Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Digital brain book kicks off summer recs

Not too long ago, the family and I watched the 1984 movie Splash with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. Y'know what? It holds up. It's still funny, entertaining. Not bad.

The odd thing, though, was that I noticed every little detail of the movie, not like when I saw it years ago. It became obvious that what we watch today is much more fast-paced, and we consume much more video. It's not possible for me to notice every detail of every frame with modern movies and TV because they just move too fast.

Our collective brains have transformed because of the digital age we live. Our capacity for what we take in has expanded, and there are downsides, such as a lack of our depth of understanding and our reliance on images. I recently read Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018) by Maryanne Wolf, and it helped me understand the ramifications of reading in the digital age and make a persuasive argument for the importance of reading full-length books.

One shocking statistic in Reader, Come Home is that the average person encounters 100,000 words per day. That's a full-length novel. It's not as if the average person actively reads those words. Oh, no. The vast majority is just scrolled past and hardly pondered, if at all. We have digital brains now.

The ramifications of the changes in our brains and the lack of extended reading are enormous. Empathy suffers, and we end up craving snippets and scrolling. Actual life and human interaction may feel boring. Although the book delves into the science of what happens to the brain when we read, I found the strength to be how Wolf just makes an argument for reading by calling upon Aristotle, Derrida, Heidegger and countless other big thinkers in an accessible way.

Heidegger argued that man's special nature is to be a reflective being, but as the masses face so much fast-paced, non-contemplative images, could we be losing what it means to be human? So I highly recommend Reader, Come Home. It kicks off a list of 10 books I've read this past school year that I also recommend.

Perhaps this will be the format for my book recommendations. I'll do them toward the end of the school year, similar to last year. This will build off the Top 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend project from 2019. My other recommendations this year are:

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (2020) by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

This is the remix version of the 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning, and it was much more entertaining than I anticipated. That was a surprising feat, considering the heavy content.

Stamped, the remix, captivated me, and I devoured it in a couple days. I couldn't put it down. I often wonder if we will keep teaching myths to our youth about America's past and call it "history." Do we properly address the consequences of slavery? Do we address shielding the facts that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson each had more than 600 slaves? Stamped is just so accessible and truthful that it deserves the accolades it receives. 

Positivity (2009) by Barbara Fredrickson

As a Gen Xer, living on this planet for nearly five decades, it's hard for a book to improve my outlook on life, but this one did. So often, I hear "be positive" or "look on the bright side." Uh, how? What does that entail?

Fredrickson promotes the idea that we should strive for three positive thoughts or actions to each negative one. Negative thoughts and negativity creep into all of us. Hey, man, we're human beings, and we're honest! However, striving for positivity, or as I call it "realistic, authentic positivity," can happen.

Fredrickson also identifies 10 positive emotions to strive for. Those are: joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, inspiration, love, amusement, awe, interest and pride.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018) by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

This book reads well, but what stays with me most is how Haidt and Lukianoff list common thought disorders, such as catastrophizing, overgeneralizing and dichotomous (black and white) thinking, and how these used to be individual disorders. Now, those disorders have affected masses of people, and the divisive and unhealthy Interwebs reinforce them.

Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (2020) by Jeffrey Selingo

A lot of parents, and students, get stressed and have an all-around horrific time when it comes to picking a college. Does it really have to be that way?

Selingo's book pointed out a bunch of college admission myths and explained some things I didn't consider. While the masses flock to brand-name colleges, many unsung and lesser known universities offer world-class educations, too. Another good point was that, statistically, student-loan debt is so astronomical because of post-graduate degrees, not undergraduate ones. I've also read There is Life after College by Selingo, and I recommend that too.

Radical Compassion (2019) by Tara Brach

I've also read Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, and I have mediated alongside her podcast. These books help me feel better by having me look inward and get out of my head. Global sensation BTS might sing "Love Yourself," but, uh, what does that mean? How? Well, Tara Brach helps!

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook (2017) by Scott Galloway

Galloway has been a huge media personality for a while now (see video below), and I love his bluntness and humor. We live in such a tech-heavy world that I felt The Four set me straight on just how crazily powerful Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook are. Insane.

Tons of tidbits about business are in The Four that I loved, such as Galloway's three keys to business success: 1) emotional maturity, 2) curiosity and 3) ownership of your task, project and business.

Tools of Titans (2016) by Tim Ferriss

In the same vein as Tribe of Mentors by Ferriss, the book interviews "successful" people in all walks of life, especially business, and looks at their routines and the obstacles in their paths. The reoccurring themes that come up are how many exercise to start their days, practice mindfulness or mediation and adapted and learned from crucial failures.

I'm so old-school that I didn't realize that Ferriss had a huge podcast before reading Tribe of Mentors. I'm also so old-school that I prefer these books to the podcast.

Smart People Should Build Things (2014) by Andrew Yang

Why in God's name would you go to law school in the 21st century? This is one of many thoughts that come up in Yang's book. I mean, only 20 percent of law-school grads actually practice law. That number alone makes law school look like a grand waste of time and tuition. And, yes, this author is the former presidential candidate who is running for mayor of New York.

Elite students get sucked into Wall Street jobs or go to law school and don't really help our country grow or create jobs. Yang's premise is to move elite students to entrepreneurial jobs. He even created pathways to get such elite graduates to midsized cities, including my beloved Cleveland. I must admit that he has a point, and it would nice to see the driven of our world actually help others, whether it be through business, social services or something other than Wall Street and law.

The Meritocracy Trap: How American's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class and Devours the Elite (2019) by Daniel Markovits

This barely makes my list because it took long to read, and the books repeats its premise so much that it becomes funny. Look, I get it. To think that the United States is a meritocracy is a joke. It isn't. We have a zillion ways to show how it isn't a meritocracy. Got it.

I found the parts on how the myth of meritocracy devours the elite to be most interesting. The elite live in an odd culture of overworking, stress and proving themselves. Wha' happened?

What about working your tail off, but then enjoying life with leisure and possibly contemplating life? The unreported, sad truth about our billionaire-based 21st century economy is that we have developed an unsustainable, work-heavy culture.

Billionaires and millionaires might want to believe they got to where they are through merit. But we all know this is false. Perhaps it is important to admit that it's nice that 'Merica strives for a meritocracy, but in reality, we are just falling in line with the structure that landowners and slave owners Thomas Jefferson and George Washington laid out about 250 years ago.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

What is the deal with homework?

"It all goes back to balance!"

I remember George Costanza declaring that on an episode of Seinfeld, and as I look at my students' and daughters' workload, I am wondering this: "What is the deal with homework?"

My sophomore daughter dutifully has done Zoom school every day this year, 9:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. That's a lot of Zoom! Then, she has hours upon hours of homework every night.

The racial dynamic at both the high school I teach and the one my daughter attends embarrasses me. In both schools, there is a preponderance of white teachers and at least 68 percent non-white students in each school. Basically, white teachers insist on assigning homework to non-whites, even though all homework really does is teach compliance and rule following (See The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn).

My students keep telling me they are bombarded with homework, usually "meaningless homework," which likely is redundant. I believe homework should be renamed "paperwork" because that's what it really is. I hope educators follow my basic math to see that we often assign homework thoughtlessly and based on assumptions of yesteryear.

I understand that my class is one of six on my students' schedules. Then, a lot of my students have important extracurriculars, whether it be sports, band, a particular passion or whatever (mindless scrolling and being manipulated by Big Tech does not count). Some students actually have jobs, too. Then, many have home responsibilities. So in my students' lives, mathematically my class accounts for maybe 1/8th of their time and education, 1/8th at best.

Let's do more simple math. Please try to follow this:

Let's say that a student gets out of school at 3 p.m. and the student goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. That's 7 1/2 waking hours. Let's break down those hours and where potential paperwork, or homework if we must call it, would fit.

Let's deduct 30 minutes for a shower and hygiene (down to 7 hours). Let's account an hour for dinner, an hour for exercise, another hour for household chores and two hours for potential extracurriculars (we're now down to 2 hours). That's it! Our students literally have two free hours for homework in their after-school days. But that means that our students are not allowed for socializing, Netflix, video games or any pastime. That has been voided.

But here's an ugly truth: Our students are multi-tasking their way through non-meaningful school and non-meaningful non-school, AKA life. They' hardly focus on the homework anyway. It's pointless. They're overbooked!

Back to homework, I would venture to say "Two hours max per night!" is reasonable for all classes total. However, two hours, or 120 minutes, means that each of the six classes is allotted just 20 minutes per night. So here is an obvious declaration: Mathematically, high-school teachers should assign 20 minutes of homework max in any night.

But then I even wonder about the 20 minutes. Couldn't those 20 minutes be a part of class time? How much of class is spent lecturing? Is this homework meaningful and authentic? Can it be Googled? What is the deal with homework?

I've had math and science teachers tell me that homework is necessary for their classes. They've told me that's how you build skills and reinforce learning. OK. That sounds reasonable. But then, how much of that homework is in the "sweet zone," meaning it's at an appropriate level for the student? I fear that a lot of math and science homework is either way too easy, making it busy work, or way too difficult, making it pointless.

As an English teacher, I need to see my students' writing and help them develop their skills. I also need to see them grapple with narratives, arguments, informational texts, poems, difficult texts and more. They do indeed need to do some assignments, hopefully during class time, to show me what they understand. Unless we're reading books on our own or pursuing our passions in life, I honestly don't feel my students need to concoct any assignment outside of class time.

Now, I don't have all the answers, and in my 13th year of teaching, I constantly reevaluate and am open to new things. I feel empathetic and sensitive to what fellow teachers face in the classroom and what we've been put through this year. The wringer. Basically, we've been put through the wringer.

My fear is that the systemic over-assigning of homework is a manifestation of problems in education that are under-addressed. Is school simply sorting out social class? Is assigning homework one way we do that? If school is meant to be a precursor to work, is it aligned to actual work in the 21st century or olden times?

Big Tech has stolen a lot of our kids' childhoods and put them in front of screens. I'm hoping we teachers make some smart decisions to assign less homework, help kids actually grow and get off their screens.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Motivated by trophies in the trash

During my first day on my school campus in more than a year, I saw an oddly memorable image in a dumpster. Two enormous trophies stuck out amid debris.

In a split second, thoughts rushed through my head:

"Should I grab those trophies?"

"How could trophies be thrown away?

"Eh, what good are trophies? I'm looking at garbage here."

I craned my neck and saw the trophies were from 1999. They were relics from a former century. I guess all trophies end up in a dumpster eventually and when we think they're overly important, maybe we're clinging to the past — kind of like the guy at the bar who played high school football and still talks about it.

As my school is on the cusp of returning to in-person "simultaneous hybrid" with 20 percent of students agreeing to come back two days a week and teachers in-person four days a week, I am thinking about motivation. Strangely, the trophies in the trash reaffirmed my motivation, and I feel ready for this "simultaneous hybrid," even though it's ridiculously flawed and silly.

To me, the biggest pitfall of motivation is overthinking. Nike, my generation's Mark Twain, says, "Just do it." I couldn't agree more. You're never going to be talented enough, find the absolute perfect time, have everything aligned to create or accomplish anything. Just do it. Start. That's the key.

I saw motivation for some students and teachers wane during this online only time. I heard some teachers talking as if it were normal to lose motivation and not a problem. While I must say what teachers have been asked to do is exceptionally difficult during a difficult time, I feel badly that some lost sight of their reason for being educators. I wonder if they ever had a meaningful reason in the first place.

I surmise that the teachers who lost, or are losing, motivation fall into one of two categories. No. 1 — They are perpetual excuse makers, swirl in negativity and assume that's what life is. I feel we should be sensitive to potential personal tragedies that they may have faced, but some may not have the agency to get out of their funk.

Category No. 2 has teachers who foolishly and mistakenly entered the profession for comfortability, tradition or to relive their high school days — like the guy at the bar who still talks about his high school football days. Presumably, those teachers' daily activities are an homage to yesteryear, and they just can't adapt to a new teaching format. I would imagine students dread going to these teachers' classes.

I have respect and empathy for teachers in either of those categories. But what can we do for them? It's easier to help a student than a teacher. I guess the key for helping both is to offer ideas, or tools, that encourage them to help themselves.

In my eyes, students had it much harder during this online only time. They had to weather the classes of teachers, who could be stifling, and they might have difficult parents, who could be stifling. Plus, they might find themselves in unwinnable situations: "You got a zero on this assignment for not turning it in. Therefore, you will fail the class no matter what!"

For students who use grades for motivation, I suppose they might be doing OK — on paper. However, I fear for them, if grades are their sole motivation. What happens when grades go away? What happens when there are no more trophies? If grades are the motivation, then isn't it the student's job to do as little work as possible in order to achieve the highest grade?

I think I have developed a deeper understanding of how flawed grading is. What does a good grade mean in the first place? I find good grades mostly to be about following rules. Is that what education is meant to be?

Do grades matter in the workplace? Do grades perpetuate selfish individualism instead of societal connection or collaboration? Is there a virtual dumpster we can throw out grades from 1999?

I've always thought our schools have needed extreme makeovers. Maybe the first step is for teachers to stop it with worksheets, unfair grading scales, too much work, too little learning and just accept "simultaneous hybrid" during the pandemic. True improvement in schools will only happen because of thoughtful, caring, motivated teachers.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Do we need a digital detox?

One year ago today, the big thing happening in my life was my "digital detox." Man, I remember thinking I was online way too much. Too much Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, all of it.

I needed a major digital detox. So I did it, and soon, I was feeling better than I had in a long time.

Uh, well, that was short-lived!

Before I knew it, the pandemic and shutdown hit. When that happened, confusion, misinformation and political debates became the norm in my world.

My digital detox? Eh, I threw that to the wind. I yearned to understand what was happening with this pandemic, how to deal with a volatile stock market and how to teach in an online only format.

Digital detox? You got to be kidding me. The world faced so much uncertainty and confusion that worrying about too much screen time was a joke.

Maybe it's a good sign that Covid-19 numbers are trending down because here I am again, pondering a digital detox. One year ago, I curbed my phone usage to two hours a day, and I was cool with what I was doing — Spotify, reading, talking or texting.

Then, I asked my students how much screen time they averaged per day and if they were OK with it. The answers were all over the map, but my main takeaway was that many were cool with 8-10 hours a day on their phone. I felt that was overboard, but now with one year of online only school gone, where are we?

So let me ask students this: Hey, help Gen X parents figure this out. Should we be worried about your screen time, or should we just let it go? Should you be worried about your screen time, or is it a non-issue? 

Are Gen Z kids blissfully happy, and do we Gen Xers just not get it? Is my Gen X digital stamina different than someone younger? Should we parents stop nagging about going outside and getting a life? And why is everyone calling me "Boomer" now?

These are some questions I've been pondering, and my conclusion is: "I'll take the world, thank you." If younger generations are going to live more digitally than in what I perceive as the actual, real world, so be it. That's more world for this Gen Xer, or "Boomer" if you will.

I've been listening to Podcasts with interviews of billionaires. Honestly, I don't like these billionaires. No matter how reasonable Bill Gates or Mark Cuban might sound, they remain at the top of an economic system that is ridiculous. Yeah, I don't see major change coming with this billionaire system in my lifetime, and I know I have to accept it. But I don't believe we should laud Gates or Cuban as our world's most insightful scholars, and it appears that often occurs.

Isn't all of this screen time just us being manipulated by Big Tech? Have we traded our flesh and blood experiences to level up on whatever we're doing online?

The good news is that I've also listened to this Elon Musk, and it seems obvious to me that this guy is a dweeb. He should go to Mars; he'd be a good fit there. I guess he's the Andy Warhol of the day, but unlike Warhol, Musk is the opposite of cool. Good luck with your rocket ships, dude!

Let's get back to screen time. The way I see it is that this capitalistic system is so powerful and cruel that it has taken over the globe now. Yes, it's been that way for a while.

Isn't it enough for the system to take our money? Now, it's got to take our data and our time and create new money called cryptocurrency. Really? Isn't this going too far? Well, for this "Boomer" it is. I need a digital detox. I'm going outside to work on my short game and tend the Zen garden.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Hey students, what do you think?

In my 13 years of teaching high school, I believe I've been in the homes of zero students. Yep. Nada. Zilch. Nobody.

I've run into students at Trader Joe's, Target, Starbucks, the driving range and random public places, and I have embraced "the art of the awkward conversation with my teacher." Love that stuff!

With online only school, that has changed. I unwittingly have found myself in my students' homes via Zoom, and I see glimpses of home lives that I never aspired to see. In unexpected ways, I have gotten to understand my students better this year than in a conventional classroom, and maybe that is some sort of silver lining. 

As an educator, my approach always has been to soak in what is happening and use that to improve my teaching — and life. That remains my modus operandi, and I may be growing more as a teacher this year than any. Why is this? Answer: My students.

Before the shutdown, my students inspired me with their drive, work ethic and commitment to education. They also have inspired me with their personal stories, kindness, progressive attitudes, tech skills and overall awesomeness.

During Covid times, I've been inspired even more. I have heard numerous heartbreaking tales and, of course, wish we didn't have to go through all of this pain. However, the human spirit is resilient. I see students working through grief, dealing with anxiety and confusion, and as I look at them, I am amazed at how strong they are.

So today, I thought it would be worthwhile to ask students this: Hey, what's working, and what's not? When it comes to online only school, or school in general, what do you believe works well? What does not?

Now, I have my theories on what is working in schools and what is not, and I'll offer the "not" side with a brief self-assessment. Of course, this most likely is flawed.

Where Mr. Stevens could improve:

1) Less talking, more listening. I am making a concerted effort to keep anything resembling lecture to 10 minutes or less via Zoom. However, I notice that leading an opener, offering a health tip per class, explaining a lesson and clarifying assignments involve words. At least I use pull cards to call upon my students as much as possible.

2) Stop the madness of insignificant assignments, readings and tests. The good news is that I am an English teacher, and teaching the standards can be applied to a zillion readings. Giving students choice in what they read is huge. Some students have told me that by picking their own books, they actually are reading again. However, I have to make sure not to backslide into the trap of assigning waste-of-time materials, just because that's what was done when I was a student.

3) Grade for skills and understanding, not compliance. It appears that "doing the work" often is synonymous with "earning the grade." How often do teachers fail students because they missed an assignment or two but have shown grade-level competency? On the flip side, how many students earn high grades, even though they may not have mastered the standards? I'm doing my best to focus on the standards and not the compliance.

OK. Let me shift gears and throw out three obstacles that hinder teachers. These come from impressions I get based on the meetings, professional development and conversations.

1) Overload (AKA "future shock"). In his 1970 book Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term future shock to mean "too much change in too short a period of time." During Covid-19, I see that teachers have been thrown so much, so fast, that some may be shutting down or have shut down. It's just too much. Some are retiring; others are struggling.

I have no magical solution to this problem. Genuine support from the state, district, admin and colleagues would help, but if that's not there, teachers may be stuck with figuring this out on their own. I only hope they have a good support system at home.

2) Horrific self-care. Sugary diets, lack of exercise, negative thought patters, thought disorders — teachers could be struggling on these fronts. Self-care is HUGE. Sometimes, we teachers make sure to take care of our students and families, but what about ourselves?

3) Stuck in patterns that don't work. This is where excuses and ire toward "the system" or whoever is the perceived villain occurs. To me, when I hear teachers complaining, I lend an ear and am kind. However, a lot of times the complaints seem beside the point. While we do have plenty of legitimate concerns, I'm pretty sure that I have the most influence on whether my students succeed in my class or not as opposed to outside forces.

Of course, these Covid times present us with extremely difficult propositions and situations, but maybe that's why we teachers are more important than ever now.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Zombie named top K-Pop song of 2020

The Snooze Button Generation blog has named Zombie by DAY6 the top K-Pop song of 2020.

"Look," SBG founder/CEO Joe Stevens said. "It's my favorite song of the lot. It's well-written and smart, and it doesn't hurt that Jae went to my high school."

Stevens was referring to Jae Park, who is a key member of DAY6 and graduated from Cerritos High School where Mr. Stevens teaches.

Zombie edged out many excellent K-Pop tunes from 2020, and Stevens remarked: "This is the best K-Pop list I've seen. Right on the money. Take that echo4ever!"

Echo4ever is the YouTube channel and group name of Stevens' daughters, Sophie and Chloe, and cousin Ellie. Sophie and Chloe each created videos for their top 20 K-Pop songs of 2020. Feel free to check those out by clicking on their names, and subscribe to their channel by clicking here. They post content every other Saturday; the music videos especially are excellent.

Stevens explained that K-Pop has taken over his household with music, videos, random dance challenges and more. "I definitely have my favorites," he said. "I thought I liked the girl groups much more, but based on this top 20 list, it's not as much as I thought. Happy New Year! How you like that?"

The Top 20 K-Pop songs of 2020 with commentary by Stevens:

1. Zombie by DAY6

I love the tone and thought behind the tune, how the protagonist is closed off emotionally. It's deeper than a typical pop song.

2. DUN DUN by EVERGLOW

EVERGLOW doesn't have a whole lot of killer songs, but the group killed it with DUN DUN. But I must admit that the song in my house eventually felt overplayed on the random dance challenges.

3. Why Not? by Loona

From my perspective, Loona is the best girl group in K-Pop. This song reminds me of John Sondej's bar Dick's Den in Columbus, Ohio, that had the slogan: "Dick's Den. Why Not?"

4. God's Menu by Stray Kids

One of my complaints about boy groups is that they are too whiny and not fierce. Oh, that is not the case with Stray Kids and this song.

5. GUNSHOT by KARD

I wonder why there aren't more groups that combine boys and girls. For my money, KARD is the best one that does that.

6. Not Shy by ITZY

I love groups that shout out their band name in the middle of the song. It would have been impressive if the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Guns 'N' Roses had done that.

7. Lovesick Girls by BLACKPINK

I recognize that BLACKPINK is way more popular in the U.S. than a lot of other strong girl groups, but as Loona might say: So what?

8. FANTASIA by Monsta X

If I have a song stuck in my head for days, that must be a good thing. You win, Monsta X.

9. Dynamite by BTS

Yes, this is overplayed and in commercials, and BTS has taken over the world. But it's a great song!

10. Maria by Hwa Sa

Even before I knew she had a solo career, Hwa Sa from Mamamoo became my bias. She remains my ultimate bias.

11. Oh My God by G(I)-DLE

I'd love to hear this song in Church.

12. Any Song by Zico

He reminds me of the Korean Justin Timberlake.

13. MORE & MORE by TWICE

Maybe the lyrics could use some moderation, but apparently, they're never enough.

14. Stay Tonight by CHUNG HA

CHUNG HA is a queen, though Hwa Sa remains my ult.

15. Left & Right by SEVENTEEN

I like to think this song is about politics.

16. BBUSYEO by ONEUS

Not sure what the song is about, but it sounds cool.

17. ASSA by cignature

My favorite lyric: "Eeeeeeeewwwwwwww."

18. End of Spring by ONEWE

It appears to me that all ONEWE songs start boring, then gradually get epic.

19. DAWNDIDIDAWN (feat. Jessi) by DAWN

I like to pretend they're saying "Don," and this song is about the Cerritos High School Dons.

20. eight (Prod. & Feat. SUGA of BTS) by IU, SUGA

I'm not sure how this song isn't titled Forever Young, but OK.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Cigarette smoke remains in our air

"It's still Big Tobacco's world, and we're just living in it."

That was a passing thought I had the other day, and I see a lot of truth in it. In my personal world, smoking is not in the realm of possibilities. I don't like smoking. It's ridiculously harmful, and it seems like an act of yesteryear.

Yet in the United States, 15.5 percent of adults still smoke cigarettes "every day" or "some days," based on CDC data. I was shocked to hear that; in my world, it's zero people. Back in 1965, by the way, 45 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes.

These statistics don't take into account vaping that snags nearly 20 percent of adults under 30, and 10 percent of all adults, based on a Gallup poll.

The good news about this blog post is that I have zero agenda, other than to point out facts, connect some dots and promote education. The bad news is that as I reflect on the calendar moving to 2021, I realize that a lot of American culture and structures are toxic, and I am making a concerted effort to at least recognize that.

First, personally, let me wish you a happy 2021. I believe 2020 revealed a lot about us as individuals and a nation. I believe it was the biggest revealer of health, finances and agency. People with healthy lifestyles and financially stability certainly were not affected as much as those not. Also, people who have agency, who are able to take control of their lives and actions, likely thrived more than others as well.

Poor health, finances and agency all come together with Big Tobacco as the long-time beneficiary. Now, I understand that Big Tobacco isn't as powerful as it once was, but since it got away with so much seemingly criminal activity for so long, it paved the way for other industries to do that as well. Big Tobacco may have been Darth Vader, and Big Pharma is Kylo Ren. 

I find the naming of the Coronavirus vaccines horrific. Right now, the most known one is "The Pfizer Vaccine." Then, in second place, it's "The Moderna Vaccine." Instead of championing Big Pharma in the vaccine names, shouldn't we give credit to a key ingredient in the vaccine or the team of scientists who came up with it or pick an esteemed scientist and go with that?

No, we are having the masses link the vaccine with evil Big Pharma, which typically jacks up prescription prices for the elderly and has such a huge advertisement budget it forces me to run across ads on a zillion drugs that are completely irrelevant to me. And, please, stop telling me about mesothelioma!

Remember: Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to three criminal charges of conspiring to addict the American public to opioids and — whoop-de-do — paid $8.3 billion in fines. Of course, Purdue did its plea in October, two weeks before the attention-grabbing presidential election and while Coronavirus cases surged. This should have been a resounding indictment against Big Pharma, but was it?

So the connection to Big Pharma and Big Tobacco is obvious. These are ginormous industries that place profit above public health, and in the case of Big Pharma, the U.S. government has partnered with it because of special interest concerns, immorality, incompetence and, well, that is our established culture.

It took until 1998 for the U.S. government to negotiate its Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with Big Tobacco. And while that showed bipartisan coordination and the ability to overcome special interest concerns, immorality and incompetence, I'm not holding my breath that similar settlements will be reached against Big Pharma or even Facebook or Google.

But even if the U.S. one day tried to reorganize Big Pharma, it is so embedded in our culture, would it really make a difference? It's not like there was a light switch that made cigarettes go away, and there is no light switch to make prescription drug addiction go away either. Is it really a step forward to have our corporations create our addictive substances now? Might it have been vaguely more ethical to enable international drug cartels to do that?

With improved agency, individuals have the ability to reject cigarettes, vaping, drugs, alcohol, processed food, toxic screen time and inactivity. As we improve our own personal agency, our lives will continually improve as will our culture. My grandfather was a victim of Big Tobacco. I know victims of Big Pharma, and the only way to read this blog post is through Big Tech.

I believe that the human spirit is actually more powerful than Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Tech. But I'm worried about the human mind and body.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Gen X: The coolest generation, hands down

When I was 20 years old and a junior at The Ohio State University, Pulp Fiction came out. Friends gushed about it. It got rave reviews. I saw it in the theater and loved it. How could you not?

Dang, I was on the edge of my seat. Vincent Vega, Mia Wallace, Winston Wolfe, etc. What really made the movie so freakin' awesome was that it was cool — damn cool. Now, I'm wondering this: Whatever happened to cool?

Well, we all evolve. At a certain point, how important is "being cool" to us? And it's probably reasonable to ask: "Coolness? You're talking coolness — in the middle of a pandemic?!? What is your problem?!?"

But I often run across high school kids who are more concerned about grades and their so-called futures than being cool. What the heck is wrong with them?

So I must share an epiphany: Gen X is hands down the coolest generation to have existed. I would argue that all Gen Xers lived some path of cool, and here's part of mine.

When I was a junior in college, hey man, I was cool. I got a lot of my clothes in thrift stores. I loathed corporate rock 'n' roll, and I was into art, music, wearing black and hanging out in coffee shops — yet I was a heterosexual dude.

I learned back then this simple truth about coolness: It is circular, not linear.

What that means is that at some point, the more cool we try to be, we become uncool. Back in my college days, it was cool to have a tattoo or two or maybe a nose ring, but then, if you kept getting tats and went overboard with the piercings, it no longer was cool.

Coolness is about having an authentically chill attitude and not even thinking about it — opposite of this blog post, which may be uncool by definition. Too many people are poseurs, going for that attitude but not having it for real. And that's why this Gen Xer is worried about Millennials and Gen Z. They're not sufficiently cool!

What has become of the world when we Gen Xers are facing generations of young non-cool people? Well, uh, I suppose that is progress. But, jeez Millennials, could you stop it with the epic beards and yacht rock for once and be cool? Wouldn't our world be better if the younger generations just got off their phones for a second and pretended to be Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise?

Is there any downside to being cool? Sometimes, I suppose, it's a mask for trouble. Maybe it's trauma or drug addiction or even inauthenticity — but that's only when it goes over the line and is uncool — again, proving my coolness circular theory.

I admit that it is a perverse part of our culture that rock stars who died young somehow are cool to us. But that was more of a Baby Boomer thing. They had Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison — all dead at 27. We only had Kurt Cobain join that horrific 27 club in 1994, the same year Pulp Fiction came out.

To me, coolness feels unique. It feels real. If it's commercially successful, it doesn't feel that way. It doesn't feel sold out. I just don't think I could ever consider any App cool (although I do love Spotify).

I'm worried that you could never have a Pulp Fiction again — a movie that is an unabashed hit that is artistic, stylish and cool. I see cool new movies or shows every so often, but there is just so much content nowadays, they don't stand out like Pulp Fiction.

But I don't think we Gen Xers would be very cool to still be living in 1994, so let's evolve, man. Let's teach some power chords to our kids and explain why Nirvana was cool, but Pearl Jam wasn't. Let's wear our black T-shirts and talk about existentialism, maybe have books by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jack Keroauc and never read them. ... I just don't see that level of coolness happening with the younger generations. They just seem too busy posting pictures on the Interwebs.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

A different way to look at voting

When I was a lad, I remember watching an episode of "Siskel & Ebert," and Roger Ebert said something I'll always remember. The two movie critics agreed on the panning of a blockbuster and were stunned at how well the big-budget schlock was doing at the box office.


"Movie viewers need to know that whenever they buy a ticket," Ebert said, "that is a vote for more movies like it. If you don't want more bad movies, stop going to bad movies."

Amen, Ebert. 

As we near the end of the voting season for the 2020 Presidential Election, I'd like to build on Ebert's statement. In the age of smartphones, data, Netflix and social media, my hope is that we all see what we do on a daily basis, what we Google, what we buy, we what we invest in, as voting. Whatever we search for, whatever we retweet, whatever we consume are votes for more of that. Are we aware of this, and do we have peace of mind with what we're voting for?

Of course, vote in this, and all, government elections, if you somehow haven't already. I'm not saying to disregard our civic duty of voting in elections, but we also have a consumer duty to stop buying junk and only to purchase things that enhance our lives and we recommend.

Marie Kondo and living in uncluttered, well-considered spaces was all the rage about a year ago, and I certainly agree that I prefer to live in junk-free zones. I also prefer not to buy junk, things I use once or twice and then never consider again. I prefer only to purchase items and consumables that I actually use and don't make the world a worse place.
This idea is actually an easy sell. Don't buy junk! The more difficult sell is about our time. As most people realize (or should realize), the two most precious commodities in modern living are No. 1 — time and No. 2 — money. For many people, however, it's no slam dunk to convince them about the importance of their time. But isn't time way more finite than money?

Many people leave inheritances to their loved ones. Their money outlives their time. Even if you are a billionaire, you are like all of us and have roughly 30,000 days as a mortal. Isn't it a shame that many of us mortals waste our days, watching, eating or scrolling through things we don't actually recommend?

I believe COVID-19 times have made us more aware of exactly how we spend our money and how we consume — in the physical world. But I wonder if we are as aware of how we are manipulated by social media, how we binge watch and how we consume digitally. Yes, the word "manipulated" is loaded, but our social media feeds are so ridiculously concocted toward us through data that is the best available word.

I don't think we soak in what we consume digitally. Back in the era of "Siskel & Ebert," which was on the air from 1986 to '99, one debate was this: "Should we stay through the credits at the end of a film?"

I personally was all for staying through the credits, soaking in the movie and just reflecting. Nowadays, once a movie is over on Netflix, another one automatically starts in 10 seconds. What?!?

It's obvious to me that we live in a much less reflective world than 30 years ago, but I'm keeping hope alive. We are going through the worst year in American history in my lifetime by many, many measures, and I'm hopeful that we will be more reflective — right before we scroll to the next post.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Facebook paves the way for debate

As David Byrne sings, "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"

Yeah, wow, how did we get here? By here, I'm talking about the violent, divisive, hateful culture of the United States where practically everything has degenerated into a binary, yes/no, black/white debate.

After pondering our toxic culture and reading and exploring the topic, I've come to this bipartisan conclusion: Facebook has way too much power, is ultimately immoral, and our world would be better without it.

How I yearn for Facebook from 2008-2010, when I reconnected with old friends and didn't constantly see advertisements or political posts. Couldn't there be a "Facebook P," or something like that, with only political fodder? Couldn't we return to how Facebook used to be? But I guess it's way too late at this point.

I want to see my friends' babies, their sunset pics and selfies. Heck, I don't even mind the food they're eating. But I don't want to see non-friends' political points or, worse, my friends' political points of view. In the end, Facebook has been deleted from my phone for the past three years, but I still log on about five times a week because I — like you, most likely — am addicted.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram, refuses to identify itself as a media company. Uh, OK. That's simply a bold-faced lie, and the corporation stands again to influence the presidential election just like in 2016. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ... Facebook!

Facebook paved the way to Tuesday's shameful presidential debate, in which the candidates hardly talked about policy and Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacy. The mainstream culture of the United States no longer revolves around TV, and at first, that might sound like a good thing. But rather, the culture has shifted perversely to Facebook, Instagram, tweets, trolls, bots, YouTube and memes — all of which typically have zero substance or at best, a superficial line of slanted truth.

So if Democrats and Republicans alike were outraged with the disjointed, childish first presidential debate in Cleveland, shouldn't we actually be more outraged over the toxic culture spearheaded by Facebook?

A hopeful truth is this: Americans are in more agreement on more things than not. By far. White supremacists and extremists are not representative of the United States were are actually living in. Thank God!

A difficult truth is this: Americans are ideologically fighting among each other — even within their own families — and it will not be easy for some of them to get off their ideological high horses and find commonality with all Americans.


I believe all Americans can agree on our nation's bedrock in the Declaration of Independence: 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Of course, I understand that when this was written in 1776 that "all men" meant white men. I also understand that the early United States was run by a select few landowners with power. But I want to ask this simple question: Do we all agree with the bedrock?

Yes, we do.

If not, then I might ask myself, "My God, what have we done?"

Still facing a pandemic, outrageously high unemployment and a divided country, the United States needs to go back to basics and simply focus on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a country and as individuals.

"Am I right? Am I wrong?"

I believe our collective consciousness needs to stop giving attention to division, needs to stop battling with ourselves and focus on our similarities, not our differences.

But here's the kicker: I am curious if most Americans can actually focus on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, I am worried that they're fried. They're either economically disenfranchised, educationally stunted, stuck in the demeaning rhetoric of the day or completely unhealthy, overweight, physically impaired and for lack of a better word — screwed.

Perhaps there are some who will find hope with a Joe Biden presidency. But I don't believe hope ever rests with any individual. Instead, we each find our own hope, and guess what? We're not going to find it on Facebook.

No matter what happens with this presidential election, I'm pretty sure this will be the line most Americans will feel once all the ballots are counted and we have a winner:

"Same as it ever was, same as it ever was."

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Where would I be without __________?

Well, here we are — September. It has been quite a summer, an unprecedented time as we often hear. Today, the girls start virtual 10th and eighth grade, and at this point, we are all doing fine.

What is it that helped me not only survive, but thrive, during this Covid shutdown? I am reflecting on that today and have come up with people and things that have been important to me.

The words "unsung hero" might be redundant. Any hero that is looking for some kind of credit, or recognition, well, is that really a hero?

Of course, anybody could come up with a list of well-deserving "sung" heroes, like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. But what about our world of do-gooders, helpers and people who make everyone's life better and hardly get any recognition?

Where would I be without ___________?

To thrive during these times, I owe a boatload of praise to the people I'm closest — Dina, Sophie and Chloe. I also owe praise to some "unsung heroes."

Strangely, as I compiled a Top 10 list of unsung heroes, I realized that only two of the 10 were actual people. What kind of life am I living?!?

1. The staff at the Cypress Ralph's. I live walking distance to Ralph's, but I drive because, well, how am I going to carry this stuff? I have my favorite checkers, and I feel our chitchat is more than that — maybe. Where would I be without all of this constant food? If I feel I'm seeing these workers too much, how in the world must they feel?

2. The dishwasher. Holy mackerel! This thing has taken a beating, but it perseveres. It was brand new when we remodeled and moved in 2016 and is doing fine. I've learned how to get the tiny detergent drawer always to close. The key: Pretend you're a dentist and get rid of the soap-scum buildup with a sharp tool. Fascinating!

3. My liver. Overall, I've been pretty kind to myself — of late. But early in the shutdown, I had a few rounds of craft-beer mania. Luckily, I have learned how to pace myself and not overdo craft beers.

4. Topo Chico. It turns out that one reason I dabble with craft beers is the artwork on the can. Topo Chico is a healthy replacement. For anyone not familiar, Topo Chico is sparkling water that comes in a glass bottle. I find it better than Perrier and Pellegrino.
5. Spotify. Wow, to think that I just started subscribing to Spotify Premium in February, makes me wonder what I was thinking. I've found so much incredible new music that I must sound like an old timey Gen Xer. On Day 36 of the shutdown, Dina, the girls and I created a family playlist. We each are allowed 20 songs, and we can swap them out as we please. We listen to it every meal. Love it!

6. Black Lives Matter. The fact that I put Topo Chico and Spotify listed higher than BLM must reek of privilege. Sadly, I'm being honest. I'm happy to see the Black Lives Matter movement go mainstream and get corporations and sports onboard. If you're somehow still not supporting BLM by now, it's time to let that go. Right?

7. Aaron from the Seal Beach bike shop. During a ride with Don in Laguna Niguel, I was coming down some major hills, and my brakes were screaming and hardly working. Through some analysis and a little trial and error, Aaron replaced my painted rims, and it worked. He even called me after a ride to see how it went. What a great dude!

8. The reopening of libraries. Thank god! "You don't know what you have until it's gone." I'm back to the literate man I once was in a world of alliterates (people who can read but choose not to). Curbside pickup is good enough for me; I just request books and pick them up anyway. No need to be strolling up and down the aisles of books like I'm in an Aerosmith video.

9. K-Pop random dance challenges. My teenage daughters love doing these, and I participate in a desperate attempt to connect with them. We follow dance moves on YouTube, and sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in a window. I feel like I'm killing it, and then I notice I'm hardly moving. It's not easy keeping up with teenagers and pretending to be in the group Mamamoo.

10. My sand wedge. In July, I returned to golf, which is safe and socially distanced. I think I'm playing better pre-shutdown, for sure. My chipping, in particular, has been strong, and the golf course is one place that gives me a sense of normal.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Ten tips for online only teachers

Unsolicited advice.

People don't want to hear it. Especially teachers. So with this blog post on 10 tips for better online classes, I have a feeling a whole bunch of teachers will roll their eyes, move onto the next post or continue binge watching shows involving killers.

However, before we scroll too fast, let me say that I have a little recent experience that is relevant. I jumped into live online Zoom classes the week of March 16 and conducted them until the end of the spring session. Then, I taught live high school summer school and have become "Mr. Zoom" with close friends and family (as many of us have).

Live online high school is a different animal than previous online classes and asynchronous classes. Have you ever been in any high school class that never met in person? Well, uh, has anybody? At least I have the eye-opening summer session as reference, but let me say that this is a work-in-progress learning experience.

I don't think teachers, or administrators, will fully understand what they are undertaking until they actually do it, but maybe this advice could help. Some of this might appear too basic, but some may not. And feel free to share online engagement strategies with me, or others, like this one.

Full disclosure: I'm a high school English teacher in Southern California. Most of these tips apply to all levels of teaching (K-12).

1) Have a quiet, dedicated space for teaching only. For real. I find kids sitting on the teacher's lap while running a class as unprofessional. I understand that childcare may be an issue, but during direct teaching or interactive time with cameras on, children need to be out of the shot. If the teacher can't give his/her/their direct attention to the class, why would the students?

2) Check out your computer from school. Even if you believe you have tech covered at home, check out your school desktop computer. Chances are, it is better than your actual computer at home anyway. You're going to put major wear and tear on the computer used, and it's better to use the school one.

3) Cameras on during lecture and interactive time needs to be the norm. "My camera doesn't work" will be said on Day 1, and that must be called out as unacceptable. I say give the student three days to go to the school and get a properly working device. If one student has the camera off, then it says cameras are optional. Camera optional classes, and meetings, do not work — if you're looking for genuine interaction and trying to run a real class.

4) Cameras may be off other times. If students are doing an activity that involves reading or the Internet or anything else, there is no need for the camera then. Be clear about when it's OK, and when it's not, to turn off the camera. Also, if you do have your own children, you can embed camera off time for your own benefit or situation.

5)  Dedicate Week 1 (or more) to classroom building and inevitable tech issues. It's totally different to be meeting your class for the first time via Zoom as opposed to an actual classroom. It takes A LOT to get a sense of who these kids are and their idiosyncrasies. Take the time to do that; it's a major time commitment.

Because it's online only, I suggest devoting much more time to classroom building and social interaction than a normal classroom. If students have any tech issues on Day 1, those need to be addressed ASAP.
6) Establish a routine. But be open to tweaking it, and do what works for you. Find your own routine that works. It's not one size fits all. If you're interested, this was my routine, but I diverted from it at times to keep things fresh:

1. ICEBREAKER each class. At first, I did get-to-know-you icebreakers that involved students interacting with each other, but then I did icebreakers connected to the class. All of the icebreakers had students interact with each other first and then the class as a whole. (CAMERAS ON, obviously)
2. PPT on the day's lesson or concept(s) (CAMERAS ON, but they can be off it's only straight lecture.)
3. BREAKOUT ROOMS to explore the lesson or concepts (CAMERAS ON)
4. A WRITING or READING activity. I'm an English teacher, so these are obviously crucial skills that need frequent practice. Having students post their writing on Google Classroom, so that their classmates can read and comment works extremely well for me. (CAMERAS OFF)
5. BRIEF CLASSROOM DISCUSSION on the writing or reading activity. (CAMERAS ON)
6. REFLECTION asking "What might you remember from today's class?" (CAMERAS ON if it's verbal; CAMERAS OFF if you're asking for a comment in the chat box or on Google Classroom)

7) If you must lecture, keep it to 15 minutes max. Look, many teaching truisms still hold true via Zoom. We all know (or should know) that lecturing isn't really teaching and is, by and large, ineffective. Keep this to 15 minutes max. Also, I would keep interactive direct teaching to that length as well.

8) Strive for a socially positive, emotionally supportive classroom. Much less material will be covered in an online format, and that's the nature of this beast. Accept it now, or forever be frustrated.

However, let's take a step back to understand that it is more important to provide students a safe social space and to be emotionally supportive of them. This takes deliberate action. Please understand that we will cover more curriculum if we create a space that does not gloss over, pretend not to or simply deny the importance of being emotionally supportive of our students during this unprecedented time.

9) Promote a positive, interactive breakout room culture. Before I dispersed my class into its first breakout rooms, I did the day's lesson on how to improve conversations. I also had my classes reflect on what went well and what did not, post the breakout sessions.

Breakout rooms is (or will be) a crucial element to online learning, and it's OK to have students simply introduce themselves and find commonalities in the first few breakout room sessions. Then, once students understand how important their voice is and how to actively listen to peers, more curriculum can be covered.
10) Only give assignments that can't be Googled. Finally, I have been saying this for years, and I'm hoping the shift to online education makes all teachers stop with their complicity for assigning thoughtless assignments and then accepting inauthentic, Googled "work."

Pretty much all the questions in our textbook can be Googled, so assigning those is a waste. My students' reading levels are staggeringly lower now than five years ago, and I believe the main reason why is that they have not been reading on their own or in school, yet they still get their A's by finessing the system.

OK, now, let's breathe. That was a lot to take in!

A few years back, I heard that "teachers should treat their classrooms like their dojo." That means new things need to be tried, chances need to be taken and to remember that teaching/learning is the ultimate work in progress.

Being online only is not the situation any of us want, but under the pandemic circumstances, I believe we understand and accept it. Because all of us are newbies at live online teaching, our classes are now our dojos, whether we like it or not.

If you asked me what three qualities would prepare students best for their 21st century lives before Covid, I would have said adaptability, resilience and creativity. Hey, teachers, it's time to put those skills to use. Please join me in doing our best to model adaptability, resilience and creativity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Books bring out our shared humanity

I wonder where the United States would be if the entire populace simply read a book for just 15 minutes per day.

I'm not saying that DEAR (drop everything and read) or SSR (sustained silent reading) would be a panacea for Covid, white supremacy or lost jobs, but I bet it would make the country at least understand more about humanity.

What has happened to the United States' attitude toward humanity and books?

"Books!" you might exclaim. "Books? You're talking books?"

Yes, a lot is happening in the country now, but the loss of reading books could be one of the many causes for finding ourselves in a country that is divided, leads the world in Covid cases and deaths and most likely is a laughingstock in the world community.

So, get a book. I am happy to report that the Long Beach Public Library is open again for picking up requested books, and I say, "Thank God!" It had been closed since March, and in the interim, I actually had to buy a few to hold me over.

But now, it's back to constant reading, some sort of return to normalcy for me. Here are five books I've read since December that I highly recommend. Last year, from July to November, I did a lengthy project called 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend. Since then, I've read about a dozen books, and I feel comfortable recommending five of them.

1. How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi.

Actions speak louder than words, and most white people I know do nothing to promote antiracism. Kendi is huge right now, and I feel he is deserving. I find his work reasonable, honest and accessible.

It's not enough to simply utter, "I'm not racist." It's time for all to be antiracists. If you somehow have a problem with Black Lives Matter, I highly suggest you reconsider that mistake and read this book.

2. How to Stay Human in an F***ed Up World (2019) by Tim Desmond

I've discovered that self-help addiction leads to Buddhism, and Desmond's book was one that has put me on the path to study Buddhism and dabble in meditation, mindfulness and understanding this: All that we face, even our own lives, is temporary, and we are all connected.

Desmond loses his wife to cancer at a young age and looks at mindfulness as a way to transcend/embrace suffering. Although we live in a cause-and-effect type of world, I'm becoming aware that the power of our actions, thoughts and deeds is greater than any difficulty we could possibly ever face.

3. Essentialism (2014) by Greg McKeown

It was just by chance that I read this before the shutdown, and I immediately applied it to my life. Are we doing too much? What truly matters? What if I analyzed what truly matters and then placed more deliberate action toward that?

Essentialism helped me mostly at work, where my time was often hijacked by others and I finally set much-needed boundaries. I also realized that if we ever encounter someone who is completely overworked or never has time, then that person is weak and unable to prioritize.

When the shutdown hit, we were forced to look at what is essential, and in or out of quarantine, it is important to know that our lives are too precious to get hung up on the inessential.
4. The Kindness Cure (2018) by Tara Cousineau

The first rule in my daughters' kindergarten classes was simple: Be kind. I often feel that adults and students forget that building block of humanity.

Cousineau uses the term "kindfulness," as the practice of being kind to one's self and others. And here's the kicker. I have realized that if we are first kind to ourselves, then we have the capacity to be kind to others.

However, life's goals, money pursuits, pressure from one's self or others often obscure kindness. The Kindness Cure delves into how being kind actually acts as a healing power, and it rings as truth.

5. The Storytelling Animal (2012) by Jonathan Gottschall

Aha! This is the only book I can recommend that I've read during quarantine. I bought four books, but can only give it up to one. Bummer. To me, that's why libraries are crucial. For me, there is a huge difference between "I should like this" vs. "I actually do like this."

With similarities to Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen, The Storytelling Animal focuses on how stories and storytelling are part of the human condition. Gottschall points out a handful of storytelling truisms that I had never pondered. Oh, the stories we tell ourselves!

It is human to want to create exciting stories. Stories frequently live in anxiety and high drama, and in reality, we yearn for calm and the mundane. But in fiction, we keep wanting more and more, the wilder, more titillating, the better.

Or do we? We do live in the fantasy industrial complex, where arguably fiction and nonfiction have blended more than ever, and technology has a lot to do with that. But I still exclusively read books under the "nonfiction" heading, and I believe the fantasy industrial complex has taken over so much of the typical Gen Xer's life that we actually yearn for truth and nonfiction nowadays. At least I do.

After last year's lengthy project 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend, I only had the last six months or so to read. Plus, shutting down the libraries hurt. I anticipate that I will have more lengthy lists in the future.

The Art of Memoir (2015) by Mary Karr nearly made this list. But I'm thinking, why not read her actual memoirs instead? Actually, let me add one last recommendation:

6. The Orange County Register (it's a newspaper)

Due to expiring airline miles, I've gotten free home delivery of the paper for the past few weeks. I've loved it!

I do have an online subscription to The New York Times and look at The Week and a few other news outlets daily, but I miss local news, too. The Reggie has a good blend of national and local, and I'm surprised how much I have enjoyed it.  Even the Reggie helps me expand my views, and I'm not sure how I'd survive without the mindset to always expand my views.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Happiness is the path

As we get older, it may be natural to become set in our ways, creatures of habits. No need to waste time with things we don't enjoy. At this point, we know how to maximize our lives and experience meaning and fulfillment on a daily basis. Right?

Or maybe we're just mindlessly scrolling on a device or streaming videos, oblivious to the power of Big Tech.

Either way, when I look at the big picture, I feel for my fellow man because I see a lot of misery around me. Millions of lost jobs. The George Floyd murder. Rioting. Looting. Even with this backdrop, I believe it is possible to fight the good fight for social progress while being happy. But, man, how do we stay "happy" in this difficult time?

Before we get into happiness, let me say that I urge white people to at least educate themselves on the systemic racism inherent in the United States and then make it their life's mission to end it. In my 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend project, I recommended to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and many other books that tackle systemic racism.

It's important for whites, myself included, to understand that they know way less than they think about racism and they owe it to themselves and society to grow and bust their butts to be what Kendi X. Ibram calls antiracists. It's with this crucially important backdrop that I shift to the topic of happiness. Is it possible to be happy while tackling a system that still perpetuates racism?

I'm not in charge of anyone else's happiness, other than my own, but at least I'll throw out some ideas.

Now, you might say, "Joe, come on, we're facing the unprecedented coronavirus and now rioting. We're all miserable. It's reasonable to be miserable now."

To that, I say the coronavirus magnifies existing problems. With 374,000 worldwide deaths and 106,000 deaths in the United States, this magnifies the medical, political and economic woes that the United States puts on display on the daily. Sure, this has been a difficult and painful time. But isn't it best for ourselves and society, if we pursue happiness in the face of this pandemic.

Heck, if we say the coronavirus trumps happiness, then couldn't we also say that about the prison system, health-care system, wealth inequality, racial inequality, school shootings, climate change and just about any serious problem facing our world?

The type of "excuse logic" to not be happy is an individual's choice. But the problem is that once a typical American accepts the premise that "yes, it makes sense to pursue happiness," then that person likely will have no road map for that and equate happiness with binge watching and eating sugar food.

It turns out that happiness is not a destination. It's a process. It's not as if "OK, if I just attain this, I will be happy." Happiness is the path.

Now, I'm defining happiness as meaning, fulfillment, contentment. It's not about being all smiles like in Pharrell's song "Happy" or the glee of the overweight class at Disneyland. No, happiness to me is to know that one is on path of happiness. Yes, major obstacles and difficulties arise, but at the end of the day, life is beautiful and a miracle. It's a shame to waste it on binging and bon-bons.
Unfortunately and ironically because the phrase "pursuit of happiness" is in the Declaration of Independence, seeking genuine happiness is counter to American capitalistic culture. Americans are exposed to an estimated 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day (and that likely is an underestimate, by the way). Nearly all of these products prey on the idea that happiness will be attained if they are bought; that's obviously a false premise.

I actually don't mind Nike's omnipotent slogan "Just Do It." However, imagine if that were "Just Be."

Something else I've discovered about happiness is that it is intertwined with health and growth, or education if you want to call it that. I repeatedly talk about the importance of our social, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual health with the acronym "spies." It's not impossible to be on the path to happiness with difficulties with one, or more, of the elements in spies, but it's ideal to be on a healthy path with all five.

As schools switched to online learning during this shutdown, it underscored the fact that learning is a process and not an outcome. Of course, that is a "no duh" statement.

I always have seen learning and teaching as the heads and tails of the same coin. Both need to be progressing or growing, or it doesn't work. If the teacher isn't learning, how in the world could the student be?

The noble profession of teaching not only warrants, but demands, growth. The tricky thing with teaching growth is how varied the approaches and mindsets of teachers can be. In a way, one positive of the coronavirus school shutdown is that it has forced teachers to try different things and grow — hopefully.

For me, I find that growth, AKA education, and health are an inherent part of the happiness equation. But before I realized that, I had to truly understand the basic idea that happiness was not something to longed for or pop up through happenstance. It is a focus, a passion, a pursuit. Some people call it "life," and it turns out that it's beautiful even with everything we face.