Monday, December 1, 2014

The Christmas Challenge

Once, while living in a small beach town near San Remo, a friend and I decided to spread Christmas cheer all throughout the city. We created a calendar for the month of December and wrote down a daily suggestion to get into the Christmas spirit, ranging from writing a letter to an old friend to reading a Christmas story to a child. We drew a fine Christmas picture on the top of the calendar, made photocopies, and hit the city, delivering copies to every store owner or passerby that would take them.

The smiles that we found along the way were priceless. Many shopkeepers posted them in their street-facing windows or on their counters, visible to walkers and customers alike. People hung them on refrigerators or doors. Everyone who did, whether they followed the ideas on the calendar or not, found a larger portion of the Christmas spirit that year.

We followed the calendar as best as we could and we experienced one of the most memorable Christmases of all. 

Unfortunately, I lost track of my only copy of the calendar from San Remo, but I've tried to replicate it the best that I could to create the Back to Being Gentlemen Christmas Calendar!

Some of the suggestions might seem strange, but the key is to do your very best at performing them in good faith, looking for how it can improve your holiday mood. For example, going to a shopping center may seem overly commercial, but what other location decorates so beautifully for the holidays? It's worth noting that in Dickens' classic tale, the Ghost of Christmas Present showed Scrooge not just the reverent or familial scenes of Christmas, but also magnificent street scenes of merchants showing off their wares and the glorious decorations around the city. I've found that simply having a preoccupation with finding Christmas everywhere makes it sprout in the most unexpected places.

Also, this may be obvious, but it is alright to move around the days as need be.

Good luck, and may your holiday season be truly memorable.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: How to Dissect an Argument

Thanksgiving is coming around, which means: table talk…. and turkey. 

After the touching moments about gratitude at the beginning of dinner comes either extensive napping or the sometimes heated conversations with extended family or friends about politics, religion and everything controversial. Before heading into such a situation, take a second to brush up on some important speech and debate skills.

The art of gracefully disagreeing with others that shows up so often in books and plays of times past has gone by the wayside with Internet trolling. The web's anonymity has emboldened the public to launch vulgar, impersonal comments back and forth online, resulting in emotionally charged, thousand-post long comment threads that no one will ever read. This is no way to cultivate understanding. Malcolm Gladwell recently said, "[It's] your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking."

Helping someone change his or her mind on a topic requires sincere two-way communication. In some ways, it's like dancing with a partner. Each person picks up subtle cues, respects suggestions by acknowledging them, and then presenting a lead of his or her own. When the music ends, the dance ends and should be left on the dance floor. It'd be silly to allow a poor debate spoil a friendship.

That being said, it is my firm belief that most of what we think and believe was picked up along the path of life. Debating with others should bring both of the parties' belief histories into a new light and expand understanding.

So, to have a great debate, remember these five steps.

1. Verify assumptions
Assumptions are the taken-for-granted basis of a claim. For example, Aunt Harriet says, "Judy wouldn't have gotten a bad haircut if she just paid more money for it!" Yes! An aunt now calls another aunt's haircut into question! The aunt is trying to say, "You get what you pay for." But, to make that claim, she says "Judy wouldn't have gotten a bad haircut." The assumption here is that Judy's haircut is bad. If it isn't bad, then her conclusion has no legs.

2. Verify the inferences
Inferences are logical conclusions drawn from a statement of fact. Uncle John says, "Aunt Harriet sure spent a lot of time on the pie this year!" The factual statement is quite bland, just that the pie took a long time to make. But, the inference is the pie will taste delicious because of Harriet's extra dedication. This inference doesn't necessary hold water. It is set up like this equation:

Pie's quality = time spent on pie.

What if Uncle John said, "The best pie your Aunt Harriet ever made took eight hours! And guess what? Her pie tonight took nine!" 

Inference: The pie tonight will be even better than the eight-hour pie of the past. Not necessarily true. Even if the eight hours were the key factor to last year's delicious pie, the extra hour in this case could have made it disgusting.

Besides, the assumption is that the eight-hour pie was delicious, which may or may not be true. It could have made Cousin Billy sick for days.

3. Check for persuasive devices
There are a plethora of persuasive devices out there, but according to Kenneth Burke, there are five different factors to look out for: agent (who), scene (where and when), action (what), agency (how), and purpose (why). Each of these five elements have a different influence on the persuasive appeal of a point of view. When combined, they can present a very compelling argument. (click here for an adorable explanation of these five elements).

For example, 
A man shot a man. (Agents and Action. This doesn't really pull on the heart strings much.)
A man shot a man in the supermarket in broad daylight! (Woah! Just adding a scene made it very interesting!)
A man shot a man in the supermarket in broad daylight with a super-soaker! (Adding agency here completely flips it around!)
A man shot a man in the supermarket in broad daylight with a super-soaker because he kidnapped his child! (Adding purpose here might even invoke some sympathy on the poor man, who can only avenge his child with a super-soaker!)

Burke's five persuasive elements can then be broken down into Aristotle's three persuasive appeals: pathos, logos, and ethos.

Pathos is an emotional appeal, which can be incredibly powerful, albeit susceptible to abuse. When people start throwing in agent or agency elements that make tears sprout from the eyes, it's time to pay attention to the legitimacy of the emotional appeals they are using for persuasion.

Logos is a logical appeal to reason. This should be a baseline requirement. If an argument is illogical, there isn't much point in entertaining it further until some corrective reformulation happens.

Ethos is an appeal to authority. This is really easy to recognize. I did it to you a few paragraphs ago when I quoted Malcolm Gladwell. Appeals to authority are important, but they often fall prey to a couple of problems.
1. Opinions and ideas are often attributed incorrectly.
2. Just because an idea comes from someone who sounds authoritative doesn't necessarily give the idea more clout. It just sounds like it has more clout. That connects well to an idea called social jurisdiction (blog post coming soon to elaborate that idea).

The overall takeaway is: pay attention to the different elements someone uses to persuade you to their opinion.

4. Cut the fluff
In every argument there is superfluous stuff that doesn't contribute to the strength of a claim. An aggressive debater would use superfluous material against an opponent to expose an argument and leave him or her bare. This includes things like repetition, illogical inferences or conclusions, ad hoc emotional appeals, or statements that take the conversation off course into a new topic. Sometimes there can be so much extra stuff that the actual point is lost. It can be exhausting. The task is ours to cut the extraneous details down to the core issue.

5. Question the conclusion
Have you ever listened to an argument only to hear the speaker reach a head-scratching conclusion? Watch out for arguments that base themselves on a conclusion instead of the reason it took to get there. Too often we have a conclusion we feel is right and to bolster it we invent reasoning to go along with it. This is backwards thinking. More noble by far are the conclusions which have fully matured through questioning and re-formulation.

Follow these five steps and you will be a force to be reckoned with at the Thanksgiving table. It's called rhetorical literacy. It takes thought, effort, and practice, but the freedom it affords is beautiful.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thoughts on Books: Frankenstein

All Hallow's Eve has come again and, to commemorate the holiday, the Thoughts on Books novel is a Halloween classic, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Which brings up another important landmark, we are featuring our first woman author on the blog! We've talked about her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, before. You can check out his post here. I can't imagine what this couple's life must have been like, writing all the time and running around Europe. They had two distinct and profound minds.

Mary's gothic novel was groundbreaking. She titled it Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who fought with Zeus against the other Titans in the great war, the Titanomachy. It seems likely that Mary referred to one of Prometheus' specific exploits against Zeus for her book. As the story goes, the titan stole the fire from Olympus and brought it to the benefit of mankind. In retaliation, Zeus cursed Prometheus for all eternity. Most of his stories focus on the theme of a non-god challenge the authority and sovereignty of the almighty Zeus.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was a very intelligent girl with an original twist on a classic idea. There had been several creator myths prior to her novel, but she may have been the first to put man in the creator role. Exploring that motif was a fascinating development for her time period and has traveled through time as a classic. When it was published it must have been completely scandalous. She first published it anonymously. Even now, the true story of Frankenstein, can be jarring.

First of all, Frankenstein 101. This monster is not Frankenstein. Frankenstein is the last name of the scientist who created the creature that popularly absorbs his name.

This is not Frankenstein's monster. The cutesy, smiley, adorable creature completely negates the most important idea of the novel: the creature was so hideous that humans instantly abhorred and reviled him.

There are probably a thousand different and important themes from the book to discuss, but after seeing a theatrical production of the story, one idea has stuck with me more than any other. It goes right back to Mary Shelley's original intention and Prometheus stealing the fire from Olympus: the moral conflict between creator and creation.

Mary wrote the novel at time when she was likely at odds with the parent-child mechanism. After running off with Percy Shelley abroad from England and becoming penniless, her father refused to see her. She was confused. Her father had always been a proponent that marriage was oppressive. Her amorous relationship with a married man should not have bothered him, and still he refused her.

Soon after she became a parent herself; however, the child died while still very young.

Lord Byron's house, where Frankenstein was conceived
Under this psychological pretense, Percy and Lord Byron's, Mary's friends, asked her to come up with a ghost story. She got the idea late one night, saying the idea possessed her so completely that she couldn't go to sleep.

The big question of the novel is this: what responsibilities exist between a creator and its creation?

The book makes a very strong case that a creator, by necessity, must live up to a higher standard than its creation. Frankenstein's creature, like many children, is adept at identifying the hypocrisy of mankind. Eventually this leads him to the question, "If my creator has this, why can't I have this?" When the creature thus dethrones the sovereignty of his creator he finds himself at a moral standstill.

What makes Frankenstein unique is that man creates man. The question the creature asks is paramount to creation. What rules can possibly govern a creation if there is no hierarchy in primitive ability between creator and its creation?

Mary Shelley felt this hypocrisy when her father forsake her. Her father, whose very words seemed to advocate her decision to pursue love at any cost, condemned her behavior. Did her father's words carry any weight without the authority of a respected fatherly relationship?

The book continues to be a classic today because it still has important themes to explore. If there were ever a time that the common man or woman was exalted to a high pinnacle, it is today. But if mankind now reaches new heights, what principles can possibly govern it? We often turn to past minds for moral guidance. Philosophers of ages past and books from times long gone are more important now if ever. But how can that make any sense? Surely, access to information and intellect is more available today than ever before.

What happens when someone realizes, "Hey, I'm not that different from the men who wrote the laws. Why should I follow something made by one no more powerful or wise than I?"

The need for a creator more powerful than ourselves is irreplaceable. The worst thing we can do as a society, is to replace the rules that govern us, whether they be abstract concepts of justice, or the idea of God. Without governing principles, everything would melt into chaos.

Mary Shelley grasped this idea when, to come up with a ghost story at the request of her loved ones, she stumbled upon a horrific scene at midnight. In her words:

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

If you haven't read Frankenstein, it's not long, and it's a perfect book for Halloween.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: The Man at the Tower Gates

"If my dad doesn't make it, can you help me get his body back to the United States?"

No one had ever asked me that before. In front of me stood a fifty year old man sincerely asking for my assurance.


It all started about a month before. I set off on a trip in mixed company made up of three generations. We left on a boat from Fort Lauderdale in Florida to head across the Atlantic ocean. It was my first time cruising and I had no idea what to expect. As we set off from port, waving goodbye to the folks on land, I couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement. We were traveling across the Atlantic by boat, just like so many brave souls before us hundreds of years ago. Sure, we had endless supplies of food, medicine for sea sickness, never-ending entertainment, electricity, running water and a swimming pool that could have floated the Mayflower and her sister ships... but still! We would see the ocean waters between the once impassible barrier between Europe and the Americas.

We were, in fact, headed to Europe, where we would spend a month touring Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France. It was the trip of a lifetime. In our group was an elderly couple, around the age of 80, parents of another of our traveling companions, who we will call John. John's dad looked like a young boy as the boat raised anchor. He lived in a small town in the middle of Arizona, where he enjoyed life as a pig farmer. Although he had traveled before, his excitement shone in his face. For him, this really was the trip of a lifetime. He'd waited 80 years to see some incredible Parisian buildings and art, Swiss countryside, Italian food and culture... and the Tower of Pisa.

On the boat we all grew close. Although we all had our own dossier of activities during the day, we dined together every evening. John's father, who we will call George, admitted he often got lost trying to find his wife on the big boat.

"My favorite part of the day was the rendez-vous with my wife," he grinned once at dinner. We all laughed because we'd seen him wandering around like an old hound on the hunt.

The two week voyage went wonderfully and we were all smiles when we disembarked for our Euro tour. But, as we started the more strenuous part of our vacation, it didn't take long for me to see the first real signs of George's age. Almost immediately after we stepped into a foreign country, travel fatigue started to take its toll on the pig farmer.

I can hardly blame him. Traveling as we were, with three week's worth of luggage, hopping on and off trains, finding rental cars, walking up narrow staircases to hotel rooms--it's enough to make anyone tired. Unfortunately, though, as the trip went on, I saw George get wearier and weaker.

We drove through the countryside for hours at a time. We got in a fender bender in a small French town. John almost got assaulted by a drunken Spaniard in early morning hours. We accidentally spent the night in a terrible, crime-ridden area of Barcelona. With every exciting encounter and every passing day, George's steps grew slower.

His excited exclamations about the countryside like, "Boy! What a beautiful crop!" steadily diminished into deflated pleadings about city features like, "It looks like there are some beautiful benches out there."

Yes, he was tired. He just wanted to spend some time to sit down. At his age, after almost a month of traveling, I think anyone would feel the same. But there was still one thing on his decades-old bucket list that he didn't want to miss: The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

When we talked about it I saw the embers in his eyes flare up. I could almost see the years of longing and curiosity he had for a building so peculiar and magnificent. When the day finally came, he was up first, ready to go. However, we had a several hour drive ahead of us to make it to Pisa, and the miles took their toll on George's spirits.

When we got to the site, John dropped the group off and went to find parking. George decided to take a seat and wait for his son. A few of us went ahead and, with a five minute walk, we saw the gates which housed the famous tower. I walked through and, seeing it for the first time myself, lost my breath. The Tower of Pisa really does lean. It looks like it should fall down. It is awesome.

We had a great time taking forced perspective pictures of each other trying to hold the tower up, or eating it from the top down. After a good hour or so, the initial wonder started to subside and we decided to go find the others.

As we went through the gates, about fifty yards away, we saw George sitting on one of those beautiful Italian benches he pointed out so many times before. The gates and surrounding walls blocked his view of the tower. We waved and headed into a little café to grab something to eat, where we found John.

And that's when he asked me.

"If my dad doesn't make it, can you help me get his body back to the United States?"

I was floored. Surely George wasn't that bad off. Maybe he was a bit travel weary, but weren't we all?

"Please?" He knew I spoke Italian and he wanted me to help translate to deal with the logistics of... George... should the case arise. I nodded, but assured him that his dad would get back to the states sans casket.

Don't skip ahead in the story. George didn't die. He is still doing well to this day.

But, it turned out that John had to help George walk all the way to that bench, fifty yards away from the gate, where the old man simply could go no further.

After decades of anticipation and a month of travel, George came fifty yards short of the Tower of Pisa.

We waited around for a while, giving him plenty of time to regain some strength so he could finish the walk to the gate, but he never quite recovered. John got the car, stopped at the curb and we helped George to his seat. As we drove away he craned his neck to look out the back window, shading his eyes with the postcard John got for him at the gift shop, and he caught a few glimpses of the leaning building before it vanished behind the beautiful Italian cityscape.

I've often thought about George sitting at the tower gates. He was so close to his goal and yet he came away with nothing more than a postcard. His story makes me feel sad.

I owe him a large debt, though. Since I was able to witness firsthand this extraordinary occurrence, I've learned some priceless lessons.

1. Although George did not see the tower, he made it to Pisa.

We all have dreams and goals. Some are realistic and attainable. Others might be fanciful. The pursuit of our goals are the real substance of our life. The achievement of a goal, in many respects, can be demotivating and unhelpful. Goals give us direction and energy so we can take unorganized desires and concentrate them into positive change. In many ways, goals are like the north star. When we have a goal set, we can fix our course in its direction. When the goal is accomplished, we suddenly face new crossroads, and often a feeling of aimlessness. For example, say a person wishes to lose twenty pounds. They concentrate and exert effort daily to accomplish that goal. But, when the glorious day comes and the pounds are gone... what then?

It may be hard to keep the habits up when there is no progress to measure, no novel benefit, and no excitement of discovery. In George's case, his desire to see the tower of Pisa transported him across an ocean and showed him wonders of mankind like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of David. Was his goal really to see the Tower of Pisa, or was it to experience the culture surrounding the tower?

2. Sometimes the goal really is to see the tower, and the last fifty yards will always be the hardest.

I don't know what it is, but the last tiny bit of any project always seem to be the hardest to finish. It's a familiar scenario: the workweek has been crazy, you've been plagued with a never end list of projects. When Friday comes along, suddenly, although a thousand other things during the week got done, the last task of the week feels like Mt. Everest, and you've got a broken rib from coughing, and the oxygen tanks are low, and you're all out of food...

The last fifty yards will always seem like five hundred. Finishing requires grit, sweat and effort. Sometimes that requires a calculated cost. George knew when he couldn't go further, and had he gone ahead, he may have had some serious health consequences. For most of us, we can, and should, pound out those last fifty yards.

3. Dreams move on swift feet

This is the sad, brutal truth. Dreams don't wait for us; opportunity is a fickle mistress. If we aren't ready when the chance comes, then fortune can pass us by. In George's case, he took an opportunity, but international, lighting-speed travel was a younger man's game. I don't know if he had a chance earlier in his life to go see the Tower of Pisa, but, unfortunately, he didn't have a chance to see it later in his life either. Procrastination is a devil. Carpe that diem.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thoughts on Books: Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut's masterpiece sat on my shelf for the better part of a decade. I picked it up several times and tried to read it, but I honestly couldn't understand what the book was. At first it felt like an autobiographical incident, dragged into several chapters, about trying to find an idea for a book. When I finally decided it was time to give Slaughterhouse Five its due attention, I couldn't put it down.

It's hard to describe the book's genre. It's like an interesting type of stream of consciousness and the entire time I found myself asking, did this happen to Vonnegut or to the book's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim? To say the book is simply fiction is not entirely true, and to say it's non-fiction isn't entirely true either.

The book is really about the bombing of Dresden during WWII. 

Vonnegut was in Dresden at the time as a POW. The bombing is one of the lesser known events of the Second Great War because it was eclipsed soon after by the atomic bombings of Japan. Still, the gritty truth is this: the Allies dropped about 4,000 tons of firebombs on Dresden, Germany toward the end of the war. The city had no military significance and was considered by many to be a center of great cultural significance, much like Florence, Italy. 

The devastation was horrific. Recently, official reports have confirmed nearly 25,000 deaths, a number made up mostly of civilian lives. Well over 100,000 people lost their homes and became refugees; the city was leveled. People suffocated while taking shelter underground. 

Vonnegut underlines the destruction with a question that prompts deep reflection on violence.

Nations give so much attention to control nuclear weaponry, but do we really need atomic power to destroy the world? Or, in lieu of atomic bombs, would they just find other ways to level cities and kill thousands of people all at once?

The book is very strongly anti-war, but who isn't anti-war? I've met people who are in favor of some of the effects of war, like the nullification of an international threat or an increased wartime economy, but I've never actually known anyone who has been in favor of actual war.

Vonnegut also turns America on its own head. Slaughterhouse Five was published in '69, when very little had been leaked to the American public about Dresden. The bombing of Dresden was controversial, to say it very, very mildly. It stands out against the U.S. as an immoral flaw in command. Perhaps it was a lapse of judgement. But it opened a door for Americans to scrutinize their country with a new magnifying glass. After they swept away all the propaganda posters, they found some ugly things under the rug. People woke up and realized that patriotism sometimes shares a bed with self-criticism.

One of these themes is the obsession Americans have with wealth. Vonnegut points out that most Americans are poor, but they aren't allowed to accept their situation. Millions of people have lived and died poor and happy. But there is an obsession in the U.S. about trying to become rich. In reality, it's ok to not have the coolest car on the street or the biggest house on the block. Wealth is really all relative anyway. At one point in the novel, Billy Pilgrim finds a very large diamond while traipsing around as a soldier, but what use does a wartime soldier have for a diamond that is valued so highly?

In Vonnegut's words:

"America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves"..."Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: 'if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?' There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand -- glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register."

Having said all this, if someone were to open the book thinking he or she would be reading about firebombs in Dresden or social reform, the text might be a bit surprising. Instead, Vonnegut takes readers into the mind of Billy Pilgrim, who lived through the bombing, and from such traumatic experiences in the war, lost even his grip on time and place. 

Some people say the book has a lot of humor in it, but not the kind that makes you laugh. 

Perhaps Vonnegut describes his book best from a quote within its very pages, "There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: Sergeant Bob

In a small Italian town somewhere near Vicenza, Italy lives an old army sergeant. I'll never forget the first time I met him. My friend Tom and I would try to spend a day each week helping him doing yard work at his late mother's villa.

The first time I had this experience, Tom looked at me and said, "Come on, let's go see the old sergeant." We threw on some ratty clothes, grabbed a quick bite of that region's savory sausage we had in the fridge and were off.

If you've never known a crusty, proud, war-hardened army sergeant, which I had not at the time, then you, like me, would have had no idea what to expect. We got to the house before he showed up and stood there waiting for him. After ten minutes, Tom reassured me that he'd be there.

As if on cue, I saw a lumbering, solid looking man, approaching us at a mild pace down the sidewalk. When his face was in good eyeshot I noticed he had a grisly looking frown plastered onto a deep-creased, seemingly unalterable expression. He looked at the two young men in front of him and, without a word, turned on his axis to empty the mailbox flanking us.

"Mornin' Sarge," Tom said.

Profanity. Curt, matter of fact, not malicious but well-practiced, intentional profanity. He put his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker and turned to the house.

"Look at this mess," he muttered. More cursing. He opened the gate to his little fortress and stood by, his commanding posture telling us to move on through. I obeyed, absolutely fascinated and afraid.

The villa was a beautiful little two story with a small, gated yard around it. He walked up the steps to the porch, dropped his mail on a little table and unzipped his windbreaker, revealing a the words "U.S. ARMY" in bold on his sweater. I also noticed his sweatpants, which had the word "ARMY" running down his right leg. They stopped above his shoes, revealing his socks, at their comfortable length from years of combat boots reaching past his ankles. The combat boots were MIA, in there place a pair of white, well-used tennis shoes. He started in a grisly voice.

"Boys, today we're gonna go to these bushes and tear 'em out. We're gonna rip out all these weeds and we're going to rake up all that ____ and then... we're gonna plant some flowers."

Before I knew it, we had rakes and hoes in our hands and were working the yard. Sarge spat out comments about how terrible I was at raking, which I felt was a little brusque. But, in his defense, I was doing a pretty lousy job.

We spent many hours that year helping out in Sarge's yard. He had an affinity for American cigarettes and Union draft beer, which he always drank and made the same joke: "I only toast to the Union!" He had a friend, Boris we called him, who looked like an ace when he wore sunglasses, but spoke in pure dialect and was almost impossible to understand.

I learned more doing yard work with the old sergeant than I care to say. I know what I absorbed there will stick with me throughout my life

One of the more potent of these learning experiences happened when we got the best tongue lashing I've ever had in my life.

Sarge worked at the American Army base, and living there had certain benefits, particularly regarding American culture. On army bases you can find coveted items not available in European countries like root beer and peanut butter. When mailing letters and packages back to the United States customs are avoided and the cost is the same as sending mail between the continental states. Having a friend in the army base was usually awesome because they loved to flaunt their generosity with these American goods. In fact, Sarge always kept his fridge stocked with Root Beers and he'd use them to reward us for our help. But, unfortunately, wherever there are riches, there are leeches. I shamefully admit in this case I was found in league with the leech, a mistake I would never make again.

It all started when we were approached by our friend, Giuseppe, who had some family friends in the United States and he wanted to send them a Christmas package. He wanted to make sure his friends got some items in the package that probably would have either failed a customs inspection or been stolen in the mail. Knowing of our relationship with Sarge he asked if we would request him to send it through the base so it would reach the U.S. safely, cheaply and quickly. Mailing from a U.S. base, it turns out, costs the same as mailing from anywhere else in the continental 48. When we asked Sarge about it he said it would probably be alright. Probably. We conveyed the message and really didn't give much more thought to the matter.

The next time we showed up to work, Sarge was practically spitting. When we walked into the yard he turned and unloaded on us some of the worst language I've ever heard. He stared us squarely in the eyes, uncompromising and in complete control, and yelled.

Apparently, Giuseppe's son had showed up at the villa with a huge box for the mail, barged in on Sarge's while he had company he had over, handed off the box without so much as an introduction and left. Sarge stared after him, feeling used, unappreciated and embarrassed.

"I was humiliated in front of close friends who respect me," Sarge fumed. "I still sent the package out because I didn't want to embarrass you, but don't you ever..." Horrible language, horrible language, horrible language.

Needless to say, being vocally thrashed by a war-hardened army veteran left us shaken up and when he barked at us to get the rakes so we could all start on the yard we fetched them somberly. My eyes were glued to the leaves on the ground. I had never used a pile of stray leaves as a security blanket before.

However, to our surprise, the old Sergeant was raking leaves right there next to us and, within five minutes, started with his usual jokes, his surprising, goofy laugh echoing through the yard. In fact, I almost dropped my rake in surprise when I saw Sarge had my friend Tom in a tight side hug. He had never hugged us before.

Later he showed us some of his favorite trinkets, collected through the years. He laughed and told us some great stories about his time in the army. He even opened up and shared some of his deeper beliefs about God and life.

We quietly walked home and thought long and hard about what happened. Somehow we felt closer to the Old Sergeant than ever before, even though he seemed so mad at us and made us feel terrible about our mistake.

Here's the takeaway.

Sarge had spent his career leading small units in the army. Leadership was in his bones. Dealing out correction was nothing new to him. He knew how to call young buffs out on their mistakes and make sure they never forgot when and how they were wrong. But, like most great leaders, he had a great capacity to love those in his stewardship. The correction he dished out was just that: medicine to fix a problem.

What he did next was the important part. All of us one day will have to correct someone else, sometimes harshly and decisively. It's the right thing to do when we are wronged. Sarge's secret to leadership is simple. After the discipline is done, a great leader shows more love and compassion than usual. It's called a greater outpouring of love.

This makes a lot of sense with a social theory called the Trust Bank. The theory states that every time you interact with someone you make deposits or withdrawals from your trust account with him or her. Need help moving houses? That will take a big withdrawal. Watch someone's kids while they're on vacation? Big deposit.

When we have to show people that they're doing something wrong it takes a major trust withdrawal. Without making a serious deposit afterwords, someone may think you wouldn't mind closing his or her account altogether, which usually isn't the case at all.

Try it out, next time you have to show that new guy at work he offended an important client, or you have to put a child in timeout, as soon as the discipline is done, show them an increased outpouring of sincere love. You might be amazed at how it turns a potentially awful situation into a bonding experience.

Heck, I still love the old Sarge more than ever.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: Five Life Lessons from the LSAT

Every aspiring law student must face one of the most evil monsters in the world: the law school admissions test. The LSAT is a test that tries a student's capacity for logical processing. At first glance it looks like a charming, harmless set of brain puzzles. In fact, sections are divided by cute titles like "Reading Comprehension" (sounds familiar right? like STAR testing in elementary school?), "Logical Reasoning" (sounds a little scary but hey, I do that every day right?), and "Logic Games" (fun! cool! games! I love games! I play games all the time!).

Instead, what lies in wait is a five hour maze of logical treachery, laid by masters of trickery and deceit. They somehow understand the flaws in the human mind and they plant little traps in all of their questions to lead test-takers comfortably down familiar paths of incorrect thinking.

Some treat studying for the LSAT like a full time job, which is understandable because its study requires a high level of strict discipline. The slightest variation of an LSAT score can mean the difference between rejection and scholarship.

Having said all this, studying for the LSAT is an experience everyone should have, whether or not they plan on attending law school. There are fundamental principles inherent in the study of reasoning that, were it understood by everybody, could clear the world of some needless miscommunication. It's shocking, for example, when falsified sensational news stories go viral online when an ounce of thought would prove that said stories simply can't hold water.

But, even putting the logic training aside, the LSAT experience is loaded with life maxim takeaways. Here are the five important lessons I'll owe to the LSAT forever.

1. Understanding the difference between sufficient and necessary conditions

This is one of the most important principles to understand when it comes to thinking logically. It works simply. A necessary condition is a condition that must be present for a specific outcome. For example, good grades are a necessary condition to be accepted to Harvard. Without good grades... good luck getting into Harvard.

A sufficient condition is a condition that automatically brings about a specific condition. For example, being the son or daughter of the president of Harvard would be a sufficient condition to get into Harvard (Ha! Jokes aside, you could argue that if your parent were the president of harvard you would be made to study well and do all the other things necessary to get you into Harvard, thus making it a sufficient condition).

Here comes the boom. A sufficient condition is not always necessary to make a specific outcome happen, and a necessary condition alone is not enough to make a specific outcome happen. In the Harvard example, you certainly don't have to be a child of the president of the university to be accepted (imagine that!) and good grades certainly is necessary, but not enough alone to get you in either.

Understanding these two concepts is awesome because when people are trying to argue their opinion, say, of a political leader, they will often switch necessary and sufficient conditions in order to argue their point. Look for it. You'll start to see this everywhere.

2. Attention to Detail

Among the many horribly confusing wordings the LSAT test makers use to phrase their questions, one of their favorites is placing very important details that ultimately change a sentence's meaning. While studying, it will be quickly discovered that the "eyeing it" approach to analysis simply won't cut it. I got countless practice test questions wrong simply because I did a cursory read through of a question and thought I "had the gist of it".

An example of this detail check is illustrated in a made up LSAT question:

The following are all a negative reason not given by the speaker in the example, except...

I wish this were an exaggerated LSAT wording. The question is really asking:

Which negative reason did the speaker give in the example?

But it'd hard to get there without either a genius intellect or attention to each word that altered the question.

The LSAT's sneakiness is very much akin to real life. There are people out there who try to deceive or gain advantage by simply placing a small, but incredibly important detail just out of plain sight. Paying attention to detail is important. The difference between 100 thousand and a million is a single zero on paper. The difference between life and death is a few millimeters off the surgeon's point. Details.

3. Managing Time

In a world where everything from the wristwatch to the television competes for our time, time management is increasingly important. Time management is the most frustrating part of the LSAT challenge. If test takers were allotted an infinite amount of time, most of them eventually would get most questions correct. The trouble is, to complete each question on the test, no more than about 70 seconds can be spent on any given question. That is just enough time to go crazy.

The idea of taking a big chunk of time and breaking it down into small deadlines for intermediate tasks is one of the great talents of successful people. It can be used for everything from household chores to planning a business trip.

It works like this: Identify how much time you have to accomplish something. Break down your goal into smaller steps. Plan out how much time the smaller steps should take. If something is taking too long, plan on absorbing the time loss somewhere else, or if the current step isn't that important, just leave it behind. Time management is the key to success.

4. The Power of a Teammate

I was really lucky when I studied for the LSAT because my wife was studying for it too! The most effective part about working with her was that, when we reviewed our practice tests, she almost always got my incorrect problems correct, and vice versa. As a result, we had someone to explain missteps every time we got an answer wrong.

No one is infallible and having a teammate, especially one who thinks in a different way than you do, is an invaluable resource. I can't imagine how much time I would have spent going over the questions I got wrong trying to figure out how to do them. By getting someone else on board, eager to work just as hard as you do, you can bump up effectiveness, efficiency and the overall good time.

5. Understand and Analyze Point of View

On the Reading Comprehension portion of the LSAT, there is a myriad of questions that challenge whether or not test takers understood from which viewpoint certain ideas in a text originated. Many of these questions also probed further into analyzing a certain viewpoint's stance on a topic. Understanding who said what and how they feel about it is an imperative skill for anyone one who wants to be considered competent.

Objectivity in news coverage is slowly diminishing. I guess some could argue that it was never really there in the first place. Either way, the general public's access to information is at a record high and there are more informational articles out there than there are people. It is so important to be media literate and to analyze and challenge the things we read. Just because something is followed by a .com doesn't mean it is a credible source. Even if an article does come from a credible source, it doesn't mean it's completely accurate.

Understanding viewpoint humanizes authors, which helps us disagree with them. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell recently has been quoted to say, "Change your mind on something significant everyday." How can we do that without questioning everything we read and hear? Wait-- should we even do that? Who is this Malcolm guy anyway? He seems to like going back and forth on things a lot!

Challenge, analyze, dissect. We don't have to just accept text. Knowledge is power! Educate yourself! Schoolhouse Rock!