Maximizing Exam Performance

As a high school math teacher and now university lecturer, one of the most common issues I see is students who under-perform on tests and exams. By this I mean that the grade they earn is not an accurate reflection of their level of mastery of the material – sometimes tragically so. I have been teaching for around 20 years, and my experience teaching, as well as my experience as a student, has caused me to form some strategies to address this. In a recent email exchange with a student who was asking for advice on how to manage studying for multiple exams, I decided to organize my thoughts and type a detailed response. With that student’s permission, I also decided to share it here on my blog.

Question: How would you recommend studying for finals and what are the key things that I should prioritize?

I have some tips, but there is a caveat: these are things that I’ve learned through personal experience as well as my experience teaching for about 20 years, and I have learned that while they are solid tips and work for many people, everyone needs to tailor them to suit their own learning style and personality.

First, some terminology for the purpose of these tips: 

  • Homework
    I’ll use this term to refer to any work you would be assigned or do voluntarily throughout a course that does not directly get assessed for grades. It may be questions/reading assigned by the prof, or practice assignments. It should also be daily review of notes taken in class, which can and probably should include enhancing the notes with more thoughts or research.

  • Test
    I’ll use this term to refer to some kind of minor assessment that does count for marks, but not a large part of the course. These are usually assignmentstests or quizzes, and they generally happen regularly, often weekly. The knowledge they assess is normally not cumulative, focusing on one topic or unit at time, or perhaps just one or two weeks worth of material from the course.

  • Exam
    This refers to the major assessments in a course and are usually cumulative in the knowledge they assess. In many math classes this is a midterm and a final exam. Sometimes it is just a final exam.

  • Term Mark
    This refers to the grade a student earns on any tests, not including exams, as defined above.
Here are the tips more or less in order of priority
Don’t study for exams!

Sounds weird right? What I mean is that you should not be studying for exams – you should be studying for expertise. Furthermore, this studying should occur throughout the term, not in the days before an exam. The root of the word student is study. This literally means that if you are thinking of yourself as a student, then you are thinking of yourself as one who studies.

For many students this is a paradigm shift, even if they don’t realize it. Students have a habit of using the term for accumulating marks, instead of accumulating expertise. A combination of procrastination on homework, sub-optimal time management, and misplaced priorities create a situation where decisions are made to maximize a term mark while minimizing actual learning. That may seem harsh, but students usually see some or much truth in it when they inspect their own habits during non-exam times.

The shift is to start to view homework as the tool to help you grow into an expert in the course material, to the point where you could potentially even teach it. In fact, finding ways to teach the material (usually by helping others with the work) is the very best way to gauge your own level of expertise. If/when you reach this level during the homework, writing tests and exams becomes much less a matter of which questions you are prepared for, and more a matter of making sure that when it is time to write that you are rested and feeling physically comfortable.

Make an exam prep schedule

So once you have an exam schedule from the school, and you know when your exams will be, make a schedule for exam prep. It is almost always better to devote parts of each day to different exams rather than trying to devote all your attention to the next exam. So for example, you might have 4 exams in all, and from day one of prep time (which is the day after the last actual lecture), each day should be divided into 4 parts. At first, you can devote more time in each day to the first exam. Then, when that exam is done you only have 3 per day, and can devote more time to the second exam, etc. Make sure to include recreation/rest time in your schedule! It is unreasonable and unrealistic to think that if you have 16 hours of awake time in a day that you can spend 16 hours doing exam prep.

The puzzle of creating the schedule is mathematically pleasing and kind of fun. When you’re doing it, imagine you were creating it for someone else – someone that you are close to and care about, like a sibling or friend. Not for yourself.

Follow your exam prep schedule

Once you have prepared your schedule, put your faith in it. Don’t question your scheduling decisions after that fact. Pretend it was set for you by someone else – someone that you are close to and who cares about you, like a sibling or a friend. Someone you don’t want to let down. They took the trouble to make this schedule for you so that you would be successful. You owe it to them to follow it to the letter. Resist the temptation to over- or under-use the times they allotted for work. Resist the temptation to under- or over-use times they allotted for recreation.


If you have spent the term studying as outlined above, then most of the work is done when exams roll around. At this stage what you want to do is prepare. I like to think of it using sports as a metaphor. With a big game or event approaching, athletes don’t use the time leading up to the day to become excellent at their sport. That work has already been done, over the course of their training. What they do before a big event is prepare themselves. They manipulate their training and diet so that they will peak on the day of the event. They get ready mentally for the stress of the day. They take care to eliminate distraction that during the rest of the year they allow, more or less. In other words, they sharpen everything they have already done, so that their performance will be optimal on the day. That is what exam prep is. Here is how it might look:

  1. No phone during prep time.
    That means it’s not just on silent in your pocket, or upside down on the desk. It means it is literally off, and in a different room than you are in. You are allowed to use it during recreation time, and you should, if that makes you feel better.

  2. Review the most recent course material first
    Work your way from the end back to the beginning of the course. This is for two main reasons: One, that material is the most fresh in your mind, and so it needs the least review. Two, by working backward you by necessity and up cementing ideas from earlier in the course, since they were generally used to build the ideas that came later. This forces you to assimilate them more completely, and by the time you get to those concepts you are already quite an expert.

  3. Use tests and/or homework assignments as your map to prep.
    Take blank versions of them and simulate writing them from scratch. If you studied throughout the course you will find that you can mostly do this without consulting any external resources like class notes, course notes, textbooks, other students, tutors or the web. But when you find yourself struggling to recall a concept, don’t hesitate to use those resources, more or less in the order I listed them.

  4. Do not focus on being ready for a certain type of question.
    Instead, make sure you are expert in all the concepts you review. A litmus test for expertise is to imagine you had to teach the concept. Would you be able to field questions from students like yourself? Can you envision a way to present it to your peers that would make the concept clear for them? If you can, take opportunities to actually try. There are usually people more than willing to let you explain concepts to them!

  5. From time to time, refer to any exam outline that has been shared by the instructor.
    As you progress through the review, put a check on concepts you feel you are good with. When you have finished working back, it would be shocking if there was not a check on every item. But if there is, go back and find instances of that concept in your review and have another look.

  6. Sleep!
    There is nothing to be gained by staying up all night before an exam, and much to be lost. Any feeling of security it may give you, or any thoughts of “I’ll just hold it together then crash after the exam” are almost always self-delusion. No athlete would ever go into a major event already exhausted. It does nothing to improve performance and much to impair it. On the other hand, a solid night’s sleep will give your brain a chance to reset, refresh, and reorganize.

  7. Finish studying the night before
    It is almost never a good idea to do any studying the day of an exam. If you made a good schedule, you finished studying the night before. After a good night’s sleep, your job is to stay relaxed and properly fed. On the day of the exam, the first time you look at course material should be when the exam begins. Otherwise you risk spiraling on some
    last-minute topic you have convinced yourself is important, and it defeats much of the organization that has taken place in your brain. Picture a well-organized filing cabinet with everything where it belongs. That is what you want to take into the exam with you. Contrast that with a mostly well-organized filing cabinet, with a few files removed and papers scattered about the room. That is a much less effective way to be able to access your knowledge during the exam.

  8. When the time comes to begin writing, do not begin writing.
    This is one of the biggest mistakes I see students make when the exam actually starts. They flip to the first page and start writing. That is putting your destiny in the hands of the person who created the exam instead of in your own hands. What I mean is, why should you write the exam in the order that someone else decided? And furthermore, why should you start writing without any idea of what is coming? When starting on a long road trip it is a much better idea to zoom out and see the whole route so that you have an idea of where you are going, rather than just thinking of the next turn.

    What I strongly recommend is that when the word is given that you may begin, turn the first page and just read. Read all the questions. Slowly. Take the time to make sure you understand what each question is asking. Do not attempt to answer any question until you have read all the questions. Then decide what order you want to write the exam in. Choose your best questions first. Save any you don’t know how to do for the end. You will find that if you write the exam this way three things happen:
    • First, your time is automatically optimized, since you are spending the least amount of time on questions at the beginning.
    • Second, your confidence grows as you progress through the exam, which is much better than having a tough question destroy your spirit near the beginning of the exam.
    • Third, as you work through the questions you are good with, you subconsciously are also thinking about the harder ones you saved for the end, and often get clues and ideas from the questions you are working on so that when you get to the ones you thought were hard, they no longer are – or at least they are easier than they seemed.

That’s it! As I said, you can take or leave as much of this advice as you like, but I would say that if you decide to ignore some of it because you’re afraid to try it, that may not be the best reason not to give it a go. Fear is not generally a good reason to avoid trying something new.

Thanks for reading,


Why Study Mathematics?

In my job, this question is one I get asked very often. To be honest, it usually comes in a slightly different form …

“When am I ever going to use this? What is it good for?”

As a high school math teacher for 15 years, this is one of the most common questions I received. When I began lecturing at university, I was surprised to find that I still sometimes get asked variations of this question. I suppose it’s a good question, if the idea is that at some point someone will say to you


and have your answer on my desk by 5pm today. And don’t get any funny ideas about using WolframAlpha!”

Because the truth is, that rarely happens.

I often give a joking answer, and say flat out, “You won’t,” and then go on a rant about how math doesn’t need to be good for anything, because it is just good. Nobody ever stood in the Sistine Chapel, staring at the ceiling, asking what it was good for! They just appreciate the inherent beauty, because it speaks to their soul. Math is the same.

I think that’s a perfectly good answer, to be honest. But in a more serious light, I find the answer to the question is actually another question: “When are you not going to use this?”

Of course, there are direct applications of many branches of math. But those tend to be very specific, and these days depend heavily on software to do the heavy lifting, so I tend not to think of those. Instead, consider that football players perform bench press as part of their training, to the point that the ability to bench press 225 pounds for as many reps as possible is tested at the NFL combines. Yet not once have I ever seen a football player perform the bench press during a game. Why do they do it then? Couldn’t they just practice the skills they will actually use in a game? I can promise you that at no point during a football game does a player think “oh, this situation is just like bench pressing 225 pounds – I will apply that same skill now.” And I imagine there are very few football players who complain while lifting weights that they will “never use this in real life”. Of course, we know that the reason they train the bench press is that it increases strength and power, so that when the time comes that they need it, it will be there without consciously calling upon it.

Studying mathematics is the same. Math teaches so much if we are awake to the lessons. Here are some things I have learned, continue to learn, and apply regularly from my math studies, along with some examples of how they have impacted me personally.

Scale simple solutions to solve large problems

It is almost always the case that large problems can be effectively solved by breaking them into smaller problems, or by developing scalable solutions to simpler problems. For example, about 3.5 years ago I decided I wanted to learn to draw, so I took a piece of white printer paper and a mechanical pencil and drew a superhero-esque muscle man. It sucked. Like a lot. But I was not discouraged in the least by that. I was fueled by it. Why does this suck so much? I know how I want it to look, why can’t I make it look that way? I was excited by the fact that I could recognize how much it sucked, and by the prospect of working to slowly strip away the suckness. I spent hundreds of hours, solving small problems that were contributing to the suckyessence, and slowly scaling them up. Want to draw a heavily muscled arm? Learn to draw a cylinder. Then learn to draw little cylinders that lie on the main one. Then learn to draw “twisted” cylinders and tubing that changes diameter as it twists. Learn anatomy. Now put it all together. I intuitively understood platonic solids and how they interact with and reflect light. I applied these understandings to understand the types of skills I needed to hone with the way I held and manipulated pencils. I started looking closely at things I never paid attention to before. I still do this, and at no point during this process do I ever consciously say “Oh, that’s just like <fill in math course here>”, but at every point I feel exactly the way I feel when I am working on difficult math problems.

Being right also means proving you are

Math is really never about just “getting the right answer”. It’s about proving that an answer – or a result – is correct. The emphasis on proof is critical. In the real world, being right is rarely enough if you can’t convince others that you are. Careful, methodical, and audience-appropriate explanations are invaluable in this regard. Developing and writing proofs in mathematics is as much an art form as it is a science (perhaps even more so), and my studies in mathematics immeasurably improved my approach to constructing an audience-appropriate argument or explanation. This has had a profound impact on my communication skills, as well as my approach to confrontation. I have used this skill in more ways than I can list, but some examples are: when I have been in contract negotiations, when I deal with sales people when buying big-ticket items (and even when I bargain at markets), when I find myself moderating arguments between friends, family, colleagues or students, and when I used to work as a personal trainer and had to motivate and justify the kinds of exercise and diet choices I wanted my clients to make. In every single one of these situations, and more, I am really constructing proof. In fact, I would say that proof dominates almost all my communication.

Emotional attachment to a belief is irrelevant

Not wanting to be wrong about a belief, especially if it has been long-held, is normal. It is, however, illogical and possibly even dangerous in the face of proof to the contrary. Mathematics trains us to seek, understand and ultimately accept proof on its own merit, and not on any emotional yearning. It also trains us to be grateful when proven wrong, since it makes little sense to want to be wrong for even one moment longer than necessary. My training in math has led to a much more open-minded approach to new thoughts and ideas, and after careful consideration – which involves listening to argument dispassionately, asking relevant questions and weighing evidence – I find myself either happily embracing a new thought, or else more confident in the one I already had, having had the opportunity to test it rationally against a differing viewpoint.

Creativity and math are NOT mutually exclusive.

Not even close. Deep study of mathematics reveals and refines a strong creativity that aligns with and is mutually supportive of logic. This fusion is relatively rare, and people who have it are prone to what seem to be exceptional accomplishments. In truth, the exceptionality of it is not the accomplishment itself but the relative scarcity of people who can do it. One of my favourite examples is Leonardo da Vinci, who most people think of as a great artist, but who was also an accomplished mathematician and scientist, and who did not consider these as separate pursuits or modes of thinking. I find the same is true in my own life, although there are many people who wonder how a mathematician could be artistic.

Clarity lives just on the other side of contemplation

The journey math students regularly take from being completely mystified and often intimidated, to understanding and comfort is a lesson in overcoming that serves us well in all the challenges the future can bring. It instills a confidence that says, “I may not understand this right now, or even feel like I ever could, but I know I can do it.” General wisdom suggests that “easy” might seem gratifying in the moment, but true satisfaction comes from overcoming a challenge. Many people shy away from challenge for fear of failure, but studying mathematics teaches us that we can tackle large problems, even if they seem overwhelmingly daunting at the outset. An example that makes me laugh is the time I purchased a large and intricate piece of exercise equipment for my home gym (a functional trainer/smith machine combo). I bought it used, so it did not come with any assembly instructions, and perhaps embarrassingly, it didn’t occur to me to use Google. When I picked it up the seller had already “helpfully” disassembled it into n pieces, where n is large. I was completely baffled at how to reassemble it when I got it home. But I was not daunted. I laid all the pieces out on the floor, shuffled them around into sensible groups, and slowly assembled sections that made sense. I made mistakes and discovered them when they led to chaos. I backed up, took a different approach, and eventually put it together. The process was not “clean” – I hurt my hand trying to brace a nut while tightening a bolt, and cursed myself for not taking the time to get a wrench to hold it in place. But the result looks like it was assembled by a pro. I’ve had it for many years now, and it still works perfectly. I am fully aware that my engineer friends would consider this a trivial exercise, but for me it was a hard-fought and well-earned victory. This type of approach has stood me well time after time.

You don’t always have to see the whole path to the goal

How often have you been working on a difficult proof or problem, not really knowing if you were getting anywhere good, nevertheless continuing to take small, logical steps – always forward, occasionally pausing to reorient yourself to see if the direction made sense – when suddenly you found yourself having completed the entire thing? Some mathematicians call this the “follow-your-nose” principle of proof. A leads to B which leads to C etc. This might be the most important lesson of all. If you have a long-term goal that seems incredibly distant and perhaps overly ambitious, consider that if you just point yourself in the right direction and take small steps, occasionally reorienting yourself, you do eventually get where you want to go. Plus, the journey is so rewarding. In my life I have used this principle I learned from proof over and over and is in fact how I ended up lecturing at university, something that has been a dream of mine since the 12th grade.

And that concludes my very long answer to the common question! I hope you found something of value.

Thanks for reading!


My Silver Anniversary

On December 19th, 2018 my wife Marla and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I think that’s a big deal, so I decided to write something. The last time I wrote something for our anniversary was for our 19th, and is still one of my favourite things I’ve written. If you want, you can read that one here: My Champagne Anniversary

The Champagne Anniversary blog still says a lot about how I feel about our relationship, and relationships in general, so there’s no need to repeat that message here. Instead, in honour of this milestone anniversary, I’ve decided to tell the story of how we met. I’m a high-school teacher and the story is replete with high school drama, so it’s a favourite of my students and thus I have told it countless times over the years. Like any story that gets oft-retold, many of the facts morph with each retelling, and the memories of of telling the story get fused with the memories of the actual event, creating some sort of amalgamation of facts and feelings that nonetheless stands as true, to the extent that it represents one’s own perception of history.

Whatever the hell that means.

Just Your Average Nerdy Kid …

Marla and I met in 1986, when I was 17 and she was 16. But to properly tell the story, I need to paint a picture of who I was before we met, and to do that, I need to go back in time a bit further than that.

Growing up I clearly remember wondering how it would feel to know someone loved you. With the exception of my parents, and I guess my siblings, I couldn’t imagine it. Of course I knew my parents loved me – especially my mother – but what would it be like to be sure that someone else did? Romantically, I mean?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a crush on someone. Some girl in my class, or from the neighbourhood where we lived, or from the summer camps I went to. I was a pretty shy kid, and would never dream of doing anything about these crushes. They were just silent admiration and fantasies of going out on dates, holding hands, and being “boyfriend and girlfriend”. These memories go back to before I was 8 years old for sure, though the exact ages are blurred now. I would watch television and movies and see couples in love and legitimately marvel at how the guy could possibly be certain about the girl’s feelings. I admit I didn’t think about this equation much from the female perspective. To me, females had their shit together in a way that males could never comprehend. They certainly never experienced the kind of doubt I was struggling with. They were models of self-confident perfection, while guys were basically just schmucks hoping to be lucky enough to have someone fall in love with them, while never being sure if that was even possible. Well, maybe not all guys. But certainly this guy.

Entering adolescence certain things became clear to me. First, I was not an athlete. I was a skinny asthmatic kid with what I sometimes used to think of as hyperactive empathy disorder (I have since come to realize it’s not a disorder at all – it’s a gift – if not a heavy one to bear sometimes). As such, I tended to steer away from intense competition, and didn’t have the natural grace or physical intelligence that some people seem to be born with. My strengths seemed to be in all things nerdy. I was good at school, good at video games, and good at watching Star Trek. I had friends with similar interests. We did not talk to girls – we had no idea how to. We had fun though! My friends and I spent almost the entire year of grade 7 coming to school each day dressed as, and in character of our favourite Star Trek crew members. I was Spock, complete with homemade communicator and scientific tricorder. I worked on pretending to be emotionless and logical. I lamented not being able to raise one eyebrow. I did not take myself too seriously. None of us did. It was just our way of having fun.

Adolescent Upheaval

When I was 13, my parents divorced. When I was 15, my mother decided to move from Calgary to Toronto. Starting a new school in grade 10 for someone like me was an adolescent nightmare. Fortunately my best friend Rob and his family also moved that summer, largely due to the fact that our mothers were friends as well. Rob and I spent essentially all of grade 10 together, still wondering if there would ever come a day when we could actually talk to girls. We certainly talked about them! Those weird, wonderful, remarkably composed humans who always seemed to know what they were doing were so far from our world, there literally seemed to be no way to make first contact (see what I did there? Star Trek reference). Think Raj from Big Bang Theory, but in real life. Also, Raj found he could talk to women if he had some alcohol – we didn’t drink, and in any case, it wouldn’t have worked.

The Tale of Raj and Saavik (or something like that)

Here’s a little anecdote I love to tell to illustrate just how nerdy and naive I was. In grade 11 I took a history course, with a teacher who liked to set up the desks in the classroom in a big U. My seat was at the tip of the U farthest from the door to the classroom. There was a girl in the class whose name I forget, but for the purpose of the story let’s say it was Saavik. I had a gigantic crush on Saavik. I thought she was the smartest, prettiest, funniest and coolest girl at the school (or at least in the history class). The high school I went to was public, but was in a Jewish neighbourhood, so a lot of the kids there were Jewish, as am I. Saavik was Jewish. I figured that was good, because in some altered reality where she and I got married and lived happily ever after, it would be good that we were both Jewish.

Anyway, Saavik sat across the U from me, with her friends. I used to try to divide my time roughly evenly between paying attention to the teacher and the classwork and admiring Saavik without seeming to. The old “stretch-and-scan-across-the-room-but-linger-3-nanoseconds-longer-as-your-eyes-pass-your-crush” gambit was a favourite. Sometimes I would think about what I might say if I ever found a way to talk to her.

Then I’d laugh at myself. Because, like, whatever buddy.

One day before class started I was sitting at my spot when Saavik got to class. Of course I knew she was in the room – I always knew. But I kept my cool (haha – me, cool). As she made her way to her seat something weird happened, which to this day I don’t have an explanation for. Maybe her friends weren’t there. Maybe she wanted to see the world from a different angle. Maybe she was temporarily taken over by aliens from another dimension wanting to run sociological experiments on human adolescents. In any case what she did was she started to make her way around the U toward my location.

I had no idea what to do.

My heart rate rose to approximately 473 bpm. I started to sweat a little. I started talking/yelling at myself in my head:

Why is she coming this way?!? Keep your eyes on your book! Oh god she’s coming closer! What is she doing? What am I going to do! For the love of Vulcan do not look up. What?! Is she sitting down?!?! NEXT TO ME?!?!?!!!

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look up. But at the same time I knew this was my chance, if ever there was to be one. Then the most bizarre thing happened. My left hand was resting on the table, and I felt someone touch my ring.

Saavik was touching my ring!!!

Then, as if it couldn’t get any more intense she spoke.

To me.

“Nice ring” she said.

She’s touching my ring!! She talked to me!!! What do I do?!?! What would Fonzy do?!? I have to talk to her. I have to say something! What do I say? Has to be good. Have to make sure she knows I’m Jewish so that marriage is possible. What do I say?!?!

“Thanks” I said, in a voice almost exactly like those two fanboy monsters from Monsters Inc. who idolize Sully, Smitty and Needleman, “I got it for my Bar Mitzvah.”

Then I pulled my hand away. And never looked up. It was the first and last conversation we ever had. I can’t tell this story without laughing at myself. But it is 100% true.

 I wonder what ever happened to Saavik.

Rich, Rob and Geordi

Ok. So hopefully you get the idea. Shy kid, lots of nerdy friends, can’t talk to women, wishes he could. Now we’ll fast-forward to the summer between grade 11 and grade 12. It is maybe worth noting that this was back when the Ontario education system had a grade 13 in high school, for kids who wanted to go to university after graduating. Rob and I had become very good friends with a guy I will call Geordi. We had been friends with Geordi for most of grade 11. He is a great guy. He was nerdy like us, but also had a bit of a sophistication that we did not. That certain, you know, savoir-faire. That summer Geordi decided that enough was enough. In grade 12, he was going to start talking to girls. He was going to get a girlfriend.

Cue Smitty and Needleman:

“Hahahaha! Ok Geordi, whatever you say man. As if you can talk to girls!”

But Geordi was determined. And to his credit, when grade 12 started, he managed to grow into someone who could, in fact, talk to girls. And he did. Regularly. Of course not when Rob or I were around – but that’s because it’s hard to seem sophisticated and together with Smitty and Needleman hanging around making you lose your focus.

Geordi started to report back to us on this new world of girls he was living in.

“Sophia and I walked to the convenience store at lunch today. I really like her.”

“I sit next to Jodi in English. She’s really funny.”

“There is this girl Nyota whose locker is just down the hall from mine. She’s super-nice.”

All were candidates for Geordi’s first girlfriend. All sounded super-exotic and awesome. I was seriously in awe of Geordi. As the year progressed it became clear that Geordi had indeed learned how to talk to girls, and things were looking as though he would in fact achieve that mystical state of having a girlfriend, heretofore only achieved by athletes and dudes with cool skateboards. Rob and I were happy for him, and not a little jealous.

Enter Nyota

One day I met Geordi at his locker at the beginning of lunch. Geordi had a car, so it was especially good to be his friend around lunchtime. Anyway, Nyota happened to be there. Geordi introduced us:

“Nyota, this is my friend Rich. Rich, Nyota.” he said.

“Nice to meet you Rich,” said Nyota, quite reasonably. Little did she know I had just suffered two minor heart attacks during the introduction and was fighting off an embolism. I believe my response was something along the lines of

“Hbbj Nrag, bluwq,” delivered most charmingly, I imagine. Maybe there was an umlaut on the u in bluwq. I can’t be sure.

Of course I assumed the natural and usual outcome of the exchange, which is to say I would get the look of bewilderment tinged with horror that I had come to expect from girls I attempted verbal communication with. But that didn’t happen.

Nyota kept talking to me.

I honestly have no idea what she said. I was just fascinated by the fact that she didn’t do the virtual cut-and-run. I remember she was smiling. I remember that she was talking to me as though I were normal. I remember finding that extremely confusing.

It took me about 47 seconds to fall in love.

That was a special day. It marked the first time I considered myself to have been in an actual conversation with a girl. And it was the beginning of me being able to talk to girls, like a normal human being. It opened up a whole new high school experience, centred on Nyota, of course. I made sure to spend as much time as possible in her orbit. She was always so nice. She introduced me to all her friends, and I was able to talk to all of them, though admittedly only long enough so that it wasn’t totally rude when I returned my focus to Nyota. One of the friends she introduced me to was Marla. Marla seemed nice enough. But whatever. Nyota was the one!

The Pact

Eventually I knew it was time to have a discussion with Geordi. If Nyota and I were to be married, he would probably have to find out sooner or later. So one day when I was over at his place I let him know that I had fallen hard for Nyota. I figured he’d be cool with it, given how many other girls were on his radar. Turns out he wasn’t totally cool with it. I remember him saying that although there were plenty of girls he had been talking to, Nyota was the one he was having romantic feelings for. Damn. Just my luck. So we did what any two idiotic adolescent boys would do – we made a pact. We would both pursue Nyota to the best of our abilities, and once one us was successful, the other would back down, and we would remain friends. It’s funny I know – the arrogance to assume that one of us would be successful, as if Nyota didn’t have other options, or was even interested in a relationship. But in any case, that was the pact.

For myself, there was never any doubt that she would choose me. She had to. We were meant to be together. I could feel it in my soul, with a depth only adolescent hormones can attain. My newfound confidence was exhilarating, and I was going to ride it out for all it was worth.

I was a lifeguard back then, and I regularly worked at an apartment building occupied mostly be senior citizens who never used the pool. I would often sit and stare at an empty pool, or do crosswords (after I finished my homework, that is – I managed very high grades in high school thanks to that empty pool). Sometimes a friend would come and visit with some McDonald’s which was right across the road. One day Nyota came to visit. She brought me a Big Mac. Love, right?

So as we were sitting there eating our grease, she suddenly got really serious. She says she has to tell me something.

“Geordi told me about your pact,” she says.


“He told me how the two of you are both interested in me.”

“He did. That’s … interesting.”

“I just want you to know, I love you both. I haven’t made my choice yet. But I will soon.”

Ouch. I questioned Geordi’s choice, that’s for sure. But she did say she loved me (don’t get excited – Nyota used to say I love you to pretty much anyone she was friends with). And at least now everyone knew the situation. I still had no doubts about who she would choose. That is, until Halloween that year – this would be 1986.

The Halloween That Crushed Me

Geordi had a Halloween party at his place. We weren’t old enough to drink legally, but for some reason I always looked old enough and could buy alcohol without getting carded. I bought some for everyone, which is funny because I myself never drank. Didn’t like the taste. Still don’t, actually. Anyway, we were all there at Geordi’s having a good time. At one point in the evening I realized I couldn’t find Nyota, so I went looking for her. She wasn’t anywhere downstairs where most of the people were hanging out (neither was Geordi, although I didn’t notice that), so I went upstairs. The door to Geordi’s room was closed, so naturally I went in (I swear this is not how it sounds – I was so naive that I just thought it was another place to look, and I had been in Geordi’s room hundreds of times since that’s where we hung out when we were at his place).

I found Nyota. And Geordi, as it turned out.

Now before you get all freaked out I have to tell you that it’s not what it would have been if this were a television drama. They were just sitting on the bed. But they were sitting really close. And they both looked at me with expressions that told me that Nyota had made her choice. I apologized for interrupting, closed the door, and went straight for the beer. I grabbed a bottle of Molson Canadian and must have chugged like at least one seventh of it, then decided I was drunk. I slid down the wall I was leaning on and started crying. Oh the teenage angst. Oh the pain! Rob found me like that and figured out what happened, and we left.

The next day at school Nyota found me and apologized that I had to find out that way (funny right? She apologized to me because I barged into a room where the door was closed). Apparently she had made her choice some time before, but neither of them knew how to tell me. She said she still wanted to be my friend, because she valued our friendship very much and in fact considered me to be her best friend. I agreed. We would be friends forever.

Not My Finest Moment

About a month later, Geordi and his family went to Montreal to visit some family. Being friends and all, Nyota and I spent much of that time together. We went to see Lady and the Tramp, which was playing in a theatre near where I lived, and went to dinner after. We talked a lot about what had gone down. I told her I still loved her and couldn’t turn it off. She told me that Geordi didn’t understand her the way I did, although he loved her and she loved him. We decided that she had made the wrong choice. She decided she would break up with Geordi when he got back, then we would wait an appropriate amount of time and then she and I would get together officially. I had officially broken my pact with Geordi, but I thought he would understand. Nyota was my soul mate, after all. It was much more than just teenage romance.

That year I had a New Year’s party at my place. Like Halloween, everyone was there. Nyota told me that she would break up with Geordi at that party. I was eager for that to happen so we could begin our life together. I was hyper-aware of Nyota and Geordi all evening, and eventually I noticed that they were not around. Nyota came back later but Geordi did not. She was not happy. I am sure he was not either. But it was done. We spoke briefly but she was very upset and left. I was upset for Geordi, but elated for myself. All those years of wondering what it would be like to be in a romantic relationship and here I was, in one.

A few days later Nyota told me that she was headed over to Geordi’s place to talk. He has asked if she would come over and she felt she owed him that. I was concerned, but hey – people do what they need to, right? I told her to call me when she left, no matter what time it was. I stayed by the phone all night. I unplugged the other phones in the apartment when it got too late so the call wouldn’t wake my mother or siblings. I put the phone under my pillow so it would wake me but be muffled. The call never came.

Let the Teenage Angst Begin

The next day I called her house. These were the days before call display – if you wanted to know who was on the phone you had to actually answer it. Nyota’s mother answered. I asked for Nyota and she asked who was calling. When I said it was Rich, she said Nyota wasn’t home and would call me back.


Rob had come over that morning, and when I hung up he said he would try. He called, and again Nyota’s mother answered. She asked who was calling and he said Rob. She said one second, and put Nyota on the phone. Rob gave me the receiver, and I said hi.

“Oh, it’s you” she said, “I was going to call you later.”

“Well I’m here now. How did it go? What happened?”

“We had a long talk, and Geordi helped me realize what I should have already known. That I love him more than anything in this world.”

I felt like Thanos had used all the power in the infinity gauntlet to reach into my chest and squeeze my heart.

“Well kid, you had me fooled.” I said, and I hung up the phone.

I was pretty inconsolable for weeks after that. Geordi and I talked and decided we were cool, but we really weren’t. It was hard for him to forgive me and I didn’t blame him. And I was just unable to internalize what had happened. We were supposed to be soul mates. She was the only girl who ever talked to me. And she chose someone else.

I still hung out with our friend group when we would go out. One of our common activities was to go bowling and then hang out at a Tim Horton’s near the bowling alley. Any teenager will tell you, there is no pain like teenage heartbreak though, and I would stay alone in the corner and wallow. During that time, Marla would always come over to see how I was doing. I can only imagine how pathetic I looked. She and Nyota were very close, and she knew what had happened. We talked and talked. I lamented my loss. She commiserated. This went on for a long time.

The Beginning of Love Was True Friendship

Eventually I began to realize that we weren’t spending our time talking about Nyota anymore. We were just talking about stuff that people talk about. I also realized that whenever the group went out, I always wanted to be near Marla because I just really enjoyed her company. I wasn’t sure if she felt the same way, but she seemed to not mind the fact that we always ended up sitting together. I know I didn’t mind. And when we hugged as friends, did she hold it a little longer? I wasn’t sure. I know I was holding it just a smidgen long, but always hyper-aware of whether she was pulling away as one does at the end of the friend hug.

One day Geordi came to me, and asked me if I was having feelings for Marla. I said I thought maybe I was.

His response was “Oh, no. We were worried about that. Nyota and I don’t want to see you get hurt again. Nyota talked to Marla and is sure that Marla does not feel that way about you.”

Not Buying It

I should have been devastated, right? But it didn’t sound true. I was getting a different vibe from Marla than would be consistent with that. So I just kept doing what I was doing, which is to say spending time with her, getting to know her, and just really enjoying each other’s company. Oh, and the hugs were getting longer, I was sure of it. I got a bit more confident as time went on – Rob had a birthday party for Marla at his place, and we were all lying on the floor in his family room listening to music and talking. Marla and I were lying on our stomachs next to each other, and she was close to a glass coffee table. I put my arm over her back – like right over, in an arch, no touching – and said I was just protecting her side from the corner of the table. She smiled in the cutest way (which she still does) and said ok. I stayed like that for hours, I think. Couldn’t feel my arm. But I could sure as hell feel my heart.

Our First Date

There was another couple in our friend group that I haven’t talked about. I’ll call them Han and Leia. They were good people, and a real power couple at the time. Han and I discussed going to see a movie with Leia and Marla. We asked them and it was set. The movie was Brighton Beach Memoirs. The date was January 27, 1987.

During the movie I decided to “make the move”. The Danny Zuko move. I literally yawned and stretched to put my arm around her shoulders. But before I put it all the way down I lost my Zuko, and asked her if it was ok if I put my arm around her. She said yes.


I said “Good. Because I love you.”

That’s right folks. First date, right out of the gate. I went there. And her reply was three words I will never forget.

“Are you sure?”

See – she knew I was not quite sane. But I was sure.

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. Because I love you too.”

And with those words … she saved me. (Man, that sentence was fromage right there! True though.)

33 Years Later, She Continues to Save Me

And ladies and gentlemen that was it. That’s the story of how Marla saved me, and helped me become I am today. When we started dating I was 17 years old, and she was 16. We have said “I love you” to each other every single day since then, with the exception perhaps of the days before internet and cell phones, when we were in different cities for university, and long distance charges made it so we couldn’t talk every day.

I’ll be 50 this coming April. 33 years of my life have been spent in love with Marla, and knowing she loves me too. Little me was right – it is a bizarre and wonderful thing. Marla is so much more than my wife. She is more of me than I am myself. Every bit of me that does good in this world is influenced by her. She is the kindest, gentlest, most caring soul. Her greatest pleasure is just being with the kids and I. If the first part of this blog was about how we met, I think it’s an injustice to not spend the end of it talking about how my life is so much better because of her. Here are some images that I have from our 33 years together. They aren’t in any particular order, and the list is infinitely far from comprehensive:

  • Watching her breastfeed both kids. She would sit with them on the special breastfeeding pillow, and methodically kiss all of their parts as they fed, spending particular time on their little toes. So peaceful, and so special. My heart still melts when I think about it.
  • One time on her father’s sailboat, I was on deck and she was below. I looked down through a hatch at the same time her father did at Marla looking up at us with those big brown eyes. I was struck by how sweet she looked. Apparently so was her dad – he commented on her “big cow eyes”. He meant that in a nice way. She has this way of looking at me sometimes with those eyes that is like pure love.
  • On our honeymoon in Ixtapa, Mexico, there were some guys on the beach selling parasailing experiences. I think they were charging $50, but I can’t remember. In any case I do remember it was all the cash we had with us at that moment. I was too scared to try but she was not. I remember seeing her suspended up there, and I was so in love with her at that moment, and so scared that she might get hurt. She looked so small, and yet she was (still is) everything.
  • Watching a movie or television with her and the kids. We always know when something will make her cry (it doesn’t take much, admittedly). We always look at her when we know she will be crying. It’s like she emotes for all of us. We all love her so much, and in those moments I think it gets amplified.
  • After my heart attack I had a fairly ugly-looking bruised, tender area where the catheter for the angioplasty was inserted in my right wrist. I was feeling pretty fragile overall, and was taking extreme care not to stress that area. I remember lying in bed mostly asleep, and I turned over and realized that my arm was about to get squished under my head, so I extended it out. It was then that I realized Marla was fully awake and watching me, as she gently took a small pillow that lives on our bed and placed it under my wrist. She is always doing that – small things to take care of the people she loves. That pillow is still in the same spot 4 years later. I still put my wrist on it. My wrist is fully healed – can’t even see a scar.

I said recently to someone that there isn’t a part of me that isn’t infused with Marla. Double-negatives aside, I don’t know a better way to describe her impact and influence. She is my best friend, my closest confidant, and the source of all my strength and confidence. I literally spend time just treasuring my fortune at knowing her, and being her husband. There may or not be such thing as angels, but there sure are angelic people, and Marla is the most angelic of them all. I love her.

Thanks for reading,



Lately I have been thinking a lot about my heroes. In order to help clarify my thoughts, I thought a blog post might be useful. I’ll start with some clarification about the way I am applying the word “hero”, because I think it can have many meanings.

For me, a person who rushes into a burning building to save a baby is heroic, and I stand in awe of that kind of bravery, but I am not talking about that kind of hero. Then there are the people we see repeatedly doing amazing things in some specific context. For example Michael Jordan often did heroic things on the basketball court, most notably for me was game 5 of the 1997 finals when Jordan, sick with either flu or food-poisoning, still managed to lead the Bulls to victory. But I’m not talking about that kind of heroism.

What I am talking about is when I encounter someone who has amplified some trait or combination of traits I sense in myself, and that I would like to amplify as well. I could probably use the term “role model” here more aptly, but I also find that this term is not as charged with the energy I am trying to convey. The word hero works better.

When I was younger I didn’t realize this – I thought my heroes were demonstrating something I didn’t have, and that drew me to them. As I got older I started to discover that in reality what was happening was they were showing the trees that my seeds could grow into. They were showing that it works, and that it can stand you well. They were showing me that I was right to want to nurture those aspects of my character. So who are my heroes? It’s an interesting list. In many cases there is overlap, but not all. And sometimes the heroism is derived from a very narrow slice of what is undoubtedly a complicated synthesis of things I either don’t know about, or else don’t value in this sense. So I guess my list is kind of like a Frankensteinian conglomeration of pieces, each amplified, that make up the parts of me I like the best, and want to amplify.

Maybe one day I will write out the list, and do my best to identify how each person comes to be there. But today I want to talk about one hero specifically. Because she left us today, and I am feeling the loss intensely. And she is a most unlikely hero.

I’m talking about my dog, Tryxi.


We said goodbye to her this morning. It was hell. The whole family was there, along with our wonderful vet, who loved Tryxi almost as much as we did. There’s no surprise here for any dog owner. Dog owners all understand how much we love them. And any dog owner who has lost a pet knows there are no words for the pain of that day and that moment. But she was suffering terribly, poor girl. Cancer was eating away at her from the inside out and she had lost her muscle mass, her appetite, and much of her enthusiasm. Although she was happy about people right until the last moment. She loved her people.

So let me tell you why Tryxi was my hero.

Tryxi spent most of her days in my wife’s home office, guarding my wife and the house from her doggy bed. When the four of us (my wife, myself and our two kids) would gather in the kitchen or family room for family time Tryxi always made sure she was there too, the proximity being important to her and to us. Whenever my daughter was sad, she would hug Tryxi and it would be better. Ever since my heart attack about 3.5 years ago I have had bouts of anxiety that cruelly give me chest pain. Hugging Tryxi took the pain away.


Tryxi never tried to make anyone feel better, or better about themselves. It just happened because she accepted everything as true. If she sensed sadness she never tried to tell the person to make the sad go away. She just absorbed it. When she sensed happiness she ran with it. Tryxi never lied – to herself or to anyone. If she found something to be irritating she said so (as experienced often by our other, younger dog, Moose the pug). When she was in pain Tryxi never thought about whether it was fair or not. She never felt sorry for herself. She also never congratulated herself for anything.


Tryxi was naturally strong. She destroyed many a Kong in her time – even the “Extreme Kong”, designed for the toughest chewers, was no match for her and lasted less than 20 minutes. Her thighs rippled with muscle even when she wasn’t moving. And yet Tryxi never, ever, used her strength to hurt anyone or anything. She would use it readily to establish her presence, or to solve a problem, but never in aggression. Tryxi knew exactly who she was without anyone having to tell her, and certainly without having to have conversations with herself about it. If she liked something she loved it. If she didn’t like something she ignored it. Her default position was love and calm. Anything that happened that took her away from that place was always viewed as a temporary distraction, and she would deal with it then patiently wait the return to baseline. Without judgement or remorse. Even as she was deteriorating, her attitude stayed like that. She was waiting for her peace.

This morning she found it. She knew it was coming and she wasn’t afraid. It was what she was waiting for.

Tryxi has been my hero for years. I am changed because of her – because she showed me that I could amplify those traits that I saw in myself. I do my best to calmly accept the moment. To live now. To enjoy the love that is always there. To bring peace to others. To not judge. To not waste energy fretting over what is “fair” and instead to use my energy to live fully.

She was a good girl. She is my hero.

Thanks for reading,


Gracefully Honest

In this blog I will talk about honesty – something I think many well-intentioned people struggle with. This is because sometimes it seems like lying is the right thing to do – and in some rare cases, it is. To paraphrase Sam Harris, when Nazis came looking for Anne Frank and her family, anyone lying about them not being hidden in the building was certainly doing the right thing.

That said, in all but the most extreme cases, people choose dishonesty for misguided reasons. This happens because sometimes the truth hurts. In fact, sometimes, truth is used as a weapon.

The confusion is, in part, because while honesty can be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it always is. Honesty must be wielded virtuously, which is not automatic. In fact on its own, honesty is not a virtue.

Honesty is not a virtue

In classical antiquity, there are the four cardinal virtues. In brief, here they are (these definitions are mine – for more formal details, check this link):

  • Prudence: The ability to judge the appropriateness of a possible course of action.
  • Courage: The strength to act in the presence of fear.
  • Temperance: The exercise of restraint in feeding an appetite.
  • Justice: The purest form of fairness, in a righteous sense.

So honesty is not a cardinal virtue. Now over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have added more virtues to the cardinal four. Of these there are three that I think are moral necessities. These are “love”, “charity” and “kindness”.

Still, on it’s own, honesty is not there. This is because honesty can be used morally (specifically in the context of love, charity and kindness), but it can also inflict pain – intentionally or not. Let’s have a look at that second situation first – the “brutal” honesty.

Brutal honesty

“I am going to be brutally honest with you.”

How many times have you encountered that sentiment? How many times have you said it? Let’s stop to consider what it prefaces: that the person is about to lay some bit of perspective on you that they know is going to hurt.

This is usually justified by the idea that you are deluded somehow, and need to “snap” out of it. Or you need a “hard” dose of reality. Or any other number of violent paradigm shifts the perpetrator feels they are uniquely prepared to impose. Because, after all, the world is full of people willing to coddle you, creating the need for someone righteous enough to tell you the truth, even though it will hurt.

This is bullshit.

This “brutal” honesty is really an attempted behaviour modification through punishment. The shock it is expected to impose is designed to somehow shine light on a deficiency in perception, so that you cease your persistence in pursuing some vision. A vision which, according to the person with the flashlight, is a fantasy. It tends to come from a place of anger and – make no mistake – is meant to make you suffer for whatever pain your apparent delusion has been causing them.

People who use this phrase like to project pride in their willingness to use it. You may hear them boast such claims as “Hey, I call it like I see it”, or “I’m a straight-shooter”. It comes with admonishments like “The truth hurts”, or “If you want to hear the truth then you don’t want to be around me”. They may be offering honest assessments, but they are nested in dishonest motivation, even though the motivation is sitting right there in the phrase. Brutal is not a nice word.

Definition of brutal
“Brutal.”, Merriam-Webster, Accessed Mar. 2017.

Check out that definition. There is nothing in there that speaks to any kind of morality or good intention, and certainly nothing virtuous. Even the entry about brutal truth contains no compassion. Accurate? Yes. But unpleasantly and incisively so.

So then someone who prefaces the delivery of truth with “I am going to be brutally honest” is – by their own admission – embarking on a non-virtuous wielding of honesty as a weapon to deliver misery. I propose that in the vast majority of situations, the fundamental reason for this is that even though they are using the word, they are not being honest about their own motivation – the desire to be brutal.

But I don’t want to be brutal!

It’s okay – I know. This notion of brutal honesty leads to a concern from good people who don’t want to be brutal. There is a perception that if the truth is brutal, or perhaps unsavoury, then a lie would be better. Keep in mind though that lies come with a heightened anxiety of their being discovered. This often leads to uncomfortable situations, where additional and more elaborate lies are needed to maintain the facade of truth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to be honest and virtuous. I call it “graceful honesty”.

Honesty with grace

First, let’s have a look at the definition of grace, so that you can understand why I chose that word. Grace has many meanings, so I have highlighted the ones I am applying in this context:

Definition of grace
“Grace.”, Merriam-Webster, Accessed Mar. 2017.

Recall earlier, when I spoke about the three virtues of “love”, “charity” and “kindness”. In many ways, the word grace encapsulates these, and so I choose it to describe the type of honesty I mean.

First, be honest with yourself

Graceful honesty isn’t difficult, but it does require some practice if you are not in the habit. The key to it is when you find yourself either tempted to be dishonest, or about to be brutally honest, you stop and spend some time being honest with yourself first. If your motivations are virtuous, then there will be a way to communicate honestly with grace. Conversely, if your intentions are nefarious, then hopefully you will be honest with yourself about that and choose some other course, having recognized the toxicity of your initial instinct. The key then, is to use self-reflection to uncover and put words to your motivation. I don’t want to use too many specific examples here, because it is easy to make arguments about the inaccuracy of an example as it applies to yourself, and then decide the concept is flawed, but I’ll indulge in one in the hope that it will be a good springboard.

Dinner at Kelly’s

Suppose you have been invited to dinner at your friend Kelly’s house, and you just don’t feel like going. The likelihood is that if you decide not to go, you will fabricate an excuse. Further, the excuse probably has a half-life greater than a few hours. What I mean by that is that it’s probably a concocted scenario that will likely be referred to at a later date. For example, you may claim “my kid is sick”, which you can bet Kelly will ask about in the next day or two, and may even ask your child. In this case you will have to remember the excuse so that you don’t accidentally contradict it later, and you may even have to recruit your family to perpetuate the dishonesty – something they are more likely to forget about, since they are not vested in the lie. Result? Anxiety.

Instead, consider this. You really do value your friendship with Kelly. You also don’t feel like going. Before choosing to be dishonest, you can spend some time in honest self-reflection. Why don’t you want to go? Be super analytical about that. You may discover that you actually do want to go, or you will confirm that you don’t. If you truthfully don’t want to go, you will now be better able to put into words what the real reason is, which will of necessity consist of the factors that are outweighing your legitimate desire to spend time with Kelly.

If you tell Kelly exactly that reason, and if Kelly is a good human, she will understand, because you have been fully honest and presented the reason in full context of how you struggled with the decision. She will appreciate the conflict, and understand the conclusion, even if she is disappointed.

But wait you say! I know Kelly! She would never understand! She would just be insulted! Well, I’m not foolish. I know this is also a possibility. But here’s the thing: this is only the current state of your relationship because of a history of implicit dishonesty about motivation. Which means there is room for more honesty – on her part and on yours. See, if at the core you both value each other and the friendship, then you mean no insult, and so how can she be insulted? And the core is all that actually matters – because it is impossible that either of you wants the other to be upset. That core exists, and honesty will land you there. Graceful honesty.

Graceful honesty doesn’t mean everyone is happy

In the example above, Kelly is probably going to be disappointed. You might also. That may seem contrary to virtue, but it isn’t. Not if you were honest about the factors that outweighed your desire to go. Disappointment isn’t a monster to be avoided at all costs. It’s a natural consequence of not being able to implement more than one choice at a time.

One of the great contributors to dishonesty is a desire to keep everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But it’s a trap. Lying by definition creates a false narrative. Perpetuating this to maintain a state of happiness, in fact maintains a state of delusion. One from which the participants (barring tragedy) must eventually emerge, and who’s discovery is unlikely to legitimize the illusion of peace they were enjoying. Put simply, the lie just sets everyone up for a bigger fall.

But life isn’t about being happy all the time! We all know this. We all experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment. For the most part we don’t let these things impact the zoomed-out graph of our lives. Yet we find ourselves willing to skirt honesty with others to somehow shield them from these normal experiences.

Have you ever said something to someone in anger that you later regret? I’m betting you have. I’m betting some if it was pretty damn poisonous, and required a lot of apology, replete with the sentiment “I didn’t mean it”. But is that really true? More specifically, does “I didn’t mean it” mean the same thing as “it wasn’t true”?

My experience tells me that what we are really trying to say is “I regret using honesty to hurt you – it isn’t consistent with how I feel about you.” This can be about something you’ve been holding in for a while, or it can be about an emotion that was real in that moment, instigated by the anger. For example, “I hate you!” during an argument isn’t totally untrue, just imprecise: it really means “I hate this feeling I’m having right now that you are causing”, and it is 100% true. It is also 100% forgivable, because it is 100% understandable.

If you think about this for a while, you will see that the real mistake is not being honest earlier, when graceful honesty would have worked: “I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul, but I do get irritated when you don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. I do not equate this behaviour with you, and my irritation is therefore not aimed at you, but the behaviour.”

That last quote is wordy and annoying, I know. But it’s the idea I am trying to communicate, not a recipe for how to tell your husband to put the damn cap on the toothpaste. Very often we don’t disclose little irritants like that because we are concerned it will be taken as criticism of a loved one we don’t want to hurt, as opposed to observation of a behaviour that is independent of the reasons we care about the person exhibiting it. Graceful honesty would disclose all of that, and keep the barbs from growing onto a club that could be wielded in anger.

See, hiding the truth is silly. We are all in this reality together. We should share it. All of it.

Honesty is the sharing of reality.

Think about it. How can honesty be anything else? But as I said earlier, to do it with grace requires a deeper searching of our own motives than we normally do. So the next time you feel like a lie is warranted (or if you are tempted to inflict pain with truth), ask yourself why. What is motivating you? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to help? When you feel the truth needs to be hidden, put away the issue whose truth is troubling you for a moment and look at the feeling itself – it will be the source of the honesty you should embrace. The reality you should share. It is the only way to build and maintain relationships that have value.

Thanks for reading,



Recently I have been thinking a lot about why so many people seem inconvincible of certain things which I hold to be true. And while I could certainly make a list of some of these things, that is not the intention of this blog entry. Instead, I have been reflecting on open-mindedness and wanted to share.

Many people – myself included – often enter into discourse with someone of a differing opinion with the intention of convincing them to change their mind. For example, maybe your friend Paul thinks all trees in your neighborhood that are taller than 12 feet should be pruned to 12 feet or less, so as not to obstruct anyone’s view of the lakefront. You know that he’s clearly wrong! You get into a discussion. Only it’s not really a discussion – it’s an argument each of you is trying to win. Maybe out of frustration you start incorporating personal attacks. Maybe you get so angry at Paul’s refusal to capitulate, as well as the horrible things he is saying about you, that it ends your friendship. Maybe in the middle of the night, Paul prunes all of your tall trees. Maybe the next night you erect a 30 foot statue on your lawn directly in Paul’s line of sight to the lake … and so on.

It’s sad, and you don’t even like the statue, but what choice is there? Paul must be taught a lesson.

I wish this was hyperbole. Sadly, it is not. And the conclusion is clearly suboptimal.

Well … let me construct a basis for discussion with some (hopefully) fair assumptions. In doing so I’m going to have to use a little bit of math terminology, and it occurs to me that some people might not know precisely what I mean, or even be put-off by some of my more mathematical references. If you think this might be the case, I ask you to bear with me. The concepts and symbols I use are the best way for me to illustrate my point, and I’ve included here a bit of a math lesson, in case it is not something you’ve encountered in your life – it will clarify some of the words and concepts I use for the rest of this article. Of course, if you feel there’s no need for you to read this section, by all means scroll past it and keep reading (I won’t feel bad).

Some Math concepts

Mathematicians like to talk about collections of values that are somehow related, and when they do, they use the word set. We use curly brackets to list the objects (known as elements) of a set. So for example the set F=\{apple, orange, banana, kiwi, peach, nectarine\} is a set I have named F, and just so you know, it is the set containing all the fruits I might bring to work with me in my lunch. A subset of a set S is another set that only contains elements from S. So for example M=\{apple, kiwi\} is the set of fruits I brought to work in my lunch on Monday, and is a subset of F. On the other hand, A=\{apple, pineapple, banana\} is not a subset of F.

A Little Bit of Algebra (Apologies to the Arithmophobic)
Consider this simple algebra equation:
\displaystyle 3x+4y=7
The x and y are understood to be symbolic of numbers, but the use of symbols mean that they vary – which is to say, they are variable. The equation is a statement. In this particular statement,
x = 1, y=1
would be a valid solution (i.e., the equation becomes true), since
3\times 1 + 4\times 1=7.
So would
x = 5, y=-2,
3\times 5 + 4\times (-2)=7.
x = 5, y=2
would not be a solution (i.e., the equation becomes false), since
3\times 5 + 4\times 2=23,
which is not 7.

In math and philosophy, a statement is a sentence that must either be true or false (but not both, and not maybe). Very often the truth value (i.e., “true” or “false”) of the statement depends on values for variables contained in the statement. The algebra equation above is a statement. Another example is the statement “I like cheese”, which contains two variables: “I”, and “cheese”. If the “I” refers to “Rich Dlin” (i.e., it is me speaking and not you), and the “cheese” refers to “Havarti”, then the statement is true. If the “I” is “Rich Dlin”, and the “cheese” is “Cambozola”, the statement (I promise you) is false. Notice that if the “cheese” were to refer to “gingerbread cookie” the statement would be nonsense, since “gingerbread cookie” is not a cheese – even though it is true that I like gingerbread cookies, it is irrelevant in the context of this statement. A mathematician would say “gingerbread cookie” is not an element of the set of all cheeses. Going back to the algebra example, {(1,1),(3,-2)} is a subset of the set of solutions to the equation given. The actual set has an infinite number of solutions in it, but that’s more than I need to talk about here. What I will say is that the truth value of the statement “Three times John’s favorite number plus four times Gail’s favorite number will yield seven” is:

True if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) belongs to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7,

False if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) does not belong to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7, and

Nonsense if, for example, John claims his favorite number is “cinnamon“. Be on the lookout for nonsense – it is surprisingly common.

The Assumptions

Ok. Welcome back. Here are the assumptions I was talking about:

All questions have a right answer
… when the answer is justified properly with a well framed statement.
The truth value of the statement may be subject to variables that change which answer is correct, but with a fixed set of values for the variables, there is a right answer. For example, the question “Should all trees taller than 12 feet in our neighborhood be pruned?” could be answered “Yes”, justified with the statement “It is unacceptable for some trees in our neighborhood to block sight lines to the lakefront”. Note that here the answer to the question is “yes” if the statement is true, and “no” if the statement is false, and may reasonably depend on whether or not the tree is also so wide, or part of a grove, as to make it impossible for a resident to see the lakefront from a different angle standing on the same property. It may also depend on whether 12 feet is a reasonable height with respect to whether or not sight lines get blocked. In this case these variables need to be introduced into the statement, or else agreed upon as not being variable.

The right answer may well not be knowable
 … even with the variable values fixed – which doesn’t mean there is no right answer!
As an example, consider the question “How many humans are alive on Earth right now?”

  • The number changes many times in a short span of time. So the truth value of the answer depends on what time it is indexed to.
  • The answer is subject to a definition of “alive”, and the answers to whether or not some organisms are living humans are in dispute.
  • “On” Earth needs to be defined. If I am in an airplane, am I on Earth? What if I am in low orbit?
  • However there is an answer, if we fix the variables.
  • There is currently no way, even with the variables fixed, to know the answer.

Knowing the truth is inherently valuable.
This is a big one. Many people demonstrate by their behavior that they do not adhere to this assumption. A simple example is the person who refuses to go to the doctor about a problem because they are afraid of what they might find out. In some ways, not wanting to know the truth is a human quality, especially in situations where a false belief has spawned an entire tree of values and beliefs we have been living by. If the root belief is false, what happens to the tree?

When it Comes to Truth, What We Want Doesn’t Matter
So with these assumptions, my position is that for any belief I hold, I am either right or wrong, and that I may not be able to tell. So then what am I to make of someone who disagrees? Can I immediately conclude that they are wrong? Clearly not. However I freely admit I want them to be wrong, so that I don’t have to be. After all, being wrong has some negative implications. On a fairly benign end it means I have been somehow deluded, which injures my pride. On an extreme end it may mean I have to discard an entire tree of conclusions that were premised on my error, leaving behind a buzzing hive of uncomfortable questions and observations about my previous behavior. But if the root belief is actually wrong, what choice do I really have? Since it is rooted in falsehood, the whole tree is an illusion anyway.

Here is a hard truth: What we want has nothing to do with what is true. I want there to be peace in the Middle East. But there is not peace in the Middle East, and no amount of wishing on my part, no matter how fervent, can alter the truth value of this or any other statement. On the other hand, what is true can and should definitely impact what I want. What we all want.

Ok. Here is another statement that is tautologically true: In the set of things I hold to be true, some might be false. And from a probability perspective, I am also comfortable saying that in the set of things I hold to be true, some are true, and some are false. I want to say “most are true and some are false”, but I am honestly not sure I have a reasonable argument to claim that, so we’ll leave it there as a desire more than a fact.

Shades of Gray
Now I will focus on statements where the truth depends on fixing values for the variables in the statement., which to me is the core of the shades of gray argument: In cases where there is a continuum of possibilities between true and false, almost everything in the set of things I hold to be true lies somewhere within the boundaries of the continuum, rather than on one of the ends.

Here a philosopher or mathematician might (and should!) argue that there can be no continuum between true and false, since those are binary options. My response is that I am talking about a sphere of reasonable answers centered on the truth, where anything outside the sphere is easily demonstrated to be false (or worse, nonsense), but things get a little more touchy inside the sphere. This is a consequence of my point about the truth of a statement depending on fixing values for variables the statement depends upon. To elaborate on this, I am going to define something called an assumption set.

Assumption Set
Suppose a statement depends on a set of variables. For example, consider the statement “Running is good for you.” The truth of this is not absolute. It depends on some variables:

  • How much running (the quantity of the running)?
  • How intense (the quality of the running)?
  • What preconditions do you have that running would exacerbate (e.g, bad knees, asthma, heart problems)?
  • Where do you plan to do your running (road, track, beach)?
  • and many more.

So before we could discuss whether the statement is true, we would have to fix values for these variables. I call these fixed values the assumption set. So for example an assumption set for this statement could be
R=\{45 minutes per day, at 80\% of maximum heart rate, \{sensitive to sunlight, plantar fasciitis\}, track\}.
Notice that one of the elements (the preconditions) in this assumption set is itself a set – that’s completely acceptable. On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be a reasonable one – which is to say, the elements of the set have a probability associated with them that makes them not unexpected in the context of discussing the claim that “Running is good for you.”
Another assumption set could be
S=\{15 hours per day, at 120\% of maximum heart rate, \{multiple hip replacements, torn Achilles tendon\}, Interstate Highways\}.
On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be very unreasonable – which is to say, it is highly improbable that this would be an assumption set on which the claim “Running is good for you” would be a relevant discussion.

Reasonable Answers (Approximately True?)
A reasonable answer to a question can be defined as a statement that is true when evaluated with a plausible assumption set. That is to say, the assumption set is comprised of elements that have probabilities high enough that if we observed them we would not be surprised. In situations where the variables are in constant flux, the approximate truth value of a statement may be argued as the one that holds given the most likely assumption set. In cases like this, we may generalize a statement as true, while being willing to challenge it in the face of a game-changing assumption set. We maybe won’t talk about who gets to define “plausible”, even though there are times when that becomes the most relevant thing.

Arguing(?) With an Open Mind
Here I have chosen to use the word “arguing”, even though in truth I prefer the word “discussing”. That’s because most people seem to think that discussions between people in disagreement need to be arguments. I disagree. Remember the assumption that we are not right about everything? And remember the assumption that knowing the truth is inherently valuable? These two should premise every discussion we enter into. So when discussing the answers to questions, or the truth about statements, we need to do our best to remember that what we are trying to do is get as close to the center of the sphere as possible, because that is a good thing to do, and because we may not be there yet.

Of course, we all think we are closer than an opponent. If not, we wouldn’t be having the discussion in the first place. But keeping in mind that if two people are in disagreement, one of them must be wrong, a productive conversation is one where at the end of it the parties have converged on something they both hold to be as close to true as they can see getting. When this happens, the world gets a win. I’ll list some techniques for true open-mindedness.

Discussing With an Open Mind

  1. Remember that you might be wrong.
    Put another way, be willing to change your mind, or adjust the approximate truth of what you believe.
    See, you believe that you are probably right. You may even believe that you are certainly right (although for the truly reflective, certainty is a pretty difficult thing to attain). But your opponent has the same thoughts. Both of you probably have many reasons for these. And they probably have a lot to do with assumption sets, and which one of you is applying the most plausible set. Sometimes the discussion is not about the truth of the statement but on the plausibility of the assumption set. Keep that in mind. Yours may be the less plausible. Or maybe both assumption sets are equally plausible, in which case the statement can be split into two (or more) more detailed statements that include some of the differing assumptions explicitly. But keep in mind that emotional attachment to an assumption set can and will blind you to the plausibility of an alternate set, and ultimately cause you to refute a statement with unreasonable (even fanatical) obstinacy.
  2. Have higher expectations for yourself than you do for your opponent.
    This means you need to challenge yourself to inspect the assumptions and claims of yourself and your opponent objectively, even if they are not doing the same thing. When you do this – and do it out loud – they hear that. Look at elements of the assumption sets and objectively evaluate their probability. Also evaluate whether they change the truth value of the statement or not. And be prepared to evaluate whether or not they render the statement as nonsense – this happens surprisingly often but it’s not obvious until it is isolated. Discussing things this way models a behavior that is necessary for the two of you to converge on a conclusion you both agree with. And if you are consistent with it, your opponent will often adopt the same style, if only because they think this is the way to convince you they are right.
  3. Thank your opponent, regardless of the outcome.
    I don’t mean this as a politeness. I mean this in the most sincere sense. Any opportunity we get to reflect on our set of beliefs is valuable. Sometimes your opponent and you will converge. Sometimes you will not, and they leave the exchange completely unmoved, perhaps even claiming “victory”. This is sad, since the only true victory would be a convergence of opinion, but ultimately it is not relevant to your own experience. Make it so that if you have moved on a topic, it is because you discovered something you were not considering, or were considering incorrectly, and now you are closer to the center of the sphere of truth. If you do not move, make it because you were not presented with any strong evidence that you needed to. In either case your beliefs will have been strengthened in some way, either because you changed to something as a result of new insight, or because you were challenged in some way, and it was unsuccessful. For this you have your opponent to thank.

How to Spot Real Open-Mindedness
Many people claim to be open-minded. It may be true, or it may be a trick (some people say it so that when you fail to convince them of something it will prove they were right). True open-mindedness doesn’t mean you are ready to believe anything. It means you are willing to change your mind when presented with evidence that objectively compels you to do so. If you know of (or are) someone who has changed their mind in the moment, during rational discourse, but who was fairly slow to do so, they are probably the type of person I am describing. This goes back to my point that we are probably not right about everything we believe. Which means mind-changing can occur. Which means if you’ve seen it occur, it occurred in someone with an open mind.

Thanks for reading,


Phone Addiction is NOT Okay

Hi. My name is Rich and I am an addict.

iphone.jpgOk. I know that’s been borrowed from AA protocol countless times. Often in jest when not in the context of an actual meeting. But I’m not joking – I am an addict. I have had a few addictions in my life, thankfully not any of the big nasty ones like alcohol or drugs, but some of the ones I’ve had have had negative impact, for certain. The two most prominent are food and smartphones.

I am going to talk a little about the food addiction later in this article. But I mainly want to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle evils that my phone addiction has wrought. The first is an obvious one, and it has been discussed to death. Still, it needs addressing:

Phone Addiction Steals You From The World

There are way too many times I have belatedly realized that my son, daughter, wife or close friend made an attempt to communicate with me while I was using my phone. And after they realize it’s like talking to a projection, they give up. The worst part is they seem to just accept it – that they are not going to win my attention over whatever clever post I am reading or writing, or whatever video about people hurting themselves doing stupid things I am watching, or whatever likes I am counting. What’s worse is that so many of those times they were the ones who had my attention first, but during a brief lull in our interaction I pulled out my phone to investigate a notification and was subsequently checked out. Most heart-wrenching is that it is out of respect for me that they give up and don’t try to interrupt my phone time. Clearly I don’t need to go further on the evil of this aspect. The next few are a little more subtle, but insidious.

Smartphone Addiction Erodes Your Ability to Focus

MMT TranscriptHumility aside, my concentration and focus used to be legendary. I could get lost in a process, with intense focus for hours on end. So much so that I would forget to eat or even go to the washroom, until the need for one or both of those became impossible to ignore and I would look at the clock and be shocked at the time. And the things I could do during that time were amazing. It’s how I got through my Masters degree with a GPA of 97%, for example (that and major support from my awesome wife and kids). Lately, my concentration sucks. I find myself looking for distraction only minutes after beginning something. At first, when I noticed this, I blamed my age. It’s no secret that aging can have an impact on brain function. But the truth is I am 48, and there are plenty of people older – even much older – than me who can concentrate on a task for a long period of time with no trouble. On a smartphone, nothing needs concentration, and everything is provided in quick bites. You flit from item to item like a politician moving through a political rally, shaking hands with everyone and meeting nobody. And you can tell yourself that this is behaviour limited to your phone time, but what you miss is that your brain is a learning machine, and it’s learning a behaviour. Your brain wires itself to adapt to your environment, even if that environment is the manufactured barrage of inanity you kill time with on your phone.

Possibly worse, is that we tell ourselves that the phone is a harmless distraction, and we use it at the weirdest times. I’ve used it while watching TV, thinking that surely the TV doesn’t care so no harm done. But while the TV doesn’t care, my brain does. Watching a television show requires focus. Not the same level as calculus mind you – but focus nonetheless. There’s a story unfolding and if you miss something the subsequent bits make less sense. So you are missing an opportunity to focus. To practice what I tell my students is the single most lacking skill in the computer generation: uni-tasking. I have heard many a person brag about their ability to multi-task, which is great, I guess. But smartphones have stolen our ability to focus on one thing for a long time. We can no longer effectively uni-task.

Smartphone Addiction Encourages Mistakes

Yeah, this one took me a while to clue into. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I am making more mistakes at things that I should be able to do automatically. Frighteningly, I don’t even notice them when I make them – only once they are pointed out, or long after, do I notice. And when I do notice I have no memory of making the mistake.

Now I hear you say Wait! That’s just a symptom of aging!

Well, yes. It could be. But the thing is, there is a thought groove I find myself in when these things happen – like a road I know I’ve been on because the landmarks are familiar but I can’t quite place it. Then it hit me. Autocorrect. Autocorrect and predictive text. Both of these so-called innovations have made it so that we don’t even have to concentrate on the simple act of typing a text, email, or post. Just type close to what you want and autocorrect will fix it for you. Not always correctly, mind you, but often. So much so that when it gets it wrong we don’t even notice until later, making for some humorous/embarrassing messages getting sent. I actually hated this feature, and turned off autocorrect some time ago, but I kept the predictive text on. And it works so well that I often only have to type the first 1-3 letters of what I want and an entire phrase is suggested to me – correctly. So I select it and don’t check it. And sometimes, my iPhone does the old bait-and-switch on me so that the thing I think I’m selecting changes to something else just before I select it, and I don’t even notice and the wrong thing gets sent.

Like I said before, the brain is a learning machine. And my smartphone addiction has taught my brain that you only have to start a thought to have it completed automatically. And that is what has manifested into these increasingly frequent mistakes. It is NOT age. I can feel it when it happens. It is the same thought groove as typing on my phone.

At Least I Remember When It Wasn’t So

The scariest thought to me is that these things I describe are changes. As in, it wasn’t always so for me. I am actually frightened about the generations that don’t have a comparison to make to a different time. A generation that believes that being able to concentrate on one thing for a long time is an unusual, maybe even useless skill. Or that being able catch every joke in a sitcom is a freakish ability. Or that being able to spell a word correctly on purpose is a worthwhile ability. With respect to the issues I have outlined, I want to go back to the way I was. But for many younger people, this is the way they have always been. There is nothing to go back to.

Quitting May Not Be the Answer

So the fix would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? Just stop. But that’s not realistic, or even really desirable. Many good things come from my smartphone. I have made friends – good friends – who live in different countries from me, and I stay in touch with them using my phone. There are legitimately useful apps, like the medication reminder, the shared grocery list. Or the math puzzle game Euclidea that actually reverses some of the deleterious concentration effects I described above. I use GPS apps all the time and get lost much less often (though sadly, I still manage to get lost sometimes). I listen to so much more music variety than I did in the days when you had to buy records, tapes or CD’s, and it is so much more easy to discover new music now than then. I take a lot of photos with my phone, and some of those are real treasures that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I read some great articles, and have learned a ton of cool things. Chances are super-high you are reading this on a smartphone. I believe these are good things. So I don’t want to quit. And I don’t think anyone has to. We live in a pretty plugged in world, and more and more there are things that are designed to be done on our devices that are actually difficult if not impossible to do otherwise. So modified usage is the key.

Modification Requires Discipline

Or does it? I mean, yeah, it does. Almost always. If you want to modify a behaviour it means breaking a habit, and that is not trivial. You need to be disciplined. And you need to believe that you can do it. Which I think, for many people, is the main obstacle to success. That belief that you can do it. Which leads me to my food addiction:

How I Modified My Eating Behaviour

The first addiction in my life I had to acknowledge was food. Maybe I was genetically doomed to that, or maybe it was my upbringing, but my addiction to food is real either way. It resulted in a max weight of 250 lbs, and an adulthood of gaining-losing-gaining, until my heart attack 3 years ago. The heart attack was actually not caused by my eating, or so the cardiologist says, but rather genetics. My arteries are shaped in a more clog-worthy way than you’d set out to do if you were designing a human from scratch. However there’s no argument that my food addiction wasn’t helping. The heart attack added a new tool to my psyche though – something that’s simultaneously heard and easy to describe: a hard stop. Before the heart attack meals were a negotiation in my head. And I often didn’t come out the winner in the bargain. Now there is no negotiation. I eat clean, all the time. I don’t overeat. I actually can have just one french fry. Truly! French fries are a food I will not allow myself to order or prepare anymore, but on occasion I have had just one from someone else’s meal – even though they were finished and offered me the rest. Just one, for the taste, and I have no desire to eat another. Cardio is now a non-negotiable habit as well. I don’t negotiate whether or not I will do it. I just do.

I am as fit as I’ve ever been and certainly as healthy as I’ve ever been. People often ask me how I did it and I sadly tell them that I wish I could give them the secret, but the secret is I had a heart attack and I don’t want another one.

The picture on the left features my beautiful niece at her first birthday. You may be distracted by her cuteness – I understand. Take your time. But when you are ready, the place to look is my belly protruding under my forearm. The picture on the right is a fun shot I took after a workout a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and by the way – both those photos were taken with my phone.

So. I have managed to find a way to live a healthy life despite a food addiction, even if the way I found was not something I’d wish on anyone. But after all, isn’t it all in my head? This new tool I called the hard stop?

Of course it is. And because it is I believe I can apply that rationale to my phone addiction. I have started to, and will continue to do so.

What I Am Doing to Fix it

I turned off all the features of my phone that try to think for me. Any typos or wrong words I send now are all mine. And there are so much fewer of them now! It takes me longer to compose a message. But it’s worth it.

I will not look at my phone while watching TV. Not even during commercials. Because you can’t force yourself to stop the moment the commercial is over.

If I am in the middle of a legitimate text conversation with someone, I make sure the people in the room with me know it, so they know why I am checked out. And when it is done, I tell them explicitly that I am done and I put my phone away so that they can have my distraction-free attention.

When I sit down to do focus-heavy tasks, like work or drawing, I put my brain in do-not-disturb mode, meaning I don’t check notifications at all, and my phone becomes a music player exclusively. When I do this, I let anyone know who would normally feel like they have 24/7 access to me that I have gone dark. This way if they need to communicate with me they know they need to either do it in person or call. Because as we all know, nobody ever uses their smartphone as a telephone, so when there is an actual call I know I should check to see who it is and probably answer.

It Can Be Done

As they say, no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You don’t have to quit if you can properly modify. And you can. I believe you don’t need a critical moment to be the catalyst. Just the knowledge that you can do it. And I really, really believe we need to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on smartphone addiction, and how it can be addressed. Feel free to share in the comments section.

Thanks for reading,