Matt’s Essential Reading List #3

Here is my third installment of what will eventually be a total list 50 books that I think are essential reading.

A reminder of my guiding criteria:

  • Prestige of the author and/or book
  • Readability/Approachability
  • Subject Matter
  • Quality
  • Perspective

Another reminder: a * denotes that the book is also on Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime


*Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Academic/Expository/Analysis Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by [Diamond, Jared]

This Pulitzer prize winning book is an incredibly thought-provoking look at how different societies developed and how some came to dominate and conquer others; specifically how European powers came to colonize much of the world.

The general theory is that the mean reason that Europeans were the ones to benefit from Guns (military advantages), Germs (immunities to diseases that decimated other populations), and Steel (technical advances) was a fortunate set of circumstances due to geography, flora, and fauna at the beginning of civilization which gave Eurasian societies a distinct advantage over societies in the Americas, Africa, and Australia.

The book can be a little daunting but is fascinating when you read the details of Diamond’s analysis that incorporates a variety of disciplines (geography, biology, archeology, etc.).  It also helps to gain better understanding of different cultures, as well as fights the myth that Europeans are somehow innately superior to other peoples.  A rigorous study of this book should help one to think more critically about why balance of power in the world happens to be the way it is.


Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Memoir/Biography Walden and Civil Disobedience (Illustrated) by [Thoreau, Henry David, Books, American Renaissance]

For those of you that ever have that feeling that you just want to run away from it all and live like a hermit in the woods, here you go.  This is Thoreau’s reflection on his two years living simply in a small home he built in the woods near Walden Pond.  The book also serves as a love letter to nature and a treatise on a variety of aspects of life and society.

Given that Thoreau wrote this in the mid-19th Century and with a philosophical bend, the prose can be a little verbose and difficult at times.  But luckily, it is relatively short overall, which makes it more approachable.

Also, one of the instances that occurred during this time, and that he briefly writes about in Walden, was being arrested because he refused to pay taxes due to the US Government’s support of slavery and the Mexican-American war.  This eventually led to his famous essay, Civil Disobedience, which helped to inspire the nonviolent resistances movement of Gandhi and MLK.  I recommend reading Civil Disobedience along with Walden to gain an even deeper understanding.

Reading these works encourages one to take stock of the world and our role in it.


*The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Fiction The Handmaid's Tale

I was inspired to read this book since it and its adapted television series have become regularly referenced in the political arena, including some women dressing up as “Handmaids” to protest, especially about abortion.

First, the book itself is extremely well-written.  It is a compelling story and moves along at a good pace.  I personally enjoy the use of flashbacks to fill out the world-building.  My only quibble with the story was that I found it unbelievable how rapidly (only a handful of years) society went from our current modern value system to the dystopia described.  However, that is for an in-depth review/discussion of the book.  Other than that, I found it to be a great read.

It also gives perspective into the fears that some women have about being treated as inferior objects whose only purpose is serve men domestically, sexually, and for procreation.  It is a perspective that all men should consider when women’s issues are discussed, especially given how women have been treated throughout human history.

That being said, I do have to say this.  A struggle I had while reading the book was that I found myself becoming angry at the aforementioned protesters who are referencing The Handmaid’s Tale.  This is because politics is already far too heated and hyperbolic.  And there is world of difference between someone being pro-life because they believe that human life begins in the womb and someone trying to bring about a dystopia where women are slaves and breeding stock.  When protesters make that egregious logically fallacious slippery slope argument, it is inflammatory and destructive.  It is an extremely emotional issue and both sides need to find better ways to debate it.

Politics aside, again, it is an extremely well-written, thought-provoking book that is driven by a good story.


Any Collection of Philosophical Writings

Self-Improvement/Philosophical 

“The unexamined life is not worth living” according to Socrates.  I could not agree more, and ever since I read Plato’s Republic in college, and Socrates’s philosophical style within, I have enjoyed struggling with philosophical writings and trying to comprehend what history’s great thinkers made of life.  Admittedly, many of these historical philosophical writings are extremely difficult.  More than half the time, I am completely lost.  However, I find it a great mental exercise to attempt it.  And if I’m lucky enough to understand what they meant, then I can go further and really dwell upon it.

I feel that such an exercise is great for everyone.  Even just reading simplified versions of what different philosophers have written.  Then, one can contemplate those deep mysteries of existence. To be clear, I am no “philosophizer” (had to throw the Dodgeball reference in), so I don’t have any particular recommendations for specific readings.  I simply recommend finding a collection that seems to speak to you and have fun trying to find the meaning of it all.


*Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Other 

To be honest, I don’t remember whether I liked Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic more. I’m going with Sidewalk because it is on Amazon’s list.  Also, when I was looking at which poems are in each book, I distinctly remember loving “Captain Hook” and “Crocodile’s Toothache” which are both in Sidewalk.  Regardless of specific books, the warped and wonderful poems and illustrations of Shel Silverstein were a true joy of my elementary school days.  I think they may have helped me develop my later love for surrealism and irreverent humor.  If you did not study these darkly whimsical poems and drawings as a child, first of all, you have my condolences; and, second of all, you must remedy that immediately!

But for the Grace of God

“There, but for the grace of God, go I” is a saying that I have long appreciated.  The awareness to look at someone in a difficult situation and know that it is only because of the mystery of God’s will, a twist of fate, a different role of the dice, that you are not in that situation yourself.  It could just as easily be me.

This philosophy came further into relief for me over the past couple of weeks due to a couple of news stories in the world, that I happened to have a tangential connection with from my travels almost exactly a year ago.

The first was the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10.  The flight was en route from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya and I happened to have flown that same route on Ethiopian Airlines almost exactly a year earlier.  As it turns out, I don’t believe the airline was flying the new Max-8 planes at the time, so it is not like I had been at any elevated risk or anything.  However, when one realizes a connection like that, even if rather tenuous, it gets you thinking about what could have been if things had been slightly different.

As fate would also have it, that same day I was flying on Ethiopian airlines, I sat next to a fellow world traveler on my flight into Addis Ababa.  We were both travelling to Africa from India, and spent much of the flight swapping travel stories.  We then exchanged information and have maintained the typical Facebook friendship of random people whose paths happened to have briefly crossed.

Last weekend, he posted on Facebook about his cousins, a family of Syrian refugees.  On Wednesday, two of his cousins, a father and son, were the first of the Christchurch victims to be buried.  Victims of unadulterated hate.  Whenever such tragedies occur, especially on the other side of the world, it is only natural to put up mental defenses and distance yourself from them.  However, when you find yourself slightly connected, even by a couple of degrees of separation, it elevates the reality of the situation.

“There, but for the grace of God, go I”

But I am not referring this philosophy to possible connections to tragedies and close-calls.  I am writing this about the toxic worldview that the shooter has and that far too many people in the world share, albeit in often more subtle ways.  This evil concept of superiority and contempt for the other.

That evil is the exact opposite of the philosophy espoused by the phrase “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

I happened to have been born a straight, white, Christian, male in middle-class America.  I had nothing to do with that.  Even most of my morality has more to do with how I was raised by my family, as opposed to anything I did on my own.  This was all the accident of my birth, fate, the grace of God.

I could just as easily have been born gay, or black, or Muslim, or female, or in poverty, or in a war-torn country.  I could just as easily have been born into a broken family and raised in a ruthless hell-hole ruled by the law of the jungle.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

As such, I have no claim of superiority over anyone.  I have no right to judge them.  I could just as easily be them.

There are legitimate debates to be had about topics such as immigration and refugees.  It is absolutely valid and even imperative to raise security, economic, and logistical concerns.

However, if and when you begin to think of yourself as somehow better than those that are different; if you look at and speak about immigrants (legal or illegal) and refugees as somehow beneath you, as invading pests; you are crossing the line between legitimate concern and illegitimate hate.

So please remember, whenever talking to or about people of a different religion, or ethnicity, or gender, or economic status, or sexual orientation, or political affiliation, you could just as easily be them, if not for the workings of fate.  Therefore, we all need to maintain humility in light of that fact.

To take it to a higher level, we even need to remember it when discussing and dealing with people who are seduced by hateful philosophies.   We must remember that if we were in their position, we may also feel similarly.  Therefore, we must not match hate with hate, but, rather, find ways to bring them around and reconnect them with the common humanity they share with others.

In the end, we must refrain from judgement and feeling of superiority towards anyone.  Because whatever my situation may be and whatever your situation may be, our situations could just as easily be switched.  And it is especially critical to remember this as we consider people who find themselves  struggling and desperate for a better life.  Because they, but for the grace of God, are us.

Matt’s Essential Reading List #2

Here is my second installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books I believe people should read.

One additional note first.  I realized that there is one other aspect of my criteria beyond what I mentioned last month. I am also using to choose these books: perspective.  It is kind of related to “subject matter” which I listed in my original post, but this is a little more specific towards trying to broaden worldview in order to see things differently than one normally might.  With that in mind, here is my next list of five books, and this month’s list will focus on perspective.

Reminder: a * denotes a book that is also on Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime list.


7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Self-Improvement/Philosophical

This book goes beyond the usual clichés and quick-fix approach to “self-improvement”.  The main premise of this book is an actual paradigm shift, a change in perspective, specifically changing our focus from “the personality ethic” to “the character ethic”, putting intrinsic values ahead of the superficial.  For example, not focusing on body posture and facial expressions to demonstrate paying attention to people in a conversation, but rather, actively trying to change our perspective in our relationships so that we really ARE paying attention to and trying to understand others.

Early on in the book, Covey discusses people having different perspectives in relationships and when facing similar situations, giving a great example of an image that changes depending on your perspective which is based on how you may have been visually “primed” before seeing the image.  Also, in our current highly charged partisan environment, it would be great for all of us to heed the advice of trying to change our worldview and seek “win-win” compromise solutions rather than the prevalent “win-lose” paradigm.

Overall, this book is simply a great resource for improving both your professional and personal lives.


*Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Fiction

For February, and Black History Month, I wanted to include a book from an African-American perspective.  Invisible Man has been named one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century.  What I personally appreciate about the book regarding the racial component, is how complex and nuanced it is about the topic.  As a white man, I expect books on racial issues to be rather simple and straightforward.  But this book delves into complexities of racial issues in academia, economics, political movements, and personal relationships, as well as the competing forces within the African-American community in the early 20th Century, before the Civil Rights Movement.

A few parts of the book can be a little abstract and difficult to follow, mostly the prologue and epilogue, but overall it has an excellent story that is easy to get into and compelling throughout.  While I obviously could never truly understand what it would be like to be a young black man in that time of history, Ellison’s story-telling provides an incredible feeling of empathy with the unnamed protagonist. It was to the point that I almost felt as though I was going through his struggles and frustrations alongside him; even though in reality, I could only just begin to imagine it.


The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics by Salena Zito and W. Brad Todd

Academic/Expository/Analysis

It was a struggle to find a non-biased book discussing the appeal and popularity of President Donald Trump to his supporters. The vast majority of books on the topic seem to be either blind adoration of Trump or condescending dismissal of his supporters as uneducated bigots.  This book was the only one I could find that seemed to thread the needle.  It has received positive reviews from Trump himself, as well as both his critics and his supporters in the media.

To be honest, the authors did not seem to be incredibly insightful, mostly just simply conveying the sentiments of different types of Trump supporters across the country, especially in the Rust Belt.  However, for the most part, they did provide general context and some decent guidance in understanding supporters’ perspectives in different groupings that the authors sorted.

Overall, in an era when far too many on the left dismiss Trump supporters out of hand, this is the best book for Trump critics to learn about his supporters as real people who feel they have been ignored, marginalized, and looked down upon for the past couple of decades.

*Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Biography/Memoir

An interesting tale of a young girl coming of age during the early days of the Iranian Revolution.  Her story, while with its own perspective and biases, gives a great overview and insider’s look at Iran’s history over about 60 years: from the Pahlavi House (the last Shah’s family) taking over the monarchy to their own downfall and the rise and early years of the Islamic Republic.  She speaks of her family’s role throughout this tumultuous history and the human suffering that they witnessed.

Persepolis is a graphic novel, and I wasn’t sure if I would include this style of literature at first, but I realized there are some great perspectives and stories in this medium and I will also include others in my list over time.


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Open (Fiction)Frankenstein (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Shelley, Mary]

(Side note: most of our popular conception of Frankenstein and his monster is not from the book.  It is mostly from the films of early Hollywood.  In the book, there is no Igor; no thunder storm bringing the monster to life while the mad scientist maniacally laughs; no pitchfork wielding villagers storming the castle, etc. So adjust your expectations.)

This book is a prime example of the importance of “perspective”.  While reading the book, I was not really a fan.  One writing style problem I had with the book, just to warn readers, was the pacing of the prose.  For example, Shelley would go into detail describing the landscape of a journey, sometimes a page or more, while more substantive action would be just briefly discussed, such as the actual moment the monster is brought to life only getting about two paragraphs. To be fair, that style of writing seems to be common from the time period. But that wasn’t my biggest issue with the book while reading it. However, after I finished, I read about the book itself and its reception, and I realized that when I looked at the story from a different perspective, the other major problem I originally had with it was maybe, in fact, the most impressive aspect of it.

Dr. Frankenstein is the de facto protagonist as the book, but he is an extremely weak and unsympathetic one.  However, if you take the point of view that the reader is supposed to actually empathize more with the monster, the book suddenly becomes pure genius.  It also helps if you know the backstory that Mary Shelley started writing it when she was 18 years old and had already had a difficult life (mother died when she was a baby, bad relationship with her step-mother, affair with a married man, loss of her premature infant daughter).  For me, Frankenstein then becomes the story of someone being enraged at their uncaring and selfish creator.  What is even more amazing: an 18 year old woman wrote this Gothic novel, that is also considered the first true science fiction story, 150 years before the concept of the angst ridden teenager was even a thing!

Socialist America, Courtesy of the GOP

Why is socialism suddenly in fashion? The Economist recently did a cover story on Millennial Socialism.   And Generation Z might even be more liberal. What explains the rise of Bernie and AOC popularity, especially among the young?  Most of my fellow Republicans would likely blame this on youthful ignorance or indoctrination by the media and education system.  However, if we Republicans claim to be the party of self-responsibility, why don’t we look at ourselves? Is it possible that instead of any nefarious forces “pulling” youth towards socialism, perhaps Republican actions have been steadily “pushing” them in that direction?

This may be a new folk tale: “The Party That Cried ‘Venezuela’”, because much like when the wolf finally showed up and nobody believed the boy who had been falsely crying “wolf” for so long, now that socialism is on the horizon, a new generation is ignoring the warnings because of the Republican party’s actions for the past few decades.

My personal prediction is that unless the Republican party changes course soon, the USA will be a socialist country by 2050.  Make no mistake, I am a free-market loving Republican, and I am in no way advocating socialist principles.  However, I recognize that the Republican alarmist rhetoric about socialism while ignoring real problems the nation is facing has led a new generation, that came of age after the Cold War, to think socialism may not be such a bad thing after all.

To be fair, I am not a political scientist, sociologist, an economist, so take my opinion for what its worth.  Most of this is based on my experience following politics and being a high school government teacher during the final years of the Millennial generation’s education.  I believe that Republican responses and efforts in four major areas have pushed Millennials towards the Democrats and Socialism: the Great Recession, Income Inequality, Health Care, and Climate Change.

First of all, it is important to remember that Millennials entered the job market during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  They then saw the financial system that caused the mess get bailed out while the new workforce entrants suffered.  Basically, they saw a major failure of the Capitalist system.  Then, this reflects poorly on Republicans due to who has been in power.  George W. Bush was president at the time of the collapse, and Republicans had been president for 20 of the previous 28 years.  And as much as Republicans love to blame Clinton for a variety of things, and often called him a Socialist (a common theme), in reality, if you compared Clinton to every other previous Democratic president since FDR, he was the least Socialist of them all, especially after the 1994 midterm elections.  Obviously, this way oversimplifies the reality and nuance of the political and economic situation, but it is important to recognize the perception.

As the economy slowly recovered from the Great Recession, it became obvious that there were two different recoveries.  While the rich were soon back to pre-recession levels, the rest of society was not faring so well.  Most likely, Republicans will quickly blame Obama for such a poor recovery.  While Obama’s effectiveness in the recovery can be debated, Republicans cannot fairly blame him for income equality if every time he tried to address it, Republicans would cry “Socialism” or “Class Warfare” and refuse to work with him.  We can’t have it both ways.

This discussion of Obama obviously leads to health care.  There is no denying that health care is an extremely complicated issue.  But unfortunately, it seems to be one that Republicans offer few comprehensive solutions for and have basically ceded the high ground to the Democrats.  Back in 2009-2010 when the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was being debated, the Republicans made it clear that they were going to completely oppose Obama’s efforts to reform the health care system, rather than work with him to find a compromise.  They did not want to give the ACA a “bipartisan” label.  Unsurprisingly, the common refrain was “Socialism.”  Here is where the problem really shows itself.  The Obamacare system is still the least “socialist” healthcare system in the developed world.  Instead of ensuring the program works, the Republicans have tried to undermine it, with varying levels of success.  The problem is that since the system is not working as well as hoped, it needs to be fixed.  Yet there isn’t a strong movement to go back to the way it was before Obamacare, now the big movement is towards “Medicare for All”.  Thanks to Republicans crying “socialism” and not working to find an effective compromise market-based health care solution 10 years ago, now a very real “Socialist” style health care system has a majority support here in the US.

These three examples have all followed the same storyline.  There is an issue facing the United States, the Democrats make proposals that are more government centered, possibly patterned on European programs, and then instead of trying to find compromise or discussing why such a program that works in Denmark may not work in the US and then offer specific market-based solutions, the Republicans take the easy path, cry “Socialism” and “Venezuela”.  The Millennial generation looks at social programs in Europe and say “We want that” and Republicans say “You want Venezuela”.  This has worked politically for the Republicans in the short term, but in the long-term, I believe it will prove to have been counter-productive in protecting a market-based society.

The other big issue is the Republican response to climate change.  Instead of promoting market-based solutions to climate change, Republicans have decided to deny it even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus.  Every year that has some of the hottest global temperatures on record, and every winter that Republicans use snow to deny it, we lose more and more credibility.  The Green New Deal is over-the-top and naïve; that should not even be debatable.  But the problem is that compared to Trump’s winter global warming tweets in direct contradiction to climate science, the Green New Deal actually turns out to be the less ignorant choice between the two.  The Millennials and following generations are the ones that will deal with the results of environmental issues.  Why would we be surprised if they decide to support drastic Democratic government overreach to solve a problem when the Republican approach is to pretend the problem doesn’t even exist?

Admittedly, I have over simplified much of this for brevity.  There is a lot of nuance that would be difficult to cover in only a few paragraphs.  However, the general idea is that if Republicans truly want to prevent this country from becoming Socialist, we need to recognize the problems we are facing and offer strong market-based solutions to fix them, and then work with moderate Democrats to gain consensus.  We can no longer be the party that constantly cries “Socialism” for every Democratic proposal.  Because now that the actual wolf of Socialism is coming close, when it actually attacks, the American villagers may no longer believe us when we try to warn them.

Proud to be a RINO

I’m a Catholic.  I’m a farm kid.  I’m an athlete. I’m an engineer.  I’m a teacher.  I’m a traveler.  I’m a son, grandson, brother, uncle, and godfather.  And, most importantly (within the context of this blog post), I’m an American.

I’m also a Republican.  But that is different than those other identities I listed.  More specifically, I am a RINO: Republican In Name Only.  The difference is that every one of those labels I mentioned earlier is more important than the label of Republican.

All of those other aspects of my life help to define me, because they have shaped and molded me.  Because of the totality of their influences on me and my worldview, I find myself more closely aligned with the philosophy espoused by the Republican Party.  But being a Republican does not define or shape me.  I chose to be Republican based on my values.  I didn’t choose my values based on my being a Republican.  That is why my Republican identity is subservient to all those other identities.  It is why I put country (and family and faith and many other things) ahead of party.  It is why I am proud to call myself a RINO.

However, RINO has become a pejorative.  It is an insult hurled at Republicans who do not adhere strongly enough to party orthodoxy and leaders, as judged by those who believe themselves to be correct on all things with absolute certainty.  And the most egregious offense, worse than any small difference in economic or social policy, that we RINOs can commit is to consider Democrats as fellow Americans.  God forbid we listen to the other political party with respect or (gasp) try to find common ground with them.

The concept of a RINO, and what it means to be a “True Republican”, has been around for generations, ever since the intraparty fight between William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt.  But the vitriol has greatly increased over the past 25 years as hyper-partisanship has taken hold of our national discourse.

This kind of intraparty ideological fight is not unique to the Republicans, as can be seen now in the Democratic party, between the traditional wing and the “Democratic-Socialist” wing.  And such debate about the ideological direction of a party is both healthy and necessary. However, the false choice fallacy of “you are either with us or against us” is ludicrous and only serves to tear people apart.  Honestly, does that mindset work in any other functioning part of society? Why do we reward it in politics?

A Stanford study showed that Americans now identify with their party more strongly than other social groupings such as race and religion.  There is an understandable reason for this in that we more actively choose our political party than other identities according to the study.  By itself, this strong party identification is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, when you allow your party identification to define your values rather than the other way around, and when you ostracize and demonize those that don’t agree with you or don’t agree strongly enough, that is when it becomes dangerous.

To be fair, there are plenty of craven politicians and others who continuously change their positions and party identification depending on what will work best for their career.  Their “beliefs” go whichever way the political winds are blowing.  They have no moral conviction other than a lust for power.  They will sell out their supporters and “principles” for whatever is in their own self-interest.  These hypocrites should rightly be held to account.

That said, my being a RINO doesn’t mean that I lack convictions.  Just the opposite in fact, it means that I take ownership of my political beliefs and stand by them.  I am not going to sign over my conscience to whoever happens to be leading the Republican Party at the time out of blind loyalty.  My convictions and integrity mean more to me than my political label.

According to Gallop, currently, 25% of Americans consider themselves Republican, 34% Democrat, and 39% Independent.  That means that no matter what your personal political leaning, THE MAJORITY OF THE POPULATION DOES NOT COMPLETELY AGREE WITH YOU!

There are two ways to deal with that reality.  One way is to recognize that there is a variety of opinions and then try to work across those differences while still staying true to your deepest convictions; and on those points of deep differences in conviction, you work to respectfully persuade others, and hope for a breakthrough; all so we can continue to function as a free society. The other way is to hold fast to the belief that your way is the only way, and that others must either agree with you or be ground into submission; establishing a tyranny of your minority.

Obviously, I chose the former.  If you choose the latter, even if I happen to agree with you on most specific policies, I will oppose you on principle.  Because while I consider myself a Republican, that is just a political label, a name.  I am a Republican in Name Only; my true identify is American.

One Winter Night

Last week, the polar vortex came upon the Midwest, and temperatures plunged to their lowest levels in a generation.  While I was safe and warm at home, I began to think about those not as fortunate.  Those without their own shelter from the freezing cold.  I began looking online for opportunities to volunteer and help those homeless souls as they faced such dangerous conditions over the next few days, with temperatures around -10°F and wind chills down below -40°F.

Fortunately, there are many people much more forward looking than me and were already helping.  When I reached out to the local men’s shelter, they told me they were already set for the next few days.  However, as luck would have it, I learned that soon there would be a major fundraising and awareness event to support the local homeless services.  Even though it was only a few days away, I was able to get signed up as a volunteer for CU at Home’s One Winter Night.

The concept of One Winter Night is that participants pledge to each raise $1000 and spend one night sleeping in boxes on the streets of downtown Champaign.  Since I only found out about the event a couple of days in advance of it, I knew that as much as I would like to, I would not be able to participate as a box-dweller since I would not have time to find others as well as try and raise the money.  Instead, I volunteered to help set up the afternoon of the event and then to work security patrol that night.

That afternoon I set out chairs for box sites and helped put up banners around the area.  I was able to chat with some of the local community members that were volunteering and learn a little about them and their desire to help.  It was also a nice surprise to learn that among the volunteer organizers were the parents of one of my best childhood friends.  I spent many afternoons and evenings at their house in my youth but hadn’t seen them in probably 15 years, so it was nice to briefly catch up.

After finishing with the banners, I went home to eat and sleep for a few hours, as I would be doing the security patrol from 3AM to 6AM, the last shift of the night.  Unfortunately, because I was working that shift and needed to sleep, I missed out on the higher profile activities, such as the box-dwellers arriving, setting up, and collecting donations from passers-by; and the numerous speakers that gave presentations on different aspects of homelessness in the community.

The security shift was quiet.  Most of the action, as would be expected, was during the 12AM-3AM shift when the bars began to let out.  That was when there was a larger number of security volunteers to quell any disturbances which, from what I heard, were fortunately few and far between.   My shift, on the other hand, was simply myself and two other gentleman patrolling the streets to make sure all was calm while chatting amongst ourselves and occasionally going into the event headquarters to warm up, then finally waking everyone up at about 5:30 AM to begin packing up and go to the soup kitchen for breakfast if they wanted to.

The most significant aspect of the night for me, though, were two conversations I was able to be a part of.  Both were started by a co-volunteer on the security team that I just happened to join later.  Regardless of how they began, they were eye-opening first-hand accounts of the struggles of homelessness.

During one of our little warming breaks, after I had filled up a cup of hot chocolate, I walked towards the door where my colleague was chatting with a gentleman who was telling his story.  He had spent 30 years struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.  He wasn’t often “shelter homeless” as he put it; instead, bouncing around other people’s homes and spending more than a few nights in jail. When asked what the low point was to finally turn things around, he said there wasn’t a specific one, but rather a bunch of little ones, including stealing thousands of dollars from his mother to support his crack habit.  Around that time, he had come to believe that God hated him and he hated God in return.  Eventually, after one of his many arrests, he met with a social worker who helped him on the slow road to recovery.  He is just now coming up on four years of sobriety and helps to run one of the local shelters.

Upon finishing the wakeups, we walked over to the local soup kitchen for a hot breakfast after the cold night.  One of the security volunteers had begun speaking with an older gentleman by the event headquarters, and then I saw them sitting at one of the tables and joined them.  As it turned out, this gentleman himself was currently homeless.  I missed the beginning of his story, so I may have missed context and background.  However, what I did hear was a struggle of having lost his job and then trying to survive on part-time minimum wage jobs while paying child support.  He spent some nights in the shelters, but tried to stay with friend and family when he could.  I asked where he had spent the previous nights during the dangerous conditions.  He told us that he had stayed with his ex-wife.  He informed us of the humiliation of such a situation.  Not only is he unable to pay the child support, but he needed to depend on her for shelter.  “It makes you feel like less of a man,” he admitted.  We spent the breakfast generally trying to be supportive and encouraging.  And I wished him luck with his coming job interviews when I left that morning.  But I most remember the early moments when I had first joined them at the table.  The gentleman had already been talking with my co-volunteer for a bit, and was talking about seeing 300 people spend the night in the cold to raise oney.  His eyes watered as he fought the tears.

“I don’t think I’ve cried in 10 years, but it’s just so great what you all are doing to help people like us.”

-Photos are from CU at Home One Winter Night gallery and courtesy of Lisa Shreffler Photography and Holly Birch Photography

More Information:

Event website for One Winter Night.  (YOU CAN STILL DONATE!)   https://www.cuathome.us/one-winter-night/

Images from the event:   https://www.facebook.com/pg/cuathome.us/photos/?tab=album&album_id=2224058217655489

Local soup kitchen in Champaign  https://dailybreadsoupkitchen.com/

Below are national organizations that are dedicating to serving the homeless population in the United States

National Coalition for the Homeless  https://nationalhomeless.org/

National Alliance to End Homelessness  https://endhomelessness.org/

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth   https://naehcy.org/

National Health Care for the Homeless Council  https://www.nhchc.org/

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty  https://www.nlchp.org/

Matt’s Essential Reading List #1

For the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly making my way through Amazon’s list of “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”.  This has gotten me to thinking what books I would consider essential books that people should read. I, therefore, have decided to share my own list over the course of this year, finishing with a list of 50 books that I have read and strongly recommend to anyone and everyone.

First of all, let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  I have absolutely no credentials or expertise that would actually qualify me to make such a list.  I am simply a guy that reads a fair amount and is opinionated.  So, take my recommendations with a generous serving of salt.

I am basing my list on a variety of factors:

  • Prestige of author/book: Therefore, while there may be some fun books I truly enjoy, if they are rather obscure,  they aren’t going on the list, even if I enjoy them more than other books I do include on the list. (I may ignore this prestige factor in the case of some books, especially nonfiction, that may be obscure, but I find them to be unique and cover important subject matter.)
  • Readability/Approachability: I am choosing books that I think anyone and everyone could read and gain something from. There may be other books that would be considered better or more thorough; however, they might turn the average person off.  For example, Ulysses by James Joyce is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th  Unfortunately, that thing is a pain in the ass to read if you are not an English Literature major.  It took me seven months and rereading chapters in the SparkNotes version to get through it.  Books like that will not be included.
  • Subject matter: This will be my pontification aspect. Many of the books, especially the nonfiction ones, but also some fiction, will have subject matter or messages that I believe everyone would benefit from learning.
  • Quality: It’s gotta be good, right? That’s the entire point.

Here’s a summary of my format.  Each month, I will list five books.  Two or three of them will be off of Amazon’s list, and I will designate them as such.  My goal is that about half of the final list will be from Amazon’s list and about half will be my own choosing.  For each book, I will include a brief rationale as to why I chose it.  There will not be any rankings, so there is no reason for the order of their being included except for possible relevancy to current events.  To maintain variety, each month will include one book for each of these categories:

  • Fiction
  • Memoir/Biography
  • Self-Improvement/Philosophical
  • Academic/Expository/Analysis
  • Open

In November, I will look back at my previous entries and likely make some replacements.  Then in December, I will compile the final list of 50.

I hope you find this exercise interesting, and if you’ve read any of my selections and would like to discuss, please contact me.


With that, here are my first five books (* indicates that the book is also included on Amazon’s list of books to read in a lifetime)


Any book about any subject that interests you

Image result for blank book coverOpen Category

While I said that there would not be any rankings, in truth, this is Book #1.  Any book that gets you into reading is the most important book in the world.  There are so many incredible cognitive benefits of reading, but many people don’t do it.  However, all it takes is something to grab your interest.  My dad had told me years ago that he hadn’t read a full book since college, until someone recommended Marley & Me to him because of his love for yellow labs (like his own Leinie).  While still not an avid reader, he has read other books since then.  So, if you’re not currently a big reader, try to find a book that sparks your interest, whatever it may be.

 


*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. 

Self-Improvement/PhilosophicalMan's Search for Meaning by [Frankl, Viktor E.]

Again, while I am not ranking this list, if I had to choose only one book to recommend to people, it would almost definitely be this one.  Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.  Before the war he began researching human purpose and happiness, and began writing what would become this book.  In fact, his papers were his most prized possession and what he held onto the longest when the crackdown began and he was sent to the camps.  Obviously, his work took on a whole new meaning in the face of one of the worst atrocities in human history.

The combination of the thought-provoking academic work and the heart-breaking recollection of his persecution make for a book that is nothing short of amazing.  This book had more of a profound impact on my world view than any other, and there isn’t even a close second.


The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

Academic/Expository/Analysis

I read this book long ago during graduate school when I began taking courses in Religious Studies.  It is probably the single greatest one volume resource to get a general overview of the major religions of the world.  He also gives a brief philosophical discussion of tribal religions as a whole. The book discusses each religion’s history and basic beliefs and practices.  At the end of each section, Smith also lists recommendations for other books if you’d like to learn more about that specific religion.

In order to foster better relations across cultures, it is crucial to have a basic understanding of other cultures.  Religion is one of the key factors of culture, and with so much religious conflict and discrimination occurring in the world, better understanding is desperately needed.  If you want a nonbiased and thorough introduction to one of the other major religions (or all of them), this book is a great first step.


*1984 by George Orwell

Fiction

The dystopian classic.  I decided to choose only one of the three major novels set in a future totalitarian society (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit-451 by Ray Bradbury being the other two).  I went with 1984 for a couple of reasons.  First, I believe it is the most realistic and relevant in today’s world.  The combination of total surveillance, even in our homes, and a constantly changing official narrative told to the populace that is divorced from reality are aspects we should keep in mind in the era of social media, smart homes, alternative facts and fake news.  There is a reason we use the term “Orwellian”.

Secondly, I personally feel the story of 1984 is far superior to the other two.  Winston Smith is the most compelling protagonist of the three.  The twists and turns of the plot make it a generally enjoyable read, even beyond the incredible political commentary. It’s that rare book that is entertaining and thought-provoking.


Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham

Memoir/BiographyDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by [Meacham, Jon]

I am including this book mostly because of George H.W. Bush’s recent passing.  I just so happened to read it about a month before he died; and was enthralled.  If you happened to watch the state funeral, presidential historian Jon Meacham, the author of this biography, gave the first eulogy.

This book is the closest thing to a memoir of George H.W. Bush, as he gave Meacham access to his diary and letters, as well as allowing many in-depth interviews with the former president and his family. It is, admittedly, a little too kind to Bush and his legacy (as a memoir would likely be).  However, it is an intimate and fascinating look into the life of the man whom I believe will go down in history as the most underrated President ever.  Any policy/partisan beliefs aside, his commitment to honor, duty, and service should be a model for all our leaders, and us ourselves, to strive towards.

Voluntourism

When I decided to go abroad, I knew I wanted to do more than just travel and be a tourist. I wanted to interact with the community and do something productive and, hopefully, meaningful.  I was in the process of completing a program in Nonprofit Management through UCLA-Extension, so I thought this journey could be an opportunity to gain some experience in the nonprofit sector.  I then began researching options and before long, I was accepted into a YMCA program in Colombia, and then also had some ideas for other volunteer options in other countries.  My worldwide foray into voluntourism was about to begin.

Volunteering with wallabies in Australia through Oceans 2 Earth Volunteers

“Voluntourism” has risen in popularity over the past decade, as people want to make a positive impact while exploring new countries.  Having spent over a year travelling the world as a voluntourist, I recommend this incredible way of traveling, albeit with some caveats that I will discuss later.  I have found that in the places where I volunteered, I have lived a more authentic experience with the people and culture.  If voluntourism appeals to you, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned to help you make the most of it.

To begin, here are the main options for voluntourism that I am familiar with.  If you can commit to an extended period (usually six months or more) and/or have a needed skill set, you can find programs that will cover most, if not all, of your expenses, and maybe even pay you a small stipend.  This was what I did with the YMCA in Colombia, but the most common version of this is teaching English, which may need TEFL or similar certification.  And, although not really considered “voluntourism”, there are also the even longer term programs such as the Peace Corps.

Doing an English program with YMCA-Colombia

If long-term programs aren’t viable for you, and you are looking for something more on the timeframe of a few weeks, you basically have two options: going through a fee-based organization or trying to find a local volunteering opportunity on your own.  A fee-based organization will have local partners overseeing the volunteer programs, while the larger organization acts in a support role, especially as you plan for your trip.  Your fees will usually cover your lodging and most, if not all, of your meals, as well as administrative costs and funding for your local project.  Finding a program on your own can result in a variety of opportunities.  You may find a volunteer opportunity but must cover all expenses yourself.  Other times, you may find an opportunity that will offer lodging and food in exchange for your services and a commitment of at least 2 or 3 weeks, but no fees required.

Helping out at a medical visit day in the village of Papuso, Chile, with EFTG Taltal

The next step, and possibly the most important one, is to research the organization, program, and community.  Some fee-based organizations are not much more than tourist agencies, with little or none of your fees and efforts really helping the community.  Also, be careful of programs that may actually be counter-productive.  For example, I am wary of orphan programs.  There have been scandals in India and Cambodia where “orphans” were being rented so that unsuspecting fee-paying volunteers could work with them.  Additionally, a revolving door of short-term care-giving volunteers can lead to further abandonment issues for the children.    This is not to scare you away from these programs completely.  Just items for consideration so that you can find the best placement for you.  It is extremely important that you investigate to make sure that the organization is truly working to benefit the community or cause you wish to help. Otherwise, everyone would be better off if you just took a regular vacation.

This is also one of the benefits of using a larger, well-regarded placement organization.  Usually, they will ensure that their partner organizations are actually beneficial for the local community or cause they are supposed to serve.

Finally, we need to set expectations.  You are not going to change the world, or even the local community, in only a couple of weeks.  It is important to remember that your role should be supporting those on the front lines.  This may mean that you won’t always get the Instagram worthy pictures with smiling children or cute baby animals. Instead, you may be doing the much more helpful behind the scenes work of cleaning and repairs that have been neglected because there haven’t been the funds or time to do such work.   But know that these unpublicized tasks are greatly welcomed, beneficial, and appreciated.

Trying to make the transition refugee camp on the north shore of Lesvos, Greece a little more welcoming, with Refugee Rescue

Along those lines, in all honesty, sometimes, the most important assistance you will offer is the fee that you pay.  Some local nonprofits in these voluntourism hotspots are beginning to see it as a revenue stream; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Even if the work you do isn’t all that critical, but the money is being used to further a cause you support, and you gain appreciation and experience in the process, it is a win for everyone involved.

Gaining cultural and travel experience; and spending your time and energy in service to someone or something are incredible aspects of life that should be encouraged.  Voluntourism, for all its positive and negative attributes, is a way to combine those aspects.  If it is done correctly, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both for you and those you wish to help.

Resources

Here are some resources to help you on your voluntourism adventure.  The first four links are websites/organizations I used on my journey.  The others links have more information, including discussion of voluntourism with more eloquence than I can muster.

If you would like to discuss voluntourism with me, feel free to reach out to me directly!

IENA (www.iena.org): The organization where I found my YMCA-Colombia placement.  They have a variety of long-term programs.

IVHQ (www.volunteerhq.org): Respected organization with many fee-based volunteer programs around the world.

Workaway (www.workaway.info): A website where travelers can find lodging and food in return for working part-time, usually at farms & hostels, but some nonprofits as well.

GivingWay (www.givingway.com): Similar to Workaway but focused on nonprofits.

How Stuff Works Entry on Voluntourism: A good in-depth overview of voluntourism. https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/voluntourism.htm

http://www.voluntourism.org/ : A good resource website full of information, tips, links, blogs, webcasts and other resources regarding voluntourism.

Some articles about voluntourism, including the pitfalls, things to consider, and how it can be improved:

http://theconversation.com/volunteer-tourism-whats-wrong-with-it-and-how-it-can-be-changed-86701

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2015/02/04/unpacking-voluntourism-five-myths/

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2014/07/31/336600290/as-volunteerism-explodes-in-popularity-whos-it-helping-most

A Christmas Journey

Many years have passed

Since my last Christmas tale

Due to my holiday spirit

Continuing to fail

 

Christmases came and went

An annual time marker

Each year, my views became

Increasingly darker

 

Such evil in the world

With no rhyme or reason

How could I enjoy

The Christmas season?

 

One night I was brooding

With my cynical gloom

When a visitor suddenly

Appeared in my room

 

It had been many years

Since we had last met

But Santa was back

Not done with me yet

 

“Your mood has been noticed”

He did solemnly declare

As he led me out

Into the winter night air

 

“You need more perspective

So come with me

On a trip around the world

With much you should see”

 

My hopes were small

A pitiful microbe

Yet I joined Santa

On this journey of the globe

 

I climbed into his sleigh

And we then did depart

But grim feelings stayed

Within my cold heart

 

We travelled far and wide

North, South, East, and West

But to me, everything seen

Was just as bad as the rest

 

In Colombia, we saw

Families and friends cry

For to a young man

They were saying goodbye

 

In the wrong place

And at the wrong time

An innocent victim

Of a drug-fueled crime

 

Deep in the Amazon

The river flows with refuse

For the natives, lives and culture

They continue to lose

 

We visited Munich

And its boisterous beer halls

Where years ago, the world

First heard Nazi calls

 

To more and more nations

We continued to travel

And mankind it seemed

Continued to unravel

 

Chain linked camps we see

Holding many a family

From much brutality

They so desperately flee

 

Around South Africa

Reminders of apartheid

Separating humanity

Across a racial divide

 

We walked the streets of India

Poverty filled the air

Beggars constantly asking

What people could spare

 

Many people I met

With deep struggles within

Some hoping to die

Just so their pain would end

 

Throughout the world

Greed and exploitation

Men, women, and children

Living in desperation

 

Drugs and bodies for sale

Filling a depraved appetite

With hardly any semblance

Of a sense of wrong or of right

 

We take what we want

Caring not for suffering

For we have come to view

Each person as a thing

 

As it seemed our trip

Was coming to a close

Nothing was better

And my anger then rose

 

“Why show me this?

To show the world’s not fair?

Or simply to prove

That God does not care?”

 

Santa looked at me

Slowly shook his head

Then sighed deeply

And finally said

 

“For as intelligent as you

Think yourself to be

You have missed the point

Of this entirely”

 

“Let’s try again”

With frustration on his lip

“But pay attention

On this second trip”

 

“Focus not on problems

Or those that complain

For they do nothing

To ease the world’s pain”

 

“Pay attention to those

Who make it their charge

To make any difference

Be it small or be it large”

 

To many of those places

We then did return

But now I witnessed

Faith and hope burn

 

In a country that suffered

Decades of war and strife

Young and old worked together

Towards peace and a better life

 

I met people who in the past

Had lost a close friend

And in his honor now

Help their community to mend

 

Volunteers keep watch

Over cold, treacherous seas

In case rescue is needed

Of scared and desperate refugees

 

In sight of Kilimanjaro

And in the land down under

Humans dedicated to animals

Their work I watched in wonder

 

I walked through cells

Of men that risked all

To fight oppression

Answering history’s call

 

We sailed on a ship

Crossing the rolling sea

The crew working together

Overcoming any disability

 

Across the world were many

Who have made their vocation

Giving children in need

Both health and education

 

For a year and a half,

Santa took me everywhere

To witness shining examples

Of heroes that care

 

At last we completed

That journey so indirect

Santa then gave me something

On which to reflect

 

“You dwell on the world’s ills

Wondering what God will do

But He’s already begun

He has created you”

 

“Yes, the world has problems

Across a great range

But He’s given each the power

To bring about change”

 

It’s time for me to end

Wishing Merry Christmas

But before I go

I leave you with this

 

Always remember

Every action has worth

So what is the Christmas gift

You will give to the Earth?

Tenaciously Crossing the Ocean

After my week exploring Cape Town, I was ready for the part of my journey I had been most looking forward to. When I first began planning this trip around the world, I knew I wanted to sail across an ocean on a tall ship as part of the journey. For those of you that don’t, the term “tall ship” refers to the historic type of sailing, think Pirates of the Caribbean. So early on, I began researching possible ocean crossings, I eventually found one that seemed to work in to my schedule. And, as luck would have it, this particular ship fit perfectly into my trip’s overall theme of volunteering.

SV Tenacious from my vantage point, out on the bowsprit

S.V. Tenacious is operated by an organization called the Jubilee Sailing Trust, a non-profit based out of Southampton in the UK. They operate two tall ships, Tenacious and the Lord Nelson. These are the only two tall ships in the world that are built specifically to accommodate equal opportunity sailing. The ships are wheel chair accessible. They have special a “speaking compass” and similar adaptations for people that may be blind, so they can still helm the ship. They have special alarm systems for deaf people. Additionally, any crewmember that happens to have such a disability is paired with a “buddy” that can help them as needed throughout the journey. They offer both short term voyages of a few days and longer ocean crossings of a few weeks.

Tenacious in Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background

On an early April afternoon, I boarded Tenacious in Cape Town to begin my Trans-Atlantic adventure. I brought my bags up the gangway, and was greeted by Ally, the first mate. She called for Lee who would be my watch leader for the next six weeks. Lee then showed me around the ship and brought me to my cabin to drop off my bags and to meet Ian, my cabinmate and “buddy”. Ian was in a wheelchair, so that is why we were in one of the cabins, as opposed to the bunks in the bow of the ship where many of the voyage crew would be sleeping. During those first few days, including a night out in Cape Town, I realized that Ian’s dry and irreverent British humor would get along well with my smart-ass sarcasm.

I found myself in a strange mindset as I met the others on board. Given the nature of Tenacious and JST, instead of just meeting people as in a normal situation, I was trying to observe others that may have a disability of one kind or another. It was a rather disappointing thought process as I reflected back upon it. Almost the exact opposite of what the entire idea of the organization is supposed to be about: moving past disabilities. Even with my good intentions, it was still easy to fall into thinking about labels rather than just getting to know a person.

Former logo of JST

As it so happened, there was no one else in a wheel chair, and other than one person who had been partially deaf when a young child, but now was enabled with a hearing aid, no one else had any real disabilities, although some of the crew were older and did have issues with mobility or sight or were a little hard of hearing.

Before setting sail from Cape Town, we had a couple of days of training to get better acquainted with the ship and its operations. This included learning how to climb the rigging. I am not a big fan of heights, so I took advantage of this time alongside the dock to practice rather than when we were on the sea rolling around. This was yet another one of the accommodations that the ship had. They had special rigging to help people in wheelchairs go up to one of the platforms on the fore mast, mostly under their own power. After our training, a small group of us helped get Ian set up so he could pull himself up the mast. It was one of the first examples of how people in the crew would work together as a team to help one another throughout the voyage.

Up the mast with some crewmates

Soon enough, we were away from the dock and, after going through immigration at the cruise terminal, we made our way out to sea under power that night. The next day, we set some of the sails, while keeping the engines on, and did some “motor sailing”. But the first few days were still focused on getting used to the ship and the routine. A few people battled with sea-sickness and getting their sea-legs. But after a bit, things became more settled, and we spent more time with the sails set and making our way through the deep blue see stretching out to the horizon.

Sunset with the moon and Venus

Sailing the vast expanse of the ocean on a tall ship, a barque, to be exact, was every bit as fun as I hoped it would be. The rolling of the ship, the vast distance from civilization, the sunrises and sunsets and clear night skies, all rekindled my interest in sailing. By far, my favorite place to be was the bowsprit, out at the very front of the ship, where I could enjoy the rise and fall of the ship as it made its way through the ocean swell. Additionally, we were able to anchor or come alongside and explore beautiful and out of the way islands such as St. Helena (the final place of exile for Napoleon) and Fernando de Noronha (which limits the numbers of visitors because of its undeveloped beaches). As wonderful as the pure experience of sailing and exploring these islands were, that is not the purpose of this blog.

Steering the ship

Throughout the journey, as we learned more, and became more adept at whatever needed to be done, whether it be cleaning the ship, or galley (kitchen) duty, or setting/handing sails, we needed to work together as a team. This also meant being able to fill in and make adjustments. It may be figuring out the best place on the line for someone that may has limited mobility when we are setting a sail. Or if someone is sick, covering them when they have galley duty, or giving them a slightly different job. This is important to the ethos of the ship that everyone is a contributing member of the crew. This teamwork also manifested itself in fun times such as shore excursions or when we went swimming off the ship while at anchor, when we may have needed a group of people to help hoist Ian out of the water, or onto a boat. This teamwork was facilitated by the many days spent at sea, getting to know one another over meals or during the hours on watch.

Egg toss champions: Forward Starboard Watch!

Given the nature of sailing across the ocean, the possibility for tedium and boredom are high. Luckily, aside from the variety of tasks needed to keep the ship running smoothly, there were activities to keep us entertained, such as quiz nights, an egg toss competition, and the requisite Neptune ceremony upon crossing the equator, among other activities.

Cleaning up during the Neptune ceremony

One recurring activity were talks by members of both the permanent (official) crew and the voyage crew. The talks from the permanent crew would usually be on topics related to sailing: types of ships and sails, navigation, weather patterns and currents, identifying and avoiding crossing ships, and the like. The voyage crew would give talks about their daily lives. These talks were interesting and wide ranging given the diverse jobs of the people travelling. The topics of these talks included raising soft fruit (raspberries, strawberries, etc.), the basics of dark matter, the psychology of language learning, among many others.

As the nature of my journey, and this blog, was discovering people and organizations that are doing amazing work on behalf of a cause. Therefore, I was especially interested to hear talks related to these topics.

Tenacious at anchor in St. Helena

One woman spoke about the work she’s done with different organizations dealing with wildlife. She especially focused on Antarctic wildlife and whales. She gave in-depth perspective to the variety of threats and work being done to protect these animals. Another talk was given by the voyage’s ship doctor. He and his wife had gone on a medical trip to Nepal last year as part of an organization called “Show You Care” which was founded, and is run, by a former monk. He described the various issues facing this remote part of Nepal. But also how the efforts of the organization providing education and proper medical care to the people.

Out on the bowsprit

Later in the voyage, after he became more comfortable with the idea of it, Ian gave a talk about spinal cord injuries and how people, and their families, cope when they occur. He also spoke about his work at the National Spinal Injuries Centre in the UK where he works with people that have relatively recently suffered a spinal cord injury. Hearing his talk helped bring so much more into focus, such as the immediate despair that victims suffer and the timeline of about 3 years on average for them to “settle” into their situation. But he also pointed out how effective disabled employees are in the workforce, that they often take less sick days and are found to be amongst the most productive in their teams. Yet so many people, only see the disability and not their capability.

Tenacious at sunset

But one important lesson that he imparted, that everyone should take away, is how true growth occurs when you push out of your comfort zone. He said that he had been giving that advice to his clients for years, and when he heard about JST and the possibility to sail across the ocean while in a wheelchair, he decided to take his own advice and push himself to do something that scared him. Towards the end of the journey, during one of our many conversations while on watch, he told me that despite the struggles he had at the beginning, this had been one of those deep life experiences that he will always be able to look back upon and say “I did that.”

On the Caribbean island of Bequia, part of the Grenadines

After six weeks, and almost 6000 miles, an equator crossing, and stops at three different islands along the way, we arrived in Antigua. We had some end-of-voyage celebrations to top off an incredible journey. Then the day came when we had to disembark the ship which had been our home for a month and a half. There were the hugs and goodbyes and promises to keep in touch as crew members made their way to the airport or to their accommodations. Eventually, it was my turn to grab my bags and leave as well. Walking away, the sight of the ship was still as impressive as it was when I first saw it in Cape Town. But I now I could look at it and say, “I did that.”

 

More Information

Jubilee Sailing Trust: The UK-based charity that operates SV Tenacious and her sister ship SV Lord Nelson, the only two tall-ships in the world designed for equal opportunity sailing. The website shows their upcoming voyages, ranging from a few days to a few weeks.

United Nations Environment Programs: During the talk about Antarctic wildlife and whales. This oversees many specific programs

International Whaling Commission: Organization that oversees studies, conservation, and management of the world’s whale species

Show You Care: Organization in Nepal that our ship’s doctor joined for a medical volunteer trip last year

National Spinal Injuries Centre: UK center offering support for spinal injury victims, where my sailing buddy, Ian, works.

A list of resources in the USA for spinal cord injuries.

Sunrise at sea