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?

The Art of an Apology

“One thing I have noticed recently is that some people have a hard time giving a simple apology when they mess up, are rude to others, or don’t have the emotional intelligence to realize when they were in the wrong about something. Now, this is not a good habit to develop as an adult and one that makes you appear to be childish more so than any other negative trait that you could display.”

One thing I have noticed recently is that some people have a hard time giving a simple apology when they mess up, are rude to others, or don’t have the emotional intelligence to realize when they were in the wrong about something. Now, this is not a good habit to develop as an adult and one that makes you appear to be childish more so than any other negative trait that you could display. Learning how to apologize is done when we are children and our parents tell us to always ‘say sorry’ and to learn to be nice to others.

‘Sorry’ is one of the golden words we learn are key to our day-to-day lives. It doesn’t take much to do and will cost you nothing. The fact that many adults don’t know how to do this today in our society is a worrisome sign of how personal relations have decayed compared to previous times. Some people choose to dance around the offense and not acknowledge it while others refuse to take responsibility for their actions which leads to the person who was offended feeling aggrieved and holding a grudge against that person for longer than they should need to.

The old adage of ‘you forgive but you don’t forget’ is not a pretty one but if there is no apology from that person who committed the offense, the other person may learn to forgive them but they will not forget that there was no apology rendered from the other person. I do not endorse holding a long-lasting grudge against other people but being rude, saying bad things about others, and overall not being a respectful person will cause you to lose many different relationships with others. Most adults do not know want to associate with somebody who refuses to apologize or does not take responsibility for their actions.

I believe that with social media and how often we do not see the other person’s face and their body language that we feel comfortable getting away with rude behavior and it has led to that kind of behavior spilling over into real life interactions. A lack of an apology can be due to a person’s own narcissistic nature and to think that the rules like the ‘golden rule’ don’t apply to them and that they can ever do no wrong including causing harm or offense to other people.

The sign of a true mature adult is one who apologize and does so in a sincere manner. It is a heartfelt apology and is usually more than just a simple ‘sorry’ and then move on. If someone cannot even say ‘sorry’ or realize the hurt that they have caused, then they still have a lot of growing up to do and act more like a child or a teenager in an adult’s body than an adult themselves. The sad thing to see in society is when a 45 year old acts like a 15 year old or when a 75 year old acts like a 5 year old, which is often as the result of them not registering other people’s emotions or feelings, and thinking reflectively about their behavior, their tone of voice, and how their language was inappropriate.

The art of an apology is not as simple as it can be made out to be with just a quick ‘sorry’. Often in life, a simple ‘sorry’ does not cut it. I think it’s better to follow these steps to having a legitimate and heartfelt apology that will make the other person feel better and try to restart the relationship or improve it rather than letting it fester and causing the other person to dwell on your insult.

1. Acknowledge You Were Wrong

The first step for any good apology is to acknowledge to someone face-to-face if you can or over phone or email if you can’t see that person that you were wrong. Whether it was something you said or something you did or that you hurt their feelings, acknowledge the thing that caused the original offense, state how it wasn’t right for you to do that, and apologize in that way beyond a quick ‘sorry’. It’s as direct as “I was wrong to…”, “It was not right for me to…”, “You deserve an apology for…”

2. Remember the Incident and What You Took from It

When you acknowledge what you did and that it was wrong, it makes the other person feel like you remembered that it was not the right thing for them to do and that pain was caused. It also means remembering that certain feelings were hurt and that the other person realizes they could have done things different / not said anything at all / or watched what they have said better. Saying ‘sorry’ or apologizing without saying what the ‘sorry’ is for is not a good way to do an apology because you have to be specific regarding what the apology is for and what you did wrong if you caused offense.

3. Be Sincere and Don’t Rush It

How you say an apology is often more important than what you say in the apology. If you are rushing through it, only saying a one-word apology, and not even looking at the person or acknowledging their presence while saying it, then that is not a real apology. A real apology must be congruent with your body language and your eye contact and your tone of voice all on the same page together. You should give that person your full attention and not be checking your phone, reading your email, or have your attention generally elsewhere while doing the apology.

Also, not rushing it means it’s going to take more than a five second ‘sorry’ and move on, if you follow the previous two steps, a good apology will take as long as it needs to which could be anywhere from a minute to ten minutes depending upon what the other person has to say. Depending on the severity of the negative action, you want to give that person a chance to respond, to accept your apology, and to decide how your relationship with them is going to move forward. You cannot force an apology to move forward without the other person agreeing to it so make sure you are patient, forthcoming, and open to listening to what they have to say to you.

4. Be Open to a Change in the Relationship

Even with an apology, sometimes, that person is going to want to take a break from seeing you, hanging out with you, or being around. It can be hard to bring that relationship back to what it was when harsh words are exchanged or when negative actions happened between two people to cause the strife. You have to understand and accept what the other person does because they may not want to trust you again as much or recognize that you aren’t the person who they thought you were.

This may be a hard pill to swallow but you are likely going to have to spend some time away from that person, let them forgive you on their own timetable, and they will set the terms on if they see you again or not. It is possible they may never fully get over what you did and not want to be around you again at all. This is a harsh truth to face for most people but the least you can do is apologize and try to move on.

If that person chooses to accept your apology but not go out of their way to see you again then that is their right to do so and it is up to them how they want to conduct their interactions with you moving forward. As adults, people want to spend time with those people who treat them well, respect them, and are emotionally mature. If you can’t do that, it’s going to be tough to have friends or to be around other family members.

I write this article because too often today I have seen other adults refuse to apologize for being in the wrong and this can cascade throughout the rest of our society. There is a fundamental lack of accountability and also responsibility that starts with a failure to apologize sincerely. It takes real wisdom and maturity to apologize to someone, but it is necessary since we are all flawed and make mistakes.

A true adult owns up to these mistakes they made, apologizes for them to seek forgiveness, and accepts what the other person does in response without any future expectations on how the relationship can move forward. It begins with saying ‘you’re sorry’ but it does not end there and a good apology is more than saying ‘sorry.’ It means acknowledging what you did was wrong, being sincere about it, listening to the other person, and being open to a change in the relationship based on how they want to move forward with you in the future. That is the true art of an apology and one that I hope you will follow in your own life.

The Need to Have a Social Conscience

Keeping with what’s been going on in the world lately, I believe it’s important to reinforce just how important it is now and into the future the need to have a social conscience. What do I mean by a social conscience? Boiling down the formal definition to even simpler terms, it is the feeling derived from caring for others more than yourself. You feel the urge to put others’ needs before your own. It does not mean to stop caring for yourself and taking care of your daily needs but to think of others who rely on you and to put them first especially for family members and friends.

However, having a social conscience goes beyond just our family and our friends. It goes for our immediate society as a whole whether it is the community you live in, the nation you reside in, or the world you inhabit. You feel responsible for what goes on outside of your own life and those of family and friends to think of a larger picture. To have a social conscience is to see beyond your own problems and to see the injustices that continue to plague our world.

You also have to realize that your problems while difficult or not unique and others are going through the same tribulations as you are and sometimes worse. Having a social conscience involves putting yourselves into the shoes of other people and to realize how they could possibly be helped and how you personally can be involved in assisting them. Showing concern for others is the right way to have a social conscience and also to think about how these injustices can be resolved. Any individual can make a difference by having a social conscience and by taking it upon themselves to change their behavior to reflect their new attitude.

How do you show your social conscience? There are numerous ways to do so and you could even put them on a scale from small actions to large movements designed to change the foundations of the society. In the case of a social conscience, I find that it’s like exercising your body. You don’t want to take on too much weight or distance at first for weightlifting or running. You should rather want to start small and build up your actions over time and to be more ambitious.

For some examples, starting off small with your social conscience can include environmental stewardship, collecting donations, or getting involved in your local community. Any of these actions can create a ripple effect and can cause a shift in societal behavior for others to follow your lead or for the actions to spread to other people and even communities based on how consistent and courteous you are with these goodwill efforts. For environmental stewardship, it could be recycling your own bottles and cans each day and getting your neighborhood to do so as well.

You can also plant trees and install solar panels on your house if able to gather momentum from smaller actions. Donating your own clothes or extra food can lead to organizing food drives or even creating your own organizations to help collect donations in your town or city. Leading a local trash pickup event can lead to other future leadership roles for yourself such as running for your child’s PTA (parent – teacher association) board to running for the town / city council board seat. Social consciousness does not have to encompass all of humanity but rather as the popular saying goes, “think globally, act locally.”

As long as you are having a positive impact on the life of another person, you are exercising your social consciousness. The more you do it, the more natural it is, and it becomes your routine or habit. Your first time donating your old clothes to the Salvation Army becomes a monthly habit. Your first-time volunteering at the local food bank becomes a weekly occurrence. Helping others feels good and it can lead to you doing it more often so why not give it a try? A social consciousness does not have to extend to everybody in the world all at once but the actions you do locally can definitely ripple out and stand as a positive example for others to implement in their own communities.

If you would like to get involved globally, there are an almost infinite number of opportunities to study, teach, work, and volunteer in non-governmental organizations and local non-for-profits in important areas such as education, health care, infrastructure and the environment. Spending time to educate yourself on the culture, history, politics, and the society of other places around the world will help better inform you of the injustices and problems of your own. No human society is perfect but there are small improvements that each day we can choose to perform to make it a little bit better than it was before.

Even when you are not in a position of local, national, or even global leadership, you can elect to pay attention to the problems that must be solved, form your position on the issues by being educated and choosing your sources of information carefully and then choose to vote and elect those leaders who have a social conscience. You will know if they have one or not by not only of what they advocate for but how they have advocated for these issues and who they have surrounded themselves with. A person with no social conscience cares for no one but himself and his own brood. Their friends are disposable to them and they care nothing for others beyond what they can do for him or her and how their own prospects can be improved. A person without a social conscience deserves to lead nobody and not be followed by anyone.

A socially conscious leader cares for the least among them and feels their pain as his or her own. While they have not experienced pain or misery as those whom he or she advocates for, he can listen to them, see what they say based on those experiences, and come to an educated decision on how to best fix the problem and work with those who are experts in that field to solve the issue as best as humanly possible. Social conscious behavior is so key to have when it comes to be a leader of a community or a nation and it is unfortunately neglected as of late when it comes to judging the men and the women we put into positions of influence and power.

As long as people err in their own behavior and judgment, there will be manmade problems and injustices. What someone with a social conscience can do is to do their best to continue to fight for justice and solve those problems in any way they can. Rather than focus on 100 problems at one time, it is best to focus one’s attention at 1 or 2 big problems that can be solved in time and that can gain popular support from the community after receiving the facts of why and how the injustice exists. Keep educating yourself on the injustices and the problems that exist in your world and decide how you want to push our world back towards the ‘arc of justice’ that our conscience and actions should bend to as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently put it. We only have a finite amount of time on this planet and if we can right some wrongs and create justice where there was little or none before then we are doing our small part to make this world a better and fairer place.