Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life

We’ve all heard this expression hundreds of times. So many times that it’s become a cliché. But that doesn’t diminish the statement’s inherent truth.

Every single day is an opportunity to make the most of every day thereafter. We cannot change the past no matter how difficult or painful. Nor should we try. Our past experiences helped create who we are today. They’ve helped shape our worldview, values, and core character. They will always be with us, but they are also yesterday’s news. Today and tomorrow are what truly matter.

Life is short. Too freakin’ short. And we never know when it will end.

Someone much wiser than me said, “Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.” Please join me in embracing this gift and wholeheartedly embracing the fact that today is indeed the first day of the rest of your life.

“This Is Us” Is Me – And Maybe You Too

Meeting my brother for the first time.

The hit television show This Is Us is a poignant family drama. It’s been an especially emotional experience for me as I’ve watched Randall discover and build a relationship with his newly discovered birth father, William. At the same time, Randall’s relationship with his adopted mother Rebecca deteriorates as he struggles with the knowledge that she purposely excluded William from his life. My story is quite similar.

My father, Paul Spizuco, died when I was 18 months old. I never saw a picture of him until I was in my mid-twenties (and only because my dear Uncle Julie had kept some photos for me). For a long time my youthful mind assumed Paul must have been a bad guy because no one ever talked about him. In my late twenties my grandmother told me Paul was actually fun and generous and I was a lot like him. In my mid-thirties, I learned from a cousin that Paul had been a widower when he married my mother and had three daughters from his first marriage. My mother confirmed that but, when I asked why I had no contact with them, she said they wanted nothing to do with me after their father’s death. I had no reason to disbelieve her. Over the ensuing years, I made some minor attempts to find my half-sisters but with no success.

About ten years ago, I learned that my mother had been the one that purposely cut me off from my paternal family. That’s when I, like Randall, became focused on finding my birth-father’s family. One weekend in 2010, a childhood friend and his wife were visiting and we talked about my quest. They’d had success tracking down their own family trees on Ancestry.com and within two hours, I learned Paul’s deceased wife’s name and when she died. Most importantly I learned that I had two half-sisters and a half-brother. I contacted the woman who had posted the information and introduced myself. Long story short, the next day my 80-year-old brother, Paul Jr., called and we spoke for an hour. He was twenty years older than me and had been in the Marines when our father died. The next day I spoke to the daughter of my youngest half-sister, who told me her mom had always talked about me and her dying wish was to see me one more time. She had died ten months earlier. My older half-sister had died much earlier in life. Each of my half-siblings had large families and I became a “half-uncle” to about twenty nieces and nephews.

Paul Jr. died in 2014. I knew him for less than four years, but I cherish those years and I know our relationship meant a lot to him as well. My most vivid memory was a summer reunion party with all of Paul’s kids and their kids. My daughter accompanied me as we met all these blood relatives we didn’t even know existed. On the way back, she said, “That’s your family.” She explained that they all had the same kind of goofy humor that I’ve never outgrown, and we looked and sounded alike. Even after my brother’s death, I’ve remained in touch with his family and will be attending the wedding of my nephew’s son in July.

That’s the good part of the story. The bad part is that I lived sixty years without knowing any of these wonderful people. And just like Randall, the experience has profoundly affected my memories of my mother. In last week’s episode, Rebecca admitted her mistake. She acknowledged that she’d been selfish in keeping Randall away from William. My own mother never made that admission even when given multiple opportunities to explain the whys and wherefores of her actions.

It’s too late for me to make amends with my mother, and the heartache I feel seems too immense to ever fully overcome. As my eyes welled when William died, I had an overwhelming urge to share my story publicly for the first time. It became clear to me that we humans possess an innate tendency to tell lies in the name of “protecting” ourselves or others. We’re all selfish at times and we’re amazingly proficient at rationalizing our words and actions regardless of how painful and callous they might be.

The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to right a wrong and tell the truth about falsehoods (regardless of how well-intentioned). The longer we wait the more the issue festers. When the lie is finally revealed – and it almost always is – the damage can be irreparable. So if you do need to make amends, I urge you to do it now. Yes, it will be hard; but it will get harder every day you delay. And it will get exponentially harder every single day for the person you deluded to deal with the truth and the lie’s aftermath.

Just Admit You Don’t Know

the-thinkerOne could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the workplace) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of stating “I don’t know” is amplified by the worries that we should know it, perhaps we once knew it but have since forgotten, and that everyone else knows it.

There are two alternative approaches to saying “I don’t know.” The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run than admitting one’s ignorance, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations, your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Admit your ignorance and allow yourself to learn something in the process. Confessing that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.

This Is Dedicated…

Dedication - Aunt Gloria & Uncle JulieMuch the process of writing and publishing a book is intense and exhausting. But there’s one aspect that brings nothing but joy – crafting the dedication.

My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.

My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.

The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”

You’re Nobody’s Bitch

crossed handsI’ve written several pieces exploring why the male characters in my novels tend to be misogynist A-holes. But I recently had an experience that made me realize I’m looking at the issue from the wrong perspective.

I was minding my own business, when three twenty-somethings sat beside me – two female and one male. It was clear they had just met and the “dude” (‘cause that’s what he was) was in full-flirt mode seeing which of the two he could most engage. He asked what they did and Female A said she was “an executive assistant.” Then she paused and said, “Basically, I’m somebody’s bitch.” Female B chimed in and said she was “also someone’s bitch.” Female A, either in humorous or competitive mode, augmented her status by saying, “I’m an executive bitch,” and Female B concurred saying, “I’m just a regular bitch.”

In the parlance they seemed to prefer, I wanted to bitch-slap both of them right on the spot. The conversation saddened and disgusted me. The idea that my daughter, nieces, or female students would ever describe themselves as “somebody’s bitch” made my skin scrawl. It was terrible on so many levels. The two women were recent graduates of a prominent New England university and just starting their careers. I teach at Boston College and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is for young people to land their first job. Those first jobs are usually nothing near what they had envisioned, but that’s okay. Every job is a springboard for the next job with more responsibility and higher pay. Every job is honorable and every job provides an opportunity to learn and observe. The world is full of stories of C-level female executives who began their career as assistants, including Christiane Amanpour, Donna Karan, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I doubt any of them ever described themselves as “somebody’s bitch.”

Words are powerful, and the words we speak aloud define us. Referring to oneself as a “bitch” provides tacit permission for others to view you that way. There’s an old adage that recommends you dress for the job you want. It’s even more important that you think of yourself and conduct yourself in terms of the job you want. I remember hiring a young woman about ten years ago as my “assistant.” When I offered her the position I said, “someday you’re going to be running this place.” Her intelligence, ambition, and work ethic emanated from her words, body language, poise, and self-confidence. She – and anyone who knew her – would never describe her as “somebody’s bitch.” She wasn’t and would never be. Ten years later, her career is progressing on a steady upward arc and the sky remains the limit.

I worry, however, about the career path of these two young women. I worry about their self-perception, the choices they will make in life and love, and their ability to recognize and achieve their full potential.

I’ve long considered myself a feminist. I read and absorbed Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer back in my twenties. My two best bosses ever were both women. I always believed women could do anything men could do, but I’ve more recently come to the conclusion that women can do many – if not most – things better than men. That’s why I am so adamant and vocal with my female students to speak up for themselves and not be shy or hesitant to trumpet their skills and accomplishments.

That’s also why my novels feature strong female characters who put their male counterparts to shame. Those male characters may indeed be misogynist A-holes, but their failings are amplified in comparison to the smart and capable women they interact with. Their failings are also purposely exaggerated so male readers notice. Us males tend towards the Neanderthal and often have to be hit over the head with an insight before truly taking it in. And there’s nothing I like better than hitting Neanderthals over the head.

 

Where Did I Go?

PrintWhere’s Phil? Has he gone into hiding with Waldo? What happened to his frequent blogs? Here’s the story.

As I explained in a recent piece, I have four books coming out in the first five months of this year. Two are already published. Most of my promo has been on the first Still Counting. The second Going Both Ways was published 10 days ago. As part of that launch I’m doing a “blog tour” that required me to do four written interviews and three guest blogs. Those are all done.

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book 20/20 Mind Sight for about three years with my friend and co-author Jillian Vorce. We’ve been doing the final edits and are now shipping it out for layout and design for a May 15 release.

In addition, I’ve been working like crazy to complete a new satirical novel about the current presidential campaign which I want to have available for purchase by May 1.

So…the bottom line is that I haven’t been ignoring my blog and FB author page. I’ve been doing all the ancillary things that one has to do to bring a book to the appropriate audience. Thanks for wondering where the hell I was. And if you didn’t even notice I was MIA, we can still be friends.

Wag More, Bark Less

M&RI recently saw a bumper sticker encouraging me to “Wag More, Bark Less.” As the proud owner of two sweet-tempered yellow Labs named Riley and Maisy, I couldn’t help but smile. More importantly, however, it reminded me of how much we humans can learn about life from our canine friends.

Riley and Maisy love everything. Every morsel of food is miraculous; every scent is addictive; every walk in the park is a tropical vacation; every sound is a revelation; every pat on the head or scratch on the butt is orgasmic. And no matter what delightful activity they’re engaged in, they’re always ready to try something else because they know it will be even more fun.

Does that sound like you? I know it doesn’t sound like me. There’s a certain sameness in our lives that deflates our sense of wonder and excitement. Riley and Maisy have eaten the exact same meal every day of their lives. Nonetheless, they never tire of it and salivate like a couple of garden hoses when I scoop kibble into their bowls. They’ve never pushed the bowl away or complained about the service.

Riley and Maisy love everything and are loved by everyone. I think it’s cause-and-effect, and it can work for us non-canines as well. Be enthusiastic about your work, and your colleagues, managers, and subordinates will feel your enthusiasm and emulate it. Express your appreciation to clients and they’ll come back for more. Let your loved ones know how important they are by greeting them at the door when they return home and thanking them for the little things they do that make your life easier. Smile at the barista, supermarket cashier, or random stranger on the street and odds are they’ll smile back.

Maisy and Riley manifest their love in dozens of ways every single day – locking eyes with me, wagging their tails, and resting a paw on my feet or a chin on my knee. It never gets tiresome for them or me. It deepens our connection. Yet think about how simple those acts are. And think about how many opportunities we have every single day to deepen our own connections with the people and communities around us. Opportunities we too often ignore because we’re busy, distracted, or simply not interested.

Dogs possess the wonderful ability to never be too busy to experience something new. They can be simultaneously deeply mindful and easily distracted. They are interested in everything. They live solely “in the moment.” The past and the future have no meaning to them. They devote their entire being to whatever is right in front of them. If something else comes along – a “distraction” (though the word sounds far too pejorative in this sense) – they similarly commit the whole of their being to that new activity, scent, person, or thing. Humans bemoan distractions because they ruin our plans and slow us down. Dogs recognize distractions for what they really are – serendipitous encounters that bring us face-to-face with all the world has to offer. It’s often the unplanned moments that bring us the most joy. They deliver new insights, different perspectives, and more reasons to wag rather than bark.

So I promise to wag more, and I invite you to join me.

It’s Official: I’m a Girly Man

guy with ipad LOVEI started lusting after girls before I hit my teens. I spent my youth playing baseball and basketball. I love horse racing, pro football, and fishing. I enjoy cold beer, straight whiskey, and the occasional cigar. I’ve owned a series of sports cars over the last three decades. Nonetheless, at the relatively ripe old age of 65, I’ve come to the unequivocal realization that I am a girly man.

As with most things in life, my wife came to this conclusion long before I did. Pretty much from the day we married she’d proudly announce to anyone in hearing range that she was the guy and I was the girl in the relationship. If something needed fixing around the house, I’d look at it, not have a clue what to do, and turn it over to my wife. I’d usually stay nearby in case she needed my “manliness” to reach something high or move something heavy, but for the most part I’d simply stay out of the way.

My wife also likes to point out that I’m the one who remembers our anniversary and can recall who-what-when-and-where minutiae about our first date. I like holding hands and cuddling far more than she does; and I’m the one who reads Nicholas Sparks novels, watches movies with subtitles and, with nary a trace of embarrassment, the one who cried when Haddie returned home from college to be with her cancer-stricken mom on Parenthood.

I used to attribute this aspect of my character to simply being in touch with my feminine side, but I now realize it’s much more pervasive than that. I proactively seek out and embrace the feminine aspect of my character. Many of my closest friends are women and I do find myself confiding more to them than I do to my guy friends. In addition, while noodling this idea, I’ve also recognized that most of my guy friends are also girly men. They don’t cheat on their wives, they don’t drink or gamble to excess, they don’t feel compelled to exercise their Second Amendment right to own firearms, and they tend to be soft-spoken, empathetic and humble. They’re good people who don’t hang out at the country club bar to escape from the old “ball and chain.”

I’ve never been a particularly competitive guy. Whether playing sports or playing board games with friends and family, I don’t really care if I win or lose. I’d prefer to win, but the reason I play is to play. I guess that’s why I’ve never been attracted to the likes of fantasy football. In fact I don’t even understand its appeal. It requires way too large a time commitment and delivers none of the intellectual, social or emotional rewards I value. Plus, if I had Russell Wilson or Luke Kuechly on my fantasy team would I have to root for them even when they’re playing against my beloved Patriots? I don’t get why anyone would purposely choose to add yet another conundrum to our already confusing lives. But there I go again thinking like a woman instead of a dude.

Life is short, which means it’s all about choices. So rather than watching half a dozen sports events every weekend, I limit myself to one or two – and oftentimes none. That means I can’t name the leading running backs in the NFL, the division leaders in the NBA, or the top twenty NCAA teams. But I’m okay with that. It’s not important to me. What is important is learning more about the world around me and the people that are important to me – my family, my friends, my students, and myself. And the way I achieve that is via so-called girly activities like reading, listening, and introspection.

I’ve been a writer for my entire life. I sold my first article when I was sixteen, and I’ve had a wide variety of books and articles published over the years. Recently, however, I’ve decided that the “wide variety” was disadvantageous. I needed to focus my writing. So guess what? I decided to focus on the romance and “chick-lit” genres. I realized I enjoyed reading and writing about the interplay between men and women far more than the cat-and-mouse intrigue of mysteries or the life-and-death plot twists of thrillers. I’ve found that I learn far more about relationships and the human condition from Jodi Picoult than James Patterson. Similarly, I glean more insight when writing a love story than toiling away on a sci-fi adventure. And the beauty is that I can sip just as much whiskey while writing a bittersweet romance as I could working on a hardboiled whodunit.

One of the assignments I give my students at Boston College is to write their own eulogies. That’s a difficult and oftentimes troubling task for young people, and it’s not much easier for folks like me in their seventh decade. But one thing I’d hope to have spoken at my funeral is that “he was a girly man and proud of it.”

If the Character Is an A-Hole, Is the Author One Also?

stupid-man-punchEdna St. Vincent Millay said, “A person who publishes a book appears willfully in the public eye with his pants down.” I’ve long agreed with Millay’s observation, but never more than since the publication of my new novel, Still Counting.

Based on the early reviews Adam, the male lead character, is universally disliked. Readers find him dumb, insensitive, clueless, and far worse. Here are some of my favorite comments:

  • “This is a great book for any woman who has dated a moron in the past.”
  • “Adam truly is a male archetype (duh, get it: Adam?)”
  • “The fact that he just kept digging himself a deeper hole is a typical man.”

The thing is I’m okay with all of this as long as readers don’t feel the same about me. That’s where it gets complicated. Is Millay’s “public eye” viewing me with my pants actually down or only imagining my pants being down?

As the reviewers wrote these comments, they carefully danced around the issue of whether the author had actually intended this reaction and purposely created such an unlovable character. They seemed to hope so – partly, I assume, to not insult the author and partly because they hoped and prayed there was at least one non-A-hole male in the world.

The good news is that I did intend that reaction. Adam is a fairly typical twenty-something guy who tends to believe the universe revolves around him. Women are there for his pleasure; and they need to accept him, warts and all, even if he can’t reciprocate the courtesy. To top it off, if he can’t understand something, he attacks it rather than asking questions and taking the time to learn more.

The bad news is that the author – that would be me – shares some of these traits and is an admitted A-hole in many ways. Like most men I’m significantly over-confident regarding my intelligence and abilities (and maybe even my attractiveness to the opposite sex?). I have a hard time looking a woman straight in the eye if she’s displaying serious cleavage (or even not so serious). And – with sincere apologies to all womankind – I have a deep-seated belief that women are inherently better at cleaning and cooking than the mass of men. On the flipside, particularly as a husband and father to a young woman, I have never underestimated or demeaned women. The two best bosses I ever had were women. In the classes I teach at Boston College, the female students tend to be more engaged, diligent, and insightful than the males. And I think it’s an embarrassment that the U.S. has never had a female president.

One of the reviewers brought a smile to my face with this comment, “The author clearly loves women and thinks men are idiots.” I think that’s my full monty in terms of Millay’s adage. Female readers might view Adam as a cretin but give the author credit for shining such a harsh light on male obliviousness. Male readers, on the other hand, will likely point a finger at the author and curse him out for having broken the bro blood-oath. I’m okay with that as well.