James Brenner

Learner, Go-Getter, Brother

Summer 2018 Recap

Now that it’s officially fall I guess I should finally post about what I completed this summer. Sorry for the informality, but I have an exam tomorrow sooooo…

Travels:

Pleasure:

  • Read 10 books! A summer record for sure
  • Watched the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy with my friend Kyle
  • Watched all 8 Harry Potters with Kyle (we like movies lol)
  • Learned a song on Piano
  • Hiking excursion (A story for another day)

Others Worth Mentioning:

  • Frequent visitor at Planet Fitness for the months of July and August
  •  Began and stuck with Spanish lessons via Italki
  • Worked as a teller (had some funny interactions with members struggling to operate the drive thru tubes)
  • Made some good memories with the fam

 

While my plan for the summer of ’18 was pretty ambitious, I think overall I accomplished a lot of notable things and am mostly satisfied with the progress that I made on my journey towards success.

8 Things to Keep in Mind as I turn 19

It is reassuring having goals. I never have to worry about wondering aimlessly through life. A clear, direct path lies straight ahead. There isn’t a problem as long as I just take the necessary steps to move forward.

This summer, I have not lost sight of my path. Instead, I have hit a point where things have become a routine. The reasoning behind my actions—and subsequent meaning of that action—has faded into the hum drum of life. I hate it. I feel stuck on my journey to success.

As a new semester rolls around, and as I enter into my 19thyear, now is the time to reinvigorate my strong work ethic—complementing it with a fresh sense of profound awareness. Below is a list of 8 reminders to help cultivate this motivated awareness that I wish to carry.

  1. We define our own success

What does it mean to be successful? I cannot tell you that! Only you can answer that for yourself. In our society, we see distinguished celebrities and big shots that have become successful. It is very easy to look at them, marvel at their path, and put your thumb down saying that’s what success looks like! If I just do everything they did, then I’ll be successful. Too many times this line of thinking has led me down the wrong path.  From now on, the only success I pursue shall be clearly outlined by me and no one else!

  1. Focus on one thing at a time

Check out my Summer 2018 plan post. It’s quite ambitious. I overestimated the amount I could successfully juggle. Traveling, reading, writing, Spanish, piano, gym/nutrition, working 3-4 days a week on top of an online calculus class??? Yeah, something had to give. (No hesitation math was first). The things I let slip impacted me in a negative way. It felt like I was failing and making no progress since I had planned so much. In truth, this summer has been a big step forward: much more consistency in regard to working-out and nutrition, tons of fun traveling, and lots of great reading. But still, that feeling of failure, of not doing enough, haunts me.

  1. Nurture, not deplete

Nurture instead of depleting resources is a philosophy normally adopted by caring environmentalists about Mother earth. But, keep in mind, we are inseparable from our planet. This mindset can be applied to daily behavior and emotions, and I hope to do so more in this next year. My actions, words, and relationships should be reciprocal, not extractive. I should always try to give more than I take, and if for some reason I do need to take, then I always should try to regenerate or nourish whatever it is that I took.

  1. Stay humble

It is easy to boast. Our culture celebrates winners—casting aside those whose efforts fall short. When we accomplish a goal or reach a milestone, it is healthy to feel joy at the obstacle you have overcome. However, if this joy turns into excessive pride, and one starts to inflate his or her accomplishments beyond their worth, they will only create a hollow gap between their true self and how they really act. I want to live in unity with my true self. This requires modesty and letting go of the opportunities to rub it in people’s faces—as tempting as they are.

  1. Don’t be weighed down by the negativity of others

Who we surround our self with matters. Their mannerisms, way of thinking, and habits will rub off on us with enough time. If surrounded by complainers and Negative Nelly’s, everything will become half empty. The only problem with that advice is that it’s just not possible to be around only positive people 24/7, given the amount of cynicism in the world. There will always be people at work who will not shut up about how much they want to quit this monotonous office job. Or, maybe it’s a family member who never seems to be satisfied with things. As healthy as it would be, there’s no escaping all of the negativity in the world. Often times, I fall prey or even contribute to the storm cloud of negativity that rains on so many people. It does me no good; yet, when there is too much of it around, I always get wet.  I must remain positive in the face of negativity, and I hope to brighten others up along the way.

  1. Dare to be different

If you haven’t noticed, I am not a fan of a lot of the values society pushes. I dislike doing things a predetermined way, especially if it has been laid out many times before and forced upon you by someone else. We must blaze our own trails. I need to keep this in mind and ask God for the courage to always be myself.

  1. Act only with compassion

The moment my action is driven by anything other than a heartfelt compassion is a time of great alarm. Love and a commitment to helping others is the anchor in my life. If I act only for myself—or even worse—hurt another person, then something is really wrong.

  1. Appreciate, Appreciate, Appreciate,

The road to success is not paved solely by me. It is too easy to take for granted all of the amazing people that have supported me along my voyage. Sometimes (and you can verify this with my closest family members) I get too focused on my work and leave no time for what is most important: faith, family, friends—or the three F’s as I like to call them.

 

I have noticed that in the past couple of months, things have really seemed to fly by. My friends were all busy with work; my family occupied by whatever they had on their plate. Less and less time has been devoted to quality, joyous existence. I don’t know if that’s what happens with age, or this summer was just a strange anomaly. All I know is that I am getting older, and my time is being spread thinner than melting butter on hot toast. Time is a valuable thing. It is admirable to devote a lot of it to pursuing our goals, or to things that will make us successful. But, if our goals consume every ounce of our time, and we don’t ever step back and fallow the moment, our finite years are drained faster and faster from our limited hourglasses—and with less meaning too.

 

Last Thursday was the first time all summer that I laid outside and watched fluffy white cotton balls pass up above. No work haunted my eager brain, and more importantly, no stress pressed upon my temples from my sporadic inaction. The first true breath of summer. In that brief hiatus, everything was bright and warm. Tension flowed out of every limb—absorbed by the arms and roots of my oak neighbors. If for some reason my feeble mind fails to remember anything from the list above, let me accept and embrace being. I can put a thousand things on my plate, maybe even accomplish one or two of them, but if I want to smile on my journey I can never forget the beauty of looking up and knowing just how small we really are.

 

There Goes Democracy

Democracy. Most Americans praise the word; they treat it like a prized possession, but do people really understand its depth? Or the surprising reality that we do not live in a fully democratic country? The United States is technically a constitutional federal representative democracy. Don’t get overwhelmed by the complex array of names for our way of governance. For the simplicity of this post, we are going to focus in on the U.S. being a representative democracy. The power lies in the people’s ability to elect representatives. It is not a direct democracy where the people are the ones actually making policy decisions. Direct democracy would be incredibly challenging to sustain in America because of our vast size and huge scale. Numerous countries across the globe have adopted similar structures of government (a lot of times because we forced them to or we had heavy influence in the process). Staples of American democracy are present in the regions of Latin American, Southeast Asia, and even parts of Africa. However, many of these democracies have failed and lead to horrifying dictatorships. Why do democracies fail? What are some leading indicators of democratic breakdown? Could control of the U.S. ever fall into the hands of an authoritarian? All of these questions were explored in Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies DieA book I read throughout my time in Honduras.

These two Harvard professors have been studying Democratic breakdown for 15 plus years. In order to examine if the U.S. is on the same path as states like Venezuela or 1940’s Argentina, they devised a litmus test full of common red flags and first steps that would-be authoritarian administrations have taken. The four big markers are:

 

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

(How Democracies Die, 23-24)

As I sat on the plane ride back from Honduras—reading this work about institutional design and the slippery slope to totalitarianism—I began to draw parallels. Applying Levitsky’s Litmus Test, I examined the country I was departing from. In the Honduran Constitution, every president can only serve one four-year term. This past winter, their supreme court (which happens to be packed with presidential loyalists) amended the constitution so as to support another term for President Juan Orlando Hernández. After his reelection, people were upset. Angry crowds took to the streets. Catratchos (what people of Honduras call themselves) howled and demanded for change. President Hernández sent riot police—not change or liberty. 38 citizens lost their lives and 20 more were injured. The protesters were silenced. Hernández’s power has only increased as his threat of violence and harsh restrictions on media outlets have discouraged any substantial social action.

Speaking with one local from Tegucigalpa, he told me that “We don’t like him (Hernández), but there’s nothing we can do. We just have to carry on and hope things get better.” The sentiment seems to be shared by many of the country’s inhabitants. The risk is too great to speak up, and the institutional barriers to constrain power have eroded away.

Hernández has shown no appreciation for democratic norms. He has managed to hang onto his power by changing the rules. Levitsky and Ziblatt warn us throughout their book of this new subtlety of which democracies perish. Authoritarianism does not happen in one fatal coup anymore. Nowadays, it is a more slow, painful death. Often times, leaders will be elected fairly. Campaigning as the people’s hero who plans to fix all of their problems, would-be dictators enjoy a frenzy of public support. Then, after taking office, things change. They start acting without precedent, discrediting the democratic process, and taking steps to ensure their further control. It may not appear this way on the surface—framing is a key tool employed by government officials to distract the everyday citizen’s attention away from what’s really going on. But, by the time the premeditated act is unraveled, it will often be too late, the dictator’s power already too formidable.

We got the power

Don’t be cynical but be cautious. Think deeper and go beyond the plush words politicians use to frame their own wrongdoing. As the former gatekeeping role of political parties wane, the ultimate line of defense between an authoritarian and unlimited power is the 376 million Americans who hold institutions accountable via elections and social movements. As we have seen, rules can change (including a constitution). We must choose our leaders with care and a watchful eye. If they fail to represent our democratic values, no hesitation can be spared to the idea and action of removing them from office. The responsibility lies in our hands.

 

Global Brigades Legal Empowerment Trip May 2018

“Do you care about human rights?”

“Yes, I do!” Answering the leading question rather rapidly.

Little did I know that night at the winter involvement fair how much time and effort I would commit to this club—even traveling over 1,000 miles to a foreign country. But after that first interaction with our president, I haven’t looked back.

When I first learned about venturing to Honduras to provide legal empowerment for poor, rural communities I was intrigued and jumped on the opportunity. A semester of meetings prepared us for the week-long service excursion. We spent hours learning more about Global Brigades, the national organization we were working through, and their holistic model of sustainability.

Throughout the next 10 or so weeks, the trip slid on my list of priorities due to the duress of incoming papers and exams. By the end of the school year—when pesky assignments were no more—it really hit me that I was about to leave my country, my comfort zone, and work with people enduring much more challenging situations than me.

Boarding the plane, my emotions were a mix of nerves and excitement. I honestly was bringing few expectations—doing my best to keep an open mind. This was probably because I hadn’t had the chance to engage in my bad habit of overthinking. Decisions and new situations often occupy my mind with the refusal to leave until every outcome has been carefully turned over. Employing hindsight bias and writing this post a couple of weeks after my trip, I believe it was very beneficial that I went into this life changing experience holding no preconceived notions—allowing me to remain as understanding as possible.

After being squeezed in the middle seat for seven hours, the airplane finally touched down. Thirteen of us piled out, confused, eager, and ready to lend a helping hand. We partnered with the University of Missouri. There were six Hoosiers and seven Mizzou Tigers. One could easily tell who attended what university because our groups split like oil in water that first day.

Honduran customs were a breeze. Global Brigades staff members awaited our arrival with a big sign and balloons. It’s weird looking back on it now; I clearly remember seeing the team and questioning how the week would go. We entertained some short, awkward introductions and loaded our luggage into the back of a pickup truck. Herding our group, David—the brigade leader—lead us on to the Global Brigades (GB for short) bus. There we met our translators Juan Carlos and Ylaska (they speak Spanish in Honduras). IU sat towards the front of the bus while Mizzou stayed toward the back. It was gonna be a long hour and a half bus ride to our compound if it was silent the whole way. About 20 minutes in, with Spanish music blaring in the background, I swallowed IU’s pride and turned around to ask the names of our fellow volunteers. This ignited more discussion and just like that we were already at Posada Azul—GB’s compound and our place of residence for the next week.

The compound consisted of four or five spread out buildings. Separated by tall trees and lots of stairs, the sleeping quarters were about 100 yards from the dining hall. I happened to luck out with my sleeping arrangements. Since I was the only guy in the group I had a small room of two bunk beds to myself. This granted me freedom from the early morning shower conflict and eased my fear of waking someone else up. At first, I was a little apprehensive about the lone room, wondering how it would be at night. However, I soon came to realize and appreciate the meditative value it offered. No phone. No distractions. No anxiety. Every night I went to bed in a warm state of contentment and awoke refreshed and ready to make an impact.

We arrived on a Sunday and would stay until the following Saturday. The first day we got acquainted to the compound and went over house rules. We walked to the little tienda (Spanish word for store) that they had on the premises. Hand carved knick-knacks, candy, and a mix of alcohol were the products available for consumption. My group enjoyed spending time by the tienda because outside its door stood a rock ledge that was cozy enough to sit and relax on (although the last night we saw a scorpion scurry across the ledge and I ran like a petrified puppy). Gazing out from the ledge, one is hit with both an indescribable and unpossessable view. Mountains in the distance, roaming fields, sweeping valleys, and tall verdant trees—language lacks the true capacity to capture awe.

Rain likes to follow a pattern in Honduras. It would be sunny and 75 (dry heat no mugginess like the Midwest) from dawn until dusk. Then, about 7 o’clock, it would pour until morning. It was quite peaceful laying down in the simple top bunk. The rain glazed the thin zinc roof above. A thousand thoughts began to swirl in my head that first night. Where am I? What am I going to be doing this week? A pinch of fear and loneliness crept in, but they were quickly drowned out by the soft pitter-patter of water and overwhelming amount of tiredness a full day of travel brings.

I woke up energized like never before. Sunshine seeped through the crack in the door, its light having a contagious effect on my mood and mindset. Eggs scrambled, corn tortillas, and frijoles (beans) complemented the sun rays to fill me with a sustained energy. It was time to begin helping our community.

La Concepcion—a rural, hardworking community of 160 houses—was excited to host us. Upon arrival at the simple, concrete school house, we observed children sweeping and clearing a path of entry for us. It was funny because the grounds consisted of dirt and rocks; we understood that their gesture was a sign of respect.

Everyone’s eyes latched onto us. Most community members have probably never seen so many gringos (a non-offensive term for Americans in Honduras, it can have a negative connotation in other Latin American countries) together at one time. But, smiles spread across the crowd and made our group feel welcomed. A group of about eight adults were the first to formally greet us. All were leaders of the Caja Rual—the name of their community bank. Introducing themselves and describing their responsibilities, the bank leaders put our translators fast to work.

It was then time to start our first legal clinic. Pairing with Honduran lawyers, our group split into two and began providing cost free legal advice. There’s a staggering difference between the U.S. and Latin American countries when it comes to legal accessibility. Hundreds of “call this number if *blank* happened” billboards don’t line the sides of roads. People aren’t familiar with the legal system. Many lawyers are corrupt and steal from needy people. So, the legal clinics we offered Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning were a huge hit. Some of the problems we heard included land registration (an overly complex process that hardly any of the generational farmers have done), name changes, divorces, and a tough case for the Caja Rual regarding a loan where a man disappeared with the money and his collateral he put down happened to be land that guess what…. wasn’t registered. My favorite intake though was a humble middle-aged man who came in wearing a Wrangler hat. He was the successful co-owner of a candy business. The company name was La Fraternidad and it had been in business for over 20 years. He was trying to get copyright of the longtime family significant name. After satisfaction with our help, he returned the next day bringing a large box stuffed to the brim with dulces (sweets). All ingredients were natural. 50 cents for one bag of candy—we bought the man out. He returned home with a wad of American dollars and our group with full bellies and unique goodies to bring back to our families.

After those morning legal clinics, we would eat lunch in an empty classroom. Food consisted of a mix between traditional Honduran dishes and American meals. The cooks at the compound, who made every meal and packed our lunches, were incredible. They were always happy to feed us and listen to our attempts at gratitude in broken Spanish.

In the afternoon of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday we conducted our family cases. Before arriving, GB had selected three cases to work on till completion—more than just legal advice. My case involved a 25-year-old man named Sylvie. Sylvie was trying to obtain custody, or at least joint custody, of his 4-year-old son. He and the mother split up when the child was 2, but they had an agreement where the son got to spend time with both parents. One day—out of the blue—the mother stopped communicating with Sylvie and refused to let him see his son. Additionally, the last time Sylvie did see his son, the child was all scratched up. Sylvie was worried about him and wished for his son to live in a better home. The problem was that Sylvie had no proof he had been paying child support. Our lawyer suggested that he come forward to the court with a joint custody agreement; if the mother refuses to cooperate, then try for full custody. We felt confident with Sylvie’s chances and are still waiting on an update from GB.

Thursday was a bit different than our first three days in the community. Instead of doing single person legal advice, we gave a charla (chat) to the whole community. In the morning we talked to the kids about bullying. After lunch, we spoke to the adults about domestic violence. The children were sweet and wild. Hard to control, they played during most of the lesson. When it came time to talk with the adults, my group members were a little nervous about how things would go given the sensitive nature of the issue at hand. We decided it be best to split up the adults into a male and a female group. This would provide the women a safe, non-threatening environment and give them the chance to speak up about anything they felt comfortable enough to share. Since I was the only guy, my group thought it appropriate that I lead the Men’s charla. Fortunately, and to my surprise, the men were very educated and progressive in their understanding of domestic violence. They comprehend the depth of the issue, what to do if you observed it happening, and the fact that it can happen to a man as well. We then proceeded to talk about stereotypes. I asked them what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They started out saying how a man is strong, tough, hardworking, and provides for his family. But, one guy in the front spoke up and said that women can be all of those things too. Happiness rushed over me. These men, many miles from the states, had a more open mind then a lot of stubborn Americans.

It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to our new friends. We thanked them for their generosity and welcoming attitudes. They were very appreciative of the work we did and pleaded with us to come back one day.

My buddies!!

Friday, our last full day, was spent in Tegucigalpa—the capital city of Honduras. Exploring various court rooms, a broader picture of the multifaceted legal system formed in our minds. We sat across from some of the brightest new abogados (lawyers), listening intently as their passion for law bled through case descriptions. Nesto, the head lawyer who had been traveling with us for the entirety of the week, leveraged his occupation and managed to get us a tour of the Honduran Supreme Court! Two grandiose rooms: one for work and one for notary examinations (a prestigious position in Honduras that only the most knowledgeable lawyers try to obtain). On the way out of the Supreme Court sector, we even caught a glimpse of the President’s office.

“Group 7 please board now”

The time to leave had already come. A week of joy, challenge, thought, and empathy passed quickly before me. No, that’s incorrect. It did not pass by me, like I was simply going through the motions. The week, every day, it was not dreariness. I was fully alive, deeply connected. My mind functioned on an intellectually high scale. Awareness—self and social—clarified my thoughts, helping me understand more of it, more of the Human story. How do I bring this back? I want to live like this forever, always being challenged, always serving, doing good for others by pushing my physical and intellectual limits. How do I bring this back?

Not an easy task. One I began contemplating on that melancholic plane ride; one I have been trying to wrap my head around for almost a month now. There seems to be a wide chasm between the experience and my life here—two separate people. It is hard to persevere when the overwhelming guilt of privilege and stagnation boggle me down. I know it’s a process; I also know that there are many ways to help in my local community, but the feeling that possessed me throughout the week in Honduras was powerful and unifying. Heck, it was more than a feeling! Mindset maybe? Whatever the word is, trips like this one guide me closer to the person I want to be. I hope to bring my experience with me always and let it shine through in every interaction—even if it’s just a friendly smile.

Comprehensive Summer Plan

Every student anticipates their last class or final exam—anxiously waiting to be free from school obligations and to enjoy some warm weather. When that day finally comes, it’s less pure than one thinks. Don’t get me wrong; it’s extremely exciting. I cannot stop smiling and thinking about being home without stress. But, a tad bit of sadness surrounds my thoughts. Freshman year of college has come and gone. What a ride! Filled with many ups, downs, and transitions, I believe it has made me a better person, and I hope to continue this momentum into these next couple of months.

That’s always been a problem with my past summers though. I am a person who enjoys structure because it gives me direction. Throughout the school year, there’s a definite structure established. When summer rolls around, that clarity vanishes. I have often given myself goals to achieve in the summer, but I make little to no progress because they are too flimsy and come with no commitment. The purpose of this post is to build a comprehensive summer plan that will hold me responsible for my own progress.

Reading

I love to read. I always aspire to read more because I believe its value is priceless. My past summer reading attempts have stretched from super unorganized reading just when I feel like it, to micromanaged calculations of how long it takes me to read a page. None of my previous endeavors have garnered much success. This summer I am going to try something different. This summer I am going to switch my mindset and build consistency. I will simply read 25 pages every day and track my reading in a spreadsheet. Sounds easy enough right? It is much simpler than trying to approximate how many words I can read in three months, and it builds more consistency than randomly picking up a book when it is convenient for me.

Writing

Similar to reading, my summer efforts to write have always been abysmal. Most of the time, I would have a very strong initial push on whatever project occupied my mind. Then, after a week or so, my efforts would fizzle out, and I would grow lethargic. Not anymore. My goal is to write for 1 hour every day. Writing is an essential skill to have for any career. The only way to get better at it is through practice and feedback.

Water

Drinking a glass of water immediately when you wake up has loads of benefits. I want to make this a habit. Often I won’t drink water until much later in the day, causing dehydration and decreased cognitive capabilities.

Health and Fitness

Right now, we’re currently in the craze phase of fitness. Everyone who has been putting off training now comes to the realization that their vacation is only a couple of weeks away. They start doing insane “quick-fixes” and overload their diet and workout regimen. I have succumbed to this craze numerous times. As much as we’d like to think so, it’s not sustainable. It will not guarantee lifestyle changes. I want a program that will prepare me for the rest of my life—not one beach vacation.

In order to gain lean muscle mass and set PR’s, you need to be training off of a solid foundation. Good form and correct posture are absolutely essential for progress. If your form/alignment is out of whack, then your body will compensate and reallocate muscle tension. This leads to no gains and a high chance of injury. For as long as I can remember, I have been out of alignment. My poor posture causes me to compensate and put excess strain on other areas of my body like my low back and neck. It is a sore subject because of how much of a struggle things have been; poor posture has not only stripped me of my confidence, but also of my strength. I must build a better foundation for my body to work off of. Postural change is quite difficult because of how habitual it is. My body has been trained to slump for 18 years; now, I want to fix that. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s gonna take a ton of effort to change my habits. Also, I have to set my ego aside. I want to hit the gym hard and get high numbers, but my frail foundation will only ensure greater difficulties down the line. Small weights and accessory lifts are necessary to getting that better form. I must isolate my movements and eliminate compensations. My goal is to follow my workout/postural strengthening routine and couple it with a meal plan (goodbye greasy dining hall food).

Job

I will be working a few days a week to help pay for college and save up some money for my travels.

Classes

I plan on taking two summer classes in order to knock out some GenEd requirements:

  • Brief Calculus
  • Macroeconomics

Summer Trips

  • Honduras Global Brigades Legal Empowerment Service Trip
  • Family Vacation
  • Ashville, North Carolina
  • Hiking East Fork Lake with my best friend
  • End of summer adventure???? Stay tuned

Other

  • Italki practice speaking Spanish
  • Learning more ways to live sustainably and implementing them into our household
  • Axis and Allies World War One edition with my bro
  • Research companies/internships/scholarships
  • Think about starting a club at IU
  • Investments
  • Clean computer files

Most importantly though are the three F’s: faith, family, and friends. It would be pointless to try to achieve all these goals without the people in my life who make things possible. Going out of state for college makes you realize just how meaningful these people are. When I am home, I never want to take them for granted. I will do my best to balance my goals and making time for the three F’s. They make me truly happy; I am so lucky to have them in my life.

 

Rekindling an Old Friendship

https://naturewriting.com/rekindling-an-old-friendship/

For the next couple of days, my essay “Rekindling an Old Friendship” will be on the front page of Nature Writing Magazine. After that, you can find it in the authors tab under James Brenner.

During my Senior year of high school, I had the privilege of taking a newly established course—Woods and Waters Literature and Poetry. What I learned most from my experience was how to appreciate our natural world. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a guiding text in my life. Norman Maclean’s prose in A River Runs Through It soothes my soul. Nature’s words are calming.

At the end of the course we had to write our own nature essay. My piece focused on human relationships with nature. Specifically, I shared my bumpy story with the environment. We all have obstacles standing in the way of our relationship with nature. For me, it was mostly electronics. Maybe for you it is a 9-5 desk job or living in a very urbanized area. Whatever the setback may be, I encourage everyone to reflect upon one’s own connection with nature. My desire is that the reader of “Rekindling an Old Friendship” will accept where they are in their journey and begin to make small changes to deepen his or her relationship with nature.

“The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” ~HDT

 

 

 

 

 

Image of Harbin Park

Diplomatic Difficulties

Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. Luckily there was no vomit on my collared shirt though. A lot of the times when I have to speak publicly my body begins to lock up. I start blanking on my ideas and dread the thought of making a fool out of myself. Even when it’s a small group of people who I am comfortable with, I still get frightened.

This semester I am taking an International Relations course. The whole premise for the class is learning about international diplomacy. The lessons lead up to the end of the semester simulation with the hopes of applying our knowledge. It’s sort of like model UN. Everyone represents a different country, and we debate on issues. I am representing Costa Rica and am a member of the Latin American regional block. There’s about sixty students in the class, and we were each required to write two resolutions that our government would propose. Then, the Secretary General—played by my teacher—choose twelve out of those 120+ resolutions to go forward for the General Assembly. To my surprise, one of the resolutions I wrote was chosen. I was excited that my writing on Sustainable Development would be discussed, but then it hit me; I would have to speak about this resolution and try to persuade countries to vote for it. The class contains upper level political science majors, how is a freshman supposed to lecture them on why we should pass a resolution about developing more sustainably?

The schedule had me presenting fourth. Last Thursday was the first day of the GA (General Assembly) and it was unclear if I would be going on that day or not. Professor told me about 3-4 resolutions normally get discussed each meeting. So, I had to prep. My nerves were like anchors in my belly. What if I uttered something stupid? Or just completely forgot what I was going to say (which has happened to me multiple times)?

Given the unorganized nature of the first day, we only made it through the first three resolutions. At first, I was relieved, but later I felt more stressed because I would have to worry about it all weekend. Finally, the second meeting rolls around. There’s no questioning whether I am gonna go or not. I am the first one on the chopping block.

The procedure is as follows: the author of the resolution has a couple of minutes to explain the contents and begin to persuade the rest of the states on why they should vote for it. Then, states can ask questions in order to clarify any parts of the resolution or the language used in it. It is important to note that in this time period no leading questions may be asked! A country cannot try to roast the author by asking argumentative based inquires. Following that, the secretary general gets a speakers list of the countries that want to speak for and against the resolution. Debate ensues. After both sides have given two arguments, anyone can propose an amendment. If the amendment is friendly, i.e. the author likes it, then it is automatically added to the resolution. But, if the author does not view it as a friendly amendment, then debate begins solely on the amendment. A new speakers list is created, and states propose arguments until the Secretary General thinks it adequately discussed. The Secretary General then takes a show of hands of the countries in favor of the amendment. After the amendment is either adopted or discarded, the discussion returns to the resolution as a whole. When debate is finished, or we run out of time (which is usually the case), there is a roll call vote on the resolution to determine if it will pass…

“Costa Rica please present your resolution.”

Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy yada yada yada. I took a breath and proceeded. My speech on the resolution itself went fairly well. I only stumbled over a couple of words, and I hit my major talking points. I practiced a lot for that; the real test would be the unpredictable questions posed by upperclassman who go so far as to wear a suit and tie and display their country’s flag on their desk. I took a couple of softballs right off the back—crushed them. I was feeling pretty confident. Then, to my demise, the United States delegate—the previously mentioned displayer of the flag—threw me a curve ball. It was undeniably a leading question, but the Secretary General let it fly, and I was tasked with answering this giant. I cannot even remember what I was asked, but I had to concede a point and consequently expose one of my vulnerabilities. Things were looking glum. But. Out of nowhere, I mustered up the courage to retort the loaded question by denouncing his fixation on a small detail in the resolution. I stated that if we were to entirely dismiss the document on those grounds, then what would that say about the character of our Assembly? He did not respond. I took a couple of more tough questions, and then was finally able to sit down. It was debate time.

Germany rambled on for quite some time denouncing the resolution in a rambling argument that went in circles. Estonia said the resolution would do the opposite of its intention. Finally, Columbia (Go Latin America!) offered some positives and riled up support for the resolution. Backed by Italy and other smaller countries, it appeared as if the resolution had broad support.

The government of Turkmenistan caught me off guard and proposed an amendment—calling for the lessening of sanctions. I declared it unfriendly. Heated debate began. The more authoritative governments were in favor of the amendment, but I believed it would render this resolution useless.

“All in favor raise your hand” called the Secretary General. Only a handful of states cast their votes in favor of the amendment. I breathed a sigh of relief. Two more arguments were heard before the important vote.

Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes…. is how the vote began. Okay wow, this might pass easily. Then, there started to be some No’s and some abstentions. Towards the end, the frequency of No’s picked up. This was gonna come down to the wire.

25-17 with 5 abstentions…The resolution passed! International diplomacy at its finest.

See my resolution here: SUBJECT OF RESOLUTION

 

 

 

Image URL: (http://www.dmu.ac.uk/study/courses/postgraduate-courses/diplomacy-and-world-order-ma-degree/diplomacy-and-world-order-ma.aspx)

Worldly Philosophizing and The End of Economics?

One or two years ago I purchased the book. Walking around the unkempt shelves at Half Price Books, the red stripe and notable faces stuck out to me. “The Worldly Philosophers” what could that mean? Intrigued by the title I began to glance over the back cover. An exploration into the development of economic thought—enthralling.

$7.99 was exchanged for this durable good. With a list price of $18.00, I reaped the benefits of a system granting the consumer the ability to purchase used goods at a lower price point than original market value. Excited by the utility of my new good, I left the shop.

Idle it would sit for a year and a half.

Spring break would call me back. I surely did not plan on reading it—actually I planned on a much different book—but, something inside of me told me to knock the dust off of that crimson striped cover. Introductions and first chapters have always been a struggle for me. I saw my notes splattered across the first few pages, ones I had made a year and a half ago. In the early stages of a book, my desire to quit reading is high. I am vulnerable to the idea of setting it down. Sometimes I just cannot get into a book; sometimes my expectations interfere with my focus; sometimes I just can’t stop thinking that I could be reading something else.

Not with this work, I persisted through that initial struggle which was actually relatively nonexistent. I read every word cover to cover—trying my best to absorb every ounce of the sweet tasting knowledge. From David Ricardo to Joseph Schumpeter, the lives and ideas of the great economists were depicted with rich detail that never gave way to boredom. The biography of each thinker provided insight into their ideas, letting me understand a little more where each is coming from. And their ideas, portrayed with economic accuracy, yet not tainted with murky mathematical analysis or academic jargon. Heilbroner neither rushes nor draws out his rhetoric. What amazes me though is the common thread the author weaves between each different thinker—culminating in his conclusion about the destination of economics and what purpose the field serves.

Insights from Specific Thinkers

Smith’s monumental Wealth of Nation’sremains unchallenged as the work that “founded” capitalism. I shall not dwell upon his achievements any further.

The first thinker who changed my outlook on worldly philosophy was actually not an economist, but rather a minister. His name is Thomas Robert Malthus and his theory on population has guided political, economic, and geographical debate for over two centuries. It just so happened to align, that in my geography class—about the environment and society—we were studying his ideas at the same time I was reading the chapter about him in Heilbroner’s book. My teacher was not a fan of the parson. But, if we look further into his background, then we can get a better picture of the origin of his thoughts. Malthus was writing in a time where London streets were teeming with the homeless, destitute, and incredibly impoverished paupers. Malthus believed this eye sore (not mentioning its morality or any humanitarian concern) was a direct result of overpopulation. When there are too many people the strain on the food supply is so great that a certain percentage of the population will starve. To Malthus, population grew exponentially while the food supply grew at a constant slope. At the point when population exceeds the food supply, theoretically, everyone beyond that point would die of starvation.

Though, Malthus knew people were not dying from starvation most of the time; he argued that there were already existing checks on the system that kept us from hitting that catastrophe point. Those checks included misleadingly labeled positive checks—causes of mortality—and preventative checks—barriers to birth. Now, Malthus despised the idea of birth control measures. Instead, he promoted moral restraint. Essentially, the thought behind moral restraint is that a couple would wait to reproduce until much later in life, and most importantly, only if they had the financial means to support their offspring.

Some contemporary critiques throw a wedge between Malthus’s model and his conclusion. For example, Malthus believed the food supply would always grow at a constant rate. He was unaware of the tremendous spike in food production that would arise as a result of the Green Revolution. Because of this agricultural transformation, less and less people have accepted the Malthusian conclusion and have stopped advocating for preventive checks on the population. Sure you have some pockets of neo-Malthusians who call for wide spread contraceptives instead of moral restraint, but the Malthusian catastrophe in its raw form has lost its prominence. Despite all of this, Malthus still appears frequently in academic discourse because of how thorough his ideas are in evaluating the condition of the world. The fundamental question remains: should we put checks on the population or is it okay to let it grow unrestrained?

The next figure I want to discuss is a much less famous thinker even though his ideas par brilliancy. Writing in a time following the glum outlook of Malthus, multiple utopian socialists began to shift more towards optimism. What distinguishes this utopian from his peers was not his writing, but rather his courage and his ability to execute. Robert Owen was an up and coming businessman with radical free-thinking ideas from England. Growing up poor, he dropped out of school at age nine to support his family. 15 or so years later he would purchase a squalid little village with a couple of mills. A decade following that and they would be world famous, entertaining visitors from all walks of life including European Royalty. The community was called New Lanark, and Owen viewed it as a place to apply his far-reaching thoughts. In his factories people were treated with respect—something unheard of at the time. Working conditions were clean and at any time each worker could talk to the boss about concerns they may have. Each family had a neat little house. Children were not rabblerousing on the street. Instead, they were educated in the local schoolhouse where the philosophy was no child’s question can go unanswered and to never punish with physical force. New Lanark was truly a sight to see. Owen’s neglect for a stratified society based on superficial superiority reverberates throughout out my heart: “For Owen was convinced that mankind was no better than its environment and that if the environment was changed, a real paradise on earth might be reached” (110). He believes we have the responsibility—we can make an impact if we set out to do so: “The world is not inevitably good or bad but to the extent that we make it so” (116).

The last great economic thinker I want to discuss is a household name. Deep divisions about his ideas run rampant, spurred on by huge misperceptions shadowing his work. When you hear the name Karl Marx what do you think of? Communism? Evil? USSR? Well, actually, Marx was born in Germany in 1818. Marx’s father was an established lawyer, hoping his son would follow the same path. But Marx was swept up in the philosophical debate engulfing German Universities—Hegel’s dialectic. Marx discussed questions spanning from atheism to theoretical communism. He went onto become a revolutionary journalist. With the help of Fredrick Engels in 1848, Marx published the Manifesto of the Communist Party. It would become known as the Communist Manifesto and would guide insurrections across the globe—most coming posthumously.

Marx’s philosophical and political contributions are outstanding, but the point of the book (and this post) is economics. What Marx did to capitalism will forever go down as the biggest test the free market system has ever faced. He pierced it with his massive four volume Das Kapital. The aim in the work is to prove that Capitalism—even in its ideal form—is by nature flawed. He argues that if the ideal system will eventually collapse, the real system society has will reach its downfall even sooner.

The world of perfect capitalism contains no monopolies, no pesky unions, and no special advantages for anyone. Every good sells at exactly its value, and value is measured as the amount of labor that goes into the production of the good. The two main players in the system are the capitalists and the laborers. Laborers possess labor power. Capitalists are owners, entrepreneurs that compete fiercely with their fellow entrepreneurs: “He must strive for accumulation, for in the competitive environment in which he operates, one accumulates or one gets accumulated” (156).

Here is where Marx exposes the fatal flaw. In a perfect capitalist society, how can there be profits? If everything is selling at exactly its value, then who is making a surplus? “No one dares to raise his price above the competitive one, and even if one seller managed to gouge a buyer, that buyer would only have less to spend elsewhere in the economy—one man’s profit would thus be another man’s loss” (156). Profits come from exploitation.

The last chapter of Heilbroner’s magnificent work is oddly titled “The End of Worldly Philosophy?” He reminds us though that end has two meanings: termination or teleological purpose. He explores both. Throughout the different periods of economic history discussed economics changed its definition with each. It once was a way of explaining large societal themes and justifying political regimes. It has formally narrowed its scope. Today, it is so caught up in derivations and scientific verbiage, honing in on such minute details that may or may not be useful. Heilbroner’s definition—which I really enjoy—reminds us to look beyond the price of one apple, to be visionaries: “My answer is that its purpose (economics) is to help us better understand the capitalist setting in which we will most likely have to shape our collective destiny for the foreseeable future” (319).

Economics doesn’t have to be watered down to numbers and formulas. If we can enlarge and deepen our worldly philosophy, focusing more on the social aspects of capitalism, then economics can play a valuable role in the 21stcentury.

 

Image URL: (https://www.amazon.com/Worldly-Philosophers-Economic-Thinkers-Seventh/dp/068486214X)

 

Speakers List

Image result for ted

Equally important as the written word is the spoken word. Engaging with complex ideas presented in an interesting way can motivate and fascinate anyone. After hearing a well prepared, intelligent speaker discuss a topic—even if it is something I have never cared about before—I will definitely be more inclined to further my knowledge on the subject.

One perk of going to a large, research oriented university is being able to listen to many distinguished speakers sharing their cutting edge research and years of scholarly work experience. Throughout this semester, I have attended a lot of fantastic speakers including Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Wes Martin, Tom French, and  Elaine Monagham. Starting from the week of April 9th, I want to record all of the speakers I attend. This will help me remember their ideas and push me to always continue to listen to intelligent people.

Speakers List:

  • Jacqueline Patterson on Climate Justice and Environmental Racism (April 9th, 2018)
  • Doug Noonan “A Rising Tide Lifts Some: Diffusion and Impacts of Community-Scale Flood Management” (April 13th, 2018)
  • Robert Swan “Science, Business, Peace: Antartica” (September 6th, 2018) POST ON THIS COMING SOON!
  • Technological Revolution: With or Without Values? (September 20th, 2018)
  • David Hart “The Seen and Unseen Bastiat” (September 28th, 2018)
  • BERNIE SANDERS (October 19th, 2018)

Podcast Recommendations: (This section is a little different because I listen to a lot of podcasts, so I won’t bore you with naming every single one. Below you will find my list of MUST listen to episodes)

  • “Cal Newport on Doing Deep Work and Escaping Social Media” The Ezra Klein Show
  • “The Hedonic Treadmill” College Info Geek Podcast

I am amazed by one’s ability to command an audience. Public speaking is one of my biggest fears because I get incredibly nervous. To me, it seems like everyone is just thinking how dumb I am! Below I am listing the presentations or public speaking events I have given or participated in. Hopefully one day I will be more confident in my abilities…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading List

There’s something to the written word. Stories encapsulate us; heroes give us hope; tragedy strikes an empathetic chord within us; comedies make us smile, and mysteries build nerve-racking suspense. Non-fiction is important too—interpreting complex information and allowing everyday people to gain more expertise in a wide array of topics. Being well read is not only socially impressive, but it also enters the reader into a dialogue of progressing thematic experiences construed by the past, present, and predictions for the future.

I want to be well read. It’s plain and simple. Too often I feel as though I cannot contribute to the conversation for fear of blabbering some unintelligent commentary—enough is enough. From this point on, I intend to be well read and confident in my conversations. Obviously, there is going to be discussion way out of my league; but, if I can have sweeping knowledge on past events and present issues with a specialization in one or two interests, then I will be able to intellectually hold my own.

So, the point of this post is to build a public display for the list of books and scholarly articles I have read since April 2018. All of the books and articles listed will be ones read on my own time and not for a class. I will try to keep it updated as often as possible. Any suggestions on good reads will be appreciated.

Books Read:

  • The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner (April 7th,2018)
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (April 12th, 2018)
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Summer 2018)
  • Why Save The Bankers? by Thomas Picketty (Summer 2018)
  • Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara (Summer 2018)
  • Beartown by Fredrik Backman (Summer 2018)
  • Marxism: For and Against by Robert Heilbroner (Summer 2018)
  • This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (Summer 2018)
  • The Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein (Summer 2018)
  • Us Against You by Fredrik Backman (Summer 2018)
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (Summer 2018)
  • Myths of Free Trade by Sherrod Brown (Ohio’s Senator!!) (Summer 2018)

   Here’s 9/10 books I read this summer

  • The Prodigal God by Tim Keller (November 2018)
  • Traveling Feast by Rick Bass (December 2018)
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (December 2018)
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (Jan 2018)
  • Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton (Feb 2019)

Scholarly Articles Read:

  • Federalist No. 1 “General Introduction” (April 16, 2018)
  • Federalist No. 2 “Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence” (April 16, 2018)
  • “The Principles of Communism” Frederick Engels (April 18, 2018)
  • “Plato’s Communism” (December 2018)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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