Blogging Through Common Sense

Paine begins Common Sense at, well, the beginning. He sets out to explain why we in fact have societies and government.  He states that we need society to positively provide for our wants. Solitary men can not provide the same way they can when joined together. Fair enough, sounds good. But then the trouble starts.
While society provides for our needs in a positive fashion, we need government to provide in a negative fashion. That is, men are not angels and therefore need to be policed. Government provides this function. It is an evil, as it is a limiting force, but it is a necessary evil as that limiting force can protect the liberty of others.
When the government ceases to be a protective force and in fact becomes a self serving entity is when problems arise. The worst part is we often do not even notice it happening until it is too late.

Josef Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German Catholic philosopher, who helped popularize Neo-Thomistic philosophy in the twentieth century. His writings are rooted in the works of Thomas Aquinas as well as Aristotle and Plato. Pieper sought to explain and defend the wisdom tradition of the West and his short and powerful Leisure, the Basis of Culture was one of his most notable works.

Pieper's Definition of Leisure
Pieper attempts to reintroduce the modern reader to the still important Platonic understanding of the value of philosophical work, and the sagacity of the Thomistic understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. He does this through two complimentary essays, Leisure and The Philosophical Work. Read together, these works explain that in order for man to reach his full potential, he needs to look beyond the world of servile, or useful, work and include philosophical work, or liberal arts, into his everyday life.

Book Fair 2012

Just got back from my local library's semi-annual book sale with bags and arms full of new reads. The total haul for the four of us came to 35 books for.....$13.50. In the past I have really gone crazy at these types of events and ended up with more books than I had shelf, table or floor space for. Inevitably that lead to my culling out some old titles I had already read or had decided I'd probably never get to. This year I decided to  restrain myself and only pick a handful of titles, and I did pretty well. Out of the 35 books now sitting on the dining room floor only five of them are mine. The majority are for the kids, and since we home school it is really more of an investment than an impulse buy.

Book Review:The Lost Goddess

Tom Knox’s latest scientific-historical thriller, The Lost Goddess, creates constant tension through the use of dual narratives that eventually come together in a rather disturbing, and unfortunately, unfulfilling manner.
The book opens with archaeologist Julia Kerrigan excavating the limestone cave systems in a remote part of France. She unearths a hopefully career-defining discovery: ancient skulls marked by one distinct feature. They all have small holes, purposefully drilled in the frontal lobe area, prehistoric trepanation. Thus Knox's first narrative revolves around Kerrigan trying to solve the mystery of the skulls, which leads her on a scientific path of discovery that is bisected at every turn with misdirection and murder.

Did You Know There Was a Hobbit Day?

Me either.

But apparently there is, as I got an email this morning notifying me that September 21, marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, and tomorrow is Bilbo Baggins's birthday, traditionally celebrated by Tolkien fans as "Hobbit Day." While I won't be donning  any Hobbit gear, drinking any mead, or celebrating a Second Breakfast this weekend, this occasion does give me an excuse to wax philosophical on one of the reasons I think Tolkien's fantasy world still has a hold on popular culture after all these years.

Pioneer Life, Tea Parties and the Modern Man

At a recent library sale my wife happened to pick up a book entitled, Pioneer Life in Western Pennsylvania. It was published in 1940 and was part of a series written in conjunction with the Western Pennsylvania Historic Survey. My wife knows me well as I have always had a thing for old books; the poetry of the prose; the simple style of illustration; the colorful political incorrectness, all make them a pleasure to read. I have only gotten about a third of the way through this book, but I am already seeing some interesting touch points between the lives of the pioneers and the idealized image of early America that many in the Tea Party movement hold dear.

Lessons from My Father

My dad was a small business owner for almost 25 years. From the age of 9 through college I worked with him. This small retail establishment was in many ways my school. I didn't learn math or literature or science there. I learned people. There has never been a more valuable thing to understand if you want to be successful in this world. And I don't just mean financially, I mean making a real difference.
Unfortunately I forgot just about everything I learned.

Book Review: Diary- a Novel

Author Chuck Palahniuk is always an interesting read. Over the years I have read a handful of his works such as (of course) Fight Club as well as Choke and Survivor. Diary came out in 2003 and has similarities to his other works, but does stand out as one of the more revelatory novels in the Palahnuik cannon.

“It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”

The book is written, obviously enough, as a diary. Misty Wilmot, a once-aspiring artist is now working as a waitress in a seaside hotel on Waytansea Island, which stands in for a Martha's Vineyard tragically gone wrong.  Her husband is in a coma after an apparent suicide attempt. The book thus opens as a "coma diary" that she is writing to her husband as she wonders if he will ever come out of it. As the book unfolds Misty, and her latent artistic talent, become pawns in a twisted and slightly supernatural conspiracy that threatens not only her husband's life but hers and many others.

Book Review: Eaters of the Dead

I’ll put the bottom line up front for this review: Eaters of The Dead, by Michael Crichton, blends history, fantasy and science in a way that makes the read both enjoyable and educational. The novel tells the story of the real life adventure of a 10th-century Muslim who travels with a group of Vikings. The first portion of the novel is a factual retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's personal account of his journey north and his experiences with, and observations of, the Northmen. The second portion of the novel is a slightly reworked version of what is probably the most important epic poem outside of Homer- Beowulf.

Climbing the Classics

I do not usually post pictures here, but this was too appropriate and too good to pass up. I think this may be our new third floor staircase soon.

Book Review: The Mormonizing of America

Recently I was approached by Worthy Publishing with the opportunity to be one of a select group of bloggers to review this new release by best-selling author Stephen Mansfield. Having always had a fairly positive opinion of the Church of Later Day Saints, I was a little leery at first. I didn't want to read a book that simply chose to pick apart a faith, or that paid all of its attention on some of the more peculiar practices of it's members. Truth be told, I think if you look objectively at any religion, some of the rites and rituals are a little strange - my own faith included.

The subtitle of this new book is what convinced me to read it: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture. As the author repeatedly states, we are certainly living through a "Mormon Moment" and to learn what it is about this faith that seems to produce successful adults in numbers that belie their relatively small membership could be interesting. After finishing it, I have mixed feelings.

Book Review: The Shakespeare Thefts & The Fourth Fisherman

Over the past week I read two short books, The Shakespeare Thefts and The Fourth Fisherman. Both books were good but fairly quick reads, so I have decided to write a short two-fer this week.
It is hardly debatable that the two most important publications in terms of modern English language are the King James Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare. In 1623, two actors who had worked with Shakespeare sought to publish a collection of his work in order that the acting company could profit rather than the many knock offs that were circulating at the time. Only about 1,000 copies were printed, of those 232 remain accounted for. How do we know this? Because of the work of Eric Rasmussen and his crack team of Folio Hunters. Rasmussen formed his team in 1996 with the expressed aim of documenting as many surviving copies as possible and determining their provenance in the process. The Shakespeare Thefts can be looked at as a highlight reel of what they have been able to accomplish.

Book Review: The Serpent of Moses

Books, much like anything come with expectations. The same holds true for all kinds of entertainment media. If you are going to see an romance epic, you expect to shed some tears. Pick up a thriller and you expect to be kept awake at night, or at the very least, to suffer from a few quality nightmares. A treatise on history? There had better not be factual errors or clearly identifiable bias. As long as something meets our expectations we are generally pleased with our investment of time and cash. The Serpent of Moses by Don Hoesel completely met my needs in terms of an action-packed beach read.
Is it full of Indiana Jones styled unbelievability? Yup.
Is the good guy the stereo-typical hero who is brilliant but flawed with a devil-may-care attitude? You betcha.
Is the love interest a beautiful scientist? Almost, in this case she is a linguist, which of course our hero needs to decipher the ancient codes necessary to fine the long lost artifact, deal with his own troubled past, defeat the terrorists, evade the Mossad who are also…well…you get the idea.
Everyone needs some escapism once in a while, and this kind of books is mine. If you like them too, then I can strongly recommend The Serpent of Moses. In fact once I started reading I realized this is a sequel. Now I know where to turn the next time I need to kill a lazy afternoon on the deck. Thank you Mr. Hoesel.

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America

Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America, edited by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole is a collection of essays from various classical scholars that attempts to flesh out the degree of influence classicism had on Jefferson, both personally and politically. This is no easy task, as the architect of Monticello, one of the most famous examples of neo-classical buildings in early America, and the scholar who was fluent in both Greek and Latin, in a letter to John Adams, “ridiculed Plato’s Republic; and in other correspondence, he dismissed the importance and refused to bemoan the loss of major portions of Aristotle’s Politics,” (56). Evidently, Thomas Jefferson’s views on the relevance  and importance of classicism was at best conflicted.

Book Review: Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander

Jackson-The Iron-Willed Commander by Paul Vickery was just published this week by Thomas Nelson Publishing. Vickery opens with Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. The scene he portrays is a tumultuous one, with the rough and tumble Jackson and his like-minded followers “invading” Washington’s elite society. It is an appropriate opening to this short biographical sketch of a man best know for his bold, everyman approach to life. The rest of the book proceeds as flashback to his childhood and military career.
Paul Vickery, Professor of History at Oral Roberts University, has written what can best be termed a short primer on Andrew Jackson’s military career, with the greatest emphasis placed on his defining battle in New Orleans at the close of the War of 1812. The 19 short chapters can be grouped together roughly as follows. 1-4 deal with his childhood as an orphan and his growth into turbulent manhood. He is presented as  likable troublemaker who is quick to defend his honor with a duel. In chapters 5-11 we see his development into a leader of men and a competent military man. 12-17 deal with the build up, conflict, and aftermath of The Battle New Orleans, which took place on January 8, 1815. Finally, the last two chapters discuss his elevation to the presidency and his legacy.

Book Review: The Swerve

History, written well, can be just as thrilling as a fast-plotted action novel. I have read many books that treat history like a detective novel and that are able to hold the reader’s attention all while educating him. Books like,Guns, Germs & Steel, First Family: Abigail & John Adams, The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way and Tyndale all manage the balance between page turner and academic work. While many books can master one of the two, most cannot combine both.
My most recent historical read is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The book chronicles the story behind the 15th century discovery of an ancient text. In 1417 a papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, made an amazing discovery in a German monastery. What he found was a manuscript of a long-lost classical poem, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”). Greenblatt tells this tale as a way of supporting his primary thesis: that Lucretius’s poem is the origin of the Renaissance and, in effect, our modern world.

On Literature, Reading & Stephen King

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes, by Dwight Allen. As a fan of King since adolescence I started reading the article with an admittedly biased viewpoint against the writer’s premise, but a I continued I had to give credence to some of his points. King can be formulaic; some of his characters are stereo-typed and yes there is a fair amount of “popcorn film” schlock in many of his works. But when one has written as much as King I would venture to guess these occurrences are bound to pop up. Allen doesn’t begrudge King his success, but he does have a problem with the recent trend of critics claiming that King’s work can be seen as literary.
For Allen, literary fiction takes on a decidedly elitist persona and he just can’t see how a genre writer can also be literary. First, let’s establish what exactly literary fiction is. To be considered literary, a work must be critically acclaimed, or serious; it is often a complex, multi-layered work that deals with universal dilemmas. 

Book Review: The Scorpio Illusion

I remember vividly the first time I read one of Robert Ludlum’s novels. I was in high school and had stumbled upon The Bourne Identity. The book oscillated between a plot moving at a frenetic pace and a series of flashbacks allowing you to slow down and get a deeper sense of who Bourne was, and why he did what he did. I came to appreciate the flashbacks almost more than the forward plot. The Bourne Identity wasn’t the only one of Ludlum’s novel to employ this technique. It was something that kept me coming back to him throughout my teenage years.

Live Life on Purpose

I have had some conversations lately that have made me realize that the vast majority of people are not so much living their lives, but are being led through them. Too many people are simply doing what they think they are supposed to do, rather than thinking seriously about the time and resources they have and living according to any guiding principles. What is needed is a little fortitude, some courage, to decide what you really want out of life. You need to stick with it and follow through even if society tells you it is the “wrong” way to live.

To illustrate, let’s look at the American Dream Stereotype (ADS). This is what most of us grow up assuming the ideal life will be. It comes in three stages, young adulthood, middle age and retirement.

Young adulthood: graduate high school; go to a good 4 year college; start a career working in corporate America; get married; buy a house; pursue the two’s-  2 kids, 2 cars 2 pets and 2 weeks of vacation in Florida.

Middle age: segue out of working for corporate America and become an entrepreneur by working nights; spend weekends driving kids to soccer, dance, baseball, scouting etc.; put a second mortgage on house to pay for kids college.

Retirement: reach entrepreneurial success and retire around age 60; move to Florida & enjoy the fruits of your success.

First of all, let me state at the outset that there is nothing inherently wrong with the ADS. What is wrong is thinking that it will work for everyone, or that everyone even wants it. However, through our media-saturated culture we are taught from a very young age that we should want it. This inevitably leads to many lives lived out in search of things that ultimately hold little meaning for many of us.

In order to live a truly good life it would seem to me an imperative that we decide on what really motivates us, what we hold up as our ultimate goals or aspirations, and then live life in pursuit of that. In short, we need to stop sleepwalking through life and actually live life on purpose.

Most people, if you were able to give them some sodium pentathol and ask them what they really wanted out of life, would probably not answer a big house, lots of toys and an overly busy life. What we really crave usually centers around two or three key concepts.

  • Time & Travel
  • Financial & Physical Security
  • Faith & Family
  • Fun & Adventure

If you can figure out what you really want you can start to live by making decisions with your guiding principles firmly in mind. We all have three parts of our lives to work with: our resources, our time and our energy. When you are about to make a big decision that deals with any of these three, think about whether or not it moves you towards, or away, from your ultimate goals.

If what you really value in life is to have as much free time as possible so that you can travel, then large parts of the ADS are in complete opposition to your goals. Things like owning your own home and even having children limit the time and resources you can devote to travel. Rather than do what society tells you to do and climb the corporate ladder so you can purchase a four bedroom house in a quiet suburban community, be content with a lower paying but less time-consuming job. Rent a small apartment and use your extra time and money to pursue those travel dreams. In the end you will be much more satisfied with the life you are living.

While I certainly think some goals are better than others, the point of this essay is not to pass judgement on what you want to do with your life, it is simply to get you to see that the everyday decisions you make influence whether or not you'll end up with the life you want. We really can’t have it all, no matter what the sitcoms or Oprah tell you. Life is about choices. So make ones that actually lead to a better life.

For instance, that big promotion you are in line for would be great, right? Well, maybe if financial security is your primary goal. But what if living a life that is full of adventure is more important to you? That promotion will mean longer hours and more responsibility. Sure you may have more money to go rock climbing in Colorado, but if you now have so many responsibilities that you can never get away from work, is it worth it? Maybe less money but more freedom would be the better choice. There are adventures closer to home that you could still afford after all.

In the past we were told that if we worked hard, chased the ADS, and gave it our all, we would eventually be rewarded with retirement at 60 and a good amount of time to enjoy the high life. In reality this was always a bad deal. When you look at it objectively, who would trade their youth for some possible reward in their declining years. But we collectively bought into it because we were told often enough, from a young enough age, that it was what we were supposed to do. The recent economic meltdown has done us one favor. It has stripped away the veneer on that emotional palliative. Retirement is no longer guaranteed, and even if it comes, it will most likely not be endless days of golf and viagra fueled romps on the seashore. Let’s make the decision to live our lives today rather than in some deferred future.

Personally, my wife and I have chosen faith and family to be our ultimate goals. That has meant a lot of difficult decisions for us as a family. For instance, we have chosen to homeschool our kids and thus live on just my teacher's salary. Reconciling that with our faith-based commitment to charity has meant certain financial sacrifices. We got rid of our second car, go on camping vacations rather than trips to Disney, experiment with small scale homesteading and cook new foods at home rather than eat out, we don’t shop in malls and most of our furniture is second hand. 

These lifestyle choices allow my wife to stay at home with our kids and allow us to support a number of charities that we feel are important. Many people look at this as strange. But to me having two parents work long hours just so that they can afford nicer clothes and another car seems strange. When we look at the alternative of my wife returning to work, the cost to our family and faith guiding principles are not worth the financial gain. If we can meet our needs and help others, while also preserving our time together as a family, we are living according to our principles. 

Don’t get me wrong; it is not always easy to live life on purpose. This is why we must constantly exercise our fortitude in the face of what society continually tries to turn us into. Granted, our lifestyle choices are not for everyone, but that is the point. The ADS tries to tells us that everyone wants the same life, when in fact we all have very different motivations and desires. Trying to shoehorn ourselves into a one-size-fits-all life just doesn't work.

Decide what you care about,what you can see yourself truly living for. What would you trade some of the ADS for? It is all about choices; choose wisely and you will not regret the life you lead.

Best of 2012 (The First Half)

 I thought now would be a good time to give a brief synopsis of the best things I have read so far this year. Without further adieu:
The Legend of Bagger Vance, by Steven Pressfield.
“In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah’s windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protege the way back to glory.”-From Good Reads
This was, by far, my favorite fiction read of the year so far. A tad preachy, as it is mostly a retelling of the Bhagavad Gita, but a really good read, and I don’t even golf.

A Simple Story

How often have we heard the advice to seize the day, live life to the fullest, live like you're dying? I'd venture to say the typical person runs across that concept at least a half a dozen times a year; so often that it has become trite. But what does it really mean? 

Are we to go sky diving over the Grand Canyon? Kayaking on the Amazon? Risk our lives eating blow-fish? Not if we really internalize what this advice means. Seizing the day means living fully human lives. In Plato's terms, we are to become true to our form. Plato believed everything was more or less a shadow of its original form and the closer we got to our human form, our ideal, the more fully human we became.

This though is where we get into trouble, especially in the West where commercialism and consumerism have taken such a firm hold of our collective psyches. We have heard that money can't buy happiness, but we have also heard that it is hard to be happy without it. Now more than ever we need to stop and analyze what will provide us with a full life, a life truly lived in the moment, for the moment.

Below is a version of a story I keep running into lately, on blogs, in articles on the radio. It is one that you may have even heard before, but I think in light of this discussion it bears repeating.

One day a well off, but over-worked, investment banker took an adventure traveling trip to a small island in Indonesia where he happened upon a fisherman in a local village. The two struck up a casual conversation at a little street side cafe. Over a cup of strong coffee the banker mused aloud about whether or not he could live life at this kind of relaxed pace.

"I come from a large city with lots of people, noise, distractions, you name it.  This past week has been so different for me. Really eye-opening. The peace and quiet I have experienced on your island have been completely restorative. I feel like I can go conquer the world. But, I wonder if I could really live like this full time. Life seems so simple. What is it that you do here day after day?"

After pausing a moment while seeming to look to the open blue sky for an answer, the fishermen leveled his gaze on the banker and replied.

"Well, I fish in the morning. Then, I go into town to drink and play cards with my friends. I take a nap in the afternoon and then spend the rest of the day with my wife and family eating, talking and relaxing."

Their conversation went on from there for a few pleasant minutes but then, as he was starving from an afternoon of trekking, the banker asked the fisherman if he knew of someplace where he could buy a filling meal. The fisherman told him that his wife, in fact, had a small stand down the street where she cooked and sold his catch of the day to tourists. The investment banker thanked him and headed down the street. 

A half an hour later, after eating the best tasting fish of his life, he was back at the cafe looking for that fisherman. After inquiring of the locals for a few minutes he found his new acquaintance at a small bar with a few friends.

"That fish was absolutely amazing! I have never heard of, or tasted, anything like it before. You must be one of the only fisherman in the world to catch and prepare it. Do you sell it to the mainland?" he asked.

"No, it is only sold here, on the island."

"I really think I could help you here. With a little marketing and entrepreneurship you could market this fish throughout all of Indonesia, maybe even the world if you got lucky."

"How would I do that?"

"Well, first you'd need to go to the mainland and into the city to find some investors buy more boats and hire some additional fisherman to increase your yield. If you started fishing both morning and afternoon with extra boats you could catch enough to supply more than one food stand for local tourists. Your wife could manage that part of the operation in the beginning. She would need to find a few more local areas to set up shop and she would need to hire and manage a few more employees to work as cooks and servers."

"OK, then what?"

"Then you'd need to start aggressively marketing your brand throughout the region. You'd take the extra money you made from the additional food stands and hire a marketing firm to raise brand consciousness. As  more and more people grew to love your fish, and trust me they will, you'll probably have to step up production. From what I understand island fish tend to be more plentiful the deeper out to sea you look, so you may need to start multi-day excursions to meet demand."

"How long will this take?"

Well between ramping up production, opening new stands and then spreading throughout the region, you are probably looking at about a ten year project. But then once this type of fish catches on with buyers you could think about franchising the operation. Setting up a successful franchise that expands globally could take another 10 years. However, with a little good fortune along the way you could be looking at a world wide franchise.  Then you could just sit back and watch the profits roll in. Believe me, I do this for a living; it could work. All in all you are looking at 20 years tops to build a business that allows you the freedom to do anything!"

"Like what?"

"Well, you could relax, drink with your friends and enjoy your family for the rest of your days."

At which point the fisherman thanked the banker for his advice and returned to his friends none the wiser.

We have all heard this anecdote before, or at least some version of it. The narrative and the message are universal. I wanted to share this simple story as it illustrates so well what I am trying to communicate with this writing project: that a life lived simply, in accordance with virtue, can lead to the highest degree of happiness. We do not need to keep chasing after dreams of riches and glory if we can learn to appreciate that most of us, especially those of us blessed to live in the wealthy west, have all we could ever need already.

Too many of us push off until retirement the idea of rest and relaxation; spending time with family and friends. But we do not need to wait. We just need to alter our priorities using the time honored virtues of prudence and moderation.  Real freedom originates in being free of attachments to material goods and their pursuit just as much as it means freedom from want.

If you only had five years left on this earth what would you be doing today? If the end came tomorrow, what would you miss? Maybe it is time to re-evaluate what makes you fully human, and truly seize the day.