Tim Cope : An Epic Journey of Selfishness and Destruction

"A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe" (pg 20).

From the onset, I was thrilled with what this book would offer and the journey we would share. I love survival and personal journey stories, especially the type that rely upon the kindness and goodness of humanity, and the type that bring man to the bring of giving up, of questioning all that they are and have, yet, several months or weeks later, find themselves on the other side. Stories that echoed Tim sentiments. "I would be able to render myself my vulnerable, and therefore pledge a much greater trust int eh humanity of others. With no familiar companion or culture to lean on, I would be forced to appeal to the better side of human beings no matter who they were. Doing so would offer me the kind of immersion - in the landscape and in the lives of people - that I craved" (pg 23).

At the top of page 49 I have written, "Currently sitting on the Great Wall. The sun rises, spilling an orange haze all around. Beautiful." This, perhaps, marked a shift in my reading, and in the story. While in the calm and quiet of my own journey, a revelation had crept in over the mountains, and it began to affect my reading of this book. From that morning on, I no longer connected with Tim's journey, I struggled with it. Because it seemed so unrelentingly selfish. 

Photo by Tim Cope

Photo by Tim Cope

"In truth, though, Ruslan's news that he could guide me for just two more days was a mutually convenient way of parting with our rapport intact. I was already tired of trying to understand the world as it was filtered through his eyes, and i was looking forward to a new chapter" (pg 110). 

I think I understand what Tim means here, and have probably had similar lines of thought, but as I read these lines I found my heart and mind convicted, not sympathetic, because Tim's three and a half year journey is littered with thoughts of a similar strand. Namely, how people can help and bless him, but when they are of no longer any use, the parting becomes convenient. 

The markings in my book were suddenly littered and reduced to "ass" because I could think of no other imagery to describe Tim's actions. 

Actions such as refusing to leave his journey - his dream - when his pretty serious girlfriend was suddenly faced with a possible life-ending illness. They spoke on the phone, Tim acknowledges that she might not make it and could really use his company, but with his friends about to join him on his journey and with the thought that leaving might mean he'll never finish, he sacrifices her for his dream. A paragraph later, like his journey, she and her personal hell are forgotten because his friends have arrived and, apparently, life moves quickly on. 

Ass.

A dozen or so pages later, while isolated and in self-proclaimed "purgatory," Tim writes, "my situation was all the more tenuous. Additionally, unlike any other time on my journey, there would be no sympathetic ear from Kathrin - even if she were prepared to listen, she was in Italy and unreachable" (266). How quickly Tim needs help, which he often found in quick phone conversations and unexpected helping hands, yet he's unable to see that when others needed him, he was unavailable, because that would disrupt his dream. 

Ass.

Five pages later, Tim finds himself again in need of help, and yet again, he expects, and even demands, the help of another. While struggling to obtain a permit for travel into Russia, Tim writes, "Like every day, I was there starting at eight in the morning, on the fax and the phone. By lunchtime there was no permit and my frustration was boiling over. I refused to let Kosibek's secretary leave on her lunch break" (pg 270). Apparently, Tim's needs are more important than anyone else's. 

Ass.

After a few more stories like this, my opinion of Tim became very sour and critical. To the point that when he wrote about the Kalmyk people and their struggle for survival, I was no longer read his words and phrasings with anything other than criticism. Phrases like, "To survive, Kalmyks resorted to more frequent raids, sold their children as slaves, and even took up fishing" (pg 278). Why was the selling of children so easy to swallow and comprehend but taking up fishing so astonishing? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I might be nitpicking, but these subtle thoughts and ways of thinking saturate this story, and for me, became almost unbearable to read.  

"If people know their history, their traditions, they understand the value of experience that our people have collected over thousands of years. When we know who we are, our place in the world, and why we exist, we are happy and have a purpose in life!" (pg 269).

- Okna Tsahan Zam

Most of the wisdom from this story comes from the mouths of Tim's friends whom he encounters along the way. They give of themselves, their resources, time, and even safety to help Tim fulfill his dream. In return, he seems content to give them the pleasure of his white-skinned company.

He thanks those who helped him, many times, and offers deep gratitude and indebtedness, yet, at the end of it all, what he seems to come away with is the beauty and harshness of the steppe, his dream of covering a vast and difficult land fulfilled, and several speaking and publishing contracts. He comes out on top, while his ex-girlfriend and everyone else he met along the way is left behind. 

As I write, I know it sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, but coming on the tail of stories such as On the Road and Into the WildTim Cope yet again encourages young men (and women) to set off on a life changing adventure where the one and only focus is self. On such a journey, personal experience is the ultimate goal, and everyone and everything are expendable to that cause.

I hate these stories, and I'm tired of them, because "A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe." 

 

If you are intrigued even a little by Tim's journey, here are a few short clips that should satisfy the pallet. 

Harry Potter : A tool against prejudice

Started the Harry Potter series with my kids, and we are all loving it (no surprise really). 

Not only is J.K, Rowling a mastermind at storytelling - entertaining us all, from ages 5-34 - her stories are changing us all because, "exposure to "Harry Potter" stories changes the attitudes of children and young people toward people from disadvantaged backgrounds, specifically refugees, immigrants and gay people. So it turns out "Harry Potter" may be an effective tool against prejudice," which, for me, is as a good a reason to read anything.

Word by Word : Kory Stamper

I could never be a lexicographer because they pay too much attention to detail. Way too much attention to detail. They define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and dissect them with a patience I’ve never had for anything, but I’m glad they do it, and I will never look at another dictionary with such simplicity and ignorance (change this word) again.

However, if you are a word person, a grammar guy or gal, and if you get caught up in all sorts of intricate discussion on whether or not “irregardless” is an actual word or a butchering of the English language, if you spend a large percentage of your writing and reading life wrestling with word choice, placement, and arrangement, then you might really dig this book. And then maybe, you can tell me your thoughts. I promise to listen and not judge.

Admittedly, it’s a bit strange, how much I want to be a writer yet how much I seem to just not care that much about grammar and the sliced down details of words, because I think words matter – greatly – and when I read a piece of work with poor grammar, I notice, and I’m distracted, at best. Checked out completely at worst. It’s actually one of the greatest and consistent critiques of my own writing and speaking, but, strangely, I just don’t care that much to spend my valuable time working on it.
Images, stories, and the rolling of beautiful sentences that conjure the deepest of emotions, that is what attracted me to literature and the words on a page, not the details.

It’s a conundrum, and for now, I’m okay with that, because I have to be. I don’t have time for anything else.

That said, nothing is all bad (or all good for that matter), and Word by Word is no different. (To be fair, and fully clear, I didn’t hate this book, not even close. I would just be extremely specific on who I recommended it to).

 

Here are some of the highlights:

 

“Most people think of the parts of speech as discrete categories, drawers with their own identifying labels, and when you peek inside, there’s the English language, neatly folded like a retiree’s sock: Person, Place, Thing (Noun); Describes Action (Verb); Modifies Noun (Adjectives); Answers the W Questions (Adverb); Joins Words Together (Conjunction); Things We Say When We Are Happy, Surprised, or Pissed Off (Interjection).”

Not sure if I ever saw it explained so simply. I’ll probably use this in the future.

 

“Many people believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language, that its job is to set boundaries of decorum around this profligate language like a great linguistic housemother setting curfew. Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. The corollary is that if certain words are bad, uncouth, unlovely, or distasteful, then folks think that the dictionary will make sure they are never entered into its hallowed pages, and thus are such words banished from Real, Official, Proper English. The language is thus protected, kept right, pure, good. This is commonly called “prescriptivism,” and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work at all. We don’t just enter the good stuff; we enter the bad and ugly stuff, too. We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can” (pg 35).

And I think they should be. People want and need dictionaries to understand the world around them, the language spoken, and the images attempting to be conjured. If dictionaries sifted out the slang and morphing and, god forbid, vulgarity of words, not only would a dictionary be even more boring, it would become more and more useless. At least to the common, every-day man and woman.

 

“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes” (pg51.

I’m currently in process of being considered for an ESL teaching position at a university in Philadelphia, so this stuck out a bit more to me than it otherwise would have. Language impacts the way we think, which clearly impacts the way we act and live. American’s, perhaps more than any other people group, crave, even demand, a life defined by autonomy. No surprise that the language does as well.

 

: Possible Reading Resource :

Polly Adler’s book A House Is Not a Home. Polly Adler’s name was well-known to discerning readers of the early twentieth century: she was the most celebrated brother owner and madam in New York. Her memoir supplied some fantastic quotations, including the delightful, “trying to chisel in on the beer racket” (pg 79).

“In an odd way,” Steve Perrault says, “I tend to feel that the definition is an imperfect thing any way you look at it. A definition is an attempt to explain a word’s meaning using these certain conventions, and you have to distinguish between the definition of a word and the meaning of a word. The meaning is something that resides in the word, and the definition is a description of that. But a definition is an artificial thing” (pg 124).

This is more like it. “The meaning is something that resides in the world,” and not in the specific artificial thing. That “artificial thing” is its roots, though, and without it, the word would be lost in the wind of language. Which is perhaps the beauty of the English language – it allows and fosters both.

 

: Possible Reading Resource :

“Jo Freeman’s pamphlet The BITCH Manifesto was written in 1968 and published in 1970, right as second-wave feminism crested. The year of the manifesto’s creation, “sexism” was first used in print, and the first public protest against restrictive abortion laws happened in New York City; the year of its publication” (pg 157).

Sideburns are a “play on the name of the Civil War officer who made them popular, General Burnside” . . . and we say somone is “worth their salt” because “in the ancient world salt was such a valuable commodity that we used to pay people in it (and this is why you also get a salary). (pg 171-172).

“In the days of steamer travel between England and India, wealthy patrons traveling with the Peninsular and Oriental Company reserved the choicest cabins on the ship, which were the ones that got the morning sun but were shaded in the afternoon – no air-conditioning in the nineteenth century. These cabins were on the left side of the ship on the way out, and the right side on the way home, and were so stamped “P.O.S.H” to indicate that the ticket holder had a cabin that was port side out, starboard side home. The “posh” ticket, then, was for the moneyed, elegant folk, and it was the association with wealth that gave us the “elegant” and “fashionable” sense of “posh” we know today (pg 177).

Whether it is true or not, I love it and will probably refer to it whenever I want to sound intelligent and well-read.

“Who thought that “pumpernickel” was a good name for a dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find means “fart goblin” (pg 182).      

 

 

The Girl Who Save the King of Sweden - Jonas Jonasson

This is my second read of Jonas Jonasson, and I was a bit disappointed. My first read, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared was better.

But it could also have been the mood I was in because it's that kind of read. The story is fun and everywhere, in a Forrest Gump sort of storyline, and I appreciate Jonasson's writing style and wit. It just seemed to drag on a bit in this one.  

The story line is, "In a tiny shack in the largest township in South Africa, Nombeko Mayeki is born. Put to work at five years old and orphaned at ten, she quickly learns that the world expects nothing more from her than to die young. But Nombeko has grander plans. She learns to read and write, and at just fifteen, using her cunning and fearlessness, she makes it out of Soweto with millions of smuggled diamonds in her possession. Then things take a turn for the worse. . . . 

Nombeko’s life ends up hopelessly intertwined with the lives of Swedish twins intent on bringing down the Swedish monarchy. In this wild romp, Jonasson tackles issues ranging from the pervasiveness of racism to the dangers of absolute power. In the satirical voice that has earned him legions of fans the world over, he gives us another rollicking tale of how even the smallest of decisions can have global consequences" (via).

For me, one of the highlights was the little quote that started out each of the seven sections of the story:

The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits – unknown

The more I see of men, the more I like my dog – Madame De Stael

Present – the part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope – Ambrose Bierce

Life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty – Lise Meitner

If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear – Winnie-the-pooh

I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor – Amoz Oz

Nothing is permanent in this wicked world – not even our troubles – Charlie Chaplin

This book will not challenge your life in any way. Nor will it give you much food for thought. It's candy. That's it. 

And honestly, you might be better off watching Forrest Gump. Remember how good this was/is?

Silence, by Shusaku Endu - A MUST READ

As a life rule, I don't read books with movie covers, but this one was a gift from a former student who likes to challenge the status quo (thanks Graceann!) so I thought I'd make an exception.

Praise the Lord for broken rules.

Silencelike an anchor plunging into a raging ocean, has pierced my frustrated mind and calmed my torrential heart. For a generation seeking honestly and authenticity, this book holds under the lamp the struggles and blemishes and hope of Faith. Endo offers an open portrayal of mankind, our beauty and our tattered rags, and invites us all into the awkward and terrible silence of life that has no clear answers or discernible purpose . And he does so without fear or shame. 

With all my bruised and tattered heart I recommend this book to all.

Here is hint (and perhaps spoiler) of what Silence will bring:

God did not grant our poor companion the joy of being restored to health. But everything that God does is for the best. No doubt God is secretly preparing the mission that some day will be his (pg 21).

Written in the early stages of the novel, this simple statement becomes the backbone for the journey through silence, and the struggles of God's secret plan. The story is beautifully written but horrific in honesty as it allows doubt the freedom to roam and scream and cry - and to beat down the certainty of a just God. 

 

But Christ did not die for the good and the beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt (pg 38).

One of Sebastian's first lessons, that God does not think nor act in the way of man, nor is He limited to "this or that" thinking. Because God didn't die for the miserable and corrupt alone, he died for all - because all are good and beautiful, and miserable and corrupt. Like Sebastian.

 

What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God . . . the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent" (pg 64).

Neither do I, myself, quite understand. 

 

Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind (pg 92).

This is one of the most powerful quotes on sin I've ever read. Nestled just about midway through the story, it seems, perhaps, a turning point - even if Sebastian isn't aware of it yet. Because, ultimately, although God appears silent, with arms crossed, he is not "oblivious of the wounds he has left behind." He is aware. Very aware. But He is also Just, and Good, with a larger plan in mind.

 

If it is true that God is really loving and merciful, how do you explain the fact that he gives so many trials and sufferings of all kinds to man on his way to Heaven? (pg 96).

Answer: Because He is kind and merciful and is not limited to "this or that" thinking. 

 

No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capharnaum with the issue of blood, the woman take in adultery whom men had wanted to stone - people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijiro. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame (pg 124).

In the margins of my book I wrote, "holy shit." This is one of the toughest yet greatest passages of the book because not only did it deeply reveal my heart, it deeply revealed my heart. "True love was to accept humanity WHEN wasted like rags and tatters." When I first read these lines, I thought of those who have abandoned me, who have walked away and said, "Your rags and tatters are too much." Then, along with the priest, I was filled with shame. Because I have done the same. Because I am the same.

 

I'm not telling you to trample out of conviction. If you just go through with formality, it won't hurt your beliefs (pg 127).

These words are provocative because, on both ends, it challenges the connection of actions to the heart. I think most, if not all, would agree that apostatizing in action does in fact hurt one's beliefs - just ask Peter. But then, could the reverse also be said? That the formality of religion won't promote one's faith, right? Why is one true and not the other? This is not so easy to swallow and I need more time to consider it.

 

'But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to they Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God . . .' Ferreira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occurred to him. 'No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider's web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider's web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton' (pg 160).

And not just in Japan . . . could it be because of formality? Maybe, but also, many other things. Because we, like are motives, are simply "this or that."

 

: (possible) Answer :

"There is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work . . . and then Christ . . . speaks to the priest: 'Trample! Trample! It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross' (pg 182, 183).

It isn't enough, but it is sufficient. Because if I knew it all, if I could explain and understand all that He has planned and how He thinks, than He wouldn't be worth calling God. He wouldn't be worth trusting. 

Because things I can explain are simple things, and simple things don't deserve worship.

 

 

Silence is now a major motion picture, starring Liam Neeson, and directed by Martin Scorsese.

Tribes : We Need YOU to Lead Us

There wasn't anything groundbreaking about this book, but it was filled with many small nuggets and reminders that were worth rereading/considering. Simple truths that fit in a pocket, on a sticky note, or constantly in thought.

Perhaps the deepest question it brings to the surface is with a statement made early in the book, on page three, where Godin states, "Tribes make our lives better. And leading a tribe is the best life of all."  I wrote in the margin, "Really? Why?" and he doesn't really ever answer the question. At times, he even somewhat contradicts it, but maybe that's the point - that the "best life of all" doesn't necessarily have a defined description. 

But we'll get to that. For now, here are a few nuggets worth stuffing in the pocket:

"Leadership is about creating change that you believe in. My thesaurus says the best synonym for leadership is management. Maybe that word used to fit, but no longer. Movements have leaders and movements make things happen. Leaders have followers. Managers have employees. Managers make widgets. Leaders make change" (pg 14).

"Organizations that destroy the status quo win. Individuals who push their organizations, who inspire other individuals to change the rules, thrive. Again, we're back to leadership, which can come from anyone, anywhere in the organization" (pg 35).

"You have everything. Everything you need to build something far bigger than yourself" (pg 37).

"What's missing is the will to make things happen" (pg 42).

"What people are afraid of isn't failure. It's blame. Criticism" (pg 46).

"Great leaders focus on the tribe and only the tribe" (pg 50).

"A tribe that communicates more quickly, with alacrity and emotion, is a tribe that thrives (pg 52).

"{a tribe leader} finds areas of common interest and then gets out of the way" (pg 53).

"Leadership is a choice. It's a choice to not do nothing" (pg 59).

"A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it . . . it has to do with a desire to understand, a desire to try, a desire to push whatever envelope is interesting" ( pg 63).

"It's easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten, or even fifteen years of school, you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again, the curious are punished" (pg 64). 

"Religion at its worst reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith" (pg 81).

"The reason it's so difficult to have a considered conversation about religion is that people feel threatened. Not by the implied criticism of the rituals or irrationality of a particular religious practice, but because it feels like criticism of their faith . . . in order to lead, you must challenge the status quo of religion you're living under" (pg 82).

"When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow" (pg 83).

"The easiest thing is to react. The second easiest thing is to respond. But the hardest thing is to initiate" (pg 86).

"The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow" (pg 108). 

"Reagan's secret is to listen, to value what you hear, and then to make a decision even if it contradicts the very people you are listening to" (pg 128).

"People don't believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change" (pg 138).

"Tribes make our lives better. And leading a tribe is the best life of all." Perhaps, because of humility. Because they are using their gifts and talents and they are using (or withholding) them for the benefit of the tribe. And when we consider ourselves smaller than the bigger picture, when our role is beyond ourselves, and we see the Tribe thriving, there is immense joy and satisfaction. Because it's beyond ourselves.

 

 

Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

When I walk into a room, I'm lower than anyone else, and that everyone takes me for a buffoon, so "Why not, indeed, play the buffoon, I'm not afraid of your opinions, because you're all, to a man, lower than me! pg 43

A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and make a mountain out of a pea - he knows all of that and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility . . . pg 44

That's just it, that 'but . . ., Ivan was shouting. I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen. We know what we know! pg 243

For the mystery of man's being is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if there is bread all around him. pg 254

I knew on "fighter for an idea" who told himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his "idea" just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man: "I am going to fight for mankind." Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. - pg 314

The Adventures of Pinocchio, by C. Collodi

When your boy is struggling to trust in authority, that they see a much bigger picture, this is a great read. 

Here is one of my favorite scenes:

"Pinocchio threw himself at the feet of Fire Eater. Weeping bitterly, he begged in a sad, quiet voice, "Have pity, kind sir!"

"Well, what do you want now puppet?"

"I beg for mercy for my poor friend Harlequin. He has never done any harm in his life."

"There is no mercy here, Pinocchio. I have let you go. Harlequin must burn in your place."

"In that case," announced Pinocchio, "I see what I must do. Come, officers! Threw me on the flames. It is not fair for Harlequin to do in my place!" (pg 40)

 

Not only is Pinocchio beginning to see the consequences of his actions, he is beginning to learn what love is. This is still early in the book, but that's another lesson easily and appropriately grabbed from this book - just because you "get" something, doesn't mean you are forever perfect after. This, along with the skill and ability to trust in a bigger picture, is crucial for young kiddos. 

The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley

After five years teaching and administering in an international school, my thoughts on curriculum have morphed, my teaching strategies multiplied, and my ideas of the "perfect school" challenged. This book was an excellent read because it affirmed some of things I do and would like to do as an educator, but more importantly, it convicted me as a parent. No matter where we are in the world and regardless of the school we find ourselves in, when it comes to holistic education of children, it's all about the home. Not after school clubs, not dynamic teachers, and certainly not technology. The responsibility is on me, the parent.

The Smartest Kids in the World travels from the US to South Korea, Finland, and Poland and asks the same question over and over, "What makes a great student?"

The answer isn't all that surprising.

About midway through, Ripley says this, "Parenting, like drive and diligence, was often in international studies of education. The evidence that did exist tended to focus on one country only, and it generally showed what you'd expect: More involved families had children with higher grades, better test scores, improved behavior, and better attendance records. That dynamic held true across all ages, races, and income levels in the United States."

Then she asks this question, "But what kinds of parental involvement mattered most? And did parents do different things in different countries?

Answer: Intentionality.  "When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen" because, "Done well, it meant teaching them about the world - sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things."

"As kids got older," she continues, "the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parent who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adult. Unlike volunteering in schools, this kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels" (pg 108-109).

The best days of class, according to Kim, one of the students shadowed, were the ones where her teacher pushed the desks into a circle and everyone talked about the book (pg 40).

No gimmicks, no movies, and no posters. Just conversation. Discovery. And time, where the kids are allowed to ask questions and search for answers. Much like good parenting.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“I’d like to live somewhere where people are curious.” Pg 38

“The best days were the days her teacher pushed the desks into a circle and everyone talked about the book.” Pg 40

Sisu – Strength in the face of great odds – a sort of inner fire. “It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity” pg 153

“{Tom} looked up in media res and discovered it was a Latin phrase that referred to starting a story in the middle of the plot. He caught up quickly, and by spring, he could toss off his own allusions to Greek mythology in the English classes. He figured out that a lot of the banter had been bullshit, but he’d needed to learn the vernacular.” Pg 188

 

The Extremes:

South Korea's educational outcome:

 

United States educational outcome:

Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

As a kid, I loved this movie (the 1990's version with Anthony Quinn, Gary Cole) and remember fondly watching it with my grandmother. At the request of one my students, Johnny Sims, I read it today. 

Beautiful. Powerful. 

Here are some of my favorite quotes and pictures found on a simple google search.

He remembered the time he had hooked on of a pair of marlin. The male fish always let the female fish feed first and the hooked fish, the female, make a wild, panic-stricken, despairing fight that soon exhausted her, and all the time the male had stayed with her, crossing the line and circling with her on the surface. He had stayed so close that the old man was afraid he would cut the line with his tail which was sharp as a scythe and almost of that size and shape. When the old man had gaffed her and clubbed her, holding the rapier bill with its sandpaper edge and clubbing her across the top of her head until her colour turned to a colour almost like the backing of mirrors, and then, with the boy’s aid, joisted her aboard, the male fish had stayed by the side of the boat. While the old man clearing the lines and preparing the harpoon, the male fish jumped high into the air beside the boat to see where the female was and then went down deep, his lavender wings, that were his pectoral fins, spread wide and all his wide lavender stripes showing. He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed. Pg 49-50

 

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

 

“I will kill him though,” he said. “In all his greatness and his glory.” Although it is unjust, he though. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures. Pg 66

 

It is good we do not have to try and kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers. Pg 75

 

“Keep my head clear,” he said against the wood of the bow. “I am a tired old man. But I have killed this fish which is my brother and now I must do the slave work.” Pg 95

 

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Pg 103

 

You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more? Pg 105

 

He spat into the ocean and said, Eat that, galanos. And make a dream you’ve killed a man.” Pg 119

 

“In the night I spat something strange and felt something in my chest was broken.” Pg 125

 

Also, here is Hemingway's Cocktail for Rough Times

Princess Bride, by William Goldman

Not often do movies trump books, but in this case, it might be true. To be fair, I love this book and my kids laughed out loud often, but the movie is better. Not because the lair under the tree was more enjoyable or because shrieking eels makes more sense then shrieking sharks, but really, because of Buttercup. Her character doesn't make sense in the book version. 

If Wesley is all that Goldman creates him to be, than why would he be so in love with such a dits? On this, the movie got it right. Make her pretty, but also make her smart, confident, and strong. Make her worthy of Wesley, and Wesley worthy of her.

The extent of their differences are spelled out here:

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

There are many more, but I've boiled it down to two thoughts:

On Dads:

At first, it was Marie-Laure's father that stood out to me. His love, his devotion, and his wisdom were challenging and convicting, as a father and as a son. 

Unintentional perhaps, but this story awoke in me the Power of being a Dad, and that the plans I have for the future may never actually come; before I'm ready, my time my close forever. And what will I leave behind? Will my kids be able to survive? Thrive? Endure? 

How will I love my children here. Now. So that if tomorrow never comes, I will be with them forever.

This storyline captured me. And I ached for him and hoped so deeply that he would make it out of prison and be able to come back home to his daughter. 

 

On Single Stories:

About two-thirds of the way through, I began to struggle a bit with the Single Story concept, "How many times must we read stories about the Germans?" Then I had a great discussion, as always, with Alison Allen, a good friend and fellow English teacher. She reminded me of how important it is to never forget the atrocities that have happened, to never forget those who have suffered and died, and to never stop telling those stories - now matter how hard they are.

Tell of the Nazi concentration camps, the African American enslavements, the rape of the Native American people, and tell them over and over again. Lest we repeat them. Lest we forget. 

Because, "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world" (pg 529). 

Doerr, in his unique style of storytelling wrote a story that not only reminded us of The War, it also challenged the single story of the war. It told of Fredrick and his strength to stand up to the Reicht - even though it cost him his life - and he told of Werner, a young German, soon-to-be-Nazi boy, who, in all his complexity and ugliness and beauty, does not fit the Nazi mold. He actually reminded me of Germany’s leading fighter aces, Franz Stigler from A Higher Call, who had mercy on his enemies and saved the lives of several Americans by flying formation over Germany's Iron Curtain. It's a crazy story that highlights the complexity yet beauty of humanity. Just like Werner. 

Near the end of the book, and the war, Doerr also adds in a small yet poignant scene of invading Russian soldiers who behave in the most atrocious of ways towards a small band of little girls, and I can only assume that Doerr intentionally adds this scene as a reminder that not all Germans were devils, and not all non-Germans were angels. It's a short yet powerful reminder that we are all capable of doing terrible things, not just our enemies.

A beautiful read. A powerful story. An acute reminder. 

 

 

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant

Another solid gift from my wife. Is there anything hotter than a hot wife who gifts good books?  

 

Creative Destruction: The risky business of going against the grain

“On matters of style, swim with the current,” Thomas Jefferson allegedly advised, “on matters of principal, stand like a rock" (pg 13).

With the base notion that there are infact very few original ideas, and because if one is TOO radical in their style and expression that they are rarely if ever heard (thus losing their voice to whatever it is they’re actually trying to say), swim with the current – don’t fight against it. Be unique, pursue aristic expression, but also embrace and accept the times we find ourselves in. 

But when those currents begin to shape our principals – our convictions of morality and truth – stand like a rock. Have integrity. Be authentic.

 

Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors: The art and science of recognizing original ideas

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” – Scott Adams (pg 29)

 

Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peer. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the number of ideas generated.” – pg 35

Consider Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethovan, Picaso and Maya Angelou – we celebrate their great works, but these are the peaks to the mountains of works they’ve produced.

“Original thinkers,” Robert Sutton notes, “will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a larger pool of ideas – especially novel ideas.”

Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection. (pg 37)

 

An American gained little from working in Canada . . .

In isolation, this is a great quote to share with an AP class that has two Canadians, but in context, it makes much more sense.  A few sentences before the passage reads, “The most creative fashion collections came from houses where directors had the greatest experience abroad, but there were three twists. First, time living abroud didn’t matter: it was time working abroad, being actively engaged in design in a foreign country, that predicted whether their new collections were hits. Second, the more the foreign culture differed from that of their native land, the more that experience contributed to the directors’ creativity. An American gained little from working in Canada, compared to the originality dividends of a project in Kora or Japan. (pg 49).

It’s all about context.

 

Out on a Limb: Speaking truth to power

People think an amateur can appreciate art, but it takes a professional to critique it. Merely changing a handful of words from positive to negative was sufficient to make the critical reviewer sound smarter. “Prophets of doom and gloom appear wise and insightful while positive statements are seen as have a naïve quality. (pg 72)

This is discouraging. Because it’s true – often times. There are many thoughts rolling around for me, but really, the main takeaway is this: I want to be the type of person who can professionally critique art, habits, teaching strategies, whatever, by articulating what I LIKE about it just as much, if not more so, as what I dislike about it.

 

Fools Rush In: Timing, strategic procrastination, and the first-mover disadvantage

Being original doesn’t mean require being first. It just means being different and better. (pg 105)

 

Goldilocks and the Trojan HorseCreating and maintaining coalitions

“Horizontal hostility” : The minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them (pg 117)

Like vegans and vegetarians. Compared to much of the world, they are very much alike, but because they are so much alike, they can often find horizontal hostility because the other isn’t doing it right and therefore tainting it – “making us look bad.”

We compete with those who are similar, not those in different camps.

 

“Make the world better.” – Lucy Stone

 

Rethinking GroupthinkThe myths of strong cultures, cults, and devil's advocates

The greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true. Through the process of open-minded debate, Dalio expects employees to reconcile their differences – to “have strong opinions, weakly held.”  (pg 195)

The fight to stay in sync. This is Unity, and it guards against uniformity – the death of creativity and originality.

“Argue like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong” pg 201

 

If you’re going to tell the emperor he has no clothes, you’d better be a good tailor . . . or know someone who is (pg 197)

Devil's Advocate: 

The concept dates back to 1587, when Pope Sixtus V instituted a new process for vetting candidates for sainthood into the Roman Catholic Church. He assigned a promotor fidei, or promotor of the faith, to oppose canonization by critically evaluating the character of candidates and challenging claims of miracles they had performed. The promoter of the faith august against the advocates Dei, God's advocate, and became known as the devil's advocate

The "devil's advocate" was in a position to PROMOTE THE FAITH - seek Truth, or ensure that what was happening, the direction they were going, the claims that were being made, were TRUE!  They didn't argue for the sake of arguing or sounding smart or ruffling feathers, but to maintain Truth's purity. In this, they were unified, even though, I'm sure, they caused and stirred conflict. 

Rocking the Boat and Keeping it SteadyManaging anxiety, apathy, ambivalence, and anger

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it . . . the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

 

Without a sense of urgency, people . . . won’t make needed sacrifices. Instead, they cling to the status quo and resist. ( pg 232)

To counter apathy, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. This is an importantmessage to convey, but its not the type of communication that should come first. If you want people to take risks, you need first to show what’s wrong with the present/ To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss. “The greatest communicators of all time start by establishing what is: here’s the status quo.” Then, they “compare that to what could be,” making “the gap as big as possible.” (pg 234)

 

Venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger, it feeds it (pg 240) When we are angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge. But when we’re angry for others, we seek out justice and a better system. We don’t want to punish; we want to help. (pg 242).

 

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day.” (E.B. White) pg 242

 

Actions for Impact:

 

Individual action:

1.     Question the default

2.     Triple the number of ideas you generate

13.  Focus on victim, not perpetrator

 

Leadership action:

4.     Emphasize values over rule

 

For more on . . .

Reading List 2017  :  Non-fiction reads  :  Books (recommended by others)

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Almost twelve years ago I read, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and remember thinking, "I don't really get it, but I like it." I think now it was because it was such a different story, and that there was something being communicated that was bigger than me, that I couldn't quiet articulate but knew was there. Like the smell of a coming rain.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a similar sort of story. It is beautiful and raw and unapologetic. It's Africa. It's Adichie. It's Kainene. And I absolutely loved it. And yet, I'm not fully sure why. Which is the best kind of art.

Here are two thoughts I'm wresting with:

On Sex:

"The truth is that most of the time when writers deal with sex, they avoid writing about the act itself. There are a lot of scenes that jump from the first button being undone to a postcoital cigarette (metaphorically, that is) or that cut from the unbuttoning to another scene entirely. The further truth is that even when they write about sex, they're really writing about something else" (Foster).

Adichie's scenes don't exactly cut from one to another entirely, but she is definitely talking about something else. Betrayal. Loyalty. Longings (not physical). Identity. Revenge. Belonging. Wonder. And a myriad of other things. 

"When they're writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they're writing about sex, they really mean something else. If they write about sex and mean strictly sex, we have a word for that. Pornography" (Foster).

Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is far from pornography. It's so much more, because sex can be "pleasure, sacrifice, submission, rebelion, resignation, supplication, domination, enlightenment, the whole works" (How to Read Lit Like a Professor, Foster). 

It's Life.

On Richard Churchill:

There are many powerful and beautiful characters living in Half A Yellow Sun, all of which are fully dynamic and flawed. But, for the not-so-obvious reasons, Richard is the one I related to the most - because of his desire to write the story of the people he loved, and the struggles that ensued. 

Richard is a shadow of the possible hero, Ugwu, as their lives and sins are thinly paralleled. But where Ugwu can step forward and assume the rightful position of a voice for his country, Richard must step back. Which he does. Reluctantly at first, but with a confidence and peace at the end that sits heavy on my mind. As deep truth should.

Ultimately, what Nigeria needs, is for Richard to stop. He is accepted and loved by Nigeria (Kainene), he is used by Nigeria (Olanna), and he is hated yet eventually accepted by Nigeria (Odenigbo). He also plays a role in inspiring Nigeria (Ugwu), but ultimately, his responsibility within Nigeria is to back off and play the minor character. Because he is not Nigeria. He is the white foreigner. He is Churchill.

 

Favorite Quotes:

"She pulled a cigarette from the case, but she didn't light it. She put it down the bedside table and came over and hugged him, a tremulous tightening of her arms around him. He was surprised he did not hug her back. She had never embraced him that closely unless they were in bed. She did not seem to know what to make of the hug either, because she backed away from him quickly and lit the cigarette. He thought about that hug often, and each time he did he had the sensation of a wall crumbling." pg 88

 

"He discusses the British soldier-merchant Tubman Goldie, how he coerced, cajoled, and killed to gain control of the pal-oil trade and how, at Berlin Conference of 1884 where Europeans divided Africa, he ensured that Britain beat France to two protectorates around the River Niger: the North and the South.

The British preferred the North. The heat there was pleasantly dry; the Hausa-Fulani were narrow-featured and therefore superior to the negroid Southerners, Muslim and therefore as civilized as one could get for natives., feudal and therefore perfect for indirect rule. Equable emirs collected taxes for the British, and the British, in return, kept the Christian missionaries away. 

The humid South, on the other hand, was full of mosquitoes and antimists and disparate tribes. The Yoruba were the largest in the Southwest. In the Southeast, the Igbo lived in small republican communities. They were nondocile and worryingly ambitious. Since the did not have the good sense to have kings, the British created "warrant chiefs." because indirect tule cost the Crown less. Missionaries were allowed in to tame the pagans, and the Christianity and education they brought flourished. In 1914, the governor-general joined the North and the South, and his wife picked the name. Nigera was born." pg 146

 

For more one . . .

Reading Log 2017  :  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  :  Books to Read

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking - by Chris Anderson

From recommendations of font sizes to larger philosophical applications to life, this book is a great resource for any public speaker (of course), educator, or anyone brave enough to try and impact the world through Ideas.

Thank you to my wife for finding it in a Hong Kong bookstore. 

Here are some highlights:

 

The Why of Public Speaking:

“Your number-one goal as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and to rebuild it inside the minds of others.” – pg 12

“An idea is anything that can change how people see the world.” Pg 13

“An important idea, wrapped up in a fresh story, can make a great talk.” Pg 15

When giving a presentation, “give, don’t take.” It’s not about you, the admirations you want to receive, or to boost your name and product, it’s about sharing a gift that you have that will benefit others, not self. Pg 24

“ The intense appeal of the standing ovation can lead aspiring speakers to do bad things.” pg 27

“Here’s the thing about inspiration: it has to be earned. Someone is inspiring not because they look at you with big eyes and ask you to find it in your heart to believe in their dream. It’s because they actually have a dream that’s worth getting excited about. And those dreams don’t come lightly. They come from blood, sweet, and tears. Pg 28

“If you have dreams of being a rock-star public speaker, pumping up an audience as you stride the stage and proclaim your brilliance, I beg you to reconsider. Don’t dream of that. Dream of something much bigger than you are.” Pg 29

“What are humans for? Humans are for being more human than we’ve ever been. More human in how we work. More human in what we learn. And more human in how we share that knowledge with each other.” Pg 234

“The secret to happiness is: find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.” – Dan Dennett

“We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe that it’s purposeful. Ease makes less of an impression on us than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning.” – Andrew Solomon

 

The How of Public Speaking:

 "Throughline is the connecting point that runs through your entire presentation, connecting every piece, and perhaps encapsulated in fifteen words or less."

“The throughline traces the path that the journey takes. It ensures that there are no impossible leaps, and that by the end of the talk, the speaker and audience have arrived together at a satisfying destination” pg 33

“Great writing is all about the power of the deleted word” pg 36

- Don’t be trapped by your ego – kill your darlings.

“An issue-based talk leads with morality. An idea-based talk leads with curiosity.” Pg 41

“If you want to reach people who radically disagree with you, your only chance is to put yourself in their shoes as best you can. Don’t use language that may trigger tribal responses. Start with a visual of the world as seen through their eyes. And use every one of the tools described here to build a connection based on your shared humanity.” Pg 62

“There’s always somebody who wants to confiscate our shared humanity, and there are always stories that restore it. If we live out loud, we can trounce the hatred and expand everyone’s lives – Andrew Solomon pg 69

If the whole power of a talk is in the connection between the speaker and audience, slides may actually get in the way of that. Pg 113

With a talk and slides, you have two streams of cognitive output running in parallel. The speaker needs to blend both streams into a master mix. In these circumstances, the audience member’s brain needs to decide whether to focus on your words, your slides, or both and it’s mostly involuntary. You must choose where you want their attention. Pg 116

            Questions: Are the visuals key to explaining what I want to say, or a distraction?

“Give your audience enough time to absorb each step. Don’t feed too much of the slide at a time or people will get overwhelmed.” Pg 122

- Rarely show clips longer than 30 seconds

- Must explain something that can’t be explained by still images; and have great production value

Transitions: Should never call attention to itself

- Cut: shifting to a new idea

- Dissolve: two slides are related in some way

“Every word you speak that someone has already seen on a slide is a word that carries zero punch. It’s not new news.” Pg 142

- Tease the arrival of a slide before revealing it.

Every piece of content in our modern era is part of an attention war. It’s fighting against thousands of other claims on people’s time and energy . . . all these are lethal enemies. You never want to provide people with an excuse to zone out.” Pg 157

“If the ending isn’t memorable, the talk itself may not be.” Pg 168

The How: Authenticity

“When speaking live, we are vulnerable. When we are live and passionate, the audience can sense the conviction, and they get to be a part of the excitement of seeing a big idea identified, battled with, and finally shaken into shape.  The fact that they can sense that the presenter truly mean what they’re saying in the moment helps give permission to embrace the meaning, the idea.” Pg 134

“If the audience can tell you’re reciting. They may see your eyes roll around between paragraphs as you bring the next sentence to mind. More likely they will notice that your tone is slightly flat and robotic, because you are focused on brining the right sentences out instead of brining real meaning to those sentences.”  Pg 136

- As related to life: scripted apologies or affirmations have a similar effect.

Ask, “Is this essential to advancing my message, and is this interesting, really interesting? Do I love saying this line? If anything lands in the maybe pile . . . it’s out” pg 145

A Checklist:

-       Is this a topic I’m passionate about?

-       Does it inspire curiosity?

-       Will it make a difference to the audience?

-       Is my talk a gift or an ask?

-       Is the information fresh? Or is it already out there?

-       Do I have the credibility to make this talk?

-       What are fifteen words that encapsulate my talk?

-       Do those fifteen words really matter?

 

 Future TED Talks:

            Sherwin Nuland         

            Bryan Stevenson

            Rob Reid

            Hans Rosling

            David Deutsch

            Nancy Kanwisher

            Steven Johnson

            David Christian

            Dan Pallotta

            Reuben Margolin

            Thomas Heatherwick

            Hans Rosling

            James Nachtwey

            J.J. Abrams

            Brene Brown

            Julian Treasure

            Billy Collins

            June Cohen

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

A study, a glimpse, into the heart of man. The white man has many large footprints around the world where God, the pursuit of exploration, and the hope to "civilize" granted permission to pillage, destroy, and rape a people and land. The natives might have called them Martians. But they didn't. But reading a story that places the white man on the other side of colonization certainly has a different feel to it than our high school history books.

The War of the Worlds was a decent and easy read which also made it tolerable. If it had gone on too much longer it may have been shelved before completed, but as it is, just shy of 200 pages, it was worth the read. 

And it offered a few choice nuggets. In Chapter 13, one of the minor characters (the curate) finds himself in complete mental anguish and begins a brief discussion of the purpose of life, conflict, and role of man.  

"What does it mean?" he said. "What do these things mean?
I stared at him and made no answer.
He extended a thin white hand and spoke in almost a complaining tone.
"Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then - fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work - What are these Martians?"
"What are we?" I answered, clearing my throat. He gripped his knees and turn to look at me again. For half a minute, perhaps, he stared silently. "I was walking through the roads to clear my brain," he said. "And suddenly - fire, earthquake, death!"
He relapsed into silence, with his chin now sunken almost to his knees.
Presently he began waving his hand. "All the work - all the Sunday school -- What have we done - what has Weybridge done? Everything gone - everything destroyed. The church! We rebuilt it only three years ago. Gone! Swept out of existence! Why?"
. . .
"Be a man!" said I. "You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent."

H.G. Wells then provides a possible answer to the question of what is the purpose of conflict? What is It all about?

Answer: to endure, and to not lose hope.

By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

And then he concludes with:

And there, amazed and afraid, even as I stood amazed and afraid, were my cousin and my wife - my wife white and tearless. She gave a faint cry. "I came," she said. "I knew - knew --"
She put her hand to her throat - swayed. I made a step forward, and caught her in my arms."

Beautiful.

A Loving Life, by Paul E. Miller

I've been accused of hating Christian books, movies, and music. It's an accurate accusation. And this book by Paul E. Miller is a great example of why. 

I'm trying to find the silver-lining in life, people, and thoughts because I don't want to be a bitter old man who complains about everyone and everything. So I tried with this book, and sure enough, there are some.  Things like:

Suffering is the crucible for love. We don't learn how to love anywhere else. Don't misunderstand; suffering doesn't create love, but it is a hot-house where love can emerge . . . the death of self offers ideal growing conditions for love. 

and

One of the oddest things about deep suffering is that the sun comes up in the morning. Life limps along.

and this

One of the hardest parts of a hesed love is that you can love others, but there may be no one to love you. The very act of loving can make you lonely.

But then he uses phrases like, "Your life energy needs to come from God" and I begin to lose interest. But that isn't enough to toss the book because I'm sure I too use similar language at times and really, so what if he says a phrase differently than I'd like.  

This book is damaging and frustrating not because of a few shallow phrases, but because of it's arrogance. All throughout, Miller uses his family and himself as the standard for esed love. The story of Naomi and Ruth are his structure and outline, but he is the center of book: his advice, his love, and his actions - the saving of a remote African village was perhaps the most disturbing. "I can endure in love for these people . . . I recruited teams, raised funds, and planned strategy . . . I loved them from above" - like Boaz!  He literally spends two pages talking about how he saved this village and then relates himself to the savior of the Naomi story!  

Who is this book about again?

Equally disturbing, but in contrast to the saved-by-a-white-foreigner story is the arrogance with which he looks down on Paula - the woman with five children from five different husbands who can't work, needs money, wisdom on how to live life, and is completely without anything redeemable - even morals. And that is exactly how Paul E. Miller sees her: a project that needs him. The way he describes her is ruthless and pious. No grace. No kindness. He actually says, "Frankly, I was disgusted with her choices" and concludes her story with a callous, "A few years later she got cancer and passed away."

His reflection on the woman and her life is "I assumed her appreciation of our care meant repentance. It didn't. I helped her situation but not her soul. But my biggest regret was that I didn't stay in touch with her sons." 

This is why "Christian" literature bothers me. It often takes a story, pads layers upon layers of possible intent, then spends the majority of the time talking about self, then sells it as a brilliant and new way of living.

The simple gospel truth of "remember the poor" doesn't need explanation. 

(As a side note, the continual assumption that the reader is of such low understanding and cognitive ability frightens me. Here's an example: "The Hebrew for "she sat beside the reapers" suggests that Ruth sat down at the side of or next to the reapers." And there's about half a dozen such examples in this book.)

The best part of this book is when he writes:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2)
Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Col. 3:13)
In repentance and rest is your salvation (Isaiah 30:15)
When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, let they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:12-14)

I think Paul E. Miller means well, that he has done some pretty great things, and that I am probably being unfair at the least and hypocritical at best. I'm aware that, as I write my critique, I am exuding the same critical nature he showed Paula. So I don't want to write him off as worthless or someone in need of something I can provide. What have I done or written?  Am I able to cast the first stone?

Certainly not. 

I would just rather not read this type of literature.

 

The Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

"At the end of the century before last, in the market square of the city of Baltese, there stood a boy with a hat on his head and a coin in his hand. The boy's name was Peter Augustus Duchene, and the coin that he held did not belong to him but was instead the property of his guardian, and old soldier named Vilna Lutz, who had sent the boy to the market for fish and bread."

"That day in the market square, in the midst of the entirely remarkable and absolutely ordinary stall of the fishmongers and cloth merchants and bakers and silver-smiths, there had appeared, without warning or fanfare, the red tent of a fortune-teller. Attached to the fortune-teller's tent was a piece of paper, and penned upon the paper in a cramped but unapologetic had were these words:"

The most profound and difficult questions that could possibly be posed by the human mind or heart will be answered within for the price of one florist.

"Peter read the small sign once, and then again. The audacity of the words, their dizzying promise made it difficult suddenly for him to breathe. He looked down at his coin, the single florist, in his hand . . ."

 (an excerpt from chapter 1)

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed the World

By Mark Pendergrast

Favorite Quotes:

- "The aroma is familiar and obvious enough - that fragrance that often promises more than the taste delivers. Body refers to the feel or "weight" of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity refers to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory." - pg xvi

- "So important did the brew become in Turkey that a lack of sufficient coffee provided grounds for a woman to seek a divorce." - pg 7

- "They came to be known as penny universities, because for that price one could purchase a cup of coffee and sit for hours listening to extraordinary conversations -or, asa 1657 newspaper advertisement put it, "PUBLICK INTERCOURSE." . . . "The coffeehouses provided England's first egalitarian meeting place, where a man was expected to chat with his stablemates whether he knew them or not." - pg 12

- "Wherever it has been introduced it has spelled revolution. It has been the world's most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people begin to think, they become dangerous to tyrants." pg 17

- "It wasn't enough simply to employ people. 'You love them, you love their families, you are part of them.'" - pg 126

- "Our judgement concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us." - pg 128

- "I believe the only way to conquer is to walk where the battle rages most fiercely, and fight, fight, fight until you win." (Alice Foote MacDougall) - pg 131

- "There have been many other extraordinary outcomes from the cooperation of roasters and growers. Paul Katzeff sells Delicious Peace, coffee grown on a Ugandan cooperative consisting of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Community Coffee of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convicted the feuding Colombian towns of Toledo and Labateca to work together to produce a great blend high in the Andes." - pg 358