Right Now

“Billy! This is the third time! Don’t make me take away your screen time this weekend! Dinner is getting cold and I have to take your sister to soccer practice in 20 minutes!”

“OK mom!!! I’ll be right down”. Billy sighed and whispered into his headset morosely. “Sorry guys, I have to quit now. My mom wants me to grab dinner. Totally sucks, cuz I almost had Commander Jax leveled up to 21 and you _know_ once I got that ultra-cannon mod, we’d be unstoppable in this weekend’s Terra Dome tournament.”

“Yeah man, I feel ya”, said Pip. “My mom threatened to cancel our home internet if my grades don’t go up. I know that’s a complete bluff tho, cuz she works from home, and we can’t go without internet, right? Adults are so lame. Text me when you get back tonight!”

Billy logged off the site and shut down his machine. He was really looking forward to competing this weekend. He and his friends had spent hours playing Terra Dome and this was their chance to make a name for themselves. They had already talked about what they’d do with the top prize if they won it all. More than that, maybe they’d finally get the respect from all the losers at school who ignored them on a daily basis. We’ll show them. We’ll be impossible to ignore now.

Lost at Sea

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photo essay: Unemployment, August 2019, Greenpoint, NY

I’m writing this at a cottage by the sea. Some would say it’s quaint, as its located at the far eastern end of Long Island, to the north of the tony Hamptons. Earlier today we walked with our friends at a nearby boardwalk, where we found a few multi-million dollar yachts moored to the pier alongside a few lesser yachts, those of which would still cost a hefty 2nd mortgage to own. One of the passengers on one of the million dollar yachts disembarked to walk her two dogs along the pier. Of course my wife and kids had to make the “cute doggies” face as they proceeded to fondle the lady’s pups. Awkward moments ensue as the adults tried to make small talk with this woman while ogling the designer accouterments adorning the luxury back end cabana of said yacht. I was trying to ascertain whether this lady was actually the owner of the yacht, or merely on staff by sizing up the breeds of the dogs, and psycho-analyzing whether someone who owned a multi-millon dollar floating castle would actually walk their own dogs, much less interact with the common folk salivating at the sight of ostentatious wealth that was a plushly carpeted gangplank between them and infamy. Also, with the tech-fueled disruption of everything from the taxi industry to Lear jets, it wasn’t wholly ludicrous to imagine that some millenial entrepreneur had invented a startup that lets you rent a luxury yacht by the hour. Uber for yachts.

Anyway back to the cottage. I suppose when you allow someone else to book your accommodations, you abrogate any claims you might have had to what “quaint” means. In this case, it’s a cottage straight out of a 50’s beach movie with a view of the Atlantic ocean. Orange shag carpeted bungalow units with lacquered wood paneled walls and a wicker ottoman with pink cushions. One can easily imagine a retro-photoshoot for a hipster magazine based in Brooklyn or a Hollywood re-boot of a Twin Peaks movie. The wi-fi is really no-fi, and convenient USB-friendly power outlets are nowhere to be found. Thank goodness my Chromebook works without any internet.

This is the second half of our two-week vacation out east. The first half was spent in a bucolic utopian gated community with strong wi-fi and a Starbucks kiosk within easy reach. The time spent there was of my own making. Now in the second half, we are traveling with another family so negotiated itineraries are the currency of the day. My vacation is no longer my own. Much like my almost decade-long quest to return to gainful employment – to transition from being an at-home dad back to a professional dad. It hasn’t been easy.

All of this is a preamble to what I really wanted to write about, which was the state of my dis-employment circa 2019. Two months ago I actually took on a new full-time job. But I decided I hate this job and through some maneuvering got to take two weeks off right away. While on vacation I’ve been semi-hoping that when I get back, I’ll discover they fired me while I was gone. (Update: I’m still employed, but they scheduled my first shift back for 4 AM). The thought of returning to something unfulfilling makes staying in a cottage with a dysfunctional bathtub and musty odors sound kind of quaint.

 

Chautauqua Redux: More Magic Needed

A 2nd visit to Chautauqua Institution Five Years Later

Five years ago in 2014 we visited a special place in upstate New York called Chautauqua Institution. I wrote a series of essays back then about our experience. You can read them here, so I won’t belabor the backstory. Since that first visit I’ve been wanting to return to a place I’ve called an American Utopia. It’s an idyllic place to spend a week recharging one’s intellectual, spiritual, and physical self. This time around we knew what to expect, so I wanted to find out if I would still feel the same way about it given the passage of time.

One of my observations from the first visit was that Chautauqua (CHQ) had to change and adapt to the rapidly aging base of its core constituency: primarily upper-income, white, and drawing from the east coast. I observed that CHQ needed to attract younger families, offer more compact experiences than its traditional nine-week summer season, and attract a new audience of more racially and economically diverse patrons. These observations have been echoed largely in the institution’s newly unveiled strategic plan.

But is it enough? The desire might be there but does the pace of change need to occur at a faster rate? There are some positive signs in that direction. Three of the best talks I attended this week were all from people of color under 40. A lot of the talks were about racial equality and income inequality. Bill McKibben reminded us all that we only have a few years left to save the planet.

I feel CHQ has a similar existential crisis looming on a much smaller scale. I had a brief chat with a “local” at a church lunch and asked how the other locals felt about the Institution. He told me that the county we were in was one the poorest in the state and perhaps one of the poorest in the nation. Much of the progressive messaging from all the speakers inside the hallowed grounds that needed to spread outward wasn’t making it out. Meanwhile inside the grounds, I perused the real estate listings and saw one home listed for $2.6 million dollars. There’s definitely a sort of magical realism here filled with lots of nice grandmas and grandpas, the grounds are manicured and lovely, kids can ride their bikes around without fear of being kidnapped, and every moment is filled with opportunities for self-improvement. I did find a septugenerian who wrote a letter to the editor of the daily newspaper here complaining about the increasing presence of riff-raff they let come here who are rude enough to talk during the post-concert organ recital. That, my friends, is about the level of acrimony around here.

Mid-week they brought in a magician to do a show for the kids. Given the weight of all the worldly problems being discussed this week, it was nice to have a bit of magic to lighten all the depressing talk. And that’s what we all need right now with all the heavy problems we’re facing in the world now. A whole bunch more magic.

I don’t know what the future holds, or even how much longer we have to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. I do know that this visit, 5 years later, was worth the time and money spent to renew our engagement with a unique and special place. I only hope that if we return 5 years from now, we’ll see the results of more urgent, bolder actions to transform itself into a place that can sustain future generations of patrons.

 

2019 Reflections

In past years I’ve spent time around the New Year reflecting on my life and what’s been top of mind going into the new year. This time around I think I’m going to re-read some of those and see how well I accomplished or progressed on them.

One of the long-running themes I wrote about was the desire to quit Facebook. This past year, more stuff came out about all the bad things Facebook either did, or allowed to happen behind the scenes. I’ve observed more desire than ever amongst friends to quit the platform, or find a viable alternative. I don’t think much will come out of the desire to exit Facebook, but as of today, I’ve made my peace with the fact that I will have to stay on platform to do things like organize, network, and market the things I’m passionate about. So I’m going to stop agonizing over it, but still focus on Facebook as a channel to put my own ideas out there. I want 2019 to be the year where I create, not consume, content as my main reasons for being active on social networks.

Another long-running theme over the years has been my struggles finding a path back to full-time employment. For the past 2 years, I’ve been a rideshare driver, which I began shortly after posting my last update in December of 2016. I wrote about three years ago how I began to see leveling up in video games as a metaphor for how to approach making progress in your real-life aspirations, and I’d like to believe I took that to heart. Since 2017, I enrolled in a life-coaching program, worked a couple part-time gigs, became a rideshare driver, launched a new website, got published on a major website, worked on a political campaign again, and built my brand as an education expert in Minecraft. All of this has taken longer than I’d hoped, but I guess I’m still hopeful that this is leading to something awesome in 2019 or the years to come. I still would like to find that dream full-time job with benefits so that my wife can switch roles and become the at-home parent instead of me, but if that job never appears, I do have a plan B. Two years into the Trump administration, I think many of us have been pondering a plan B, whether that’s emigrating to a more progressive country, moving to a red state to turn it blue, or helping a new generation of more diverse candidates win office and take back our country. The road ahead is unclear as it always has been this last decade but perhaps I am gaining a better outlook with the opportunity to look back more deeply this year.
Happy New Year.

Make Facebook Work for You – not the other way around

One of my top 2017 New Year’s resolutions is to spend less time on Facebook. I’ve ranted about this for a while now. But given the time of year, I’d like to also recommend it for you as well, especially if there’s a new year resolution you want to accomplish as well.

You see, how Facebook makes money is that it basically serves ads to you as you browse through your timeline, reading all the content generated by your friends. You are in effect, an unpaid moneymaker for Mark Zuckerberg and company by generating content for free which they can monetize. OK but so what you say. Sometimes I just have to blow off some steam and see all my friends’ photos of cute kids, puppies, and funny Internet memes. I get that. We all need to chill out from our real-world stressful lives. But more times that not, I find myself logging into Facebook to do something tangible and relevant to my career or passion project, and instead I end up distracted for no good reason (funny kangaroo video for example) or sometimes a VERY good reason (friend announces they have cancer, etc.) Facebook is designed EXACTLY to do that – distract you so you stay on the platform and keep reading, liking, and commenting. That way they can serve you more ads and make more money.

So what’s the solution? Instead of you working for Facebook, make the platform work for you. In my case, I’ve set up this blog and some other external sites so that when I create something, it now gets auto-posted to Facebook and other social platforms like Twitter. Thus I get my content shown to people I care about without the distraction of having to login to the platform. Doing it this way also makes you more visible to search engines and builds your brand online better than if your content was stuck inside the closed walls of Facebook. Set yourself up this way, and then when you’re done, you can reward yourself with 10 minutes of viewing cute pets on your timeline.

Online petitions

Interesting NYT article today on whether online petitions are worth it. I don’t know if it really answered the question, but after reading it leaves me more positive about clicking on the things that rapidly fill my inbox. Better yet, call your legislator directly. That has more weight than an online petition.

Oakbrook Center Mall Visit

20161227_133713-COLLAGE.jpg

We are normally an “I-94” family when it comes to our malls of choice. A quick northbound jaunt up the expressway from our home on the northwest side takes us to Westfield Old Orchard, Northbrook Court, or even several of the smaller ones in Niles and Skokie. However, today we decided to try something new and head west to Oakbrook Center. (Note: a promotional consideration was given for this blog post by Oakbrook Center’s PR firm). Here are the most important points to consider when visiting.

Mall_Parking_Map.png
The magic “Purple” lot

Parking here, like many suburban malls, can be challenging, but especially on a holiday weekday right after Christmas. You’ve got to strategize. We had heard that a new parking structure had recently been built – called the Purple lot (see accompanying diagram). The mall itself was easy enough to find, located right off of the I-88 tollway. After entering the mall drive though, things got tricky. There are lots of surface lots surrounding the mall, but we wanted to get up close and into sheltered parking to minimize walking and having to cross busy streets. We quick-turned into an parking structure but quickly realized it was not the Purple lot and already at capacity. We buzzed out of that and after a couple of turns, got into the magic Purple lot. This parking structure looked brand new, and even had signage indicating how many parking spots would be open, though the signs hadn’t yet been activated. We zipped into a spot, and after some confusion about the escalators, figured out how to get up to the 2nd level right next to the AMC theaters and the new District dining area. Many of the restaurants had not yet opened, but it was certainly a convenient place to park, with restrooms nearby. I had also downloaded the official mall app, but had problems with it (at one point it crashed my smartphone and I had to uninstall). It wasn’t a big deal as there were plenty of directory kiosks close at hand.

mall_map
Our path (green arrow and circles)

After a quick lunch at Potbelly (which was packed and hard to find seating – it seems like the District dining scene can’t come soon enough to accommodate all the food service needs – more on that a bit later) we headed out to shop and explore. I had not been to Oakbrook Center for many years, and it seemed like the mall had gone through a refresh. It has become a multi-level shopping experience, with elevators leading from the dining to the main levels. In this regard it reminded me of navigating Westfield Old Orchard, another outdoor-style layout. Using architectural designs to create turns and alcoves, it gives the impression the mall is bigger than it probably is in terms of square footage. Most of the retailers were the usual suspects you expect to see at a mainstream mall. In any case, the brisk walk in the frigid weather made me feel like this mall had more than enough to offer everyone. We ended up walking most of the length of the mall, from its north end to near the south point at Barnes & Noble, which had a very comfy kids’ area and cafe. One final note: as a coffee addict, I make note of where to find java when I hit the mall. I was surprised that a mall of this size had only one tiny Starbucks outpost near the center. This particular one was so busy people were standing outside in frigid temperatures waiting to get in. Sadly, I had to skip the line this time. It seems like a larger store is badly needed here, one, like the Potbelly’s, with more seating area for customers.

In conclusion, this is a place I’d make a return visit, especially when the weather is more pleasant. I’d love to explore the stores and restaurants along the outer ring of the mall, but honestly as a creature of habit, will probably just make a beeline for the sheltered parking so I don’t have to walk too far for my caffeine fix.

 

2016 Year End Thoughts

Notes to Progressives

To quote our President-Elect: “this year has been a disaster”. The waning days of 2016 have left me bereft of hope. It’s been hard to focus on the day-to-day aspects of life. I’ve got family members who have gone through much worse this year than I’ll ever know, so I’ll try and maintain some perspective. But at no point in recent memory can I recall seeing more friends and people I care about post pleas for help – needing cash, a job, or a way out of this soon-to-be authoritarian regime working hard to undo the Obama legacy of the past eight years. There’s got to be some crumbs of hope left to sweep from the table. What tips do I have to keep the pilot light of progressive thought going in the dark and cold winter of our discontent?

Spend less time on Facebook.

I’m the worst follower of my own advice. For the past few years, I’ve blogged about my desire to quit Facebook. But I keep coming back. #1 I now get paid to make posts on social media. #2 many of the groups I care about use FB as their organizing platform of choice. And this 2nd notion is one I’d like to address this year. FB is a time suck. It is designed to distract you from the thing you wanted to do on there in the first place. Progressives need to organize better and FB is definitely not the place to be doing that. One of my top priorities is to find an alternative platform to build coalitions and scale momentum on issues that are going to matter in the years to come.

Focus on one or two main areas you can make an impact

Every day, Trump announces another train wreck of a Cabinet appointment. Each one seems hell-bent on erasing all the gains we’ve made during the Obama years. Whether it’s the environment, racial integration, women’s rights, education, or international peacemaking, there’s just too many emergency flares going up. Pick something you can dedicate to focus on for the next year or two. Start from there. It’s easy to get pulled into many directions, attend multiple rallies and protests, watch a MoveOn online video, etc. Figure out what you’re most passionate about and connect with others that you can work together with to resist the oncoming wave of suck that’s about to hit America.

Build power at the local level

It’s tempting to give $27 to the next Bernie Sanders or whomever is going to run for a national post like DNC chair. But I’d suggest looking to the smaller races. No race is too small. Help elect a progressive dog catcher, or water reclamation commissioner. The smaller the race, the more likely your efforts can have impact. Progressives need to build a bench because eventually, these folks are going to run for higher office, and the experience you and they get on these smaller campaigns will help down the road when the stakes are higher.

Entertain the idea of strange bedfellows

My liberal buddy looked askance at me recently when I suggested a Sanders – Romney coalition is what we needed to form. When you’re up against mortal evil, you might need to employ the “enemy of my enemy” tactic and sign up with people you might not see eye-to-eye with on certain issues. With public schools on the chopping block by our new Secretary of Education, maybe there’s something the charter and anti-charter forces could do together to keep the voucher wolves at bay. Planned Parenthood and evangelical conservatives might not agree on the abortion issue, but maybe there’s agreement on supporting immigrants and refugees need for sanctuary. If Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist can work together, so can progressives. As we saw in this election, it’s not so much left vs. right as much as it’s elites vs. working class.

Millenials will save us (with our help)

OK maybe I’m reaching with this one. After all, I think they let us down in 2016 by not going to the voting booth in the same numbers as they did for Obama. But like it or not, they’re our future, and I’ve had the fortune to meet several people under 30 who have a wealth of creativity and optimism that floors me. But being under 30 also means not having the hard-earned life experiences that those of us GenXers brought having survived the Reagan and Dubya years. Millenials will be the ones with the energy to run for office, but we can support them through campaign donations, our network of expertise, our professional contacts, and the lessons learned from past mistakes made.

Retreat to the countryside

It’s kind of frustrating living in Illinois, a reliable state for Democrats in national races, but on a local level, stuck in partisan gridlock and unable to break the grip of strongmen who’ve been in charge of the Machine for decades. Hillary Clinton won Illinois regardless of how I voted. It seems like progressives waste the impact of their votes living in urban metropolises like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. I wish we would spread out to rural and small-town America. Spread out and establish beach heads or outposts to the needs and frustrations of the America that saw Trump as their last, best hope. Yeah it might suck not having a Whole Foods within walking distance of your house, or five craft coffee cafes to pick from. Yeah, you might not have high-speed Internet. But if we don’t make a decent play to win in some of those states, we’re going to get more Trumps in our future.