My Unexpected Trip Off the Grid

This past week, I went off the grid.

This was not one of those get-back-to-nature, Walden-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods-for-two-years kind of thing. Nor have I fallen in love with Glamping.

Instead, this was a situation where I signed up for VOIP phone service and all my internet service was terminated by my ISP.

So, after more than five hours on the phone (thank heavens I have unlimited calls on my mobile), the only resolution was that I was going to have to wait a week until a technician could come and, as far as I could tell, do the same thing I could have done myself in 10 minutes (which is what happened, in case you were curious).

My frustration aside, as I learned the hard way it would have no effect on the outcome of my case, I went past denial and into acceptance. I wasn’t going to have internet access at my home for the week. That meant no landline (remember the ill-fated VOIP decision), no internet for my desktop or Wi-Fi for my laptop or mobiles and no TV (we’re in the middle of cutting our cords and making the move to streaming. Again, great timing).

So, while we were not going back to the horse and buggy days, we had definitely lost our 21st century conveniences that we had come to rely on so dearly.

But even though our lives did not resemble Little House on The Prairie (we still had electricity, two Macs and a pair of kindles), we were forced to adopt a simplicity (the words of Thoreau come back to me. I would look them up and quote them directly but, you know…) for which we never planned.

The first thing I noticed was that my urge to check my email and social media status was indeed like an addiction. I would get an actual twitch in my thumbs to check my status updates and latest communiques. But, since we are frugal and have the data plan of an 85-year-old hermit who’s not to sure about this “internet” fad, there was no way I was using my precious few megabytes to see who had sent me junk mail. I still had unlimited texting (the telegraph of our era) and, after a while, not checking my phone or computer regularly became a matter of principle. I am on summer vacation right now and there is nothing that can’t wait a day or two.

I did have a chance to go to my office, use the Wi-Fi and my computer to check my messages on my home and work emails. I also caught up with the news by scanning CNN and other sites. If it was 150 years ago, this would be akin to going into town and visiting the general store or tavern.

Another throwback to the past was that, without television, I had to rely on the radio for news and weather updates. A technology from my grandparents generation was becoming essential to my own.

But during this temporary internet Armageddon, how did I survive intellectually? Well, I’ve always liked a nightly dose of television, but my love for books is something my wife and I have in common. So, the idiot screen was replaced by the kindle screen (and a couple of actual, dead trees with ink on them from the library). I was just finishing one book when my fiber optic lifeline went out. I conquered three more while I was sans distraction.

We also had more time to work on our summer project of minimizing our possessions. For years we keep talking about cleaning out the garage and the house but never do it. This year we started the project, but were going slower than desired. With no TV there are fewer excuses to not clean everything out.

Yes, I miss my shows, but I have to admit that some evenings we were just looking for something to watch because that’s what we did every night: watch TV. You want to get your money’s worth on your streaming TV channels, so eat dinner (often in front of the TV) and binge on the food and shows. When we get the internet back (which was our mantra, like when the Pioneers said “When we reach California”, I think we will be more selective about what we view and perhaps balance out our TV and non-TV nights.

And, when I eventually switch from my current F******* provider to one that has its S******* together (those aren’t cuss words, folks, but the names of the companies with some key letters missing. The similarity is rather convenient however), I will do so with an understanding that my time off the grid helped me to understand that unplugging definitely has its benefits.

Now, would you pass me that candle while I sit against my cabin wall and read about the Los Angeles Library Fire of ’86.

1986, that is.

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Cease Striving

We are so busy,
Constantly busy,
Excessively busy,
Unnecessarily busy.

We must do, do, do.
And can never just be.

Be the person we were created to be.
Be the person we long to be.
Be the person we ought to be.

The person not living up to the standards
That are set by others around them.
Standards that cut you into the cookie
The world wants you to be.

Goals are great and wonderful.
They drive us to the moon and beyond.
But what happens when the goals others have for us
Conflict with what we want for ourselves?

When will we allow ourselves,
After much deliberation and reflection within our souls,
To climb the mountains of our own choosing,
Rather than the kiddie trails set before us?

We are so obsessed,
So desperately driven,
By the next report card,
The next evaluation,
The next measurement of our own worth
That we forget who we are and why we are here.

There is truth in the saying that one person does not matter.
But what that should mean is that it doesn’t really matter
Whether you choose to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a mechanic or a politician.
Because if you don’t do it, someone else will.

What we need
More than anything
Is the time to be silent,
Mute, awed by the majesty of the universe,
And contemplate our role in it.

If you are religious like me
It goes something like this:
Cease striving and know that I am God.

But whether or not you believe in The Man Upstairs
Is a matter for another day.
Today we need to ask whether you even believe in yourself.

Maybe you wish you could believe in yourself,
But you are not good enough,
Not worthy enough,
Not valuable enough.

Not enough of what someone else
Thinks you should be “enough” of.

You can never win
If you are playing on someone else’s court
By someone else’s rules.

Well, maybe you can be declared the champion
But the way you have to change who you are
To be who they think you should be,
Is oft too high a price to pay for victory.

How am I not the shy, awkward child I once was?
I decided to become my own man and find people like me.
I decided to live my life, not their version of it.

This is not an attack on you, by no means is it that.
I don’t hate the player, as they say,
But I definitely hate the game.

There is only one way I have found to escape the steel jaws of conformity,
To break free from the shackles placed upon you by others,
To find who you truly are meant to be.

Cease striving.
Cease striving to be the woman or man others demand you be…or else.
Cease striving to be a play doll with dress-up clothes and a façade hiding the real you.
The one the airbrushed lovelies softly scream at you to be.

Use your moral compass to guide you,
Use your values to shape your actions,
Use your beliefs to help you choose your next step.

But don’t use the world’s measuring tape
To record your failures and successes.

Remember that those images, those metrics, those “virtues”
Are fairly-tale creations constructed with cotton-candy strength.
Diaphanous ephemera dissolving in the flames we battle daily.

So whatever you do, or don’t do.
Maybe it’s time to stop doing what others tell you to do
Especially when they’re not living the kind of life you want to live.

Maybe,
Just maybe,
It’s time.

Time to cease striving
For a life that isn’t yours,
And just go out and live your own life.

The Other Assault Weapon

17 Dead.
Yes, another 17 dead,
Killed by a madman fueled by demons unseen
Using an assault weapon to end lives of innocents.

There will be much talk in the days ahead
About how to stop such senseless tragedies.
We will propose laws, craft legislation aimed at a target,
The easiest one target to find, label and vanquish.

Yes, there is no rational explanation
For the private ownership of military-style weapons.
The Second Amendment protects hunters, sportsmen and those who want to be safe.
It does not, arguably, protect those who want to overthrow the government.
Despite the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration, Treason is still punishable by death.

But long after bills are signed and corked popped by those who have “won”,
There will still be assault weapons out on the streets of America,
Ones we are allowed to use with little to no restriction.

Everyone one carries this weapon every day
And whether we use it to protect or assassinate
Is wholly up to the owner.

The weapon of choice of most of us is sleek in design
And most efficient in its ability to maximize pain and suffering.

The assault weapon we use every day, often without impunity
Is the tongue. Our words are the bullets, often silver, as they can slay
The mightiest of opponents.
“The tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do,” the ancients remind us.

We proudly beat our chests and demand our freedom of speech,
As if it is not also a responsibility.
We want freedom from religion in any form, but crave the power to use words as weapons.

I am castigated if I share my faith with you, offer prayer and encouragement,
But if you call someone an F—ing whore on a school campus or a Snapchat story,
Well, that’s just freedom of speech.

What it is is something else.
But, while I have the freedom to hurl the invective,
I choose to employ enough self-restraint not to.

Yeah, but how bad can it be?
They’re just words.
They disappear like mist as soon as they are spoken.
10 seconds and they’re vapor.

O, the lies of instant messages instantly forgotten.
For your information, more teens die by their own hand each year than by another.
And you know, deep down in the hidden cavern of your soul,
You know those hate-filled daggers of insults cleverly phrases we love to compose
Are at least one of the weapons that lead to their unfortunate and unnecessary demise.
It’s also part of the reason they pick up guns and rifles and come after the most vulnerable among us.

So, what if you don’t say such things?
What if you the one who says nothing
When others say something?
You are free from blame, right?
You keep telling yourself that.
Let’s be honest with ourselves.
“No one does good, not even one.”

You might think I am trying to divert your attention,
Change the subject so that real reform does not happen.
That I want to protect rights and kill children.

How dare you!

I spend each day in a classroom.
I am on the front line. These killers are coming to my place of work, not yours.
They are aiming for me, not you.

Of course I want a safe campus.
But I know that more of my students are under assault every day
And we don’t do nearly enough to regulate the use of their firearms.

Of course, this begins with us, you and I.
I am very, very good at the clever retort,
My insults are razor sharp and can wound just as well as yours.

So, here’s a thought.
Let’s stop the verbal barrage on others,
Setting a horrid example for those who watch our every move
And know when we step false.

I am not simply mad about this situation,
Like I would be about being late to dinner.
I am enraged, livid, dismayed and disgusted.
I also am unwilling to accept the status quo.
We must not accept the unceasing discharge of this silent killer of soul and spirit.

But the only way we can win this war on the soul of our nation.
Is through mutual disarmament.
So, I’ll put down my assault weapon, if you put down yours.

Deal?

We All Have a Part to Play

Like all of you, I was shocked and dismayed by the most recent school shooting in Florida. Seventeen people dead is a tragic number, even more so when you consider it was children who were the majority of the victims.

But the biggest tragedy is that this event may have been preventable if the warning signs, which were clearly evident upon reflection, had been acted upon in time. The suspect was known to both local and federal law enforcement but still not enough was done to prevent this horrific act.

In response to the shootings, Senators have proposed legislation to extra weight behind enforcing existing gun control regulations. Some victims think lawmakers aren’t doing enough, while some of those lawmakers have questioned whether new laws would actually stop these incidents from happening in the first place.

One of the biggest questions that has yet to be asked is why has there been a rise in mass school shootings in the last 20 years? Of course, not all of the shootings are committed by teens and young adults upon students and staff at elementary, junior high and high schools, but many of them are. So, what has changed in American culture in the last two decades that has promoted a such an increase in these attacks?

Making it harder for people who should not have guns to get said weapons would help, but this is only one part of the problem and, unless there is a massive weapons confiscation program enacted by multiple federal agencies, those bent on destruction will find a way to get the firepower they seek.

But it is my fear confiscating high-capacity rifles will not stop school shootings any more than more stringent drug laws have stopped teen from getting high in the campus bathrooms. Of course, it will be harder to kill as many, but deaths will continue to occur.

Until we address why the teens and young adults want to shoot up a school full of students they sat next took in Biology or English, then the only thing we will have done is make them find a new way to kill those around them.

We have had guns in America since America became America. For the last 230 years, our national laws have protected our ownership of guns. And, whether the Founders envisioned fully automatic weapons or not, they certainly didn’t imagine our violence-obsessed society that uses our own technology to purposefully insult, denigrate and isolate its citizens. Sure, they believed in war, and violence was a part of life, but the notion that we would make first-person shooting simulations as a means of entertainment would, I hope, disgust them.

There are questions about how much influence video games have on violent behavior, and to what to what degree impaired mental health provokes such assaults, it is clear that social media can have both a negative impact on teenagers and it would logically follow that the confluence of all three of these factors leads to tragic conclusions.

While doctors may feel President Trump is scapegoating mental illness as the primary cause of the Parkland shooting, initial coverage on the suspect suggests, in this case, he might be correct.

I fully understand that oversimplification of the causes of these shooting are unhelpful, but it is only reasonable to conclude that someone who wants to shoot up a school full of people he or she knows has some serious mental health problems that must be addressed.

This is not an abstract thing for me. I am a teacher in a middle-class suburban high school. These shooters aren’t coming to your workplace, they are coming to mine. And my first reaction when the bullets started to fly would probably be like that of Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who used his own body as a human shield to protect students. I’m not bragging; it’s just how I’m wired.

While my wife appreciates that I care for my students, she doesn’t want me to be a hero. She just wants me to come home at the end of the day and make dinner.

So, what I am going to do different in light of what has happened.

Nothing, really.

I’m going to work because I cannot live in fear, nor will I set that example for my students.

I’m going to care for my students like I did before, giving them opportunities to talk about their problems without judgment. When they share something with me other than typical teenage angst, I’m more than likely reporting it to a counselor or the authorities.

But I need help. I may work at a small high school, but I need assistance from parents, counselors, students, coaches, mentors and fellow teachers to make this work. This is true for schools all around the country.

When you see something, don’t just chalk it up to normal teenage woes. Ask questions and don’t always accept the simple answers. Be there to listen, just listen.

The thing that troubles me most about this story is that the young man in question was the one classmates joked about being a school shooter. I don’t blame students, as they are not yet adults.

The system we had in place failed, and because of that failure, 17 people are dead. I am all for systemic change, but that takes time and we need solutions now. And these solutions need to be personal ones.

What are we going to do, you and I, to help rescue teens on a path of desperation and destruction? We can say it’s someone else’s problem, but it’s really not.

This is our job, yours and mine. I’m ready to do my part. How about you?

When ‘Friends’ go on a ‘Star Trek’

This fall, two space-faring shows debuted. One of them arrived to much fanfare and buzz as it was the next iteration of the famed Star Trek legacy.

The other one, while hyped, premiered after an NFL game on Fox to much less confetti and pizzazz.

It would be easy to write about the technical advancements of Star Trek: Discovery, the beautiful filming, the early focus on the Klingons rather than the Federation or the bold move to debut the show on traditional television and then move it to streaming video in an effort to be on the new wave of entertainment consumption.

But, despite all the hoopla, I wasn’t that impressed, and it’s not because I’m a fair-weather friend of the franchise. While too young to view the original series on TV when it debuted, I’ve watched all the movies (even the bad ones) and sampled each of the TV shows.

The problem is that the new series is too much like the movies, which are fun to be sure, but best in small doses. The first episode seemed to me more enamored with the technology than with the characters. And, with my lack of desire to sign-up for yet another streaming service, the move simply signed its fate in my book.

On the other hand, The Orville, which is created to be a strange brew of science fiction and comedy (an updated TV version of Galaxy Quest), shouldn’t work at all. Science fiction aficionados (OK, nerds or geeks is probably more appropriate here. I use these terms lovingly, as my sci-fi Nerd Card is completely up to date) don’t want to laugh, unless this joke has something to do with a pun about warp signatures, and those who like comedies don’t care about the technology being accurate, just funny (Spaceballs anyone?).

Yet, the thing is that Seth MacFarlane makes it work somehow. The secret of his success is that while he knows funny, he clearly appreciates the science fiction genre as well. Bringing on people like executive producer Brandon Braga and directors like Jon Cassar and Jonathan Frakes, shows MacFarlane is serious about giving the show some street cred.

For better or worse, the show checks off the requisite boxes:

Uplifting Theme Music — Check

Smooth Tech Design — Check

Juvenile Humor — Double Check

Yet for every sophomoric reference to fooling around or going to the bathroom, you have a flip side of the narrative coin in which characters chart the murky waters of themes such as gender empowerment and identity, the battle of religion over science, animal cruelty, time travel and whether killing a few to save many is a justifiable sacrifice or makes you someone without a conscience.

Even some of the smaller elements show an attention to detail. The green Kermit the Frog on Capt. Mercer’s desk gets all the focus, but if you look closely, you will see the wooden model of the Wright Brothers’ biplane, an obvious homage to the ship’s namesake.

The best part of the is one most of us don’t think about. For decades, we have always revered the characters in science fiction tales because they are much better people than we would ever be. They are brave and composed in the face of situations that would make us lose our lunch or wet our pants.

Imagine, however, if instead of pulling your candidates for space exploration not from the ranks of NASA, but the chairs and couches of “Central Perk.” If you think about it, the goofy humor and silly antics sprinkled through each episode make it more like an episode of Friends than a Shakespearean cast with grown-up onesies and phasers (again, I loved ST:TNG as a kid).

The anachronistic jokes and references might seem a bit contrived, but those in the Star Trek timeline always like to make a pit stop in whatever generation the show/film was written (using the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” as “classical music” in Star Trek Beyond is just the latest example).

Sure Malloy and LaMarr act at times like irrepressible teenagers on the bridge and Mercer and Grayson are the adults whose own fractured relationship is the source of joking and scuttlebutt, but Bortus and Issac provide logic in times of peril and Kitan is this generation’s Wesley Crusher, filled with youthful energy, but unsure of her own ability to lead.

With supporting actors like Larry Joe Campbell and Penny Johnson Jerald (no stranger to the Star Trek world herself), you’ve got a good crew running the ship. And MacFarlane and Co. has been smart enough to engineer a few guest appearances make the show even more fun.

The Orville has no illusions about what it is — a weekly science fiction serial that’s determined to explore the universe even if it slips on a banana peel along the way.

In a TV and film universe where our space travelers are heroes who stare down danger with a steely glare before setting phasers to kill, The Orville is, simply put, science fiction for the rest of us.

My Quasi-Healthy Obsession

When you tell people you’re a writer
They look at you as if you’ve accomplished something noble,
Like scaling Everest with one hand tied behind your back.

Little do they know,
Little do they know,
That writing is not the fun, hip,
Slightly nerdy, but cool nerdy thing they think it to be.

Writing is an obsession.
No not the obsession you think of.
The one in movies
Where we pensively sit for 30 seconds
Before the brilliance of Bronte, Doyle, Tolkien, Lewis,
Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hosseini and Grisham
Jump into a blender and hit frappe.

The kind of writing I’m talking about is obsessive.
Not sappy pop princess, don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you-maybe obsessive.
Not similes as cute as a button and 19-words-for-snow obsessive.

I’m talking the kind of obsession that tries to convince you
To write for 43 hours straight,
No Sleep,
No Food,
Just water and a laptop with good Wi-Fi.

I’m not saying this is sane,
Not saying that at all.
But it makes sense to me
In a twisted sort of way.

When I write I enter another world,
A land where I see the twists and turns of an imaginary highway,
An interstate that stretches in my mind for miles and miles.
Gas, Food, Lodging. What are these things?
My characters have places to go
And people’s lives to mess with
(usually their own).

So when you talk about writing
The Great American Novel
Like it’s something to be checked off one’s bucket list
Or some great achievement to be applauded,
I’m grateful for the kind words
But I’m not sure you realize what is needed to make words
Leap off a page, clutch your shoulders and drag you into their world.

What does that take?
An ability to write no matter what
Snow, sleet, hail, zombie apocalypse,
Anything.

And once you’ve composed your magnum opus,
The height of your brilliance, and then read you words again
And realize they are so bad they lessen the value
of the penny-a-page paper they are printed on.

And you put aside that world,
Wallow in the anguish of your suspected failure
Before throwing it all away
Or realizing it’s not as bad as you feared.

This is the only job I’ve ever had where I fear
Abject failure and total success with the same vigor.

It makes no sense, I know.
But if it made sense we would not talk about it
Like an addiction to an illicit substance.

This is an addiction we endorse, support and defend.
No one says with pride, I’ve got a friend, she’s a dope fiend, you know.
But your friend, the writer, that’s a horse of a different color.

So yes, I’m obsessed with words,
Deeply, madly, passionately, wholly obsessed with words.

My fellow wordsmiths are with me
Running this particular asylum.
But there’s always room for a few more.

His Final Battle

This entry also was posted at another blog I edit, but I wanted to share it here as well. I have removed the student’s name to preserve his privacy.

I had this young man in my classroom as a freshman and then again as a junior. During his sophomore year, he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which was treated and went into remission. In his junior year, he relapsed, but had found a bone marrow match. While waiting to get healthy enough for a transplant, he passed away just a few days before the end of the school year and three weeks shy of his 17th birthday.

While he was in his second round of treatment during the spring semester, I asked him to write a dairy about his experiences. I have done some editing here and there and gave the last entry a title, but the rest were his words. Here is what he had to say about fighting the biggest, and final, battle of his life.

Giving Cancer the Finger

My body is covered in those bumps now. Nobody can figure out what they are. I saw 3 oncologists, 3 dermatologists, 2 pediatricians, Infectious Disease and an ICU doctor. I had 3 biopsies (besides all of the pre-radiation and pre-transplant tests). All of my test results are good and nobody knows what’s on me. They’ve had about 8 different guesses. That means they treat me for every possible diagnosis they came up with, and hope one works.

It hurts if you touch them, and now they’re on the bottom of my feet. If I try to walk, it feels like I’m walking on glass. I have a big one on my middle finger. My nurses laugh when I show it to them.

Last Day at City

I had to get a radiation machine that put a mask over my face. I couldn’t handle it. It’s like a cage that clamps around your neck. I had to make them stop. It felt like my heart was speeding and stopping at the same time. I don’t know if I can do this. The tattooed me for the laser points for radiation.

I got a bone marrow biopsy I’m getting bumps on my arms and legs. I can’t wait to leave this place. I’ve smiled once since I got here, when they told me I should be back at Kaiser by Friday. I never knew I’d miss Kaiser so much. God knew, because right before I left I took a bunch of pictures. My mom can tell you, I don’t like taking pictures, but for some reason I did on my last day at Kaiser.

City of Hope

We have to meet with all these doctors and specials who have to tell us every little thing that can go wrong for the rest of my life. I’m thinking “Why would I want to go through this if you’re saying I’ll most likely fight cancer again and again for the rest of my life.”

Unsuccessful

Today we had the last round of Chemo was also unsuccessful.

What was my reaction? Surprised. I was not expecting that. What was I feeling? I can’t process this. I was not expecting this. We have to take an unconventional route because conventional has failed.

My doctor and I talked about what to do next.

“Do you want us to arrange for you to go home for a couple of days?”

“I don’t care where I’m at, as long as we’re keeping treatment going.”

I leave for City of Hope this week.

Holidays in the Hospital

Last year I spent my birthday in the hospital. I turned 16 in here. The day started at 12:01 a.m., with my nurses singing Happy Birthday to me. All the Hematology and Oncology Night Nurses were there. They were loud. They brought me a card and decorated my room. It was a long day, with a lot of different family coming over. I had visitors from morning until night time.

Last month I spent my second St. Patrick’s Day in the hospital. Today is Good Friday. My grandpa preaches at a local Christian college on Good Friday. Last year he wrote Leukemia on a red piece of paper and nailed it to a big wooden cross at the end of his sermon. This year, he did it again. My grandma and sister nailed it (Leukemia) to the cross, too. Easter is this Sunday. I appreciate the fact that there are organizations and different volunteers who try to cheer up the patients here, by bringing us Easter baskets and little goodies. They do it because they know the patients have to celebrate holidays in the hospital. And it sucks to be here. I’m just glad I was home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Keeping in Touch

I keep in touch with my friends through social media and texting. We mostly use Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. We talk with each other because we have been friends for so long. I talk to them just like I would if I was still at school. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they try to comfort me. They ask how I am doing, how I feel and what’s going on. They want to know what the doctors and nurses are doing to me and what kind of medications I am on.

I don’t get to see them very often because I don’t have an immune system. Chemotherapy kills all my cells in my bone marrow. That’s where your cells are made. When you don’t have an immune system, you can’t get a cold, you can’t get any germs. There is nothing for my body to fight even little germs. I wish that I could see my friends regularly. But when I do get to see them, when they come to visit, it is my favorite time out of all my time in the hospital. Geoffrey, Govon, Cody, and Elijah have been my friends since I was 6 and that’s who has come to see me one or two times. Seth is my best friend, and he comes when ever my cell counts go up.