Sunset in Ithaca

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Ithaca, New York

Finger Lakes Wineries

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Finger Lakes Wineries; Ithaca, New York

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?

Cultural Spotlight – Carnaval

No one country does the festivities of ‘carnaval’ quite like Brazil. A festival that is just more than ‘Fat Tuesday’, it has become more than a month of celebrations beginning in early February and ending in early March even after ‘Ash Wednesday’ has passed by. The word ‘carnaval’ or ‘carnival’ comes from the Latin word ‘carnelevare’, which means to remove or to raise meat signifying how Roman Catholics would give up meat or poultry during the 40-day period of Lent before the Easter holiday. Because of the significance of Lent and not just for giving up meat but for other earthly pleasures as well, ‘Carnaval’ is a chance to enjoy some of those pleasures before the time of Lent and to revel in both culinary and cultural traditions.

Nowhere are these cultural traditions more proudly represented than in Brazil where the whole country has some form of celebration or observation of the Carnaval holiday. From the state of Pernambuco in the North to Bahia in the Northeast all the way down the Brazilian coastline to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, each year there is an informal competition to see which city can put on the best Carnaval and whose parades are the biggest.

Each city is different regarding how they celebrate Carnaval in Brazil but there are some similarities such as having huge street parades where crowds can dance and march to the bands and drum groups assembled as they go through the city. There are a huge variety of costumes, music styles represented but the most common one would have to be ‘Samba.’ In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian culture is heavily apart of Carnaval celebrations from the music being played to the design of the costumes. There are a number of variations of samba represented and they are all represented in the popular ‘samba schools.’

These small groups of performers sometimes prepare for the whole year before carnaval begins and are competing against each other in the ‘Sambadrome’, which are huge parade grounds and spectator events where these groups are being judged based on a number of factors against other schools. The biggest Sambadromes are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador along with Sao Paulo and these competitions take places over a period of four nights at the height of the carnaval celebrations. Not only are these groups being judged on their music style and quality but also their coordination, their rhythm, the theme of their performance, and the costumes, which can be quite elaborate and also quite expensive.

While there are different types of samba music involved, there are also lesser known music styles that are represented in Brazilian carnaval. They include ‘Frevo’, which is originally from Recife and Olinda in the state of Pernambuco and ‘Axe’, which is originally from Salvador in the Bahia state which combines different popular Afro-Caribbean music genres together such as calypso, marcha, and reggae. All of these popular music types mentioned have their roots in African cultures and diaspora influences.

In the 19th century, it was quite difficult for Afro-Brazilians to dance, sing, or even parade through the streets of Brazilian cities during Carnaval to express their cultural heritage but today, these forms of song and dance are the heart of the Carnaval celebrations. To put it simply, you cannot have carnaval without samba or costumes or drumlines. In a way, Carnaval is not just a celebration of indulgence and pleasure but of expressing your culture and your heritage. I found Brazilian carnaval to be also about celebrating the diversity and unity of the country itself and how that can bring people together despite past historical injustices.

In order to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, one does not have to go to a Sambadrome or to march in a formal parade or even wear an elaborate costume. You do have to sing, dance, and even drink or eat a little more than you normally would. The easiest way to celebrate especially as a foreign visitor is to check out some of the ‘blocos’ or block parties. They take place each and every day during Carnaval in different neighborhoods at different times. Each ‘bloco’ has different themes ranging from a celebration of ‘The Beatles’ to ‘R&B and hip hop.’ The blocos can also have ‘electric trios’ which are large trucks with huge sound systems where musicians on top of them sing famous samba or forro tunes to the crowd who often sing along with them as they cruise down an informal parade route.

These ‘electric trio’ trucks or floats can also include drum line groups or instrumental bands who walk down the parade route with these musicians. Each bloco has supporters who have specific shirts or costumes on to represent the theme of the block party as well. The trio truck or float is another symbol of Carnaval in Brazil similar to the block parties themselves, which can last from early in the morning until late at night.

While there is endless debate about where to go to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, my hunch is that you won’t be disappointed if you go to either Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, or Recife. The great thing about Brazilian carnaval is each city is likely to have a different feel to it as well as different types of music as well as different kinds of blocos represented. Rio de Janeiro’s carnaval is the largest in the world but you may want to go with the carnaval in Salvador to see unique forms of samba and other music styles represented. If you want a somewhat more subdued carnaval experience, going to Sao Paulo may be what you’re looking for.

Carnaval in Brazil is not just about coastal cities as there are celebrations that are lower key and smaller in the state of Minas Gerais, located in the interior as well as in smaller cities such as Manaus, Porto Alegre, and Florianopolis. This month-long celebration has something for everyone and while I have celebrated carnaval before a few years ago in Colombia, I have never seen such a unifying event that brings a whole country together as it does in Brazil. If you are expecting to see a lot of tourist sites and enjoy some museums here, you may want to wait until after Carnaval to do just that. Instead, bring your best costume, study up on your Samba moves, and get ready to buy those tickets way in advance if you want to see the Sambadrome in all of its glory when you visit.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil is a really unique experience and opportunity that I would recommend to everybody who enjoys dancing, singing, listening to good music, and experience one of the most joyous celebrations in the world.

Ubatuba

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Ubatuba, São Paulo, Brazil

Life’s Fleeting Moments

Why is that sunrises and sunsets are often so captivating and moving? Perhaps it’s the uniqueness of the colors blending and merging together to form a painting-like setting that can’t be reproduced elsewhere. Maybe it’s the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing a new day born or see the old day fade to its end. However, I tend to think the beauty of these happenings lies in another part of its overall appeal.

While some aspects of sunrises and sunsets bring a lot of beauty and perspective to life, I think the main reason why sunrises, sunsets, and even the random rainbow appeal to the human psyche is because these events represent fleeting moments that last for only a few seconds or minutes. They are impermanent, awe-inspiring, and hard to experience often. Sunrises and sunsets are ephemeral events that can be easy to miss and require one’s full attention to really appreciate them.

These sunrise and sunset events are what I like to call ‘fleeting moments’ and they are truly special. I say this because they do not last, and they require you to really pay attention and let your distractions float away. You have to be in the moment and that is increasingly difficult for most people to do nowadays. We are constantly bombarded by sensory overload that is often man-made and unnatural. Advertisements, loud noises, screeching vehicles, bumps in the roads we drive, these can cause us to lose sight of what’s truly important in life. Taking measure every now and then of why these fleeting moments are important to experience not only reminds us of the beauty of life but also how impermanent our time here really is. When you compare the fleeting moments of life to the routine moments in life, it really is no contest to as to which kind of moment is the preferred option to experience in full.

Categorically, the rewards of these fleeting moments are among the best in life because we all know that they are not common. Among the daily monotony and chores that encompass our routines, taking a few moments to appreciate being alive and being at peace are really what we all should be striving for even if these moments are fleeting. The fleeting moments are hard to capture but when you do, they bring the most joy and happiness that you can possibly have. As I mentioned in a previous article, there is a rule of diminishing marginal returns that we should be aware of and that’s why the more common we experience certain things in life, the less we really value them.

It’s quite a paradox when you think about it. The most enjoyable moments in life are the ones that we cannot plan for or anticipate, but that is part of the beauty of life and of living. Going back to my sunrise and sunset example, if they happened every hour instead of every day, that would be boring, right? You would probably start yawning after the fourth sunrise and the third sunset. Fleeting moments are special inherently because they are temporary, and you may not be able to enjoy them forever. Fleeting moments can also be part of your daily routine but ones that can only last a few seconds or a few minutes.

For some of us, it could be the first sip of a fresh cup of coffee at the beginning of the day or for others, it could be a hot shower after a long day of hiking. We know that the 2nd or 3rd cup of coffee like the 2nd or 3rd shower would not be as pleasurable or as enjoyable because then it becomes routine and our mind adjusts to it happening. However, the fleeting moment when your lips touch the coffee or when your face is enveloped with shower water, then it’s almost pure ecstasy for your body and mind. While these moments are definitely fleeting, they are the most enjoyable. Keeping them as part of your routine is important so that you will feel better both mentally and physically.

What we should all keep in mind is how to maximize the most enjoyment from these temporary moments because we know they don’t come around every minute or every hour of each day. My thinking on this is to really put all distractions away for those moments so you can be living fully and freely. When you are having a nice dinner with friends, make a habit to engage yourself in the conversation rather than daydream about what you’re doing afterwards. When you are watching the sun rise or set, put the phone away and just watch the colors merge together to form the painting-like canvas. Let your stress and worries melt away as much as possible to really enjoy these moments. There are so many distractions out there, but your sense of contentedness will be much higher if you are able to have the willpower yourself to be in the here and now wherever that may lead you.

Laughter among friends, patting a baby’s back, a spontaneous rainbow, a beautiful vista after a long climb, holding the hands of a beloved family member, these are the moments you want to remember throughout life. They are fleeting in length and a small amount of sand in the hourglass known as one’s lifespan, but they are precious and powerful. If you can take the time to work, to play, to sleep, to eat, then you can take the time to live in the moment and appreciate beauty and joy when it comes your way.

Being able to live fully by being in the moment will set you on a path of fewer regrets the further you go through life. Letting yourself experience moments of happiness and joy without distraction or worries will improve your well-being. It is a conscious effort to stay in the moment, but the rewards are well worth it. If you have to meditate, exercise, or even do yoga to help yourself stay present, then do so but don’t let life’s fleeting moments pass you by.

Finding Your Flow State

What’s one thing that all professional athletes, musicians, artists, writers, and anyone devoted to their craft have in common? They have all achieved a ‘flow state’, which is difficult to relate to unless you are fully immersed in terms of what you are pursuing and truly enjoy what you are doing. The flow state is elusive for most people because they either haven’t found their passion in life or haven’t put the time in yet to get better through consistent practice or play. The flow state is a higher state of being because for a point in time, your concentration is matched with your intensity producing a beautiful result.

When you can put other thoughts or other concerns out of your mind to focus on your craft regardless of what it is, you are utilizing your full potential and will be able to achieve a better result for yourself. To outside observers, the flow state looks nearly impossible to accomplish but when you are devoted to art, to music, to sports, or to writing, the final result is nearly guaranteed because you have put blood, sweat, and tears to produce something meaningful.

To me, the flow state is the most optimal state of mind that you can be in because it requires you to be at your best and to perform at the highest level. It’s requires being in a state of movement and using your body in some way to produce an action. You are putting your energy, your concentration, and your focus into a singular goal and it’s inspiring to those people who get to benefit in some way from what you were able to produce. It’s better to be a doer than to be an observer but it can inspire others to find their flow state when you see them do theirs and to do it extremely well.

For example, I was at a popular Jazz club in Mexico City recently and the headliner was a talented Danish guitarist along with a group of local musicians backing him up on the saxophone, the drums, and the Jazz bass. Every one of them was talented at what they do and were in sync generating a group kind of ‘flow state’ that is even more powerful. The thing with a good Jazz group is that you start to yourself get into the ‘flow’ of enjoying the music and moving your body to the rhythm as well.

As someone who played trumpet for 11 years straight and enjoyed the feeling of togetherness and comradery that playing in a Jazz Ensemble can bring, it is impressive to see a group working well together and nailing their parts to achieve their flow state together. To play a musical instrumently proficiently on your own is tough enough, but to work together with different musicians to produce a catchy tune without making any mistakes is as near to a modern-day miracle as it can get.

Musicians thrive off the energy and the drive of others as well as professional athletes and even politicians. It is much harder to achieve a flow state on your own in the solitude of one’s house especially if your craft requires some sort of public attention. Writers and artists tend to be more introverted on average and don’t need the attention of others to achieve an individual flow state. However, there’s something to be said for achieving a group flow state when you’re cheering on a ruthless dunk from a professional basketball player or listening intently in an arena to a Presidential candidate’s stump speech.

People want to believe in the achievements of others, and I know that we prefer to lift each other up rather than to tear each other down. While it’s beneficial to take part in watching other people reach and show off their flow state, you should be trying to find yours every day. You will get much more satisfaction out of life when you are in that mode where you are merging with your craft whether that’s art, music, writing, sports, etc. While it’s fun to cheer others on and take part in their joy, you should always be trying to create a little bit of your own.

Intense concentration and effort is not easy to achieve, but it is extremely rewarding to put your worries and anxieties aside to focus on a singular goal that you want to achieve. It may take hours, days, weeks, months, and even years to get to where you want to be but there is joy to be found in putting away all distractions and devoting yourself to a craft that you enjoy and are able to put serious time into. Our individual potential will not be able to be achieved unless we are able to reach a flow state relating to a kind of creative or intuitive pursuit.

Do your best to try different activities out and see what you like. If you find an activity or an interest you enjoy, continue to add more time to it and you should start to see results. Don’t start to look for monetary rewards or personal fame to keep you going with this pursuit but you should be doing it for yourself primarily and for your desire to reach that state of flow where you can fully immerse yourself in the activity whatever it may be.

You should find happiness and joy in what you do and become the best that you can be at it. If you can enjoy the activity, you’ll eventually find your ‘flow’ with it and be able to do it effortlessly. While you will have a lot of frustration and stress with practicing and doing the activity, if you like it and find it worthwhile, you won’t mind the downsides when the upsides can produce such an intense ‘flow’ where you are in the zone and are able to produce a beautiful result that others will appreciate. Being able to inspire others to reach their own ‘flow state’ creates its own ripple effect allowing our society to become more creative, intuitive, and productive as a result.