Matt’s Essential Reading List #5

Here is my fifth installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books to read.

A reminder of my guiding criteria:

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

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

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie


A book that is often credited with kicking off the self-improvem`ent genre, and is still a best-seller more than 80 years after it was first published.  I’ve read this book twice now, and will probably read it again soon in order to take specific notes instead of just reading.

To be fair, the book could be subtitled A Sociopath’s Guide to Manipulating People. That criticism aside, the book does operate from the belief that your intentions are genuine and sincere.  The tips are relatively simple and make a lot of sense, such as repeating people’s names during conversation when you first meet them, both to show interest and to help you remember their name, or talking about your own mistakes before criticizing.

I also appreciate how much Carnegie discusses and gives stories about Abe Lincoln (who seems to seep into a lot of my book recommendations!)

The lessons of this book are applicable in all aspects in life and everyone would benefit from studying them.

*To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


The standard of literature classes that I didn’t read until long after school. The complexity of racism in the south as seen through the lens of a child gives an amazing perspective.  The integrity and basic goodness of Atticus Finch has inspired so many throughout the years since its publication, as well as the movie’s release.

This book is an incredible exposition of the both the dark and optimistic aspects of human nature.  There is a reason it is required reading for so many students, and it should continue to be so.  If you were not required to read it in middle school or high school, you should definitely read it now.

Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by Nancy Koehn


This book is actually five mini biographies.  It tells the stories of five historic figures, with a general biography on each, but with extra focus on the defining struggle each of them faced, and the lessons one can take from them.

It covers: Ernest Shackleton and his doomed Antarctic expedition; Abraham Lincoln’s and his decision about the Emancipation Proclamation during a time of the Civil War when loss seemed more likely than victory; Frederick Douglas and his decision to return to the USA from England risking recapture in order to be a leading voice for abolition; Deitrich Bonhoeffer and his role as a Christian leader resisting the Nazi government in Germany; and Rachel Carson and her struggle to write Silent Spring, triggering an environmental awakening, all while fighting cancer and supporting her family alone.

The biographies are well-written and concise to give a complete picture of the person profiled, without going into a lot of detail. The details are saved for the episodes of crisis, with a focus on how he or she persevered.  Koehn, a historian with the Harvard Business School, provides insights on lessons that we can take from their stories.

This book is an easy and engrossing read that provides great lessons for the reader to consider and hopefully apply to his or her own life.

*A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking


Everyone should challenge themselves and ponder the deep questions of the universe.  And this is the perfect book for that.  This is the book that brought concepts of astrophysics and cosmology to the masses.

To be honest, you have to be in the right frame of mind to read a book like this, because it is likely that a few different possibilities could happen.  (1) You might begin reading it, and realize that this is just to deep for me to read about at this particular moment.  (2) You could read part of the book and then lay awake that night pondering the implications of what you have you have just read.  (3) You will contemplate the mysteries of the universe and grow as a thinking being in the process.

I have an illustrated version of this book which helps immensely in picturing and understanding these difficult concepts, which Dr. Hawking already does a great job in dumbing down for us ignoramuses.

Any Collection of Brainteasers, Riddles, Puzzles


While I was in Greece doing watches for Refugee Rescue and later while doing watches onboard Tenacious while crossing the Atlantic, occasionally, we would pass the time by asking each other riddles.  Things like “Mary and Shery look exactly alike and were born on the same day of the same year to the same mother, however they are not twins.  How is this possible?”

These brainteasers helped pass the time in an entertaining and social way.  So, as you may be going on long road trips with the family for summer vacation, these riddles could be a nice activity as opposed to everyone staring out the window or at their phones with earbuds in.  Additionally, just by yourself, they are a fun challenge to get yourself to think critically and creatively.

I’m not recommending any particular book (the one pictures is simply the one that was free through Amazon Prime Reading a few months ago, and so I have it on my Kindle currently).  The link is to a list of such books from Amazon, find one that seems right for you and your friends & family and enjoy!

Mr. Rogers and Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  One of this campaign’s goals is to fight the stigma surrounding mental health so that people are more comfortable seeking out the support they may need.  Last year, I shared a bit about my struggles, in a general sense, in order to hopefully break some of the stigma.  I have decided to write another post, with a little bit more specifics, mostly due to a film I recently watched and its relevance.  The purpose of this is not to vent or seek pity or as a cry for help or anything like that.  While I know people may read this and want to reach out to me to offer support or the like (and I appreciate the thought), that is not what I want at all.  The purpose of this post is to fight the stigma of mental health issues by letting people know that I have struggled, and to encourage people to accept the reality of these issues and deal with them rather than avoid them and be ashamed.

Last week, I finally watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the documentary on Mr. Rogers.  I had heard about it for a long time, and the movie did not disappoint.  His basic goodness and belief in humanity, along with his quiet strength facing social ills, are truly inspiring, and a model we should aspire to.

However, there was a more negative aspect of the film that stood out to me.  A few years after Mr. Rogers’s death, there was a small backlash against his philosophy of telling children “you are special just for being you.” People claimed that this mentality had led to young people being entitled and narcissistic.  These commentators state that if one wants to be special, they have to earn it.

Now, one could have a reasonable debate about senses of entitlement and people thinking they deserve recognition without earning it.  However, this is not even close to what Mr. Rogers was trying to convey.  As the documentary explains when addressing his critics, his philosophy was that each child has an intrinsic dignity and worth, and that it is important for children to develop that feeling of self-worth.

Unfortunately, in my own life, I internalized the message of those critics rather then the message of Mr. Rogers.  For as long as I can remember, I have tied my self-worth into what I have done rather than who I am.  I must be successful and do special things in order for people to like me.

Through a variety of fortunate circumstances, it seems as though I have led a moderately successful life thus far.  Perhaps the life I have led might even be categorized as “special” by those critics who say that “specialness” must be earned.  (It should be noted that many of those “successes” were more due to my fortunate circumstances, rather than my truly “earning” them.)

Meanwhile, despite those successes, I have struggled with having little to no intrinsic self-worth throughout my life.  I am nothing without my achievements. This has often led to my being unsatisfied by my successes and devastated by my failures.

Because of this lack of self-worth, I have deep-seeded insecurities that cause me to struggle in connecting with people.  That may seem strange to many, as I can readily start conversations with strangers and enjoy being social.  However, deep down, I rarely feel that any of these people could ever actually like me.  I feel that I must be impressive in some way.  Even if I may be able to have an easy conversation with you if we see each other, the idea of calling you or messaging you or reaching out to you in any way scares the hell out of me because my inner voice tells me that I would only be bothering you. This has led to my building walls and keeping distant from people.

As I write this, I realize a secondary purpose of this is to serve as an apology and an explanation.  I apologize to any of you that I’ve pushed away or seem to have ignored at times, especially if you’ve reached out.  Oftentimes, I have every intention of reaching back out to you, but I’m not in the right frame of mind or I don’t have time at the moment, and then life gets in the way and then my insecurities take over and I withdraw.  It is a weak excuse, but I hope it explains a little.  I am sorry if it seemed as though I didn’t care or value your friendship.  Because even if I don’t say it, I do value you and your friendship immensely.

That is more than enough about me.  As I said, I don’t want this to be self-serving.  I am only sharing my issues because I want to fight the stigma that people face when discussing mental health issues.  Maybe someone out there has similar struggles in their own life and this will help them in some way.  Low self-worth and self-esteem are often linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Whatever your struggles may be, I beg of you to please accept them and confront them head on.  Do not try to ignore it and bury it.  Trust me, it only gets harder with time. You could start addressing things simply by going some of the websites I’ve listed below.

If you yourself have had struggles with mental health, and feel comfortable doing so, I ask you to also share your stories so that we can all fight the stigma of mental health issues.  People need to realize that they are not alone, and that talking to a specialist if you have a melancholy that won’t go away should be no different than talking to your doctor if have a cold that won’t go away.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Month campaign by the National Alliance on Mental Illness is “Why Care?”  And who better exemplifies the spirit of caring than Mr. Rogers?

I wish I had taken his message of self-worth to heart more than the messages of the world that I must be great at everything.  I encourage you to learn from my mistakes and listen to Mr. Rogers.  To be clear, this does not mean that you are entitled to special recognition or adulation.  However, you are entitled to respect and dignity, because you are a unique and special human being.

Hold on and appreciate those caring relationships in your life that validate your special uniqueness and build your self-worth.  Ignore the critics and avoid those relationships that you need to earn or prove yourself for.  Treasure those people who, in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, care for you and like you for just being you.


Here are some links about dealing with low self-worth and/or low self-esteem, as well as some general information on mental health awareness.

I especially like this resource personally because it differentiates between self-worth and self-esteem.  And I appreciate this distinction because I struggle with one far more than the other.

The distinction between self-esteem and self-worth aside, there is overlap, and this WikiHow page gives a bunch of simple suggestions that would help with either.

I highly recommend this website for everyone.  It is a resource website both for people struggling with some issue and for friends & family of people struggling.  At a minimum, you can read up on how to talk to a friend or family member that is facing a mental issue in case such a scenario ever arises.

The Mental Health Awareness Month website from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  It connects to its “Why Care?” campaign and also has a large amount of different resources.

The Cure Stigma campaign from NAMI, which is focused on removing the stigma our society has about mental health issues.

This gives many tips on general well-being for both mind and body as they are intertwined.

Matt’s Essential Reading List #4

Here is my fourth installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books to read.

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”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Academic/Expository/AnalysisHow Democracies Die

How Democracies Die won numerous book prizes in 2018.  It is particularly relevant now in the aftermath of the recent release of the Mueller Report and the current crisis in Venezuela.  This book is a great analysis of how countries can from democracy towards authoritarianism.  In modern times, this change is usually not sudden, but rather a gradual chipping away at democratic norms and institutions, until they are easily toppled. It analyzes Nazi Germany, Venezuela, and Turkey among others and compares these situations to what is happening currently in the United States.

Admittedly, the book is highly critical of Donald Trump and the Republicans.  However, it is not a manifesto for socialism or a liberal agenda.  It is not critical of Republican policies per se.  Rather, it warns that the methods that Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have used have begun to erode the foundations of the American system of government.

One of the key tenants of the book is that a historical foundation for American democracy has been mutual toleration, that competing political parties view each other as legitimate rivals with different views, rather than as existential threats that must be defeated at all costs.  This is a lesson we all must learn if the republic is to continue.

*The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

FictionThe Sun Also Rises by [Hemingway, Ernest ]

If you have ever considered participating in “The Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain, this is the novel that brought the San Fermin Festival into the world’s consciousness.  I have been fortunate enough to take part in the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona (and yes, I ran with the bulls as well!)  And while, I had already wanted to do it, reading The Sun Also Rises only increased the desire.

Beyond the excitement of the Spanish festival, the book, in my opinion, best captures the imagined Lost Generation lifestyle: sitting in cafes in Europe with people from different countries, contemplating life, whether it has any meaning, and thinking the next adventure it holds in store.

This is, for good reason, considered one of Hemingway’s greatest works, and it does capture his writing style and his lifestyle rather well.

And if you are still considering your summer vacation plans, the San Fermin festival is in early July and is an amazing time.  Most of the rooms are usually booked by now, but it’s always possible to find something.  When I went, I didn’t book until a couple weeks before and was able to find a nice private room right in the middle of it the action.  The hotel even had balconies overlooking Estafeta, the main street of the festival.

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant

Self-Improvement/Philosophical/ManagementGive and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by [Grant Ph.D., Adam M.]

I came across this book rather coincidentally. During my last month at SpaceX before I left on my trip around the world, Adam Grant happened to come and do a small management lecture on the principles of Give and Take.  He also provided books for the attendees, and I read it during the course of my travels.  The general principle is counter-intuitive at first, but then makes complete sense when you really think about it.

Basically, Grant states that people fundamentally fall into one of three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are rather selfless and willing to give without expecting much in return.  Takers are the opposite and try to take advantage of every situation and person for maximum personal gain.  Matchers are those that are in-between, people that are willing to help, but expect something in return, and vice-versa; believing in a balance.  In his research, Grant found that over the long-term, the givers are usually the most successful of the three.

The book explains the concepts extremely well, with great real-world examples.  It also provides guidance on how you and your team can develop a culture that encourages the giver mindset, which then is beneficial for everyone involved.

*Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Biography/Memoir[By Doris Kearns Goodwin ] Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Paperback)【2018】by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author) (Paperback)

As a history buff and political junkie from Illinois, obviously Lincoln is always going to be at the top of my list of presidents.  This award-winning book goes into great detail about Lincoln’s life and his political career, but also that of his major political rivals within the new Republican Party, who were more established and more likely to be the 1860 Republican nominee for President.

It is a realistic portrayal of Lincoln and his struggles, without as much myth-making.  Although, it does hold him in much higher esteem than his rivals (albeit for good reason.)  However, within the book are numerous lessons about how best to deal with people and stressful situations, and coming together in pursuit of a higher purpose.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

OtherA Visit from the Goon Squad

This was another accidental find.  A couple I met while traveling happened to have just finished it, recommended it, and gave their copy to me.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a collection of interwoven short stories told in a variety of different perspectives and methods.  One of them is even told via PowerPoint slides.  It is a unique book, and according to Wikipedia, some critics have called it “post-postmodern”.

The stories are engrossing with interesting characters.  There is no underlying plot connecting the stories, however aspects of a story that are vague in one story often become clearer in a later story as more background information is revealed about particular characters.

It is entertaining and one of the more interesting books stylistically that I have ever read.  Despite the changing styles, which may be slightly unnerving to some, it is very accessible and enjoyable.

I kept the tradition going and passed the book on to a friend in Colombia after I was done.  So who knows where that particular book is at the moment…

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


“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


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


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


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


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


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!)

Images from the event:

Local soup kitchen in Champaign

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

National Coalition for the Homeless

National Alliance to End Homelessness

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

National Health Care for the Homeless Council

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

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


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


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.