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 world "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.

Friday, May 1, 2020

White boys on mopeds

I feel like Chris Elliott in Get a Life. Elliott was a 30-year-old paperboy in the sitcom that ran from 1990 to '92. He still lived with his parents. He was a grown man, on a bike.

Here I am — a grown man on a bike as I get some exercise and practice social distancing during this COVID-19 shutdown. It got me thinking, "Why wasn't I doing this earlier?"

I love this bike thing and remember hearing the line, "Chances are, what you did when you were 8 is what you'll still like as an adult."

So true.

Of course, nowadays, I hardly see kids on bikes. Presumably, they're inside, on their devices, accidentally worshipping Big Tech.

The other day, though, something strange happened. I stumbled across three teenagers on bikes on my turf, El Dorado Park. That's my land. Anyone who sees this shirtless 46-year-old with a baby blue helmet and black Mongoose mountain bike from Wal-Mart should know that.

I did what you're supposed to do with those kids. I stared 'em down, locked eyes and gave them a slight head nod that said, "What's up, Holmes?"

Their ringleader with a slight mustachio fell in line and gave me a deferential head nod back that said, "I see you, big man. You da boss. I would never mess with a DILF like you, and I would never ever ask you to buy me beer."

Acceptable head nod. Believe me, I know the bike code of the parks, and that's what mustachio boy communicated. We were cool. No need to tussle.

While I'm happy to be a full-fledged adult with a beautiful wife and two impressive daughters, I admit that I sometimes miss the ages 8 to 12, when a suburban white boy like me rode bikes with his crew. In Garfield Heights, Ohio, I experienced gritty suburbia because it bordered Cleveland, and it was a total blue-collar town.

For a while, I had a Space Invaders bike with a banana seat. While my friends admired it, I preferred their BMX-like bikes. I remember a whole crew of guys on Sladden Avenue, several streets over from my Garfield Drive.

On one street, I remember Dave, Alex, Mark, Paul and Bruce (who had an incredible white football we often used). Jeff and Kevin (Cato) each lived a street over. Whatever silliness we did was pretty damn fun. It had to beat freakin' TikTok or whatever the kids do today.
Yeah, we had Atari and Nintendo. But those were just options; real life was better.

When I got to college, I remember my friend and roommate, Ryan, explaining his crew to me. I met most of it, and I believe it was called "The Belmonts." It's funny. I had something similar, and those crews meant — and still mean — so much to us.

I believe we all had a bike phase. Sometimes, that bike phase would last too long, and the kid got a moped. At the time, the kid with the moped was the coolest dude ever. Looking back on it, the opposite had to be true. Is there anything real cool about white boys on mopeds?

So, yeah, I'm in a weird mood as I write this. I start counting this shutdown with Friday the 13th in March, so this is day 50. I've had some good family time, but 50 days? This is quite a hall for all of us. Luckily, I've discovered these bike rides, and I remain employed as a high-school English teacher.

Apparently, this is the part of the shutdown where I reminisce about riding that Space Invaders bike to Peter's Market on Turney and Sladden and buying a smokie — one of their in-house Slim Jims that had variance of spiciness. With smokie in hand and on my bike, there was no doubt that somebody would be outside doing something, throwing a football, playing hide and seek, just riding bikes.

Yeah, growing up in the '80s wasn't bad for me. I'm not sure I ever felt a sense of community like I did in Garfield Heights. I saw a quote from Stephen King's "Stand By Me" the other day that might sum it all up: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus. Does anyone?"

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Shut down but not out

Friday the 13th started the nightmare.

That was the last day of school for me and the girls. As of now, we're scheduled to remain out of the buildings and doing online school until May 4 — at least.

Of course, COVID-19 has infected our planet, and we are experiencing unprecedented shutdowns, illnesses, deaths, job losses and stock-market plummeting. Yet for me, on the daily, I have found my groove and feel OK.

I remain optimistic because love, hope and joy exist, despite the virus. Even in these uncharted times, I am sticking with my life's philosophy, to bank good days because a good life is the culmination of good days. However, with the troubles facing the world, it makes this plan much more difficult.

My heart goes out to everyone who is affected more than me. At this point, officially and globally 860,000 have been infected by COVID-19, and 42,000 have lost their lives. I can only pretend to imagine what their loved ones are going through, and so many others are taking other hits as well.

My loved ones are experiencing other issues, but not coronavirus. In Naples, Fla., my in-laws lost their best friend, Laurie, who went down a fatal path after complications from oral surgery. She was 68.

I know of several others who are experiencing serious health issues. Also, my beautiful wife, Dina, has had bronchitis for two weeks. Thank God, that finally appears on its way out.

OK, so, it's not a breeze, by any stretch. But my day-to-day activities remind me of "glamping."
My most stressful day probably was Monday, March 16, when my school district had teachers report to watch videos on how to do online school. The problem there was that I could sense major stress among the teachers, and, shoot, that stressed me out.

I also was stressed by playing the stock market for short-term gains, and a few times, it was easy because the market fluctuated so much. But it was a pressure cooker because I had to time the market right — to buy during a plummet and sell during a bounce back. At the end of the day, the profits weren't worth the hassle and stress.

Since then, I am banking good day after good day, even though the news is difficult to stomach. I have accepted coronavirus as part of our new reality and am hoping that the deaths go lower than estimates. I am doing my part to follow the guidelines and not contract or spread the disease.

I feel comfortable conducting online classes, but the key question remains: What is an appropriate workload for a high-school student during this difficult time?

I believe I have a good approach with that and am sensitive to potential problems students may face. In my house, we have daily educational festivals. I've applied my creativity to cooking and am making healthy, scrumptious dishes. With the gym closed, I have taken to bike rides, and I love them.

Love, hope and joy are alive indeed, and if a global pandemic can't damage my spirit, I don't believe anything can.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Self-tech knowledge

The only person's screen time that I'm in charge of is my own. Are parents really in charge of their kids' screen time? Are teachers in charge of their students'?

What I can say is that my digital detox has been one of the best things I've ever done. With my newfound time, I continue to work on my book, have picked up "elevated cooking" as a hobby and feel that I'm — finally — in control of my time. My brain cells are coming back.

My first step with this Renaissance was to "chart it up!" Most people have no clue how many times per day they touch their iPhone, iPad or whatever gadget that has them addicted. Do you?

Is it possible for you to understand how many times per day you look? Try counting.

Actually, there are apps that can do it. But I find that my Screen Time info. in Settings in the iPhone works better. Most people have double the screen time they think. For me, I feel like I'm hardly on the phone, but I still have about two hours of screen time each day.
I wonder how much screen time my students do per day and what the range is. If you are a student reading this blog, please comment on how much screen time you had last week and which app stole the most of your time. Also, is screen time a problem with you or not? The comments will show as "unknown" or "anonymous."

By the way, I just Googled it, and apparently, the average person touches his phone 2,617 times per day. The top 10 percent of users touch their phones more than 5,400 times per day.

Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Big Tech in general have taken us over so much that it may be hard to even consider 1) the value in limiting screen time and 2) how in the world to do that.

Now, first things first. These are the main things I hear when anybody is asked why they're on the phone so darn much:

No. 1: It's part of my job
No. 2: I need it for school.
No. 3: What if (important person) calls or texts?

OK. All of these reasons are reasons to not be on the phone so much. If it's for the workplace and school, then why are we on it during our downtime, too, and in the wee hours of the night? I realize that truly oppressed people do not realize they are oppressed. Is oppression too big of a word? Are we oppressed by Big Tech?
Even the most rabid phone addict must admit that understanding one's own screen time usage is important. Self-tech knowledge.

The value in getting off social media or limiting screen time has been huge for me. I just feel calmer, and I feel that I have better face-to-face conversations. It's a game changer to refuse to look up any factoid that might pop up in conversation. Is Mrs. Cunningham from "Happy Days" still living? Don't look it up. Don't look it up!

It's not just me, some 46-year-old Gen Xer, warning about screen time. It's an alarming issue. I actually ran across a lot of good coverage of user tech in USA Today. Feel free to check these articles on how phone addiction affects our brain and how parents model phone addiction. Monkey see, monkey do. If I'm on the phone a lot, won't my kids be, too?

Now, the big question is how to cut down on screen time in a world of screens. The best aha moment I experienced recently happened at my gym, Chuze Fitness, where I was pondering my digital detox and realized that there was a row of 10 TVs in front of me. Maybe, in a way, a "digital detox" is not even possible, but rather a "digital balance."

I must acknowledge that I watch about an hour or so of TV each night, but at least I'm pretty much off the phone and, instead, working on a revision of my nonfiction book on relationships during my downtime. My life feels better than ever, but I am questioning how digitally detoxed, or balanced, I actually am.

The other day, my 12-year-old daughter Chloe asked, "Dad, when you're typing on your laptop, isn't that screen time, too?"

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Mandalorian: An accurate male portrayal

I am not a huge fan of big-budget corporate movies. Explosions. Fake worlds. Thin plots. Superficial characters. Egads, save me!

But so many friends kept recommending The Mandalorian, so I checked it out and enjoyed it. Of course, it's nothing too deep, and I'm not a super fan. But Baby Yoda is cute, and in the words of a friend/colleague, "Mandalorian will save the Star Wars franchise."

Over the past few years, one of my many topics of study has been men's roles. I wrote about that here, discussing The Mask of Masculinity by Lewis Howes and other similar works.

I find The Mandalorian fascinating from a male's roles/masculinity perspective. Here's a warrior, defined by his work, and he literally wears a mask in front of people for his entire life. So of course, he does not show emotion, and he is an excellent replication of what modern-day masculinity is.

I guess the main character, Mando, is human. But is he really? Without a face, without emotion, is it safe to dub him human?

Many humane moments poke through as he takes care of Baby Yoda, even though he hardly shows an actual emotional connection to the baby. Yes, Mando does things for the baby. But I think he takes care of it more out of duty than emotions. Is that the reality of what motivates men in real life?
I must say that I define myself by my work to a certain extent. It matters to me that I am a writer and a teacher, and that's a big part of the equation with how I see myself.

The Mandalorian, like many males, appears to define himself solely by his work. He is dang good at his job — da best! — but then what really exists in his life? I fear many men have this same identity, and in the end, that contributes to a fruitless existence.

Many viewers and pop-culture critics consider Mando a refreshing hero. Really? Is the bar so low for men that by being an excellent bounty hunter and keeping alive a Baby Yoda make someone a hero?

To me, a male hero also connects with his babies, loses the mask and is an actual human being. I've always looked at science fiction as a genre that connects viewers with the present day and current culture and is more than a mere escape.

The Star Wars franchise hit it out of the park with replicating males roles with The Mandalorian, and a sad truth is that male roles have become so inhuman nowadays that we look at the robot man as a hero. It's too bad our boys will see this Mando and replicate his behavior.

We don't need more bounty hunters. We need more nurturing fathers and boys who embrace emotion. Oh, and I ended my Disney Plus after the week trial. I'm just not a fan of theme-park culture.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year ... from a casual fan

"They killed Star Wars. Heartbreaking, although it was dead awhile ago."

These words from my cousin reverberated through my inbox, and I was wondering why I had no desire to see "The New Star Wars."

Too corporate. Too much entertainment. Disney owns it now. Dang, the creators and audience have changed, and maybe I'm not a part of it any more.

I heard the movie was trash and would have avoided it, but my 14-year-old daughter Sophie wanted to see it. So I quietly said to myself, "Yes!"

The movie is better than I thought it would be. Chewbacca has major screen time, and faithful readers may know that I boast the most glorious Chewbacca collection known to man.

Of course, there are major plot and logic holes in the latest — and final — Star Wars. But so what? The movie sets the viewer up for that in the first minute, and the characters are relatively strong, especially for an action-adventure movie. So I enjoyed the movie.

I think one problem many Gen Xers have with Star Wars and other entertainment is that they just don't get Millennials. Strangely, I think I do. I continue to like some of the social progress I see in the world and in Star Wars and thought the the lead, Rey, with the two dudes and Chewie made a cool Millennial team.

But here's the deal. I'm a casual fan, and this Star Wars is such a big deal nowadays that I will remain a casual fan — and that's as much as I got.
It's wild how entertainment has shifted during the lifetime of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Of course, my daughters' generation, Gen Z or iGen, has only had iPhones in their lifetime. So they haven't weathered the tech explosion like us older folk.

I wonder how many Gen Xers are like me — amazed by Facebook at first, kind of addicted to Facebook and now hardly on it. It took a while, but I feel as if I've reclaimed my life by trading in tech use for exercise, reading and writing. I feel much more in tune with myself and the world around me.

I guess we live in a Super Bowl culture of constant spectacles, and so we have become dulled to spectacles. The bigger, the better? Nah, the more meaningful, the better. And what does that entail?

Some people say that what really matters in life might be when all is said and done, when we are taking our last breaths and, hopefully, surrounded by loved ones. I've often seen many lives given away for vacuous pursuits, and I like to think I actually have a meaningful life.

Within the past two weeks, I stumbled across two items about life and death that make me wonder about our place and time. First, I ran into the sonnet "When all the others were away at Mass" by Seamus Heaney (thank you, Valerie!). Then, I ran across "The Final Frontier" by Michael Chabon in The New Yorker.

Both have to do with parents on their deathbeds. In the sonnet, Heaney recounts peeling potatoes with his mother. In The New Yorker story, Chabon recounts he and his father's love and connection to Star Trek as his father lives his final days. I found both pieces moving for different reasons.

Maybe I'm old school. Maybe I just can't embrace pop culture like I used to. When the novelty wears off, where does that leave us? I bet a lot of us Gen Xers are finding ourselves with teenagers, eschewing our phones and pop culture and would be perfectly happy to just peel potatoes with our moms or children.

I'm worried that the moment has been highjacked by Big Tech, the entertainment world, our current culture or our image-trained minds. But at least we Gen Xers remember a time when it wasn't that way, when we had to wait for Saturday morning cartoons and we built memories with friends and family in real time.

Maybe that's my hope for this upcoming year, to forget about making "lasting" memories for the iCloud and make lasting memories in my actual memory.

Happy New Year — from a casual fan!