Farewell 2018, Hello 2019

It is that time of year, dear readers, when I look back over the past twelve months, assess progress (or lack thereof) against my goals, and think ahead for 2019.  Careful readers know that for several years I have worked with a set of life rules (rather than annual resolutions) for living the next third of my life.  This review is just one small part of an exercise to have an honest conversation with myself, so I’ll be able to have real conversations with the larger world.  We don’t do enough looking at our uncertainties and vulnerabilities, sometimes choosing as an alternative getting angry at others—which hinders real understanding.  Steve Almond, in the book Bad Stories, asserts that’s true because we take our grievances seriously but not our vulnerabilities.  In the 2017 essay “Facing the Furies” (found in the collection Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises and Essays), Rebecca Solnit frames it this way:

“. . . more often, lashing out is a way to avoid looking inward. A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry made people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy.  In other words, anger may make people miserable, but is also makes them more confident and crowds out other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability.  We’d rather be mad than sad.”

2018 was another strange year in America, where anger and grievances (real and perceived) took center-stage in too many instances.  You know it is a strange year when Dave Barry can’t make-up fake year-in-review anecdotes that are any funnier, scarier, and/or weirder than real life.  But worse than strange, the year brought actions that lead many to question whether we’ve completely lost our way as a country.  I have to go with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who recently wrote “This was a godawful year . . . and that leaves me full of hope.”

“. . .hope, one hopes, will breed new activism and involvement, will help people who may not have considered politics before to realize that they have the ability and the responsibility to create government that looks like all of us and reflects the majority’s values. Maybe this, in turn, will breed more waves of youth, femininity and color, as more of us decide to take America at its word about forming that more perfect union.”

While 2018 at home and work was a time of tremendous transition, I also head into 2019 with hope.  Hope for the people I love and for the causes and country that are important to me.  Hope that I will continue to understand more about what brought me to where I am today and where I want to go in the future.  Because, of course, hope demands things that despair does not.

Brown family (credit: John Thorne)

The Browns – looking forward to 2019! (photo credit: John Thorne)

So, how did I fare on my eight life rules I stare at every morning on my computer wallpaper?  Here is a short summation.

1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate.  Every Day.  Several years ago I made it a habit to say thank you to one person each day, and that simple habit has made me richer in spirit.  In 2018 I kept up that habit and made progress in being more intentional about gratefulness, thankfulness, and compassion. Being grateful, thankful, and compassionate is, to me, about equality. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are all in this life together.

2.  Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. Last year I wrote that I was going to keep the cartoon in mind where the doctor asks his middle-aged male patient, “Which is more inconvenient for you: 1 hour a day of exercise or 24 hours a day of dead?”  In 2018 I built a daily ritual of long-distance walking into my mornings which has been very satisfying.  But I have to focus on Rule #5 for this to really have an effect.  My health has to become more of a priority in 2019.  Period.

3.  Listen more than you talk.  This is a tough one to measure, as few people will give you honest feedback (and few people have the same standard of what is too much talking).  So I’ll just repeat what I wrote last year:  “It is always a challenge when I find myself in a place of some authority (either at work or home) not to grab the bully pulpit.  While David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, says listening is hard, he also notes that listening is an act of love…an act that one never regrets.”  I do know of a number of instances this past year when I really listened, and for that I am grateful.

4.  Spend less than you make.  2018 was (yet) another year when I didn’t buy any new guitars! Seriously, I think I did well in this area, although when I do spend (e.g., good restaurants, good wine) I tend to treat myself and others well. I continue to adjust some of my expectations in order to live with much less regular income in the not-too-distant future.  I’m also thinking more about what to give away.

5.  Quit eating crap!  Eat less of everything else.  Well, I failed here. Bigly. When I go to “My Fitness Pal” and look at my weight trend line for the year, I had a very good first quarter, and then saw it slowly but relentlessly rise over the last three quarters.  Several years ago I successfully gave up drinking sodas (I had a several-Diet Cokes-a-day-habit), and now I have to get serious about some other things to give up completely.  See Rule #2 above.

Play more music

Play more music

6.  Play music.  I continue to believe that the world is a better place when I play music.  My music is better when I play with others.  However, when I look at my tracking charts for 2018, I only pulled out my guitars 2-3 days/week.  While I may not make it to every day in 2019, I’d like to open those cases and hear those strings sing at least five days a week.

7.  Connect and commit.  Over the years since I set these rules, we made progress as a family in gathering people together on a regular basis.  While that slipped some in 2017, I was able to get together more with colleagues from work in 2018.  Next year, I want to add more friends outside work to this equation. I’m going to push myself not just to think of getting together for dinners, but focus on talks over coffee and other less demanding yet ultimately satisfying connections.  I’m going to take some of my own recent advice when I find myself not knowing how to break the ice.  I’ll “simply walk up and say, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ (a.k.a. the only icebreaker you’ll ever need.)”

8.  Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man.  Enjoy life! This is not a concern on a daily basis, but more of a reminder that it can be easier to lose the joy of life as one moves through the years.  I’ve certainly seen my elders who have handled this coming period of life with grace and happiness, and others who feel entitled, bitter, and—yes—grumpy. During the winter months, I work very hard not to let my SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) symptoms show through to others. I also spent time this past year thinking about how much I still had to contribute in a range of life’s activities.  Others helped me remember—as Madeleine L’Engle has written—that “you are every age you’ve ever been.”  Living through what you know and who you have been from the years of life is a way to understand current circumstances and embrace new possibilities. That’s my goal in 2019 and beyond.

So there you have it.  2019?  Bring it on!

More to come…

DJB

My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.  A powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  Early in the year I returned to reread this wonderful memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia. Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds a richer love for music.

Grant by Ron Chernow.  One of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact, Chernow has  worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this impressive biography of U.S. Grant.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  The release of a new movie of this timeless classic led me to pick up my cherished, signed-by-the-author copy, and reread once again the story that has captivated children and adults alike since its release.

Wanderlust:  A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  I reread this book in the late winter after a friend mentioned that she wanted to read something by Solnit, the wonderful historian and essayist.  As often happens, I discovered so much more upon a second reading.

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  An important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.

How Democracies Die

“How Democracies Die”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  The research over twenty years by these two Harvard professors shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. This accessible book is highly recommended, and should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.  Given what we are facing as a country, this is my choice for book of the year.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by this best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobal.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world. Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed.

The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  Two classics that I read (or reread in the case of TGOW) while taking a summer vacation in Pacific Grove and Monterey, California.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth.  Imagine hearing the phrase “You know, you’re no genius” your entire life and then, years later, being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—in recognition for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. That happened to Angela Duckworth, and this book summarizes her years of study.

In the Shadow of Statues:  A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu.  This memoir by the former mayor of New Orleans hit home for me on both a personal and professional level.  As Mayor Landrieu notes early in this book on his personal journey to confront the true story behind Confederate monuments, “The statues were not honoring history or heroes.  They were created as political weapons, part of an effort to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

What Truth Sounds Like:  RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson.  This powerful book takes us back to a meeting between Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin, and others in the 1960s, and brings the conversation forward to our bitter racial struggles of the 21st century.

Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams.  A short but enlightening read about how technology is designed to capture our attention, and what you can do about it—by a former Google strategist turned Oxford philosopher.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.  I ended the year by returning to one of my favorite authors.  The first of the two works of Solnit’s I read in December “explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination.”

Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit. I ended the year with yet another powerful collection of essays from one of America’s most insightful writers.  “Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, ‘with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.’”

I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among these wonderful books.  My 2019 list will begin with Craig Nelson’s 2006 biography of Thomas Paine, who I rank along with Roger Williams as one of the two most intriguing, yet often forgotten and totally misunderstood, founding fathers.

Happy reading!

More to come…

DJB

Not Your Summer Reading List

Summer reading lists can be fun. I’ve enjoyed compiling my annual list since I started this blog ten years ago. I also enjoy reading lists developed by others, as you often get insights into both great new books and the thoughts of the individual who passes along recommendations. My criteria for good summer reading lists include:  they must be focused on a short period of time when the compiler is away (e.g., for an August vacation), and the reading can’t be too heavy, as there are 10 other months to read tomes about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

What follows is not a summer reading list.

I’ve fallen so far behind in updating readers about the books I’ve found interesting, challenging, refreshing, and—yes—troublesome that I’ve decided to take a Twitter-like approach and provide two-four sentence summaries of everything I’ve read between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year.  Since I can’t remember the order in which I read them, I’m listing them in alphabetical order (by author).  Let me know if you find one or more books that pique your interest this fall.

Bad Stories

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  I began the summer with this work by the co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast and found it a coherent look at our current moment in history in America.  It was recommended by our former rector and Andrew’s godfather.  Almond makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”  Highly recommended.

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  This very impressive study by MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond is an important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.  Desmond’s research—coupled with real-life stories based on his years of living among the individuals he profiles—demonstrates vividly that evictions from homes often lead to a cascading of events that can trap people for years. The National Building Museum in Washington has a companion exhibit that runs through May 2019.  Highly recommended, especially for those interested in social justice issues in America.

UTC HQ

United Therapeutics Corporation’s Silver Spring Headquarters

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  Juan Enriquez was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in July, and you can watch his TEDx Talk for a general summary of the key themes of Evolving Ourselves.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.  The authors begin with a reminder of the scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s character is told the future is “Plastics” and then move forward to make the case that a similar scene today would use two words:  Life Code. While I may have understood one-half or less of this book (should have paid more attention in those science classes) this is still highly recommended, unless you believe the earth is only 10,000 years old (because in that case this book would make your head explode).*

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  These two Harvard professors have spent twenty years studying the decline of democracies all around the world.  Their research shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments.  This accessible book is highly recommended, and perhaps should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.  I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire Candice Millard.  The Churchill book starts slowly and doesn’t show the future prime minister in a flattering light, but it soon becomes a page-turner about a period of history that isn’t that familiar to me.  The Roosevelt story is amazing, especially when one thinks of the likelihood of any of our recent president going through such an arduous journey of exploration (i.e., highly unlikely).  Recommended.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. Now some 20+ years old, I came across this small book at a conference on geographic information systems and thought it was an intriguing topic:  a lone genius bucks the scientific establishment of the 18th century and figures out the “longitude problem” by building a clock that worked at sea.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world.  Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed. If you like to see how earlier eras addressed complex problems, and you enjoyed books such as The Invention of Nature and The Age of Wonder, this is a book for you.  Recommended.

The Nature of Parties

The Nature of Parties from Cannery Row

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  I read this short novel for the first time in August during a week on the Monterey Peninsula, and found it delightful. Steinbeck’s language is superb, focusing on life as it is and celebrating community while acknowledging the loneliness of the individual.  I keep returning to the line, “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”  Recommended.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  This seemed to be a good year to re-read this American classic about the collision of the Haves and the Have-Nots during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.  The author Ursula K. Le Guin said it best when she wrote, “So now, if somebody asked me what book would tell them the most about what is good and what is bad in America, what is the most truly American book, what is the great American novel . . . a year ago I would have said—for all its faults—Huckleberry Finn. But now—for all its faults—I’d say The Grapes of Wrath.” Highly recommended as a stark reminder of what we can be—both good and bad—as a country.

Beach Reading

Beach Reading

Now I’m caught up.  Happy reading in what’s left of the summer.

More to come…

DJB

*I also wanted to read this book to see if I could understand the work of one of our neighbors here in Silver Spring:  United Therapeutics Corporation.  The authors mention that UTC—at the time of the book’s publication—used technology developed by Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to “begin humanizing pig lungs—a project that could eventually help save the 200,000 people who die every year waiting for an organ that never comes.”  I love the fact that UTC has developed a big corporate campus, with fun and innovative architectural design (seen above), right in the heart of downtown Silver Spring.