RSSCategory: Inspirational

Haven’t you ever read . . . ?

December 19, 2011 | By | 9 Replies More
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 | By | Reply More
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 | By | Reply More
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 | By | 3 Replies More
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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What to feel humble? Consider the ultra-deep field in 3D

February 12, 2011 | By | Reply More
What to feel humble?  Consider the ultra-deep field in 3D

My favorite line in this short video discussing deep field images: These images are all contained in an area as big as a grain of sand at arm’s length.

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Things I don’t have to think about…

October 18, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Things I don’t have to think about…

From Whatever.

“Today I don’t have to think about those who hear “terrorist” when I speak my faith.
Today I don’t have to think about men who don’t believe no means no.
Today I don’t have to think about how the world is made for people who move differently than I do.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m married, depending on what state I’m in.
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m going to hail a cab past midnight.”

“Today I don’t have to think about whether store security is tailing me.
Today I don’t have to think about the look on the face of the person about to sit next to me on a plane.
Today I don’t have to think about eyes going to my chest first.
Today I don’t have to think about what people might think if they knew the medicines I took.
Today I don’t have to think about getting kicked out of a mall when I kiss my beloved hello.”

“Today I don’t have to think about if it’s safe to hold my beloved’s hand.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m being pulled over for anything other than speeding.
Today I don’t have to think about being classified as one of “those people.”
Today I don’t have to think about making less than someone else for the same job at the same place.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who stare, or the people who pretend I don’t exist.”

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Incident On A Country Road

April 30, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Incident On A Country Road

Yesterday, April 29th, I witnessed people being great.

Returning along Highway 50 from Jefferson City Missouri, I was passing through Osage County when I spotted a dumped motorcycle to my left. The bike—a newish gold something-or-other—lay on its side, trailing a scatter of broken parts back to a man who was on knees and elbows, clearly hurt.

A FedEx truck was ahead of my. I pulled over just behind it. A house was directly across the two-lane from us. People were in the yard. The FedEx driver sprinted to the house to tell the folks about the accident. I ran toward the man.

By the time I reached him two more cars had stopped and a group of people converged on him. He had gotten to the grass and rolled over. A bloody mess, at first glance he looked in very bad shape. He was still wearing his helmet, moaning and trying, ineffectively, to take it off. He kept saying “I can’t breathe…”

An older man had his cell phone out, dialing 911. A woman, who seemed to have some training, possibly a nurse, helped him unstrap the helmet and pull it gently off, whereupon he lay on his back, legs pulled up, arms sort of help up, covered in blood. The “nurse” cautioned him not to move. Someone else had brought a plastic sheet, which she directed a couple people to hold above him to shield his head from the sun.

I started asking questions—”Can you feel everything?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “everything hurts.”

“No tingling?” No. “Open your eyes and look at me.” His pupils looked normal, but that’s not always a reliable telltale.

“Oh, I didn’t hit my head,” he said. “Everything else, but not my head.”

I looked at his helmet. “Your helmet says otherwise,” I told him. Half of it was badly dented and scraped all along the faceplate.

“What happened?” someone else asked.

“I think a blow-out,” he said. “I tried to hang onto it and slow it down…”

I went over to the bike. By now about eight people were there, two semis parked along the highway. One man was doing a good job of directing traffic through the momentarily constricted access. More cell phones were out.

The debris appeared to be all peripherals—mirrors, plastic molding, packs of cigarettes, a cassette tape, mangled sunglasses. The rear tire was missing a long chunk of tread where it had blown. He was lucky in that it was the rear tire. If the front had blown he would have lost it immediately, at sixty-plus miles per hour, but there were no skid marks. He’d managed to slow it down a lot before it dumped and he’d dumped it on the shoulder.

When I returned to tell him this, ambulances were on the way. He was laying on a rock and wanted to move off of it, but everyone kept him in place, not knowing what else might be broken. He was coherent. He was a good rider, evidently, and had controlled the spill marvelously from what I could see.

The ambulance arrived, along with a truck from the local fire department. The crow began to disperse. As one of the trucks started rolling, the driver tossed the man directing traffic one of those bright orange and yellow safety vests.

With nothing more to do (and having done almost nothing anyway) I took my leave. Traffic was slowed and obeying what I now saw were two men, one on each side of the slight hill where all this was occurring, directing. Those who had done whatever they could have and no longer needed to be there were starting their vehicles and moving out in an orderly manner.

All those people had seemed to appear out of nowhere, and very fast, and just did this thing. They helped, if only by being willing to stop. It felt very good to be a human just then.

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JK Rowling discusses the “fringe benefits of failure”

February 10, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
JK Rowling discusses the “fringe benefits of failure”

In June 2008, J.K. Rowling gave this delightful and insightful commencement speech recognizing the upside of failure.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

How is failure essential? Rowling told the audience that it “strips away the unessential” and sets us free to see what really matters. Rock bottom can become “a solid foundation.” In fact, she urged that it is “impossible to live without failing at something.”

Rowling’s 20-minute talk is filled with nuggets of wisdom, and illustrated with stories about people with the courage to freely think and act, as well as those who dared to value empathy more than “rubies.”

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Glorious colors wash over Sydney –

June 1, 2009 | By | Reply More
Glorious colors wash over Sydney –

Wow. I am so wishing I could hop a plane to Australia right now – and not just to visit Hank. Check out these photos of the light show currently on display in Sydney. What a beautiful artistic expression!

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