of the older kids — probably led by nemesis Keith — were laughing at me. Overwhelmed by my nerves, I hadn’t realized the microphone was inches above my head. Nobody had heard a word I said. My first savior was a thoughtful teacher who lowered the microphone and told me to start over.

In a panicked moment I recalled the gravelly voice of my grandfather who said, “Look above the audience if you get nervous.” This sage wisdom commanded my eyes to the back of the courtyard where I found my second savior standing in the shade of a skinny tree with sun tanned arms resting on his puffed out chest. It was my father. As our eyes met he tilted his head and revealed a radiant white smile. I’m sure it was the same smile he’d used as a nightclub singer in Bangkok to woo my mother. He now unearthed it, years later, to inspire me.

I started my speech over, and delivered each of my carefully crafted words into the microphone. I felt the syllables and phrases about the dire need for longer lunches erupt from my diaphragm. I looked every one of the older kids in the eye and pounded my fist into the podium to conclude my speech. My lobbyist sister performed her duties admirably as the entire sixth, seventh, and eighth grade roared a voracious approval for longer recesses. My campaign was sparked for Valerie’s affection, something I would never win, but ended with a victory of incalculable value — my father’s admiration. In the following years I’ve won a few more elections, but never felt as happy as I did on that day.

I’ve often pondered how an early memory can chart the course of an adult life. Does a man become a mechanic because he spent his teenage years handing tools to his grandfather? Does a woman become a singer because she grew up listening to her mother sing in the shower? I don’t perform standup comedy for the dopamine rush after a great set; rather, I’m a standup comedian because I’m still searching for the feeling of being on the third grade campaign trail.

I thought this feeling was forever confined to my child memories until I performed my standup comedy bit in front of my father for the first time. After telling my joke about how Prius drivers wave to each other — I’m a proud owner of one — amidst the laughter of the audience, I happened to catch a glimpse of Dad from a few rows back. The lights were still bright but I was able to see his crossed arms, puffed out chest, and radiant smile. He looked and I felt exactly the same.

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Some Father’s Day Advice…


My Uncle Dennis—nicknamed Uncle Den—served as a Battalion Chief for 30 years in the Alameda County fire department in California. My Aunt once told me a story about Uncle Den jumping from the roof of a burning building before it caved in. He never talked about this, much like his service in Vietnam.

His alpha male disposition and reticent nature allowed him to command the respect of the firefighters under him. And even though he was the Chief, he insisted they call him by his first name at the firehouse. The dedicated firefighters enjoyed working on his shift—he had high standards for everyone, including himself.

As a kid I’d go over to Uncle Den’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. He would spend all day cooking the family meal in the kitchen, but he’d always make time for my trivial requests. Whenever I needed help with Command and Conquer or Sid Meier’s Pirates!, he’d walk upstairs to the computer room and give me the advice I needed.

This advice was not confined to computer games, however; it stretched into every facet of my life.

I started having sleep problems after my parents’ divorced. My insomnia persisted the night I stayed over at his house, and I went downstairs to talk to him. Uncle Den always stayed up till the wee hours of the morning reading sci-fi books in the family room recliner. We sat there and he listened to what was on my mind. I don’t remember what he said, but I never had any sleep problems again.

Four years ago, shortly before Father’s Day, Uncle Den was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. He only had months to live. I dropped everything and drove to California to be with him.

All his life he was a big man, but within weeks his figure became gaunt and emaciated—he couldn’t eat solid foods anymore, the tumors made it too painful to swallow.

During earlier visits, he would always cook breakfast for my Aunt and I. We’d sit around the kitchen table and talk for hours. Even though he could no longer eat, he insisted on maintaining this routine during my last visit.

Those days we spent together were somehow great. We had those conversations you never have when someone is healthy. I told him I always thought of him like a father; he told me he I was like a son. We did our best to act like men, but we both cried.

The finality of death breaks down the superficial barriers we erect around our hearts so we can finally speak the truth to one another.

This upcoming Father’s Day we’ll buy those men in our lives coffee cups and neckties, but we also need to remember to have those conversations with them as well. Let them know why you care about them; let them know how they’ve made your life better.

I’m thankful I was able to do this with my Uncle Den.

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