Monday, October 1, 2018

Memento mori

Back in 2010, the Snooze Button Generation (tm) staff determined that this blog and all of its subsidiaries would not do posts about the birthdays of CEO and founder Joe Stevens.

Today, we assure you that this is not a typical post about birthdays that says: "Mr. Stevens turned 45. Yay!!"

No, no, this is a bit different. This is a post about life, death, morality and humanity in which the phrase "memento mori" will be mentioned.

Mr. Stevens has some maudlin tendencies and sometimes looks at death as a "negative" part of life. Back in 2010, he said, "Believing in an afterlife is self-deceit. So each year, there's a bittersweet feeling about getting closer to chest-bumping the grim reaper? But y'know what? If you know what you're doing, each year gets better, and a birthday is a cause for celebration."

The Snooze Button Generation staff concludes that Mr. Stevens sometimes goes to the dark side, kind of like Paul Giamatti's character in the movie "Sideways." In fact, he was slightly depressed on his birthday and said things like, "Well, it's one more reminder of my inevitable doom. Another candle on the cake — might as well be another nail in the coffin."

Based on our years of working with Mr. Stevens, we have discovered that this death talk is part of his motif. He's like the goth girl in high school who would wear all black and say, "I wear black on the outside because that's how I feel on the inside." Just like the goth chick, Mr. Stevens does a lot of his morbid stuff for show.

Well, the SBG staff says, "Memento mori!"
Remember, that you die, you have to die. It is perfectly fine and human. To err is human. To be human means to be mortal. Humanity is beautiful as is mortality.

We say to take it and relish it, Mr. Stevens. You have helped make our days more than worthwhile by being on your staff and have offered many insights and peeks into your life that we have enjoyed.

An extremely relevant point he made on how fast life goes is when he concluded that age should be a fraction because of our perception of time. An 8-year-old is really only 1/8th, while a 45-year-old is a 1/45th because that's what he experiences that year.

Another catch phrase Mr. Stevens has been saying of late has been "30,000 days." It's a reference to the rough estimate for a human being's life expectancy, and it keeps with his death motif. We calculated that on his birthday he was at 16,425 days and told him that.

When he heard that, he said, "Oh geez. Figures. I'm telling you it's the Catholic stuff. They make up this heaven thing, tell it to 7-year-olds, and it undermines life and humanity. It's taken me years to understand that human life is actually better than any magical after-life with unicorns and rainbows. Thank God I gave up on that heaven madness. Oh, and thanks for the happy birthday."

The SBG staff debated on whether he went to the dark side with that statement, and, ultimately, we say he did not. Perhaps it was his way of saying: memento mori.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Goodbye, baggage


The bag has been retired.

For approximately 10 years, this red, white and blue bag has been going back and forth between two co-parents’ homes. With Chloe entering middle school this year, the bag will no longer do that.

Until fifth grade, the girls did brief after-school care at a place called Kids' Club at their elementary school. Kids' Club was cool with having the bag hanging out there, and now, there is no more after-school care. The bag is retired!

The end of this baggage is a symbolic end of the idea of "baggage." Emotional baggage is something that people can bring into relationships from past relationships. I get that.

The worst part about the idea of "baggage" is to assume that a divorce or children are automatic baggage. That absolutely is not the case, and I'm offended by that type of thinking.

When people ask me when I got divorced, I say “2008.” I believe that’s the best year to say because that’s when I permanently moved out. The divorce wasn’t legally finalized until after that, I think it’s OK to say “it's been 10 years since being divorced.”

A lot of growth has occurred in these 10 years for me, and especially for my daughters, who are in eighth and sixth grade. Divorce is such a loaded term, but so is marriage. I argue that divorces and marriages come in many different shapes and sizes, and it is a disservice to make assumptions of what they are.

I used to see “divorce” as some sort of scarlet letter, something to be ashamed of, a failure. As life has progressed, I laugh at that simplistic view of divorce because it was based on unfounded assumptions.

I have met countless well-balanced, loving children who come from divorces, and I have met similar children who come from married parents. The critical factor in parenting, to me, is if the parents emotionally support their children through the child’s development. It’s irrelevant if that support comes from two houses or one house; I might even argue that two houses of love are better than one.
Being 10 years removed from divorce and being remarried in a loving, supportive relationship, I certainly see divorce differently. When I was 15, I thought I knew it all. When I was 25, I thought I knew it all. I finally figured out around age 38 that I didn’t know it all and never will. Perhaps that’s called maturity.

The one thing about being divorced that is awful is others’ misconceptions of what that means. I wrote about how divorced dads are misunderstood about two years ago, and that remains true.

The main point today is that being from a divorced family does not mean the child is “tainted.” I fully expect my daughters to having loving and healthy relationships as they grow, and no doubt, they will. I predict they will look back on their childhood and realize how they were loved from all angles — mom, dad, stepmom, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. I hope they look as fondly at their childhood as I do at mine.

However, I must be brutally honest and say there has been at least one downside to being divorced. It's that damn bag!

I tried to negotiate that bag out of existence a long time ago with Chloe and reluctantly agreed to “middle school” as the end point. I just didn’t have the heart to make a stand on the bag because the main things she was lugging back “Old Pink” and “New Pink” were two security blankets. But then with those blankets in there, it opened the door to other stuff.
 
Finally, the bag is retired. Chloe is keeping “New Pink” and Cheshie, her Cheshire Cat, at my house and “Old Pink” at mom’s house. I’m not so sure she really needs these things, but then again, do I really need my 97 Chewbaccas?


Sophie is in eighth grade now and doesn’t really have security items like this. Heck, she hasn’t been really lugging things back and forth for a few years now. Both of the girls are thriving, and both have two houses. In their case, two is indeed better than one.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Starbucks siren named 'greatest logo of all-time'

I drank Starbucks more than ever this past year, and I am pondering: "Why was I doing this?"

Of course, we could attribute it most likely to caffeine addiction or a boatload of gift cards. But as I truly analyze it, I just think I like the cup.

Yeah, in my mind, Starbucks has "The Greatest Logo of All-Time."

This is quite a statement because there are many logos that are much more iconic. Let the debate begin! The golden arches of McDonald's come to mind, as does Coca-Cola lettering and the Nike swoosh.

But even with all the established, mega-companies and logos out there, I got to give it up to the siren from Starbucks because when anybody goes into a Starbucks, the customer typically walks away with one item and the logo. I know of no other store where there is so much logo buying with so little in return.

Coca-Cola, Pepsi and all other preceding drink logos definitely deserve credit for being the precursor to the Starbucks siren. But Starbucks itself deserves credit for going with this logo, and it certainly has the world's market cornered on coffee logos.

There are 27,339 Starbucks in the world and 13,000 in the United States. This store's main thing is selling coffee and coffee drinks and not much more. Try having all of those stores without the mesmerizing logo. Good luck!
Earlier this year, my daughters and I paid a lot of attention to logos while we were driving, and we noticed a lot of red, white and blue in them. Some of them we take for granted, perhaps, like the logos at gas stations and fast-food places.

In the smart phone, Internet, Wi-Fi age, I would argue that we are bombarded with more advertising and logos than ever. I, like everybody, am accustomed to five-second ads on YouTube before I click like a monkey.

I do not purport to be a graphic designer whatsoever, so others might argue for different logos as the so-called "greatest" and probably have good reasons why. But in my mind and with my criteria, the Starbucks siren outdoes FedEx, Apple and anything else that comes to mind.

I also must give it up to the logos of luxury items, such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren, for commanding such high prices for their products — because of their logos. Solely. (Or not. I have heard that Louis Vuitton leather comes from the hand of God.)

But the real products that boggle my mind are Sharpies, Kleenex, Band-Aids, Chapstick, Xerox and more. Those are eponyms, and they often replace the actual words of black markers, tissues, bandages, lip balm on a stick and photocopying.

While Xerox machines have only been around since 1959, coffee has been in existence since 1671. So I don't think the actual word "Starbucks" will ever replace coffee, but after this blog, maybe we should go get a Starbucks.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

MTV videos: An underappreciated art form

"They're an old VH-1 couple!"

When I was a teenager, I distinctly remember making fun of "old" couples who stayed in and watched VH-1. They were reminiscing about the bands of their day — the Who, Zeppelin, maybe even Motown.

I recently had an MTV Classic kick and realized, "Uh-oh, Spaghetti O's, Dina and I are one of those VH-1 couples!"

Oh, I saw some awesome videos, including the Breeders' "Cannonball," "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits, "Waterfalls" by TLC and much more. Of course, anyone can call up any famous video instantaneously on YouTube, but an added value comes to a video that just plays on MTV Classic. I'm not sure I would have played "Waterfalls" on YouTube.

Videos still come out nowadays for popular songs on YouTube. But the good ole days of us waiting around to see Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or Van Halen's "Panama" or Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" have been long gone for 30 years. Wow, yes, where has that time gone? Those days have been gone since 1986.

The station with actual videos nowadays is called MTV Classic. This station was named VH-1 Classic from 1999 to 2016, then became MTV Classic. The actual MTV network without the "Classic" has shows including "Teen Mom: Young and Pregnant," "Teen Mom 2" and "Jersey Shore: Family Vacation." At least those were the three shows upcoming on MTV when I just looked. Of course, MTV originally stood for "Music Television," but the network has been misnamed for at least 20 years.

As I ponder my foray into MTV Classic, I realize that MTV is such an ironic, pop cultural trendsetter that it is worth understanding its unartistic, unfortunate path to reality TV. MTV's heyday was 1981-1992, when it was founded and before "The Real World" hit the airwaves. "The Real World" came out in '92, and it had its most recent installment in 2016. It was the 32nd installment and in Seattle.

A big question is: Who in the world cares about the Real World any more? What we were thinking devoting hours upon hours of mindless viewing to Puck?
So to do the math, videos without the Real World lasted 11 years. Then, the Real World droned on for 24 years, and there is talk there could be yet another Real World installment.

At the time, many of us were addicted to the Real World, but it was just a matter of time before the novelty of the show wore off and we recognized reality TV conventions. We moved onto other, improved reality shows on other networks.

MTV and the Real World definitely deserve credit, or notoriety, with bringing reality TV into American pop culture, being the first of its kind and being the trailblazers to the genre. Who could have possibly seen that reality TV would dominate the airwaves — and world — how it did, and then the United States electoral college would elect a reality TV star/business man as its president with zero political experience?

As I still ponder what happened to MTV and videos, the bigger question is: What happened to us?

We used to be cool, man. We used to brag about our bands. Whether we liked R.E.M. and U2 or Def Leppard and Poison, we had important soundtracks in our life. I'm not saying our life is devoid of music now, but do we share the same glee for music and videos that we used to have?

Are we still into reality TV like we used to be? I certainly don't think so. I, for one, have moved onto Netflix, random TV viewing and my daughter's current fancy of K-Pop with BTS leading the way. Thanks a lot, Rap Monsta, now known only as "RM."

I'm not sure there has been a good sitcom since "The Office." And I wonder if there were ever, or will be, reality TV that would be worth viewing a second time. Uh ... nope!

Videos, shockingly, somehow stand the test of time. Some of them are excellent vignettes. Man, Duran Duran did a lot with "Hungry Like the Wolf." Whitney Houston somehow riveted me every time with "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."

Yes, videos were consumable, as is so much of pop culture. But I fear our pop culture today is not only consumable, but immediately to be discarded, too. Good for you, music videos. You have stood the test of time.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Chewbacca, Love and Basketball

Cue the voice of former NBA commissioner David Stern:

"With the first pick in the 2018 Star Wars draft, Chloe selects Chewbacca from the planet Kashyyyk."

I found myself at the kitchen table with Dina, Sophie and Chloe during this incredible Cavs' playoff run, and we pondered which Star Wars characters would be the best basketball players. It was unanimous that Chewie would be the best, but beyond that, we had friendly debates of which guys would be best.

Before you knew it, we held a draft — five players and a sixth man — and here are the results:

Chloe: Chewbacca, Yoda, Boba Fett, Blind Guy who Dies, Poe, Chewie's other friend who is enslaved

Sophie: Han Solo, Anakin/Vader, Leia, Ben Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rey

Dina: Guy with the scar in "Solo," Woody Harrelson, Qi'Ra, Stormtrooper #10,  Woody's girlfriend, The Serpent Thing

Dad: Luke, pilot who looks like John Stockton, Lando but only as Billy Dee Williams, Chewie's friend who helps him carry the stuff, Hammerhead, the Emperor

Right off the bat, I like my team. I went with best available players and didn't focus too heavy on positions. The tough decision I faced was in the third round: Do I go with Billy Dee Williams' Lando or Boba Fett?

I was leaning toward Fett, but had a brief thought that he may not be allowed to wear the jetpack during a game. I went with Lando, and then Chloe snagged Boba Fett with the next pick. Dang! That girl is ruthless.

I must say that I took a liberty by selecting Chewie's Wookiee friend in the fourth round. I'm not sure that is fair because he is not named in "Solo." Then, Chloe followed suit with another unnamed Wookiee for her sixth man. Ruthless! Also, I notice that Dina only selected players from "Solo." She once claimed to "not remember the other ones" and then that "you guys took all the good ones."

What is the point of this? Well, whenever friends visit, they often are amazed and/or alarmed by my glorious Chewbacca collection. It stands at 77 Chewies and an additional 20 in storage. A common comment is: "Wow, you must really like Chewie."

Strangely, I started the collection with a mild like for Chewie, but I just found this website called eBay.com and got carried away. But I do officially love Chewie now. He stole the show in "Solo," and he is just an all-around nice, furry guy.

Not that it's saying much, but "Solo" is my fourth favorite film in the "Star Wars" saga. It follows the big three of "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." Ron Howard directed it, and while it certainly is no "Cocoon," it was better than I thought it would be.

Apparently, the next Star Wars film will focus on Boba Fett. Hopefully, it will be about his basketball skills.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Dare greatly and improvise

"I have a confession, Dr. Hair!"

"Your broken legs make me love you more!"

"I love you so much; I'm breaking my legs, too!"

These are some odd lines I said on my quest to learn improv. In an eight-week class, I learned how to at least be competent at improv. Hopefully, I can help any scene. I enjoyed it quite a bit and realize that I love pushing myself outside my "comfort" zone. Why not?

I must give shoutouts to my instructor, Richard Martinez, and Darren Held, the head of the improv studio at Held2gether in Long Beach. They enjoy what they do, are extremely experienced and helped me understand what we're going for. I will certainly give them a plug: If you are in Southern California and want to try improv, I highly recommend Held2gether.

Improv is all about establishing what the heck the audience is looking at, building on that and then bringing BIG emotion and a BIG scene. Strangely, things clicked when my soulmate, Dina, gave me a printout of improv tips. Now, my instructor Richard had been saying this all along, but for whatever reason, by seeing the printout, I really got it.

The main things that helped me take a major step forward in improv were: 1) Stop going for the joke, bro. The humor in improv comes through the relationship and scenario, and 2) Don't talk so much, bro. Well, that actually is an issue in all facets of my life. Why can't I be more like my tightlipped Grandpa Stevens? Use necessary words. Make those count. Right?

But, really, the main story from my improv class was Dina. Damn, girl, she is an improv maestro. She really knows what she's doing. She's got a zillion characters, helps create unique and big scenes. She's also got some experience.
I passed Level 1, so I have the go-ahead for Level 2. Unfortunately, that falls on a day with parenting duties, and so, I cannot take it right now. But I am demanding that Dina sticks with it because she is so good at it. I am considering taking a stand-up comedy class, which is a completely different animal than improv, and I'm hoping that is fun as well.

The big takeaway is that it feels great to do something new and creative. Music, theater, writing, dance, visual art — I love this stuff. It turns out that artistic creativity is a skill and not a "talent." Sadly, the value of artistic growth is rarely stressed. I repeatedly see students, parents and educators discount the importance of the arts because they believe the main role for education is a career path and often find artistic endeavors not worthwhile.

I highly recommend "The Creative Habit" by Twyla Tharp, the famous choreographer. She explains how creative people are not inspired by the heavens or struck with some sort of genius. Rather, they establish routines with creativity in them, and they work daily to build on their skills.
The theme that creativity can be learned and developed is seen in repeated books. "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin and even "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, which has a stretch on the 10,000 Hour Rule, come to mind. Unfortunately, at an early age, a lot of children are given the message that they either have "it" or they don't have "it."

It's a shame that message is given to kids, and that message also is mentioned in Brene Brown's book "Daring Greatly," where she focuses on the importance of vulnerability in leadership and in life. Perhaps due to many artists' insecure self-images, creative shaming — saying things like "you'll never be an actor" or "you just can't draw" — is common. Then, because the arts just isn't often valued in the U.S. of A., they walk away with that wrong and simplistic idea, and then they might never take the time to explore their arts side.

Apple has that omnipotent phrase "Think different." Might that phrase enable passivity? I say: "Do something different." Why not?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter, fools and lost connections

Happy Easter! ... And Happy April Fools Day!

The last time Easter fell on April Fools Day was 1956. But let's add to the rarity of today because Valentine's Day also fell on the same day as Ash Wednesday. The last time that happened with Easter also on the fools day was 1945.

Hearts, ashes, fools and Jesus are aligned on the calendar, and does this mean anything? Are there any possible connections?

All converges today with the risen Christ, April Fools jokes and Dina, me and the girls being in Naples, Fla., to visit my in-laws. Also, I would like to brag and say that today will be the first day I will have a drink since Valentine's Day.

Yes, indeed, I gave up drinking for lent. Success! I feel better than ever. My God, that's 46 days without a drink. I physically feel better than ever, and I realize that I will not keep up my teetotaling ways. However, I was drinking craft beers like Doritos in the house. If they were there, I'd have them. It turns out that sparkling water and exercise are much more fulfilling than the IPAs.

I then was wondering why I was drinking so many IPAs. The basic reason: It was a bad habit. I would often have one while making dinner and one while eating dinner. That's two IPAs on a random Tuesday. Maybe that's not the worst thing in the world, but why did I need them?

The hardest day was the first Friday after Valentine's Day. I realized I was accustomed to "rewarding" myself with drinks after the work week in a potential workingman's homage to WMMS, the buzzard and its hard-rocking lineup of songs at 6 p.m. on a Friday. Then, I was thinking that, man, kids are bombarded with drinking ads, and college certainly has drinking omnipotent on campuses. There was more to giving up drinking than met my eye.

Then, I read a book, "Lost Connections" by Johann Hari, and I was thinking that the IPAs may have been replacing a lost connection for me. The book argues that the real causes of depression are more cultural and external than what the conventional thinking is with an individual's chemical imbalance.

I found the most interesting thing in the book being that the United States has one of the highest depression rates in the world, and the reason why is because Americans go about combatting depression as an individual problem. Many cultures view happiness as a collective mission. "If you're happy, I'm happy." In the U.S., we tend to think we're the only ones with the problem. "I better go see my doctor, get some meds and take care of this. Shh. No one needs to know about this."
According to "Lost Connections," the lost connections that lead to depression are a disconnection from 1) meaningful work, 2) other people, 3) meaningful values, 4) childhood trauma, 5) status and respect, 6) nature and 7) a hopeful and secure future.

I'm not depressed, but I think about myself and wonder where I can connect more to have a fuller life. I also fully understand the irony of cell phones and personal technology, how the appearance of being more connected through that stuff is only an appearance. I also wonder about so many people I run across who just aren't feeling that great. What is the lost connection that they crave? How can they reconnect?

As I return to today being Easter, I realize that Easter isn't what it used to be — in my mind. I used to equate it close to Christmas and Thanksgiving as a holiday. In fact, I remember someone in my Catholic upbringing saying, "Easter is the most important holiday to a Catholic!"

Nowadays, what I like most about Easter is the idea of hope. There is hope. We can reconnect. We can have meaningful work, healthy relationships that matter, meaningful values and a bright future.

We can also make jokes on April Fools Day, get a Whoopee Cushion and blame that sound on grandma. We can celebrate Easter, eat some ham and reconnect in any way we want. Ironically, I'm probably going to reconnect with an IPA, my fake friend I used to know who, quite frankly, is only good in small doses.

I am hopeful that I will stay in the social drinking zone and not ever feel the need to drink to excess. Heck, maybe that's just what my 44-year-old body is telling me.

Forget it, forget it, forget it.
I don't understand how a heart is a spade.
But somehow the vital connection is made.






Thursday, March 1, 2018

Chewbacca collection: Alive and grunting!

"You can easily judge a man by his Chewbacca collection," said no one ever.

However, I must say I often feel judged when people realize I have a glorious Chewbacca collection that consists of:

12 tall Chewies
20 action figures
seven small Chewies (smaller than action figures)
seven extremely tiny Chewies
a pen
a pin
a pill case
two Christmas ornaments
a porcelain Chewie
windup Chewie
Mr. Potato Head Chewie
alarm clock
two porcelain mugs
bottle opener
large Lego Chewie
large Pez Chewie
Pez Chewie
five bobbleheads
Plastic Chewie head
Chewie flashlight
two mid-sized Chewies
Fozzie Bear Chewie
Chewie case
Metal sign
Lunch box
Chess piece
That makes 75 Chewies in the collection on display. That's a lot of Chewies.

But I must report that I put away several pieces for space and style purposes. I put away eight plush Chewies (small to large), a large plush Angry Bird Chewie, slippers, iPad case, iPhone case, two golf head covers, plush notebook, Frisbee, two pieces of art and wall clock. Oh, and Paul and Brenda gave Dina and me a Chewie candy dish. That's in use — in our kitchen.

In addition, there was a repeat of one of the large Chewies, and a piece of art broke when I moved. So, there really are 20 additional pieces in the permanent collection that are not on display, and so the count of Chewbaccas is at 95, up from 41 in 2011 and 16 in 2010.

"Wow, you must really like Chewbacca." That's a line I hear frequently, and while I do like Chewie, I'm not exactly obsessed with the Wookiee, or so I say. For me, it's my snakeskin jacket. It represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Prisons, tents and all of us

I'm a white boy from Cleveland.

Because of that lucky demographic, my father happened to be an attorney. I am an educator. I have never even stepped foot into a state penitentiary.

But I have taught in and examined lower socioeconomic communities and was completely moved, changed and inspired by Michelle Alexander's 2010 enormously important book "The New Jim Crow."

No matter how it is spun, the United States is facing a societal crisis when it comes to the prison system. A systemic problem persists with heavily incarcerating poorer Americans, and especially Americans of color. The prison system certainly is a way of systemic control and is indeed the new Jim Crow.

It turns out that the United States is the most incarcerated society per capita in the history of civilization. We have 2.3 million prisoners in the country, and that would be the fourth largest city in the country.

1. New York City — 8.5 million
2. Los Angeles — 3.9 million
3. Chicago — 2.7 million
4. U.S. Prison System — 2.3 million
5. Houston — 2.2 million

These statistics help break down what is happening. One-fifth of prisoners are there for non-violent drug offenses. Approximately 39 percent of prisoners are black, while only 13 percent of the population is black. For a lot of us, this is old news, but why does this persist? And why in the world is a discussion the prison system difficult or frequently nonexistent?
I certainly do not have many answers on how to reform our prisons, but I do know that understanding the skewed statistics, understanding that we spend $32,000 each year on each prisoner and understanding that change is absolutely necessary is a start.

The elephant in the room is economics — lack of economic opportunity for people of color in the prison system and Americans in general. The homeless population continues to rise as well, and I say the statistics on that is sketchy.

We have 565,000 counted as homeless in America, but some estimate that the number could actually be 10 million if we take into account people not owning or renting their own homes. Regardless, even if we take that number, the homeless population would constitute the 32nd biggest city in America.

29. Portland — 583,776
30. Las Vegas — 583,756
31. Oklahoma City — 579,999
32. The Homeless — 565,000
33. Albuquerque — 545,852

I find it interesting that we look at prisoners and the homeless as individual problems as opposed to societal problems. I believe some have the thinking: "I bust my ass, working 40 hours a week at a job I hate. Why can't they?"
Well, understanding the full social context of someone who is homeless or in prison helps. It also helps to understand the lack of affordable housing in many cities as well as the lack of skills and abilities to get, and maintain, jobs.

The economic system, and lack of reasonable opportunities, is the top reason why the numbers are so high and why these issues are so major. But perhaps the secondary reason is education.

In many professions, as we all know, education is connected to employment. Nationwide, the graduation rate for high school is 83 percent. That's actually higher than it's ever been.

However, the real problem could be the curriculum in schools and some cliche narratives being overly repeated. If the schools are a steppingstone to a job, or career, then why don't more courses in both high school and college reflect that? (As a side note: I do not personally see education as a steppingstone to a job/career. I see it as education for education sake for the improvement of humanity, and I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria's "In Defense of a Liberal Education.")

Is it truly possible for everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? What if that person's father was in prison for life? What if that person spent ages 18-21 in prison for a nonviolent drug charge? What if that person is a child who is homeless?

I certainly don't have many answers, but I do have questions. The one thing I do know is we are connected. We are connected to our incarcerated brethren and our homeless brethren. Brothers and sisters, we all are.



Monday, January 1, 2018

Once a Catholic, always a Catholic?

"Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."

That's a phrase my close friend and spiritual advisor, the Reverend Gutierrez, has told me. He's a Catholic originally from Nicaragua; I'm a Catholic from Garfield Heights, Ohio.

Even though I do not necessarily identify with the Church, it would be silly to think that my Catholic upbringing didn't have some sort of impact with who I am today. Heck, it would be silly to think that Catholicism has not had an enormous impact on American life today and much of the world.

I've been told "never discuss religion or politics." I believe that statement assumes the conversationalists to be either closed-minded, insecure or afraid of being challenged. I also believe that statement may assume that the search for truth does not evolve, does not develop or is cut and dried. I am not talking about facts, such as empirical science or verified journalistic reporting. Rather, I'm talking about our perception of truth.

That's why my experience with Catholicism — and perhaps many in my demographic and generation — is at least slightly scary. As a youngster, I took a lot of teaching as "truth," and it took me many years to sort out Catholic teaching from truth from arbitrary Catholic rules.

Somehow, at the same time, I always took Catholicism with a grain of salt — as early as second grade. I remember walking down the aisle to my first communion laughing uncontrollably and hysterically. I believe my cousins did something funny, and I just couldn't stop the giggles. Luckily, I was not scolded by a priest or nun!

Soon in elementary school, I challenged my father, the XMan, on why in the world we had to go to Church because we disagreed with some logic of the Church and its overall lack of social progress. He had the best answer of all-time: "Of course. I completely agree with you. But this is something we do as a family activity."

Nowadays, this former altar boy is doing different family activities with his wife and daughters. Perhaps our best activity is when we are all in different rooms looking at different screens!
But I joke. We do many family activities together, but Church is not one of them. Through years of anecdotal evidence, I have discovered that with about 95 percent of the people I meet, the child's faith is determined by the mom. The girls' mom did not feel strongly about a religion, and I certainly don't feel strongly enough about Catholicism to push that cart.

What am I? My Uncle Steve once mentioned the term "secular humanist," and I believe that is what I would have to say if some sort of religious definition is necessary. However, when pushed to give a religion, another answer is "I dunno. I'm an ethical human being."

I am limited as a human being with my relationship to the spiritual world. I sense something is there, maybe, or not. But the conventional ideas of heaven and hell, granting human beings eternity for choosing to believe, does not jibe with me. Heaven, I believe, can be found on earth.

"Every cop's a criminal and all the sinners saints." How much of sin is a choice? Is sin judged differently based on different situations? I remember getting extremely rudimentary and simplistic views of morality through Catechism while a massive cover-up of abuse and rape was occurring worldwide.

This is an extremely horrific and hypocritical pill for any ethical human being to swallow. I see that many practicing Catholics, and the Church itself, minimizes what happened. At least the 2015 film "Spotlight" brought the horrid situation in Boston more into the public eye.
I guess I've always been more interested in ethics and morality than religion. Perhaps what I don't buy in Catholicism is the root philosophy that man is evil. I simply do not believe that; man is good. Am I reading into the philosophy? Then, why does the Church say infants are born with original sin? Why does it have third graders go to confession and say penance? And what exactly constitutes an impure thought?

Perhaps the abuse and rape by the Church is understandable from its perspective because, after all, man is evil. I see this root philosophy — that man is evil — enforced, over and over again, and it came from Pope Francis yet again yesterday.

In a New Year's Eve service in St. Peter's Basilica, he said that God had provided a good year in 2017, but "we humans in so many ways ruined and hurt it with works of death, with lies and injustices."

Two questions on that statement: 1) Could you please be more specific on these lies and injustices? 2) Any chance we could celebrate a human being's charity or act of kindness and focus on that?

Hey, man, go to Church if that's your thing — especially if it makes you a more ethical human being. I might join you, too, now and again. I am not going to judge, like Bill Maher. I'm not smarter or better than you. I can kind of, on some level, make it kind of work. Maybe. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Celebration of "X"

The party is on!

Today is an especially meaningful day in my world as my father, the XMan, would have turned 70: 12-12-17. My mom is having a get-together to celebrate his life and our connection to him at his favorite restaurant, Mallorca, in downtown Cleveland.

Holiday. Celebrate. It's a celebration, and that's what certainly would have happened had he been here.

Ten years ago, the family also celebrated his birthday at Mallorca, and I came in from California without him knowing. I have an incredible memory with how excited and happy he was to see me along with our family and friends.

It's been a long haul, to say the least, with recovering and dealing with his passing in Feb. 2011. Anyone can read numerous posts on this blog and see the raw pain and mourning that transpired. Gut-wrenching. If anyone feels the need to go there, various posts on this blog will take you to that pain.

But I don't feel the need to go there today. I count my lucky stars that I have found my soulmate, Dina, and that my girls are growing into kind and caring individuals. I got a killer house and am into my education career more than ever nowadays. I am counting my blessings and would love to celebrate my dad and life with some tasty Mallorca paella.
What does it mean to be human? Well, death is certainly a part of life, and it's foolish to pretend that doesn't exist. Anyone who met the XMan quickly understood what a unique individual he was. Eccentric. Hilarious. Kind. Glorious. Polish. Mustachioed. Emotional. Hell, I'd love him even if he weren't my father.

But he was, and always will be, my dad. I guess I just thank the cosmos that I got to spend 37 years of my life with him. Gratitude. Maybe the best way to think about today, and all days, is that I was lucky to have him in my life in the flesh and now in spirit.


Friday, December 1, 2017

What do you wanna be when you grow up?

"What do you wanna be when you grow up?"

Now, on the surface, there is no harm to that question. We ask our children that question as early as kindergarten, and they say the darndest things! "Veterinarian." "Doctor." "Pro Athlete." "Nurse." "Rapper." "President."

For me, for many years of my life, I answered this: "Talk show host."

Looking back on that answer, the earliest I could have possibly said that was age 14. So that was 30 years ago, and I think that answer and question had some sort of weird impact on my development.

Where in the world did that answer come from? Well, obviously, it was connected to Mr. David Letterman. I liked Letterman. My parents liked Letterman. We taped his shows on a VCR. ... I guess I wanted to be funny like him when I grew up.

But looking past my affinity to Mr. Letterman, did being a talk-show host make sense? What does it mean to be a talk-show host, and what does that entail? I am not certain. Is talk-show host even an occupation?

I guess so, kind of. You got Jimmy Kimmel. Stephen Colbert. Jimmy Fallon. Talk show hosts are vaguely out there, but if they are out there, I see only about seven in a world of 7 billion. OMG, mathematically, is it really an occupation?


It turns out that the messages we send our young, impressionable children could very well affect them when they are older. Ask any Catholic!

At the time, I thought I must follow my epic hero's journey to become Mr. David Letterman. But today, I must laugh at how silly and myopic that plan was. It's true that I didn't really take any steps toward becoming David Letterman, but I would still hear this comment: "Sure. But you never know."

Yes, you do! It might have been innocuous to say "talk show host," but I outgrew that idea by the time I got to college.

Maybe the question I'm bringing up is about dreams. Is there a problem with having unreachable dreams? But then I'm thinking, if you're going to have a dream why would you cap it out with David Letterman? Why not fly? Why not hit cleanup for the Cleveland Indians? Why not win the Indy 500? Why not be the new singer to Guns 'N' Roses?

As I have become a middle-aged guy, I do believe that it is OK to keep unreachable dreams alive. And for now, I no longer want to be David Letterman. I want to be Donnie Iris:





Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A word is worth a thousand pictures

I find it curious that when I looked up "kill your television" on Wikipedia that the site redirected me to "screen-free week." That will occur April 30-May 6, 2008, if you'd like to participate.

Oh, man, life is such a journey! I feel happy just to get out of a Snooze Button Generation (tm) staff meeting about our "collective" stance on personal technology. Those staff meetings can take forever. Jeez!

After a lengthy and roundabout conversation about planning our "action plan" at our team headquarters, the Snooze Button Generation (tm) staff and its subsidiaries are releasing this statement:

"Be careful with how you use personal technology. It turns out that personal technology most likely makes your life worse. Yes, we all get wrapped up in it. True. We're not talking about a total ban. But, like, our staff just took a week off, and all we are saying is that we had the best week of our lives!"

Technology. Irony. Of course. Chances are, if you somehow are reading this, it is through Facebook, on your phone or on a computer. There is no other way to read this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but what the Snooze Button Generation (tm) staff has realized is that personal technology in 2017 hurts literacy and, collectively, our lives.

The SBG is not out of touch and would not suggest some type of banning of personal technology, but I wonder how many people are afflicted with the problem of never being able to enjoy a moment without a photo, or a post. I also wonder how many people are tired of seeing "sponsored" posts re-posted by Facebook friends. How did this happen?

We definitely live in a click-bait, headline-only culture. Even CNN can only handle one news story at a time. What has happened to a breadth of knowledge and news? What has happened to well-informed opinions? What has happened to thinking globally and acting locally?

Video killed the radio star. Maybe video killed thought, too. A picture used to be worth a thousand words. But in the image-driven, picture-saturated Facebook world, maybe a well-thought-out word is now worth a thousand pictures.
All I'm saying is that there is a good chance that, collectively, the United States has gotten dumber, far less social and way less empathetic because of the unforeseen impact of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and personal technology. I'm pretty sure that's a correct statement.

As a teacher, when I get freshmen in high school, I have to train them to be readers. I typically get about 10 percent actual readers in my so-called "honors" classes. They jump aboard the reading train because they yearn to be authentically educated and be authentic readers; they get growth mindset. Older people, eh, chances are they ain't reading. I guess that 10 percent figure applies to them, too.

But there is hope! No matter who you are, you can go ahead and get off your damn phone, get a library card and explore. It's never too late.

But beware. To be an actual reader in 2017 is to go against the grain. You could be considered an outcast to your texting-addict friends. You will feel weird at first. You will have phone withdrawal. You'll be a rebel.

Perhaps this mini-rant is to just point out that, y'know, "dot com" is the basis for why we use computers. "Com" means commerce. Are we just participating in commerce when we're on our phones so much?

I like to think that, as Americans, we're better than just being constant consumers. I like to think we're human, too.

The good news is that many of us have given our kids devices or phones at young ages, and we can trust that they won't possibly become addicted to instant gratification, constant images and texting.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Tribe earns fan appreciation blog

"In Tito, we trust."

That's a phrase that's been bouncing around The Land about the Cleveland Indians' expert manager — Terry "Tito" Francona. We Tribe fans love this guy, and we give him major credit for the Tribe's success.

Yes, the Tribe has not won a World Series in my lifetime. The last time that happened was in 1948. It would be nice if they delivered this postseason, but that possibility is three playoff series wins away. I do know this much: I will be cherishing each moment of the postseason, just like this regular season, win or lose.

Man, it's been fun to watch a fundamentally sound, well-managed and dominant team. Thank you, Tribe and Tito!

The Tribe rarely makes mistakes. They have the second highest fielding percentage in the major leagues (the Miami Marlins are slightly higher), but here's why that statistic is doubly awesome. The Tribe's pitchers have the most strikeouts and fewest walks of any team. Incredible statistics. In other words, they're the toughest team to get the ball in play against or get a free pass, and we have an excellent fielding team if you do get it in play.

During Tito's past five years at the helm, the Tribe's Achilles' heel has been hitting. But this year, they are ranked fifth in the major leagues in hitting. Of course, they set an American League record for a 22-game winning streak and have the best record in the American League. Could this be the year to finally win it all?

Strange as it may sound, I don't care as much as you might think. Now that LeBron and the Cavs gave Cleveland the championship it desperately deserved, I'm pretty chill.

My mindset has changed, and I actually think the Tribe and Tito share this mindset: We're going to put a team out there that is hard to beat. We won't beat ourselves. And if you beat us, we will tip our hats to you. We might even carve a baseball that looks like you.
Poetic. The Tribe's season has been so special that I'd have to call it "poetic." We are in the professional sports era of mega-million dollar contracts, analytics and free agency. Tito and the Indians front office understand this extremely well, and we still had the best record in the American League with an opening-day payroll of $124 million (17th highest of 30 teams). The Dodgers won the National League, but nearly doubled the Tribe in payroll with its league-leading $242 million.

Back to Tito, there certainly is no other manager I'd prefer at the helm. He is battle tested, having won two World Series titles with the Red Sox. For God's sakes, if he could break the Red Sox's 86-year-old championship drought, he certainly can help break the Tribe's 69-year-old championship drought.

Of course, anyone worth anything could say enough is enough with pro sports. But the truth is that when pro sports are done correctly, they bring communities together, give fans a water-cooler topic and even span generations. That's what happened with the Tribe this year. Our playoffs start Thursday!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Love and relationships matter most in life

What a month!

August 2017 turned out to be quite a bombastic month for me and my wife, Dina Stevens, as we got married, went on a honeymoon and then I went back to teaching the week of Aug. 21. Holy whirlwind!

Shortly after the wedding, my Aunt Chris Warner passed away after battling cancer, and I feel fortunate to have seen her the previous month and have had her in my life for all of my years.

What in the world did I learn through all of this life and death, travel, fanfare and wife adding?

Well, although any wise human being may know the following words, I had them play out in front of my eyes: Love and relationships are what matter most in life.

But here's how things get tricky — not that many people hold that value as No. 1 in their life. I notice that in the United States, the economic system is so brutally difficult that many are forced to put money (or offshoots of money, such as "hard work") as No. 1 on their list. In addition, people may philosophically put "love and relationships" as their No. 1 value, but they do not know how to match their actions with that philosophy.

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure it's easier to love in places like Italy, France and Spain, where art, poetry, music and literature are valued more than in the United States. Again, I could be wrong, but I associate love with the aforementioned humanities, while I don't necessarily do that with many things American, including Wal-Mart, gas stations, freeways, the violent tweets of "President" Donald Trump and commerce in general.

What I'm attempting to say is that valuing "love and relationships" could be counterculture to the NFL-loving, military-first values of 'Merica. Even though I say it may be totally reasonable to value "love and relationships" more than anything else, I certainly expect to be laughed out of any respectable Exxon-Mobile board meeting. But who am I to judge? It turns out that Americans' value systems are all over the map as to what they care about.

I learned that easily when I did a value exercise with my fellow educators when I got a master's this past year. We did an exercise that had each individual choose three values of 30 that we think are most important in the workplace. I went with honesty, integrity and health. It turns out that hardly any of my 30 colleagues had any of those three, yet alone the same three values. Nobody did.

At first, I was thinking, "These people are crazy!" But then, I realized that our values are unique, special to us and good luck on finding others with the same values. And — segue — that's what I learned this past month.
Jackpot! I have not only found a spouse with similar values, but I have found someone I trust, love and has my back at all times. I found the yin to my yang.

But my wedding was also a defining moment for me because it made me confirm what I value most in life and why every so often I have relationships that are disappointing to me. It's because I typically value my relationships more than the other person. C'est la vie. At least that knowledge helps me understand what often happens to me in my personal and professional life. I'm no longer disappointed when others don't match my level of caring in relationships. I care more than you, and that's who I am.

But not in my marriage. We care equally, mutually, each day and every night. Who knew that it took an Ohio State graduate to find this in, yuk, a Michigan grad?

I'm not sure if I'll live into my 90s to celebrate 50 years of marriage, but I hope I do. And when Dina and I make it that far, I hope that we realize that our honeymoon wasn't just August 2017. But rather, it was all of those years, all the way to 2067.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Oral skills and dating: The keys to marriage

In three August days, I will wed the woman I love — Dina (soon to be) Stevens.

Of course, a second marriage is different from a first one. We both have a lot more wisdom now and understand how love and marriage grows. For me, I have a deeper understanding of — and feeling of — my emotions. Thank God for that!

"Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus" may be a cliche by now, but in so many relationships, I have seen that there is major truth to that. One major difference I have seen between men and women is that men do not mind unsolicited advice, while women loathe it. It is a similar phenomenon as how women don't mind asking for directions whatsoever, while men would prefer to be lost for another hour rather than ask.

On the verge of my second and final marriage, I offer the top five updated tips of advice for husbands and potential husbands in 2017. We live in an fast-paced, ever-evolving, image-heavy, perception-driven culture in which the reality of being a husband often isn't discussed. A lot of new brides and grooms are focused much more on their wedding day than their marriage. A lot of expectant parents are more focused on their child's birth as opposed to what it means to take care of an infant.

So, guys, husbands and husbands-to-be, here are my top words of wisdom for your much-needed unsolicited advice:

1. Don't get married!
Yes, that might seem like crazy advice three days before my own wedding. But so many husbands overlook major red flags that are deal breakers. Does she want to change you? Are you just playing the role of husband in her life plan, or does she uniquely love you?

Nowadays, I say meeting a potential mate for people with their stuff together is easier than ever because of ONLINE DATING. But it's also critical to distinguish between what is a legitimate red flag and what is a legitimate "typical'' problem that we all have and can be addressed and understood. Sone online daters profiles are red flags in their own; thank God for that!

2. Keep dating
Huh? What? Keep dating?!? Well, just because brides and grooms transform into husbands and wives, they still must keep dating and keep the romance going (of course to each other!). If not, they will wonder why life slowly becomes miserable.

3. Oral skills
I can't overstate the importance of using one's mouth — and ears — to communicate! You absolutely must listen and understand the other person, and gender.

4. Listen first
Just as Magic Johnson and John Stockton were pass-first point guards, a husband needs to be a listen-first communicator. This advice goes back to the "Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus" insights. Many times, men communicate literally, and women communicate emotionally. Often times, couples are not at all in the same realm when they communicate. The wise husband understands, and knows, when to enter and stay in the wife's communication realm.

5. Venn diagrams
I believe that all human beings are Venn diagrams when compared with other human beings. We match in certain points and maybe not so much in others. In life, perhaps with all relationships and especially in a marriage, we must accentuate what we have in common and build on that. When it comes to similar interests and things you like, hit that up! There is always something all couples can agree upon!


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Cleveland vs. Los Angeles

I've always been anti-L.A.

The main reasons why are that I associate L.A. with freeways, a polluted sky, the entertainment industry and my own failed marriage. Now, the good personal news is that I'm getting married to Dina next month, and so I can associate L.A. with freeways, a polluted sky, the entertainment industry and a loving marriage.

But why do I only look at the negatives of L.A.? What is wrong with me? I have been living there for 19 years, yet I still describe myself as "Mr. Cleveland." Is it possible that, gasp, I actually like living in the concrete hellhole known as Los Angeles?

Well, the best way to figure this out is to make a list of my favorite things in L.A. and my favorite things in Cleveland and have them battle it out scientifically to come up with a winner.

My favorite things about L.A.:
1. The incredible Mediterranean climate
2. Diversity
3. Mexican food
4. Sushi
5. Unity against Trump

My favorite things about Cleveland:
1. My family
2. The sports teams
3. The city's manageable size
4. My memories growing up
5. Golf courses

OK. Both lists look fair and logical. Let's now compare the two.

The battle of Cleveland vs. L.A.
1. The climate vs. my family. ... This is a tough fight. But in my heart, I got to give it to my family. Members of my family will say I'm crazy to pick them over the weather, but I must.
WINNER: Cleveland. By the way, here's a picture of the youngest member of our family, Ellie, signing an autograph yesterday after her play: 
2. Diversity vs. the sports teams. ... Another extremely tough one. Anyone who knows me well knows that I watch or listen to every Indians game and am a die-hard Browns and Cavs fan. But diversity is such an important thing to be exposed to. What do I pick here?
WINNER: Tie.

3. Mexican food vs. the city's manageable size. Whenever I travel, I undoubtedly have Mexican food upon my return to L.A. But in reality, the ability to navigate Cleveland so easily is huge and wonderful.
WINNER: Cleveland.

4. Sushi vs. my memories growing up. I have so many awesome memories growing up, especially when it comes to time with my dad, the XMan. However, to think that is better than sushi would be like living in the past on some level and totally not healthy. And I don't care what the dietitians say!
WINNER: Los Angeles

5. Unity against Trump vs. golf courses. Finally! A category that is an easy call. While I do love the natural beauty of the courses here, the weather in Cleveland allows us to only play them half of the year. In L.A., it's accepted discourse to understand that Trump is unacceptable as president. In Cleveland, I must stay clear of these talks because "The Land" is predominantly white and sometimes white people actually support Trump.
WINNER: Los Angeles

So there you have it, Los Angeles actually edges out Cleveland. Wait a second. No! It's a freaking tie?!

Due to the 100 percent empirical nature of this study, I must conclude that it is indeed a tie between where I like more between Los Angeles and Cleveland. Oddly, Los Angeles must thank Trump for this because had he not come on the scene, I bet Cleveland would have won. I definitely like Cleveland's golf courses more than the Getty.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dina gets props as Polack gets master's

What the heck did I do this year?

In a whirlwind of a year that forced me to take a lengthy golf hiatus, I remodeled our new home and earned a master's degree in educational leadership and a school leadership credential, all while preparing for Aug. 4 — the wedding of Joe and Dina — and teaching five high-school classes a day.

When I think of all that I have done, I must give the biggest props ever to Dina, who stood by me the entire year, supported my master's quest and loved me daily. "Behind every man, there's a great woman."

Well, that phrase has a lot of connotations, and in 2017, it's probably outdated. However, Dina did act like Barbara Nicklaus this year as she enabled me to go through a rigorous master's program. I know that she sacrificed repeatedly for me, our time together was lessened, and she listened to me talk incessantly about education, corporate America, the prison system and Koch brothers.

Basically, I took 12 classes in two semesters to get my degree. That's a lot of classes! I did this at Cal State University Dominguez Hills. The highlight of the program was creating a teacher support program for my school, and I feel so strongly about it that I hope other schools and districts adopt it. Adding that to the mix, it's safe to say that the workload was intense, and it had been 20 years since my previous master's in journalism.

I did grow in many ways through CSUDH. One excellent thing about it was that I got to meet many inspiring educators, whom I have a lot of respect, especially Toni Issa-Lahera, the director of CSUDH's School Leadership program. Here we are, taking a selfie:
So I analyzed my school, and district, on many levels, and saw areas in which both can improve. But, egads, after hearing repeated horror stories about the Los Angeles Unified School District and the realities of charter schools, I am counting my lucky stars because, comparatively, my school/district is excellent.

Man, it feels nice to breathe now and not have some looming assignment. I can full throttle give more attention to the woman I love and get ready for our wedding. I may not be that well-versed with color schemes, centerpieces and floral arrangements due to my bombastic heterosexuality, but damn it, I will tell you what I think!

The irony is that even though I read a lot through CSUDH, took hours of tests and created a sustainable support program for new teachers, I actually may be learning more post-program than during it. In the past two months, I've read a run of books that I recommend including "Born on Third Base" by Chuck Collins, "The Big Miss" by Hank Haney, "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer, "A World in Disarray" by Richard Haass, "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin and "What Does it Mean to be Well Educated?" and "The Homework Myth" by Alfie Kohn.

Maybe, then, CSUDH was a success because as John Dewey says via Alfie Kohn: "To be well educated is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends."

I guess that's what's happening to me. As my love for Dina and my daughters grows each day, I — in turn — am growing spiritually, emotionally and professionally.

Bixby Elementary, where Chloe is finishing up fourth grade, has had a push to have parents and students alike embrace the idea of a growth mindset, how abilities develop through dedication and hard work and how a love of learning and resilience are essential to a good life. I couldn't agree with this more, and as I worked so hard this year with the woman I love supporting me, this is the happiest I've been.

Maybe I subscribe to the quote from Joshua Marine that is above Chloe's desk at Bixby. "Challenges are what makes life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful."

Monday, May 1, 2017

Cuba: Mofongo, cigars and ballerinas on bicylces

"To live outside the law, you must be honest."

Bob Dylan sang that line in his 1966 tune “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” For me, that quote never rang more true than when I spent a week in Cuba and Nicaragua this month.

Cuba is a land of contradictions, two currencies, pain, pleasure, surrealism, honesty and outlaws. It’s pretty damn poor with cars still from the 1950s that run on diesel fuel, and the country's had hardly any trade for half a century. It was the perfect place for an adventure for seven guys — seven educators.

Now, here’s the thing about a trip with seven guys. That’s a lot of guys. It could be like “Bachelor Party,” but in reality, we are all in our 40s. So, we kept the parties under control, vaguely attended two dance clubs one night and had a group total of five drinks total at both. I confirmed with a few others, “Uh, yeah, we're not really into dance clubs, at this point. Cuba or no Cuba.”

To get to Cuba, the plan was for half of us to go through Nicaragua and half of us to go through Cancun. A late addition to our crew went directly from the U.S. To do that would have saved us all a whole lot of travel time, but one of my best friends lived in Nicaragua until fifth grade. So I loved the idea of seeing my compadre’s homeland.

Trouble abounded immediately! For unforeseen reasons, the Nicaraguan trip became just two people — me and my friend, Kaytan. It turns out that the uncle of my Nicaraguan friend got us from the Managua airport and packed a week’s of exploration into a day. We saw Granada, the lake of 366 islets, a volcano that was gurgling and met Jimmy Three Fingers. He’s an expat who lost one of his fingers from the mob.

Nicaragua was beautiful, and Uncle Ray, who is the head of the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, was truly a great guy who showed Kaytan and I so much. Props to Uncle Ray and the Reverend Guiterrez (my spiritual advisor) for hooking us up big time. Thank you!

After an extremely long, long day, that was really like three or four days packed into one, it was onto Cuba. Kaytan and I arrived in Havana, where we rendezvoused with two more of our team, including the Reverend, in the airport. Three others were already stationed in Cuba, having traveled through Cancun.

After that extremely long Nicaraguan adventure, it felt excellent to get the seven hombres together. Immediately, we were greeted by a cousin of the Reverend’s who had a cab waiting for us. I quickly learned we all had new names. “The Mexican.” “The Filipino.” “The Nicaraguan.” “The Indian.” I was dubbed “The American,” but I quickly corrected that. I am “The White American.”
I took a bigger step with the Spanish language in that week than I ever had, even though we had fluent Spanish speakers in our group. The reality was that, almost always, English was not a remote possibility. I was forced to speak Spanish, and I actually did (in my limited way).

After a minor day of recovery and eating in a local restaurant that we loved, we invented a poker game dubbed "Mofongo," after a Puerto Rican dish I hoped to run across in Cuba. It turned out we loved the game Mofongo and played it every night as we unwound from our various journeys.

The next day, we took a local's bus to the center of Havana. Extremely crowded, but interesting. That turned out to be the only bus we took, and a key member of our travel group looked like this:
With the '50s cars everywhere, Havana seemed a bit surreal. Moments after we exited the bus, we saw ballerinas riding bicycles who were being filmed.

We found a cafe with Cuban music, had some cigars and spent most of that day exploring the streets of Havana. One random highlight was going into an art gallery, where some of our group members played the guitar, keyboard and bongos and jammed with people in the gallery.

The next day, our group moved from seven to four, as three had other travel plans. We quickly witnessed the "Power of Four." It was so easy to get on the same page with just four, and we could all fit in one cab. After mucking it up in Havana the previous day, we opted to go to the beach in Varadero and hired a driver for the day. This was probably the day that felt the best. It was fun, chill and much-needed.

The next day, we went out to Vinales, where I should not have tried sugar cane. It was so crazily sugary that it basically made me bounce off the walls for a few hours, only to come crashing down and insult various friends. Vinales definitely was highlighted by hanging out in the cigar-leaf hut of Don Alfredo, a 69-year-old guy who has been smoking cigars since 13 and gave us an insider's tour of how Cuban cigars are made.
On our final day, our group downsized to three and through superb airport diplomacy, convinced Avianca Airlines to not have us travel through Nicaragua to get back to the States. Instead, we skipped that leg of the journey, and the airline put us up in Melia Cohiba, the nicest hotel in Havana.

Man, this was an adventure. I do take for granted the bombastic economy of the United States. I often hear people complain about taxes, but they don't have to give 90 percent of their wages to the government like in Cuba. But if someone does not believe he is oppressed, is he oppressed?

The lack of police presence anywhere also was interesting to me. No matter how I might judge Cuba's past or government, the individuals I ran across were honest and trustworthy, and that's how things must be there. It felt great to get off the grid and live a different life for a week — and to walk away knowing that to live outside the law, you must be honest.