Wednesday, June 1, 2022

You are what you read

When I was about 6 years old, I remember hearing: "You are what you eat."

It was meant to explain the importance of nutrition, and in a way, the phrase is literal. Food goes into our bodies and becomes part of us.

With so much streaming and digital consumption nowadays, I'd like to amend that phrase to either "You are what you consume," or "You are what you scroll," or better yet, "You are what you read."

As this school year winds down, here are my favorite books from this year. I've read 23 books cover to cover this past year, and I will break down the best of the best, AKA the ones I unabashedly recommend. However, I must point out this was an odd year of reading for me because I experimented with a boatload of books I didn't finish. I read more sci-fi and YA books, but it turns out I hardly was into any of them.

And let's be real from the beginning. Some I read, but I don't recommend. I probably stuck with them because they were short or easy reads. I found the following few overrated, and I do not recommend them: Drunk Tank Pink (2013) by Adam Alter, Dopamine Nation (2021) by Anna Lembke, Matched (2010) by Allie Condie, Presence (2015) by Amy Cuddy and Just Listen (2009) by Mark Goulston. 

However, those above books should get props — props for marketing or popularity — because I actually did read them. I've heard that only 60 percent of books bought are ever opened. Books finished? That's hard to estimate. What is it? Ten percent, if that?

A couple years ago, I was reading a book about publishing by agent Jeff Herman, who on page 30 said, "If you are actually reading this, please email me and say 'hi.'" I did, and he responded later that day. Let me do the same thing and pretend this is page 30. If you are actually reading this, email me at joestevens2010@gmail.com and say "hi." 

And congratulations to you! You are what you read, not what you scroll. Or you're so good at scrolling, you saw that — an Easter egg.  

Without further adieu, here are the top 10 books I recommend from this year. I'll kind of cheat by counting two books by bell hooks as one spot.

1. Teaching Community (2003) and Teaching to Transgress (1994) by bell hooks. I must give props to a friend, Elysse Hind, for pointing me toward bell hooks. I absolutely loved these two books, and bell hooks framed teaching in a way that helps me see each day in the classroom as an act of love.

I've incorporated a lot of hooks' philosophy into my classroom. One huge takeaway is that it's silly to deny students' spirits in public classrooms. Oftentimes, our spirits, or souls, are tied to religion, and so a sad accident can be the denial of the spirit. I feel my basic job as an educator is to connect to students' spirits and uplift them.

Every year, I have students present a book they read to the class. I do the assignment, too, and presented Teaching Community in the fall. Bell hooks then passed away on Dec. 15. I feel fortunate to have read her work while she was still with us.

2. The Courage to Teach (1997) Parker Palmer

Bell hooks mentioned Parker Palmer in Teaching Community, and I looked him up and stumbled across The Courage to Teach. I absolutely loved it.

I was so naive when I started full-time teaching 14 years ago. I thought school was about education. I quickly learned that education only is a sliver of the equation of what school is. It takes courage to actually teach in cultures of assigning work, grading, indoctrination and the hullabaloo of it all.

Palmer inspired me to make an extra commitment to teaching, understand that true teaching is a revolutionary type of action and that I must develop my inner spirit to support my students. 


3. Thinking in Bets (2018) by Annie Duke

Well, I don't only read teaching books, and I love family/friend games of no limit Texas hold 'em. When the World Poker Tour and poker on TV was popular, I couldn't get enough, and people who follow poker certainly know Annie Duke.

Annie Duke is not only a poker pro, but huge in the corporate speaking world, and Thinking in Bets is both entertaining and interesting. Right off the bat, she helped me realize that life is more like poker than chess because of the unknown. In chess, all is open for us all to see, and chance is kinda out of the equation. That's not how it works in life and poker.

I also internalized how good decision making isn't about the result. It's about making the best choice with the knowledge at the time. So the next time your all-in kings lose to all-in jacks, understand that you absolutely made the right choice — even though you lost. 

4. The Biggest Bluff (2020) by Maria Konnikova

I liked this book so much I went back and read Konnikova's The Confidence Game (2016) too. Was I a mark for liking these books so much?

With poker legend Erik Seidel as her mentor, Konnikova becomes a legitimate poker player and celebrity, despite saying she knew nothing about poker and wanted to approach it from a psychologist's perspective. It was fun to read about her poker development and emotions during her wild ride to poker prominence.

5. How to Do Nothing (2019) by Jenny Odell

Bird watching is actually bird noticing. We're probably not going to see them, but listen. They're there.

With so much buzz and so many unintentional grabs of the cell phone, Odell helped me see that a lot of the "I'm on the phone too much" feelings I have are universal. Nowadays, it perhaps is an art form to simply do nothing and just be. This book helped me reclaim my life after being stuck in screen-time warp of daily nothingness.


6. Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I noticed this book on the New York Times' best seller list and wasn't too excited to read it because it seemed out of the realm of what I normally like. But reading Braiding Sweetgrass is like engaging in a long, much-needed hug from Kimmerer.

She is a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and she helped me revision how I see the planet, human's relations to it and misconceptions I had about the indigenous perspective. Right from the opening pages with the creation story featuring Sky Woman, Kimmerer shows a calming, loving mood toward nature, and I hope to maintain that feeling toward nature, too.


7. Multiplication is for White People (2012) by Lisa Delpit

As we head back to an education book, Delpit illuminates a lot of obvious issues in schools that, thankfully, are somewhat being addressed more nowadays since the publication of this 10 years ago. With the systemic racism inherent in education and many of our nation's institutions and the myth perpetuating that certain African-American children "inner city" neighborhoods cannot achieve,  Delpit tackles huge issues that need attention.

Personally, I have no easy answer for helping low-achieving students and schools move forward. However, I do have two simple ideas. 1) Schools have to do their best to create cultures of support and love for children. Then, 2) they must bring back students as teachers who live in their neighborhoods.

Just as I don't believe it's the best policy to have police officers working in communities they don't live, I believe the same thing about teachers. Teach for America? Maybe that's an OK Plan B. But do we really want suburban white kids in neighborhoods they have no connection to? I say we can build up communities by empowering children to become educators and stay in the communities that matter to them.


8. Tender Bar (2005) by J.R. Moehringer

My beautiful wife Dina and I totally loved this movie on Amazon Prime, and I went back and read the memoir it was based on. I loved the remarkable differences between the book and movie because in the movie, Uncle Charlie is played by all-American hero Ben Affleck. In the book, Uncle Charlie has alopecia and at one point, gets arrested connected to gambling.

I enjoyed the book so much because of the culture of how men were during the '70s and '80s. Toxic? Probably. But pretty cool, too. It was a breath of fresh air to read about how the bar in Manhasset, Long Island, was the centerpiece of the town and attracted people regardless of profession, social class and politics.

Similar to the movie, the book oozes of nostalgia for a time when communities mattered and people weren't glued to screens. Maybe communities still matter, but around me, everyone seems to be on their phones, looking for something bigger and better than the corner bar.

9. Kids These Days (2017) by Malcolm Harris

I must admit that this Gen Xer falls into the trap of stereotyping my millennial brethren. Do they really know hard work? Do they ever look up from their phones? Is it possible to have a phone conversation with them?

The great thing about Kids These Days is that Harris dispels millennial stereotypes and has me see how human capital has shifted in the digital age. The reality is that millennials are doing more and getting less than previous generations. They're more educated than previous generations, but they're often buried under student-loan debt. Their extra education likely doesn't reflect their income.

If I can build off of Kids These Days, I will point out that the trends mentioned in the book are increasing with Gen Z. I see the modern culture of youth to be this anxiety-ridden, phone-addicted trudge to college. Ugh. It's basically counterculture for a teenager to have a healthy work-life balance. And how is that going to miraculously change when they're older? 

10. Self-Compassion (2018) by Kristin Neff

For the final pick, I got to go with Self-Compassion. It edges out a bunch of books that I also recommend, including Digital Minimalism (2019) by Cal Newport, The Selection (2012) by Kiera Cass (a rare YA read and recommend from me), Play (2009) by Stuart Brown and Revolutionary Wealth (2006) by Heidi and Alvin Toffler.

As sad is it might sound, I never even knew self-compassion to be a concept until recently, and I see it as vital to one's health and to how one treats others. How can we truly be kind to others if we're not kind to ourselves?

Perhaps I grew up to understand that selfishness was bad and we should do our best to help others. Unfortunately, how we treat ourselves got lost in the shuffle for me. Self-care is huge nowadays in schools, and I agree that it's hugely important for educators and students. However, I see self-compassion as a precursor to self-care, and I believe we owe it to ourselves — and others around us — to treat ourselves with kindness. 


Sunday, May 1, 2022

New York mesmerized by cool Dad

"Oh, good choice. That's my dad's favorite."

That's what I heard from the server in a hip East Village eatery for brunch on Easter.

"I am such a dad," I replied. "In fact, I'm the dad of this entire restaurant!"

My, how our demographics have changed as Gen Xers! I lived in New York City back in the '90s, during part of my 20s. Last week, I explored the city with my beautiful wife, Dina, and our teenage daughters.

Apparently, Dina and I end up in NYC every three years or so, but this was the first time with the girls. Overall, we had a blast, ate some fuhgettaboutit food and did some solid touring, including going to the top of the Freedom Tower and seeing Wicked.

I guess I'm slow, and I should've realized this earlier. But my big takeaway was how NYC is such a youthful city, and no matter how darn cool I know I am, I can not pass for a 20-something hipster. We stayed in the Lower East Side at Public, an Ian Schrager hotel. He is famous for founding Studio 54, and the hotel attracts hipsters, not families. Coming to grips with my demographic was in my face as soon as we checked in.

"And your daughters will be in Room 309, sir,"  the hotel guy said.

Daughters? How could he assume that? And what's up with him calling me 'Sir'? Well, I guess I've been "Sir" for a while by now.

I quickly learned not to care about the dad treatment bestowed on me by NYC. But that's easier said than done.

A lot of New York memories flooded back as I would "stand clear of the closing doors, please," or when I saw the site of the Tic Tac Toe chicken in Chinatown or when I showed the girls where I used to live in Washington Square Village. I broke new ground, touring the city in full-fledged dad mode.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm probably the best parent to ever exist. A lot of fellow Gen Xers believe being a topnotch parent means losing their own lives, being a helicopter or bulldozer or treating their kids like little emperors. "Dad, make me a sandwich!" "Oh, yes Emperor Jaden, I'll get right on that!"

No, no, taking my cues from Julie Lythcott-Haims and her 2015 masterpiece How To Raise An Adult, I feel like Dina and I do what's right for us and the kids. We're on the same page, and we will always be. That doesn't mean we don't disagree. The kids don't dominate us; we don't dominate them. Hopefully, we put them in a position to develop character traits, such as grit, empathy, kindness and connection, that will serve them well in life. I guess that's my version of parenting.

Back to NYC, where Dina and I hit the streets with these beautiful teenage daughters as I remain a gray-haired dude who likes the Cleveland Guardians.

It's the girls' time now. While they're a freshman and junior in high school, I enjoy watching them find their way educationally, socially and emotionally. They don't need me like when they were younger, but I'm hoping we stay close and they understand I truly love and support them.

Being a dad has been such a huge part of my identity for the past 17 years, and I have found it slightly difficult to transition to dad of teenagers. The main reason is because my role is much different now. Deep down, I might be mourning the loss of stuffed animals, bubbles, board games and sidewalk chalk. They're studying for AP tests now, and I've accepted that's where we are.

Somehow, New York accentuated this transition to me, and, overall, this is how life goes. I'm learning to get out of the girls' way and be there for them, when needed — mostly for my credit card. As the girls grow, I believe Dina and I will become even closer as they go to college, figure out their careers and navigate relationships.

I believe every generation has a different version of what they perceive as "cool." Obviously, I am superbly cool to Gen Xers. But to Millennials and the Gen Z crew, I'm a total dad. Don't they know how well-versed I am with indie rock and being disenchanted?

Maybe that version of cool doesn't exist in 2022. Maybe the girls have somehow out-cooled me. They probably belong in Manhattan more than I do nowadays. It's just too bad they'll never lose to a chicken in Tic Tac Toe.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Are the toxic Browns loyal to their fans?

No. Fun. League. 

Yep, that's how I see the NFL nowadays. It's just no fun. It's putting me, and us Cleveland Browns fans, in a predicament that we don't want.

Many of us are diehard, lifelong Browns fans, and we devote 17 weeks of our lives and a lot of the offseason to following our beloved Brownies. Of course, we want a Super Bowl, but we know that the Browns bring us fans together in the name of community and entertainment and connecting our generations. That's the deal. Right?

But now, what are we supposed to do? We are not fans of Deshaun Watson. He has 22 civil cases connected to sexual assault pending, and we take this seriously. Plus, he never has played for the Browns. Regardless, they signed him to the highest guaranteed contract in NFL history for five years, $230 million. They even gave up three first-round picks to do this.

In case you don't follow it, please understand that a day before agreeing to come to Cleveland, Watson told the Browns he wasn't interested. Please understand that 24 women have accused him of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Just on March 11, a grand jury declined pursuing criminal charges against him.

In essence, the Browns announced, well, if there aren't criminal charges, then we're OK signing him to the biggest guaranteed contract in NFL history. How exactly do the Browns expect their fans to react?

We're obviously not excited because of the baggage Watson brings, the manner in which he already treated the Browns and the fact that the team has given up three first-round picks. What about the victims? What? All 24 were lying?

On the other hand, it may be unrealistic for us diehard fans to swear off the Browns, considering how loyal we are. However, the one thing I've learned about loyalty is that it's a two-way street. How exactly are the Browns being loyal to their fans with this move?

In the news conference to introduce Watson, the Browns brass did not say "yes" when asked if they thought he was innocent. And Watson said his record contract had nothing to do with him coming to Cleveland. Say what? Huh? Oh my God, what an airhead!

Not so long ago, I kept hearing from the Browns how Baker Mayfield embodied Cleveland. He had a chip on his shoulder and was the working man's quarterback. He was perfect for Cleveland, the Browns told us.
Now, all of a sudden, the Browns are asking fans to forget that narrative and go with "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." All of a sudden, we no longer are a city that needs a QB to match our sensibility. What exactly is your story, Browns?

Story, feel and connection matter to us fans. Maybe that's why the owners, the country bumpkin Haslems, have never been a fit. They're from Tennessee and had a stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers before amassing the Browns. What do they really care — or even know — about our city? 

The Haslems are so culturally disconnected to Cleveland that they went all-in on an accused sexual assaulter that we don't want and my family refers to as "Cosby." Beware: Watson, AKA "Cosby," could end up as the biggest free-agent bust in NFL history. 

This is a public-relations disaster, and kudos for Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto for expressing his feelings, which match a lot of the fan base: "I can't recall the last time I was so angered and disappointed by a decision by a local franchise. My anger is aimed at the Browns, not Watson when it comes to this deal."

I have lived away from Cleveland my entire adult life, but I still identify with it as home and, of course, am a huge fan of its sports teams. After this lame signing of Watson, I can see no best-case scenario. Chances are, the Browns will be mediocre or fall flat on their faces. I mean if the unaligned, awkward and maudlin news conference is indicative of how it's going to be on the field, it's going to be pathetic.

On the flip side, even if the Browns miraculously win the Super Bowl with Watson, so what? Success isn't only about the outcome. It's about the process, too, and this already has been an unsuccessful process. "Unsuccessful" may be kind. Actually, it's pretty toxic.

One simple answer is this: Just don't watch it.

Maybe that's the simple progression for someone like me. The last time I saw the Browns in person was in 2015, when they played in San Diego at outdated Qualcomm Stadium. There was a lot of over-the-top rowdiness in the stands, and it took us over an hour to maneuver out of an undirected parking lot. No need to go in person any more.

Maybe there's no need to watch this junk any more. I will not get the NFL Sunday Ticket this year, and that's a step in the right direction. I hope to have my Sundays free again and live my actual life instead of watching players who don't even want to be in Cleveland. I don't cheer for villains or their enablers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

News junkie breaks up with CNN

A full-fledged war started this past week, and I'm not watching it, especially not on CNN. You know what they say: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

I have officially broken up with CNN and all corporate TV news. No, we can't still be friends. It's not me. It's you.

Looking back at the pandemic, CNN's coverage was alarmist, extreme, divisive and totally stressed me out. Unfortunately, it took me many, many months to figure this out and turn it off. I was stuck with CNN. During a pandemic. No wonder we're getting divorced!

Obviously, fear sells and keeps viewers glued to their screens. But I bet a lot of us have hit a breaking point, and we're no longer buying what U.S. news is selling. Like Mr. Wonderful might say on Shark Tank ... We're out.

Please don't judge me based on this break-up. First, he moves to Orange County, then he nixes CNN. Figures. He's probably watching Fox News and driving a pick-up truck by now. No, not true! Fox News is even worse than CNN — and has been for years. I just wonder how long CNN had joined Fox in the gutter before I noticed.

During this Russia-Ukraine war, I am only watching and reading international news sources and nonprofit Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. I'm better informed and a zillion times less stressed than if I turned on the U.S. news with commercial breaks.

DW (Deutsche Welle), the German public broadcaster, is my favorite international news outlet. I find it strives for objectivity and has far less emotion than its American counterparts, including the New York Times. While I find excellent journalism now and again in the Times, its business approach is way too aggressive. Its headlines often look more concerned with clicks than representing its stories, and why do I have to pay to read its content? I'm not absorbing the Times like I used to.


Back in the '90s, a lot of us watched the Gulf War on CNN and might have felt as if we were good citizens to glue ourselves to our TVs. Earlier in 1963, many U.S. viewers started their catastrophic TV watching with the JFK assassination. Back then, the populace was so shocked it turned to TV. The same thing happened with 9/11.

How many more catastrophes are we going to force ourselves to ruminate over with our money-making news? After the pandemic, am I the only one who's just gassed and can't do this any more?

Maybe we thought we were good citizens to watch constant catastrophes involving America and the world. But does a good, well-informed citizen need to watch bombings in Ukraine? What does that prove?

Life is not one crisis after another, as corporate American news tries to show us. Catastrophes do happen, and I believe it's important to be informed. But if a news outlet can't communicate the news of the day in 30 minutes, or even one hour max, is it really doing its job or just manipulating us into staying with it longer than they need to?

And don't get me started on why I feel obliged to have a zillion news apps on my phone and in my pocket. It takes discipline to only look at the news when I wake up and one more time after dinner. Honestly, CNN is just too needy.

While it's true that I spent 13 years in newspaper journalism, have a master's in journalism and taught at USC's Annenberg School of Communication, I think typical viewers are experiencing what I am and not just us news junkies. We can't go through the high-stress, emotionally driven nothingness of American TV news any more. 

I bet we'd live in a kinder, gentler America and end a lot of the silly political infighting if we all stopped watching national TV news. While it's important to be informed about what's happening globally and nationally, I wish we all paid much more attention to our local government, what we're consuming on the Internet and our communities.

Perhaps the time I put into world and national news will be converted into a better quality of life and calmness.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

How to procrastinate properly

A lot of my students come up to me and ask, "Mr. Stevens, can you teach me how to procrastinate?"

I'll indulge these whippersnappers, but I must say that procrastination is a skill that needs to be practiced and honed. It takes a lifetime to master, and, quite frankly, I still learn a lot about procrastination each day.

So instead of asking to be taught, maybe students should ask: "How do I learn to procrastinate?" 

Well, as a teacher, I'm only the crossing guard. Students need buy-in. They need to see the importance of procrastination and walk through the crosswalk. Y'know, it's more about what they learn as opposed to what I teach.

Right off the bat, if students don't look at their phone as soon as they get a notification, that's a problem. They also should have multiple social-media apps on the phone. TikTok and Insta are good for starters, but have as many as you can find. Hey, downloads are free. Twitter? Reddit? Why not? And just scroll through those apps as much as possible.

Colorful games are good, too, for dopamine rushes. You can never have enough dopamine. You won't get dulled to it, so the more games you play, like Clash Royale or Funky Blast or Mario Mustache, the better. Do not stop looking at the phone while walking down the street or if you're in the restroom or while eating or in any class because that is valuable dopamine time.

Another tip is to surround oneself with as many needy, unreliable friends as possible. It helps if they text you constantly and let out their emotions with you daily. Let's hear it again about how they were wronged. Group chats are wonderful, too! Get on as many as possible, and contribute to them. To be innovative, start group chats. People love that.

Mindlessly watching YouTube is a good tactic, too. When in doubt, keep going to the next video. If it's getting boring and you're thinking, "Hey, maybe, I should do that assignment due tomorrow that was assigned three months ago," don't be stupid! Watch more videos. Good ones will come.

If social media, dopamine blasting games, texting your overly needy friends and YouTube aren't working for you, then try binge watching a show, any show — even if you only mildly like it. As you start each new episode, a good mantra is: "OK, this is the last one."

I recommend saying that mantra as much as humanly possible. As the sun comes up, and as you realize you accidentally fell asleep during a 5-second YouTube ad, when you decided you could binge watch some lame show, watch YouTube cat videos, text back your needy "friend," still collect your bonus points in Funky Blast and do your math homework at the same time, be proud of yourself. You officially are an expert procrastinator!

And what separates the true procrastination geniuses from the pretenders is this: They're doing it all again today as they sleepwalk through the day! Yippee!!

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Blog goes to Next Level

On the first New Year's Eve during this blog's existence, I lamented the fact that rockstar Paul Westerberg turned 50. Looking at the calendar today, I realize Westerberg is 62 now.

As this blog kicks off its 13th full year today, I realize that this is a record of my life and path. I guess it's not just me and Mr. Westerberg who are different today as opposed to in 2009. We all are.

My daughters were 6 and 4 back then, and now they're 16 and 14. I've always placed major importance into being a dad, and I love how that's playing out. I am proud of both Sophie and Chloe and am happy to be a part of their teenage, K-Pop world.

Yeah, those two love K-Pop, and I've learned that one way to connect with them is to immerse myself in K-Pop and revel in its artistry, style, talent, hard work and commercial appeal. A lot of it is pretty spectacular.

So with this post, this blog recommits to writing about whatever the heck I desire. This is a general-interest blog from a Gen X husband and dad. This blog reflects where I'm at during the moment, and I am buried in K-Pop. Happy New Year!

Last year, I released my top 20 K-Pop songs of 2020, and here are my top 10 K-Pop songs of 2021. If you're into K-Pop, enjoy! If not, consider clicking on some of the links to give it a try and subscribe to Sophie and Chloe's K-Pop channel echo4ever.

1. Next Level by Aespa

Aespa did indeed go the next level after its Black Mamba debut. I like Next Level so much that I had it blasting on the first day of school as high schoolers returned to in-person skool.

2. Maverick by The Boyz

Oh, heck, yeah, son! Back in the game, son! This is just a thrilling, killer song, son. Mark Cuban better start blaring this tune at Dallas Maverick basketball games.

3. On the Ground by Rose

Blackpink is a superstar band, and Rose and Lisa have some darn good solo stuff. I also loved Sophie's version of On the Ground!

4. I'm Not Cool by HyunA

I love the lyrics and attitude to this one, and Chloe killed it in her dance cover!

5. Don't Call Me by Shinee

Shinee's back! While this is no Ring Dong Dong, which I absolutely love, Don't Call Me brought these idols back, and I found myself often singing the song to myself. Taemin is da man!


6. Scientist by Twice

It turns out that love ain't no science. Don't need no license! And Sophie did an awesome dance cover to it as well.

7. Beautiful Beautiful by ONF

Brum, brum, bum, ba, ba, bum, bum! Catchy, catchy, and a killer video too.

8. Where Are We Now by Mamamoo

Hwa Sa remains my ultimate bias, and I nearly put I'm a B here by her. But Where Are We Now packs an emotional punch and shows Mamamoo's evolution and ability to sing atop winnebagos.

9. Thunderous by Stray Kids

I used to answer "Stray Kids" automatically whenever someone asked me about my favorite boy group, but The Boyz may be replacing that answer. I hope Stray Kids' best stuff isn't behind them, and Thunderous is pretty solid.

10. PTT (Paint the Town) by Loona

Stan Loona. ... Loona is such a supergroup that I had to put Paint the Town on this list. That means Exo, Lisa, ITZY, MCND, Chung Ha, IU, Fromis_9, G(Idle), Oh My Girl, Day6, Everglow and Treasure all were edged out. ... That's cold, and happy New Year!