Thursday, December 30, 2010

Never get between a woman and her crazy

      “You’re doing it again!”
         “You’re getting between a woman and her crazy”
My wife and I just finished reading Men are Stupid, Women are Crazy, by Howard J. Morris and Jenny Lee.  While I didn’t love the book, pieces of it have seeped into our daily conversation. Especially their prudent advice, “Never get between a woman and her crazy.” It has taken the edge off a lot of very stupid arguments when she reminds me that this is just her crazy talking. At which point I back slowly out of the room and let her and her crazy go a couple of rounds with each other.

I’m smart enough not to air out any of my wife’s crazy in public. But….I might just be stupid enough to publicly take a look at my own crazy for your entertainment. The problem with my crazy, and perhaps male crazy in general, is that I can’t see my own crazy unless I’m right in it. My wife, on the other hand, can see her crazy quite clearly. She has even seemed to make friends with it and invites it over for a drink now and then. She is the master of her crazy. Me……..not so much.

In retrospect, I should have understood that men are blind to their own crazy for a perfectly good reason; we can’t handle our Crazy. Call it brave, call it stupid, I call it brave and stupid, but I asked my wife if she could tell me a little bit about my own “Crazy”.

Here it is in order of magnitude:

Crazy #1. I’m an approval junkie. 

         “What’s so bad about that?”

         “Well”, she said as she put on the kid gloves, “when someone asks you to pick them up at the New London Ferry, which is a four hour round trip, and your back is hurting, you take a bunch of Advil and spend the rest of the week crawling on all fours.”


         “and even if you get the approval you wanted, you resent needing it and it’s never really is enough, the approval lift you get for even the most outrageous acts of service you do has a shelf life of about twenty minutes!”

         “Umm, where did your kid gloves go?”

         “Honey, those WERE MY KID GLOVES!”

Crazy #2 The Clean Crazy

      “Okay, I get it. What else?”

         “I’m not sure where it comes from but every three months or so you notice the place is a mess and you go crazy”
         “What do you mean?”

         “I mean Industrial Strength Crazy”


         “It doesn’t really bother us, we just let you vent and have a good laugh at you afterwords, except for Tweedle One- it really gets too her”


         “The funny thing is, you don’t do it all the time. Most of the time you are as bad as the kids about leaving your stuff lying around…..but once every three months or so things go Boom and you need to yell and clean. I should probably piss you off more often, I’d have a pretty clean house”

         “You know what….let’s skip number 3”

         “Oh, but the next one is so cute, you know when  you…….”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You can't know sky

“If you’re not from the prairie you don’t know sky,
You can’t know the sky.”-  David Bouchard[1]

         It’s hard work knowing what you don’t know. Harder still, knowing what you can’t know. Let’s face it, most of the human experience falls into the category of things you can’t know. If you are a man reading this, just imagine trying to talk intelligently about the experience of childbirth. You don’t have to take too many steps down that road to see that you are lost. Humbling business, isn’t it?  Perhaps there is something beautiful there as well. That’s why I fell so hard for David Bouchard’s Poem, “If You’re Not From the Prairie”[2]. It reminded me of what I do not and cannot know. When I’m aware of my assumption of knowing, I can remind myself to ask and listen. Life is easier when you ask and listen[3].

         So many of my “cringe” moments are all about the assumption of knowing. When I was younger I just could not see what I didn’t know. One thing I really did not know is what information other people held (at least until I learned to ask). I was so eager to show people what I knew, without much consideration of whom I was talking to. As a young man, I spent a lot of time either telling people things that they already knew quite well or telling them things that they knew where just plain old wrong.  Cringe! I wish I could say that I have transcended my youthful arrogance……ummmmm, not so much. I still have to work very hard at curbing that impulse.

          I should have more to say about this, it seems like it should  lead into something more profound than, “Hey, Corey, shut up and listen for a change”, but that about sums it up. Again, it’s hard work- my people are talkers.

[1] A line from the poem “If you’re not from the prairie”.
[2] I could not find a link to the text alone, but here is a saccharine flavored rendition set to music. I hate it, but turn the sound off and just read the text:
[3] Of course now I feel like a hypocrite, blogging is the antithesis of what I’m talking about!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mr. Ponce’s Story

     Ponce arrived in New York City in 1954 speaking no English other than baseball jargon. To this day he can still name the Yankee’s line up from that year; baseball was his religion. In his mid-seventies, Ponce still looks like a ball player cut from the same cloth as Big Pappi. In the late 1950’s Ponce was playing on a traveling team based outside of Charlotte. The pitcher was a young man who had followed him from Cuba. The two of them roomed in the home of a retired schoolteacher. Ms. Finley was a force of nature. She was the daughter of sharecroppers and the only literate person in her family. She was on a mission to stamp out illiteracy one baseball player at a time. The price for living in her home, beyond a nominal rent, was that you had to learn to speak, read, and write English to her satisfaction. It’s amazing how quickly two young men can learn a language under the threat of eviction. This threat was even more poignant given their new found affection for Southern cuisine.  In Ponce’s own words, “Hmmmm, Corey. I tell you (dramatic pause), that woman could COOK!”.  Ponce learned English to Ms. Finley’s satisfaction.

         Understanding English in the deep South may have been a doubled edged sword. It was always clear that whites were insulting them, but taunts in an unfamiliar language are easy too ignore. As their English improved Ponce and the pitcher became increasingly aware of what the white men were saying. One day outside of Atlanta Ponce's fear turned to anger as he silenced a man who followed him into a bar spitting hate. It was just one punch. In less than twenty minutes the two ballplayers were running for their lives. The mob had formed, and as Ponce described it, it was a well-rehearsed play. This was not the first time young men had run for their lives in this part of the world. His memory of the chase is hazy. He remembers running. He remembers his friend pulling him into the woods. He remembers the long hot wait until nearly dawn. The pitcher had saved Ponce’s life. The next day, the pitcher left. “America”, he said, “is no place for a black man”.

         Ponce moved back to New York and later to Boston. He runs a community center and teaches kids to play baseball. On May 3, 1999, Mr. Ponce turned on the television to watch the Baltimore Orioles play the Cuban All-Stars in an exhibition game. Some time during the sixth inning one of the Cuban pitching coaches noticed the television camera on him. He held out a handmade sign that read “Lazaro Ponce is my friend”. The Baltimore Orioles lost the game 12-6

Ponce, Thank you for all of your stories!!!!!!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


          Last week I set up a six-foot tall basketball net for two of my third graders. Six feet seems to be that magical height between a “real” dunk and a pretend dunk when you are 48 inches tall.  It’s funny, without any prompting, every time I have set up this hoop in the last nine years, the first thing my students do before trying to dunk is figure out who they want to “be” (this was a much simpler decision when Michael Jordan was playing). 

         This is serious business and there is a lot of heat in these discussions[1][2]. Eventually my students settle on characters that seem to best fit their own temperaments and for a brief moment in time they transform into the tattooed aerial artist that reside in the NBA.

         Choosing someone to emulate is a very natural piece of being a child. They do it intrinsically in their play. In my classroom I have tried to build upon this and shape it into a life skill. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to chose role models in a unit I call “Heroes”. As is so often the case, what we teach children is a powerful analog for what we, as adults, should keep practicing. We are never too old to learn from the masters (even if the masters are eight years old). So this week I have given myself an assignment; look around, listen carefully, see if there are people out there that I might want to emulate. Turns out heroes are everywhere - even snoring softly next to you as you toss and turn and agonize about the future and the impending financial doom that lurks around the next billing cycle.


[1] This year, with so many great Celtics to chose from, it rarely comes to blows, but I do feel sorry for those kids in New York fighting over the one ray of light in an otherwise dismal line up.
[1] Did I mention that I am a Celtics fan, living in Cambridge, MA and that the rest of my family are New Yorkers  :-p

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


         I love nicknames. More specifically I love the genesis of nicknames. Over the years I have collected a number of them, some earned, others…..not so much. For example, one day it occurred to my brother, who is three minutes older than I am, that people generally try to have one child at a time. He followed this train of thought all the way to a new nickname for me, “The Accident”.
         For reasons too painful to elaborate upon I am rightfully known as the “jinx” by a certain cohort of Giants fans. I remain in exile from all post-season events and have actually taken a vow of silence on all issues relating to professional football, baseball, and their affiliates.
         I have received more endearing names from the children in my life. In my best friend’s home I am known as “Corduroy”. When his son was about three, he confused my name with his favorite bear and it stuck. I’m thinking of legally changing my name to Corduroy.

         Many years ago I worked in a residential school with a fascinating student. He was an extremely violent teenager who also happened to be deaf. His psychologist described him as feral. He was able to learn sign language and use a picture exchange book to communicate. One day, in my broken sign language, I asked him if he new what my name was. I had been working closely with him for a few years at that point. He looked at me thoughtfully and signed “popcorn”. Maybe he was just hungry, but the name followed me until I left that agency.

         I remember giving names to people when I was a child. Michael and David Hamberger were respectively known as “Big Soup” and “Little Soup”, because you couldn’t call someone a hamburger- that’s just stupid. Besides, “Soup” was already taken by Jason Campbell. My older brothers somehow earned the names “Bubba” and “Baby Bubba”, but I have no idea how that evolved. It must have been quite a story because very few eight year olds could wear a name like “Bubba” and have it fit.
         The tradition has continued into the next generation. We call my oldest daughter “Squirt” and my son “Doc”. The twins are respectively “Thing 1” and “Thing 2”. All well-earned names.
         I think my favorite name is the one my oldest daughter has given me, “Oh Poppa”. The “Oh” has somehow become part of it, as in “Oh Poppa, why are you being so silly”. “Oh Poppa” has such an affectionate ring to it. It makes me feel like a bear whose porridge is to hot and bed is too soft.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don’t be a Fish

      It’s good advice on a lot of levels. Fish stories have been popping up everywhere I turn these days. Rather, “don’t be a fish” stories. Not that any of us aspire to be fish.

         Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t really worried too much about how much I might emulate a fish. Then two stories came to me within days of each other.

#1 Swimming in Circles

      Micheal Meade tells an old but poignant story in his workshop “The Soul of Change” about a woman who buys a goldfish. After a few weeks she notices that the fish bowl needs to be cleaned. She does not own another bowl so she fills her bathtub with clean water to keep her new pet happy while she washes the small fish-bowl. She puts the goldfish in the tub and goes off to wash the bowl. When she comes back she notices something extraordinary. The goldfish continues to swim in circles the same size as the bowl despite the new possibilities the large tub offers.  

#2 Don’t be a fish

      A few days before I heard Swimming in Circles I taught a lesson that I had developed for a 3rd grade classroom. Note to self; never under estimate the wisdom of 3rd graders!

          How to begin? Let’s start with Stop,Think and Act. Our school has a prescription when it comes to dealing with conflicts that children get into. It’s a three-step procedure for when someone cuts you in line or calls you a name (NOT APPLICABLE to insults involving Mamas). Imagine “stop-drop-and roll” for dealing with the Cooties[1].  We coach kids to STOP-THINK-and ACT. I started the lesson with a discussion about the “THINK”  part.

         What does it mean to think? What are you supposed to do when “THINKING”? 3rd graders are a very literal group, so you have to explain these kinds of things. We decided that “THINKING” is the stuff you say to yourself, an internal dialogue that we called “self-talk”. We began to make up and practice some things to say to ourselves that might help during those moments of inevitable discord. We posted index cards with sayings and drawings of “self-talk” on the front board. Most were very practical, if not original. Then there was C’s card. I read it aloud to the class: “Don’t be a stupid fish”. I love this kid, he is completely sincere in everything he does.

ME- This sounds interesting, could you tell us more about your self-talk?

C- Well, my big brother is always teasing me. He never stops!!!  I get sooooo mad at him. Then I get in trouble because I lose my temper. My mom says I’m just taking the bait…

ME- I see, don’t be a fish means don’t take the bait.

C- Don’t be a STUPID fish, it’s okay to be a smart fish, they don’t take the bait.        

There you have it. The very best career advice I have received this month:

1.     Stop swimming in circles
2.   Don’t take the bait

In short “Don’t be a STUPID fish”.

[1] The Cooties have mutated into the “Cheese Touch” and has gone viral in our school thanks to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

For Grandma

      My niece made the mistake of friending[1] me on Facebook. It’s a funny story. About two years ago I tried to friend her, but she told me that she had a strict policy of not friending relatives. I respected that until I received a friend request from a distant relative whom I had never met in person. After confirming this middle aged Jewish man living somewhere in Florida was actually a cousin, I checked who was on his friend list before accepting his invitation. Sure enough, there was my sixteen-year-old niece. Hmmmm……..So that’s what time it is! I gave her a good ribbing, but let it go.

         Fortunately a year later she tried to friend me, to which of course I answered that I have a strict policy of not accepting friendship invitations from self-absorbed teenage nieces. Okay, I wasn’t that mean but I did consider reporting her as a stalker. It was payback time after all. But accepting her friendship was the gift that kept on giving. She keeps on posting teen-angsty comments, practically begging for snarky comments. Take yesterday for example:

Niece’s Status: “There is a thing, formless yet complete”
My comment: “Yeah I think I drank a 5th of that last night - it was yummy”

I’m faced with a dilemma, she posted the following status today: “Treat everything you perceive as a dream”.


Please, I’m open to suggestions.        

[1] I don’t know when this became a bona fide verb, but it is so I’m using it. For you grammatical purest (yes Dad that means you) considered yourself “poned”.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Selling Yellow Snow

      My father and I used to have a phrase that let each other know that our bullshit detectors were working quite well, thank you very much. Actually, it was his phrase and, like all challenging children, I used his words against him at every opportunity.  For a few short years choruses of “Steinman, you’re selling yellow snow” signaled to both of us that one of us had started to believe our own press releases. I’m not sure who was more dogmatic, but there was certainly a lot of yellow snow selling cheap on both sides of the hydrant.

         It turns out that we were not the only ones in the business.

         Today I tried to find out if there were others like me blogging their way through a manufactured crisis. I thought a quick internet search would lead me to my tribe. How hard could it be to find a bunch of disillusioned 40 somethings self-indulgent enough to bare their souls in public?

         I typed “Life after teaching Blogs” into my search engine and came up with 20 odd come-ons for at home businesses. The gist of this seemed to be that one could get rich by convincing others that they could get rich by convincing others……. Yellow snow, with a side of desperation.  At least I wasn’t redirected to a porn site.

         After slogging through the swamp of get rich schemes, I arrived at the ghetto of irritatingly peppy life-coaches. I’m sure these well-intentioned folks have helped some people, but I couldn’t stomach the fluff and what felt like frivolous and artificial encouragements.  I came across marketing schemes that struck me as over zealous such as “Wish Craft” and the more seductive “Passion Catalyst”[1].  I’m not making this up- this is a real training package to get your career going, although I don’t recommend typing this into your search engine while your wife and three daughters are in the room.

         Can anyone out there point to a good resource, with practical information on what options teachers have beyond the classroom?

[1] With apologies to Barbara Sher and Curt Rosengren, whom I’m sure are wonderful and creative people- who have undoubtedly helped their clientele.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Following your Bliss

       “What do you want to do?”

          Besides the sense of doom I get when I think about our finances, nothing feels more suffocating than this question. I don’t have an answer. I have escape fantasies. Most men with a pulse do. But deep down, there is nothing that is calling my name. The phrase “follow your bliss” keeps creeping up into well meaning conversations and it’s starting to piss me off. It is beginning to sound a little too much like “happily ever after” for my taste.

         Still, I am an optimist. So for a moment I want to believe that there is a job out there that is aligned with both my talents and idiosyncrasies. How do I find out what that is? Every time I take a personality test that promises to find what color my parachute is - the result is always the same: have you ever considered a career in teaching?

         I’m not entirely giving up on teaching. I was a good teacher once. Teaching used to be such a soulful job for me. But… I don’t like what I have become as a teacher. Over the last few years I became the school disciplinarian. It’s a role that I was unfortunately good at. It used to mean working through some tough emotions with kids or helping them gain perspective on difficult situations. But something has shifted in my community. Discipline has turned into a public stoning- good teachers want to see rules enforced and consequences dished out without the nuanced responses that seemed to characterize our staff in the past. All for the sake of clarity and consistency. I’m not knocking clarity and consistency. I just think that they live awfully close to expediency and righteousness.

         The catch is, I might be the worst offender.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why “The Chalk”

       The Chalk is a nod to my favorite author, Terry Pratchet. The Chalk is a little corner of Discworld were sheep graze and a young witch named Tiffany Aching comes of age. A great deal of common sense and wisdom resides in those fictional hills. Tiffany has what Terry Pratchet calls second thoughts, and even third thoughts. That is to say, she thinks about the way she is thinking, and, on a good day, thinks about the way she thinks about thinking. This freight train of thought sometimes leads her to the conclusion that the best solution to her problems is whacking them with a cast iron frying pan. More often than not, however, she finds a way to insert a little bit of compassion and common sense into her tiny world.

         I hope “The Chalk”, the one that you are reading right now, evolves into a place where I can insert a little common sense and compassion into my tiny world. It’s where I’m going to place my second and third thoughts about the cliff that I just jumped off. It might end with a resounding (and squishy) thud as June comes around and I find myself still chasing my tail. I hope it doesn’t.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Welcome to my Free Fall

             I just read that when astronauts in low orbit experience zero gravity, they are not so much floating as free falling[1]. The trick is to miss the Earth on your way down.

            Two weeks ago I wrote a letter of resignation effective at the end of June. For the last fifteen years I have been teaching emotionally disabled students. Twelve of those years I have been running a small program in a suburb of Boston. It’s time for me to leave.

            I don’t have a plan, I don’t have financial resources, I have four children, and have been living with my wife for twenty-one years. I have until the end of June, seven months, to create a new livelihood and find a new direction. 

          Welcome to my free fall.

[1] Mary Roach, Packing for Mars