Anxious at Night; Creative in the Morning; Rational by Day

I initially dismissed the idea that caffeine killed creativity. I like and need my morning coffee and thought I couldn’t write or function much without it. Plus, I had read that caffeine boosts cognitive health, not that I didn’t know that already because I had anecdotal proof, which is generally enough to convince me of anything I want to believe (such as the belief that caffeine’s effect kicks in with the first smell of coffee).

I know this much is true: coffee helps me focus.

Then I started experiencing nighttime panic attacks, the ones that wake you in the middle of the night out of a perfectly peaceful sleep—with its rapid eye movement and rhythmic breathing—and make it so that no position is adequately comfortable and everything seems wrong with the world. Breathing can also become something of a chore.

I hesitate to call them panic attacks, but this is about how they start: wake up about four, think about something I did or did not do or will have to do or should have done, fail to get into a comfortable sleeping position. That first thing is merely a trigger, because my brain then proceeds to the consequences of the thing or to related things, and from there, any number of things can concern me, from tooth decay to some aspect of being an inadequate son/friend/father/husband/teacher/neighbor.

Morning always offers a different perspective. I used to think that night was merely a metaphor and that morning merely represented a change, an end to whatever trouble or worry. While it does serve that purpose well, I now imagine people sleeplessly tossing and turning in caves, and not because of the poor sleeping conditions.

“weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning”

                                     -King David of Israel

Night has always been hard, for two obvious reasons: loneliness and helplessness. Lying there, it is possible to believe that no one else in the world is awake, that even on the other side of the world, where it is daytime, everyone is enjoying a restful, midday nap. Plus, you can’t force yourself to sleep, and as long as you are worthlessly lying there, there isn’t anything you can do about that to do list or those worries. Except worry.

There is something else going on, I’ve come to realize: my beautiful, un-caffeinated, creative brain is hard at work, untethered by any of the day’s distractions.

Coffee helps to focus. Focus helps with problem solving, rationalizing. And convergent thinking. When I know what I want to write, coffee helps.

But without coffee, my brain is seeing possibilities, making random connections, developing random theories. Divergent thinking.

Even if I’m not writing first thing in the morning, many of my best ideas come then, before coffee and the daily grind steer my focus elsewhere. Of course, because I have less control, that is inevitably when my worst thoughts come as well. So now, when I lie awake at night, fearing the worst, I appreciate the terrible beauty of the human brain, steer my mind toward better things, and look forward to the light and coffee in the morning.

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When Life Imitates Reading The Scarlet Letter

You are staring at a page that is thick with words. The 20141229_105900paragraphs are page-length and there is little white space providing relief. You’ve been reading for some time now, but it nothing much, if anything, has happened. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are not enjoying it (this probably wasn’t a choice book), and you feel the pressure to keep up. You are not sure if you are up to this challenge, and even if a large part of you doesn’t care about any of it, this reading is unavoidable and there remains a nagging sense that not being up to the challenge says something about you and that falling short will somehow negatively alter your life’s path.


You are staring into the darkness of the situation. Maybe someone has died or is dying. Maybe you just failed miserably and publicly and are now questioning other parts of yourself. Maybe it’s a serious no-win decision. Maybe someone left you for good or worse, simply turned their back on you. Whatever it is, it consumes you. It dominates every thought, and makes it seem as if nothing else is happening. Honestly, you are quite confused by it all, you are definitely not enjoying it, and you are aware, vaguely, that life is going on for others who are leaving you behind. You are fairly sure you are not up to this challenge—and while it’s clearly not your fault, or while there are reasons to explain or justify your role, there is no avoiding it and you are certain that falling short here will speak volumes about your limited worth as a human being.


The teacher has spoken of symbolism, metonymy, theme. Somewhere in this relentless outpouring of words there lies some deeper meaning (maybe a line or two of clarity?) or wisdom. There will be a test. You notice an inverse relationship: the less clear a passage, the more meaningful it seems. But this only slows you further, frustrates you more. This, this is why people hate reading. You read a line like this:

“Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life.”

You think, that may be an example of metonymy, but you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and only a slight respect for a book that has stuck around for more than a century and the fear of a library fine keeps you from throwing the book away. You despair, wishing you could go read something else, something clearer, an instruction manual perhaps, something that will just tell you what you need to know.


You’ve heard of silver linings and lights at the ends of tunnels. Things happen for a reason. You hope. This is a test; you are responsible for finding the meaning. The darker the moment, the harder you must look. Life slows more as you look for signs everywhere. You are going, hypothetically, past an animal hospital. On the sign it says, maybe, “A healthy pet is a happy pet,” and because you’re desperate for meaning (maybe an answer or simple solution?), you wonder if this could be saying something to you specifically: maybe you should be exercising more; maybe you’ve been neglecting those you love. This is just one example: you see meaning, or potential meaning, everywhere, even though you still aren’t sure what is happening, or why; and this relentless interpretation of all of life’s details is exhausting. You despair, wishing you could go back to a time when an animal hospital sign could be just an animal hospital sign, when there was no need for deeper meaning.


You know how to read. It isn’t the words—most of them, at least—that are giving you problems. It’s the way the words are strung together that’s giving you fits. In a perfect world, you would be sailing through this book, and the symbolic parts would glow with a holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and you’re struggling. What you need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

You need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.

If you’re just reading, take heart. This is just a book; this is just a test. Learning now to plod away, to keep your eyes moving, and training your mind to detect meaning and significance and to ignore what can be ignored. In a perfect word, these bad things wouldn’t happen, and everything would simply glow with holy light. But this is a world of broken mirrors, and we all struggle. What we all need is a filter: the ability to decide which words are more important than others.

We need to decide where the meaning is effectively and efficiently. And the patience to wait when it doesn’t.


Cracks in the Mirror

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I was reviewing expectations with students and I had this picture on the PowerPoint slide. I told them about how the mirror broke, how we didn’t fix it for months until our daughter cut her finger when she was cleaning the mirror, how it was a pain to replace and how it cost a decent amount of money for a new mirror. In short, broken mirrors suck.

Yet, every time I brushed my teeth and leaned forward over the sink, I saw my comically distorted face and I smiled. It made me happy. Simply and pathetically happy.

It’s a world of broken mirrors, I told them. It’s an imperfect and fallen world where mirrors break, where technology isn’t always available and working, where standardized tests and grades are a necessity, where life intervenes on learning—or at least on getting work done.

They are largely a group of high achievers. They care deeply about their grades. They place a lot of pressure on themselves and have high expectations and standards set before them. I want to see them reach and even surpass those goals, and to help wherever I can. Like me, they have lives that sometime interfere with schooling, lives that seem at times to not want us to learn, lives that make us wish we could just stay in bed all day.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to watch for those moments where the crack in the mirror provides a holy glimpse of hope and humor. Sometimes it’s all we can do.

dr-seuss-writer-from-there-to-here-and-here-to-there-funny-things-are

Things to Remember After the Storm

Be careful: those steps out the back door are slippery when they’re wet; the last thing you’d want right now is a nasty fall.

Take walks whenever the weather permits: sometimes that slow pace is exactly what you will need; other times the simple, miraculous act of putting one foot in front of the other will be good for your soul.

There is a difference between belief and believing: the former is a reserve to be drawn upon now and then; the latter is the act of carrying that reserve from here to there—and the bigger the load, the bigger the challenge.

Replace some of the canned goods and emergency supplies for the next time you can’t make it out to the store.

A downed power line could kill you in an instant.

People were very kind, some of them went out of their way, and others even had flat tires themselves but still showed up anyway.

You sunburn easily, and there’s some history of skin cancer in your family, so don’t think a sunny day isn’t—in a way—its own danger.

There are seasons for fruit-bearing; and then there are times when the best that can happen is that your leaves don’t wither and fall off: Hold on to your leaves.

There’s work to be done after a storm; take that work very seriously. All of it.

But there’s also no need to rush from the door to the car or to give yourself extra time on the road; stop and talk. People matter.

Lightning separates nitrogen molecules, which then become part of the plants we and the animals we eat; our bodies can’t do that alone.

Thinking metaphorically about lightning—along with just about everything else—can be exhausting, but so is a good workout.

Storms are forgotten, and while no one ever complains about a beautiful sunny day, nice weather has its own way of spoiling you, making you lazy, and lulling you into some really dark places*; if that doesn’t tell you what a weak and pathetic creature you are, nothing will.

There will be other storms; but, one day, there will be no more storms.


ancient monks recognized this and called it acedia

Don’t Call That Dog Lifesaver

Disciplined (as a transitive verb, or a verb that requires an object to receive the action): The father disciplined the child.

Conviction: a final declaration of guilt

3D_Judges_Gavel The voice that spoke in the middle of the night said, yes, indeed it was God’s punishment. The voice, I would come to recognize, had the same sadistically sympathetic tone of the impaled pig’s head that spoke to Simon in Lord of the Flies.

In the daylight a different sense overtook me: this form of punishment and of punishing didn’t seem like the God I know. I’d suffered an injustice, that was all, a life-altering and a question-everything-you-know injustice. I deserved pity, not punishment; compassion, not correction.


Was God punishing Joseph for the arrogance of his dreams—the dreams that, in the end, were prophetic? That never seemed to come up in Sunday school. The Bible glosses over how agonizing it must have been for Joseph in that pit, his brothers plotting his fate above ground.

I’d more or less decided “no.” God wasn’t punishing me for any particular sin or strain of sin (most likely of omission).

Then I turned to the Bible and read what I didn’t want to hear. Oh, I shied away from the Old Testament; I didn’t need any fire-and-brimstone God. Like many Christians in adversity, I’d been cherry-picking verses as if I were picking out clothes based on the day’s weather: I went to Hebrews 12—Turn your eyes on Jesus. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I should have stopped there.

But I kept reading: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children… God disciplines us for our good… No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.

Conviction: the act of moving a person by argument or evidence to belief, agreement, consent, or a course of action

dunce-cap1The word disciplined has negative connotations. I automatically associated it with punishment, of being sent to some spiritual corner to “think about what I’ve done.” I associated it with be a child.

Mostly, I didn’t like thinking I was wrong, especially about something like the very nature of God.

What followed got me thinking about myself as a father: “For what children are not disciplined by their father?” I wondered, do I really discipline my children? I’ve hidden IPods. There were some timeouts. I yelled. A lot.

Now, however, it more often it goes like this.

One of my children accuses another of being mean or unfair. The other says that’s not true, and this goes on until I step in and mediate. Sometimes somebody says, “You’re just trying to get me in trouble.”

And I laugh. “Who said anything about being in trouble? What ‘trouble’ have I ever really gotten you in? We’re just figuring this out together, that’s all.”

What I’m saying to them, essentially, is that I want them to see some bigger picture, that whatever issue they are fighting over is trivial—that they need to be able to work out, collectively and individually, the problem facing them, because there will be others, many, many others. And I am here to help them.

Disciplined (participle). He is disciplined. The disciplined runner…

Conviction: the state of being convinced

The voice that comes to me now sounds more like my own, as I both comfort and discipline my children: “Who said anything about being in trouble? What ‘trouble’ have I ever really gotten you in? We’re just figuring this out together, that’s all.” It’s the voice of a father. To His child. I’m more than all right with that.

“God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.” Hebrews 12, The Message

The Two People in Every Room, Even If It Is Only You

This is my theory: There are always two types of people in the room, and each of them needs to hear the opposite message.

This is more likely to be true as the number of people in the room increases. However, it can be true when there is as few as one: because sometimes we need to hear contradictory words of wisdom to keep us sane and balanced.

Here are some examples of the two types of people who might be in the room:

The one over here needs to be reminded not to worry so much what other people think. Confidence, after all, not insecurity, is an attractive and desirable trait.

But the one over here needs to be reminded that he shouldn’t pick his nose in public or start clapping spontaneously in the grocery store.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he's taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

This person should also be reminded not to wear a Dos Equis shirt with cut off sleeves when he’s taking a selfie in the broken bathroom mirror.

There is someone who needs to hear something like, “Chin up, things are going to be okay”; then there is someone else who should be reminded that, if you don’t change something soon, you’re screwed. There’s a student writer who needs to be told, “Just keep writing, without worrying about how things sound”; but that is terrible advice to the one who has already filled several pages and could be reminded to stop and think every once in a while before turning in a “finished draft.” There is some hurting soul who needs the reminders of grace and forgiveness; and just down the row is some smug ass in need of a little verbal slapping to straighten things out.

Exercise is healthy. You’re getting obsessed.

Write more. Write less.

Clean your house. Put down that rag before you wipe down that counter for a fourteenth time today.

Think before you act. Enough already, Hamlet: be, or don’t be, but do something.

It’s not your fault. You could have done things differently.

I try to remember the two people in every room, that my wisdom may be folly for some, that my praise to one may be condemnation to another. But more often, the two people in the room are simply the two sides of myself: the one who needs encouragement, reassurance, kindness, and a mother to spoil him; and the other who needs reprimand, discipline, orders, and someone to tell him that sleeveless shirts are only, barely, okay for working out (thanks, Kristen!).

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who are the two people you find yourself talking to? What are the contradictory words of wisdom you need to hear?

When It Comes to FANBOYS, I’m More of A “But” Man

[This started off as a teaching post. But life has made it something much more.]

Of all the FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), none is more fundamental to writing, reading, listening, and simply living than “but.” In fact, the hope of humanity and the salvation of our souls might well rest on our understanding and mastering the use of this coordinating conjunction.

You might be thinking, “But surely you are overstating it.” Or you may disagree: “But,” you will say, and then state your counterargument.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson for making these available.

And I will respond, “Case closed. But I respect and appreciate your adding to the conversation.” #seewhatIdidthere?

But is fundamental. When we write (from brainstorming to revising), when we read or listen, and when we live—which is, I’m fairly convinced, pretty much always—we will be better off if we harness the power of but.

The fact that it also is a humorous homonym is just a little piece of grace to those of us juvenile to appreciate it.

It all starts at the but.

Without but we would have no literature because without conflict, there is no plot and therefore no story. Rick Wormelli, author and educator, offers a strategy for summarizing fiction, called “Somebody… wanted… but … so.” The but here represents the conflicts that arise and prevent characters from getting what they want or living the way they want to.

Here are a couple of summaries, revised to omit any but. Notice how these movies would never have been made, how conflict is necessary.

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wanted to avoid anyone close to her having to participate in the Hunger Games, so nobody volunteered and nobody had to participate.
  • In Jaws, the people of Amity Island wanted to enjoy some time at the ocean, so they went to the beach and had a lovely day.

Similarly, when I attend professional development and learn about something great I’m supposed to start doing, I want to hear about the challenges I will face, how things are going to go wrong. Because nothing works as well in real life as it does in a meeting room. Give me the but scenario so I can think about how I’ll be adapting it to the variables of my situation.

And when I am listening to a sermon, it usually only becomes a truly meaningful message once it gets to some kind of but. Consider the difference between the two following claims:

  • “God loves you, and…”
  • “God loves you, but…”

Which one piques your curiosity more? Which one is more likely to challenge you to grow?

I had students write argumentative essays last year. I had them practice on the issue of bullying. Not surprisingly, I got essays that sought to argue some version of the following claim: Bullying should be stopped. They wrote that it was mean, that it shouldn’t happen, that bullies should be punished. What they lacked was deeper understanding of the issue’s challenges:

  • But how can we really stop it?
  • But how do we actually define bullying?
  • But what happens to those we label as bullies?

Students who explored those questions and sought to address them would have much greater understanding, would write better essays, would be in a position to change the world. Those who didn’t simply mouthed platitudes.

But that is unfortunately understandable because we live in a world of “talking heads” who occasionally get paid to do just the same thing.

fox news

We can find depth with the but.

The students who wrote those essays struggled to write anything remotely essay-length. They complained they didn’t have anything to say, although it was more true to say they didn’t feel they had anything obvious or meaningful to say. They were merely passing on what they heard or knew to be true. As a teacher, I need to do more to help them think: to see exceptions, to anticipate the conflict of unintended consequences, to understand the need for clarification.

But this condition isn’t limited to eighth graders.

Many of our pundits and politicians need the same thing. Many of us, politically speaking, need it, too. If we as a nation ever hope to progress or solve even some of the relatively easier challenges facing us, we need more of the understanding that comes with but.

No matter how opposed to guns you are, it is at least necessary to spend some time thinking about a question like, “But how can we take guns from those who already legally own them and see them as a constitutional right to their personal protection?”

No matter how opposed to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants you are, you should have a reasonable answer for the question, “But how do we logistically and humanely deport all those who are already here and have been for a very long time?”

Two millennia ago, Jesus created quite a stir, in part because He came with the kind of clarification and redefinition that is possible with but. He said things like, “You know you’re not supposed to murder, but if you hate somebody, it’s basically the same thing.” He was also able to address uncomfortable truth: life sucks, but I overcame this life and death.

Politically, religiously, and socially, we are comfortable before the but. We’d rather not confront what comes after the but. We prefer:

  • “I haven’t murdered anybody.”
  • “The law must be followed.”
  • “We must protect the innocent.”

But when we stop there–when we do not understand or seek to be understood–our lives write nothing but pithy, platitude-filled essays.

Please don’t let your two cents all come from your but.

We all know a contrarian, the kind of person who has an issue with every little thing, who sees problems with every possibility, who contradicts every claim. These people are often looking for excuses or maybe a way to get out of a meeting sooner rather than later; they are rarely seeking understanding or solutions.

But is not only oppositional. But is clarification. But is exception. But is truth-seeking, in that it digs deeper in the search for underlying issues and maybe even common ground.

However, but is only the transition: it is up to us what to do with what comes after.

Consider: I have a problem, but it’s not the same as your problem so you don’t know what I’m going through. Or: That’s a possible solution, but nothing is really going to change.

Compared with: I have a problem, but I can still help. I have a problem, but we all struggle and need to help each other. I have a problem, but I still have so much to be thankful for. I have a problem, but at least I understand but.

But should not stop a conversation or stall an issue; but should encourage dialogue and progress towards a more informed solution. But should not divide; but should recognize differences and address them clearly.  As readers and writers, parents and children, teachers and students, citizens and leaders, social and religious beings, we can benefit from that habit of mind.


How I plan on using “Yes But No Questions” to help students think more deeply:

Devil’s Den, Broken Drawers and Third Poopers

2010 Vacation 089

I’ve written more poetically about this trip for my author page in an upcoming issue  (92) of Glimmer Train.

In 2010, we took a trip out East. One of the stops was Gettysburg, which we toured in our van, a voice from a CD providing details of the gruesome and pivotal battle, guiding us from stop to stop, one of which was Devil’s Den. The history of the place was almost entirely lost on my children, the ground no more hallowed than our back yard. To them, these were just fields. But Devil’s Den had something our back yard didn’t: giant rocks to climb and explore. They had no idea how many had suffered and died on these rocks; this was a chance to be out of the van.


Our house has one bathroom. While this indoor plumbing puts us ahead of billions of people who rely on pit toilets or less, it isn’t ideal.

In a house with only one bathroom,replacing the toilet is a time-sensitive project.

In a house with only one bathroom,replacing the toilet is a time-sensitive project.

Driving home with the family, usually by the time we turn onto our street, it isn’t unlikely for someone to call out, “I’m first for the bathroom!” This can be followed with calls of second and third, but it can also lead to some negotiations, such as who has to go worse and the particular nature of your visit, the clear logic being that number one takes less time than number two, so that now it is common to position yourself in the hierarchy of need by calling out first pee-er or first, second, or even third pooper–which is not, let me tell you, an enviable position.


For far too long, we lived with a broken drawer—the exact kind of household project I find every excuse to avoid. The metal track under the drawer kept falling off, so the drawer rested on nothing but the frame of the cabinet. It was a pain to pull out and push in, and if you weren’t careful you could pull the whole drawer right out and dump everything on the floor. It was the drawer that held, among other things, the baggies for the kids’ lunches. So each school night, when they made their lunches, they dealt with the drawer.

When the broken drawer finally snapped the cabinet board beneath, leaving a gaping hole, the project was no longer avoidable.

When the broken drawer finally snapped the cabinet board beneath, leaving a gaping hole, the project was no longer avoidable.

One night my daughter asked something like, “Why do we live with a broken drawer?” Or maybe she said, “Nobody else’s house has broken drawers.” Although, now that I think about it, she may have been more philosophical: “Why do we live in a world where drawers break?” [That is not how she remembers it.]

I turned to her and said, “I’m glad for broken drawers because they make me thankful for everything that isn’t broken.” I can be insufferable at times–and my nuggets of wisdom aren’t always appreciated.


If we aren’t careful, all the beautiful scenery and smooth-gliding drawers and indoor plumbing in our lives can belie the horrors that hallow the brokenness of this world. Yet it can all be too much at times, the suffering and the waiting. I want to protect my kids from the worst of it. I want them to jump, carefree, from rock to rock.

We haven’t shielded our children from the world. When their grandma was dying of cancer, they knew basically what we knew. When news of the outside world filters in, of killing and natural disasters, we’ll talk about it. But their lives, thank God, have been sheltered. And I’m all right with that. As long as they learn to appreciate the unbroken things and to live graciously with broken drawers and standing in line to poop.

Torii Hunter and Max Scherzer Don’t Know My Name

I stood back and watched as my children waited 2013-08-16 12.11.10along the fence seeking Max Scherzer’s autograph. They were crowded in with everyone else, arms raised, holding out baseballs or cards or something else to be signed. Annie, Jack and Charlie had only their printed tickets from Stubhub, not a very special souvenir. But they succeeded and were thrilled.

Our seats, as usual, were considerably more removed from the game: upper deck, down the third base line, where players are recognizable for their position more than anything else. These are the seats we generally afford.

2013-08-15 20.26.23

Because it’s the sort of thing fathers do with their children, I struck up a conversation: Which of the players, I asked them, would they want sitting next to them, right now, watching the game? The obvious answer was Miguel Cabrera, but after discussing other possibilities, we agreed on Torii Hunter, based on star quality but also personality: it was easy to imagine having a conversation with him, sitting high up in the stands with empty seats all around us, no one crowding around to compete for his attention.

As we watched the game, I found myself wishing that Torii Hunter was sitting next to me. I would break the ice by telling him that we once ate at the same Cheesecake Factory in Chicago back when he was with the Twins except the waiter told us that he was the backup quarterback for Minnesota and we never realized it was him until we left. And we would laugh. We could talk about baseball and being dads and find other things we had in common, and it wouldn’t be about autographs or fame or anything—except he was still the Tigers’ right fielder and would be rejoining the team. But when he waved from right field like he often does, it wouldn’t be just him waving to the crowd, he’d also be waving to me and acknowledging the time we’d spent together, high up in the stands surrounded by empty seats watching a ballgame together.

I’m only slightly exaggerating.

I was struck by the disparity of those two images: Max Scherzer on the other side of the fence, flanked by security and facing dozens of autograph seekers; and Torii Hunter hanging out next to me in the cheap seats. The first is my default image of God, and to Him I am just one of many needy people holding something out hoping to get his signature so I can take it home as some sort of proof of something. The second, though, might be how He views things: the two of us sitting at a ballgame, surrounded by empty seats and talking about baseball and fatherhood and how evil the Yankees are and Torii Hunter’s near-miraculous catch into the Fenway bullpen.