Theodore is 5 Months Old

It’s odd to think that five months ago, I was holding my wife’s hand while a large mass of hair exploded out of her nether regions. Theodore still has his head full of hair but has gained so much more ever since that fateful winter day. He is now rolling over regularly – from his right side but not his left – and spends a considerable amount of time on his stomach. While on his stomach, he tries to worm his way across the floor in a manner akin to a sprinting Jabba the Hut. Each time a new person comes into the room, he smiles and welcomes them with a gift of regurgitated milk. The spit up is relentless, and we probably go through five outfits a day. Just the other week, Teddy looked into my eyes and pooped for 30 seconds straight; a connection of intimacy that I never thought was possible. My reading and writing have gone down significantly because we watch ESPN for most of the day. Why ESPN? When Teddy takes a nap, he needs background noise to stay asleep. Music never seemed to work, and so the TV provides his auditory stimulus. I can’t stand The View or any type of syndicated news – hence, we watch people argue about the NBA Finals all day long. I enjoy sports, but my knowledge of current events in the realm of athletics has reached an expert level; I can tell you the merits of Lebron staying in LA, the poor draft choice of the New York Giants, and even the prospects of Tiger winning another Major. I try to juxtapose ESPN with audiobooks so Teddy can have some variety; we just finished a biography of John Muir and are now tackling Vanity Fair.

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Christina is pretty well back to the groove of work – however, I chauffeur Teddy to her office regularly so she can smell his head. My biggest takeaway at five months is that Teddy can laugh. He doesn’t laugh often, but when he does, it is a magical experience. He is ticklish under his armpits and if you are ever so subtle…a small giggle will squeak out. In addition to the rare chuckle, we have reached the milestone of feeding him some solid food. His first ever sampling was mashed up banana – his mouth and face enjoyed it thoroughly. I grew up in a family where love was given through food – suffice to say I am excited to plump up this skinny Asian-baby. Speaking of weight, he is a sprightly 15 and a half pounds and is in the 33rd percentile in his size charts. I’m looking forward to the summer and taking him to the beach – we bought him a hat that will attract all the ladies. He has a lot of energy, and I believe he will be crawling within the next couple of months; this will be both a blessing and a curse because it will expend some of his energy but use up most of mine. I can’t say that I would want to go back to that day in January when “Cousin It” came out of my wife. The more Teddy grows and develops, the more I enjoy him – the baby phase is great and all but by no means I want him to stay this way forever. Here’s to the five-month point of the most tiring and fantastic year of my life.

PS – Here is a list of his current nicknames for posterity

Milk Man
Baked Potato 
Don Corleone
Brown Eyed Squirrel
Tweedy Bird
Hair Piece
Grumpy McGrumperson

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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.

 

Literature vs. Netflix

I am still trudging along with my goal of reading all 1,300 Penguin Classics. The past couple days I have been discouraged with the journey, and I started to question as to why I was taking on the behemoth. Why should I read the classics when there are so many great modern books? Why should I waste my time with fiction when there is so much nonfiction? Why should I read at all when there is Netflix? These questions are bombarding me because of my current book – Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Les Misérables is the longest classic ever written at over 500,000 words – this blog post is only 500 words. I am actually listening to it via a 7 part audiobook with Christina – I couldn’t pronounce all the French words and having a narrator prevents us from skimming. The length of Les Mis got me discouraged and made me question whether I wanted to accomplish my classics goal.

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Something strange happened this week that totally changed my outlook. One of my favorite modern philosophers is Nassim Nicholas Taleb – I am currently reading his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. This book is about skeptical empiricism and the idea that what we “don’t know” is more important then what we “do know.” I wasn’t expecting anything related to the classics in Taleb’s book – but through the oddest coincidence – there was a whole chapter on the importance of classical literature. Taleb talked about a mathematical principle that predicts the lifespan of something based on its current age. For books, this means that the age of a book directly predicts how long it will be around into the future. A two-thousand-year-old book like The Iliad will most likely be around two thousand years from now compared to a book like Fifty Shades of Grey. Added to this is the idea of cultural selection. The world has seen billions of books – the ones that are still in print are the ones who transcend the average. This transcendence is due to the relationship between literature and the indescribable human experience. Taleb describes the concept below.

 … Fiction is a certain packaging of the truth, or higher truths. Indeed I find that there is more truth in Proust, albeit it is officially fictional, than in the babbling analyses of the New York Times that give us the illusions of understanding what’s going on. Newspapers have officially the right facts, but their interpretations are imaginary – and their choice of facts are arbitrary. They lie with right facts; a novelist says the truth with wrong facts…to me fiction is not about ideas. It is above ideas. I make a divide between the holy, the sacred, the mysterious, the unexplainable, the implicit, the aesthetic, the moral, and the ethical on one hand, and the empirical, the functional, the explainable, the logical, the true, and the proven on the other. In short, the Holy and the Empirical. Literature belongs to the holy. You can do fiction, nonfiction, a mixture, who cares. Literature is above the distinction. It is sacred.

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Reading this during my literature low point was an eerie experience, to say the least. So why should we read the classics over other books or TV shows?

  1. Time has put the classics through the ringer and readers keep coming back to them because of their profound personal impact. 
  2. They speak to the unspeakable. Something that facts or science will never be able to explain.
  3. They were written during a time before internet and incessant interruption. Ancient wisdom is not tainted by Facebook or an Echo Chamber. 

So I am back on track with my goal. Sorry for the weak moment and I hope this post will motivate you to try out a classic. I can honestly tell you that Les Misérables is difficult, but it is exponentially better than any HBO series or cookie-cutter Netflix show. I think in the end a balance is always optimal – read some literature each day and watch a little Netflix – peanut butter and jelly.

 

Lucky Jim

Christina and I went to see the new Beauty and the Beast film a couple of days ago. I was not forced to see this movie and the sexy Emma Watson was not used as a bargaining chip. Disney movies bring me a lot of happiness and those catchy songs always bring a smile to my face. The only thing I didn’t like was the attractiveness of the “Beauty” and the “Beast.” Why did they cast such a good looking Bell? The whole point of this movie is not to judge people by their appearances. Even the Beast is attractive for a monster. I could think of a million things worse for Bell to fall in love with – Jabba the Hutt anyone? I like stories where two misfits fall in love – the nerds, the dweebs, the outcasts. I have always been between social groups my entire life. I get along with the jocks and the nerds: never overly obsessed about sports or comic books. I was a momma’s boy who primarily enjoyed the company of my parents – I could socialize but my special spot was always on the couch eating ice cream. All of these things were going through my head while reading my second classic, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. In this story, Jim is an awkward professor who doesn’t fit in with anyone – he goes about the story in a perpetual state of social discomfort. Jim has no passion except for hanging out at pubs and complaining about his job. This was a story with my kind of character.

Jim, throughout most of the book, has the worst luck at work and in his social life: his job is on the line, his foreplay gets squashed, his jokes fall flat, his research gets stolen, his cigarettes run out, his drunken tirades end badly, his coworkers tattle on him, etc. Jim seems like he deserves most of these problems but at the same time it is hard not feeling bad for the guy. In the end, he does end up with a lucky break that made me not only happy for him but happy for myself. So many times we are conditioned to think that the best things happen to the most popular-beautiful-smart-sporty-(fill in the blank with a stereotype) people. A great example of this is modern day comedies. Who usually plays the laughing-stock? Is it a smart-sexy man or woman? No it is usually a fat actor who is a royal screw up. Thankfully, real-life is not a TV show and we can be a successful human being without having the attributes of James Bond or a Victoria Secret Model. Appearances and personalities are what make us special. Our weirdness is not a handicap but rather our greatest asset. Was Jim lucky or did he actually deserve the good things at the end of the book? Are we conditioned to think that success is the result of skill for the popular while success is the result of luck for the unpopular? It reminds me of the eagle who was always told he was a chicken – never attempting to fly and always pecking at the ground. Embrace who you are, spread those chicken wings and don’t apologize for their stubbiness – they’ll get you farther than you think.

A Confession: Reading Fiction Hurts

Labor Day represents the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year for millions of children. Kids are going back to school with their freshly purchased school supplies and a whirling set of emotions-ranging from excitement to dread. I always hated the first day of school. Summer was the best time in my life because I got to sleep in, watch TV all day, and eat carbs whenever I wanted. I always felt a tinge of PTSD whenever “Back to School” commercials began to inundate the airways. Why did I hate school so much? I always loathed the pointless homework and the assignments that supposedly stimulated our creativity. “Alright class, we are going to learn about George Washington…everyone go home and make a poster-board collage with magazine cutouts that remind you of our first president.” These types of assignments are present in every grade and I even see tinges of them in my wife’s doctorate program. In addition to pointless busy work, we had to read famous literature like Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Man and the Sea, etc. I was good at reading but I struggled to see the appeal in these books. Sure, I did enjoy some parts of these works but the process of reading fiction was usually tedious. Fiction for me made books unappealing and I saw no point in reading during my free time because movies and TV were so much more entertaining. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I realized nonfiction books were interesting and I could read over 50 of them a year without a ounce of misery.

Fast forward a couple years and I have read close to 100 nonfiction books that have taught me more information than my entire K-12 experience. With my newfound love for reading, I figured I should give fiction another shot. My old roommate loves John Steinbeck so I picked up some of his books-these were doable. My friend from high school loves Ernest Hemingway so I borrowed For Whom the Bell Tolls. I labored through this book like a fat guy running his first mile. In the end, I had to SparkNote the last chapters (sorry Megan) because the overall story line was driving me crazy. This experience has taught me an important lesson about myself and about people in general. Everyone is stimulated differently and likes to learn in their own unique way. It’s okay if you never pick up a 700 page book about George Washington and instead make a collage from magazine cutouts. It’s okay if you haven’t read Charles Dickens and instead you prefer to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s okay if you love classic literature but can’t stand to pick up a National Geographic magazine. In today’s world there is way too much information out there for us to absorb everything. Read and watch the things that you enjoy because life is too short; with that said, Breaking Bad can be just as academic as classic literature. The only thing I think is important is that you stimulate your brain by discussing things with others. Whether it is a book, TV show, movie, or magazine discuss it with someone else. This way we all learn from each other even though we all have very different tastes. Are my days of fiction over? Not completely. I think with a little more effort and discussion, I will find the books that make that fat-man mile a little easier.

News-The Junk Food of Information

When I was a kid I never worried about scary things on the news. One reason was that I didn’t watch the news and the other is that I knew my parents would protect me from danger. I was more worried about the killer clown in my bathroom or the witch at my bedroom window. Thankfully, these fears could easily be ameliorated by a nightlight or going to Mom and Dad’s room. Today I get scared from watching the news. It seems like every week there is a terrorist attack or world disaster that makes me feel sick about the future. The news is like a real world scary movie. After I watched The Ring I had to cover my TV with a blanket because of fear that it would turn on in the middle of the night. Similarly, after watching the news over the past few days, I second guessed some of my plans because ISIS was on my mind. Both of these examples include irrational fears, but unlike in the past, I can’t run to my Mom and Dad’s room anymore.

So should I give up watching the news? Being someone who loves to read and write, I thoroughly enjoy being up-to-date on the world around me. I don’t like to be the odd man out in conversations and usually I like to know the details so I can better inform my friends and family. There is a price to pay though when using the news to be informed-a negative attitude about the world’s future. Sure, some people will say, “I watch the news and it doesn’t bother me,” but I would argue that it does affect a person subconsciously. I wrote a post on Blink by Malcolm Gladwell that states our brains respond to things in mere seconds based on preconditioning. Among non-racist individuals, studies show that regardless of personal race (black or white), we react more negatively to black faces than to white faces. This phenomenon is obviously apparent between white police and young black men but it is also present in everyday life-what makes you more uncomfortable, a plane full of Arabs or a plane full of Caucasians? This is an ingrained survival method that has helped us make life saving decisions in the past-see snake, run like hell. In today’s world it isn’t the snake but instead images of terrorists, shooters, crazy drivers, scary diseases, and masked men that precondition us. It is estimated that 10% of teens and 40% of adults suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder (Source). I would argue that the news, and its effects on one’s future outlook, is a major source of anxiety. I think we should all look at news like we look at junk food. It tastes so good right at the moment, giving us a slight rush, but afterwards it makes us feel empty and slightly upset.

So what is one to do, be depressed/informed or happy/ignorant? How do we get to the level of happy/informed with the added benefit that planes of Arabs don’t make us subconsciously queasy? First, stop watching or reading online news. If you need to be informed daily, pick up a newspaper. Newspapers give you the information without all the anxiety ridden imagery or hateful comment sections. Second, subscribe to a high quality magazine like the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Time, etc. These are great sources of current material that usually look at multiple sides of an issue. Thirdly, read books about current topics that are affecting the world. Instead of watching the news on shootings read a book like Blink to understand what leads people to shoot in the first place; this will give you added tools when conversing about current events. I fully admit that the news scares me, but I do not admit that by abstaining from it I am less informed. By taking the time to read the aforementioned material, I am able to see the big picture of an event instead of a myopic-instantaneous viewpoint. Discard that junk food news and take in some healthy information-you’ll know what you’re talking about and your stomach won’t get so upset when thinking about the future.

The Asthmatic Boy who Became the Unstoppable Man Part 2

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Theodore Roosevelt is by far my favorite president. He lived an extraordinary life that in many ways transformed the world we live in today. Do you like National Parks? Thank Teddy. Do you like Wall Street regulations? Thank Teddy. Do you like food that is safe to eat? Thank Teddy. Do you like Teddy Bears? Thank Teddy. His accomplishments while in office were extensive and to completely understand his political mastery you should read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. I honestly did not know much about Teddy’s political accomplishments before reading this book. In high school, we were taught that he carried a big stick and was a imperialistic bully. That caricature is quite inaccurate and not even close to his level-headed-fair demeanor in domestic and foreign affairs.

William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 which transferred the head office to Vice President Roosevelt. The funny thing was, none of the big business men wanted Roosevelt to be president and that is why he was given the worthless position of Vice President. They were afraid that he couldn’t be bought and that their extensive monopolies would be attacked. Roosevelt was not anti-industry but rather respected the need to give laborers more rights to maintain social order and the need to prevent monopolies from controlling prices. During his two terms, Teddy negotiated the end of a major coal strike, brought 40 anti-trust suits to court, broke up the biggest monopoly in the world-Standard Oil, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, won the biggest popular vote landslide in 1904, established 5 national parks, purchased the land for the Panama Canal, proclaimed 18 national monuments, protected 150 National Forests, pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, hosted the first black man for dinner in the White House, defended the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was able to accomplish all these things because he knew how work the media and befriend almost anyone he met. The “big stick bully” is not how he carried himself; when it came to decision making he took his time and always thought about every outcome with the highest degree of civility.

I really admire Teddy not only for his political accomplishments but his life outside the office. He was immune to discomfort and would be outdoors whenever possible-regardless of the conditions. Nature was his first love and he traveled throughout the US during his two terms hunting, camping, exploring, and vigorously exercising. Along with his love of the outdoors, he was an avid reader who could sit for hours immersed in books of all subjects. He could out smart, out hike, and out eat almost any man he encountered. Teddy’s life is an inspiration for my own life and sadly I am no where close to his manliness levels. I watch a lot of TV, I don’t like to go out in the rain, I need a noise-maker to sleep, I waste time online, and I hike with a walking stick to fend off small dogs. I strive to be more adventurous, more erudite, and more compromising like Teddy and I know it will take me a lifetime. My biggest obstacle to being more like my favorite president is TV; my goal is to watch less so that I can read more and spend  more time outdoors. Small steps must be taken to stand on the great shoulders of Theodore Roosevelt.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
-Theodore Roosevelt

 

Worry Wart-Remover

Have you ever been called a “Worry Wart?” I have on several occasions and throughout my life my worries have grown. As an adult there are a million things to contend with which can induce worries: paying the bills, keeping up with health, climbing the social ladder, maintenance of relationships, etc. Then there are the irrational worries that are usually propagated from movies or news: flesh eating diseases, serial rapists hiding in the bushes, razor blades in candy, movie theater shootings, sex-slave kidnappings etc. And to my luck, I live in Flint, so now I get to worry about consuming toxic water whenever I turn the tap on. So suffice to say, we must grapple with our worrisome thoughts everyday. How can we let go of our worries? To be truthful I don’t completely know but there are a few key things that help me get through storms of mental despair.

  1. Prayer: Release your worries to God because He has your back. Talking to the big man upstairs is not only therapeutic but strengthens your spiritual relationship. I know this the Sunday School answer but it really will lift a weight off your chest. You don’t have to formally pray or say anything at all-just clear your head and notice God’s presence. You’re not alone. We didn’t worry nearly as much when we were children; be a child in God’s presence and know He understands the big picture.
  2. Yoga: I’m a huge fan of Yoga because it forces you to be mindful of the present. Yoga is not meant to be some ab-shaping-calorie-scorching workout, it’s meant to bring you more in tune with your inner self. My favorite instructor is Tommy Rosen and he focuses on breathing throughout all the movements. When you learn how to breath you learn how to listen to yourself. Your true self is constantly being bombarded by outside influences that many times create negativity and anxiety. That may sound like a bunch of hippy crap but I promise if you practice mindful meditation/yoga you will make it priority in your daily life.
  3. Watch a TV series: I love well made TV shows: Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, The Wire, Mr. Robot, etc. There are so many great series on TV right now that you can find the perfect show that fits your personality. Why would a TV series reduce worries? One word-Flow. When you get into a show you forget your worries and enter into the emotions of the characters. For a short moment you aren’t focused on your worries but rather the story unfolding in front of you. Of course, any flow experience is good but I like series for reducing worries because my problems are nominal compared to my beloved fictional characters. Walter White’s worries of selling meth to pay for his cancer treatment trumps my worries of not having pooped in the last two days.

These are three tangible things that you can practice in your life that will help reduce your worries. I love this quote…

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Let us let go of our worries by seeking God, being more mindful of the present, and realizing that our worries really aren’t that big of a deal in respects to the big picture. Your thoughts can make your life like heaven or hell. It’s all up to you, your thoughts are your own-what will you choose?

Trust me in your times of trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.

Psalm 50:15 NLT

The Helpfulness of Habits

I have a lot of bad habits. Some of my habits have been around since I was a wee toddler and others I have picked up in recent years. One habit that I really want to kick is keeping my back straight when I bend over. I know this seems like an innocuous maneuver but I tend to have this grotesque hump in my back from never bending at my waist. This hump is more of an aesthetic annoyance currently but I am a few decades away from being that old guy who is permanently bent at a 90-degree angle. Speaking of habits, my lovely wife who loves all things psychology checked me out a book called The Power of Habit: Why We do What We do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Essentially, the brain uses habits to conserve a crap ton of computational power and energy. An example of this is when you started to learn how to drive. At first, backing out of the driveway was a seemingly impossible task. You had to check your mirrors, slowly release the brake, look for pedestrians, look for oncoming traffic, etc. The brain was learning and using a lot of energy during these first few attempts but over time it got easier and easier. Today, you may back out of your driveway without thinking about it because your brain has turned it into a routine. Habits occur whenever there is a cue such as grabbing your keys before leaving the house. When you wake up you probably go straight to the bathroom-the cue was your alarm going off. Smoke cigarettes or eat crappy food? Usually these habits have cues like being bored, tired, or when you’re with certain people. All this is pretty easy to understand but until you identify your cues and habit framework then you can’t change your behaviors.

The framework for changing a habit is as follows:

-Identify the routine (I sit on the couch all night after work)
-Experiment with rewards (I like the feeling of walking after work for a half hour)
-Isolate the cue (Before I sit on the couch I always grab chips)
-Have a plan (I am going to put walking shoes next to the chip bag)

To better isolate the cue, write down the location, time, emotional state, other people around, and immediately preceding action at the moment you feel drawn to the habit. For example, whenever I want ice cream I am at my parent’s house, it usually is around 3:00 pm, I am bored, I am with my mom, and I had just eaten. Which cue is causing me to want the ice cream? Well if I record these indicators over multiple occasions I would figure out that I want ice cream because I am bored. Hence, to break my ice cream habit, I could go do something like watch a movie. Of course, this is all easier said than done but understanding the framework can help you identify which habits you would like to modify, keep, or stop. We all are trying to better ourselves, let us use this knowledge to make it easier and more automatic-in the end, habits can either be our best friend or our worst enemy.