“Got to, This is America, Man…” – Anatomy of a Scene

“‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.”

‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.

I could write a thesis on ‘The Wire’ and devote at least 10,000 words on the show in terms of an in-depth breakdown on how it’s the modern equivalent to a Shakespeare tragedy or drama. However, in this ‘Anatomy of a Scene’, I am going to focus on one of my favorite scenes in this classic television show. This scene is the opening one for the entire five-season series and discusses a core tenet of the show not just about what kind of ‘game’ that the characters play, but also the ‘game’ inherent to the setting of Baltimore, Maryland as well as America as a country.

The opening scene, more than any other scene, even if it is the 1st, one pinpoints exactly what ‘The Wire’ is about. In the first shots, you can see a young man lay face down dead on the ground on some dark city street with the police collecting evidence and a main character, who is a detective, questioning a potential witness. The associate of the victim talks about how they were involved with street gambling and how it was not fair that it was not right to kill the victim, non-ironically known as ‘snot boogie’ to the game’s players. The victim of the crime has a real name but is endeared to the rest of the game’s players by that nickname alone.

As the witness explains to Detective Jimmy McNulty of Baltimore Police, ‘Snot Boogie’ was the victim of the crime, but his associate did not expect him to be killed for stealing from the other players of the street game for playing craps. The associate tells McNulty that the victim is known for stealing and grabbing the money to run away but they never want beyond just ‘beating his ass’ up a bit.

While it is a grim description of the dangers of gambling illegally on the streets, the witness to McNulty’s murder case explains that there is an unwritten rule to the ‘game’ of street gambling and that ‘Snot Boogie’ should not have been murdered for stealing from the other players. Nobody ever tried to kill the victim even after he was found guilty of stealing money from the street game players even if they did often catch him and beat him for having done it multiple times.

The witness refuses to tell McNulty who killed his associate in this game and does not want to go to court even though he believes it was disgraceful how ‘Snot Boogie’ was killed because they always let him play even though he would always steal from them.
“I got to ask ya, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away…why’d you even let him in the game?”
“…What?”
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why did you always let him play?”
“Got to, This America, man.”

McNulty looks incredulously as the witness tells him this reasoning because at its face, it does not make much sense for a guy who steals from folks repeatedly to continue playing a dangerous and illegal craps street game. It’s clear to both characters that life itself, and life in America is far from being fair at the end of the day especially a man got killed, which was against to how the game was being played, according to the witness, even if he was stealing from them.

Even if the game is fair or is rigged to some degree, it occurs to the witness and then McNulty after he sees the guy’s reasoning that even if the game was not meant to be won and the result would always be the same, you still let the game play out. The game may not be fair like life itself in general or in America, but it must be played by everyone. It may not be a fair shot and there is no equal outcome, but there is equal opportunity out there for each player to be involved even if someone cheats, steals, and comes back to play again. The game exists for everyone to be given a shot at it and if they don’t, that’s against the principle of life itself and life in America.

There are tragic consequences to this craps game for Snot Boogie who loses his life senselessly as well as for the men who will go to jail for it or lose all their money, but the game goes on and it’s open to everyone. Like the witness explains, the game deserves to be played by everyone equally although the outcome may not be something everyone will like or even will cost some people dearly. This excellent opening scene opens with the most prominent themes of The Wire perfectly and almost seems like a graphic novel come to life. Its visuals are striking, the characters are who you can relate to on a human level, and there is a lot of foreshadowing about the rest of the show and its messages to the viewers from this tone-setting scene.

‘The Wire’ is a show about the early stages of 21st century America in its first decade of the 2000s but it is as still as relevant about 20 years later. The metaphor of this opening scene for not just a couple of guys in a craps game gone wrong in the street can pair directly too what can happen when capitalism can go off the rails when someone tries to beat the rules or try to gain an advantage when they are put at a disadvantage to begin with. If the game is rigged from the get-go even if you’re given a shot at it, what’s the point in playing by the rules? If you can beat the system even if there are dire consequences, is it not worth trying?

‘Snot Boogie’s associates knew he was a thief and a cheater because they believed that he still deserved a shot at winning like everyone else even though it was likely rigged so he would never make it after multiple tries. As the opening scene of the greatest television show of all-time shows the viewer, everybody can play the game even if they are a cheater in the sense of having equal opportunity, but what happens when no one is held accountable when the odds are stacked against them from the start of the game and there is no other way to win than by cheating the system and facing serious consequences?

The show may not be defined by its iconic opening scene but as you find as you watch the entire series, the metaphor for what that scene represents about the show and about the ethic that binds American society together long after you finish watching each of its five seasons.

“…It’s Just A Business” – Anatomy of A Scene

“As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.”

“America is not a country, it’s just a business.”

‘Killing Them Softly’ is a 2012 movie that flew under the radar at the time of its release. It may seem on the surface as a movie about the mob regarding unpaid debts, illegal gambling rings, and retribution for those caught in the crossfire, but what makes this movie different is its allegory laid out in the film regarding its relation to the financial system. As the mafia tries to prop up its system of illegal gambling rings and extortion rackets by using different hired hitmen, there are radio and TV clips highlighting the role of different politicians trying to prop up the financial system in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To keep the system functioning, drastic measures are taken.

As the U.S. economy suffers, illegal activities flourish and there are those people who get caught up in resorting to crime to keep their head above water. When the illegal system malfunctions such as a Mafia protected card game gets robbed by criminals outside the system, Jackie Cogan (played by Brad Pitt) is called upon as an enforcer hired to restore order to prevent the local criminal economy to collapse.

When any economy, illicit or legal, are ripped from its foundations, there will be enforcers or politicians who will need to clean up the mess left behind. While the allegory is not spelled out in the film, As Jackie is left to clean up the mess of the robbed card game by getting revenge on the small-time criminals who wanted to disrupt the system, many scenes highlight how the U.S. economy needs to be bailed out due to the irresponsible actions of the bankers and financial traders who got the country into this mess. While it may not be the most pertinent allegory, Jackie Cogan, is there to maintain order in their own local illegal gambling racket, similar to how leading politicians in government are called upon to maintain order when the national financial system is ready to crash.

Jackie Cogan is on his own throughout the movie and must rely upon himself to fix the mess left behind from the mob-protected robbed card game’s aftermath. He knows other mob enforcers who could help but they’re jaded, bitter, or too worse for wear having done Jackie’s job multiple times before to keep the mafia afloat. Above all else, Jackie is in it for himself to get paid and survive in an economic situation that is affecting everyone, criminal or civilian.

U.S. political leaders, similarly, were asked to intervene on behalf of the government, to step in to save a system that was being abused by financial firms, but also individuals, who made irresponsible decisions, and even illegal ones, which caused the national economy to crash. To prevent the system from collapsing, former Presidents, George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama had to step in to save the economy even though the system itself was at fault.

In the wake of the financial crisis that still resulted from the bad decisions and greedy actions of its players, when there’s a resulting increase in unemployment and poverty as the film depicts along with the collapse of some communities, some people will inevitably turn to criminal and illegal activities including gambling, extortion, and drug dealing. As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.

Without spoiling too much of the film, the ending scene takes place with Jackie and the mafia’s head accountant meeting at a bar to discuss his payment rendered for being an enforcer to keep the Mob card game running afloat after the perpetrators were punished for robbing it. Jackie, like the head Mafia accountant, are using each other for the money and stability of their own enterprises. Jackie Cogan is in it for himself as other enforcers were not able to do what he does, and he wants to be rewarded for it.

The Mob accountant is looking to make sure his illegal enterprise stays afloat without paying more than he needs to. In this scene, Jackie raises the rate of how much he charges for committing the hits on the people who robbed the card game due to the ‘recession.’ The mob accountant counters by saying that what they would him are the ‘recession’ prices and that he’s getting what another enforcer who couldn’t do the job would normally get.

“You know this business is a business of relationships.” The accountant tells Jackie that they want to keep the relationship with him going since every other enforcer is unavailable so he should not ask for more money given he might need to help them again. Jackie isn’t fooled by this plea to continue their ‘working’ relationship because at the end of the day, it’s about getting paid by them and they could not care less what happens to the enforcers who clean up the mob’s mess.

The accountant is listening to the 2008 election night acceptance speech by then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama imploring Americans to see each other as ‘one people’ and ‘out of many, we are one.’ Jackie doesn’t buy it given the circumstances for which he lives out his life in America. The accountant labels him as a ‘cynical’ person but he has reason to be as ends up cleaning up messes violently and criminally to keep the gravy train for others rolling.

Jackie sees even one of the founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson’ as a hypocrite because while he wanted freedom and liberty for all, he still owned slaves and wasn’t actually fighting for the ideals he espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Despite being known as an ‘American Saint’, Jackie believes Jefferson was out for himself and his own interests and that there are no unifying ideals that bind the country together besides the need for ‘money.’

“Don’t make me laugh…I’m living in America…and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country, it’s just a business.” Jackie Cogan, after what he goes through in the film, is looking to get paid and survive at the end of the day. He is corrupted and evil but justifies his actions by telling himself and the audience that he’s on his own like many other people were in the financial crisis and must take this blood money from the mafia to make it in America.

When Jackie Cogan hears American politicians say that “we’re all in this together”, “we are one community, one nation”, he believes that no one is looking out for him, not even his mafia employers, and must fight for every dollar he can have because he would not survive otherwise. ‘Killing Them Softly’ is not just about a low-level mafia enforcer keeping a mob-run gambling ring going after doing contract kills on three people who robbed one of the games.

Throughout the film, whether its news clips, radio segments, or the desperate actions of its characters, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is primarily about the larger and looming allegory for the larger failures of the economic system who could not protect many of its citizens from financial ruin in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The effects of this past crisis reverberates even to this day, whose mess created such dire circumstances for people across the country to fend for themselves. While the small-town mafia and Wall Street can get propped up by those who intervene to save it, the film makes it a key point in this ending scene that for too many Americans, they believe they have been left behind by a financial system that does not work for them and for a culture where it’s “winner take all” and if you get left behind, nobody is going to be there to bail you out.

Drone Strikes in Warfare: Ethical or Unethical?

“However, numerous ethical concerns remain including the ever-present risk of collateral damage, the generational legacy of these strikes, and the legal ramifications behind selecting targets.”

In 21st century warfare, the rise of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) was not only a game-changer in terms of surveilling state enemies but also in killing them with no blowback to the aggressor. Increasingly, we are living in a world where the prevalence of technology such as UAVs is making it easier for the nation-state to fight a non-traditional war without having to put boots on the ground or pilots in the air. However, numerous ethical concerns remain including the ever-present risk of collateral damage, the generational legacy of these strikes, and the legal ramifications behind selecting targets.

It is my belief that drone strikes may be ethical in terms of limited usage against known terrorist or militia leaders but that they must also comply with international norms, which have to be agreed upon by all states who use drones for offensive military action. I believe that drone strikes should not be used as an offensive first resort unless capture of the enemy combatant is impossible or if the collateral damage of conducting a standard military operation is too high.

UAVs, or drones, can stay in the air from between eight to twelve hours continuously without needing to be refueled. They can maintain the element of surprise to strike targets without having their aerial location compromised. Being able to survey in detail a remote desert where enemy targets are gathered to a dense urban setting where leaders of a terrorist organization are meeting, the UAV is able to record at a high level of resolution what is going on anywhere in the world. For the state whether that is the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, the drones are able to go and see where the average soldier or airman can’t go without risking life or limb for the mission.                              

Being able to strike enemy combatants in states, which are known terrorist havens, allows the U.S. and its allies to conduct kill operations without risking their own soldiers, airmen in countries where their physical presence would incite the local population. For some examples, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan are weak or failing states who have been host to terrorist organizations including al-Qaeda. Due to political constraints, The U.S. military is unable to eliminate the threat that these non-state actors pose through special forces raids, which is one reason why the U.S. has increasingly used drone strikes instead.

Drone use is perceived as less expensive, more effective, and less politically risky to political leaders who wish to forgo a risky raid or a bombing campaign by investing in targeted drones strikes instead to eliminate threats. For example, a U.S. Air Force airman can manually control a drone from over 7000 miles away in Nevada to strike a terrorist target in Northwest Pakistan just by pressing a few buttons.

Instead of having that same pilot fly his F-16 over Pakistan and risk being shot down or captured, the U.S. government and military are willing to use the UAVs for reasons of cost, effectiveness, and overall utility. The collateral damage of an F-16 versus an armed UAV should also be considered since an F-16 strike, especially in an urban area, is likely to cause a greater number of civilian casualties. Drone pilots can also help U.S. troops, for example, in being aware of enemy movements near them and guarding their positions, so as to prevent them from any surprises that could endanger their lives while operating in enemy territory.

Drone strikes may carry less collateral damage to civilian lives, but there will always be the chance for the loss of innocent life and families being destroyed. Whether that’s an errant missile crashing into a wedding party or a group of children running by a targeted building within seconds of a missile being launched and getting caught in the crossfire, death from the skies will not only affect terrorists but women and children too. Because drone strikes are less costly to governments and militaries, the rules of engagement can be abused to focus too often on low-level targets, who pose some threat but who could still be captured for intelligence purposes. A lack of international norms and standards regarding drone warfare leads to serious consequences in terms of possible abuse by governments who overuse it on secondary targets.

Airmen and women, who conducted drone strikes have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because they get to know their targets, see how they live, and struggle with having the power of death over them. High-resolution surveillance makes the act of killing personal despite the fact that these servicemen are thousands of miles away. When a drone strike goes wrong and innocent civilians are killed, it leaves a long-lasting psychological effect on the military personnel involved.

They may not see their victims when they are flying an F-16, but they are aware of what collateral damage is when they see the dead bodies of women, children being shown on the high definition screen. Military service members do not last long as drone pilots due to the immense mental strain placed on them especially when they did not sign-up for conducting warfare with a joystick. Alcoholism, depression, and family problems have occurred due to pilots being asked to conduct drone strikes in the name of national security.

Unfortunately, drone warfare may kill current enemies only to create more of them in the future. A son or daughter who see their father or mother killed by an American drone strike will not forget that in the future. Also, it is certain that relations with weak or failed states is not helped through drone strikes but rather harmed by these operations. Anti-American sentiment will not decrease but intensify due to drone strikes, and the constant buzzing noise of these aircraft causes fear among those communities. The presence of drones may act as a recruiting tool for terrorists and turn the local population against the offensive power.

Lastly, escalation is a grave concern that the use of drone warfare carries with it. With the spread of the technology and the ability for greater access in the future for state and non-state actors to purchase drones of varying sizes and capabilities, the U.S. and its allies may be at risk of being attacked. Whether it is China, Russia, or Iran, these states may use their drones to attack U.S. or allied forces. Greater risk of conflict between powers due to the evolution of drone warfare shouldn’t be underestimated. Terrorists could buy smaller yet lethal drones to attack both civilian, military targets to retaliate against states without putting their lives at risk. In five to ten years, lone-wolf terrorists may want to use small drones to attack vulnerable targets such as airports, bridges, the electric grid, and other infrastructure.

Drone strikes will remain part of 21st century warfare but international norms regarding their usage have not been written. Similar to nuclear and chemical weapons agreements, drone warfare should be regulated. Questions such as who should be targeted by drone strikes, what are the short and long-term consequences of this warfare? must be answered by our leaders. Preventing the unlimited usage of drone strikes and its proliferation should be top priorities to prevent the worst effects of this technology from becoming real. The ethics of drones are still being debated but states have a collective responsibility to minimize collateral damage by creating the legal frameworks necessary to enforce the rules of this new form of warfare. 

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely my own and do not reflect the views or opinions of any outside organization, company, or government.

Doubleday Field

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cooperstown, New York; Doubleday Field

Cooperstown – National Baseball Hall of Fame

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cooperstown, New York; National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Finger Lakes Wineries

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Finger Lakes Wineries; Ithaca, New York

Anatomy of a Scene – Miracle Ceasefire

How we as humanity cling to hope is our investment into the future that better and brighter days are ahead as long as we persevere, push forward, and leave our world a little bit better for the next generation. ‘Children of Men’ is great because it poses the answer to the question of how does humanity hope for a future when no babies are being born?

The world without hearing children’s voices, laughter, and even cries can be a dark and hopeless place. That central message of the now classic movie ‘Children of Men’ (2006) has stayed with me especially in the current times of a pandemic that we are living in. How we as humanity cling to hope is our investment into the future that better and brighter days are ahead as long as we persevere, push forward, and leave our world a little bit better for the next generation. ‘Children of Men’ is great because it poses the answer to the question of how does humanity hope for a future when no babies are being born?

When you think deeply about it, humanity is restored generation after generation thanks to our youth, their ideas, their drive, their desire to not repeat the mistakes of the past and to learn from history. When you take humanity’s future away, what is there left to fight and live for? It is a powerful premise and one for which I am glad Director Alfonso Cuaron decided to focus on. His movie does not pull any punches and shows humanity at its worst when women are no longer able to have children.

Without children, playgrounds and swing sets remain empty. Refugees and immigrants are persecuted and forced into detention camps, suicide pills are common place, environmental degradation is the norm rather than an obscenity, and violent factions fight it out with the government in a post-apocalyptic United Kingdom where suicide bombings are an increasingly common occurrence as Theo (Clive Owen) discovers when he is almost the victim of one in one of the earliest scenes. Perhaps the most frightening part of the whole movie is that no one has figured out why women can’t have babies anymore and the novel that the film is based on is also clear when it shies away from saying why men can’t help in the reproduction process anymore.

In ‘Children of Men’, no child has been born for 18 years and it can be hard to retain hope after that long that things will change. The world is in a downward spiral and things get worse as the youngest person alive, Diego, is killed by an angry crowd. Theo takes solace in the fact that he has a good job at the government ministry and has a funny friend who goes by the name Jasper. Still, you can tell that Theo has lost faith in humanity especially after the death of his infant son due to a flu pandemic and his estranged relationship with Julian, his wife. However, when Julian tells Theo about Kee, a pregnant African woman, who may be carrying the first baby in almost two decades, everything changes, and Theo finds his purpose again to live and to fight for a tomorrow. Theo dedicates himself to protecting Kee and her future baby and wants to get her to safety, which means getting her to the Human Project, a group of the world’s best scientists discussing how best to make humans fertile again.

Theo’s journey with Kee involves getting her out of a refugee camp, escaping men who want to keep Kee’s baby for political purposes and who are also armed combatants, and avoiding fascist police forces who intend to get in their way. To escape the escalating urban violence around them as both the government and rebels fight it out in bombed out Bexhill, Theo and Kee take shelter in a refugee settlement in a former apartment building. The three of them come close to being killed and the baby’s cries echo throughout the building much to the stunned shock, joy, and awe it inspires among the refugees, the rebel forces, and the government troops.

The way the cinematographer follows Kee’s baby and Kee around in a wide tracking shot is absolutely beautiful making it one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. “How is she?”, Theo asks Kee. “Annoyed.” Kee replies. A refugee woman reaches out her hand to touch the baby and another woman sings a sweet song in her native language. Prayers and aspirations are given to the baby as Theo and Kee walk through the crowd. The rebel soldiers acknowledge the baby as they get away from the advancing troops behind them. The government’s military soldiers are in absolute shock as one soldiers’ yell at his army unit: “Ceasefire! Ceasefire!” All of them stop shooting at once and look upon Kee’s baby in disbelief, many of them never having seen a human child before in person.

To see the armed men in tanks and heavy weapons and their technological mastery stop, think, and realize how humanity and its future must be preserved and let free without being in danger. Not much can stop a war from continuing but a baby’s cries can most certainly pause it for a few minutes as this brilliant scene exemplifies. An immediate symbol of hope for humanity and its possible redemption is realized in its newest addition and it is a wonderful allegory to how despite our differences, any human around the world will stop to comfort, aid, and protect for a baby as we would do for our own children or grandchildren or even nieces and nephews.

Those men who don’t see the baby continue to fire at each other in the distance but any soldier, man, or woman who hears the baby crying lowers their weapon, pays their respect, and let Theo and Kee have safe passage as they represent a glimpse of hope finally for humanity’s future rather than its eventual extinction. Some of the soldiers pray to their God and others peer in to get a look at the baby with their own eyes but all are silent and in disbelief thinking that finally there might be hope again.

After a minute or two of calm and as Kee and Theo are about to get away, a rocket RPG hits the government soldiers and the men ignore the baby again and get back to fighting the rebel forces in the building that Kee and Theo just left. To me, that is a tragic symbol of how once we have something out of sight and out of mind, we go back to fighting each other instead of uniting around a common cause. As that RPG fires, I think to myself watching this scene how somebody always has to ruin it for everybody else. Unfortunately, Kee’s baby does not lead right away to world peace and a cessation of arms. However, it is enough time for the two of them to escape and have a fighting chance of reaching the Human Project.

A baby’s cries are more powerful and everlasting than any weapon, any political cause, and any division between humanity. While human nature cannot be totally pacified by children and babies being born, it allows us to fight for better days and for a future freer of pain, sorrow, and tragedy.

I hope that when you watch this scene, you’ll realize that even in our current age when fertility is not extinct and is not a present issue that we are still fighting to preserve hope for the next generation and generations to come. Whether it is preventing pandemics, stemming the worst effects of climate change, or preventing nuclear war between nations, we all have a responsibility to be stewards like Theo in protecting the babies of the future against any manmade harm that could befall them due to our own neglect and ignorance.

Please do watch this ‘Miracle Ceasefire’ scene and the rest of ‘Children of Men’ when you have the chance. It is an excellent film to see and this scene may be the best one of the entire film. Hope and redemption are only as strong as our ability to have a better future.

Cayuga Lake

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cayuga Lake; Finger Lakes; Ithaca, New York

Book Recommendations – Volume XII

“However, while staying outdoors will become less and less pleasurable, this is definitely the time of the year to dive into your reading and to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reading good books.”

The end of the Summer is always a bittersweet one. With mixed feelings, August turns to September, fall season will soon be upon us and the daylight will become shorter while the cold weather is drawing near. However, while staying outdoors will become less and less pleasurable, this is definitely the time of the year to dive into your reading and to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reading good books. Colder weather, shorter days, and back to work / school will cause our minds to re-focus our attentions on the tasks at hand in our lives but we should not forget at night or on the weekends to kick back, relax, and enjoy a good book.

These four books that I’ve chosen are all non-fiction, but they tackle different subjects and are relevant to different academic or personal interests such as history, sociology, travel, or entrepreneurship. Each author brings something different to the table as well and the writing style is different along with the kind of narration you can expect. I can definitively say that each of these books is educational and you would not go wrong with reading any of the following books in the upcoming Fall season.

  1. The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat

New York Times op-ed writer and author Ross Douthat is not optimistic about the future. Given that the present involves polarization, stalemates, and a lack of technological innovation, what does humanity have to look forward to? That is the main argument of Douthat’s book ‘The Decadent Society’ on how we may have reached the limits of our own ‘progress’ and that modernity is less fulfilling than we thought it would be. Douthat’s view is that our current culture, innovations, and motivations like originality and that we have become too complacent as a society.

Douthat cites falling birth rates, more reliance on video games / virtual reality, lack of new businesses being started along with increasing government dysfunction leading us all to be ‘comfortably numb’ as the famous Pink Floyd song goes. Douthat’s diagnosis of our current cultural and political malaise is quite convincing from citing Star Wars remakes to the fact that the Trump and Clinton families have stayed relevant for decades in politics with a lack of a fresh face to get us out of our national ennui.

While our ‘modernity’ has left us more comfortable than satisfied, Douthat struggles to mention ways that we can get out of the malaise or the needed policy or cultural changes that should take place to push our horizons more and our boundaries as a society. This was my one main gripe with the book as in the 2nd half or towards the end, a little optimism or forward-thinking would have gone over well but perhaps that was done on purpose. Douthat is not optimistic that much will change in the future and that perhaps it is best to accept our current ‘decadence’ as being set in stone or perhaps to prepare for a fall from grace that would shake more of us out of our slumber. I hope either scenario is not the case. ‘Decadence’ in my perspective gets boring after a while and human beings are creative and innovative at our core so hopefully our current malaise is not permanent as Douthat argues but rather a temporary blip on human history.

2. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Perhaps the great ‘irony’ of our age will be that a President or a Senator won’t be the one to lead us out of our current decadence. Perhaps it will instead be a foreign-born entrepreneur who rose from nothing to build multiple successful ventures that could transform the way we transport ourselves and how we interact with the cosmos. Entrepreneur Elon Musk may be the one to help lead us out of decadence and he seems to be on the way to making a dent in the wall that prevents us from creating the future. As many people don’t realize, Mr. Musk did not have an easy childhood, moved around multiple times, and even was a mediocre student at times but what he has that all entrepreneurs need is grit, resolve, and determination. To create something out of nothing and build your vision to make it a reality is where Elon has succeeded where many others have failed.

Musk clearly did not do it on his own whether it was Zip2, PayPal, or SolarCity but he was able to create a team and even companies to carry out his lofty vision. His tolerance for risk as an entrepreneur both financially and personally is simply beyond most people’s comprehension. Elon Musk is an entrepreneur so dedicated to making his companies a success that he will pour millions of dollars from a previous venture into his next one to ensure its longevity. Elon is currently the third richest person in the world and this autobiography gives rare insight into what it took for Musk to get to this point today with more than two decades of setbacks, failures, and even a few lawsuits here and there to overcome.

Ashlee Vance does an excellent job highlighting who Musk is as a person, what drives him, how his childhood and family affected him, who were the people around him, how could Tesla and SpaceX change life in the future and how big of an impact could they really have. Vance is illustrative in showing the whole of Elon Musk, both the good and bad, of the visionary entrepreneur. While he disdains any notion of socialism in government policy, he has received millions in government subsidies to help his businesses; His commitment to succeed can sometimes cause him to fall out with others who feel they were not treated well or were not given the recognition that they thought they deserved. A good biography shows both the triumphs and the warts of a man and this one is no different. Overall, this biography is an excellent look into the man behind both Tesla and SpaceX who continues on his quest to change the world by molding its future.

3. The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

This book is a love letter to International Relations in 2020 (pre-COVID) by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass. For those new to this field, it is a very enlightening and comprehensive book to ground someone especially in high school or their 1st year in college to know about the basics of the world in terms of foreign affairs and what are some of the main challenges of the 21st century for nation-states. While primarily a guide to the world for those new to international relations, I found that it is a good refresher for more advanced or experienced students of international affairs.

I enjoyed the historical overview, the breakdown of the regions in a succinct manner, and the number of economic, security, and development challenges that the world is grappling with at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Richard Haass would definitely be an excellent professor to have in your Introduction to International Relations / International Relations Theories and this book would be a good starter text to have.

Clocking in at around 400 pages total, no major detail is spared, and no region of the world is left uncovered. If you are not familiar with an issue in IR or a region where you don’t know the culture or the language, Haass’s book is a good way to familiarize yourself and to stay up to date with what is going on regionally or thematically. For those of you in high school interested in the world and geopolitics, this book is a good place to start. For those of you starting college and planning to major in international relations, it is likely you will be reading this book not before too long.

4. Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

Home is whatever place you can find yourself comfortable in over a long enough period of time. I remember reading this piece of wisdom in Matthew Kepnes’s book and finding it to be quite the piece of truth. As a fellow traveler and shorter-term ‘nomad’ myself, Matthew’s travel memoir appealed to me because of its raw honesty and vulnerability. Life at home is comfortable but it can get dull and repetitive. Life on the road is new and exhilarating but can also lead to a sense of fatigue moving from place to place without settling down roots or losing friends and relationships as you feel the call to move somewhere else.

In my experience, Travel memoirs can be rather hit or miss but this one by Mr. Kepnes is on the mark in terms of the ups and downs of long-term travel and also about staying in a country for a year or more. I was personally away from home in my 20s for over three years and I can only imagine how ten years on the road would fundamentally change who I am, what I value, and how I want to live my life.

I really admire Matthew’s deep understanding on the joys of travel and how lucky we are to be on the road when we can. Travel is a privilege that especially now, we tend to have taken for granted. Once you get started on the path outside your town or country, it can be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. That nomadic yearning to live life on your own terms, on your own pace is a flickering light that can burnish again with renewed intensity often times when we least expect it. This memoir highlights how rewarding travel can be, how much it can develop your personality and your worldview, and why it is so important to listen to your gut at times to know what you want in life.

Some of us travelers are meant to have one foot out of the door at all times and when we stay in one place too long, we tend to get stir crazy. I think what Matthew learned is how important it is to find that balance of being a nomad at heart but finding roots somewhere while keeping the freedom he gained over many years of hard work of being an independent writer, a recognized travel expert, and an overall creator with an ability to work remotely, which may becoming more and more common into the future.

You may think starting the journey is the hardest step to take when you’re going out on the road, but I find it’s true instead how coming home is often the hardest thing you’ll do when the journey comes to an inevitable end at some point. The good thing that Matthew notes in his memoir is that the nomad or the traveler is always within us even after the journey ends and that eternal flame can be rekindled making it easier and easier to get out on the road in the future to have more journeys without feeling that fear of the first step as happens on the first journey out of our comfort zone.

Get Your Own House In Order

“Before you can set an example to others in your house, or others in your community, or others in an overall society, you first need to show that you can ‘get your own house in order.’ You need to be able to handle yourself and your own day-to-day problems first before you can lead others to do the same in their own lives.”

There’s an old adage I have been thinking about lately about how it is primarily important to take care of oneself first and not just in one way but in every part of your life. Before you can set an example to others in your house, or others in your community, or others in an overall society, you first need to show that you can ‘get your own house in order.’ You need to be able to handle yourself and your own day-to-day problems first before you can lead others to do the same in their own lives.

It can be hard for other people to take you seriously when you don’t take yourself seriously in the first place. How will you be able to lead a team or an organization or a company if you are not able to master your own tasks and your own desires? Self-development isn’t just about making sure you are able to create a good life for yourself but it’s also about setting a positive example for others who would look up to you as a result. You cannot be a mentor or a role model for others without first putting yourself out there and doing what needs to be done to make yourself successful.

When you have not struggled, when have not persevered, when you have not done what it takes to reach your goals, how can you give advice to other people on what they should do to have the same kind of success? “Getting your own house in order” means taking care of yourself first and doing so consistently before you can use those same pieces of advice and examples for others to follow. Firstly, your own house in order starts with your mental and physical health.

Your body is your own house so it must be taken care of first and foremost in terms of getting good sleep, eating properly, not indulging in vices like alcohol or tobacco to excess, and knowing how to exercise as well to keep yourself in shape. It also extends to being able to relax, de-stress, handle anxiety, and be mentally sharp by challenging yourself but also relaxing your mind so as to not exhaust it entirely. Your body and your mind are their own little houses and they must be maintained thoroughly so that other people will know that you are capable enough to handle other demands in life.

Another house we don’t think of is appearance and grooming. Your own house in this case means maintaining a good appearance and practicing good hygiene. These practices are necessary also on a daily basis and to show to the world that you care about yourself and want to be taken seriously. For a job, an internship, a presentation, a seminar, a lecture, etc., your personal dress should indicate that you are a serious person for the role or for the opportunity and that others will know that they can respect your house because you respect it yourself. They will not respect your house when you show up to an interview in shorts or when you wear Yoga pants to a college lecture. Physical appearance and grooming are another ‘house’ that we all must take seriously and to do so primarily before we can give advice to others on how to maintain their own ‘houses’ in good order.

Lastly, the last ‘house’ on a personal level that I would like to focus on is where you live regardless if it is a small studio apartment or a huge mansion. Maintaining your own physical shape in the world is crucial if you want to tackle bigger and better problems. If you can’t make your bed, clean your bathroom, or keep your kitchen clean, how can you tackle any major issue in your community or in your society? At the end of the day, this kind of ‘house’ maintenance comes down to self-respect and putting your own ego aside to do the work that we all must do.

The chances are good that at the end of the work to maintain this ‘house’ that you will feel a lot better for having done the work needed to keep up a clean and orderly home. It is not easy to do this consistently but it is necessary and if you plan on having guests over, having friends over for a get-together, or want to be romantically involved with someone, a clean ‘house’ will go a long way to making you respectable and responsible in the eyes of others. Being able to maintain care not just of yourself but your own physical space means that people will know that they can trust you with other tasks and matters of importance that extend beyond your ‘house’ and to the ‘houses’ of others in the community and in the society.

Thinking about a community as a whole, their ‘houses’ include making sure that the schools are meeting the needs of the students, that the community is safe and protected for all of its residents, that the roads and bridges are maintained and do not have potholes or faulty beams, and to make sure that each and every person has access to utilities including water, electricity, and yes, an Internet connection too. If a community does not have those necessities for a high quality of life, then that ‘house’ is not in order and those people who have their own ‘houses’ in order need to step up to do their part to help others get the community in good shape.

If you have your own ‘house’ in order, you can set the standard for the rest of the community and be able to use your ideas to help others especially if you gain their respect and their trust. With how you act and how you behave in addition to your own appearance, ideas, and personal goals, you can make the community better and it’s important for you to get in there and show that you can make a difference there.

When a community can all of its necessities in order, that one community can definitely have an impact on the larger society within a country and even the world. A community where everyone has equal access to a good education, where health care is not a privilege but a right to all in that society, and when kindness, honesty, and virtue are rewarded rather than chastised. That is an overall society that is getting its own house in order and can serve as an example to other societies in other parts of the world.

Being able to provide a high quality of life and a chance to succeed to all of the people in a society should be the goal of society with its own ‘home’ in order. I am not talking about a social utopia per say but rather an ideal place where people know that they can succeed if given a fair shot in life. It’s also about providing the basic tools of any society to all of its people without discrimination and without corruption. Whether that is no homelessness, enough healthy food for everyone, and an economy where inequality is minimalized, that is what a society should be focusing on and using as an example to other societies.

When a society prioritizes the needs of the few over the many based on wealth or another privilege, that society does not have its own house in order. If there are people out there hungry, homeless, or without health care, then that society is not in order. A society cannot be an example for other societies when it lacks the courage to invest in its most vulnerable populations or to provide a higher quality of life for all people.

Without that kind of an example, a society will lose its influence or example setting and will turn inward and often tear itself apart without good leadership or good values. A society that gets its own house in order prioritizes the right social needs and finds the investments, funding necessary to maintain these necessities of its people will automatically become an example to other societies whether they are near or far. A society that doesn’t does not have a moral ground to stand on and will lose the example it could set by practicing bad ‘house’ manners in different ways.

“Getting Your Own House in Order” does not just apply to one individual but it also applies to a community and a society as a whole. We all are human and fallible and sometimes, we will fall short but if we strive to do better in our homes, in our lives, and in our examples we set for others, that kind of ‘Ripple Effect’ of positive values will improve the larger community and society as a result. How we treat ourselves (mind and body), our homes, our way of life has a direct effect on the community we share, and, on the society,  we find ourselves a part of. This kind of example setting starts at home, but it can ripple throughout to the rest of the world and it all begins with ourselves and our own actions.

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