Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Creativity replaces mindless consumption

One of my favorite scenes of all movies comes at the end of "The Candidate" (1972) with Robert Redford. Spoiler alert: After an entire movie about a seemingly unwinnable election, Redford's character wins the race.

With a throng of reporters approaching after the victory, Redford turns to his campaign manager and asks, "What do we do now?"

No answer. Bang. End of movie.

This type of moment pops up in life every so often for me. Now, I am experiencing that "what do we do now?" feeling because I have completed a full-length book and am figuring out the next step.

Today, I'm not going to talk too much about the book itself. Rather, I will explore the writing process itself and how I turned stories and ideas into a 60,000-word book.

First off, I feel a sense of accomplishment to have written a book that is needed, honest, useful and hopefully entertaining. Secondly, the creative process of committing to such a project enhanced my day-to-day life. Who knew that the collateral damage of writing so much would help other aspects of my life, too?

Some friends have asked, "How did you find the time?"

It turns out that time actually does exist to follow one's passion. For me, my writing passion trumps Netflix, social media, my phone and a lot of daily time killers that don't spark joy for me.

A major lesson is how creativity in my life is much more valuable than consumption. Man, we consume a lot, especially in the United States. I realized that I would often find myself in time-jacking Internet searches or YouTube warps or just watching whatever looked interesting on Netflix. Way too much time was wasted on that stuff.

My public service to readers today is to wonder if you experience mindless consumption like me and if it's possible to turn that into mindful consumption. I am wondering this: Are you OK with your usage of your phone, technology and your consumption, or do you feel you waste your free time too much on certain things? Please comment, and let me know where you are.
For me, writing the book brought out my waste-of-time demons. The main devils were social media, Words With Friends and texting. I deleted social media from my phone and stopped the Words game. I realized that checking texts morning, noon and night (that's three times per day) suffices.

It is wild what happens to the mind, and life, when personal time shifts. I experienced this awesome reboot type of feeling to not be tethered to my phone. It was freeing! But without social media, no phone games, less Netflix and texts, what was I to do?

I read even more (I already was reading about 40 books a year), spent more engaged time with my family and wrote the book, which I had never done. Somehow, other aspects of my life aligned, too. I work out consistently (twice a week, that's enough for me), and I feel more connected to family and friends. I've even experienced the power of deep breathing and Pandora Meditation Radio. What in the world is going on here?

I never committed to a full-length book previously because I over-thought the audience and publishing world and always found excuses to not do it. This time around, the book had to get out. In away, it wrote itself.

I fear that many of us just consume and don't create. We offer the fake excuse that "we don't have time." That way of thinking undoubtedly will lead to frustration, unfulfillment and emptiness. To create is to be human.

As a teacher, I often roll my eyes because creativity isn't explored as much as it should. Isn't understanding and cultivating creativity a crucial component of education? In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Pearl S. Buck talked about how creativity makes one's senses more alert and life more profound. It produces a "heightened activity of every cell of his being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him."

Nowadays, many low-level capitalists devalue creativity because they don't see it as profitable or marketable. Plus, in the era of Amazon, Netflix and the "smart" phone, there is so much out there to consume that it is easy to forget about creativity and just consume, consume and consume.

So even though I'm wondering "what do we do know?" with a finished book, I know the answer. I'm moving on to book two. OK, sure, I'll write a book proposal and get the first one into print. I just know that the journey of creating something out of nothing is magic, and I believe magic bounces all around us. As I write this, I am hearing it in the form of my daughter singing and composing a song on the piano in the background.

Heck, it doesn't have to be writing a book or composing music. But my advice to anyone is to add a creative endeavor to your life and see what happens.

Monday, April 1, 2019

What is your mask?

The Joker Mask. The Aggressor Mask. The Athlete Mask. The Know-It-All Mask.

These are four of the nine masks that Lewis Howes describes in his important book The Mask of Masculinity. I recommend the book to all, especially males, and I recommend the documentary The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Masculinity is an under-discussed, under-examined topic in the United States, and twisted masculinity norms are the root of numerous societal problems. I ask our readers today to be open-minded as we briefly contemplate masculinity in 2019.

First off, examinations of masculinity often are confined to college campuses in gender studies courses. I would vote for gender studies and discussions of masculinity as early as elementary school.

Other reasons why I believe masculinity isn't pondered is that 1) masculinity is so fragile, that any discussion threatens males, and 2) women's issues garner more attention because of the covert and overt sexism in our systemically troubled nation. However, upon further examination, men's and women's issues are inextricably linked.

Now, I am no particular expert of gender studies. But I have written a book with the working title Advice to My Future Son-in-Law: Understanding Men and Relationships in the 21st Century. I quickly realized that an examination of masculinity was critical to the book's focus on marriage.

The "man box" is an important concept that I see as a first step with understanding modern masculinity. The man box shows the limitations of what a man is supposed to be and what he believes. In the man box, men "are supposed to be powerful and dominating, fearless and in control, strong and emotionless and successful in the boardroom, bedroom and on the ball field," as is explained by the organization A Call to Men.

In the film The Mask You Live In, we see that boys put on a masculine mask, which is not what any human being can or should be. The masks enable violence and the dehumanization of women and the self. As the boy wears a particular mask, he contorts his true self to fit the mask.
In the introduction in his 2017 book, Howes gives credit to The Mask You Live In (2015) to spurring his own study on masculinity. What I respond to most in Howes' book is his distinctions of different masks. One mask does not fit all. I see men who obviously wear the Stoic Mask or Invincible Mask. But I see others who wear the Material Mask, or finding one's self-worth through money and work.

Once the truths of masculinity are accepted in males, I see the next step as "reclaiming emotions." This is not easy for many reasons. Many guys are used to stifling emotions or replacing all emotions with what they see as socially acceptable emotions for a man, such as anger.

Another reason "reclaiming emotions" is difficult is that many men flat-out don't know how they feel. They have gone years and years without looking at their actual feelings. It takes a lot of honest introspection to understand one's emotions. Once emotions are reclaimed, or at least understood better, then life improves for the individual and those around him.

My sincere hope is that the topic of masculinity becomes more in the mainstream, and we look back at Siebel Newsom and Howes as trailblazers with giving this topic the crucial attention it deserves.

One celebration through my journey will be the eventual publication of Advice to Your Man. This is the first full length book I have written, and it will be a part of a series, or "franchise" if you will. I have allowed a couple friends to look at my current draft and will be developing a platform in the next year before agents eventually find me.

I must say that I learned a lot during the writing of the book. Not only marriage stuff and topics linked to it, but I learned a lot about myself, how I write, how I work and how I love. It turns out that love is an action, not a mere idea.

Writing a book is one more wrinkle in my life, and I do not consider it an individual accomplishment. I feel it is a testament to those who have nurtured me on my way — my mom, my family, friends and mentors. Especially, it is a testament to my wife, Dina, and my girls, who share a loving household with me. I sincerely hope ladies and their guys read Advice to My Future Son-in-Law.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Humanity shines through Holocaust survivor

Right before Gerda Seifer left Cerritos High School, she offered me imported candy from Germany. I obliged and tried the orange Woogie fine drop and felt the humanity of the moment.

Here was a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who just addressed high-school students in two sessions for two hours. She was giving me candy. What a woman!

As I try to wrap my head around Gerda's experience and super student Caroline Mendoza's Genocide Project, I conclude that examinations of the Holocaust and genocide couldn't come at a better time. Our world is missing something crucial right now, and that's called humanity.

I wonder this. Is my thesis wrong? Do you have an example of humanity that you can share? Please do so in a comment below. If not, please explain why you agree that humanity is often lost nowadays.

First, let me explain what's happening with Gerda and the Genocide Project. High school junior Caroline Mendoza walked into my classroom one day and wondered if I would teach a lesson about genocide that she created. She was on the path of obtaining her Gold Award as a Girl Scout, and this was part of her ambitious project.

I listened to her plan and passion and could relate to her main point: Genocides are grossly unexamined in schools, and it's our responsibility to make sure students are aware of them. 

I jumped on board of her plan, but tweaked it with her. Why wouldn't she teach the class?

So I gave her some basic teaching tips, and she taught my classes about genocide. She then explained how the project must be sustainable, and we enlisted five sophomores to team-teach five classes about genocide. The manner in which Caroline did this with our team of five — Josh, Kayla, Maanav, Samantha and Vivian — was professional and in depth. Wow!

The students covered the Armenian Genocide (1.5 million dead), Holocaust (6 million dead), Cambodian Genocide (1.7 million dead), Rwandan Genocide (750,000 dead) and the Guatemalan Genocide (at least 40,000 dead).

After that, they took their presentations to the next level when they explained that there are current genocides happening in Burma, Darfur, Iraq and Syria. As human beings, how are we not outraged about this? How are we doing nothing about this?

Then, Caroline coordinated having Gerda Seifer, a Holocaust survivor, speak at our school to two sessions of approximately 300 students each. Here is Gerda with Caroline:
Gerda lost her parents in the Holocaust. Her mother was killed in an extermination camp, and she is unaware of what happened to her father. She is from Poland, and she survived by living in a darkened basement for six weeks when she was 14 years old.

Her story has been told in various outlets, including the Press-Telegram, Orange County Register, the Holocaust Museum and more. (Please check out those publications for more information.)

But let me return to my main insight, spurred by Gerda. Humanity is more important now than ever. The world I see nowadays has less face-to-face interactions than when I was young. Google Chromebooks are in classrooms at first grade, so students have more screen time and less face-to-face time not only at home but also in the classroom.

I wholeheartedly believe that Chromebooks and technology can be major learning tools. They're great for writing, but terrible for reading and attention spans.

Certain human traits, such as empathy and sympathy, can only be learned through actual face-to-face communication and feeling. In an unintended consequence of technology, actual humanity is being lost. But yesterday, to see, and interact, with a Holocaust survivor in the flesh in 2019 was a bit of a miracle.

At least, that's where my thoughts went with Gerda. At the end of the day, she offered me candy. I find it rare that anyone offers me anything out of sheer goodness and kindness. Why is this?

Friday, March 8, 2019

Spies move blog to self-improvement

Pain, neglect, anger, loneliness, fear — I see it all as an educator.

Most of the kids — and adults — I encounter replace dealing with difficult emotions with escapism. They have deceitful self-talk, or they pacify with their phones or Netflix. Some mistakenly believe "achievement" will be the answer for their existence.

Sadly, they're on the wrong path, and they need to embrace SPIES.

We're not talking espionage here. We're talking about the five key elements of being human that can be neglected. We're talking social, emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual health.

This post officially takes the Snooze Button Generation blog in a new direction of self-care and self-improvement. We will be posting about ideas and tips on how to identify gaps between our actions and goals and what we can do about that.

Today, we simply ask readers to consider looking at the self through the lens of SPIES. Think about yourself with five parts — social, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual — then ask yourself: Where do I need most growth? Please post at least a one-word answer of social, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual as a comment below.

If you post a little more info, I will recommend a possible book for you, depending on where you are. As an avid reader and huge proponent of self-care and self-improvement, I likely can recommend a book on any component or offshoot of SPIES.

For me, I am looking most to improve my spiritual side. Emotional is close second, but I have been working on a daily action plan emotionally. I check-in with myself at least three times per day and ponder how I actually feel. By doing that, I have often recognized stress and have cut down on it. When I'm stressed, I breathe deep, clear my mind and focus on positive thoughts of love, Dina, Sophie, Chloe and calm nature scenes. "Love is the way" is my calming thought.

In schools, we typically over-stress intellectual growth and reward that by giving tests, where kids can get an "A." A lot of kids and parents care about grades, but aren't the social, physical, emotional and spiritual health of a child way more important than a GPA?

One of my favorite quotes is from Mark Twain. "It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

It turns out that education for only intellectual growth isn't much of an education. As kids get older, I fear that their social, emotional and spiritual growth will be stunted unless they deliberately focus on these elements.

As for me, my spiritual action plan is connected to this blog. I believe that if I put out healthy ideas into the world that good karma will come back to me. Maybe that's called "Polish karma." I'm going with that.

Friday, March 1, 2019

What is your cause?

This blog will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in August. A decade!

I want to thank everybody who has stuck with me and the blog. I have evolved a lot, and I bet you have, too. Imagine what you were doing 10 years ago.

Today marks the next step in the Snooze Button Generation blog's evolution. I will be taking our readers for a ride and in a new direction, but that direction won't be revealed until the next post. Ooh, it's a cliffhanger!

The new direction will focus on an important cause — one that is universal, bipartisan and will actually help individuals and the world. The cause is about empowering others, creating leaders (not followers) and helping people's actual lives. While it's true that a lot of the tone in this blog has been offbeat and humorous, let me say that the new direction is no joke. But we'll have fun with it, homie.

I am curious about you, reading this now. If you prioritized what truly matters to you in a few words, or just one cause, what would it be? What is your cause?

In the age of quick, chewable thoughts, I imagine that many would joke and say things like "liquid soap" or "Big Chungus." Or maybe the thoughts would go to "dump Trump," "get rich" or "Channing Tatum." But truly, deeply, seriously, what is your cause?

Sadly, I fear most don't really have a cause. It might be "my job" or "school." If that's the case, feel free to think in the hypothetical. If you had a cause, what would it be? I plan on taking action with my cause, and I urge you to do the same, if you have not already.

Please share your cause as a comment. I will be an ally — assuming I do indeed support your cause (our cause). I ask that you become an ally for my cause (our cause), too — assuming you support it when it's revealed.
For those who don't know me, I started this blog when I was going through a divorce and after a 12-year career in print journalism. I was starting a new career as a high-school teacher, and the premise of the Snooze Button Generation was a homage to '80s and early '90s pop culture. It was tailored to nostalgic Gen Xers, who I dubbed the Snooze Button Generation.

For the first three years of the blog, we did an average of two posts per week. We talked about Atari, Lloyd Dobler, the Apple IIc, Drakkar Noir, the Humpty Dance, Jake from "Sixteen Candles" and much more.

I enjoyed writing about that stuff and got a lot of laughs, but on Feb. 16, 2011, my world flipped upside down when my dad, the XMan, unexpectedly passed away. I somehow pieced together a post on that traumatic day.

When I thawed out slightly from my dad's death, I took the blog to a more personal place. I stayed with old-school pop culture, but evolved to include more personal posts and some that were flat-out intimate. That format has lasted for the past few years.

The new focus will be more humanistic and genuinely connect us. Real connection is worth more now than ever — in the world of social media and fake cyber connection. Now, you might say, "Wait a second. Isn't this fake too?"

I don't think so. I am sincere about connecting us, and others, through our causes. Heck, there are 10 years worth of blogs to check out and see the evolution of how we got here. I have realized that we can't really accomplish anything if we go at it alone. We need to connect, and we need each other's support.

What's your cause?

Friday, February 1, 2019

Uncle Ed is better than Federer

Eddie. Lynda. Freddie.

That is the trio pictured. My dad, Fred, is on the left with the mustache.

This is taken in Chippewa Lake, Ohio, with the Stevens cottage — 42 Bungalow Bay — in the background. The photo is likely in the middle of a tennis match. Tennis courts are directly to my dad's right.

Spending many summer days in Chippewa, this trio engaged in many grueling tennis matches. They were great players, and my Uncle Ed and Aunt Lynda continue to be quality players to this day.

It will likely sound like hyperbole, but Uncle Ed is better than Roger Federer.

Now, you might say that is a stupid claim because Federer has 20 Grand Slam titles and was No. 1 in the world for six years. But, come on, he is BORING. As a casual pro tennis fan, I have avoided watching Federer for years. Too robotic. Yawn.

Uncle Ed, on the other hand, has Federer beat with longevity, style and charm. He's logged in more years on the court than the Swiss mister and was not afraid to play shirtless in humid Ohio summers in the 1980s. One commonality he shares with Federer is that I am not sure I beat either in an actual match.

But, really, my serious point must be asked: What is more important to our youth — to be No. 1 in the world or to play tennis for your entire lifetime? Honestly, Uncle Ed is a healthier role model than Federer because sports should be about health and development and love of the game.

I truly question the state of youth sports. We have travel teams, club teams, extra fees, hardcore competition, stress and coaches shaming kids. Why? What happened to the good ol' days when kids just played together outside for the love of the game?

Earlier this year, Uncle Ed and my cousin Jen told me they were playing mixed doubles in a tournament, and they had absolutely glee in their eyes when talking about it. What does Federer think about that?
When I was a teenager, I remember Uncle Ed being extremely active on the court, an animal at the net. My Aunt Lynda had a different style. She was a baseline player and was just ridiculously consistent. We did not keep statistics, nor did we have Cyclops, but I believe it was common for her to have ZERO unforced errors in a match.

I cannot say that Aunt Lynda is better than Serena Williams, but she rivals her. The problem my aunt faces on the women's circuit is that it is full of personalities. Serena oozes personality, and the women's game has so much more chutzpah than the men's game.

I argue that tennis is the only sport in which the women's spectator version is better than the men's. This might sound sexist, and I understand that. But it's what I believe. With all other sports, I'd rather watch the men's version. But I prefer women's tennis to men's — and that hurts Aunt Lynda in the pantheon of sports greatness.

Women's tennis has longer rallies, and I also like its three-set format. For god's sakes, why do the men have to play best of five? And where are the personalities? I totally miss the days of McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Andy Kellar and Richie Tenenbaum.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Examining the back story

Back in 1987, I was in a body cast.

For whatever reason, I don't often talk about that episode. I had reconstructive back surgery, was in the Cleveland Clinic for 21 days and was wheeled away with a cast and rods in my back.

The truth is that at the time I did not think the surgery had any deep meaning. I needed surgery. I got it. I could not play sports for a full year after it.

But, upon further review, this event is out of the ordinary for the average teenager. Maybe there is a cliche in there somewhere. Maybe I learned how to overcome obstacles. Maybe I showed persistence or something like that.

Today is New Year's Day, and I think I am writing about my back surgery because there is a fresh start feel in the air. Many things are colliding today because of me exploring this topic and me realizing that there is no cliche, or conveniently wrapped, ending to my back surgery story. I also realize that many people withhold telling important stories, turning points, for fear of judgement.

So why has it taken me 32 years to write about my back surgery? The main reason why is that I am not defined by it and did not want to be defined about it.

As a former journalist, I know that my colleagues and I would often do stories of firsts:

"You are the first African-American to be an astronaut. What is that like?"

"You are the first woman to be nominated for best director. What is that like?"

In my pop-culture loving American world, the thoughts behind many so-called "stories" are myopic, stereotypical and completely not real. As it relates to me, well, I never wanted to be the "kid in the body cast" or "the kid with the bad back."

No, no, there was way more to me than that, so because those sentiments were common, I pushed the conversation away from that. And, yeah, I did that when I was 13 years old.
About my back, the surgery in June 1987 was my second back surgery, after one in May '86. As a seventh grader in '86, I felt some pain in my lower back toward the end of basketball season in February. As the months progressed, the pain became unbearable, and I eventually could no longer run.

With a trip to the Cleveland Clinic, I did various tests, including an MRI, and was diagnosed with an arachnoid cyst in my back the "size of a sausage." By the time that diagnosis occurred, I was eager to have surgery. I was in major pain, and this had to stop.

The pictures above, without the body cast, are from the '86 surgery. Recovery from that was not easy but bearable. I was not ready to play football that started in August, but I was go to go with basketball, which started in October.

I felt fine and was on an eighth grade CYO basketball team that was in the Final Four for the city of Cleveland, thank you very much. Around this time, I did some follow-ups at the Cleveland Clinic, and it was determined that if I did not have reconstructive back surgery, then I would develop a permanent curvature in my spine.

The second surgery was no joke. Afterward, I wore the body cast for six months, then had a brace for three more months. With the cast, it meant sponge baths for six months, and at a certain point, I yearned to have the darn thing off.

Then, the brace was kind of a bummer because it was more obvious that I was wearing it. The cast was smooth and actually less noticeable.

When people ask me how the back surgeries affected me, I sometimes say that it got me to read for the first time. That is partially true because I was laid up for so long that reading was part of my routine. Maybe that put me on the path to be a writer.

I could say things like, "Y'know, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger," or "It taught me how to deal with adversity at a young age."

However, looking back, I'm not so sure I had those thoughts. Looking back, it was really about identity and my fear of being labeled or judged or misunderstood. If I have to make some sort of big statement, it is another reminder of how fragile life is and how good health is a gift and deserving of genuine gratitude.
This topic brings us to my brother Fred, who was gliding along healthy as an ox until about a week before Christmas. He got a nasty case of the flu, so much so that it landed him with a hospital trip. Then, after taking Tamiflu, he was practically paralyzed.

Fred went back to the emergency room and was quickly diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. He then was admitted to the hospital for five days, and over Christmas, to receive treatment. He has the most positive attitude I've run across in a while and is doing so well that he's thinking he won't even have to do outpatient physical therapy. In the hospital, he could not use his hands nor walk.

Through Fred's episode and my own back story in the '80s, my mom was at her boys' side in the hospital every day, so she deserves a shoutout. But, yeah, health remains such an important part of living that I say it's a foolish when we partake in unhealthy activities.

So Happy New Year! Maybe this is the year to make a commitment to exercise, healthier diets, no more junk food and drinking. Life indeed is fragile.