Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Muslims are coming!

The Muslims Are Coming!

That was the name of a comedy tour, and film, that Negin Farsad embarked on in the South as she delivered her social-justice comedy. In a popular TED talk, she explained what social-justice comedy is and made an important clarification. "Justice" is not political. All human beings should agree that society should strive for justice.

Agreed. Unfortunately, Farsad has become a pin cushion for hate, and that disturbs me. I believe that America, by and large, is unknowledgeable of what it means to be Muslim in the United States. Unfounded assumptions abound, and many white Americans have no understanding of a non-whiteness or even whiteness for that matter.

So the best things about Farsad are that she is funny and she is her authentic self. When it comes to comedy, laughs are what matters most. Yes, social justice is her slant, but it would never, ever work if it was too preachy and not hilarious.

Farsad delivers in How To Make White People Laugh (2016), and I find the strength of the book as her personal stories, growing up Muslim and Iranian in Palm Springs. For us Gen Xers, we didn't nearly have the entertainment options that the kids today have. No wonder a bunch of them are addicted to their pocket TVs. But for us Gen Xers, finding non-white TV shows and movies was not easy at all.

So, imagine being non-white, or non-Christian, in this white-dominated culture. Well, for 40 percent of the United States, that is not a stretch because they are not white. But for a lot of that other 60 percent, well, they can have a hard time with looking beyond their white world.
The book certainly isn't perfect. Some of the jokes hit, and others don't. Even though I am a white guy, I can see her perspective and relate to it. She talks about the binary approach to race that many Americans unwittingly follow. There's white, and there's "other." Farsad writes, "Just as I considered myself Mexican in high school, in college I began shifting my sights to being black."

I learned a long time ago that ignorance is a choice. Sadly, I find that many white people remain conveniently ignorant when it comes to other races, ethnicities and cultures. We still have a faction of haters who see "other" as a threat or enemy.

That faction remains ignorant and likely would not be reading any blog entry with "Muslims" in the title. Or more scary, if they do, it could be to engage in some sort of cyber fight.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Hip hop meets gua-bao through Eddie

I've always known that diversity is a strength of the United States, and I feel sorry for folks who are stuck in one culture only. I've had the ability to live in New York and Los Angeles and travel to practically every state. As most know, there are a zillion offshoots of "American" culture, and I'm not so sure we recognize and respect that enough.

That brings me to Eddie Huang and Fresh Off the Boat (2013). First off, I love the figure and role model that Eddie Huang is.

A lot of images of Asian males in American pop culture consist of these quiet, meek guys. There are only a few Asian-American celebrities, and I love how Huang is unapologetically himself.

In Fresh Off the Boat, he goes in depth into his love of sneakers, the NBA and hiphop, and he is such an amalgamation of his family, experiences and pop culture that it's entertaining and fun to read. In a way, aren't we all amalgamations like that on some level?

I read Fresh Off the Boat right before it was adapted to be a TV show on ABC. For the first season, I watched it with my daughters, and we enjoyed it. Then, we all got phones, and we unofficially said goodbye to ever watching any sitcom. Now that I think about it, I think Fresh Off the Boat was the last network sitcom I watched since Seinfeld.
I can relate to a lot of Huang's ethnic experiences because my daughters are half-Taiwanese, and the school I teach at is predominantly Asian. Of course, as a white guy, I may not be the best source to talk race. But I do see a lot of explicit and implicit racism toward Asians and the perpetuating of the "model minority" myth.

What I appreciate about Huang's book is how it's not only an honest and realistic portrayal of assimilation, but it's freaking funny, too. I find it refreshing when we're simultaneously talking race and being entertained. Perhaps Huang has done much more for social progress than he gets credit.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

From Scout to genius to guy

Lake Forest High School 1988. What a place ... (at least on paper).

That was the senior year for movie star Vince Vaughn, writer Dave Eggers and NBA agent/current Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. I know this because my cousin Melissa also was in that graduating class. Cousin Rob graduated a year earlier.

Lake Forest is arguably one of the "nicest" and "richest" suburbs of Chicago. When my extended family lived there in the '80s, Mr. T lived there. My cousins and I once saw him driving a white Mercedes, and we followed him for a few blocks. Looking back, oopsy, that was probably some sort of harassment. Sorry, T.

I never thought much about Lake Forest High School until 1998, when I moved to L.A. My aunt actually had, and gave me, the address and digits of Vince Vaughn, who was taking off then. I never had the courage to call. "Uh, my aunt gave me your phone number. Want to meet up at the Dresden?"

Then, in 2000, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came out, and it was mega-popular, especially for Gen Xers like me. It was so big that I was thinking that Dave Eggers could be in the rare category of literary icon.
The actual story of Eggers' life is indeed heartbreaking. In 1991-92, his parents died within a year of each other from different forms of cancer. He was 21 at the time, and his younger brother Toph was 8. He moved out to the Bay Area and cared for his brother.

The book is rife with humor and what he went through, and since I haven't read it for close to 20 years, I'd be curious to see how it holds up all these years later. At the time, I loved the book because my age is similar to his, and I dug Eggers' style and aesthetic. He had an indie-rock type of style in a time when some of us Gen Xers were clinging to that.

Actually, maybe it's time revisit this type of stuff. I'm revisiting Smashing Pumpkins, of all bands, tonight. I haven't seen them since 1994 at a Lollapalooza, and at the time, I realized I had enough of the Lollapaloozas, and it was time for at least a 25-year break. Man, that band fell off the side of the earth.

Eggers didn't exactly do that. He went on to found the popular literary magazine McSweeney's and has been a part of various initiatives to promote literacy and teaching. I've read most of his other books. But if we're talking Dave Eggers, I definitely give his "genius" book the most kudos. OK, fine, I'll check it out again soon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

An honest lie

OK. After yesterday's entry on David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day with me, uh, not really remembering much about the book but insisting on its excellence, this project of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend can only get better.

So today's selection is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Unfortunately, the book is clearly fiction. In fact, on the book cover it says "fiction." However, the category we're in is "humor." Somehow, having the book on this list makes sense to me. Oh, my pyloric valve.

Is this project officially off the rails or not?

I say not! To me, Confederacy of Dunces defies all categories. I say it should be on all book lists. Yes, all lists. Sports, religious, medieval, whatever. All lists! But always beware of absolutes.

A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980, 11 years after the death of its author John Kennedy Toole. It takes place in New Orleans and follows the oddball daily excursions of Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives at home with his mother. He's slovenly and misanthropic, and one of the most entertaining and ridiculous characters I've ever encountered.
A Confederacy of Dunces is the oldest book on my list of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend. It is hilarious; it's a rare book that I've read more than once. I think in some ways it saved me, to be a reader.

I never truly read on my own until the summer before eighth grade. That was when I had back surgery, and we're talking 1986. I remember reading a few S.E. Hinton books and maybe some random stuff on sports and the planets.

Like many people, I equated reading with the stuff done in school. I don't believe we read full-length books from first to eighth grade. But then in high school, we got some novels. Mostly, I was assigned books to be appreciated and not to be loved. Dunces wasn't assigned in high school, but I believe a friend recommended it. It was actually a laugh-out-loud book that was enjoyable. Who knew this existed?!?

For a long time, when people would ask me my favorite book, I would say, "I dunno. A Confederacy of Dunces?" It turns out that question is so limiting and myopic. I have no single favorite book. I guess I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for this masterpiece. It turns out that significant literature can be hugely entertaining as well. Who knew?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Nobody knows Sedaris better than me

I must admit that the main difficulty of having David Sedaris on my list of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend was this: Which of his books gets the nod?

That was the lone difficulty, and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) edged out Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004). However, I find practically anything by Sedaris worthwhile and funny as well.

I read most of the books in this project in the last five years, but, yowsers, I've been reading David Sedaris' stuff for 20 years. So I had to refresh myself with his stuff and Me Talk Pretty One Day with the consultation of the Interwebs dot com.

Ah, yes, Me Talk Pretty is the one that has two parts. The first part takes place in the U.S., while part "Deux" occurs after he moved to France. As with nearly all of his work, the book is a collection of humorous essays, presumably nonfiction. The title track "Me Talk Pretty One Day" is about a French class he took in Paris.

OK, er, I know I read this book, but we're talking nearly 20 years ago. I don't totally remember it. But, believe me, I recommend it. Egads, I feel like one of my students doing a "hello, my baby, hello by darling" song and dance when I didn't do the reading — even though we did it aloud in class.

So who's the new Michiko Kakutani now? You guessed it? This writer, Joe Stevens.
OK, but what I can recall without any Googling is "Let It Snow" because we dissected that short story a few times in my AP English Language class. Uh, but that story is in the Corduroy and Denim book. Let's not play the blame game, but this all my wife's fault.

Just yesterday, we were discussing this project, and she asked, "How can you be doing this project? Is this all off the top of your head?"

I responded, "More or less. These are books that really affected me, and I just write the lasting impression I had."

"Wow. That's amazing," she said. "Your memory is incredible."

Cursed! She cursed me. I've transformed into the guy from the movie Memento.

Isn't it true, though, that David Sedaris is one of the best, if not the No. 1, humorists of our time? I bet my wife couldn't even name a humorist. ... OK, actually, she can. She just said, "Mark Twain."

But then when I said, "He's old school. How about a modern-day humorist?"

She said, "Uh. No. Not really."

Ha. Ha. I win. It's David Sedaris.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Is Aziz polarizing or just funny?

Earlier in this project of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend, I endorsed a divorce book by Alec Baldwin. Some of the reaction to that pick was: How could you?!?

I am wondering if that is how readers might feel with today's selection of Modern Romance (2015) by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. As most know, Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct at the beginning of 2018, and he basically went into hiding for a while.

When he came back with a Netflix special this year, I felt he looked guilty. He was so contrite that it wreaked of wrongdoing. Of course, I'm just a mere viewer, so what do I know? But my gut was telling me, "Oh, wow, there was indeed something wrong here."

So there is a strange irony or tainted pick here, but I do recommend Modern Romance, especially for any Gen Xer who happens to be on the dating scene. The reason why I do is that the book makes many points about modern dating that I could totally relate to, when I got back into that world as a divorcee.

Since 2015, so much of what Ansari and Klinenberg reported is now either a "no duh" or slightly outdated. However, four years ago, a lot of this stuff was new and possibly shocking to anyone not on the dating scene.
I quickly learned that people dating only use text to communicate, and if not, it would come across as weird and would be a dealbreaker. If you're not using an online app of some sort, well, uh, good luck to you.

That's how it's done, and once the shock of modern dating wore off, I actually loved the system. It was crazy efficient. I had fun with it. And I met my wife through it, even though I never envisioned me getting married again.

In Modern Romance, Ansari and Klinenberg blend humor and research to tackle the ramifications of dating today. The curse of choice is what ails the system now. Because there are so many potential matches out there, anyone can nix a date or potential relationship for the silliest of reasons. A "Door No. 2" always exists.

I wonder if humanity has shifted a bit because of how different dating is now compared to 10 years ago and especially 20 years ago. Ghosting, emojis, making sure to have a legit social media presence — so much takes place outside of what I consider the "real world and time," that it truly is a different world now.

Different does not necessarily mean bad. I like to think that like-minded people find each other through it all, and, heck, that happened with me and Dina.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Dead frogs, cat AIDS and Mike Sacks

For anyone pondering a career in comedy, go directly to Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks. The 2014 book has countless interviews with a who's who of the comedy world, and it is telling of how this world works and dispels many myths.

Hell, it's funny as the line "I'd rather have cat AIDS, fank you." Sacks himself interviews with an excellent blend of asking tell-all questions and humorous ones. He knows when to probe for more telling info and when to engage in some funny-ass stuff.

Sacks is an all-around cool dude. When I read a book I like, I often add the author on Twitter. I did that with him. He thanked me for the follow, and we had a brief exchange. He didn't "big time" me, like Russell Brand. (I actually don't follow Russell Brand on Twitter, but I'm sure he "big timed" me anyway.).

I knew off the bat that I probably was going to enjoy interviews with certain writers, including George Saunders, Jim Downey, Adam McKay and Megan Amram. No doubt, I did. But I approached the book from more of a "How does this world work?" angle as opposed to a "Entertain me, funny people!" point of view.
The reoccurring theme I found was how being a top comedy writer is not about being inherently funny, although that is certainly a prerequisite. But so many people are funny, yet they don't understand what being a comedy writer entails. It's more about developing the craft and, most important, sticking with the profession in the face of constant difficulties, trouble and bloggers insisting there is humor in cat AIDS. (OK, for anyone offended by cat AIDS, here's a link to FIV, and I get it. If my cat died because of this disease, it wouldn't a punchline. Then, it would have to be dog AIDS.)

This was a sequel to Sack's 2009 And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers About Their Craft. Both are worth a read, but Dead Frog is more updated. And the comedy world is evolving more than ever with the advent of YouTube, Twitter and cat websites. I'm slightly concerned that the comedy writing world is evolving so quickly that Gen Xer's like myself are becoming outdated.

No doubt, generations have a different concept of "funny," on some level. The references are difficult on both sides. I made a quip with a reference to Chaka Khan the other day, and my daughters looked confused. They often laugh at something or other; I have no idea what is wrong with them.

Go read the Mike Sacks books. He's a writer's writer, like I believe Norm MacDonald is a comedian's comedian. I like to think of myself as a Polack's Polack.

Friday, August 23, 2019

A wild and actually pretty sane guy

I might argue that Steve Martin's memoir Born Standing Up is misnamed. So much of his message was about hard work, his love for comedy and the importance of evolving throughout his career that to think that someone was simply born to do all that he has done is misleading.

But, eh, whatever. Steve Martin is entertaining, sophisticated, a kind gent. As a Gen Xer, I've watched his career from the late '70s and on, and many have watched it for even longer.

We could battle it out to figure out the highlight, or highlights, of Martin's esteemed career. I freaking love The Jerk (1979). But he also was selling on stadiums for comedy in the '70s and has written quality books as well.

Born Standing Up (2007) is indeed a highlight, even among all of Martin's successes, because he reveals a lot of details about his career that is telling for anyone who's ever aspired to be some sort of star. I learned real fast that show business is not for the faint at heart.

My lord, you got to be committed times 1,000 to have even a shot at making a real living in the industry, and so many sacrifices made me realize that it wouldn't be my jam. Also, I need a philosophy, or a cause, to be driven. The entertainment industry wasn't a match with me, but I have mad respect for anyone who makes a living in it.
Steve Martin absolutely worked hard for his successes and has been evolving throughout his life. As a fan, it's been refreshing to watch him do so many different things.

One point that resonated with me was when he mentioned other "talented" people and how there are many, many more talented and funnier people out there. He was enamored, and absolutely loved, performing so much that he committed himself to it. He enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, the process of entertainment.

I have long said that, overall, British actors are much stronger than American actors, and I know this is a stereotype. Part of the reason why British actors are often so good is because of the overboard celebrity culture in the United States. Many actors here look at outcomes or dream of Oscars or unhealthy things like that.

In England, acting is approached more as a craft. Somehow, Steve Martin avoided many traps of show business, despite being in the industry for more than 50 years. I'm not sure there will ever be anyone ever else like him because of the scope of his career and how the world has changed during his path.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

We elevate others when we elevate ourselves

"Personal growth" used to be called "self-help," and in my world, a stigma surrounded the reading of self-help books. "He needs a self-help book?!? What is his problem?"

Over the past five years, I've discovered that, eh gads, I wish I tapped into personal-growth books when I was, like, a kid because they would have saved me a lot of heartache. My favorite Mark Twain quote remains: "It ain't what you know that gets you in trouble. It's what you think you know for sure that just ain't so."

A lot of self-help, or personal-growth, basics can be like a light switch. Stay out of your own way. Stop thinking so much. Stop talking so much. It's basic stuff. At least that's what I've found for myself.

Personal growth also is the best thing we can do for those around us. Perhaps we owe it to them. We need to use our positions of status, education, wealth or whatever we got to elevate ourselves, and by doing that, we elevate those around me.

So the 10 personal-growth books I recommend are:

1. Mindset by Carol Dweck (2006)
2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (2016)
3. Money (2014) by Tony Robbins
4. The Art of Asking (2015) by Amanda Palmer
5. You Are a Badass (2013) by Jen Sincero
6. Girl, Wash Your Face (2018) by Rachel Hollis
7. The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) by Chris Guilleabeau
8. The Omnivore's Dilemma (2007) by Michael Pollan
9. The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins
10. The Power of Now (1997) by Eckhart Tolle

These are all 21st century books with the exception of The Power of No, and that makes sense because our culture, our resources, our world has changed so much that it's good to know that our books are improving and evolving — and so are we.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Embracing 'now' means embracing spirituality

Our thought patterns can hold us back. We fill in the blanks. We make wrong conclusions. We overanalyze. I bet each of us has some thoughts that hinder us, as opposed to help us.

Earlier this year, I became mesmerized by the acronym SPIES. In fact, I wrote about it here. SPIES stands for social, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

I contend that the whole point of education and personal growth is to develop in these five areas. For me, and for most in schools, the intellectual side is bombarded, so for followers and pleasers, that side typically becomes an area of strength. For me, the other four areas could use tweaking or improvement, so I am doing deliberate things with them — even at my age.

Of the five parts of SPIES, I was confounded most by the spiritual side. I realized that I denied the spiritual side of myself for years, and the reason why was anger toward the Catholic Church — its numerous rules, lack or progress, confirmed repeated hiding of rape, crimes and more.

Once I got in touch with my feelings, I then made a step forward to reconnect spiritually to myself and the world. Damn it, where was my soul?

With 12 years of Catholic schooling under my belt and years of being an altar boy, I remember a class at St. Ignatius High School called "ecumenism." That is the effort of Christians to develop deeper understanding and relationships with other Christians, and St. Ignatius used the course as an introduction to Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and other world religions.

It's kind of funny, how I revisited all the world's religions in many, many books, and after all of it, I am recommending Eckhart Tolle's famous The Power of Now (1997). That doesn't mean I didn't get a lot out of other spiritual books, but this one helped me the most.
I don't want to fall into overanalyzing, which often hinders spirituality. One thing I have discovered is that different cultures talk about spirituality in different ways. In the West, a lot of people simply call it "Jesus."

What I feel, and what I believe, is that the human mind has different tracks and different realms. We are at our best when we feel alive, in the moment, accepting the possibility of a spiritual world and connecting with others, nature and the world. We all are living and dying at the same time; all living things die.

I do not have the answers, and once I think I do, the questions change. I have no plans on becoming supernatural and living some sort of after-life. Rather, I embrace the human life as is and understand that we are limited in our rational minds and we are best when our souls and spirits connect.

We have 7.5 billion people on the planet today. In 130 years, none of these 7.5 billion people will be alive. Yet I believe we are part of an incredible journey, and maybe we owe it to ourselves to understand the wonder of our lives and cherish as many moments as we can. We should do this now and always.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reason and faith can coexist ... Right?

I'm no Bill Maher. I don't describe myself as atheist, and I don't demean people who are religious.

However, I also believe that logic should not be thrown out the window with spiritual beliefs. I believe that reason and spirituality can reconcile themselves, and I can accept some spiritual beliefs.

In the West, a lot of spirituality is called "Jesus," and in the East, there are various terms, including "Buddha."

Enter Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006). The basis for the title is quote from Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), who said, "When one person suffers from a delusion, it's called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion."

As an 8-year-old in Catholic school, I remember being a curious whippersnapper and asking constant questions about religious rules and dogma. Even at that age, I concluded that a lot of this stuff made no logical sense. Some people told me, "You have to have faith," but my gut told me that answer wasn't good enough. It isn't.

The God Delusion does an in-depth and thoughtful exploration of many things illogical in conventional beliefs of God. I know that atheists love the book because it supports their no-God conclusion. However, I think it's a good book for everybody because it can open eyes to illogical premises in beliefs and it shows that people who don't believe in God can have perfectly fulfilling and moral lives.
I do not identify myself as an atheist. I'm not a fan of that for myself because it would define myself with nothing, and to me, that is not good enough. If forced to say exactly what I am, I guess I would say "a humanist embracing spirituality."

If the word "spirituality" need to be replaced by "Jesus" or something else, I don't really have a problem with that. However, I do have a problem with using religion or God or spirituality as a way to divide people as opposed to bringing them together.

That's why I'm not a fan of atheists who believe they are right and that's all there is to it. The history of religion and spirituality is convoluted and complicated. Yes, indeed, there have been numerous massacres in the name of God. I do understand the argument that worse things have happened to humanity because of organized religion than positive things.

Richard Dawkins is unapologetic and unsympathetic about his non-beliefs of God, but I'm not that way because I see how many people are in different places with their faith and education. I like to think I understand them, and it's not my job to change them.

On a personal level, I'm happy to have soaked in The God Delusion and got a lot out of it. But that was more than 10 years ago. I am wondering for self-proclaimed atheists who say religion is outdated, is it possible that defining one's self as an atheist too is outdated?

The irony of recommending The God Delusion is that I imagine many religious or spiritual people would dismiss is, or be too threatened by the book. I hope that I'm wrong and everyone can read this important book.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Eat real food

As simple and fundamental as it sounds, the best advice I could give anyone on how to have a better life is this: Eat real food.

I am fascinated by our country, economics, the food industry and marketing. I remember, back in the day, where the alleged normal reaction from children would be: "Ew, vegetables, yuk. I don't want my vegetables!"

Ha! What wild marketing! ... Well, a lot of the veggies we'd get would be canned grossness, so I can kind of see that reaction. The food industry has been similar to the cigarette industry for decades, and when I realized this, my life and health became exponentially better.

Michael Pollan's enormously popular and significant book Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) could be the No. 1 book I recommend of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend. I deliberately put it in the personal-growth category because to me, the first step in self-improvement is to be physically healthy. Sadly, many Americans just can't get there because they have diets that include Dr. Pepper, Taco Bell, Lean Cuisine meals and bull crap.

I must say that my upgrading of food has been a work in progress, but it is so much better than 10 years ago. Cutting down on processed food was the first step, and when I shop, staying as much as possible on the outer ring of the grocery store where the food is real is crucial. Fresh vegetables and fruit, less meat, less empty carbs — that's been the key to my improved diet.
Beware of marketing! That's why The Omnivore's Dilemma is such a seminal work. It cuts through the b.s., does not obfuscate and speaks to me. So-called "healthy" processed foods have become a ginormous industry, and quite frankly, they are not healthy. They have major amounts of sodium and sugars, and while they might be perceived as convenient, it is far healthier to eat unprocessed food.

Pollan makes an appearance 2014 documentary Fed Up, and I recommend that movie, too. For many Americans, they rely on fast food, processed food, packaged food and pre-made stuff. That food has contributed to a skyrocketing of obesity and unhealthy bodies.

When we look at the dysfunctional health care issues and many of societal ills, it is more than feasible that a lot of the problems stem from diet. I will never be able to justify the abundance of Cheetos, pizza, French fries and sugary drinks on school campuses. The best word to describe the Frankenfood I see at schools is mortifying.

One shred of hope is that each generation appears to improve its diet. But here's the catch. It's for those who are educated in the subject. I'm hopeful that more and more people become educated about diet, understand that the four basic food groups was a marketing scheme and at least read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Non-conformists unite with their art

As much as I've tried to conform to, uh, anything, I realize that I'm a non-conformist by nature. In the fabric of myself, I understand that being different, not conforming, is a positive thing. I am me, and that's how it is.

Heck, back in the '90s, glorious Arby's had the slogan "Different is good." If that phrase works for a fast-food restaurant of roast beef and horsey sauce, then it works for me. Nowadays, I am unsure what to make of Arby's new motto: "We have the meats!"

Whatever the case, I responded to Chris Guillebeau's The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) because the book gave me license to embrace my non-conformist ways and open my eyes more to unspoken assumptions that are made all of the time.

One major point to Guillebeau's book is that we should embrace life as a constant adventure. I couldn't agree more, and the book helped me see that we have a lot of power to live the adventure of our choosing.

As a Gen Xer growing up, I had it in my mind that I was supposed to go to college, then make a living ASAP. I did that. Was that really my best life in my 20s?

The good news is that I was a newspaper journalist, and adventure is a part of that gig. However, I had it in my mind that I needed to have a steady job, health insurance and do something that others would see as "respectable." All of those notions might have limited me.
Guillebeau has traveled to all 193 countries in the world. He appears to be living the life of his choosing, and I'm inspired by that. I wonder how many people actually live the life they want. Instead, I bet they often live the life they think they should, or they live the life they think their parents want.

Guillebeau promotes radical goal setting, and I like that — within reason. Too often people shoot too low with their goals, and while modesty can be a good trait, it sometimes kills risk-taking and hinders success. If a risk weren't taken with a goal, is it really a success?

Over the past few years, Guillebeau has focused on creative self-employment. He has another book coming out soon called 100 Side Hustles, and it focuses on creative ways to make money while keeping your day job.

I wonder how many of us are conformists vs. non-conformists. What do we strive for? I've dabbled in conformity, now and again, and it just feels forced. I must say it was freeing for me to accept the fact that in many ways, I am hindered by my non-conformist ways. Or am I freed?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Boy, go get a book at Target

A month after I read Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis, I was at my big-box store of choice — Target — by the check-out lines. And... holy mackerel!

There was a cardboard cutout of Hollis and a display hyping her book. The fact that this marketing could exist in the modern day gave me some sort of hope for nonfiction books.

Girl, Wash Your Face is in the genre I love and is an excellent book that can help a lot of people. Each chapter is named after a lie she would tell herself, and maybe we share that lie. Then, she would offer truisms and actionable solutions to move forward.

Similar to You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, I have basically the same two critiques. No. 1: The audience is obviously more for women. No. 2: I couldn't relate to some of the lies, and a few chapters just didn't affect me.

However, some of the chapters did, especially in the beginning of the book. The book kicks off with chapters "Something else will make me happy," "I'll start tomorrow" and "I'm not good enough." To me, these are universal personal-growth basics that everyone should follow. But soon, the book goes into more female-focused growth, and, well, it turns out I'm a total dude.
I am such a dude, in fact, that I made sure to suggest Hollis' 30-day challenge to my wife. Hollis' involved her husband, and perhaps you can infer what it is. We have not embarked on it yet, but that does not mean I won't bring it up time to time.

Overall, I do believe that Hollis is an inspirational figure. However, here is another author in 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend that is huge in other arenas. She has 1.5 million Instagram followers, a popular Podcast, and I continually wonder how important her books are, compared to her other endeavors.

Because Girl, Wash Your Face has sold 3.5 million copies, I conclude that her books are indeed a big deal. But her path should be a lesson to all would-be authors, that it is foolish to think books just sell themselves. She is busting herself in motivational speaking and other media, and she must have an excellent team in place.

Perhaps another title for one of her chapters named by lies could be "We can go at it alone."

Thursday, August 15, 2019

You are a badass, no matter what they say

I must confess, that I aspire to be the "teacher version of Jen Sincero."

She has written a bad-ass series and burst onto the book scene with You Are a Badass (2013). I also must give it up to her team and the cool-ass title and marketing. It's one thing to write personal-growth books, but it's another to sell more than 5 million copies.

What I like most about You Are a Badass is how the information is presented. Because I was well-versed in the personal-growth genre by the time I read Badass, I didn't have many "a-ha" moments. However, Sincero's messages are true.

The big message I walk away with is that the first step in personal growth is to have sincerely positive thoughts. If it's true that our crazy American culture is full of negativity, constant consumption and marketing, then that is easier said than done. It also may be insincere to have overboard positive thoughts of unicorns and rainbows, so then maybe what works is seeing yourself as a badass. OK. Sounds good.
I do have two minor critiques of You Are a Badass. No. 1 is that the audience likely is more female, but is that really a critique? No. 2 is that for some negative, or self-sabotaging, thoughts mentioned in the book, well, I've never had them.

Perhaps I'm delusional or overly confident, but I've never doubted my greatness. So a lot of the book devoted to potential negativity wasn't that useful for me because I maybe was further along than other readers.

Over the past three years, You are a Badass at Making Money and You a Badass Every Day have been released. In an interview about the money book, Sincero mentioned how she applied personal-growth techniques to money, and I see that as a natural progression.

Just as some people hold themselves back in life and don't give themselves permission to thrive, they also hold themselves back with wealth, too. Why?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Asking for help is an art

Amanda Palmer used to be one of those human statues outside of museums. She wasn't a panhandler. No, she offered live art. High foot traffic trounced past, and she received enough money from tourists to survive.

In The Art of Asking, Palmer poignantly explains the significance of her nonverbal exchanges as a human statue and how so many people were desperate for just a glimpse of humanity, of connection. She received loose change or a mere dollar or two, and she gave the onlookers an item in return — a small flower.

Palmer's perspective is refreshing and unique. Her views about the importance of art remind me of what my friends and I used to say, and believe, in college. Then, as time progressed, maybe we still felt passionately about art, but it fell to the background of our lives as we conformed to being proper American consumers with our hours being blasted away through day jobs.

I learned a lot about myself through Palmer's 2015 book, and the first thing was that as a Gen Xer, I am sometimes out of it when it comes to what's popular, social media and what's viral. I had not heard of Amanda Palmer before I read her book. She has a popular band, the Dresden Dolls, and has more than 1 million Twitter followers. I had no clue.

Also, a big reason why she's so well-known is that she did a Kickerstarter campaign that raised $1.2 million in 2012 to release a solo album. She has reportedly raised $2.8 million through crowdfunding, and let's face it, a huge reason for the book is that people want to know this: Just how in the world did you do that?
What's kind of refreshing to know is that there is no short cut or get-rich scheme to be a wizard at crowdfunding. Palmer has cultivated a major following. She's networked with major players, and she is a player herself. She's unique, and in an era of cookie-cutter personalities, people respond to her.

I like her, but she receives a lot of hate on the Interwebs. Are these haters just jealous? I say, keep doing what you're doing, Amanda.

One takeaway I had from The Art of Asking was how "asking" is much different than "begging." I'm a firm believer that the world is full of givers and takes. I'm certainly a giver, and I like to think that Amanda Palmer is a giver, too.

She is committed to her music, art, Twitter life and a non-cookie cutter life. When she was giving away flowers as a human statue, well, that's giving. That's not taking. She provided a creative service for others; she has worked for what she has and her popularity.

Another takeaway is that you just can't go at things alone. Nobody would ever get anywhere alone. There would be no roads, no cars, no directions. We are all united, more than we realize, and we might as well embrace that.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why is money such a taboo?

I avoided reading Tony Robbins for most of my life.

Too popular. Too cheesy. Not arty enough.

It turns out, though, that made a mistake and was missing out. The self-help guru has some inspirational books, and it just took a little humility for me to tap into his mindset and world.

Now, he has taken his self-help empire to the next level. His net worth is estimated at $500 million, and even though he has constantly been building his corporations, I find his points and messages genuine and helpful.

Of all of the Robbins' books out there, I recommend Money: Master the Game (2014) for multiple reasons. No. 1: I am not sure there is a bigger taboo in American culture than money. But a reasonable person might say that race or sex or religion or politics are bigger taboos.

Nah, I don't think so. In my world, talks about money were shrouded, and I believe that's how it is with most Americans. The statistics show that not only do most Americans not talk about money, but their debt and spending habits show that they have no idea what they're doing with their money.
Perhaps I come from a blue-collar world, where our conversations always about the importance of work, not how to build wealth. So I got a lot out of Money. To me, I believe it's safe to say that our most important commodities in modern living are time and money (in that order). Unfortunately, many people don't even know their own behaviors or strategies toward them.

Some basic points underscored in Money are the power of compounding and how the financial industry has changed over the past 40 years. For the average person, the main investments we face now are real estate, retirement accounts and the stock market.

In his book, Robbins interviews the biggest players in the financial industry, and those interviews are fascinating and telling. I learned that the lay person can have a solid understanding of how the financial world works and so-called experts don't really know much more than the educated lay person.

At the bare minimum, Robbins got me to look at the fees associated to my retirement accounts and investments and helped me realize that "managed" accounts are kind of a joke. I moved my stuff to thoughtfully selected, low-fee index funds on Ameritrade, and those are performing way better than with my previous b.s. managed account.

But the bigger message aren't those details. Rather, it contains some basic mantras, such as "it's not what you make; it's what you keep." Another one is, obviously, to be debt-free as soon as possible, and to know the difference between money and wealth. Money is what buys stuff. Wealth is what occurs when our money is working for us.

There is no shame in becoming wealthy. I suggest we all figure out how to do it, and wealth is not guaranteed with merely having a high-paying job.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Who gives a f***?

When everybody and their cousin liked Pearl Jam back in 1992, I didn't want to like the band. Too mainstream. Too popular. Not for me.

But darn it, I'll admit that I ended up liking "Even Flow" and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town."

I feel similarly toward Mark Manson and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. The book was too popular for me to like. Right? If so many people think something's cool, it's no longer cool. Right?

Well, well, I ended up gobbling up The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and felt that Manson brought an excellent, fun straight-talking tone to popular self-help topics. I loved the book.

Various personal-growth themes frequently come up for anybody who's dabbled in the genre. The strength of Manson's book is that it refuses to be overly optimistic or even cheery about the difficulty of self-change.
Another strength is that he focuses on the cognitive side of personal growth, and that's how I see it. Nearly all of our pressing problems are in our heads, and the inability to recognize that holds most of the masses back. I believe the best way to change our thoughts is to change our actions, then the thoughts will follow suit.

Manson eventually takes the book to another level when he shares a personal tragedy that occurred in his life, and by doing that, the book has much more weight than just a cool guy spouting advice in a cool way. Suffering is a part of life, and we all must learn how to deal with that. I also respond to one of his points about failing forward.

In a way, the title The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is misleading because Manson does care about his life and others — so much so, he is committed to a life on the subject. However, most people pick the wrong things to give a f*** about, and I walked away from the book with a better understanding of the importance of prioritizing and being more strong with being able to tell people "no."

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The first step in growth is mindset

I'm a fan of valuable chitchat. I just don't have time to chitchat about nothing, so if we have a two-minute exchange at the grocery store, I'll do my best to make it meaningful for the both of us.

So when a chit-chatter finds out I'm a teacher, we soon get to where I teach and who I teach, and sometimes that person says something to the effect of "well, it must be hard to teach those smart kids."

Labeling kids as "smart" or being labeled as such doesn't really help anybody, and Carol Dweck's Mindset (2006) is an important read for anyone who feels stuck in life or for anyone who felt the educational system didn't really help.

Our educational system has long glorified the idea of a fixed mindset. You're either smart or you're not, and those traits are not changing. It's a false notion because anyone can get better at anything as long as deliberate practice is enacted.

Understanding and fostering a growth mindset is much more helpful for students and everyone, really. We can all get better at anything if we embrace the challenge, adapt from mistakes and stop being so helpless. At least, that's my definition of growth mindset.
A few years back, I was delighted when my daughters' elementary school focused on growth mindset as the year's goal. Videos even were sent to the parents, and I couldn't think of a more refreshing thing to do.

A growth mindset could be applied to any aspect of our life, and it helps us not only achieve but live a fuller life. I see far too frequently that what holds individuals back in life usually is themselves and their ideas of themselves. When those ideas become healthier and positive, so does the individual.

In the school system, we have long been victims of unhealthy fixed thinking and foolish rankings. Heck, kids and schools still do it today as they compare grades, test scores and schools that still rank the kids.

In Dweck's public school in Brooklyn, the children sat in order of perceived IQ, as determined by a test, and certain kids had additional responsibilities because of their seats. Ridiculous!

I might want to go off about Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences and the silliness of IQ tests, but instead, I'll just say that I consider Mindset a necessary read for those interested in bettering themselves.

Friday, August 9, 2019

10 parenting books underscore diversity

Voila! That concludes the parenting category for 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend. So far, 20 books have been recommended, and the last 10 were:

1. How To Raise An Adult (2015) by Julie Lythcott-Haims
2. Nonviolent Communication (2015, third edition) by Marshall Rosenberg
3. How We Love Our Kids (2011) by Milan and Jay Yerkowich
4. The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (1995) by Jawanza Kunjufu
5.  iGen (2017) by Jean Twenge
6. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) by Amy Chua
7. Grit (2016) by Angela Duckworth
8. How Children Succeed (2012) by Paul Tough
9. Fraternity (2019) by Alexandra Robbins
10. A Promise to Ourselves (2008) by Alec Baldwin

What I realize based on the array of titles that I love is that parenting is absolutely connected to culture and upbringing. We often mimic our parents with our children, regardless if we realize it or not. Then, the United States is so diverse that various parenting styles exist within it.

I'm no parenting expert, but I am committed to being a better parent each day. The biggest thing I've learned on my journey is that parenting is a two-way street. I learn from my daughters. Maybe they learn from me, but who knows?

We're in an extremely automated world now, in which the mere questions of what it means to be human often are obscured. I'm hoping that having a baby is a wake-up call to parents to understand that human beings are much more fascinating and amazing than any of our creations.

Unfortunately, if those thoughts happen, they may soon fall by the wayside as fresh parents do and make sure to post pictures of their newborns on social media.

Our next category of recommendations is personal growth. And for avid readers of this blog, keep in mind that we don't post on Sundays during this project, but we'll have our first personal growth selection tomorrow. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Divorce advice: Stay out of court!

The year was 2008. I moved out of the house of my wife of seven years with two young girls, and I felt a lot of guilt about it.

I was raised Catholic, so I was extremely good at feeling guilt. I also had outdated views of divorce, such as "death, yes, divorce, no way."

I'm not sure how much other divorcees evolve after their first marriage, but I did. As part of my evolution, Alec Baldwin's A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce (2008) offered candid truisms of divorce from a man's point of view.

The best advice I could give anyone about divorce is "don't do it!" If the marriage is salvageable, then save the lawyers, save the filings and get that marriage back on track. I say that and multiple it by 10, if there are kids in the marriage.

However, if it's a loveless marriage or if you know that you don't want your kids around your dysfunctional relationship, then divorce could be the right decision. If that happens to be the path, the next advice is "stay out of the courts!"

I knew going into my divorce that lawyers and the courts are a money drain — and probably an emotional drain as well. I settled with my ex out of court, received 50/50 visitation and custody and had a fair settlement. She kept the house. I will pay child support until my daughters are 18.

Honestly, that's about as good as a man can do with the courts. Thank God that my ex and I had the presence of mind not to go down the path of court dates because even when facing the pain and emotions of a divorce, we undoubtedly settled way better than with the court system.

Baldwin's book, written with Mark Tabb, is an indictment of the family law system and how the laws are stacked against men. He speaks the truth.
If a woman elects to, she can have a contentious divorce, ask for more money or more time, and the only thing a man can do is lawyer up as well and battle it out in court. Divorces can get UGLY, and Baldwin and Kim Basinger's certainly was that.

Another important thing Baldwin brings up is parental alienation syndrome, AKA P.A.S. This is the malady in which one parent, usually the man, is isolated from the kids and the other party feeds hatred toward the one isolated.

In my life, I made up my mind a long time ago that I would only talk positively about my ex, the girls' mom. It is OK to have two houses, to be loved by many people from many angles, and in my situation, the two houses work pretty well.

Women have long gotten screwed by deadbeat dads and womanizers, so it kind of makes sense that the law is weighted in favor of the ladies. That's excellent news when dealing with a scumbag man. The bad news is that for good, loving fathers, the system is against them as well.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

'Fraternity' explores modern-day masculinity

As a master of sweeping generalizations, I believe boys are struggling more than girls nowadays. I base that assessment on what I see at my high school and actual data.

At my high school, boys' emotional, social and academic skills lag behind the girls. Now, people tell me this has always been the case. But I argue that more than ever, American males are struggling because they are much more prone to video-game and opioid addition.

The telling statistic that boys also are lagging is that for the first time ever, the life expectancy for the American male went down this year. That statistic is attributed to drug-related deaths and suicide. Yowsers!

Enter Fraternity: An Inside Look at at Year of College Boys Becoming Men by Alexandra Robbins. The book came out earlier this year, and I was most fascinated with a much under-examined topic: masculinity.

Fraternities perpetuate displays of masculinity that young men do, even though many of them don't want to do it. They over-drink, talk about women like they're objects and show off to their "brothers."

One strength of Fraternity is Robbins' blend of narrative and research. She follows two fraternity brothers for a year, but then, she does some hard-core research on themes that come up. That's where masculinity comes in.
Why is drinking considered manly? Why are sexual conquests considered that? While I must say that there can be healthy aspects to fraternities, including close relationships, friendships and understanding, I believe much of their Greek-party stuff is out of date. For her part, Robbins created a balanced book, which also shows some positive parts of fraternity life.

For me, personally, I never was into the Greek life. I never pledged at my beloved Ohio State, but I did attend a few parties at frats and sororities. They tended to be ragers.

The movie Animal House came out in 1978, and then Revenge of the Nerds came out in 1984. Thirty-five years later, I believe it's safe to say that those movies are outdated and perpetuate unhealthy and/or shocking Greek life gone wrong. I still can't believe there is, in essence, a rape scene in the nerd movie and another scene in which they record sorority girls nude. That's completely unacceptable. Right?

I feel a sense of hope. Since Robbins is covering some underreported material, including masculinity and what causes a sense of belonging, I believe that boys, more now than ever, have the opportunity to grow into the best versions of themselves, not just what gets attention from others around them.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Tough lessons on what children actually need

An age-old song and dance ping-pongs back and forth between parents and schools.

"Why aren't the schools doing enough?"

"Why aren't the parents doing enough?"

I bring this up because I find that parenting and teaching are one of the same, and I had to destroy notions of what I thought each was in order to be the best parent and teacher I can be.

Paul Tough's 2012 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character belongs in the parenting category of books I recommend, not the education one. The reason why is that parents need to know that academic success hardly means anything in schools or the real world nowadays.

Now, a reasonable person might say, "Doesn't academic success matter with getting into college?"

My answer: "Not really."

The reason why is it's a given that a student applying to a good or prestigious university will have academic success. When it comes to elite universities, it's practically impossible to distinguish one's self by academic success alone. It's a given in today's climate.

So back in 2012, Tough put together a book with an excellent thesis, and he wrote a readerly take on the key attributes that have data behind them that make students successful. The main two qualities are grit, which Angela Duckworth also covered, and curiosity.
Or course, a looming question is what is "success." Some people subscribe money to success or maybe status. What they're really doing is playing off the idea of "making my parents proud."

But is that really success, and does that really go anywhere?

I feel that Tough's take on "success" jibes with mine, mostly because I see adapting to setbacks and seeing the world through constantly curious eyes as crucial for a meaningful existence.

I'm hopeful that parenting and schools are evolving beyond the Industrial Revolution and more focused on developing well-rounded human beings instead of mere workers. The good news is that parents of means typically have that focus, but a lot of parents, rich or poor, never really embraced adulthood perhaps because they never developed the crucial traits in Tough's book.

Monday, August 5, 2019

What's more important an 'A' or grit?

The curriculums of schools are exceptionally important. Nationwide, I'd love to see them updated in public schools, but that is such a daunting task, that I'm not too optimistic about that.

While I don't want to diminish the importance of what kids learn, I want to stress the importance of how they learn. I believe the key to education is to develop traits, more so than conventional classes.

So Angela Duckworth's 2016 book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance could have been in the education or personal growth part of this project. But I'm putting it in the parenting category because grit is arguably the most important trait any child can develop.

I define grit as courage or resolve in the face of adversity. I add on, that my understanding of grit is not only to "roll with the punches," but to embrace the punches. "Hey, Ray, I never went down, man! You never got me down, Ray! You hear me, you never got me down."
Another reason why Grit is in the parenting category is that you can't bank on it being learned in school. Explicit character instruction is either superficial or devolves into cliche. Grit could be learned implicitly, but I think there are more teachable moments at home.

"In the real world," as we Gen Xers like to say, "things don't always go your way." With the advent of personal technology and personalized entertainment, children need to understand that things "in the real world" don't revolve around them and that they need to know how to adapt to this.

We can't succeed unless we risk failure, and the more we fail, the more that may show that we're risk-taking and developing grit. As a Cleveland sports fan, I would say that my entire city is full of grit. Or maybe I'm just full of sh--!