The Urban and The Natural

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Washington, District of Columbia, USA

Stunning Sunsets

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Delaware and New Jersey, USA

Lake Anne

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Reston, Virginia, USA

Sunset Over The Monuments

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Arlington, Virginia, USA

Whitehaven Trails

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Whitehaven Trails and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal; Washington, District of Columbia, United States

The End of Daily Social Interactions?

“One consequence of the pandemic that has accelerated in terms of being an option for our lives is how the easiness and convenience of going a day or more without seeing or speaking to another human being.”

One consequence of the pandemic that has accelerated in terms of being an option for our lives is how the easiness and convenience of going a day or more without seeing or speaking to another human being. Obviously, if you’re counting virtual meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, you’re interacting with plenty of people on a daily basis but to me, it’s not the same and shouldn’t be considered a real replacement for face-to-face interactions. Whereas ten or twenty years ago, you would need to leave the house or apartment to get pretty much anything done, you now have the chance to do everything from the comfort of your own domicile, for better or for worse.

If you’re an introvert, you may be welcoming this kind of societal shift, but I do worry how we are sacrificing convenience for social awareness and better interpersonal relations. Even if you consider yourself pretty comfortable on your own, I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to be cooped up all the time even in a pandemic. Of course, we have to be socially distant, stay home according to what guidelines may be in place, and keep washing our hands but that shouldn’t prevent us from saying ‘hello’ to a stranger or asking a cashier that’s not a robot or automated computer the common courtesy of ‘how you are doing?’

Right now, it’s acceptable to minimize human to human contact especially if you’re elderly, vulnerable, or with a preexisting condition but the rest of us should still make time to interact with someone outside of our ‘COVID bubble’ even if it’s in a limited way. I do believe that companies have made it way too easy for us to subsidize our usual running of errands by keeping us at home. While it does help people, who can’t leave due to concerns for their health, I think it does a disservice in making things a little too convenient and then perhaps keeping our reliance on applications, e-commerce, and delivery services to meet our every need.

Running errands to go to the grocery store or to pick up stamps or to pick up medical prescriptions may end up going the way of the Dodo bird and while some of us may be holdouts even after the pandemic, this is a huge societal shift that will affect our way to socialize and build shared communities with other people. The 2020s may have us needing to go out of our way and building our willpower up in terms of seeking out social connections rather than them happening organically. In order to meet new people, it may not happen as much if your university is online or you are a remote worker, you’re going to have to put it upon yourself to find a way to meet people again which will take some creativity.

The good news is that clubs, organizations, sports teams, and language groups aren’t going to die out even if some of them remain online in some capacity. You will have to seek out those groups that are similar to your hobbies and interests especially if you’re in a new city or a new country, but they are going to be out there, but you have to take the initiative to find those groups, attend those meetings, get involved, and also give back to that group when you can. Volunteering your time and effort in person will also be a boost to communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and even after it is finally over, if you find yourself isolated and needing to be social more, volunteering with others is a great way to do it and will be sorely needed due to economic and health needs that people will need help with.

What you need to avoid is getting too comfortable with the increasing automation of our society, which will make it harder to deal with anyone face to face, for better or worse. Even if you do leave the house, it’s becoming likelier that you’ll deal with an automated register at a convenience store or supermarket, an ATM at a bank, and with a touchscreen to order food. With just a smartphone alone, you can order groceries delivered to your door, get dry cleaning picked up for you, have prescriptions delivered, food for lunch and dinner, and also most consumer items with a conglomerate like Amazon or Alibaba. The eCommerce industry is set to grow exponentially in this young decade to suit consumer needs and with the rise of Internet of Things, your home will become more adjustable to your comforts too making it harder to leave your place.

Whether it is UberEats, HelloFresh, Amazon’s prescription service (coming soon), online banking, or Zoom for teleconferencing, the pandemic has accelerated wide shifts in society and one that becomes more evident each day is how much easier it is getting to stay at home 24 / 7. Again, after the pandemic, this may let up a bit as people socialize again but the automation of jobs will continue, remote working will become the norm, and online education will become cheaper and of better quality to suit those who want to be virtual for at least part of their higher learning.

I don’t encourage people to become hermits, recluses, or to avoid human contact with anyone who is not a family member or a friend even if it’s during a pandemic with safety precautions in mind. However, the societal shift to convenience at any cost and becoming an island to oneself does have a cost. While you may love your dog Fido or your cat Fifi, they are not substituting for other people. With increased convenience comes a cost like anything else and in this case, it’s our ability to socialize and be around others.

In a post-COVID world where automation, eCommerce, and the Internet of Things will make it harder to leave your home, you are going to need to be more proactive in seeking out activities, events, and groups where you can be free to meet new people and have new friends. We will all be socially awkward after the pandemic but at least we’ll be social again and I promise it will be worth the effort.

While you’re not going to be friends with most of the people we meet, it is important to be open to the possibility and to put yourself out there again. Staying at home with your delivered food, groceries, and prescriptions may be really appealing and easy to get used to but I promise after a while, you’ll miss the feeling of going to a physical store or a pharmacy and just being in a public place again and away from your screen(s). That’s a unique feeling that I hope never truly goes away because our daily interactions, somewhat mundane but potentially unique too, can help make our life that much fuller and richer.

English Corner – The Building Blocks of Reading Materials

“When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits.”

When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits. It is a necessary complement to your learning and will help flex that muscle needed to retain both the grammar and the vocabulary that can drive your overall proficiency forward. It is not so much which reading material you choose but the fact that it should be appropriate for your reading level as a whole.

For example, it would not make sense to try something very difficult because you think you will advance that much quicker. Often times, if you go beyond your reading level in English, it will often cause an unnecessary step back and you will waste precious time in trying to understand a level of vocabulary and grammar that you are not yet ready for. It is often better to be err on the side of caution in terms of selecting multiple reading materials that you find yourself comfortable with and will challenge you yet you know for sure what the material is about and you can interpret the meaning and explain it to a teacher or a colleague.

If you are a beginner in the English language, I would start off your reading adventure with short poems and short stories, not more than a couple hundred words. Even if you are an adult as well, children’s books are a great way to get more familiar with the language level that you are currently at with basic vocabulary, phrases, and grammar principles. You may also want to read fliers and short email examples as well to become aware of the structure of those forms of writing.

I would also recommend short letters written about different subjects such as sports, weather, the daily habits someone has, and about going shopping or out to eat. It is key to read these short pieces of writing twice or three times to really understand the full meaning of what is being written. You may also want to read the story, the poem, or the letter out loud to work on your own pronunciation too to feel more comfortable absorbing the vocabulary that you are learning. A beginner should not be reading anything more than a few pages in length and at a very low vocabulary level. Preferably, a children’s book, a short email, or a quick poem are best for beginners in this sense.

For the intermediate learner, it is important to challenge yourself more and depending upon one’s age level, there are different options to consider. I encourage students who are younger to choose comic books, short stories, and even short mystery novels as well. Older students may enjoy reading magazines about sports, news, and even fashion depending upon their interests. I also encourage becoming more familiar with reading current events and news articles and being able to explain them to the teacher or to a friend.

Adding on to the difficulty means reading longer reading passages as well as longer letters or poems as well at any age group. You want to make sure that the reading level is higher so instead of at a 1st or a 3rd grade level, you should try to read materials that are at a 5th or an 6th grade level and perhaps up to an 8th grade level. Perhaps most importantly, at the Intermediate level, you should be able to hold a conversation about the topic you just read and to explain the main ideas and supporting ideas of the piece you read. Lastly, with your vocabulary, I would encourage being able to explain too your point of view for an article, what you thought about it.

The advanced learner should be at the point where they can read full books, magazines, and longer-form pieces of writing of at least a few thousand words or more. They should be able to understand and interpret vocabulary at the high school level. Depending upon which English-speaking culture they would like to learn more about, they should do their best to become familiar with writers of different backgrounds and be able to read successfully in a few genres, both fiction and non-fiction.

Reading and interpreting different kinds of texts that deal with different subjects and modern-day issues is also a key part of advancing in the English language. You should be a flexible enough reader at this point to be able to handle different types of reading that is longer than the other levels. From a 500-word poem to a 2500-word article to a 100-page book, being able to handle these types of reading at a high level will set you apart from the beginner or intermediate levels that you used to be at.

Another key to this advanced reading level is one’s ability to speak and write about what you just read with accuracy and by utilizing some advanced vocabulary and phrases learned from these reading exercises. If the professor or teacher were to assign you a persuasive, narrative, or argumentative essay for you to write about your reading assignment, you should feel comfortable by this point in doing so across a number of genres.

‘Building blocks’ take time to assemble and the same goes for building up your reading prowess. Again, it is necessary to start slow with short forms of writing from poetry to a short story to a quick email and then work your way up to a long article or a magazine and then on to the full novel or book that may take a month or two to finish. Getting better at reading in English is a key skill to have and is necessary to boost your proficiency and to do so in a comprehensive manner. It is not only true that your reading skills will get better the more consistent and driven you are with each page but your speaking skills should also improve and your writing abilities will be complemented if you can analyze, interpret, and describe what you have just written in your own words.

Patience is a virtue and reading are the biggest part of that quality when it comes to developing your English language skills. You may show quicker gains with speaking or writing but the long-term success of your English proficiency will be determined about how well you read, how you understand the reading, and what you can tell others about what you have read.

Taughannock Falls

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Taughannock Falls State Park; Ithaca, New York

Cornell Botanical Gardens

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cornell University; 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?