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!