Category: Inspirational

True war heroes

| March 29, 2014 | Reply

Many of us “Support the U.S. Troops” in the Middle East even though we have no idea what they are doing on a day to day basis. There is no significant news reporting from the areas where the soldiers do whatever they do, so many Americans fills this vacuum with hopeful imagination. I don’t. I assume the worst. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and there is no sunshine where the U.S. military is operating in the Middle East. At any time over the past ten years, you could read 100 consecutive days of most any local newspaper, and you wouldn’t know anything about the day to day conduct of members of the U.S. military. You would barely know that we were at war. There have been no meaningful photos and no stories to advise us of what is really going on, where our heavily armed military encounters civilians.

Nonetheless, in our ignorance, we declare ALL troops to be heroes, clapping for them at baseball games and other social events, having no idea what they are actually doing. Imagine honoring any other profession, not having any self-critical information with regard to that person’s activities. “Ladies and Gentlemen, let me hear a round of applause for Joe, who is a great musician,”imagine everyone in the room clapping, even though none of them had ever heard of Joe, and none of them have heard him play even one note.

Sometimes we do learn what a soldier has actually done, and sometimes it is a actually the story of a hero. Take the case of Hugh Thompson, who stepped up to do what was right, at his own risk:

Returning to the My Lai area at around 0900 after refueling, he noticed that the people he had marked were now dead. Out in a paddy field beside a dike 200 metres (660 ft) south of the village, he marked the location of a wounded young Vietnamese woman. Thompson and his crew watched from a low hover as Captain Ernest Medina (commanding officer of C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment) came up to the woman, prodded her with his foot, and then shot and killed her.

[More . . . ]

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In New Zealand, an historic vote on gay marriage, and then a song

| April 20, 2013 | Reply

New Zealand recognizes gay marriage:

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Don’t give up on your dreams to change the world

| February 21, 2013 | Reply

Bryon Reese urges that we not give up on our dreams to change the world. Don’t succumb to apathy and pessimism. It’s time to get to work, regardless of the perceived obstacles or the long odds of success.

Resse’s TED talk reminded me of this quote:

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand,” he tells his children. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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Inspiration to keep trying

| January 30, 2013 | 1 Reply

Things weren’t easy for the Beatles in the beginning, and this article (and video) make that clear. I find this to be inspirational–in the beginning of an endeavor, you often need to swallow your pride and just keep working at things. Many worthwhile projects are marathons, not sprints.  Further, the 10,000 hour rule will often be part of the process, you aren’t an expert at what you are trying to be, not at the very beginning.

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Why keep trying to clean up corrupt political systems?

| January 26, 2013 | 1 Reply

Why keep trying to clean up corrupt political systems? Glenn Greenwald offers this advice:

[O]ne indisputable lesson that history teaches is that any structures built by human beings – no matter how formidable or invulnerable they may seem – can be radically altered, or even torn down and replaced, by other human beings who tap into passions and find the right strategy. So resignation – defeatism – is always irrational and baseless, even when it’s tempting.

I think the power of ideas is often underrated. Convincing fellow citizens to see and care about the problems you see and finding ways to persuade them to act is crucial. So is a willingness to sacrifice. And to create new ways of activism, even ones that people look askance at, rather than being wedded to the approved conventional means of political change (the ballot box).

For reasons I alluded to above, putting fear (back) in the heart of those who wield power in the public and private sector is, to me, the key goal. A power elite that operates without fear of those over whom power is exercised is one that will be limitlessly corrupt and abusive.

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Haven’t you ever read . . . ?

| December 19, 2011 | 9 Replies
Haven’t you ever read . . . ?

I am often asked whether I’ve read a particular book, and I usually haven’t because there are a gazillion new books published every year. Here’s what I say: “No, I haven’t read THAT book. Thank you for your suggestion.” Here’s what I think: Please quit acting as though I haven’t been doing any serious reading just because I haven’t read the book that YOU just told me to read.

For the past 20 years, I have been on a quest to grasp a somewhat detailed understanding of human animals. This has been a rather intense pursuit, jump-started (for about 5 years beginning in 2006) by my auditing of more than 30 hours of graduate level cognitive science courses at nearby Washington University in St. Louis. During the past 20 years, I have read almost entirely non-fiction, and I’ve been rather careful to limit my topics mostly to the topics represented by the books below. Recently, I decided to inventory what I have been reading. I’m not entirely sure why I did this. Perhaps it is because the end of the year is approaching, which tends to be a time for reflection regarding who we are and where we are headed. What better way for a writer to determine his direction based upon the books he has especially admired for the past two decades?

Thus I took an inventory of the non-fiction books I have read that have significantly influenced me. I tend to make many notes on the books I own (I haven’t started into electronic books yet), and I retain them in my “library,” which is actually a storage room that contain lots of other household items. Yesterday, I ventured into my library with the intent of documenting the books that have especially impressed and challenged me. I ended up selecting less than 20% of the books I own for this honor. What follows below is a list of such books, all of which I have read over the past 20 years.

It is not a perfect list. I am sure that there are many dozens of other books that I have overlooked. I probably own 500 books that I have only browsed so far, or not even begun, yet look promising. I’m more and more convinced that I will never read most of my unread books unless I win the lottery and retire. I try to not keep a steady course, though my quest seems hopeless. I’m reminded of this hopelessness every time I stumble on a pile of 30 unread and partially read books by the side of my bed.

In my list below, I have only included those books that I have actually read. I would highly recommend any of them. I have not included in many other books I have read that I would consider merely been useful or “good.” As I made my list, it occurred to me that I have been greatly influenced by more than books. I have read far more pages of online or in paper magazine articles than book pages. More recently, I’ve been impressed by many video and in-person presentations/lectures. I have also corresponded with many people over the years on these topics, including many of the authors of the books in my list. I’ve poured immense time into my reading and writing. It surprised me how much material I have reviewed in 20 years, considering that I also have a day job as a consumer lawyer and also try to spend time with my family.

It occurs to me that I am extremely lucky to be living in a time and place where I can benefit from so many incredible ideas developed be others. Each of these authors spends his or her entire life working hard, and then I simply scoop up the their life’s work by investing a mere day or two or reading. I have mentioned many of these books and authors in the five years that I’ve been writing at this website; I find that writing comments about these book helps me to absorb the material better.

It also occurs to me that I would not be at all who I am had I not seriously read the books in my list. I make reference to many of these ideas many times each day. To the extent that I have been able to come up with interesting ideas, it is quite likely that “my” ideas came, directly or indirectly, from these books, and that I am thus standing on the shoulders of giants (there I go again with the borrowing). Without further ado, here many of my favorite non-fiction books, broken into a few general categories:

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Jeffrey Sachs describes his support for the Occupy movements

| October 17, 2011 | Reply
Jeffrey Sachs describes his support for the Occupy movements

Jeffrey Sachs recently appeared at an Occupy Wall Street protest and explained that there are still “normal” countries where companies merely do business and they don’t try to run the government.  That is what we need here in the United States, and Sachs believes that the People can take back their government. He has much else to say on sustainable living, media, corporate misinformation, campaign finance reform, warmongering, the top 99%, typical folks who are unwittingly doing the bidding of billionaires, candidates who need to swear off big money, and the fact that big money has thoroughly Barack Obama.  Sachs has just written a new book: The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity.

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For one Republican, reason prevails.

| August 5, 2011 | Reply
For one Republican, reason prevails.

I’m sorry to say that this reasonable approach to Muslims shown by Jersey Governor Chris Christie (i.e., the lack of bigotry) is all too rare among Republicans. Lawrence O’Donnell reports:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Christie’s words shouldn’t be inspirational, but they are in this climate of Republican bigotry.

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Ira Glass and the taste-ability gap.

| June 13, 2011 | 3 Replies
Ira Glass and the taste-ability gap.

Creation is daunting. Partly because the drive to create is always rooted in admiration for others’ creations. What writer hasn’t struggled against inadvertently ghost-writing their favorite author? What aspiring auteur, poet, or painter doesn’t begin with work that is heartrendingly derivative of others’ better attempts? Or worse– what creative person hasn’t struggled to make something ‘great’, something ‘great’ as the art they adore, only to find they can’t quite compete? And who doesn’t infer from these failings that maybe they weren’t cut out to be a creative type after all?

Ira Glass, creator and longtime host of This American Life, says there’s a very simple reason for the head-bashing frustrations of early creative production. Simply put: if you are interested in creating something, it’s probably because you have immaculate taste. Taste that outpaces your own ability. At least, at first. Glass says:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I found this snippet in a video interview with Glass (below) a year or two ago, and I find it incredibly inspiring. Glass’ view of creativity suggests that even if you lack innate, immediate creative ability, you are not a lost cause– and that, in fact, a little creative self-loathing may be a sign of good aesthetic instincts. It also suggests there is a solution to the problem of making unsatisfying dreck: just keep making more. And more. And more.

This wisdom is especially powerful in context. As a radio producer, Glass was a very late bloomer. He worked in public radio for twenty years before conceiving of This American Life; he readily admits (in another portion of his interview, and on his program) that the first seven years of his radio work was deeply underwhelming and often poorly-paced.  He’ll readily admit that his early stories were bad, and that even he knew they were bad, and that this tormented him. Only through tireless efforts and the cultivation of exceptional taste was he able to develop and bloom. And he bloomed big:  This American Life is one of the most widely-heard public radio programs ever, with 1.7 million weekly listeners, and has topped the Itunes podcast chart continuously for years. If Ira had given up after a few years of shoddy radio stories, we’d all have missed out on TAL’s  hundreds of hours of thoughtful, poignant, high-quality public radio.

I found this interview snippet a little over a year ago, and Glass’ words of experience have galvanized me ever since. Whenever I write something that strikes me as uninspiring or derivative dreck, I reassure myself it’s a matter of taste, and time. And more time.

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