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!