Delivering the Sex Talk When Your Phobia Is the Sex Talk

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For a long time, I’ve dreaded discussing the facts of life with my son. I blame this dread on New England, where I’m from. It is a place alive and shivering with the fear of sex. Who started this fear? The anti-sex wrestling tag team: the pilgrims and the Puritans. 

Why did the pilgrims wear so many buckles? 

To keep all the sex in. To smother it to death. 

But when you try to buckle up a natural thing, it will escape. Malcolm was right, 

“Life finds a way.” 

I think it comes down to a very bad equation hatched by the church: 

Pleasure = of the Devil. 

New Englanders believe in this math with all their hearts. This is why they grow up using the word “Wicked” when talking about all things pleasurable and appealing:

Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips: “These potato chips are wicked good!” 

Homemade bike jumps: “This homemade bike jump? Wicked fun!” 

Attractive people: “She’s hot!”

“Yeah, but how hot? Scale of one to ten.” 

Wicked hot!”

Translation: eleven. 

The logic? 

If it’s that good, or if it feels that good, it can’t be from God. This is part of the reason I eat pizza the way I do. Beware, it’s weird.

The church’s mean equation survives because many people still see God as a persnickety stickler, the great librarian of the loins and other cool places of the body. 

In other words, God hates what he has made. 

Consider the confusion of the loins, those chariots of fire that say, somewhat like Eric Liddell: 

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me randy as hell. And when I’m randy, I feel his anger.” 

Wrong. Sorry, The Church. Your straightjacket of buckles has only produced the sexual underground.

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When They Get Gravestones Right I’ll Consider Dying

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It struck me recently that most gravestones give you only a name and two numbers with a little line between them.

That’s it? I thought. What about all the stuff that makes me ME?

In the old days, stones at least said how a person died:

Jasper Billings 1802–1855 
Found under boulder.

Matilda McConnel 1799–1831 
Dead. Wolf-related.

That’s good information to include. But there should be more stuff too. All the stuff. So even a stranger could pass by and be moved to tears.

But how?

Someone please describe this new and wonderful gravestone.

The New and Wonderful Gravestone

It is extremely large. Correct, I’m thinking Mount Rushmore. But the heads are mine in different stages of development.

The peaks of my gravestone mountain are as follows:

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The Joy Of Being Friends With Bad Kids 

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Bad kids are the great and terrible adventurers of the classroom. What might they say? What might they do? 


The teacher turns his back and your buddy gives you a look, a telling flash of the eye: 

“Buckle up. I’m about to do something bad.” 

And you, a virtuous child, think “Oh no” and “Thank God.” 

In one of my schools, I heard a legend about a kid so bad, that when the teacher left the room for a moment, the kid stood up, lifted the lid of his flip-top desk, and peed into it. 

They say the pee streamed from little holes in the bottom of the desk, right onto the floor in a great puddle.

What happened to the kid when the teacher returned? 

The legend does not tell. That part has been lost, probably because the punishment wasn’t as grand as the crime. How could it be? If the story was balanced like a well-made sword, the punishment would have been urine-based. An eye for an eye. A 500 milliliter beaker of urine collected in the teachers’ lounge and splashed on the bad kid. Anything less is anticlimactic, and legends hate that.

My cousin tells of a time his entire high school merged into a single entity: one big bad kid. 

It happened during an assembly at Houlton High. Something strange was in the air, an atmosphere of evil harmony. 

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Remember The Loveable Unreadable Monster: Your First Book Attempt

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I’ve heard that a lot of writers have a similar origin story: They’re reading a novel and suddenly stop. “Holy crap,” they say, I can do better than this!” Then they close the book and sit there, or they fall down and lie there, dazed. 

“I can do better than this,” they whisper. “I really can.” 

This is my story. It happened with a book my mother gave me called The Strumpet Sea. I don’t remember the book, but I think it was about a strumpet and a sea. 

By the way, what’s your book? Which one made you cry out to the universe, “I can do this!”?

I just looked up the definition of “strumpet” and shocked myself. “Strumpet” can mean “prostitute.” What the hell, mom? 

I don’t remember sex workers in that book. I remember lots of water and a boat. Could I have been so naïve that I missed the whole point of the novel? 

You betcha. 

You’re looking at the good soldier who defended Creedence Clearwater Revival to the death, shouting, “‘Proud Mary’ isn’t about marijuana! It isn’t about anything but a riverboat and a river!” 

I believed my favorite band was just like me: high on life and nothing else; drinking only Mountain Dew; and they were all saving themselves for marriage, especially my straightedge virgin hero, John Fogerty. 

I was also the kid who thought the Doors’ “Light My Fire” was about a lazy woodsman. “Light your own fire,” I thought. “Or maybe you don’t know how. Loser.” 

So yes, I might have missed the point of The Strumpet Sea

But I didn’t miss my calling, given by the Lord: 

“Dan, thou shalt write a book better than The Strumpet Sea. Also, light not thine own fire, or thou shalt go blind.” 

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You Erase Me

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I know a genius. 

We’ve cheapened the term by using it on everyone, even babies, inflating our compliments until people are walking around with wheelbarrows full of billion-dollar bills, “embellishment bucks,” but the guy I know is the real thing.  

Though he’s undiagnosed, I’m certain his IQ is 160 or higher. Maybe much higher. How do I know? It isn’t because I’ve witnessed displays of kickass mental math. He never came up with a chemical compound for solving the gum wads in our stomachs. He doesn’t have a mind palace where he stores and dusts sports facts that go all the way back to the naked Greeks and their games. 

I know he’s a genius because of his humor. He’s the funniest spur-of-the-moment talker I’ve ever heard. 

It’s an insult to this guy to say he’s quick witted. His wit isn’t quick. It teleports. That’s the only way I can understand it. When he says what he says, crafting killer lines based on the found objects of this or that conversation, I’m shocked. Stunned. I have the unnerving feeling that something supernatural has happened right next to me. 

It’s as if he stops time and then ponders, builds, crafting a card-tower of comedic complexity so vast it is the Tower of Babel reborn, then he starts time again and presents the tower to us. We note its amazing width and height. We look up and up like first-timers in a cathedral, gaping and gasping. Then it falls. But it was made to fall, and the breathtaking fluttery avalanche is our gut-twisting laughter. 

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My Delicious Little Death

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I eat pizza only twice a year. 


I have a problem. 

Yes, cheese makes me ill, particularly in my entire body for days. But that’s not the problem.

Yes, bread turns my physique into a ship’s anchor chained to a bathtub rowboat: my self esteem. But that’s not it either. 

Is it the red sauce? True, red sauce does make my core suicidal with fire. 

And yet, it isn’t the red sauce.  

The reason I save myself for two pizza feeds a year, is this: 

I have an addiction. 

Dogs understand this. If you lay out too much food, they will eat until they die. This is me and pizza. 

Don’t get me wrong. I want to die. (Though maybe this is just the teacher in me talking.) The trouble is, I’m afraid of death. Not because I don’t believe in an afterlife. I do. What scares me? The nasty little trip from here to there. I hate the mystery. Some people say dead relatives show up to hold your hand and walk you through. Other’s say, “You die alone.” These latter folks, called “A-holes,” fill me with fear. I don’t even like going into the basement alone — how am I going to handle death? 

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My Best Federal Offense  

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I loved rollerblading when I was a kid. You should have seen how well I could skate facing forward. That’s what I chose to learn first, and after mastering that trick almost too quickly, I thought, “What’s next?” so I picked up skating in reverse. I could even skate fancy, not creepy fancy, but just enough to be the best in town.  

Then I started jumping over little obstacles: sticks, dead snakes, my prone sister. I learned I could jump, spin in the air, land going backward, fall down, and then get back up as fast as a professional. 

When my friend Calvin Newton also got skates, we became a skating gang of two in our little country realm, Palermo, Maine. We skated to the church and flew around in the parking lot; skated a couple miles down the road to Tobey’s General Store for snickety-snacks; and we skated to the post office across the road from my grandparents’ house so we could pretend we were bobsledding down the post office ramp. 

It was nice skating in view of my grandparents’ house, showing off. The dream of my childhood was to be like Grampa Fred. It’s still my dream. He’s the Tom Sawyer of Maine, a Peter Pan who expresses his flight by morbid humor and extreme, unpredictable living.


ONE: Grampa once laid down in the fireplace and cleaned the chimney with a gun, blowing away chunks of soot, shooting his way to a clear sky.

TWO: My dad went to visit grampa. Grampa was pleased. So pleased, he ran out of the house, tackled dad on the lawn, breaking two of his ribs. Laughing the entire time. 

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THREE: At the dinner table, grampa used to make me laugh by doing a shocking thing. He’d be buttering bread and catch me watching him. As soon as we made eye-contact, he’d mime slitting his own throat with the butter knife, then he’d use his free hand to cup the imagined waterfall of blood, and ladle it into his mouth, over and over, as long as I was laughing, and I couldn’t stop. To this day, violent, shock-value humor is something I have to watch out for. In my grandparents’ words, it tickles me. And it confuses me. I think it’s so funny that I imagine everyone else does too. And I’ll tell a classroom full of students about grampa’s suppertime blood-drinking, or about the time he assisted a choking sheep with the Heimlich maneuver and accidentally killed it, and I’ll be laughing like a lunatic, then look up and see that everyone’s staring at me, concerned. When this happens, I remember the advice of all the mentors I’ve ever had: “Be yourself.”

“Be completely myself?” 


The Grand Idea 

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The Secret Of Childhood Magic

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What makes children so brave? Why are they so buoyant in their souls? Here’s a clue: 

It isn’t what they believe in. 

If you went to any young niece or nephew of yours and said, “Hey, kid.”

“My name’s Peter.” 

“I got a question for you, Peter. Did you know that, one day, you’re going to die?”

Peter’s eyes would fill with tears as he thought back to his dearly departed Glubby the goldfish or Kippy the cat. Terrified, he would say, 

“That’s going to happen to me?

“I’m going to go blind and deaf and get run over by my father in the driveway? I’m going drown in my own waste because someone neglected their responsibilities and never cleaned my tank?”

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Then you would tell him, “Yes, nephew. Unless you die first on the inside, like me and almost everyone else. In that case, you die twice.”

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The Concert Of Death

It happened at an elementary and middle school choral concert.

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Concerning Bearded Dragons 

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My sister-in-law and her family went on a trip recently and asked us to care for her daughter’s bearded dragon. 

This dragon, a green guy with brown eyes, is still a youth, about seven inches long from the nose to the tip of his tail, though in 18 months he’ll swell to the size of a tyrannosaurus-rex arm, one you can take out walking with a leash. 

While he stayed with us, he lived in a big glass box on our buffet cabinet in the dining room. This changed our mealtimes slightly. Eating in the presence of a reptile makes you feel a little wild. You eat faster and too much. You eat like a beast, loosening your belt as you shed your humanity, showing off for the dragon. 

I am Dan, decimater of breakfast. Subduer of lunch. I approach, and supper trembles.  

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Teaching Poetry To Stones

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I love teaching Introduction to Creative Writing. It’s a wonderful triathlon: We start with fiction then move on to poetry, and lastly we write stories from our lives. And I do my best to persuade students to abandon their hastily selected majors and join the Writing Program so they can help us uphold our time-honored tradition of disobeying our parents. 

But this semester, something’s gone wrong. 

I, a man who is more like Peter Pan than a man, have become the parent, and the students are my disobedient children. 

How did this happen? 

How is it possible that the lost boys turned into cynics, rolling their eyes at the great Pan himself, party-poopers only grudgingly joining their leader on fabulous adventures? 

If only this was true. If only I was Pan and they were the lost boys. Then I would know exactly how to handle the situation. 

I would fly the killjoy boys to the lagoon and hurl them to the mermaids who would drown them and eat them. Then I would write my own student evaluations:

“They never attended class. I never saw them. Please send more, better ones. Send ones who don’t hate happiness and magic.” — Pan

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