Alexander the Exceptional

It’s been a while since I posted about my reading because of my son’s birth and all the complexities that come with a newborn. However, there is no need to panic because I am still keeping up with my daily page goals. My current project is Tackle the Library – Aristotle – the completion date is scheduled for June 12th. Aristotle is the peanut butter to the jelly of Plato – both philosophers form the bedrock of Western thought. To better understand Aristotle, it is essential to decipher his teachings within the context of ancient culture. One way of understanding that context was through my most recent book – Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. Alexander the Great was the student of Aristotle for three years, and during that time he learned about medicine, philosophy, morals, religion, logic, and art; a breadth of study that led him to be one of the greatest kings of all time.

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Alexander was born in 356 BC to the then Macedonian ruler, King Philip. Macedonia was a northern state of the Greek peninsula and was looked down upon by the more cultured city of Athens. King Philip expanded his territory through an advanced fighting force and paved the way for his son’s conquests. Alexander took over the throne at age 20 after his father was assassinated by a jealous male lover. The young king quickly consolidated his control of Greece and went eastward to conquer the hated Persians. Over the next ten years, Alexander traveled 11,000 miles and established the largest empire up until that point in history; at only 30 years old, he ruled the entire world from Egypt to India.

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All good things must come to an end – at 32, Alexander mysteriously died; some say it was poison while others say it was from natural illness. The death of Alexander led to the eventual decline of the Macedonian empire. Aristotle was eventually pushed out of Athenian society because of his former history with the great king. I marvel at the life of Alexander the Great because he was mature beyond his years. At 25, my average day entailed Facebook and TV. At 25, Alexander’s average day entailed riding a horse into battle and leading thousands of men to victory. I believe Aristotle played a vital role in the great king’s success; throughout Alexander’s campaign, he was concerned with the central tenets of Aristotle’s teachings: political justice, virtue, ethical leadership, and philosophical contemplation. Alexander’s success led to the founding of Alexandria in Egypt – the city became the epicenter of culture and intellectualism in the ancient world.

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For me, the story of Alexander and Aristotle points to one fundamental fact: Mentors and teachers make a big difference in a person’s life, no matter the age. I’m sure we can all think of that favorite teacher from long ago; my favorite teacher fostered a love of writing. What we must ask ourselves is whether we are a mentor in someone’s life right now? Are we passing the baton on to the next generation? Are we equipping our friends and family to live the best lives possible? How are we fostering the future Alexander the Great or even the next Alexander the Exceptional? Like the lighthouse of Alexandria and the great philosopher Aristotle, be a beacon of wisdom for the world.

 

An American Geisha

In one month Christina and I will be in the land of the rising sun – Japan. We will be visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima, Osaka, and Yakahana; all of this in 15 memorable and most likely exhausting days. Several city tours are scheduledalong with days for relaxation and days for cultural experiences. One of the most quintessential components of Japanese culture is the Geisha. When we are in Kyoto – the cultural center of Japan – Christina is going to get to experience what it is like to dress up like a geisha. She will get to pick out a kimono and wear the traditional white makeup and black wig. I almost even signed up for the “samurai” experiencebut thought $150 was overkill to hold a sword and wear a robe.

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It’s funny to see pictures of white tourists dressed as geishas – it’s like a culturally insensitive Halloween party. Even though it looks odd for a white woman to be a geisha, there was actually an American woman who entered this veiled world back in the 1970’s. Liza Dalby was the only foreigner ever to become a geisha, and she details her experience in the Nonfiction/Memoir-Geisha. Dalby became a geisha as an anthropologist researcher; she wanted to accurately understand and dispel the myths associated with this secretive world. If you ever go to Japanread this book because the world of a geisha is a microcosm of Japanese culture.

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The first geishas appeared in the 18th century and were actually male entertainers. Eventually, men were replaced by women and by the beginning of the 19th century, the job of a geisha was seen as a female occupation. Geishas were revered in society as fashion forward and socially influential, like we see celebrities today. The role of a geisha was to entertain male patrons through witty conversation, dancing, singing, and instrument playing. The white makeup that a geisha wears initially accentuated their expressions and performances in dimly lit rooms before the advent of electricity. As time went on, the geishas maintained their makeup and kimonos because their traditional look was a sacred treasure to a nostalgic Japan. Before WWII, it was common for rural families to sell their daughters to geisha houses. These young girls would apprentice for several years before mastering all the artistic skills of the profession.

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With modernization, this practice stopped and the geisha of today join the business in their 20’s – the artistic requirements are not as strenuous due to changing tastes of clientele. The geisha’s job is to provide men (sometimes women) with a relaxing atmosphere where they can laugh, discuss, and enjoy picturesque entertainments. Japanese culture is very different from western culture in respects to the role of the wife. Wives in Japan are seen as modest mothers who are masters of the house – interactions with husbands are usually more serious and formal. The role of the geisha is to provide the other side of femininity – gracefulness, joking, and innocent flirtation. Geisha are not prostitutes and rarely have sex with their patrons. Of course, geishas can have sex with their clients, but it would be like visiting a bar expecting to have sex with a bartender.

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Geishas usually live together in a tea house which is led by a “mother.” The mother is a retired geisha who trains, mentors, and organizes the various patron requests. The profession of a geisha can be lucrative and long lived for women in Japan – geishas can work for decades if they choose. Many Americans see the career of a geisha as demeaning towards women. In reality being a geisha in Japan allows women the rare opportunity to run their affairs and escape the restrictions associated with raising a family – when they interact with men they are respected to a much higher degree compared to other service jobs. Geishas are revered as talented artists, stewards of culture, and educated conversationalists.

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There is no equivalent occupation in America. An American style geisha would probably be a well-educated woman who lived in a sorority house and entertained (maybe with a fiddle) while wearing high quality “wild west” garb. Making comparisons is impossible, but it allows one to understand the true idiosyncrasies of the profession. While in Japan I want to see a geisha, and hopefully, we will witness some walking in the streets of Kyoto; it costs $450 per person as a tourist to be entertained by a geisha. I’ll just try to sneak a dance with Christina after her transformation 🙂

Animation Domination: The Creativity of Pixar

I remember watching classic Disney movies growing up like Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney in the 90’s was like Micheal Jordan in the 90’s-insanely awesome. What I really loved about the Disney movies growing up were the songs; I was a little weird fat kid who would sing these songs in my bedroom and pretend that I was in the school variety show. Anyways, as I got older, Disney started to move away from musicals and they really didn’t have any good animated films until just recently with The Princess and the Frog and Frozen. Thankfully, a movie company came about which filled this animation gap and provided us with a whole new set of characters to love. This company was Pixar Animation and to learn more about their unique history, I read Creativity, INC.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull.

Pixar began in 1979 as a special effects division of Lucasfilms after George Lucas’ huge success with Star Wars. Lucas wanted to push the field of special effects so he hired Ed Catmull, a PhD scientist, who was renowned for his advances in computer animation. Catmull was the president of Pixar from the beginning but Pixar was far different than the company we identify today. Back in the 80’s Pixar was best known for its computer hardware equipment and special effects. What would change Pixar’s history forever was George Lucas getting a divorce. Because of Lucas’ split, he had to sell off some of his subsidiary companies. Almost every industry kicked the tires of Pixar including General Motors who was very close to buying them. Enter Steve Jobs. Jobs would buy Pixar for 5 million dollars and he had the early vision of Pixar selling computer hardware across the country. After a dismal decade of sales and an infusion of over 50 million dollars by Jobs (to keep the company alive), Pixar gave up their hardware business. During the 80’s however, Pixar did side work providing special effects and animation for commercials and featured films. Pixar worked with Disney during this time and as a result Disney offered them a three featured-film contract. The business was so near to failure that Jobs was close to selling PIXAR to Microsoft in 1994-a year before the release of Toy Story. Well, Toy Story was a complete success and Pixar would go on to make 15 critically-acclaimed-feature films: Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University, and Inside Out. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for 7.4 billion dollars but it was maintained as a separate animation studio with Ed Catmull becoming president of both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios.

The story of Pixar is really amazing and Ed Catmull is extraordinary when it comes to fostering creativity. Catmull believes that the key to creativity is candor between all individuals involved in the film making process. Candor essentially means that people are not afraid to tell the truth and that they need to be open to constructive criticism. Pixar has regular meetings (called Braintrusts) where everyone is allowed to put in their opinion while knowing that no criticism is a personal attack but rather a means of making the project better. There is little emphasis on hierarchy at Pixar which allows for more open communication between animators, managers, directors, and producers. Catmull emphasizes throughout the book that failure is a necessity and a vital part of the creative process. When Pixar movies first start they simply suck and are nothing like the final product-however through multiple failures and criticisms the movie slowly gets better and better. This acceptance of failure and openness to input is something I believe all people struggle with. I want to continually better myself and to do this I must be willing to fail. It is the times that we fall and get back up that really define our own life story.

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My favorite Pixar movie is Inside Out and my favorite Pixar short is Lava (listen to the song below)

Beyond Intelligence

Are your kids smart or do they ride the short bus? I know that a lot of parents obsess over their children’s intelligence and get orgasms if they score in the 95th percentile on college entrance exams. If you have read some of my previous posts you may have a good understanding of my disdain for the modern-day school system. I am always curious of ways to better educate people so I picked up Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this book because it is poorly written and drove me crazy the entire time I was reading it. The authors reminded me of the girls in my old high school who always wrote more then they needed just to appear smarter (they also carried 5000 pencils in a special bag and would never lend me one). So how can you raise a productive-intelligent child? Well let’s throw out the idea that intelligence can be accurately measured by any one test or standard? There are actually nine major intelligence categories and it is almost impossible to find someone who scores high in all of them: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalistic, and existential. IQ tests only really look at the linguistic and logical-mathematical dimensions of intelligence. So the next time that one friend starts bragging about his high IQ you should punch him in the nuts and tell him that you have a 180 point IQ in the dimensions of spatial and bodily-kinesthetics.

If you or your kids suck at tests then don’t fret because tests are designed to look an infinitesimal fraction of what you know through a medium that may not be your preferred method of expression. For example, Annie is very creative and loves to draw pictures of Pokémon. Well, Annie doesn’t like taking tests and fails to see the point…she always gets poor scores and she feels crappy about herself afterwards. Guess what? Tests are only good at identifying kids who are good at tests. That’s it! The sad fact of this is that good test takers are many times put in accelerated programs while the other different “IQ” folks are left behind. This tracts people into thinking they are smart, mediocre, or stupid. The main point I took from this book is that you shouldn’t say your kid are stupid or smart. You should push them academically through avenues that they are interested in. If Annie loves drawing be creative and incorporate that love into artistic lessons on geometry, geography, geology, genetics, etc. The key here is that children, adolescents, and adults should always pursue their curiosity. Curiosity is the spring well of learning and is really one of the key elements to what makes us human. This quote from Albert Einstein says it well, “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” Curiosity is what fuels my passion for reading non-fiction and traveling to new places. Don’t worry about test scores or intelligence; rather focus on learning for the sake of scratching the curiosity itch. Go out, encourage, love each other’s differences, stay positive, and appreciate that you are a uniquely-intelligent-wonderful human being.