Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

The Feeling Good HandbookThe Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike with previous Burns books, I read this one while I was feeling relatively normal and untroubled. I did this because I sensed myself relapsing. Cognitive therapy, as you might know, is based on the premise that your thoughts control your moods and emotions. Thus it works by changing your beliefs and even your values in order to alleviate depression, anxiety, and problems with relationships. In my own experience, this can have a remarkably liberating effect. The problem is that, when the relief passes and you once more get sucked into the humdrum world of daily troubles, the original beliefs and values come creeping back.

But why is this? Why are we so prone to adopting irrational and self-defeating patterns of thought? Why do we embrace unrealistic standards, make unjustified assumptions, jump to unwarranted conclusions—only to wallow in misery and fear and loneliness—when a few pen-and-paper exercises is sometimes all we need to feel better? It is peculiar. Robert Wright argues that our cognitive imperfections stem from our evolutionary heritage. A competitive and materialistic culture might also contribute. Burns, for his part, does not offer much in the way of explanation; his aim is therapy, not theory. Yet answering this question seems vital if we are to fight an offensive battle rather than a defensive one.

It seems to me that the most proactive strategy would be to intervene on the social rather than the psychological realm (if that were possible). To pick a simple example, if an obsession with being the best is really self-defeating—at least as far as happiness is concerned—then why the opposite message so passionately embraced in the culture at large?

Perhaps it is because these value systems, which equate happiness with accomplishment, do benefit the group even if they are not psychologically desirable. An office full of perfectionistic over-achievers might out-compete an office full of contented workers with nothing to prove. Advertisements may not have much effect in a world of high self-esteem. And political parties will have trouble getting elected in a world without anxiety. In these and a thousand other ways, society depends on the very thoughts and attitudes that books like this try to combat. No wonder that relapse is common once therapy ceases.

It is also true that there are hidden, and sometimes ugly, benefits to our bad habits. It feels satisfying to think oneself superior to others. Insulting and controlling other people brings a rush. Anxiety helps us to avoid discomfort. Intimacy requires painful vulnerability. And who wants to accept imperfections in oneself? Burns’ methods require that we see ourselves as flawed, that we acknowledge that other people have a point, that our anger is often unjustified, that we face our fears—and who wants to do that? Indeed, sometimes the beliefs that are most precious to us, the beliefs that form our identity and reality, are just what cognitive therapy encourages us to give up—the belief that, for example, your money makes you superior, or that life is rotten, or that your wife is crazy—and these beliefs can seem more important than happiness itself.

Well, I’m not sure I have a solution to this, other than meditating and occasionally dipping into some cognitive therapy books when I feel particularly troubled. For that purpose The Feeling Good Handbook is well suited, since it is a sort of omnibus of Burns’ general approach, with sections on depression, anxiety, and communication. Even though I was not looking for any special relief, I still found the book useful (specifically the section on procrastination, which prompted me to finally begin submitting my novel to agents). As usual, Burns is a heartening voice—compassionate, intelligent, and motivating—who is accessible without descending into tackiness. And it is always a relief to read his anecdotes, since they remind me that these problems, far from hopeless or strange, are part of the human condition.

View all my reviews

Review: Draft No. 4

Review: Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4: On the Writing ProcessDraft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I include what interests me and exclude what doesn’t interest me. That may be a crude tool but it’s the only one I have.

I came to this book from an odd angle. Neither a reader of The New Yorker (where McPhee has published the lion’s share of his work), nor a reader of John McPhee’s books, nor even aware of his existence until a few months ago, I was nonetheless gifted this book for Christmas. It was an intelligent choice. McPhee is a kindred spirit, a nonfiction writer who loves nature, science, and the written word; whose rapacious curiosity for apparently prosaic subjects—oranges, rocks, the merchant marine—is only matched by his rapacious attention to the craft of writing.

Among a certain crowd of readers and writers McPhee is worshipped this side of idolatry. In this way he strongly resembles another writer for The New Yorker, E.B. White, whose style has become synonymous with good taste. The two men, very unlike in many ways, share something more: an odd mixture of down-home folksiness and slick sophistication. Their tone is frank and unpretentious, their subjects far removed from the shibboleths of high culture, and yet their writing is polished, refined, and consummate.

This book is presented as the written version of McPhee’s famous class on creative nonfiction at Princeton, which he has been teaching for over 40 years. This class is a part of the McPhee legend, since so many of its students went on to become highly regarded writers themselves. (There does seem to be a problem of cause-and-effect in attributing this success to the class, however, since to join the class you need to submit a writing sample, and only the best 16 are admitted.) As such, I opened this book expecting to find something like a style manual or a writing guide.

But Draft No. 4 is only peripherally concerned with giving advice. It is primarily a series of essays on his experience writing, researching, editing, fact-checking, and publishing. I admit that I was disappointed with this at first, since I was hoping for a focused series of tips and exercises, something along the lines of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; but McPhee writes so charmingly that these misgivings were soon forgotten. Indeed, I had trouble putting the book down, and in short order finished it.

The most memorable chapter of the book is “Structure,” in which he illustrates some of the organizational schemes he has employed. McPhee, you see, is deeply concerned with the structure of his writing, in ways that I didn’t even imagine possible. In writing I tend to think of structure linearly, as an unbroken arc of meaning; but McPhee has the mind of a modern architect, and his arrangements are far more intricate. He illustrates these arrangements with idiosyncratic diagrams—incomprehensible to all but him. The diagram for Encounters with the Archdruid, for example, consists of the letters A, B, and C over a line, with D underneath. What does this mean?

In the rest of the book we are given several snapshots of his career. We see him interviewing Woody Allen (“a latent heterosexual”), learning to use Kedit (an arcane software program that he uses to organize his material), inventing bad puns as a young writer for Time, working with (and sometimes against) The New Yorker’s famously assiduous fact-checking department, negotiating the perils of editors, house-styles, and publishing deals, and other adventures in the life of a nonfiction writer.

The writing advice interspersed between these anecdotes, collected together, would likely not amount to a page and a half. And I must say the advice did not grab me. After long enough, all council on the craft of writing begins to sound the same: omit, condense, search for the right word, start with a strong lead, etc., etc. John McPhee’s emotional guidance is also in line with a noble tradition: writing is herculean, writers are masochists, writer’s block is the seventh layer of hell, and so on. Parenthetically, I think writers ought to stop complaining about writing or wallowing in its struggles. To me it always comes across as shamelessly melodramatic.

All carping aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. McPhee has clearly earned his reputation as a master of the craft. Each line of every essay exhibits intelligence, taste, and care. He is full of stories and knows how to tell them; and, true to form, he knows how to weave these stories into a satisfying whole. I look forward to reading more of McPhee, particularly Annals of the Former World, and in the meantime will hope that some of his obsessive care for the art of writing has rubbed off.

View all my reviews

Review: Cracking the GRE

Review: Cracking the GRE

Cracking the GRECracking the GRE by The Princeton Review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compared with Europe, America has a strange fixation with standardized tests. Administrators and bureaucrats seems to view these tests as tools of accountability, allowing for standard measurement across the system with no possibility of error. But the result is often quixotic: the attempt to come up with a test that creates a normal curve in scores, a test immune to differences in social and cultural background, and a test that measures something predictive of future success, irrespective of the field or career.

As far as these tests go, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is well done. The math sections only include the most basic techniques, focusing instead on tricky word problems or painstakingly lengthy operations, which theoretically would put all students—regardless of math background—on an equal footing. The essays focus on equally fundamental skills: creating and defending a thesis, and critiquing somebody else’s thesis. The verbal section is a straightforward vocabulary and reading comprehension drill. In sum, as far as possible, I think that the GRE is focused on fundamental skills needed for study.

The catch, of course, is the “as far as possible.” For no matter how much the test-makers try, a physics major and a history major will not be on an even footing in the math and verbal sections. What is more, by making vocabulary such an integral part of the exam, people from more privileged backgrounds—whose well-educated parents work white-collar jobs—have an obvious advantage. This is not to mention the upper hand that the well-off always have in competitions of this sort: the time available for studying (without worrying about multiple jobs or rent), and the resources (private tutors and so on) to prepare adequately.

In any case, can even a well-designed test give valuable information at the graduate school level? For lower-level education, where students are taught the basics of academic skills, a general test seems more plausible. But as students apply to Masters and Doctorate programs—the final steps of vocational and academic specialization—the usefulness of a generalized skill exam is far more questionable. The ability to write an essay in 30 minutes taking a stance on a randomly generated quote (one of the essay tasks) is perhaps hardly related to the ability to, say, write a detailed exploration of the post-Soviet period in Poland.

Granted, I can see why admissions offices like tests such as this one. First, it is a quick and easy to cut down the hefty stack of applications. What’s more, the GRE scores do provide a standard measurement across varying backgrounds (but what is it a measurement of?). And even if the admissions office sees the GRE as purely pro forma—something that is not uncommon—the obstacle of a $205, 4-hour test may help whittle out those less interested in applying.

However convenient it may be for these admissions officers, I personally cannot help being frustrated with exams like this. At present, Educational Testing Services (ETS), its creator, is the Standard Oil of the testing business. To apply to any institution of higher education in the United States, you must pay a toll—in time, stress, and money—to this organization. If I thought that this ritual improved educational quality in any way, I would tolerate it; but I have trouble believing that.

ETS is not the only entity that benefits from this arrangement, since the competition for scores gives rise to innumerable test-prep companies and products, such as this book. I have used the Princeton Review on numerous occasions, and have consistently appreciated their prep-books. This book provides quite a bit of value for the price: including dozens of specific techniques, and 6 full-length practice tests.

Because the Princeton Review can’t use real ETS questions, they must come up with their own. And this is no easy thing, since their questions must replicate exactly the look, difficulty, and type of questions on the real thing. For what it’s worth, in my own experience I have found that the real ETS verbal questions are easier than the Princeton versions, while the ETS math section is more difficult than Princeton’s—though admittedly this difference is fairly small.

A world where we didn’t have to spend months preparing for standard exams would be ideal. But in the world we live in, Princeton Review books are a valuable aid.

View all my reviews

Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleHow to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.

Dale Carnegie is a quintessentially American type. He is like George F. Babbitt come to life—except considerably smarter. And here he presents us with the Bible for the American secular religion: capitalism with a smile.

In a series of short chapters, Carnegie lays out a philosophy of human interaction. The tenets of this philosophy are very simple. People are selfish, prideful, and sensitive creatures. To get along with people you need to direct your actions towards their egos. To make people like you, compliment them, talk in terms of their wants, make them feel important, smile big, and remember their name. If you want to persuade somebody, don’t argue, and never contradict them; instead, be friendly, emphasize the things you agree on, get them to do most of the talking, and let them take credit for every bright idea.

The most common criticism lodged at this book is that it teaches manipulation, not genuine friendship. Well, I agree that this book doesn’t teach how to achieve genuine intimacy with people. A real friendship requires some self-expression, and self-expression is not part of Carnegie’s system. As another reviewer points out, if you use this mindset to try to get real friends, you’ll end up in highly unsatisfying relationships. Good friends aren’t like difficult customers; they are people you can argue with and vent to, people who you don’t have to impress.

Nevertheless, I think it’s not accurate to say that Carnegie is teaching manipulation. Manipulation is when you get somebody to do something against their own interests; but Carnegie’s whole system is directed towards getting others to see that their self-interest is aligned with yours. This is what I meant by calling him the prophet of “capitalism with a smile,” since his philosophy is built on the notion that, most of the time, people can do business with each other that is mutually beneficial. He never advocates being duplicitous: “Let me repeat: The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.”

Maybe what puts people off is his somewhat cynical view of human nature. He sees people as inherently selfish creatures who are obsessed with their own wants; egotists with a fragile sense of self-esteem: “People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves—morning, noon and after dinner.”

Well, maybe it’s just because I am an American, but this conception of human nature feels quite accurate to me. Even the nicest people are absorbed with their own desires, troubles, and opinions. Indeed, the only reason that it’s easy to forget that other people are preoccupied with their own priorities is because we are so preoccupied with our own that it’s hard to imagine anyone thinks otherwise. The other day, for example, I ran into my neighbor, a wonderfully nice woman, who immediately proceeded to unload all her recent troubles on me while scarcely asking me a single question. This isn’t because she is bad or selfish, but because she’s human and wanted a listening ear. I don’t see anything wrong with it.

In any case, I think this book is worth reading just for its historical value. As one of the first and most successful examples of the self-help genre, it is an illuminating document. Already in this book, we have what I call “Self-Help Miracle Stories”—you know, the stories about somebody applying the lessons from this book and achieving a complete life turnaround. Although the author always insists the stories are real, the effect is often comical: “Jim applied this lesson, and his customer was so happy he named his first-born son after him!” “Rebecca impressed her boss so much that he wrote her a check for one million dollars on the spot!” “Frank did such a good job at the meeting that one of his clients bought him a Ferrari, and another one offered him his daughter in marriage!” (These are only slight exaggerations.)

Because of this book’s age, the writing is quaint and charming. Take, for example, this piece of advice on how to get the most out of the book: “Make a lively game out of your learning by offering some friend a dime or a dollar every time he or she catches you violating one of these principles.” A lively game! How utterly delightful.

Probably this book would be far more effective if Carnegie included some exercises instead of focusing on anecdotes. But then again, it would be far less enjoyable reading in that case, since the anecdotes are told with such verve and pep (to quote Babbitt). And I think we could all use a little more pep in our lives.

View all my reviews

Review: Tools for Teaching

Review: Tools for Teaching

Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation.  Primary Prevention of Classroom Discipline ProblemsTools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation. Primary Prevention of Classroom Discipline Problems by Fredric H. Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever looked at the work kids turn in these days and wondered, “What will happen to this country in the next 50 years?” When you watch Larry sharpen his pencil, you know that the future is in good hands. It’s inspirational.

Last year I switched from teaching adults to teaching teenagers. Though I’m still teaching English, the job could hardly be more different. With adults, I could focus entirely on content; my students were mature, intelligent, and motivated, so I could think exclusively about what to teach them, and how. With kids, I am dealing with a classroom full of energetic, distracted, unruly, loud, and sometimes obnoxious humans whose main motivation is not to fail the upcoming exam. They’re not there because they want to be, and they would always inevitably rather be doing something else.

This probably makes me sound jaded and disenchanted (and I hasten to add that I actually have a lot more fun teaching kids, and my students are great, I swear!); but the fact is inescapable: when you’re teaching in a school setting, you need to worry about classroom management. Either you will control the kids, or they will control you.

It is the hope of every beginning teacher, myself included, to manage through instruction. We all begin with the same dream: to create lessons so dynamic, so enriching, so brilliant, and to teach with such charisma and compassion, that misbehavior isn’t a problem. But this doesn’t work, for two obvious reasons. For one, we don’t have unlimited control of the curriculum; to the contrary, our room to maneuver is often quite limited. And even with complete autonomy, having interesting lessons would be no guarantee of participation or attention, since it only takes one bored student to disrupt, and only one disruption to derail a lesson.

Even if you’re Socrates, disruptions will happen. When they do, in the absence of any plan, you will end up falling back on your instincts. The problem is that your instincts are probably bad. I know this well, both from experience and observation. Our impulsive reaction is usually to nag, to argue, to preach, to bargain, to threaten, to cajole—in other words, to flap our mouths in futility until we finally get angry, snap, yell, and then repeat the process.

But no amount of nagging creates a motivated classroom; and no amount of speeches—about the value of education, the importance of respect, or the relevance of the lesson to one’s future—will produce interested and engaged students. In short, our instinctual response is inefficient, ineffective, and stressful for both teacher and students. (Again, I know this both from experience and observation.)

Some strategies are therefore needed to keep the kids settled and on task. And since teachers are chronically overworked as it is—the endless grading and planning, not to mention the physical strain of standing in front of classes all day—these strategies must be neither too complex nor too expensive. To the contrary, they must be relatively straightforward to implement, and they must save time in the long run.

This is where Fred Jones comes in. Fred Jones is the Isaac Newton of classroom management. This book is nothing less than a fully worked out strategy for controlling a room full of young people. This system, according to him, is the result of many hundreds of hours of observing effective and ineffective teachers, trying to analyze what the “natural” teachers did right and the “unnatural” teachers wrong, and to put it all together into a system. And it really is systematic: every part fits into every part, interlocking like the gears of a bicycle.

This makes the book somewhat difficult to summarize, since it is not a bag of tricks to add to your repertoire. Indeed, its main limitation—especially for me, since I’m just assistant who goes from class to class—is that his strategies cannot be implemented piecemeal. They work together, or they don’t work. As a pedagogical nomad who merely helps out, I am not really in a position to put this book into practice, so I cannot personally vouch for it.

Despite this, Jones manages to be utterly convincing. The book is so full of anecdotes, insights, and explanations that were immediately familiar that it seemed as if he was spying on my own classrooms. Unlike so many books on education, which offer ringing phrases and high-minded idealism, this book deals with the nitty-gritty reality of being a teacher: the challenges, frustrations, and the stress.

The main challenge of classroom management—the problem that dwarfs all others—is to eliminate talking to neighbors. Kids like to talk, and they will talk: when they’re supposed to be listening, when they should be working, whenever they think they can get away with it. This is only natural. And with the conventional classroom approach—standing in the front and lecturing, snarling whenever the kids in the back are too loud—talking to neighbors is inevitable, since the teacher is physically distant, and the kids have nothing else to do.

Jones begins by suggesting board work: an activity that each student must start at the beginning of class, something handed out or written on the board, to eliminate the usual chaos that attends the beginning of the lesson. He then goes into detail about how the classroom should be arranged: with large avenues to the teacher can quickly move around. Movement is key, because the most important factor that determines goofing off is physical proximity to the teacher. (This seems certainly less true in Spain, where people are more comfortable with limited personal space, but I imagine it’s quite true in the United States.)

This leads to the lesson. Jones advocates a pedagogical approach that only requires the teacher to talk for five minutes or less at a time. Break down the lesson into chunks, using visual aids for easy understanding, and then immediately follow every concept with an activity. When the kids are working, the teacher is to move around the classroom, helping, checking, and managing behavior, while being sure not to spend too much time with the students he calls “helpless handraisers”—the students who inevitably raise their hands and say they don’t understand. (To be clear, he isn’t saying to ignore these students, but to resist the impulse to re-teach the whole lesson with your back turned to the rest of the class.)

This leads to one of the main limitation of Jones’s method: it works better for math and science than for the humanities. I don’t see how literature or history can be broken down into these five-minute chunks without destroying the content altogether. Jones suggests frequent writing exercises, which I certainly approve of, but it is also hard for me to imagine teaching a lesson about the Spanish Reconquest, for example, without a lengthy lecture. Maybe this is just due to lack of imagination on my part.

When it comes to disruptions, Jones’s advice is refreshingly physical. The first challenge is remaining calm. When you’re standing in front of a crowd, and some kids are chuckling in the back, or worse, talking back to you, your adrenaline immediately begins to flow. Your heart races, and you feel a tense anxiety grip your chest, intermediate between panic and rage. Before doing anything, you must calm down. Jones suggests learning how to relax yourself by breathing deeply. You need to be in control of your emotions to respond effectively.

Then, Jones follows this with a long section on body language. The way we hold our bodies signals a lot about our intentions and our resolve. Confidence and timidity are things we all intuitively perceive just from looking at the way someone holds herself. How do you turn around and face the offending students with conviction? How do you signal that you are taking the disruption seriously? And how do you avoid seeming noncommittal or unserious?

One of the most brilliant sections in this book, I thought, was on dealing with backtalk. Backtalk can be anything, but as Jones points out, it usually takes a very limited number of forms. Denial is probably the most common; in Spanish, this translates to “Pero, ¡no he hecho nada!” Then there is blaming; the student points her finger at her neighbor, and says “But, she asked me a question!” And then there is misdirection, when the offending student says, “But, I don’t understand!” as if they were in a busy intellectual debate. I see all these on a daily basis. The classic mistake to make in these situations is to engage the student—to argue, to nag, or to scold, or to take their claim that they “don’t understand” at face value. Be calm, stay quiet, and if they keep talking move towards them. Talking back yourself only puts you on the same level.

The penultimate section of the book deals with what Jones calls Preferred Activity Time, or PAT. This is an academic activity that the students want to do, and will work for. It is not a reward to hold over their heads, or something to punish the students with by taking it away, but something the teacher gives to the class, with the opportunity for them to earn more through good behavior. This acts as an additional incentive system to stay on task and well behaved.

The book ends with a note on what Jones calls “the backup system,” which consists of the official punishments, like suspension and detention, that the school system inflicts on misbehaving kids. As Jones repeatedly says, this backup system has been in place for generations, and yet it has always been ineffective. The same small number of repeat offenders account for the vast majority of these reprimands; obviously it is not an successful deterrent. Sometimes the backup system is unavoidable, however, and he has some wise words on how to use it when needed.

Now, if you’ve been following along so far, you’ll have noticed that this book is behaviorist. Its ideas are based on control, on incentive systems, on input and output. As a model of human behavior, I think behaviorism is far too simplistic to be accurate, and so I’m somewhat uncomfortable thinking of classroom management in this way. Furthermore, there are moments, I admit, when the job of teaching in a public school feels more like working in a prison than the glorious pursuit of knowledge. Your job is to keep the kids in a room, keep them quiet and seated, and to keep them busy—at least, that’s how it feels at times. And Jones’s whole system can perhaps legitimately be accused of perpetuating this incarceration model of education.

But teachers have the choice of working within an imperfect system or not working. The question of the ideal educational model is entirely different from the question this book addresses: how to effectively teach in the current educational paradigm. Jones’s approach is clear-eyed, thorough, intelligent, insightful, and eminently practical, and for that reason I think he has done a great thing. Teaching, after all, is too difficult a job, and too important a job, to do with only idealism and instinct as tools.

View all my reviews

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch.

In my review of Feeling Good, a self-help book, I noted the lack of practical philosophies in the modern world. Far from an original insight, I now see that this idea is a relatively common criticism of contemporary education and modern philosophy. The other day, for example, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel, the School of Life, an educational project that tries to teach life lessons rather than academic knowledge. This book, an attempt to revive ancient Stoicism, is part of the same loose movement.

William B. Irvine set himself the task of making Stoicism viable and palatable in today’s world. To put it bluntly, this meant rummaging through the Stoic classics to make a self-help book. Whereas the classic Stoic authors—Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus—dispensed practical advice without much order, Irvine tries to create a systematic practice that any reader can follow.

Irvine’s system consists of several mental exercises, or tricks, that the novice Stoic can use to gain tranquility. The most important of these is negative visualization: take a moment to imagine how things could go wrong, how you could lose what you have—your health, job, or spouse—and how everything you take for granted might never have existed at all. This will counteract what Irvine calls “hedonistic adaptation,” which is when we get used to the good things in our lives and lose the ability to enjoy them. Hedonistic adaptation is the real enemy of tranquility, because it forever enchains us to desire—as soon as one desire is satisfied, we have another one, and the process repeats without us getting any happier.

Another Stoic exercise is the internalization of goals. First, determine the extent to which you can control the outcome of any situation; then, make sure you only worry about that part which you can control, and don’t trouble yourself about the rest. If you are going on a first date, for example, don’t make it your goal to impress the person—since you can’t directly control whether someone likes you or not—but make it your goal to try your best. In the language of self-help, that is, focus on the process and not the product, the effort and not the outcome.

The last major technique can be better described as an attitude rather than an exercise. This is to take a fatalistic attitude towards the past. Since what happened in the past is beyond your power to alter, don’t trouble yourself with “if-onlys” or fill up your mind with regrets. Instead, try to cultivate amor fati, love of fate; learn to appreciate the good in what has happened, rather than think of all the ways it could have been better.

The general attitude that a Stoic wishes to cultivate is a mixture of enjoyment and detachment: the ability to enjoy all of the little pleasures of daily life without becoming so attached to anything that you are incapacitated without it. It is rather like the attitude of a spectator at a play: heartily enjoying the show, while keeping in mind that all the action is staged and not worth getting upset over. With this mentality you could, in theory, be satisfied with anything, and maintain your tranquility under any circumstances.

These, in nutshell form, are the book’s major pieces of advice. The rest of the book is divided into a brief historical sketch of Stoicism, a series of short chapters about applying Stoicism to specific challenges, and a broader cultural criticism from a Stoic perspective. The latter of these was the most interesting—Irvine isn’t a fan of political correctness or of grief counseling. He also has a lot of advice about responding to insults, some of which I thought was obvious, some of which I thought was wrong, and most of which made me wonder: Why is he talking so much about insults? Is poor Irvine getting insulted all the time?

My main criticism of this book is its style. Perhaps because Irvine was trying to appeal to a popular market, the prose is painfully simple, and filled with unnecessary clarifications and wearying redundancies. “Repetitive” is a charitable description. Added to that, I often got the feeling that he was purposefully avoiding delving deeply into any topic, for fear of losing any novice readers, which irked me.

The important question is: Do the techniques work? I have been having some fun imagining my life going horribly wrong: my metro being crushed underground in an earthquake, my computer bursting into flames and blinding me—getting struck by lighting on my walk to work, all of my friends leaving me en masse, and so on. Somehow, this exercise does tend to put me in a cheerful mood. I also agree with Irvine about desire—why hedonism doesn’t produce contentment, why connoisseurship is counterproductive, why it’s wise to accustom oneself to some disappointment and discomfort.

At the very least, this book is an interesting experiment: trying to revive a dead philosophy of life for the twenty-first century. Now, to put Stoicism into practice, I’m going to imagine this review not getting any likes.

View all my reviews

Review: Modern Romance

Review: Modern Romance

Modern RomanceModern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos.

My introduction to modern romance was abrupt and unexpected. I was back in New York for the holidays, drinking with a few friends, sipping and gulping the wonderful IPAs that I miss when I’m here in Spain.

Sometime deep into the night, one of my friends, who is a gay man—this is relevant to the story; you should also know that I’m a straight guy—asked if anyone wanted to go on his Tinder. “I do!” I said, and soon found myself face to face with the infamous app for the first time in my life.

Now, for the three remaining people who don’t know how Tinder works, it’s very simple: You look at pictures of people, and swipe left if you don’t want to talk to them, right if you do. (In this respect it’s like the Last Judgment.) If someone you’ve approved of also approves of you, then you are both given the option to send messages.

My friend was obviously a stud, because I was getting matches left and right (well, only right). One of these matches was a young man who I’ll call Woodrow Wilson. With permission from my friend, I sent Woodrow a message. The conversation went something like this:

Me: What’s your favorite tree?

Woodrow Wilson: Uh, White Pines are pretty cool I guess.

Me: White Pines? So cliché.

Woodrow Wilson: You’re right, I was only testing the waters. I’m really fond of Quaking Aspens. You?

Me: Now we’re talking. I’ve always been fond of the Shagbark Hickory.

The conversation proceeded like this for about four days, by which time it was clear that I had found my soul mate through my gay friend’s Tinder. Unfortunately, many barriers stood in the way—I’m straight, I was going back to Spain, and I was basically deceiving him—so I didn’t meet Woodrow Wilson. (If you ever read this—hello, and sorry!) But the experience was enough to make me curious about the opportunities and hazards of romance in the modern world.

Being a reluctant single, a very reluctant millennial, and a very, very reluctant member of the modern world, you can imagine I was, well, reluctant to tackle this topic. This book enticed me, not because it was written by Aziz Ansari—I didn’t consider myself a fan, and in college I even passed up the opportunity to see him live on campus—but because he teamed up with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, to write it. I listened to the audiobook, nasally narrated by Aziz.

The most striking thing about this book is that, despite its lighthearted tone and frequent funny asides, it is basically a serious and even an earnest book. Sociological statistics, psychological studies, and anthropological analyses are mixed with anecdotes and interviews and a bit of humor to give a quick but surprisingly thorough tour of romance in the contemporary world.

Aziz begins by pointing out that dating in today’s world is strikingly different from dating in my grandparents’ or even my parents’ generation. This is not only because of advances in technology but, more importantly, because of shifts in values. We now have developed what you might call a perfectionistic attitude towards finding a partner. We want to find a “soul mate,” “the one,” somebody who fulfills us and thrills us. Aziz contrasts this with what he calls the “good enough” marriages of yesteryears—finding a partner that satisfies some basic criteria, like having a job and a shiny pocket watch

I myself have noticed this shift from studying anthropology and history. In cultures all around the world—and in the West until quite recently—marriages were considered a communal affair. Aziz’s own parents had an arranged marriage, and according to him have had a long, successful relationship. (To be honest the idea of an arranged marriage has always been strangely appealing to me, since I don’t think any decision of such importance should be left in my hands. But the rest of my generation disagrees, apparently, so now I’m left to rummage through apps.)

Connected to this rise in the “soul mate” marriage is a rise in our preoccupation with romantic love. According to the biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, there are two distinct types of love in the human brain: romantic, and companionate. Romantic love is the kind that writes bad poetry; companionate love is the kind that does the dishes. Romantic love hits early in a relationship and lasts up to a year and a half; companionate love grows slowly over time, perhaps over decades. This division accords well with my own experience.

(Parenthetically, I have long been skeptical, even morbidly suspicious, of romantic love: that kind of idealizing, gushing, delicious, walking on air feeling. To me it seems to be a form of self-deception, convincing yourself that your partner is perfect, even divine, and that nobody else in the world could make you so happy—when the truth is that your partner is a flawed person, only one of many flawed people who could induce the same delirious sensation. Wow, I sound really bitter in this paragraph.)

This cultural shift has been bolstered by our new dating technology. Now we do not only have the expectation that we can find the perfect partner, but we have the tools to do the searching. I can, and sometimes do, scroll through hundreds of faces on my phone per day. All this is very exciting; never before could I have so many romantic options at my fingertips.

But there are some major drawbacks to this. One is what the psychologist Barry Schwartz called the “paradox of choice.” Although you’d think having more options would make people more satisfied, in fact the reverse occurs. I remember watching TV was a lot more fun when I was a kid and I only had a few dozen channels; when we upgraded to hundreds of channels, it became stressful—what if there was something better on? Similarly, after spending three months in a camp in Kenya, eating whatever I was given, I found it overwhelming to go to a pizza place and order. How could I choose from so many toppings?

Along with these broader observations is a treasure trove of statistics and anecdotes that, if you’re like me, you’ll be quoting and misquoting for weeks. I found the little vignettes on the dating cultures in Japan, where there’s a sex crisis, Buenos Aires, where there’s a machismo crisis, and Paris, where there’s lots of infidelity but apparently no crisis, to be particularly memorable.

These anecdotes are not just for mental titillation, but are used to support several tenets of dating advice. Here are just a few takeaways. Check your punctuation before you send a text. When you ask someone out on a date, include a specific time and location, not “wanna hang out some time?” vagueness. Texting people is not a reliable way to gauge if you’ll like them in person; it’s best to ask them out sooner and not prolong a meaningless texting conversation. Take the time to get to know people; rarely do you see the more interesting side of someone’s personality on a first date.

As you can see, this book is quite a rare hybrid: part social science, and part self-help, and part comedy. And yet the book rarely feels disorganized or scatterbrained. Aziz keeps a tight rein on his materials; the writing is compact, clever, and informative. With the notable limitation that this book deals only with heterosexual couples, and covers no topic in serious depth, I can say that it’s hard for me to imagine how any such short book could give so complete a picture of modern romance.

Most impressive is the human touch. What could have potentially been a mere smattering of facts and stories, Aziz makes into a coherent whole by grounding everything in the day-to-day frustrations and realities of the dating world. Aziz knows firsthand how much dating can suck, how tiresome, uncomfortable, and stressful it can be. Yet, for all this, the book is ultimately hopeful.

Beneath all these shifts in values and demographics, all the innovations in dating technologies and changes in romantic habits, all the horror stories and the heartbreaks, beyond the lipstick and the cologne, below the collared shirts and high heeled shoes, above the loud music and the strong liquor, pushing every button and writing every text, is the universal human itch to connect.

This itch has always been with us and always will be. Each generation just learns to scratch it in new and interesting ways.

(If interested in setting something up, please direct all inquiries to my mom.)

View all my reviews

Review: Spiritual Exercises

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

View all my reviews

Review: Writing to Learn

Review: Writing to Learn

Writing to Learn: How to Write--And Think--Clearly about Any Subject at AllWriting to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All by William Zinsser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humor is the most perilous of writing forms, full of risk; to make a vocation of brightening the reader’s day is an act of continuing gallantry.

Specialization inspires in me a certain existential dread. This is of two sorts. The first is the despairing thought that, by specializing, I will come to know only a certain, restricted corner of the vast universe. The second, more puerile fear is that, by becoming a specialist, I will commit myself on a path I won’t like very much.

Generalization is often, I suspect, motivated as much by fear of commitment as by humanistic curiosity. In Spanish there’s a word for a man who likes to sleep around—a picaflor—which conjures up the suggestive image of a bee going from flower to flower. Well, picaflores and Don Juans and Lotharios are generalists. Devoted husbands are specialists.

Promiscuity aside, we continue to do homage to generalists with our notion of the “Renaissance Man,” and the quintessential Renaissance Man was of course Leonardo da Vinci. His notebooks are filled not only with “art,” but studies of anatomy, light, physics, engineering, music, and so much else.

Last year I read a selection of Leonardo’s notebooks, hoping to find out how one man could tackle so many disparate subjects. My conclusion was that his versatility was due to the application of his medium: drawing. By making careful, detailed sketches of things—bees, bodies, bridges—he came to understand them. His pencil thus acted as antennae, with which he probed and investigated his world.

I thought: Could I do something similar? Certainly I have little talent as regards visual art. But I do have a verbal addiction. Perhaps I could use writing in a way similar to how Leonardo used sketching? Such an idea was hardly original. Soon I found out that Zinsser, the writing guru, already had a book about it.

The idea of reading another Zinsser book was not especially appealing. I had already read his popular book On Writing Well, and came away with a sour taste in my mouth. But if I was going to be the next Leonardo, I had to swallow some pickles. Dutifully I bought this book; and, after equally dutiful procrastination, I am here to tell you about it.

My first reaction is distaste. This is not entirely rational. Every good writer has what I call a “literary personality”—related to, but not identical with, their real personality—and I simply do not like Zinsser’s. I do not wish to spend time with him or to invite him to supper. I cannot really articulate why I dislike him, in the same way I can’t say exactly why I don’t like the sound of people eating apples. He’s a strong writer and I agree with much of what he says. He is thoughtful, curious, broadly educated, sensitive to art, music, and literature, and generally benign in his means and ends. When I think about it, I really ought to like him quite a bit. Yet I don’t.

Maybe this is because I object to the way he romanticizes his craft. Zinsser would have you believe writing clearly is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and distasteful activities in the world. It is so hard and so strenuous that it requires continual, backbreaking effort. Good writers are saints, many of them martyrs, including Zinsser himself: “I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written.” Zinsser makes very clear that his vocation is a heroic one, especially considering that he not only writes himself, but teaches it too:

Why, then, would anyone in his right mind want to be a writing teacher? The answer is that writing teachers aren’t altogether in their right mind. They are in one of the caring professions, no more sane in the allotment of their time and energy than the social worker or the day care worker or the nurse.

It takes serious audacity (to use a polite word) for a writing teacher to compare himself to a nurse. I also gag at this self-pity about the how hard it is to write well. Yes, it can be hard. Lots of things are hard. The only thing that sets writers apart is that they tend to whine the most eloquently.

Even when I put my personal dislike aside, however, I still must conclude that this book is disappointing. It begins with an unnecessary autobiographical section on Zinsser’s childhood education. (Considering how much Zinsser likes to talk about omitting unnecessary material, I found this especially ironic.) The rest of the book consists of long excerpts of what Zinsser considers to be successful examples of writing in different subjects, from anthropology to chemistry, from geology to mathematics. The book could easily have been an anthology, and probably should have been.

Most of what I wanted from this book is lacking. Yes, any subject can be written about engagingly—Zinsser didn’t need to prove this to me—but how do you go about doing that? Zinsser avoids the problem of methodology by insisting that good writing is learned by imitation. This is no doubt largely true; still I found it to be an abdication of this book’s promise: to give the would-be autodidact a strategy, or at least a few tips, for writing to learn.

Another serious omission is that Zinsser does not provide any concrete advice for teachers looking to apply this philosophy to their classes. There are a few reported examples of teachers who have done so, and a lot of hortatory passages about the benefits of “writing across the curriculum,” but very little in the way of concrete strategies for implementing this idea. As both a student and a teacher, I was irked by this.

Still, I suppose this book does have its value as a piece of propaganda. Zinsser is enthusiastic about writing, and his enthusiasm is contagious. For anyone skeptical that any subject—even chemistry, physics, or math—can be written well, or if you’re unsure whether writing can help you think and learn, you’ll find these doubts addressed here. For all its faults, this book does provide a glimpse of a compelling educational ideal: one that allows all of us to be picaflores in good conscience.

View all my reviews

Review: How to Meditate

Review: How to Meditate

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your MindHow to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off.

When I was in high school, I spent a few years going to Tae Kwon Do classes. I was never any good. Every time we had sparring practice, I got whooped—that is, unless I accidentally kicked my opponent in the crotch (which I did a lot). But besides the fun of hand-to-hand combat, one thing that kept me coming back was the meditation. After every class, we would spend about ten minutes in a guided meditation. These were not easy. Most often, the master had us holding an uncomfortable or difficult pose, until all my muscles were quivering and shaking and I collapsed.

Sometimes all I felt was pain and struggle; but other times, something would happen. As I listened to the master talk about energy flowing through my body, I could actually feel it. I felt strange forces in my arms and legs, seeming to move through me. This was weird, since I didn’t believe anything the master was saying—at least not in a literal way. I didn’t believe in qi, or energy centers in the body, or any of that stuff; but I felt something, and it was interesting.

This experience left me with a lingering respect for and curiosity about meditation. A book by David D. Burns about anxiety recently reawakened this curiosity. As I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I kept thinking that it reminded me of what I knew (or thought I knew) about Buddhism. Besides that, Burns himself drew some parallels with Buddhism in his discussions of fear. So I decided to look into it. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested Pema Chödrön as a place to start; and this book, a practical guide to meditation, seemed perfect.

I was surprised by what I found. The type of meditation Chödrön advocates doesn’t involve holding difficult postures or enduring pain. You don’t even have to close your eyes. Instead, you find a spot, sit up straight, cross your legs (or don’t), and stay there, eyes open, breathing in and breathing out. You don’t focus on energy centers or the cosmic flow of qi. Instead, you just try to focus on your breath. You breathe in, breathe out, and try to keep your attention on the present moment.

I have been doing these exercises for a week now, and I can tell you that being present, focusing on the moment, is far more difficult than you’d think. My mind is like a boiling, bubbling cauldron. Memories randomly appear; fearful fantasies flash into being; my to-do list nags me; an itch on my head irritates; my leg’s falling asleep; a sound triggers an association; a smell makes me think of food; and spasms of impatience surge through me as the time wares on.

Meditation certainly hasn’t induced a Zen-like calm in me so far. But it says a lot that now I’m aware of all these things. Just sitting there noticing what happens in my head, and letting it all pass through me, has been tremendously interesting. I realize that my very brain is not totally under my control. Things are always happening in there, constantly, spontaneously, which draw my attention from the moment; and it takes effort not to get sucked in.

One of the things I like most about Chödrön’s approach is its versatility. You can make anything your object of meditation. You can focus on sounds, sights, tactile sensations, or the taste of an apple. You can focus on fear, anger, sadness, joy, on fantasies or memories. Anything in your life can be the object of meditation, as long as you use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment. Meditation gives you the self-awareness—not through conceptual discussion, but first-hand experience—to learn what your mind is doing and how to interrupt your habitual patterns.

What I find especially appealing is the philosophy. Well, perhaps “philosophy” isn’t the right word; it’s more of an attitude or a mindset. Through the attempt to reconnect with the moment, you realize how much of your experience is transformed by the conceptual overlay you put on top of it. Our heads are full of judgments, opinions, beliefs. We are constantly telling stories about our lives, with ourselves as the protagonist.

Have you ever had an experience like this? When I was in college, I accepted a job doing surveys over the phone. But I was extremely nervous about it. I imagined respondent after respondent yelling at me, hanging up on me, and my manager angry at me and chastising me, and me having a breakdown and getting fired. This fantasy was so strong, I almost couldn’t make myself go to my first day of work. But when I finally did make myself go, shivering with fear, and when I finally made myself call, my voice quaking, I realized that I could do it. What seemed impossible in my imagination was easy in reality. In fact, I ended up loving that job.

This is what I like to call the “novelistic imagination.” Your mind is a natural dramatist—at least, mine is—and it can tell the most outrageous stories about your past, present, and future. But the interesting thing, I’ve found, is that we’re actually quite bad at imagining how things will be. We’re good at imagining possibilities—especially worst-case scenarios—but bad at imagining experiences. That’s because, when we use our novelistic imagination, we assume that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But life is not a story: it’s a collection of moments. And the present moment is so different, and so much richer, than all the wild fantasies in our minds.

My hunch is that we evolved our novelistic imagination as a way of avoiding danger by running scenarios. “If I go so far away, maybe I won’t be back by sundown, and the hyenas over there might smell me, etc.” The problem is that this gets out of hand, which is why we humans get so many stress-related diseases—not to mention suffer from chronic anxiety. We developed the mental faculty to anticipate danger and avoid it; but we can’t turn it off, so we sense danger everywhere.

This is taking me pretty far from the book (so you know it’s a good book, because it’s making me think). I’ll only add that this book strikes me as an ideal introduction to meditation. Chödrön writes with warmth, humor, and understanding. She is brief and to the point, but you don’t feel that she’s leaving anything out. She is practical, encouraging, and inspiring. I encourage anyone whose curious to try it. You can be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist like me—it doesn’t matter. Meditation is not about believing certain things. To the contrary: it’s about getting past your beliefs about the world, and experiencing the world itself.

View all my reviews