Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

This Was All Them, Again

"From first to last
The peak is never passed
Something always fires the light
That gets in your eyes
One moment's high
And glory rolls on by
Like a streak of lightning
That flashes and fades
In the summer sky..."

–Rush, Marathon


Three years coaching the oldest, one year coaching the youngest, and then I retired. Well, not really retired, I just couldn't do it again due to my work travel schedule. And that was a hard choice, because I really enjoyed coaching recreational soccer. I really enjoyed trying to instill skills, fun and teamwork with the girls I coached, especially our daughters.

It was big investment of time, and worth all of it as well, since I'm always learning myself -- learning how to communicate better with kids and adults alike. I won't sugarcoat -- everyone's an armchair quarterback coach -- and that was especially evident last year. Our girls' parents were always supportive and good-intentioned, and everyone had an idea on how to help the players get better, whether it be from the sidelines or bending my ear. I asked for counsel as well, knowing again I was constantly learning how and what to teach the team. 

That's no different this year; I'm now a spectator parent who coaches from the sideline, calling out where the girls should be, what they should do. I'm not the only one, of course, and we have only our girls best interest in mind. Kind of. Some of us are more competitive than others, and the fun, skills and teamwork gets filtered through the distorted lens of winning. Or at least trying to win.

Ah, the part about having fun. We tell them we want them to have fun, and then you play against teams that are more physical and more organized and more competitive and score on you over and over again. The old sports cliche of "it's not whether you win or lose -- it's how you play the game" sours quickly when you're getting pummeled. I saw it in their hot and tired faces every week last year, coaching my youngest Bryce and her team.

That feels like a long time ago now. As I wax nostalgic, the reality each year is that is only some of the girls will go on to playing competitive soccer, while many others will grow up and do other things, maybe fondly remembering the years they played rec soccer.

Except, many of them still are playing, including both our daughters. Thank you to the coaches who are volunteering their time this year. What's been fascinating to watch are the leaps they've made this year already, and the season has only just begun. Beatrice has come a long way in four years and she's now playing U12 with some pretty amazing athletes, girls who could be playing competitively. Her team played their first game recently and Bea told us she wanted to score a goal. This reminded me of Bryce last year on our way to our last game together.

We were so proud watching her play, only because she had always been tentative with aggressively going after the ball. Bea turned it on though, and while she didn't score, she gave her shots her best shot when she played forward. And her defensive play was pretty tight as well.

Bryce is playing U10 again, and some of the girls she played with last year on the team I coached and playing together again. Watching them I thought, "Wow, is this the same team?" Sure, there's still the moments of kicking the ball the wrong way, and clumping together on the field watching the ball go by while we scream (positively) to go after the ball, but there's so many more moments of putting skills and teamwork together underscored with fun. Competitive fun, especially when you score, like Bryce did, scoring the first goal of the first game. And then again, and again. That little lightning girl has got it going on.

And like the end of last year, this was all them, again, for both our girls. They owned it and the confidence and clarity of what they did shone brightly in their eyes. We watched them beam back at us as if saying, "Did you see that? I just did that." As a parent, there's no better feeling than watching your child shine with a self-awareness of accomplished progress that they can articulate with action, again and again.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Best Way to Play

I played it nearly every night for weeks until four in the morning. I only took breaks to get more ice and refill my Coke, go to the bathroom and go out on the apartment balcony to smoke. I missed classes and slept until noon. And then one night I finally reached the last dungeon, defeated Ganon and rescued Zelda.

The night I did that, I felt pretty satisfied, but then a day later, I was completely and utterly devastated. The Legend of Zelda was over. I tried playing it again from the beginning, but it just wasn't the same. It was the one and only time I ever invested so much of my time and mental energy playing a video game, second only to my high school years playing Donkey Kong at one of my favorite lunch haunts eating Frito Boats at a place called The Hot Dog Barn. And before that it was the Mattel hand-held football game, or just an old-fashioned paddle-pumping game of pinball.

The Legend of Zelda playtime was during my academically rough third year in college, late in 1987. So rough in fact that I took a break from college shortly after that time, and then finished my degree a few years later in 1993. It wasn't the late night video game play that drove me out, though; that was only a symptom of a greater ailment of not being motivated in school, another story for another time. I did work full-time then and continued to work until I finished school with great grades. Thank goodness.

But that's the point here. The point is that I never really played video games after Zelda. I lost interest; it was such an isolating and lonely exercise with no communication with others (unless they played Zelda, and my roommates at the time didn't). And even though the decades to follow video game creators and developers would produce for the world some amazing immersive and interactive games, I was done.

Fast forward to my wife Amy and I having children. Both girls have grown up with devices and the internet and are quite comfortable playing innocuous and cute kid apps and games. Those kid apps and games have now turned into multi-player games like Animal Jam, Minecraft and Roblox (Adopt Me specifically). Still cute and fun games, at least for them still pre-teen, Amy and I never played multi-player games growing up, because we had no internet growing up. No way to connect with others regardless of where they were at around the world.

That's the positive aspect of the internet -- the ability to connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time. The problem is the anonymity of the internet -- the sometimes unfortunate toxic, bullying and identity thieving scary side of online. And with games like Animal Jam, Roblox, Fortnite and many other multi-player games of today, user names aren't real names. Just fun made up names. So, we really don't know who these people are who play these games. They are strangers. And the Kidpower safety skills we practice in our family tell us to be wary of strangers, especially if they ask personal information of us -- What's your name? Where do you live? What school do you go to? That's information we implore them to never, ever give out.

We had to play the games ourselves, play with our girls, and we continue to do so in order to understand the scope and content of the game and how other strangers, people we don't know, interact with each other in the game. Many players try to "friend" each other in minutes of playing sometimes, and our rule is that if we don't know them, we don't friend and connect with them. Plain and simple. It doesn't mean they can't "play" with others in the game, it just means we must protect our children, their identities and their privacy and ours.

Since the new school year has started, they have discovered other friends who play the above mentioned games (but not Fortnite for our kids -- too violent), and have shared each other's user names to connect. As long as it's okay with the "adults in charge" -- i.e., us the parents -- then that's okay for them to friend each other in these games.

We're also doing the best we can balancing their screen time with reading time, chore time, homework time, outside play time, being with other friends in person time, and other activities. While there are those parents who don't let their children have any screen time and/or online gaming time, or very little, which is their prerogative, we're okay with it in moderation. And yes, there are times when we're both working away at home and we're not monitoring time as much as we should, but they sure as heck aren't staying up until 4 AM to play!

Recently I played a virtual reality Star Wars game that one of my friends brought with him when we had our annual get together. I wielded a light saber and fought alongside Darth Vader. The experience was fascinating and thrilling (I'm a fan of course) and quite disorienting, especially after playing for 20 minutes and taking off the VR goggles and getting back to this reality. He told me about another application of VR technology to help assimilate autistic children to various social settings, and I know there have been and will be many powerful gaming applications in healthcare, skills-based assessments and workforce training, and much more.

Because we're season pass holders, we took the girls to free-play day at the Beach Boardwalk where we could play most of the video games for free for two hours. There were dozens of video games with eye-popping graphics and sound effects, and there were even old school games from back in our day like Pacman and Donkey Kong and Frogger, a game that our youngest Bryce really enjoyed. Our oldest Beatrice and I played pinball. Then Bryce and I played some old fighting game, can't remember the name, but then I stopped abruptly after we beat on each other's avatars and I knocked hers out -- too violent. And then Amy rocked out to Foghat's "Slow Ride" on Guitar Hero. From the decades-old Pong to Roblox today, video games are here to stay, and the best way to play as far as we're concerned is to steer clear of violent content and to stay safe online.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

That Bastard of a Monkey

"It's not a habit, it's cool, I feel alive
If you don't have it you're on the other side
I'm not an addict, maybe that's a lie..."

–K's Choice, Not an Addict


She knew when I cheated. The first two years were the hardest, and covering up the few cheats were exercises in futility; the stench never leaves the clothes after even just one cigarette, and the residue left in the mouth and throat is unmistakable, no matter the mouth wash or breath mints. I convinced myself that it was okay, that each one was the last cheat. It was such a difficult monkey on my back.

However, after the first two years of quitting in 2002, it became literally a breath of fresh air. I didn't miss it after that. It had been nearly 20 years since I first smoked those nasty clove cigarettes that eventually led to my pack a day cigarette habit. Even with smoking decreasing everywhere, I'm surprised / not surprised when I still see smokers on the streets, in parks, on the beaches, etc. And now vaping is more prevalent that ever, which is nothing more than another way of getting the nicotine smack monkey on your back. And this is something we've talked to our girls about since vaping is has been marketed to younger school-age kids.

My quit date is still a very important date to me, even with the cheats. It's also our oldest daughter's birthday. And my wife Amy wouldn't marry me unless I quit. She had smoked a little herself when we first met, but had long since quit.

If you've been a smoker, then you know how tough it is to quit. You also know how easy it is to start again. I had quit multiple times prior to the official quit, failing each and every time. Nicotine is such a highly addictive drug, and even though it doesn't give you the same "high" as other addictive drugs, the vicious reward cycle is one of the strongest.

According to recent research:

Nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine in neurons that connect the nucleus accumbens with the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and other brain regions; this dopamine signal “teaches” the brain to repeat the behavior of taking the drug. 

The amount of dopamine released with any given puff of a cigarette is not that great compared to other drugs, but the fact that the activity is repeated so often, and in conjunction with so many other activities, ties nicotine’s rewards strongly to many behaviors that we perform on a daily basis, enhancing the pleasure and the motivation that we get from them. 

Smokers’ brains have learned to smoke, and just like unlearning to ride a bike, it is incredibly hard to unlearn that simple, mildly rewarding behavior of lighting up a cigarette.

Columbia University researchers Denise B. Kandel and Eric R. Kandel have identified a molecular mechanism underlying nicotine’s gateway effect: Nicotine encourages expression in the reward circuit of FOSB, a gene that underlies the learning processes described earlier. Thus, nicotine makes it easier for other drugs to teach users’ brains to repeat their use.

Smoking seems to both enhance and prolong the pleasure of other activities. The reinforcement-enhancing effect applies also when obtaining nicotine from e-cigarettes.

Not to mention that cigarettes cause more than 480,000 premature deaths in the United States each year, which is about 1,300 deaths every single day. There's enough research out there today accessible to all of us that underscores the dangers of smoking.

I empathize with addicts of all kinds. I do. Unfortunately it's in my genes. I also know the health benefits of quelling an addiction, especially one like smoking cigarettes. Because you don't choose to smoke once you've started, the only choice you have is not to smoke. Addiction is selfish that way. (Learned that from Nicotine Anonymous.)

Recently I was on my way to one of my Natural Bridges State Park beach workouts, and a woman had just finished smoking a cigarette. I didn't see her smoke it, but as she walked in front of me to cross the street, I could smell it. The visceral memories of that smell reminded me all the times I smelled that way. That bastard of a monkey on my back dug its rusted nails into my skin and I literally flinched. Not because I missed it; I'm way past that now. Because I worry it could still kill me someday, just like it continues to kill 1,300 people per day.

God bless you, Brothers and Sisters. The only choice is not to.