Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

Retaining The Ability to Connect

How many times have you been out, either alone or with a friend or family member, and you have noticed in the café or restaurant a couple or a group of people just staring at their phones rather than each other? I’ve noticed this occurring multiple times and more often than not in the past year or so. Now, it’s not great to be out in public on your own on your phone either but it seems rather ironic to be out in public with a friend or a family member and you are both on your phone at the same time rather than living in the moment and being engaged with each other instead of their device.

It’s one thing as well for friends to be on their phones at the same time perhaps to keep up with their other friends but it’s quite silly for me to see couples out in public staring down at their phones when they should be connecting with each other. What is the point of going out to a café or to a restaurant or any other public place if you would rather interact with your handheld device than the person sitting right in front of you?

I can see if one of the two or more people in the group need to respond or send a text, check on a work e-mail, or take an important call but it is quite ridiculous when both people or all people in the group have nothing better to do than to look at their phones. There are a number of ways that I want to suggest in this article on how to retain that important ability to connect with another person especially out in public rather than connecting on social media, be social yourself with the person(s) you are with.

1.The Lost Art of People Watching: There is really something to be said about just wondering what other people are doing and checking out how they are going about their daily lives. Now, I am not suggesting you and your group or friend(s) just stare at somebody and make them uncomfortable. That’s not it at all. What I would recommend is to really just watch how people go running, cook your food, clean up the streets, deal with other restaurant patrons, etc.

For example, if you are at a park with someone else, it’s nice to make conversation about the joggers, the musicians, the frisbee players, the traffic police, etc. It’s a good way to stay engaged in conversation without turning to the phone to be entertained. Watching the world go by is a pleasurable activity and it can make you appreciate the rhythms of daily life. You should not be ‘people watching’ so intently that you make those who know they are being watched notice you doing so! Try to do so casually and without staring too intently. That’s a good way to do it in the mature way.

2. Leave the Phones at Home: What better way to have a good time with somebody then to leave the phone at home. It can be mutually agreed upon beforehand and you can both figure out where to meet up the old-fashioned way: by consulting a map or checking Google before leaving the house. It is really easy to leave the phone at home when you have the logistics squared away in terms of time, date, and where to meet. It’s also easier by car as well when you can leave the phone in your car for the two or three hours you are spending with them and can come back to it later to help you navigate home.

This is a really underrated way of maintaining that personal connection with someone and also strengthening it by flexing that resistance muscle and resisting the temptation of the phone by putting it both out of sight and at least, temporarily out of mind. I think both of you will be glad to rid yourselves of the phone for a few hours or even a whole day and the conversation and the activity will be much more rewarding. You will also remember what happened a lot more because you just were that much more engaged in what was happening because that person and the activity you did together had your full and undivided attention.

3. One Phone, One Group: If you feel the need to compromise about phones in a group, a good way to fix the issue or at least put a stopgap to it is have one phone for everybody in the sense that you are using that phone for everybody to see or use such as making a quick phone call away from the group, checking out travel pictures together, or doing a fun game through an application. Instead of everyone bringing their phones to the group meetup, if one person does it, you’ll have to share and be social about it. Obviously, you do not want others to see your private text messages and contacts on your personal phone but there are ways to do it and still be secure in having others use it.

I really do suggest having some group games on there or using it for showing off pictures and talking about travel or activity plans that you have all done. Another way to be social about a phone is to hook it up to somebody’s speaker and listen to different music together. It can even be some kind of a game where each person chooses a different song in a circle-like setting and your friends or family have to guess the musical artist or the name of the song itself. Being social and using your phone do not have to be separate from each other but the best way to make that happen is to only have one phone per group rather than one phone per person if you want to keep that ability to connect.

4. Enjoy the Silence and Nature: If you have been out with someone or a group for a few hours and you all happen to run out of things to say to each other, don’t go back to the phone! Instead, simply enjoy the silence and each other’s company. You do not have to fill every waking moment together with a witty remark or a sarcastic joke. Sometimes, it’s nice to be alone in your thoughts, people watching together, or just living in the moment and enjoying the ambiance of the place where you are at. This also applies to enjoying nature especially if you are outdoors. You both or the group will not need your phones when you are listening to the birds chirping, watching the monkeys climb to the peak of the trees, or checking out the beautiful mountain or sea view vistas.

You may say, “well, Ben, how can I enjoy nature when I do not have my phone to take a picture of the beauty?” That’s a good question but there’s an easy and simple solution to that problem as well. It’s known as bringing a camera that you like and rely upon and practice taking real photographs. I think it’s often better to take pictures of nature and scenery with a real camera than your phone even though camera phones have become quite popular. Practicing your photography skills with a real camera is a great way to use the tip well and to your advantage.

Photography can be a group activity and will allow both of you or your whole group to take better pictures, enjoy the nature around you, and listen carefully for the silence of the world around you. Lastly, you do not always have to be talking with each other to be connected. That is a false construct invented by our culture really that you have to be engaged with each other socially by always talking. Friends and/or loved ones of many years know so much about each other that they can really be there with one another in silence without filling the void with a conversation 100% of the time.

5. Shame the Phone User(s): This tip will be the most controversial of my suggestions, but I stand by it as having done so myself on a few occasions. The best way to avoid two people from using their phone at one time is to shame politely the first person who pulls out their phone first. Now, ‘shame’ has a negative connotation as it should have in our culture but a little dose of shame in my opinion is not the worst thing in the world especially when what that person is doing is impolite or inconsiderate. If the person you are out with, especially on a date, is constantly checking their phone every five minutes or is not engaged with you socially, then you have the right to shame them for it and ask them to stop.

If they continue with that kind of behavior, instead of doing it right back to them and escalating the tensions, it would be best to just say goodbye and let them know that you don’t appreciate them being on their phone. There are sometimes in life when you have to be both direct and firm with those who are in your social circle, even friends and family members. Respect is a key component in any relationship so if that person doesn’t value you enough to put their phone away like you are for an hour or even more unless it’s an emergency, then they simply do not deserve your time or the money spent to hang out together. Shaming the phone user in public when you’re with them is principally about setting healthy boundaries which are key in our relationships.

Also, you should hold yourself to the same standards and put the phone away as well lest that person you’re with get offended, walk away, or shame you into being more socially conscientious. Turn the phone off, put it in a locker, tell them that text or Instagram message can wait but above all else, shame them politely and remind them that we should be connecting and enjoying each other’s company and not off in a virtual world with other people. Maintaining that sense of cordiality will ensure better relationships and less wasted time staring at your phones in public.

Our healthy and lasting relationships are a key part of our mental health and our outlook on life. I believe that social media is still making us less social and while these networks do connect people on the surface, they do not foster deep friendships or relationships. Social media are like the gateways to having connections with others but you and only you are responsible for fostering and harvesting those connections to grow and become deeply rooted over time. You and the other person(s) who want to connect must do your best to put your phones away and focus on connecting directly by following some or all of these tips I have suggesting especially keeping the phone out of sight and out of mind temporarily.

Flexing your willpower and retaining that ability to connect will make you a happier and a healthier person overall. Your attention span is likely to improve as well as your friendships and/or relationships. I also believe and the research would show that your anxiety, feelings of depression, or of loneliness will decrease the more time you spend connecting with a person in person instead of through a virtual network. This ability to retain deep connections with people is a profound struggle in this age of instant yet flighty connections.

There are easy ways to counteract this trend though by letting go of the temptation when possible, embracing the silence and the natural world, and by politely reminding the person(s) you are with how it is good social etiquette to give someone their undivided attention when you are together in a public place or setting. If you struggle or have a setback, do not beat yourself up too much about it. Keep doing your best, lessen your use of your phone in the first place, and let the people in your life know how much they mean to you by giving them more of your attention and your love.

Hay Vida En Las Calles

During my visit to Salento, Colombia, a beautiful town located in the foothills below the Andes Mountains and adjacent to the famous Cocora Valley, I picked up on a slogan that I found very endearing and memorable. “Hay vida en las calles” was posted on an advertisement on one of the vendors there who was dishing out ice cream, snacks, and other goodies. “Hay vida en las calles” translates to the English language as “There is life in the streets” and I found that to be a very positive sign and one that gets people out of their homes and into the parks, squares, and plazas where the basis of all community life is formed. While life in the streets cannot be found everywhere, I found this prevalent attitude consistent in many towns and cities during my travels in Latin America.

The emphasis on communal spaces and public gathering places is something I really admire about Latin culture and I find it to be a healthy feature of any society, which has strong communities and families. Being able to leave your homes every now and then to walk five minutes away to be in a public park or a town square should be natural and available to more and more of us.

As is well known in psychology and sociology, Human beings are social creatures and we want to be around other people even after we have had some alone time. In order to do so, responsible local, state, and national governments should provide that to their peoples in order to build more trusting and kind societies. In societies where people are isolated, lonely, and without opportunities to meet people and build new friendships, problems related to anxiety, depression, and even violence are likely to rise.

In countries such as the United States and other Western countries, statistics related to anxiety, depression, and loneliness are rising and part of the reason I think for the rise in these issues is related to not being able to gather and socialize in a public place. The atomization related to suburban living, the lack of public transportation options, and the decline of shopping centers all help to contribute to this rise in loneliness. I mention the closing of shopping malls because due to technology giants like Amazon, small businesses and large companies alike are closing their doors causing people to order anything from food to clothes to Amazon Echo from their homes.

While shopping malls and outlet stores aren’t an optimal way to build a sense of community, they still brought people together and were a place to hang out. The question remains regarding how will we replace these stores, strip malls, and outlet centers if they all go out of business? A revitalization of public places from small towns to big cities will not just be a prudent step forward but help societies deal with rising anxiety and loneliness rates. There should be life in the streets.

Whose responsibility should it be to encourage this kind of ‘life in the streets’? I believe it’s the local government combined with local businesses who can really make it work. Also, local community groups and organizations can play a big role in making sure everybody feels welcome and to promote activities, discussion groups, and issues in the community that need to be resolved. The average citizen living in the town or city can contribute to by hosting ‘block parties’ or contributing food or drinks. We ask our taxes to pay for roads, schools, and parks, but why not also a community gathering place, indoors or outdoors, where people can be social, discuss issues, and make new friends.

Without investing in our citizens by providing a ‘public square’, we are really selling ourselves short and it could hurt the fabric of our communities, towns, and cities in the long run. Without a way for people to interact and socialize with each other for free and without needing to buy anything, society as a whole can really benefit. It may sound like a ‘utopian’ idea to some but I think it makes a lot of sense in terms of the potential benefits to people’s mental health.

When I was in Salento, Colombia, for example, there were numerous food vendors, there was live music, and people were chatting with each other on benches. Children were playing in a nearby playground and the air was fresh and clean. The noise of the cars and the buses was off in the distance and it was a sea of calm where there were plentiful trees, flowers, and you could hear the birds chirping. People need that kind of space to gather, talk, listen to music, eat food, and watch their children play peacefully.

In my travels through Latin America in the past few years, I have seen this in multiple towns and cities where there is an emphasis on using the public squares for the public’s benefit. While this may not be a universal thing across the entire region, it is a priority here and one that I really appreciate coming from a culture where these gatherings are in decline. The good news should be that with greater effort and investment, we can bring the public spaces back again in the United States and elsewhere.

Further automation and loss of jobs in the retail and manufacturing sector is a tragedy and one worth acknowledging. My hope is that the loss of these retail and commercial spaces can be put to some good use and even lead to different kinds of jobs to take root, ones that are more social and that benefit people more, especially young children and the elderly. Being able to revitalize certain neighborhoods with greener public spacers where people can gather, eat, play, talk, and even dance would help curb the loneliness epidemic that we are seeing in Western societies. If there is life in the streets, people will show up and they will be better for it.

Part of the beauty of travel is seeing how other cultures value family and community life and make it a high priority. I believe that you can take these positive values from other cultures and place them within your own. It must involve buy-in though from the people themselves and they have to feel that it was the next step forward in improving their community. With the rise of automation and the closing of large shopping centers, we may be at the point in time where we can turn these empty buildings and useless parking lots into real gathering places in the future.

Without social interaction and a sense of community, people will suffer as a result mentally. This has been shown in many studies and in many surveys. I think it is part of who we are as social animals and being isolated in our homes and in our cars for 90% of the day will not make us healthier. For what I saw in Salento, Colombia a few years ago and what I have seen in other towns in Latin America, placing a high value on social life within these communities will make people feel a sense of togetherness and cohesion. A greater emphasis on community gatherings and social spaces would create a large ripple effect that would drastically improve the greater society, the country you’re in, and the world.