Latest Reading: The Nature Fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative

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I loved Florence Williams’s book about how wilderness and nature are good for human physical and mental health. She travels the world talking to researchers who are trying to pinpoint, why time spent in a forest, desert, beach or even a park, lowers our blood pressure, helps us think, lifts our mood, alleviates symptoms of mental illness, etc.

The chapters are varied. I particularly like the idea of “forest bathing” shinrin yoku that is popular in Japan and Korea. It hearkens back to a time before penicillin and the cure for tuberculosis was going out to a spa or retreat and taking in the healthy air. Although now, scientists are looking for what triggers these outcomes. One researcher showed how spraying cypress tree oil on someone, immediately lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. What other oils do trees and plants give off that are beneficial to us?

Different cultures view the healthful impact of nature in different ways. The Finns, who live in the most heavily forested country in Europe (74%)  really get into the woods, with the idea of metsan peitto, which means a deep surrender to the forest. I also like jokamiexhenoikeus which means that anyone can go on anyone else’s forested land to pick mushrooms, berries or to camp. Nature is that important to the collective good, that ownership of land cannot deny people having access to it. She came to the same conclusion I did about Singapore which has a lot of nature, but it is mostly artificially set there and controlled. With more people living in cities today on earth than ever before and the allure of games and screens, getting unplugged and out into nature is more important than ever.

Williams describes how time spent in nature can help everyone from former soldiers with PTSD to students with ADD/ADHD, etc. There is a chapter about walking in nature and how it helps creativity and thinking.

She ends the book with the idea of a nature pyramid, similar to the food pyramid. It is the recommended allowances of nature that humans need for optimal health.

daily – nearby nature – birds/trees/fountains in our neighborhoods – pets/houseplants, architecture that allows for natural light, fresh air, patches of blue sky

weekly – outings to parks and waterways where sounds of city recede; 1 hour per week, the larger and wilder the park the better

monthly – forests, state parks, etc.

yearly – multiple days in a wilderness; backcountry hiking and camping; kayaking, etc.

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Counting Sheep (err Major League Baseball Cities)

I suffer from insomnia often, waking up in the middle of the night and I cannot get back to sleep. I seem to be getting more of it as I get older. I’ve been experimenting with ways of calming my mind of all of the tasks I have to do and my concerns. One method I use is going through mentally,  lists with sporting themes.

Last night the topic was Major League Baseball and I was comparing the American and National League cities. I took the perspective of a player and considered which set of cities would be more enjoyable to visit and play in. I took into account the quality of the team, the history of the stadium, attractions the city has to offer, etc. I came to the conclusion that is slightly better to have a predominately American League schedule. I rated the American League East and Central over the National league’s East and Central divisions. The National League West would be better than the American League. For example, traveling to San Diego, Denver and Phoenix, in my opinion, is more interesting than playing in Dallas, Houston and Seattle.

I then made my ideal league from this perspective. What would be the ultimate League schedule? I came up with the following:

Kralovec League

East Division – Boston, New York (Yankees), Toronto, Washington and Miami

Central Division – Milwaukee, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis, Detroit, Minnesota (I am biased towards the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region where I am from.)

West Division – Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego, Seattle, Colorado, San Francisco

 

Latest Reading: Lincoln in the Bardo

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During my week in China, I read George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), a Man Booker Prize winner. I love historical fiction and in one way, the book fulfilled this. The story centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who succumbed from typhoid fever in the first year of Lincoln’s presidency at the start of the Civil War. Lincoln had my parenting style, smothering them with love and trying to give them as many moments of joy and life experience as possible. For him to lose his son at age 11, I totally sympathized with him. Saunders fixes on a report of Lincoln going into the mausoleum where his son was buried after the funeral to see him one more time. The author uses historical accounts to give context to his son’s death. I didn’t realize that Lincoln faced so much criticism about his parenting, his handling of the war, etc. Human nature hasn’t changed much in the past 150 years as evidenced by the criticism of the president today.

The other half of the book is a ghost story. “Bardo” is a Buddhist concept (Saunders is a Buddhist) similar to the Catholic purgatory. Saunders tells the stories of the many ghosts stuck in the bardo of the cemetery in Washington DC where Willie Lincoln  was interred. The ghosts think back to their lives and deny to themselves that they are dead. It took me awhile to get into the rhythm of the book as it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative. Saunders quotes the various ghosts and they tell each other’s stories. Then there are chapters of historical research where he quotes journals of Lincoln’s contemporaries.

It was an entertaining read but the unorthodox writing style of Saunders lessened the enjoyment for me.

I always try to pick some words to add to my vocabulary that I found in the book. They are as follows:

  • consternation – feeling anxious or dismayed at an unexpected event
  • predilection – a preference or special liking for something
  • tarry – to delay or be tardy in acting or doing

Latest Reading: Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown

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This is the third book I’ve read by Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian novelist. He is most well known for his 1988 book, Satanic Verses, which depicts some irreverent aspects of the historical life of  Islam prophet Muhammad. The leader of Iran at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or execution order. He became a free speech advocate and is still alive today.

Shalimar the Clown, published in 2005, is the story of a murder in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. He goes back through the lives of the people involved leading up to the event. Most of the book takes place in the disputed northern Indian region of Kashmir where the murderer is from, but also sections of the book are set in World War II France, Delhi and Los Angeles.

As an older, well-traveled person, I now understand most of Rushdie’s references to places and events. That was not the case when I read his books twenty years ago. I really enjoy the details and the breadth of cultures covered in this book. I do not like his tendency to include elements of magical realism in the story, similar to Latin American writers. I prefer my fiction to be plausible.

Reading novels is becoming less common with the advent of the internet. However, I like to unwind from screens and it calms my brain to reflect on the details of the story. It helps me fall back to sleep when my mind is racing with the many tasks I have to worry about as a head of school and a father of three children. Because of the complex plot and interweaving events and characters, it was the perfect book to make me sleepy.

Some parts of the book were a little tedious, specifically the mythology of Kashmir, the there was plenty of action and plot twists to keep me reading. I wonder why none of Rushdie’s books have been made into movies. This would make a good one, especially since it deals with some themes that resonate today, including terrorism, ethnic conflict and migration.

 

 

Book Review: Falling Leaves – The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

 

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courtesy of Amazon.com

 

(contains spoiler alerts)

I am reading a lot about China lately, in preparation for my trip to Beijing in March. Adeline Yen Mah’s memoir tells the story of her growing up in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Her mother died in giving birth to her, the fifth child. Adeline’s father remarried to a stereotypical wicked, petty and domineering stepmother. Her stepmother had two more children that were favored. Adeline was neglected and barely tolerated, spending years in a Catholic boarding school, before being sent to England. She made a successful life for herself and finished medical school there and eventually having a successful practice in California. The stories of the relationships with her four siblings, parents, aunts, nephews, etc. over the years was engrossing. Now that I have reached an age that I can look back on the choices I have made, I see consequences of choices. The members of her family are very cruel and cold-hearted to each other often. She suffered a lot of abuse and you can see the effects on her as she goes through her life. Having a safe and happy start in life is so important for children.

The setting of the book is pre-World War II in China. The slow takeover of the country by the communists was devastating for millions of people. Many escaped to Hong Kong, like her family, but other stayed, thinking that things would be OK. How wrong they were! The book ends in the 1990s, so it is truly an epic tale of a family. Adeline overcame a lot in her life. Besides a tough childhood, she went experienced racism, sexism and a tough divorce. Through it all, she remained dignified and true to herself. I also was touched by her relationship with her aunt and the strong nostalgia of childhood. I get that feeling when I return my home village of Caspian, Michigan. She felt the same in the streets of Shanghai. A childhood that seems so far away from where I am today. Mine was so much happier than hers of course, but she had good moments too.

If you want to get a better sense of China and a good family generational story, I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: American War – A Novel

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Omar El Akkad is a Canadian/Egyptian journalist who has worked in Afghanistan, Egypt, Guantanamo Bay among other places. He has taken his experiences and imagined if much of what he saw occurred in the USA and not the Middle East. He sets the second American Civil War in the years 2075-2095. Climate change and rising seas has wiped out the population centers on the east and west coast, Florida is gone and people have moved inland, causing much strife. The states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have been cut off from the rest of the country. Violent storms, drought, and biological warfare have wiped out modern advancements in our society. That is one of his messages, that war and conflict push back societies back in time. He applies things he has seen in the Middle East during his reporting and moved them to the USA. There are refugee camps, suicide bombers being radicalized by elders, drones, etc. The Middle Eastern countries have united into the Bouazizi Empire, and they act to keep the American Civil War going, meanwhile, living in a comfortable, well-functioning economy.

Another of the points I think El Akkad is trying to get across, is that with the same conditions as countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, etc., Americans would act as they do there today. Human nature is the same everywhere. He was trying to show how people become radicalized and the damage that detention camps like Guantanamo have on people.

It is a good story and I wanted to read it to the end. I won’t give away plot details, but for me, it was a page-turner. I thought some of the premises were a bit unbelievable, however, the story made me consider what impact climate change will have on us and the strong political divisions currently in our nation.

 

Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging – A book review

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I read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, on the trip from the east coast to Chicago. He is famous for his book The Perfect Storm which was made into a movie in the late 90s. I saw his excellent Afghanistan war documentary, Restrepo. The book is almost a long essay at 158 pages, perfect for a day of travel. The book resonated with me and gave me plenty to think about. Although a bit simplistic, he does make a strong argument for his point of view and the writing is clear and concise.

My big takeaway is the importance of community for our happiness. It is fundamental to our happiness to have a greater interest than ourselves and have intimate, close relationships with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, clients, customers, etc. Junger asserts that our modern, Western lifestyle disrupts community and relationships. He takes the point of view of returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent a year embedded with troops and experienced the intense camaraderie that comes from living together in a stressful situation.  The affluent and urbanized society the troops come home to is nothing like they experienced in the military.

Junger goes on to give many examples and statistics, things like the high incidences of mental illness (depression, loneliness, poor health) that are symptoms of us putting extrinsic values over intrinsic ones. Our long evolution of communal, tribal living, sharing our life with extended family in dangerous environments, has shaped what makes us human.

The book details American colonists preferring to live with the Native Americans over staying in their rigid societies, or despite seeing their community being destroyed, the residents of Sarajevo missing the intensity and close connections the siege created during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Junger was a war journalist for many years.) He sees the current Republican versus Democrat divide as the tribe wanting all members to contribute to the common good of all balanced with the need to help those who cannot take care of themselves.

The book inspired me to promote closer relationships in my work as the head of an international school. Teachers sharing ideas, frustrations, accomplishments with each other in what can be an isolating profession. Teachers going beyond the normal classroom instruction and truly getting to know their students and their parents. Reaching out to parents to help them raise their children in this age of personal technology and access to so much information, good and bad. And most importantly, all school stakeholders keeping the interest of others and the school community first. If we are all looking out for one another, all of us individually will be happier.