I love a good post-apocalyptic novel.  The Road shook this young father to the core, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the world destroyed countless times over in various ways: alien invasions, plagueescaped biological weapons, economic ruin, gamma ray bursts, and nuclear weapons, just to name a few.  The breakdown of society is a favorite theme in my own writing as well.  My novel The Lords of Harambee is about a peacekeeping operation on a hellish world torn apart by economic ruin and genocide, and my current work-in-progress is about the rapid dissolution of an empire.  It isn’t the ruin I necessarily enjoy; it’s watching human beings stripped down to their essential nature, then fighting to survive and to build something new and good.

So I’ll never shy away from a promising post-apocalyptic novel, but when I downloaded the Audible version of The Grapes of Wrath, that was hardly what I was expecting.  I had fallen in love with East of Eden a couple years ago, and was looking for an equally powerful experience.  I had read “The Grapes of Wrath” in High School and despised it, but I’ve spent my adult years rediscovering and falling in love with many of those books I’d been too young to appreciate.  So when I returned to this novel, I had some idea of what was in store.  However, I was deeply surprised, midway through the book, when I realized I was listening to one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

This is a beautiful and compassionate book, and the Audible version is phenomenal.  Despite a huge cast of characters, the narrator brings each of the main characters to life with a diverse range of believable voices, and does an excellent job managing the many secondary characters. I couldn’t wait to get into the car at the end of each workday, so I could listen to another segment.  But make no mistake: this novel is also brutal.  In the Audible version, the listener has more than 21 hours to witness the tragic dissolution of the Joad family.  By the end, I just wanted it to be over.  I didn’t remember much about the book from High School, but I did remember how it ended, and I knew it wasn’t well.

There are no alien invasions or stray asteroids, but this is John Steinbeck’s apocalypse.  It is nothing less than the destruction of America, and the members of the Joad family are the classic post-apocalyptic survivors, inching their way across a tortured landscape in search of a better future.  Merciless corporations, a runaway financial system, and weak or oppressive government institutions have conspired to make life unbearable for the average American.  While the upper crust of society grows impossibly rich, the masses eek out miserable lives, simply trying to survive.  Many of them don’t, and we watch their downfall in painful slow motion.

Steinbeck’s critique of capitalism might be overstated.  After all, the 20th century was not exactly a race to the bottom, and our lives today are substantially better today thanks to the innovation made possible by a capitalist system.

However, Steinbeck’s devastated world looks uncomfortably familiar today, at a time when something is so clearly broken in American society.  We live in an era when wealth disparity is growing rapidly, and when neither capitalism nor the American government serves the common interest.  The middle class is disappearing, and the masses struggle to stay afloat in the face of the new economic and political reality: crushing debt, unaffordable higher education, disappearing jobs, dysfunctional governance, totalitarian surveillance, unjust legal systems, and dwindling government services.  Thankfully most of us aren’t reduced to the misery and desperation of Steinbeck’s world, but the novel is haunting and familiar for those of us who are worried about where our country is headed.

With all that said, Steinbeck makes one significant deviation from most post-apocalyptic novels.  In the majority of these novels, humanity descends into Mad Max barbarism; every man is for himself, and every stranger is a likely enemy.  Many of today’s survivalists, who anticipate a rapid collapse of society, hoard food and ammo so they can ride out the end of the world in fortified isolation.  But as John Robb pointed out in a blog post I’ve since lost track of, collapsing societies don’t always turn every man against the others; in most cases, neighbors band together to survive.  As national institutions crumble, local ones become essential.  Read the news about Syria, and you’ll read stories about neighborhoods forming local councils to tackle urgent problems and women smuggling medicine into besieged communities.  Anyone who has visited a war zone will testify to these remarkable stories of compassion and bravery.  This is how human beings ride out the end of the world: with every act of terror or tyranny matched by an act of courage or kindness.

“The Grapes of Wrath” illustrates this beautifully.  Despite the horrific world that Steinbeck has created, the weary, destitute refugees show extraordinary generosity to one another.  No man survives at another’s expense.  Every last crust of bread is shared, every favor returned.  At one point Ma says, “I’m learin’ one thing good…If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”  The contrast between rich and poor in the novel is striking, and perhaps exaggerated–but it also rings true, just as Orwell’s treatment of poverty did for me.  Steinbeck succeeded in unsettling this reader’s conscience.

So when you’re planning for the end of the world, don’t limit yourself to stockpiling ammo.  Consider the possibilities for cooperation, generosity, and kindness despite the terror.  And if you’ve had all of the Zombie fiction that you can possibly handle, consider a less orthodox interpretation of the Apocalypse.  Steinbeck’s slow unraveling of American civilization will make you stop and think, and it will absolutely make you feel.

Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims is an important addition to the cultural conversation about Islam in America. I follow this conversation with interest, because as a graduate student in Jordan, I wrote my master’s thesis about different narratives about Islam in the United States. In particular, I focused on the relationship between language and power. I read dozens of books from across the spectrum, from Islam’s most ardent defenders to its most vitriolic critics. My research confirmed by sense that so much of the debate about Islam isn’t fully honest. It is less concerned with debating meaningful issues than with attempting to dominate the debate and squelch dissent. In general, I find this to be true of both “Islamophobes” and “apologists.”

This book fits within my overall sense of the debate. It is an apologetic work, dedicated to defending Muslims by destroying the credibility of Islam’s fiercest opponents. The author offers a relentless exposé of the sheer ugliness of individuals like Pamella Gellar, who profit from and take a perverse delight in hatemongering. This critique is important and necessary. Although I believe many Americans have legitimate concerns about Islam, at some point I have to call a spade a spade: many of the individuals who get involved in this debate are hateful, ignorant bigots. Lean exposes some of them, as well as the financial incentives undergirding their little empire. That is the book’s main strength.

But the book suffers from the same deficiency that so many other apologetic works do; it doesn’t engage at all with legitimate questions or concerns that non-Muslims have about Islam. To cite just one example, Lean tells us how terrible it is that Islamophobic organizations distribute material claiming that Muhammad slept with a nine year-old. However, he never engages with the fact that this tidbit is actually true, according to early Islamic sources. Nor does he engage with problematic aspects of shariah codified in classical Islamic jurisprudence. He writes off concerns about Islamic organizations in the US, despite extensive documentation that many of these groups grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Islamophobic industry” blows many of these things out of proportion, and I think honest analysis would dissipate many fears, but I don’t find approaches like Lean’s particularly helpful. Pamella Gellar and Robert Spencer may be hatemongers, but they are so successful because their work finds traction among average Americans who see things in Islam that legitimately concern them. Blowing off those concerns will not help things; what this debate needs is more patient, honest discussion about these critical issues. Perhaps Lean would argue that such discussion is beyond the scope of his book, but if he really wants to disarm the Islamophobes, this is where the conversation must go.

Lean’s book does a service in exposing the worst aspects of the Islamophobic industry, but I fear it will only speak to an audience that already agrees with him. Those who have sincere questions or concerns about Islam will find little to satisfy them, and will need to look elsewhere for answers.

This is part II of my series of language learning strategy.  Read part I here.

In my view, the single most important thing to growing foreign language comprehension is the consumption of large amounts of comprehensible input.  Memorizing vocabulary words in isolation won’t get you far; it is far better to read and listen to language in a natural context, to get acclimated to the “flow” and hear how words and phrases are actually used.  In my “clear, hold, build” strategy, I call this “clearing.”  Your goal is to clear as much comprehensible input as possible.

This material should be at the “i+1” level, where “i” is your current knowledge base.  In other words, you want to consume material that mostly consists of words you already know, but that also pushes you to the next level.

So where do you find new material to clear?

If you’re just beginning a new language, brute force memorization of vocabulary is probably inevitable.  However, there are better and worse ways to tackle this challenge.  I plan to explain my Anki flow in a future post, but it essentially goes like this: when I started Turkish, I create a word template with four fields: English, Turkish, EnglishExample, and TurkishExample.  My flashcards contain both the word and the example, and I strive to embed audio whenever possible.  The result, if done properly, is a flashcard deck with full-audio example sentences.  This deck is extremely versatile, because in the future it’s easy to experiment with different flashcard structures…. for example, cutting out the English entirely and simply showing the Turkish word on one side and the Turkish example sentence on the other.

As you are beginning your new language you can also look for phrases to memorize.  I am a huge fan of Pimsleur language courses as a first step in learning a new language, as these programs use the “i+1” principle to help you clear a significant amount of material.  They are expensive, but your local library might have them.  Another good source of material is phrasebooks, especially ones that include audio CDs.  For example, In Flight Turkish is a 60-minute CD that consists entirely of common phrases and words.  You will need a system to memorize and practice the material, but the phrases themselves are perfect for “clearing.”  My preferred technique is to use Audacity to strip out the audio for individual phrases, then create flashcards for them in Anki.

As your knowledge grows, your options increase and also become significantly more interesting.  You will obviously want to look for material that suits your current skill level, but you can also use more challenging material if you can somehow make it comprehensible.  For listening texts, that means having access to a written transcript.  And for difficult written texts, it means having access to an English translation.  Such materials make up the majority of my Arabic intake.

BBC is a great place to start, because news articles are written in a simple, direct style with easy vocabulary.  A variety of web browser plugins will give you real-time translation of words or phrases that you don’t know, meaning that if you have a certain baseline skill level, almost any webpage can become comprehensible input.  The vast majority of my early Arabic learning came from reading BBC Arabic with a browser plugin.  I have used several, but my current plugin is Franker for Safari.  I also use the Franker app for my iPhone and iPad.

Don’t underestimate Google.  If you are learning about a specific topic, like getting around an airport, it’s easy to Google “مطار” or “havaalanı” and find websites for major airports.  You’ll certain to see many of your new vocabulary words in context.

Parallel texts are incredibly useful.  Most holy texts like the Bible and Qur’an are available in parallel languages.  Many foreign affairs-related reports, such as those from International Crisis Group, are available in multiple languages.  You can also find books written in parallel languages.  In Jordan I was thrilled to discover a vast series of classic English-language novels (many of them simplified for children, some not) translated into Arabic, with the two languages on facing pages.  They are even rated by difficulty level.  I amassed a huge collection of these novels, and they continue to play an important part in developing my reading comprehension.  I have yet to find anything similar in Turkish, although I did discover some bilingual children’s books in the DLI library.  I also have both the English and Turkish versions of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, so when my Turkish improves I could conceivably study with the two copies side by side.

When it comes to listening, I’m always on the lookout for material that has transcripts.  If you are in the military or are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to SCOLA, which publishes weekly mini-lessons in many languages. Each lesson includes an MP3 and MP4 news clip, a native transcript, an English transcript, and a vocabulary list.  These are perfect for comprehensible input.

Every once in a while you can stumble across a goldmine.  Rob of the now-defunct Arab Media Shack introduced me to the transcript collection on Al Jazeera.  The website has a huge collection of full-length TV episodes, with complete transcripts attached.  More recently, I was delighted to discover a huge repository of dialect clips with bilingual transcripts attached.

Movies with subtitles are another source of comprehensible input.  For example, the web TV series Beirut I Love You has dozens of short episodes in Lebanese, subtitled in English.  And although I could only find one episode with subtitles, the famous Turkish melodrama Gümüş is available on YouTube.  Another great resources is Viki, which lets users crowdsource subtitles for foreign-language movies, TV shows, and music videos.

Lastly, there is no substitute for spending time with native speakers, especially in native contexts.  A good language tutor or partner can make language comprehensible by offering explanations or clarifications when necessary.

For most of us, life is a constant work in progress.  As I wrote in my post about New Year’s resolutions, we typically see a gap between who we are and who we want to be.  For many of us, that includes not just ourselves but our life situation.  We are constantly looking for ways to make our careers more fulfilling, to pursue our passions, to give more time to our families and friends.  As we get older, that can be increasingly challenging.  We get busier in our careers and our time dries up.  As our families grow and our expenses rises, we become more dependent on our jobs and less willing to make disruptive changes.  Life takes on an inertia of its own.

I am wrestling with that right now.  I love serving in the Air Force and am committed to my military career, but I have wide-ranging interests and passions that extend beyond my day job.  The irony is that many of these passions, like foreign languages and regional studies, are intimately linked to my vision of officership and service to the country–but have virtually nothing to do with my day job.  Even reading and writing novels, which on the surface might seem disconnected from military service, is essential; it is through fiction that much of my deepest thinking and personal engagement with world affairs has developed.  But because these things are all outside my daily job, the only time I can allocate to them is what I can scrape together outside of work, and those few hours largely belong to my family.

I have bookcases all over my house, but the one immediately beside my desk is given to current projects–the ones I’m most passionate about.  Here is an impromptu picture taken this morning:

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

On the top shelf are the religious and political classics I return to time and again–some of which I’ve read cover-to-cover, and some of which I need to spend more time with.  Beside them are several DVD series that I want to watch, to expand my knowledge of history.  The second shelf is devoted to Arabic and Turkish.  I spent much of the last year learning Turkish, but after a planned trip to Turkey was canceled because of work requirements, I was pretty crushed and stopped studying; I also felt like I was losing my Arabic, because I didn’t have sufficient time to do both.  Even now that I’m focusing on Arabic again, I’m struggling to find time to work through any of these resources.  The third shelf consists of books I want to read or am currently reading; I am halfway through many of them, but set them down when I got busy.  On the right are books about the Mongols and ancient Persian empires, which are research for my next novel.  Stacked in front of them are reference books for a nonfiction book I am trying to write about Islam.  The stacked DVDs are a Turkish TV series dubbed in Syrian Arabic, for language practice.  Finally, the fourth shelf is my writing library.  The two books that are pulled and turned sideways are about nonfiction writing and book proposal writing, also for my planned Islam book.

This all might look audacious to someone who thinks I should simply focus on my job.  But for someone who is dual-hatted as a Middle East Regional Affairs Specialist and seeks higher-level government service in the future, the bookshelf does make a kind of sense: slow, steady growth in relevant languages, the study of politics and culture and military science, and the ability to translate my knowledge into writing for the benefit of others.  Unfortunately, achieving any of this is maddeningly difficult.

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this.  Maybe nobody cares, but then again, maybe everybody else can relate and we can at least bond over the cruelty of time.

On the other hand, I have a lot to be thankful for.  I’m so grateful I was chosen for the Olmsted scholar program, when I did have abundant time to pursue these passions.  As we enter an age of budget cuts and downsizing, I hope the DOD realizes how important these programs are–and what a tremendous education investment is.  And as much as I love my current C-17 squadron, I’m looking forward to attending SAASS this summer.  I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to read books for a year.

The first time I heard of Gene Sharp was during the early weeks of the Arab Spring, when the masses were filling Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I heard about how-to pamphlets going viral among the demonstrators, written by an obscure writer in his mid-80s who had never really found a home within formal academia.  Writing out of his basement and a minimal organization known as the Albert Einstein Institute, Gene Sharp had somehow earned a reputation as the “father of nonviolent revolution” and inspired nonviolent activists from Burma to Egypt.  He’d even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and is now the subject of a documentary called How to Start a Revolution.  Once I knew who he was, his name cropped up repeatedly.  On one occasion, a military strategist with COIN experience in the Philippines recommended studying his work.

Most of Sharp’s work is available for free on the Albert Einstein Institute website, so I loaded up my iPad before my most recent C-17 mission and spent my crew rests engaged with titles like From Dictatorship to Democracy, Self-Liberation, and There are Realistic Alternatives.

Taken together, Sharp’s body of work is based on a simple premise: dictators only function because frightened, demoralized people believe in the dictator’s power and grant their consent.  If they remove their consent, even the most brutal authoritarian regime will weaken and possibly even crumble.  Using violence against such a regime–whether direct or indirect–is dangerous, because it attacks the regime’s strength and is likely to end in violent tragedy for the revolutionaries.  Even if the revolutionaries find victory, the power distribution in the country remains the same and there is a risk of continued authoritarianism under the new government.

Nonviolent action is far more likely to bear fruit, Sharp writes, because it attacks the regime’s vulnerabilities and simultaneously sows the seeds for the thriving civil society and democratic mindset that will hopefully lead to better governance once the dictatorship ends.  Much of Sharp’s work is practical, helping would-be revolutionaries analyze their unique circumstances, plan strategy, and choose appropriate tactics and methods to enable those strategies.  He often references a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.

Skeptics of nonviolent action need to understand something: Sharp’s nonviolence is not about cowering, spineless submission to tyranny.  It is not about “negotiating” deals with dictators and calling the resulting absence of bloodshed “peace.”  It is not about turning the other cheek.  Sharp’s nonviolence is about deliberate, courageous, and defiant effort to exercise power and undermine the pillars of a dictatorial regime.  Such nonviolent action is hard and exceptionally dangerous, and will probably be met with brutal repression.  Nonetheless, it can transform societies and governments.

It is fascinating reading Sharp’s work two years into the Arab Spring, because there is so much evidence to consider when evaluating his theory.  On the whole, Sharp’s theory seems to fit the facts quite well, with a couple notable exceptions.  I’ll comment on just a few points.

First, nonviolent action is indeed capable of leveraging tremendous power against a regime’s vulnerabilities.  Nonviolence can even be more powerful than violence.  The initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which culminated in the hasty departure of both dictators, seem to confirm Sharp’s overall thesis.  Nonviolent action collapsed both regimes within weeks; I dread to consider what revolutionary violence would have led to. One might argue that Egypt would never have “flipped” without the backing of the Army, but this doesn’t necessarily contradict Sharp’s thesis.  He often notes the importance of institutions like the police and Army, and urges revolutionary strategists to consider ways to bring elements of these organizations to their side.  Also, the role of the Egyptian Army  illustrates Sharp’s point that a dictator depends on the consent of his people for survival; if that consent is withdrawn, the regime has nothing.

Second, strategy is essential.  Sharp laments that most revolutionaries and democratic activists have no grasp of strategy and no long-term plan for their actions, and warns that isolated use of nonviolent action will seldom bring real change.  I can’t think of a better example than Jordan, where a vast array of activists have engaged in countless demonstrations, sit-ins, grassroots campaigns, and online efforts.  These efforts–while often admirable–are characterized by a lack of higher organization and strategy, weak cooperation or outright conflict between groups, ambiguous goals, and a lack of sustainment and follow-through.  The result is frustration, burn-out, and a demoralizing failure to achieve tangible gains.

Third, nonviolent strategy must incorporate steps to prepare the society for what’s to come after the dictator departs.  To successfully transform from a dictatorship to a democracy, Sharp writes, a country’s power distribution must change.  People must feel empowered to speak and contribute to their future.  A lack of adequate planning is likely to result in the hijacking of power by a small group, perhaps even a group that didn’t play a central role in the nonviolent campaign.  It’s hard to think of a better example than the current situation in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fourth, it is very dangerous for nonviolent strategists to count on foreign assistance.  Sharp argues that there are no guarantees a foreign power will intervene on behalf of nonviolent activists, and even if they do, that intervention could lead to a host of new problems.  Although Syrian revolutionaries are not waging a nonviolent campaign at this point, it’s perhaps worth mentioning here, because the Syrian effort has depended from the beginning on foreign assistance that has failed to materialize.

If anything from the past two years appears to undermine Sharp’s work, it is the examples of Libya and Syria.  Qaddafi and Assad took a lesson from Ben Ali and Mubarak: if you want to survive, don’t capitulate when consent is withdrawn from your rule.  Instead, respond with savage violence.  That strategy seemed to work, and it ultimately took violent foreign intervention to end Qaddafi’s rule.  In Syria, initial efforts at nonviolent action were met with so much violence that the situation devolved into civil war.  I am still reflecting on what these examples mean for Sharp’s work; is it possible to imagine alternative histories, in which sustained nonviolent action would have worked despite the level of violent suppression?  Or is there a threshold at which nonviolent resistance is destined to fail?

Such questions deserve more scholarly attention, and I hope to find more good writing on the subject.  However, despite such questions, Gene Sharp’s work is important and needs to be read by anyone who cares about democratic activism or about strategy in general.

The Lords of HarambeeAfter spending ten years writing it, self-publishing The Lords of Harambee was a difficult decision.  I poured my heart and soul into the book, and I want people to read it and be changed by it.  I believe it’s a good book, and the consistent 5-star ratings on Amazon seem to back that up, but even as I was writing it I knew that publishing it would be difficult.  Publishers are driven by the market, and generally expect books to fit neatly into genres that will be familiar to prospective readers.

The Lords of Harambee did not fit that paradigm.  It is a serious novel about contemporary issues, but is set three hundred years in the future.  It is about war, but is less about military action than about how a diverse range of individuals respond to the incredible traumas and pressures of war.  Although futuristic, much of the imagined world is deliberately low-tech.  The result is a novel that contains elements of literary fiction, war fiction, postcolonial fiction, military SF, and social SF, but doesn’t fit well into any one of those genres.  Selling it was never going to be easy.  When I submitted a few early chapters to a SF contest, the reviewer questioned whether it was really SF and condescendingly called it “Blackhawk Down in space”–which is exactly what I was trying to achieve.  I’ve since embraced that line, but even that misses the centrality of civilian families to the story and could potentially alienate readers who I think would love the book for its characters.  The agents I queried showed no interest.

In the end, I decided to self-publish.  It has been a rewarding experience, turning my manuscript into both digital and paperback books and releasing them out into the world. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and far more people have read the book than if I had left it to collect dust in a drawer.  I have no regrets.  At the same time, I am running up against the same obstacle that other self-published authors inevitably encounter: it is very, very difficult to get noticed in a saturated marketplace.  To put it simply, nobody knows the book exists, and it is very hard to get the word out because nobody will review a self-published book.  Times are changing, but self-published books still carry a stigma of being low-quality; unfortunately, too much self-published work justifies that generalization.  There is only one one way to successfully promote a self-published book, and that is through word of mouth.

So with that, I’d like to list a variety of ways that you–my readers–can help spread the word about my writing.  If you like the novel, or if you just like my blog and want to support my writing, consider supporting me in the following ways:

1. Read the Lords of Harambee.  Do you like character-driven fiction, science fiction, or international relations?  Give the novel a try, even if it’s outside your normal range of reading.  You can buy it on Amazon, or read the first five chapters for free.

2. Tell friends.  Spread the word verbally to your friends, family, or coworkers.  Share the link to the book or my blog on Facebook or Twitter.  Post a note on your blog or on message forums where you are active.  Follow me on Twitter.

3. Recommend the book to those with an online voice.  There are limits to how much I can recommend my own book; I’m not exactly neutral.  It is my readers who have credibility.  Do you know somebody who reviews books or has a website where a book mention might be appropriate?  Are you friends with an author or editor who might like the book?  Shoot them an e-mail.  My single biggest break came when a colleague recommended the novel to Instapundit; he mentioned the book, and I sold 250 copies in 24 hours.  These are the opportunities I am hoping to find, and the ones most likely to help the book break out.

4. Like the Facebook page.  It’s quick and easy to do.

5. Like me on Goodreads.  If you’re on Goodreads, you can view my author profile and identify me as a favorite author.

6. Write a review or recommend the book on Goodreads.  The Lords of Harambee has its own page, where you can rate it, write a review, or recommend it to friends.

7. Write a review on Amazon.  This is probably the single best way to help prospective readers decide if a self-published book is any good or not.  Don’t exaggerate or inflate; just write a truthful review, and show Amazon customers that the book is being read and is stimulating conversation.

8. Distribute the free sample on my Fiction page.  Copy it, email it out, link to it, post it on your blog, do virtually whatever you want with it (except sell it); the sample is meant to be shared as widely as possible.

9. Join my mailing list.  You’ll receive updates any time I publish new work, and you can opt out any time.

10. Say hello.  Did you read and enjoy the book?  I’d love to hear about it.  Hearing from enthusiastic readers is the single most rewarding aspect of publishing a book.

In closing, I am so grateful to all of you–my dear readers–who follow this blog and take an interest in my writing.  Thanks for making it all worth it!

When I was studying in Jordan, I got a kick out of watching student elections unfold each fall.  The campaign blitz was like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Apparently, UJ students who run for student office feel obligated to print hundreds of photographs of themselves and plaster them all over every tree on campus.  Some even print massive banners, which they hang from buildings.  I always meant to take some photographs to share on my blog but never got around to it.  Fortunately, an online Jordanian newspaper called 7ibr (prounced “Hibr”) just released a photo essay a couple weeks ago couple.  Here are a few of my favorites, but you can see more over at 7ibr.





This year I have no New Year’s resolutions.  Here’s why.

The very idea of making resolutions implies that we aren’t living the life we want; we are slaves to destructive vices that we need to break free from, or we are failing to invest our  time and energy in the good and noble things that we want in the depths of our soul.  New Year’s resolutions are discontinuities.  They are our declaration to ourselves and to the world that on January 1st we will cease to be the person we were the day before, and become somebody else.  That’s why we usually fail to keep them.  Few of us are capable of such heroics; for the mortals among us, change is slow and difficult.

Self-improvement is both desirable and achievable, but it is a continual process that requires unwavering commitment, hard work, and constant monitoring.  Life change isn’t a surgical airstrike; it’s World War II.  It is a long hard slog through the rain and the mud, and if you stop fighting for a moment, you will be overrun.  The good news is that if you do have the grit to fight every day, you really can gain ground.  As victories accumulate, you can change yourself and your world.  Victory becomes a habit.  And if you are striving every day to live the life that you want, New Year’s resolutions become redundant.

The past few years have been a time of incredible life change for me, largely by necessity.  I had to finally confront weaknesses within myself that were threatening to  ruin my entire life; the resulting change has been tremendous.  My time in Jordan forced me to alter parts of my personality by sheer force of will, because I could only thrive as an Olmsted scholar if I overcame my deep natural introversion.  The birth of my three closely-spaced children brought me the greatest joys and blessings of my life, but has also put incredible demands on my time and energy.  As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about my values and priorities and strategizing how to pursue and invest in the people and projects I am sincerely passionate about.  Once a year or so my wife and I have a “Navigator’s Council” to deeply reflect on where the ship is sailing, and we make plenty of mid-course corrections along the way.

So when it came time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions, I realized I didn’t have anything new to commit to.  In so many ways, my family and I genuinely are living the lives we want.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we have it all together; each night when my wife and I collapse onto the sofa after putting the last child in bed, we are just grateful to have survived the day–and we hope we didn’t make an impossible wreck out of everything.  We often feel like failures as spouses, as parents, as friends, as Christians and as professionals.  But if we look past the daily grind at the big picture, we’re mostly living the lives we want, and we’re constantly striving to improve in those areas we’re not.  We prioritize each other and our kids, undertake many adventures together as a family, and are constantly experimenting with different routines so we can better educate our kids or work out more or have more time to read.  My wife is regularly learning new, healthier ways to feed our family.  For my part, I’m always paying attention to my family-work balance, cutting out inefficiencies and wasted time, and improving my time management so I can complete the projects I’m passionate about while still dedicating abundant time to my family.

In other words, we don’t have discontinuities; we are committed to a constant process of growth and change.  We are always striving to improve ourselves as individuals and as a family, and improve the ways we interact with and give back to the world.

This isn’t to disparage resolutions or the people who make them.  I have plenty of resolutions–whole notebooks are filled with them and their outworkings–but I would never achieve any of them if I confined them to the start of the new year; I’m way too failure-prone to stand a chance.  To succeed, resolutions must be so much more than annual pledges; they must be seared into the core of our being, guiding us as we fight the new battles that each and every day brings.

That is why I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; they wouldn’t do me a bit of good.  Instead, my constant goal is to be a person of resolve.  To never settle, but to always be striving for the greater good in my life and the lives of others.

Going Audible

January 1, 2013 — 3 Comments

I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my productivity, so a couple months ago I finally tried something I never expected to like: audio books.  I have to keep my mind engaged twenty-four hours a day to be happy, so I’ve always listened to interesting material like NPR or Arabic news when I’m in the car or working out, but I never thought audio books would be a satisfactory substitute for reading.  That, and audiobooks are expensive.

But on a whim, I checked out Audible and realized that their subscription prices actually made audiobooks affordable.  I downloaded a book that I had begun reading in print, but hadn’t had time to finish: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.  I was blown away.  The performance quality was excellent.  Frank Muller, the narrator, has a mesmerizing style and a range of voices that brought each character to life without ever sounding contrived or cheesy.

I’d listened for less than two minutes when I realized something profound that I probably should have understood years ago: stories are meant to be shared aloud.  Long before our ancestors invented written language, they gathered in caves or beside fires to regale one another with epic tales from life and from their imaginations.  Something of that is still in our blood.  After work each day, I rushed to my car and spent my twenty-minute commute completely absorbed in the austere frontier world of McCarthy’s creation.  Hearing the language brought it to life, endowing it with power and beauty it didn’t have on the page.  It helped me to better appreciate the book, and I have no doubt that hearing the music of language is making me a better writer.

Now, at the recommendation of a friend, I am listening to Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power.  The performance quality equals that of All the Pretty Horses; I can listen to narrator Jon Meachem for hours without tiring.  With this book, I also discovered a neat little trick of Audible that is a godsend for those of us who never have enough time: you can listen to a book at 2x or 3x speed.  With this particular book, I found that 2x matched my need for time efficiency with audio quality; the book goes fast, but not so fast that the narrator’s wonderful voice degrades.

In short, I’m sold.  Next on deck is that literary masterpiece that was unquestionably meant to be performed out loud: The Iliad.

Yesterday I discovered a pretty impressive website called Syria Deeply, an alternative journalism project dedicated to the Syrian war.  It apparently launched on December 3rd, and I only learned about it yesterday from this article at Fast Company, which described the innovative site as a:

“story monitor” and “news dashboard” dedicated to reporting on a single beat, a redefinition of the “beat” focused on covering one continuous, chaotic storyline and the communities involved, rather than covering a broad topic or genre.

That’s a pretty good description of the site.  I’ve spent the past 600+ days trying to make sense of the war from news stories and op-eds, but as the Fast Company article put it, “the user experience of the Syria story sucked.”  This site is a marked improvement and worth checking out if you’re interested in the conflict.