Thanksgiving Reflections

As I’m at the tail end of my work shift as a direct care counselor, having stemmed the tide of residents cursing staff out at random and a slew of dirty grown-man diapers and clean wipes, I do wish I were with my family this day. On the other hand, I’ve had time to reflect on what I’m thankful for. In spite of working a job that pushes the limits of my patience and sanity, and in spite of a socio-political climate that’s pushed most of us in the states at wit’s end, I’m finding myself taking moments to reflect on the small things that can actually say I’m blessed to have.

I’m thankful that even though my job as a direct care counselor is difficult, and the employer that I work for is frustrating, it allows me to have something to pay the bills, keep me fed, and able to be self-sufficient to a fault.

I’m thankful that even though I still live at home with my parents, I still have a roof over my head, and I can contribute to their well-being financially. 

I’m thankful that I don’t have a gym membership yet. I’ve trained harder in the comfort of my own bedroom than I ever could in a Planet Fitness or some other gym chain.

I’m thankful for being in a city with options. Even with the dividing line between the haves and have-nots widening in New York, I’m finding more opportunities to take advantage of now than I did 10 years ago.

I’m thankful for being single. Although the loneliness can get to me at times, it’s allowed me a lot more time to understand myself and what I need, and it’s given me more time to pursue my interests than being in a relationship would.

I’m thankful that at 34, even though I’m seen as “too old” for some things, I’m young enough for a fresh start.

And I’m thankful to be alive, most of all.

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Balancing My Diet

(Personal note: I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. Between work, life changes, and friends getting married, I rarely had a moment to sit down and give you an update. I’m glad to be back on here, and I hope to keep this blog updated on a regular basis.  –D.T.)

In the past few weeks, I made small changes to my daily diet to reflect my renewed insight to health, especially after recovering from a shoulder/chest injury. (How did I end up injuring my shoulder and chest? Well, I learned the hard way not to do hindu pushups and overhead presses on the same day.) In the world of exercise and fitness, everyone is trying to follow one diet trend or another. Either they’re following the Paleo Diet, going vegan, or some other fad like eating 30 bananas a day. To be honest, recovering from an injury taught me something important: balanced nutrition is essential.

During my recovery process, I made a quick hospital trip to get examined. I had my blood pressure taken, and, to my shock, I was at 161/110. Thinking that it was because of my sodium intake (in spite of getting a decent amount of fruit in my diet and drinking water regularly), I made the resolution to go vegan. For 3 days, I kept my diet strictly plant-based, and in 3 days, I dropped from 289 lbs to 280lbs. That may sound good, but I was becoming easily irritable, and developing a case of insomnia on top of that. Also, my lack of protein was making it harder for my body to repair itself. The rapid weight loss wasn’t worth it.

The day I ended my vegan streak, the first thing I ate was a lean beef burger. I could feel the pain in my aching muscles melting away, as if that beef was the missing link from my recovery. Within 3 days, I put on 3 pounds, moving up to 283 lbs. Deciding to balance my plant-based nutrition with a small amount of animal-based protein (mostly chicken or fish), I kept a steady routine of eating at least 2 bananas and a salad (with a small cheat food like oatmeal cookies) during the day, and at night after work, indulging in a salad with a meat of my choice. By the end of one week, I had dropped 1 pound to 282 lbs. Keeping the regimen up, I dropped another pound, and as of today, I weigh 281 lbs, 8 pounds lighter than I was 3 weeks ago, and only 1 pound heavier than when I ended my vegan period. Keep in mind, this is combined with a steady exercise regimen that includes boxing, kickboxing, bodyweight exercises, stretching, and moderate resistance training.

With all the fancy gimmicks out there and people punishing themselves by denying themselves their favorite foods, the best way to eat is just by getting more fruits and vegetables in their diet, not forsaking pizza and burgers completely, but balancing their intake. In fact, the more I got into eating salad and fruits on a daily basis, the less I needed to eat pizza or burgers on a regular basis. And on that occasional cheat day, make sure you eat some fruit to keep your system craving healthy food. My last cheat day before my most recent weighing, I indulged in Taco Bell and Little Caesar’s pizza. I still ate a banana after my indulgence, and it kept me from getting too hooked on junk food. And I still managed to keep my weight going down.

So in the end, you don’t need gimmick diets to lose weight. Get plenty of fruits and vegetables along with a bit of protein, and you’ll be just fine. ūüėČ

(End note: Btw, if you’re wondering why my blood pressure was so high that day, it was an effect of my body recovering from the chest/shoulder injury. Once I recovered, my BP dropped down to a healthier rate. ūüôā )

Make A Difference in Someone’s Life

Last Friday marked one year since my grandmother passed away. I should have been sad, but for some reason, an aura of positivity washed over me, as if she were embracing me with goodness. Every time I wanted to feel sad, I not only felt joy, but wanted to motivate others to feel that joy too. Thankfully, when you’re a direct care worker, there’s ample opportunity to spread positivity to your consumers. Little things such as listening to their day, playing darts with them, even doing a corny impersonation of The Swedish Chef from The Muppets was all that was needed to brighten up what could have been a downward day for any of them.

I learned a lot about spreading kindness from my grandmother. She was one of the most welcoming, warm, loving and caring people I knew in my life. From an early age, she instilled in me the value of being kind to others. She was the kind of woman who would be a mother figure to children who weren’t her own. Everyone from neighborhood kids to my cousins’ friends referred to her as “Nana”. Her kindness and guidance was the backbone of so many in her community. When my family held her memorial service days after her passing, it was standing room only. My grandma wasn’t a famous celebrity, but her kindness was the kind of thing that brings people together. Anyone who’s been to her summer barbecues can vouch for that.

I invite you to do something to make a difference in someone’s life. It could be as simple as offering your seat to someone on the bus, inviting an old friend to hang out, or even lending an open ear to someone who’s feeling like they’re had the worst day ever. You can decide how you want to spread positivity in this world, but the most important thing is that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life, no matter how big or small. That’s what I learned from my grandma.

Valentine’s Day: At Peace With Being Single

I’ve been single for 3 years. The first two years, when Valentine’s Day would approach, I’d be a complete Grinch. I couldn’t stand all the imagery of happy couples being pushed into the faces of the masses, all in order to get them to fork over their money for chocolates, flowers, and even the shiniest jewelry money could buy. I hated the feelings of longing that these images would invoke, and I’d curse the existence of February 14. Suddenly, that time of year has come around again, and for the first time in a long time, it simply feels like another day.

My parents and relatives always like to bug me and point out that I’m single and not getting any younger, asking me who my next girlfriend will be, or when I’m getting married. Truth be told, I don’t care at this point if I’m destined to stay single or not. Between focusing on improving myself and pushing toward my personal goals, the supposed emptiness of being single has been replaced with a sense of solitude and peace. Being alone with my own thoughts has been a blessing in recent months, allowing me to rediscover myself. Sometimes, solitude can put things in perspective.

Don’t get me wrong. There are those rare days where I would like to wake up next to a wonderful woman. I sometimes miss those long, playful phone calls from my days with my last girlfriend. Still, looking at where I am now compared to three years ago, I don’t regret anything.

If you’re single, and you don’t have a special someone to be your Valentine, don’t worry about it. Focus on building yourself up. Don’t worry about finding somebody on that dating site, and don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t bumped into that special someone yet. Take time to do something for yourself. Hit up a bookstore and explore. Hit up a gym and get active. Take time to try something new that you haven’t done before. Be your own Valentine.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

5 College Degrees That People Don’t Need

Every day on TV, on buses, and even all over Facebook, I’m bombarded with adds for colleges, constantly parading around their degree programs for people who want to better themselves.  “Stuck at a dead-end job? We have a degree for you!” “Need to commute from home? We have a degree for you!” “Can’t count your fingers and toes? We have a degree for YOU!!!”  While having the right degree can sound appealing and make your resume look prettier, I have news for you: a degree isn’t a guaratee that you’ll land the job of your dreams. On top of that, it’s so easy to get suckered into a college program where their four-year degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. 
The first degree I ever earned was a two-year degree in multimedia development when was only 20.  I thought I’d be landing a big job, using my photoshop and illustrator skills for top dollar, editing videos for big companies in Manhattan. Boy, was I wrong.  The only company I worked for that used my skills in graphic arts was a sign business in Elmsford for 1 week.  Eventually, I went back to school and found a niche that was for me in the field of Therapeutic Recreation. (Never heard of it? Think schoolyard recess as a profession.)  I also picked up a few nifty hobbies on the side, including writing, photography, and computer repair.  Yeah, I fix laptops for fun.  Ha Ha.
Why am I sharing this little piece of experience with you? Because chances are, if you’re part of my generation, you’re either considering college, or you’ve already went that route.  With most of the fields of study that don’t involve medical studies, accounting, or some form of software design, you’re not likely to land that “ideal job” that you’ve been studying for.  Even worse, there are college degrees for fields that don’t require a degree, especially when it comes to creative arts.  There’s an old saying, “A sucker’s born every minute.”  When it comes to college majors, that saying couldn’t be more on point.  With that in mind, here are 5 degrees that people don’t need.

1. Philosophy

Okay.  Off the top of your head, name a philosopher that has or had acually made money.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Waiting…..still waiting…..waiting some more…nothing at all?  Oh, and if you’re naming ancient Roman philosophers, they definiely don’t count.  Name a philosopher from the 20th century to now who’s made money in philosophy who isn’t a professor at an ivy league college.  If you’re thinking Sigmund Freud, that’s psychology, not philosophy.  Okay, you can stop now.
Let’s face it. Unless you’re a top-tier historian on philosophers with a grant from some society or organization for historical preservation, there’s little to no chance on making money on philosophy unless you have the patience to write a book on it and a publisher willing to put it out.  An employer’s not going to hire you because you can sum up Aristotle’s stance on ethics.  If you’re going to aim for a degree, it should be something that can be used in the work field, not something that can be summed up as a dinner table discussion. 
When you get right down to it, philosophy is all about thinking and ideas.  Why should someone need a degree to share their thoughts and ideas on a matter?  Philosophers don’t need a degree to decide for themselves if a tree in a forest makes noise if it falls if there’s no one around to hear it.  It’s about viewpoints and perspectives, which we all have.  It’s all a matter of articulation, selling your viewpoint and wrapping it in a nice little bow for the world to see. At best, philosophy should be an elective to spark a student’s interest in perspectives of ancient scholars, not the foundaion for a career.  Unless you know someone who’s looking for some professors in philosophy, don’t choose this as a major, unless you’re looking forward to being the only burger flipper in town who can quote Socrates.

2. Art

Now, before I go any further, let me break things down a bit.  Architecture?  A good degree to have if you know the field.  New buildings are being designed and built everyday.  Graphic Design?  Again, if you know how to play the field, a decent degree to have under your belt.  Big companies look for people who can work their magic in Photoshop and Illustrator, but be warned, this is mostly a freelance field, so if you’re not into working a gig here and a gig there with no steady salary flow, this isn’t for you.  Animation?  Same as graphic design, but if you’re creative enough, you can build your own character and develop a nice following. (Remember Happy Tree Friends?)  Painting?  Sculpting?  Now THIS is where I draw the line.  Take a few classes here and there when it comes to art, but don’t, and I repeat, DON’T, devote a college major to it.
Art is like philosophy, in the sense that it’s about expressing thought.  The main difference is that art is about visual expression.  You don’t need a college degree to express yourself.  Oil paintings, sculptures, pencil sketches, drawings, these things are just expressions of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.  The best artists I know were born with the gift to draw or paint.  It wasn’t programmed into them at a school.  If school did anything, it helped them sharpen their gift.  And the smart artists didn’t make art their only form of income.  For them, it’s a passionate side gig that they dedicate their free time to.  And for those who do make a career with their artwork, it’s usually in forms where they can sell their work in mass, such as t-shirts and posters.  The ones who get their work in galleries have to network and work their way up, getting their work recognized from the bottom up. The process of getting your work into an art gallery isn’t unlike a job interview. You have to sell the idea to the gallery owner that your art is worth being shown in an exhibit.
As for comic book artists trying to get into the industry, that’s all about networking and getting your name and your work seen. Rob Liefeld, the man who, among other things, created our favorite “merc with a mouth”, Deadpool, was a self-taught artist. While critics and fans have been divided through the years over his quality of work, he managed to not only score high profile gigs at Marvel Comics (where he not only created characters like Deadpool and Cable, but brought a slew of mutant superheroes into the 90’s era by creating X-Force), but also became a co-founder of Image Comics, where he continued to make his mark by creating the superhero team Youngblood. You don’t need a degree to get ahead in the world of art, no matter what the medium. Just hone your talent, and be ready to do a LOT of networking and portfolio building.

3. Game Testers (aka “Quality Assurance”)

Okay, this one is a VERY controversial one in the gaming community.  I think the turning point was when a little movie called Grandma’s Boy made its debut in theaters. In it, the lead character makes a living as a game tester.  That statement alone is an oxymoron, but we’ll get to that in a second.  Back to the movie, the whole portrayal of game testers is so Hollywood, it’s sickening.  They have their own cubicles, office meetings, and they have humorous dialogue with their supervisors. It’s basically an episode of The Office, but produced by Adam Sandler. With video games. And weed.
In reality, game testers (also known by the politically correct term, “quality assurance”) are put through hell when it comes to testing games.  Having to play through epic games like God of War and Grand Theft Auto may seem like a dream come true, but here’s the nitty gritty: Game testing is all about finding flaws, glitches, and other things that can mess up a game and documenting every glitch.  If the collision detection is off, it has to be documented. If the 3D models aren’t moving right, it has to be documented.  If the audio is out of synch, it has to be documented. So yeah, it’s not that dream job of playing video games and saying how fun it is.  It’s a nightmare job of playing the same video game again and again, looking for glitches hour after hour.  Not convinced on how bad it is?  I just described a game tester testing a good game.  Imagine testing a BAD game.  Ever play a game so bad, it made you want to throw your controller at the screen?  Imagine if testing that game was your JOB.  It’d make an episode of the Angry Video Game Nerd look like an episode of Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood.
Now, with that image in your head, imagine some run-of-the-mill school offering you a degree in game testing.  Keep that image of a game tester in gaming hell in your head.  WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD WANT A DEGREE IN THAT????  In fact, WHY DO YOU NEED A DEGREE TO PLAY VIDEO GAMES?????? I know, there are some kids out there who would love to go to college and play video games, but the cold hard truth is that you’d be spending at least $10,000 on tuition alone for a degree in a field that pays only $20,000 annually, before taxes and deductions.  Not so wonderful now, is it, kiddies?  If you’re going to join the world of “quality assurance”, lots of luck to you, but just remember: don’t get a degree in it.

4. Photography

And now, we return to a field of art.  It may not require any drawing or painting, but photography is an art of visual self-expression.  The idea of photography is to let the world look through your eyes.  If that summary’s too romantic for you, I’ll put it in blunt terms for you: you’re taking pictures, end of story.  And now, back to the less blunt imagery: Photography is about images and perception, how a person sees something in front of them.  Take a traffic jam, for example.  The average person will only see a bunch of cars stuck on an expressway and say, “Ugh, I hate traffic.”  A photographer will think to himself, “Hmmmm, look at the symmetry of the cars lined up, right under that highway sign.  And the way the sun is setting gives the backdrop such a glow.  Let me get my camera!”  Something that would be just an everyday occurence to the average person is a prime chance for a great photo to an artistic photographer.
That’s just an example of artisic photography.  Now, let’s get to the photographer on a daily grind.  When it comes to things like Kmart portraits and school photos, you don’t need a degree for that.  That’s basically just getting the right lighting, positioning, and taking a picture.  Then, you have the photographers who make a living taking photos for special purposes.  They specialize in doing glamour shots and head shots for aspiring actors and models, doing special occasions such as weddings, and special interest shoots such as maternity shoots.  These photographers make every day people into works of art.  They focus on getting the right lighting, scenery, and angles to make your next door neighbor look like a model for a brochure.  Oh, and the good ones do a lot of work for brochures, too. Further up the food chain, you have photo journalists.  They’re the ones snapping shots for newspapers and news stations.  If a photo journalist has a degree under his belt, it’s most likely in journalism, not photography.  Photo journalists are basically field reporters with cameras.  They’re the ones who get their pictures on the front page of your local newspaper or on your favorite news website.  And of course, you have papparazzi.  The ones always snapping celebrity photos for the tabloids.  They’re like the scavengers of photojournalism, hunting down pictures of your favorite celebrities for a quick paycheck.  No skill needed here, just a camera with a good flash and zoom lens.  I actually knew someone in high school who made money after school as a tabloid photographer.  It was like knowing the TMZ equivalent of Peter Parker, without the spider powers.
As someone who is into photography as a hobby, I can tell you that you don’t need a degree in photography to be a good photographer.  I learned everything that was important about photography in one high school semester, and this was back in the days of film photography.  In the digial photography era, everything has been made 100 times easier and accessible.  You don’t need to find a store that sells black and white film to take black and white photos, you just need a camera with that filter.  You don’t even need to limit yourself to 27 photos on a roll, you can take thousands of photos with one memory card.  And developing film?  Ancient history in the digital age.  (Man, writing those last few lines makes me feel old. Ugh.) As for the artistic side of photography, you can always take a weekend class and learn that, or you can subscribe to a good photography magazine or buy some books to learn the tools of the trade.  You don’t need a college degree to snap photos, no matter what kind of photo you’re taking.

5. Film

I know I’m going to get a load of flack for saying this, but you actually don’t need a degree in film to be a good filmmaker.  There are so many people going to prestigious schools, getting their BFAs in film. It’s a dream for so many young adults to be the next Scorsese, Spielberg, or Tarantino.  And while there are jobs in the film field for graduates who have their degree in film, the field is so cutthroat, a lot of them even wonder why they spent so much tuition money majoring in this, when a communications degree could have done even better? 
Let’s put it this way: while everyone wants to be a director, who says you can’t get your foot in the door being a director of photography (D.P.)? A D.P. is basically the man in charge of getting the good shots on film.  He’s the guy who helps set up the lighting, camera angles, and positions to make sure a shot comes out right. That’s just a rough summary. Remember Jan De Bont, the director of Speed and Twister? He started as a D.P. for a few 80’s classics you may remember. Die Hard? The Hunt For Red October? De Bont was the D.P. for those movies.  He built his reputation up, and eventually got a Hollywood studio to give him a shot at directing, and next thing you know, he’s got Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock on a speeding bus in L.A.  Not an easy task, if you know how traffic in L.A. can get.
The point is, so many aspiring filmmakers want to start out on the top, but that’s not how the film industry works. The lucky few who do start off directing usually have a few top-notch indie films under their belt, like Fast & Furious director Justin Lin, who started off with his indie film debut, Better Luck Tomorrow (a damn good movie, btw). The rest of the industry’s top directors usually start off with lesser jobs and work their way up, be it by chance or reputation.
Want a truly inspiring example of a big filmmaker not needing a degree to be a great filmmaker?  Quentin Tarantino.  His film education came from working in a video store, watching everything from French cinema to Kung Fu flicks. His way of getting into the film industry? Teaming up with a then up-and-coming producer by the name of Lawrence Bender, who managed to get Tarantino’s draft of 1992’s Reservoir Dogs to Harvey Keitel. After some grueling filming on a shoestring budget with a talented and now legendary cast, the film became a cult classic, and paved the way for Tarantino and Bender to work on 1994’s Pulp Fiction, the film that made Tarantino an icon. No film degree, just passion, thinking and learning outside the box, and a LOT of luck.
If you’re looking to make a career in film, you don’t need a degree. There are plenty of jobs that will allow you to get some experience in the field and learn on set how to hone your skills. And while you may not be the next Tarantino, you could easily become the next Bill Pope. (You don’t know who Bill Pope is? He’s a well-known D.P. You probably saw his camera work in The Matrix and V For Vendetta. Cool, right?)

In the end, no matter what field you’re planning into, just remember this: a degree is simply a piece of paper. While you’ve worked your butt off to earn that piece of paper, it shoud never, EVER, be an indicator of what you’re worth. A degree can catch an employer’s eye, but only you as a person can build a career for yourself, wheher it’s a traditional 9-to-5 or breaking new ground. Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam Records and the founder of Phat Farm clothing said it best: “Some people get those degrees and go on cruise control. But you have to be willing to learn new things every day, every second. You can’t just depend on what you’ve already been taught. That’s why sometimes education can hold you down instead of lift you up.”  If you want to build a future for yourself, you have to think outside the box. Learn as much as you can, and decide for yourself whether or not you need a degree. And if you do decide to get a college degree, I beg this of you: Please….PLEASE…don’t get a degree in game testing.

5 Life Lessons Learned from Watching The Avengers

Okay, by now, we’ve all seen Marvel’s The Avengers at least once, whether we saw it on opening weekend in 3D or streamed it on Netflix on a quiet Saturday night with nothing to do.¬† We all rooted for Iron Man and Capain America to kick Loki’s ass, we’ve all lept for joy watching Thor duke it out with The Hulk, and we all counted how many pop references came out of Tony Stark’s mouth.¬† Or, am I the only one who did that? Anyway, we’ve all enjoyed watching The Avengers as an action movie, but have you ever noticed the subtle life lessons watching this great superhero movie? Every action movie for the most part has some hidden life lesson in it. Terminator 2? Humanity can be a wonderful thing (and so can blowing up stuff). First Blood? Respect our veterans, or they’ll kick your ass. 300? Even if the odds are against you, take a stand…with your shirt off.¬† With all that being said, what life lessons did we learn from The Avengers? Let’s take a look:

1.  Never Underestimate The Quiet One

With this lesson, we’ll look at our favorite modern Dr.Jeckyll, Dr.Bruce Banner. We all know the consequences of making him angry (namely, he turns into a 10-foot, muscle-bound, not-so-jolly green giant.) But even before that transformation hits, he’s still formidable, not just in intellect, but when it comes to his emotions. For most of the movie, he appears to be timid, withdrawn, and focused on getting his work done. However, at the halfway point of the movie, before an explosion makes Dr. Banner “Hulk out”, Banner reveals to the crew that he had actually tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the mouth, only to have the Hulk spit it out. His temper and frustration in the scene is basically on the razor’s edge. Even if Banner didn’t have the Hulk inside him, imagine how much rage he holds back.
Dr. Banner is the archtype of the seemingly quiet, mild-mannered person we encounter on a daily basis. We’re usually quick to judge him or her as weak-willed or timid, the type who wouldn’t put up a fight if their life depended on it. But most of the time, it’s the timid one who’s a ticking time bomb. Quiet people who hold their frustrations are no different than Bruce Banner, only their big green monster isn’t a 10-foot giant who can smash the bad guys. Have you ever seen the quiet person at work all of a sudden smash a computer monitor or kick the living crap out of a fax machine because of all days, that particular day was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Or have you seen someone who was bullied all of a sudden smash that bully’s face in because they’ve had enough? If those people had the dilemma of Dr. Banner, the world would be smashed to bits by a global population of “Hulks”. Now THAT would give “World War Hulk” a whole new meaning. Keep that in mind, and be nice to that quiet guy who everyone picks on.

2. Feeling Lonely? Get Active

Yeah, this may sound a bit more simple than it should, but hey, it worked for Captain America. At the start of the movie, Captain America is a thawed out WWII soldier out of his element, or, as Loki would put it, “A man out of time.” Everyone he had cared about was either dead or dying, and here he is, a pristine specimen of an individual in a future time where almost everything is alien to him. He’s basically Rip Van Winkle on steroids. At first, he spends his days pounding his frustrations away on a boxing bag or two (or seven), but when Col. Nick Fury hands him the news of the Tesseract, he’s basically giving Cap a form of therapy that he really needed: he got him back into action. Whether he was trading blows with Loki or saving New York City from an alien invasion, Cap was completely in his element. By the time Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes place, he’s too busy saving the world to be lonely. Well, at least until he visits that Captain America museum.
In reality, getting active is a great way to escape the blues of feelings of loneliness. People who have trouble meeting people join social meetup groups all the time. Bonus points if it’s a physical activity, since an active body keeps the mind busy. So, if you’re feeling lonely, join a jogging or cycling group. Sign up for an aerobics class.¬† Join a boxing gym or a dojo. You’ll not only be doing your body a favor, but your confidence and self-esteem, and you’ll get that social interraction that you need. Not big on exercise? Join a book club or a discussion group and stimulate your mind with a few new faces. Are you a gamer? Get off of Xbox Live and join a gaming group in person, and bonus points if it’s a retro game group. Retro gamers are known for bonding over Pac-Man and Super Mario. The more active you are, the less time you’ll have to be lonely.

3. Make Your Family

Does your family treat you like crap? Blood may be thicker than water, but the right friendship can be thicker than blood. Thor’s a great example of this. We all know of Thor’s tricky bond with his conniving¬† brother, Loki. Even after Loki almost killed him in Thor, Thor still yearns for his mischievous brother to be by his side again. In spite of Thor’s unconditional love for him, all Loki wants to do is torment his brother by conquering or destroying anything that has meaning to him, namely, Earth.
Where Loki wants to break Thor down, The Avengers build him up once they finally work as a team. Yeah, he went blow for blow with Iron Man and got smacked around by the Hulk, but Thor found a genuine brother-in-arms with Captain America. Side by side in the Battle of New York, they forged a brotherhood thicker than blood. Is it any wonder by the time the trailer of Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted, Cap was the only one among the Avengers who could make Mjolnir budge a little? (And yes, Cap can actually lift the hammer in the comics. Let’s not forget that.)
So many of us are stuck with family members that we can do without. Dysfunctional families have existed as far back as Cain and Abel. Still, life gives us the option of building our own “family” through our circle of friends. And not just the casual buddies, the “ride or die” friends that will let you crash at their pad on a bad day, or chip in when you don’t have enough for the bridge toll, or the friend who’s mother doesn’t mind you raiding the fridge as long as you “close the damn milk carton!” These are the friends that become your family. Go out and treat them to a beer. They’re worth it.

4. There’s Always Redemption

Okay, there may not “always” be redemption, but if you seek it, it’s out there. Take Hawkeye, for example. Under Loki’s brainwashing, he was turned against his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. He shot Nick Fury, took a guy’s eye out (or so it’s implied), gave Loki sensitive S.H.I.E.L.D. information (including info on his own partner, the Black Widow), and almost single-handedly downed the helicarrier. It’s a good thing Black Widow knocked some sense into him (literally). By the time he fought alongside his fellow Avengers in the Battle of New York, all of that was water under the bridge, and he was a redeemed hero.
What can we learn from Hawkeye? No matter how bad you mess up, redemption is there if you’re willing to push for it. It doesn’t take an alien invasion to find it.¬†¬† Let’s take Mike Tyson, for example. In the 90’s, all we could talk about was either his incarceration or how he bit a chunk out of Evander Hollyfield’s ear. Flash forward over a decade later, and as Tyson makes his rounds on talk shows and makes guest appearances in movies like The Hangover, we’re rooting for him as he makes his way toward a mental and emotional comeback. No matter how bad you mess up, as long as you’re breathing, there’s a chance for you to redeem yourself.

5. Shawarma Brings People Together

What was the first thing Iron Man wanted to do after his near-death experience saving the world? Get some shwarma. Not a burger, not pizza, not sushi. Shawarma. I guarantee you that before The Avengers premiered in theaters, only 2% of Americans knew what Shawarma was. Well, guess what happened after Iron Man made his declaration to try this exotic food? Shawarma spots popped up all over midtown Manhattan. Everyone was dying to try some shwarma. Shawarma stands were right alongside hot dog stands in Central Park. People that had never even tried falafel wanted shawarma! All it took was a shout out from Tony Stark! I doubt he’d have the same effect if for some reason he wanted to eat spinach, but one thing’s for sure: after The Avengers, everyone wanted shawarma.

It’s very unlikely that The Avengers set out to be a motivational movie. Not many big-budget action flicks aim to preach to you. Well, except Avatar. Or The Last Samurai. Or Minority Report. Ah, nevermind. The point is, motivation is where you find it. What’s fodder to one person is a life-changing message to another. What’s important is that once that message hits you, learn from it, and go out and live it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the mood for shawarma.

Skip The Middleman

One of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington is his portrayal of drug lord Frank Lucas in the 2007 film,¬†American Gangster. I’m not keen on idolizing drug lords or glamorizing the drug trade, but a lot of things that the movie version of Frank Lucas said makes absolute sense in a business sense. Everything from dressing respectably to quality assurance is practically a how-to guide on handling your business. The one aspect that stood out the most was cutting out the middleman to get quality product. Like I said, I don’t idolize drug dealers, but anyone who’s anyone knows the hassle of dealing with the middleman, be it a retailer or an A&R at a record label you’re trying to get to sign you. (I have a lot of friends in music who dealt with that last one o a regular basis.) The middleman is the gatekeeper that’s in the way of you and your goals. Thankfully, in this information age, skipping the middleman has become easier to do, in more ways than one, and in more fields than you think.

Retail

My first experience of the benefits of skipping the middleman came in a situation we all can relate to: getting a replacement cellphone. ¬†Less than a year ago, I had a Motorola Rambler. I had bought it in 2010, and that phone lasted me for 4 years. Sadly, one morning, I reached to turn it on, and, in a way that replays in my memory in slow motion, the Rambler fell from my nightstand and…..CRACK! Split into two. I tried re-attaching the QWERTY keypad to the screen, but it was no use. My Rambler was no more. ¬†With a trip out of town coming up, I needed a cell phone QUICK.

That very day, I went to one of those mom-and-pop Boost Mobile stores, insisting on a phone that was under $80. They handed me a Kyocera Hydro, saying it was 80 bucks, but after tax, it was over $90 bucks. Not only that, but I was made to pay an EXTRA $30 bucks for some nonsense network change fee, so the $80 phone became a $120 phone. To make me feel even worse, not even a month after I had bought this slow-but-waterproof smartphone, I find out that the price had dropped to $50, and almost two months AFTER that, the price dropped AGAIN to $30! I felt like an absolute fool for paying what I did for a phone that was slow as molasses. To make matters worse, my Kyocera Hydro only lasted 7 months before the touch screen became non-responsive one day. ¬†When it came time to replace it, I had two options: go to the retailer and beg for a replacement, or….skip the middleman and get what I deserve.

Rather than getting bamboozled by that retailer again, I went to Amazon.com and found not only did they have the Kyocera Hydro for $30 on there, but for five dollars more, I could get myself an LG Realm, a smartphone that was getting a lot more positive feedback than the Hydro. Eager as can be, I not only ordered the LG Realm, but I ordered it with one-day shipping, the total coming out to just over $60 aftter tax. The next day, I got my phone in the mail, and I’ve been as happy as can be wih that phone. I thanked my lucky stars I didn’t go back to that store, and I’ve never needed to step into that store ever again.

Retailers can be good for a quick fix, but to get the deal you really need, sometimes you have to skip the middleman.

The Music Industry

Once upon a time, in order for a music artist to make a living, or at least make a name for himself, he needed a record label to sign him. I remember the days when getting signed to a record label was the holy grail of “making it”. Sadly, for most artists, getting signed to a record label either meant getting turned away again and again, or, if you got signed, being at the mercy of the label’s expectations. And there were so many stories of rappers, singers, and bands getting signed to record labels and not even dropping a debut alum.

Back in the early 2000’s, when I worked in sporting goods, I had a co-worker who was getting respect as an underground rapper in the local scene. ¬†One day, out of the blue, he quits his job, bragging that he had just gotten signed to a record label. The next week, he shows up, showing off his fresh new clothes and his Motorola two-way pager. (Yeah, this was back when those were in style, way before everyone had cell phones.) Not even a month later, rumors had it that the label had dropped him, and that he was looking for work. He even had to sell his pager. Stories like his were way too common.

Flash forward to now. Artists can now rely on the internet to gain fame and make money. Everyone from Macklemore to Childish Gambino have been able to use the internet as an outlet to get their music out there, getting millions of YouTube views and SoundCloud plays before radio stations can even blink. ¬†Back in the day, major labels were the only way for an artist to get recognition. Now, artists can take destiny into their own hands if they’re willing to work hard enough. ¬†Thanks to the internet, artists can skip the middleman

I could go on and on with examples both in the day-to-day and in the mainstream of people who skipped the middleman and got more out of it.  Book authors who chose to publish e-books instead of trying to pitch their product to a publisher, independent filmmakers who took their vision and made a cult classic on a shoestring budget rather than begging Hollywood for a job, t-shirt designers  who sold their merchandise out of their garages rather than begging retailers to push their clothing and became household names. Skipping the middleman could be something as small as going online to get a microphone for a decent price instead of bleeding your wallet at a downtown retailer, or something as big as drawing a graphic novel and selling it on your own site rather than begging for a job at a comic book publisher. If you want something bad enough, sometimes you have to skip the middleman and go direct.