Brain food

Growing up, I heard the term “brain food” bandied about as if to say certain foods would improve cognitive function and make me smarter. Somewhere along the way, popcorn was believed to be a brain food. Whether or not popcorn is biochemically beneficial for thinking ability isn’t really the subject of my post today (though I would argue that dousing it in butter and salt then setting mindlessly in front of a movie isn’t exactly intellectual stimulation). In fact, what we call brain food is really just what we need to perform up to par rather than excel. For the past ten days off from this blog I’ve been engaging in real brain food- writing a daily letter to my wife back home, journaling, and reading lots of books.

Daily writing has proven to be good exercise not just for my penmanship, but my imagination. One hopes love letters never get stale, but there’s still the motivation to try and keep each letter unique and interesting; it becomes an exercise in creativity to constantly come up with a new idea or angle on “I love you” to write home. Some days I resort to using the letter as a journal about the day’s events. [I've also finally begun to write in my actual journal about my thoughts and observations here in Afghanistan. Alas, these have a slim chance of ever being published on the blog due to OPSEC. Nothing classified gets written down, it's just... personal.] But other days, the Groundhog Days, a little more creativity is required. [Sweetheart, quit reading the rest of this paragraph unless you want mild spoilers about letters still winging their way home to you in the mail.] Some of my proudest ideas and missives home have come from defying convention of the letter home and penning my own poem to her about our life and courtship, or deciding to poorly illustrate a story using stick figures and overt comedy. These breaks from the typical letter are remarkably refreshing as the author because they remind me that the only limitations being imposed are that of the paper’s dimensions and my own imagination. The sky isn’t the limit when you’re writing- you can sail right past atmospheric limitations. What goes down on the paper is a new world to be crafted with no rules but those set by its creator.

Which brings me in an unexpected fashion to discussing one of the books I’m reading, actually. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, basis of the Coen brothers’ 2007 film of the same name, is like nothing I’ve ever read before. In some ways I’m glad I saw the movie first because the book is so unlike any other leisure reading that I could imagine having trouble constructing its tone in my mind. Having Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in my head for Sheriff Bell’s narration doesn’t hurt, either. But another startling realization for me is that whether by McCarthy’s artistic choice or a product of poor e-book transcribing there are no quotation marks signifying any of the dialog. Conversations still happen, but there are no defining queues establishing its rhythm. There’s very little in the way of punctuation at all, actually. The language is steeped in ruralization or capturing the dialect of the region and time, much like reading Mark Twain. And there are run-on sentences galore as McCarthy describes the actions of Llewelyn Moss, using “and” four or five times to stretch small actions into one longer process. I haven’t noticed this in the passages describing Anton Chigurh and I can only assume McCarthy does this as if writing in deference to the character. It’s fascinating and effective at making me pay much closer attention the words used in deducing the action, rather than “coasting” through with punctuation as my guide.

I accidentally left my kindle [left lowercase a la the logo] back in the tent tonight, and I can’t recall an exhaustive list of everything I’ve read from memory. Among them was The 4-Hour Body (interesting, scientifically based, and fun to read), Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (just scratched the surface so far, since philosophy truly requires study to absorb), Rich Dad, Poor Dad (which has me thinking about saving and investing in a whole new light), and finally what I think might be the most interesting book of them all, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea.

Fea does something really interesting in this book: he actually looks for the answer to the question and even questions the question itself, rather than cherry-picking examples of text to support his own predetermined conclusion. The result is one that Daniel Walker Howe was quite right in describing as “a scrupulous presentation of evidence that may surprise people on both sides of this hot topic.” Fea truly comes across as having no agenda at all, but simply presenting the evidence of both arguments and, as such, much more honestly than so many other voices in the debate. I’ve only read the preface, introduction and Chapter 1 so far, but already it is like a breath of fresh air without any axe to grind or “fisking” and skewering of others’ work (though that may come later). The narrative is clear and easy reading, with the establishment of the time and cultural climate done well. Expect more updates on this book.

Some of what chapter one makes stand out in my mind is that the United States were not formed as a Christian nation as a de jure standard (not du jour), but as a de facto existence owing to the overwhelmingly Christian population. Christ and Christianity are mentioned precisely nowhere in any of our government’s founding documents, and yet plentifully abound culturally at the time in personal correspondence and around our framing documents. Most interesting is the example of the American Civil War, where both sides firmly believed they were on the side of angels while the other was atheistic and hell-bound. (The Confederate states even had God directly written into their constitution.) Looking at it from a historical point of view, one can even see the origins or similarities to today’s “Bible belt” South and New England liberal elitist stereotypes. What seems very clear already is that the question and the answer are much more complicated than the simple black/white answers sought or used for political posturing.

Both the North and the South interpreted the Bible and their view of history to how they saw fit in order to compliment their lives. This is probably not so different than what people have always done, or what happens today (on both sides of the issue). The truth is, we’re discussing real people who lived back then and had stories to tell, circumstances to live through, and events shape their lives. How accurate would it be for somebody else to tell your story after you’re dead and gone and simply peg you as “this” or “that” with no further dimension to who you are? This is what Fea avoids, because hinging the argument of America’s founding as a Christian nation is too deep a subject to simply declare that “the documents prove we’re secular” or “the culture proves we’re Christian” and never the twain shall meet. The truth, and the story, is nuanced just like the people who wove it.

One of my favorite podcasts is Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, and one of the things he says is that you can predictably see a trend in historians’ accounting of an event over time. First there will be an overwhelming trend to portray the event or time period in a certain light, and this can be either positive or negative. But as time passes, it becomes more fashionable for the historians to become contrarian to the previously established history and begin to portray the event in a completely different light which, relative to my last sentence, would now be either negative or positive, respectively. Eventually, as enough time passes, cooler heads (perhaps further removed from the circumstances) begin to discern the truth that lies somewhere in the middle as they empathize with both sides while taking neither. So far, it seems like this is what Fea has done, and I can’t wait to read more. It’s early in the book for me to be recommending it, I know, but it seems like something both the pious and the secular need to read for a little bit better understanding.

Like I said earlier, expect an update as I read more. At only 246 pages (excluding notes and references), it should be a quick read.

1,000 words a day

In his wonderful book On Writing, Stephen King advocates any writer to discipline themselves and jot down at least that much daily. When I look at the infrequency with which I’ve been posting lately, I think it’s clear that I don’t self-identify as a writer. However, some of my friends consider me to be one, and part of me wants to buy an iPad based almost exclusively on the Writer app. Whether that’s my desire to communicate ideas through the written word or my appreciation for good design, I’m not sure.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a writer, but my goal has always been more that of a raconteur. Like Garrison Keillor or Kinky Friedman or possibly the greatest of them all, the little-known Sam Clemens. I like to entertain. I like to educate, or at the very least stimulate some thought or discussion. I have no desire to publish a novel, as I don’t really have any stories of that length to tell. Publishing a coffee table or waiting room book, with a new short and clever thought on each page would fine by me. And I very much love talking about really big, heated topics like politics and religion in frank but good-natured way.

There was a time where I would have considered myself as right-wing as could be. I still lean heavily to the political right, but I consider my positions more carefully and with reason now. And it largely happened because through circumstance I found myself on a date with a woman that was reasonable, politically liberal, and a brilliant conversationalist. Oh, and the circumstance was that she was gorgeous and I was a young man with all the motivations that accompany youth.

The point is this: over a few Coronas and the largest plate of nachos Maricopa county has to offer, people can come to common understandings if they’ll talk things out and quit calling each other names. The single biggest reason I want to punch Bob Beckel in the mouth has nothing to do with his political beliefs, but because he’s a snide, smarmy son of a bitch. But if we could get away from the bullet points, bumper sticker arguments about issues, and time constraints of a spot on a television news show… If all the name-calling were to be dropped, or if people could set aside their passions for just a short while and talk through why they were insulted and come to a common understanding of terminology… If Bob and I could have a few Coronas and a massive plate of nachos, I’d like to think we could both leave that table with his teeth still intact.

Now, this is just in relation to American politics. And there are two truths that simply have to be lived with. The first is that you can’t negotiate with everybody all the time. The second is that American television is all politically slanted and I believe the public is manipulated into passionate fighting over red herrings.

You can’t negotiate with everybody all the time. I’m going to start a fight here, but I don’t care. People who believe unequivocally that all problems can always be discussed into resolution are, in the medical sense, idiots. While well-intentioned, they forget that real discussion requires both parties be rational and willing. This is the all-too-common of projection; thinking, “I can discuss this calmly, so they must be able to as well.” This is what leads to political correctness, and bumper stickers that tell us to “coexist” in a stylized fashion. Because it’s a religion of peace that flies planes into buildings and saws off the heads of innocent civilians. Because it’s a benevolent government that would imprison it’s own population. There is such a thing as evil in the world, and no amount of rational talk will keep it at bay. Monsters must be fought and defeated, or they will surely consume us all.

We’re manipulated into believing who is or isn’t a monster. Even Michael Moore can be correct from time to time. In Bowling for Columbine he comments on the news media in America and the constant fear-mongering. “Coming up after the commercial break: what you don’t know just might kill you!!!” The hype machine we live with as Americans is ridiculous and ever-present. Constantly telling us that this is a threat, or that isn’t, and by all that is Holy the future of mankind hinges on the upcoming issue. Because we’ve seen monsters in the past. We know they’re real. Now we just have to figure out if we’re really being told about a monster, or if it’s tales about the boogeyman to frighten us into acting like the storyteller desires.

How many on the left truly believe the Tea Party movement is nothing but a bunch of racists that hate Obama? How many on the right believe that Occupy is nothing but a bunch of homeless hippies demanding Socialism and freebies from the government? (For the record, I do think most Occupiers are Socialist idiots despite it’s repeated historical failures but I also agree that CEO bonus packages in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and US Gov’t bailouts were criminal.)

And maybe this is the best example. Here we have two distinct camps, both making news, and roughly over the same issue: money. Tea Partiers really just believe that a person is entitled to what they earn. While the Occupy message may have started out with good intent, it’s now seen believing they’re entitled to what somebody else earns (which is theft). Occupy lost me because of the 99 vs 1 percent argument, and truly devolved into drum circles and hippies. If they’d have stayed on-message about theft and crooked dealing of specific CEOs and companies, they’d have won a lot more people over. But instead it became Beckelesque bomb throwing about “evil corporations” and “we are the 99%”. It’s a clever bit of marketing, succinct and memorable. The problem is it fundamentally strips away the idea of being able to elevate oneself through hard work to a better financial standing, and instead comes across as Winston Churchill’s view of Socialism: a philosophy of failure, gospel of envy, and equal sharing of misery. Occupiers message becomes one of preferring to tear down the successful. In contrast, the Tea Partiers want less government intrusion and state-sponsored theft in the form of income taxation. (Right now I lose 35-40% of my paycheck to taxes.) This is on top of the taxes we all pay for property, telephone bills, taxes included in the price of gasoline, tobacco and alcohol, your vehicle registration… The list goes on and on. Services like roads, sewage and electricity are services we already pay for: they are NOT provided for by income taxes as Tea Party detractors would have you believe. But the Tea Party had the unfortunate timing of forming after the election of America’s first, and long-overdue, non-caucasian President when their message was just as applicable decades earlier.

I know my summary of the two camps wasn’t equitable, but this is my blog, my lens, and my point remains this: Both of these ideologically opposed groups fundamentally want the same goal, which is a little bit more money in the hands of the everyday Joe. The problem lies in the methods and words used, and the retelling of the story by the news media. I wonder what would happen if we could get both sides to calm down, talk rationally instead of emotionally, and share some beer and nachos.

In pursuit of excellence

Below is the original intent of this post, written weeks ago (18 Dec 2011) but left as a draft. After lots of thought, I have to abandon it for now because it’s simply too big a thought for me to commit to just one post. Instead, I’m going to just muse on what excellence is with the intention of re-visiting the original question at a later time.

Did Christianity inspire excellence?

This is a notion my Mom has brought up in the past. While she has some good points, I’m not one for spiritual reasoning. I’ve known too many people who’ve claimed something was God’s will in order to make their belief some kind of incontestable dictate. But if something is true then it can be proven and observed. Arcane and esoteric mysticism has no place here, because if we’re looking for root causes of what makes one nation or culture more productive or successful than another: a) we have to define what the measuring standards for success are, and b) they have to be fair, impartial, and mean something that can be agreed upon by reason.

My thinking says we can analyze whether or not Christianity has had an impact either positive or negative on a culture- but not if the absence of Christianity was beneficial or detrimental until and unless the former is established. We can’t confuse correlation for causation. I’m no scientist, just some guy wondering aloud and trying to think about this critically. So, boring set-up out of the way, let’s dive in!

At this point I was going to list off some old cliches and look at their roots. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”, for example. But for the post to really take shape, we have to first define what we mean by excellence. And that in itself is no small task.

Merriam-Webster defines excellence as the quality of being excellent, which is in turn is defined as “1 archaic : superior; 2 : very good of it’s kind : eminently good.” At the risk of aping Hank Reardon in Atlas Shrugged, now we have to define “good”. This one gets a little more… philosophical. Bear with me.

Good, adj. 1 a (1): of a favorable character or tendency; b (1) : suitable, fit; (4) : commercially sound; (5) that can be relied on; (6) profitable, advantageous; c (1) : agreeable, pleasant; e (1) : well-founded, cogent; 2 c : competent, skillful

These are just some of the definitions, and it very quickly becomes apparent that “good” can then be a subjective term dependent on society’s judgment. It can be a noun, adverb or adjective. It can be used as faint praise, calling something good but not excellent. It can be evidence, when one “has the goods” on somebody. And because the word is so malleable it made me realize something: a thing can be good in one time and place, but no good in another. The thing that is judged to be good or not is just as dependent on the surroundings and circumstance as the defining word is on the society casting judgment. So what is good, and therefore what is excellent, is a moral judgment.

I know, this is starting to get into crazy town relativistic talk, but sit tight because it’s not in my nature to let something be ambiguous after going to the trouble of defining it. Definition is, by nature, the antithesis of ambiguity. As I’m typing this paragraph it occurred to me that the scope of what I’m trying to analyze is still too big. Now I’m asking, “What is good?” But I think I’m focused on the wrong part of the question. Rather than try to nail down an absolute definition of “good” or “excellent”, let’s accept that those are terms used in context and instead focus on the “what” of the question. Or, in other words, is a thing good by virtue of it’s own qualities or by the work put into it by its creator?

I like this theory better, because it can be applied in so many ways. The watch on my wrist or the stitching in the leather seat of a Rolls-Royce are just elements that don’t achieve anything unless put into place by a craftsman. If I were given the same ingredients as a master chef, my soup would not be as excellent because it is dependent upon the creator’s knowledge and work. This also fits with my earlier thought that excellence is a moral judgment or virtue.

So, excellence is up to us as an individual, and is dependent upon context and surrounding. I may excel and be in the top 2% in one school, but moved to another school my exact same performance may become sub-standard. At this point I finally feel comfortable positing three things about excellence: people create excellence, it is judged or proven in an environment of testing or competition, and it is a virtue deriving from one’s desire to do their best.

Standing water in an open roadside drain.

The too-large question I’m trying to wrap my head around or answer now is: what drives or fosters a culture of excellence? Conversely, what allows a people to simply accept the shoddy state of things? Is it a culture as a whole, or do societies get moved by small amounts of motivated people, and certain countries have been blessed to have a few more of these than others? It’s easy for me to puzzle over the way they do business here, where stores sell cigarettes but no lighters, or blades but no razor in which to use them. It’s downright maddening to see such poor thinking! What business couldn’t see the simple additional source of revenue they’re missing out on? Is it stupidity (as I first accused them of), or is it just a complete lack of drive, ambition, and care? Clearly, it is not an excellent store because the employees don’t work at it to my satisfaction, neither as a customer or if I were their employer. But it is apparently acceptable (or good) here. Why does one culture develop the internet and usher in a completely new means of productivity and commerce while another fails to grasp basic hygiene, cleanliness, and application of resources?

Rather than conceal the water (and smell) they just build small bridges where vehicles cross.

I don’t think it’s out of line to mention at this point the potential for Capitalism vs. Socialism in societal development. The Seychelles are overwhelmingly socialist and the shacks they live in and poor state of their cars remind me of the dilapidation and poor build quality of vehicles in the USSR.

At this point it would be very easy to just begin ripping on the Seychelles, Africa, and any number of other unfair assumptions- but that’s not my purpose and getting distracted down that road is… A false argument, I guess. There are nincompoops in America that bolt cheap “wings” and loud exhausts onto a 1983 Toyota. Stupidity and shoddy workmanship are not anyone’s exclusive domain. But I do retain my belief that it is a question of culture. Maybe I should define that next, while I’m still thinking/typing as I go…

So now we’ve covered excellence, and even gone on to compare/contrast some examples of it. And while I’ve yet to see examples of excellence here in the Seychelles, the fact is there are also cultures of failure around the globe as well. From the “cool kids” in an American high school that pick on the kids with good grades, to the Occupy knuckleheads  that would rather strip somebody else of wealth rather than earn their own. Cultures of failure are all too easy to find examples of. But if we accept all these premises as true, can we go back to the original question and say Christianity has some bearing on personal drive, work ethic, and the pursuit of excellence?

My belief is that we can observe some correlation between Christianity and excellence, but we cannot claim causation. As a matter of fact, if we introduce religion into the discussion it just becomes too passionate, large, and unwieldy an issue to discuss in anything less than a book format. There are just too many factors to cover, and miles of groundwork to lay as a foundation for any arguments or findings. But here are my bullet points for why I believe what I do.

  1. Germany, England, Italy, France, and United States all have had either deep religious roots related to Christianity, or well documented periods of great “revival”. Coincidentally, they are mostly productive nations with easily discoverable examples of excellence to be found.
  2. Islam has provided no benefit whatsoever to the world at large in almost 800 years, and it has been argued the Islamic Golden Age was chiefly one of transmission of ideas and knowledge from the Greeks before them. It has been a violent, aggressive culture to those outside its ranks- oppressing women and discouraging education. The famed Palm Jumereirah, World islands, and Burj al Arab hotel were all engineered by non-Muslim Europeans.
  3. Judaism in the last century has arguably been the corollary of more excellence than either Christianity or Islam combined.
  4. Japan. Mostly Buddhist or Shinto, with a 2005 report stating 70% are atheist. Less than one percent of Japan’s population is Christian. And yet there may be no other culture as noted for it’s drive to excellence. From the pursuit of honor publicized in tales of the samurai, to their current world-leading positions in youth education, science and technology development, the great care and precision in their art… That tiny island is the world’s 3rd largest economy and they have a functional space exploration program. With a culture like “The Toyota Way“, the Japanese exude excellence and demolish the notion that excellence originates in Christianity.

Even with all that said, it’s impossible for me to discount America’s rich history of inventors and innovators. Ben Franklin, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in more modern day examples. But is history indicative of our performance as a nation today? Is innovation a cousin of excellence? The correlation of religion and excellence still intrigues me, as well as my question that remains unanswered: what is it that creates a culture of excellence? It’s a bigger question than I realized, and unlikely that there will be one answer to ring out as the most correct. But it’s still worth thinking about.

Now, a far easier question to end with. If you, dear reader, are honest with yourself: do you pursue excellence?