Monday, December 21, 2015

On emails, living deliberately, and the art of the "year in review"

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

What did Thoreau mean when he said he wished to “live deliberately?” It’s an odd word to use to describe a way of living. Did he mean “deliberately” in the slow, steady sense of the word? Or did he mean that he wanted to spend his life deliberating—the way one might carefully deliberate over a decision to accept a job or buy a car? Regardless of what he meant, I prefer how I’ve always interpreted the line: I believe Thoreau wished to live thoughtfully and intentionally. In other words, to live deliberately would be to live life with forethought. It is to live with your values, ideas, goals, and principles in mind. To live deliberately is to live your life actively (in which you wield control of your life) rather than passively (in which you let life happen to you).

I can’t help but live my life deliberately. It’s really the only way I can live. To make a decision without reflection and analysis, and just by “going with my gut,” would be to go against years of habit and instinct—it would feel like suddenly trying to write with my left hand. (There is of course plenty to be said for "going with your gut," but only after a thoughtful analysis of your options has taken place.) All of my big decisions are thoroughly analyzed and thought out and debated (and now increasingly mathematized). Some of this I do by myself, but mostly I collaborate with friends, almost always in the form of email. I prefer email as a form of communication because I know the writing process will help me communicate what I think and feel with optimum clarity and precision.

I’m of course eager for a second opinion when I email, but I think I write emails mostly to learn my own thoughts. Emailing, then, is like writing a diary entry. But not quite, because emailing involves another human being who is intelligent, perceptive, and has good judgment. Knowing that my words will be read by him, I’m compelled to compose my thoughts with his objections in mind, to consider the weaknesses of my argument, to lay out my thoughts with good sense and logic that will stand the test of his scrutiny. My diary entries (if I ever write one) are inferior because they’re typically far more rambling and ungrounded.

My emails usually are quite simple. I write them about once a week to chart what’s going on in my life. Mostly, it’s mundane stuff, but often I try to solve an ongoing problem that may have been vexing me for months—perhaps I’m concerned about not making enough money, or maybe I’m charting the progress of getting over a wrist injury. Sometimes it’s more existential. Maybe I’m questioning what my career ought to be. These emails usually come with self-prescriptions and a list of goals or ideas about how I might best tackle the problem.

I’ve been sending emails to a close friend since the age of sixteen. I’ve been preserving those emails since 2004. Think about having such a thing—twelve years of honest and thoughtful weekly reports chronicling what was going on in your life: career thoughts, travel reflections, failures, success, goals, lessons learned.

What can one learn from so much introspective material? The weekly reports are always valuable as snapshots of the past, and, upon re-reading, they're sure to at least deliver a nice blast of nostalgia. But in the past few years I’ve wanted to look at my life from a more zoomed-out angle. So, at the end of each year, I started reading my emails of the past year and creating a “year in review.”

I’ve been writing these reviews for three years now, and each year I’ve refined the reviews to make them more comprehensive, more sophisticated, more intense. For instance, as the years go by, I find that I am becoming more of a “data collector.” One can learn a lot about yourself if you have introspective talents, but you can also learn a lot about yourself just by looking at the numbers. I’ve begun to create lists of books I read, radio shows I listen to, TV shows I watch. I keep detailed accounts of my money earned, spent, and saved. I keep a dream log. I write down every book I read or skim and write a paragraph detailing my impressions about each. (I think these data-collecting habits were developed during my vandwelling years at Duke, when I discovered the usefulness of recording all my purchases and vigilantly monitoring my bank account.)

Here are the different sections to my year in review:

A. Data collection and category summaries.
B. Review of last year's goals.
C. Major existential themes.
D. This year's goals.
E. Updated life goals.
F. Summary. 

A. Data collection and category summaries.

For "Data collection and category summaries," I have a set list of categories that I return to each year. I’m sure they will vary per person, but for me they are: Career accomplishments (what did I accomplish career-wise?), Entertainment (how much time did I spend reading, watching, playing?), Travels and living situations (where did I live and where did I go?), Major purchases (did I buy a car or a Kindle this year?), Finances (how much did I make, lose, or save?), Family/Friendships (which friendships have grown and which have deteriorated?), Health (what was my health like for 2015?), Adventure (did I get my adventure fill?), Romance (was I single or what’s the state of my relationship?). Excerpts:
Career accomplishments

-Wrote two blog entries, helped edit two books (David’s and ***), and wrote four essays (Nebraska cold house for NYT, Great Plains Trail for Backpacker, Keystone XL for Time, and NFL’s CTE problem for somebody undetermined).

-Finished editing Trespassing across America. Had many copy edits to perform. Had to create media plans. Had to work on photos. Etc., etc.

-Maintained good standing at Park Service after five-month season as backcountry ranger.



Saw a dramatic reduction in TV time from previous year. Had a lot to do with not binge-watching a whole series like Game of Thrones or The Wire. Easy way to lose 100 hours. Also, my being quarantined in Alaska prevented me from having access to TV. I watched more than a few movies to compensate, though.

Fargo Season One: 10 hours
Game of Thrones Season Five: 10 hours
The Comeback Season Two:  4 hours
The Jinx: 5 hours
Hello Ladies: 4 hours
Last Man on Earth Seasons One and Two: 13 hours
Catastrophe Season One: 3 hours
Broadchurch Season One: 6 hours
Borgen Seasons One and Two: 20 hours
Bits of Vikings, Master of None, Mr. Robot, Veep: 10 hours

2014: 164 hours
2015: 85 hours


I read 30 books, many in Alaska on patrol. This is a nice increase from the previous couple of years.

2006- 33 books read
2007- 45
2008- 47
2009- 35
2010- 41
2011- 41
2012- 31
2013- 20
2014- 24
2015- 30


Didn’t listen to all that much, seeing as how I’m caught up on Radio Lab. I probably listened to about 25 hours of radio on a few long drives.

2014 Radio, TV, and movie time: 379 hours
2015 Radio, TV, and movie time: 282 hours

Major purchases

It was not a year of money spending. My car didn’t cost anything apart from gas and oil changes. I bought a Kindle for about $125. I bought 3-4 pairs of shoes and boots (I have a weird shoe-hoarding fetish), amounting to about $300. I paid $400 or so bucks on medical bills in addition to monthly payments. Though I paid for all my own food for the year (and rent for a good portion of it), it was a pretty good year for saving money.
B. Review of last year's goals.

I look at the goals I set for myself last year and comment on my fulfillment of them.
My goals for 2015 were:

1. I must floss twice a day. I’ve utterly failed here, though I continue to brush and floss once a day. Probably should be a 2016 goal, but I best not commit to anything softly.

2. Reduce computer videogame playing time. Failed.

4. I want to finish Trespassing (easy, as it’s almost done) and successfully publish three sizable articles for magazines. I already have one job lined up with Backpacker, so this is not an unreachable goal. I did finish Trespassing, though I have to look it over once more. I did publish four pieces, but only one was sizable and it may not print until 2017. I’ll call this goal fulfilled.

5. Be at peace with my leisure time. Don’t fret if I’m not abundantly productive. Accomplished this for the most part. I love my leisure time and am not troubled with all those hours, save for the video games.

6. Commit to my next big writing/adventure project. I can’t say I’ve committed, but I’m awfully, awfully close. I’ve put plenty of thought into it, so I’ll count this goal as fulfilled.

7. Make decent money. Between book and Park Service, I made about $40K, which I consider successful.
C. Major existential themes.

For this section, I'll look at all of the above and pick out the leading stories of the year. Usually there's one that dominates—something I've been dealing with for maybe half a year. And then there's a few smaller themes—like this year I had a run of bad health. I also had a period when I questioned my decision to make money this summer rather than pursue my next grand book adventure. Excerpt: 
I also had ongoing thoughts about taking the Park Service job, where I didn’t feel challenged or fulfilled. It made me wonder if I should forget about the weekly paycheck to focus on grander, riskier book-project goals. This has not been resolved, as I’m both tempted by the easy paycheck and the grandiose goals.
D. This year's goals.

In this section, I list a number of accomplishable goals for 2016. Excerpt:
1. Make $30,000.

2. Pursue in earnest your third book. This is somewhat at odds with goal #1 of making money. So I may not be able pull off both.

3. Publish four articles. This should be somewhat easier than last year given that I have a book coming out and publications will be more likely to pick up my stories. I wish these could be big earners, but I know from experience to stop hoping for that. I’ll look upon these as a way to do my civic duty and expand my writing resume for hopefully more lucrative writing work.

4. Fix my fucking wrist! Take pains to prevent reoccurrence of melanoma. Maintain excellent health and diet.

5. Reduce videogames to 75 hours a year. Unbelievable that this has to be a goal.

6. Personal enhancements: Spruce up on Spanish. I plan on spending two-plus months in Costa Rica. I don’t plan on leaving fluent, but, if I could get back to the level of my college years, I’ll be content. Improve photography. I know I’m good, but I have so much to learn. I basically use one setting on my camera. I understand about 4 percent of my camera’s functions.
E. Updated life goals.

Next, I'll write out my "updated life goals." These are things I'm looking to accomplish beyond 2016. These are things I can slowly work toward, or simply aspire to. Excerpt:
2. Eventually surround myself with a garden and living things and animals. Today I walked past donkeys on my walk to the Post Office and had a nice moment with them. We’ve been house-sitting a cat all week. I miss working in David’s outdoors. I don’t expect these things next year, but I’d like to embrace them fully someday.

3. Write books! I have three great ideas that I return to on an almost daily basis. They all excite me. Almost nothing excites me anymore, so I know these are paths to fulfillment and adventure.
F. Summary

Finally, I'll summarize my year. Was it a good year or bad year? Was it because of luck, or was it of my own doing? Am I a fulfilled, contented person?


This may all sound like too much. It may sound like I'm living too deliberately. You might argue that it's better to leave room for impulsive decisions and spontaneity. But truthfully, I do live spontaneously. I've found that to live a passionate and spontaneous life is not to be “a feather in the wind,” but to deliberately plan a passionate and spontaneous life. In other words, you must give your life the structure and space it needs to be able to make spontaneous decisions (i.e., saving for and meticulously planning out a six-month journey on which every day there'll be some component of adventure and spontaneity.).

At most, these reviews will help you prioritize the important stuff. They'll help you feel balanced, focused, and organized. At minimum, you'll have chronicled and preserved your thoughts, which will be a joy to read in the future.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The best books I read in 2015

501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine

A collection of personal essays that chart the life of a real-life American itinerant. Ballantine doesn’t take us to grand places on his journey. These are the places in between: the ones we always see but never go to: crummy factory jobs, motel rooms, bus rides across the Midwest. One closes the book taken with the weird authenticity of it—there’s honesty here, and Ballantine refuses to resort to the “lessons learned” and schmaltz typical to the memoir genre. Sometimes there’s no meaning or purpose behind his tales, but this only enhances the book’s rare rawness. The chief impression the book leaves us with is that this guy’s been around.

“I can't count the number of times I have officially assembled the equipment to take my life: a knife, a handgun, a plastic bag, a bottle of codeine and a fifth of vodka. My motivations are never quite clear: perception of failure, futility, a sense of irremediable isolation, MTV--nothing everyone else hasn't suffered through. Yet I tend to magnify my gloomy outlook into a drive-in picture of the end of the world. I can't seem to remember that despair is a temporary state, a dark storm along the highway; that if I can just stick it out, keep the wipers going and my foot on the gas, I will make it through to the other side.”

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 by Winston Graham

Graham manages to match the elegance of 19th Century British prose despite writing from the mid-20th. Consequently, his themes are a bit darker, a bit more sophisticated. Why he’s unknown is a mystery to me, as it’s clear his writing is as good as or better than the greats.

“And Ross again knew himself to be happy—in a new and less ephemeral way than before. He was filled with a queer sense of enlightenment. It seemed to him that all his life had moved to this pinpoint of time down the scattered threads of twenty years… Someone—a Latin poet—had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come. He thought: if we could only stop here. Not when we get home, not leaving Trenwith, but here, here reaching the top of the hill out of Sawle, dusk wiping out the edges of the land and Demelza walking and humming at my side.”

High Fidelity & About a Boy by Nick Hornby

I write a few sentences about every book I read. For both of these I wrote, “Lovable characters” and “Believable growth.” I’m reluctant to read authors who pump out a lot of books, especially current authors. But Hornsby’s quality doesn’t go down with quantity. And he’s just a master of dialogue. He builds his characters from it. It’s often funny and it’s never cheesy. Plus, his focus (and illuminating touch) on thirty-something relationship quandaries gives the book, for me, special relevance.

“See, I’ve always been afraid of marriage because of, you know, ball and chain, I want my freedom, all that. But when I was thinking about that stupid girl I suddenly saw it was the opposite: that if you got married to someone you know you love, and you sort yourself out, it frees you up for other things. I know you don’t know how you feel about me, but I do know how I feel about you. I know I want to stay with you and I keep pretending otherwise, to myself and you, and we just limp on and on. It’s like we sign a new contract every few weeks or so, and I don’t want that anymore. And I know that if we got married I’d take it seriously, and I wouldn’t want to mess about.”

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Smart, superb, patient storytelling that respects the reader’s intelligence. It more than stands the test of time. I tried to read Asimov’s other works, but nothing’s grabbed me like this one.

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It's as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

As a memoir writer, I pay special attention to style. Eating Animals is a combination of wonkish research, personal history, philosophical reflection, and random longish testimony-essays from farmers and vegans and such who appear as characters. Amazingly it all flows together. I intend on mimicking his style in future works.

“Even among writers who deserve great praise for bringing factory farming into public view, there is often an insipid disavowal of the real horror we inflict. In his provocative and often brilliant review of [Michael Pollan's] The Omnivore’s Dilemma, B. R. Myers explains this accepted intellectual fashion: 'The technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties.’ There is one other rule to this game: never, absolutely never, emphasize that virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals. It isn’t hard to figure out why the beef industry won’t let even an enthusiastic carnivore near its slaughter facilities. Even in abattoirs where most cattle die quickly, it’s hard to imagine that any day passes in which several animals (tens, hundreds?) don’t meet an end of the most horrifying kind. A meat industry that follows the ethics most of us hold (providing a good life and an easy death for animals, little waste) is not a fantasy, but it cannot deliver the immense amount of cheap meat per capita we currently enjoy.”

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion by Matt Taibbi

Taibbi viscously takes down the 9/11 Truth Movement and pokes a lot of fun at Christians while going undercover as a devout Christian at an Evangelical retreat. Despite pulling no punches, he manages to come across as likable. This may be because he has moments of empathy for his subjects (as misguided as they are), and, at bottom, he’s on an intellectual quest to understand what’s making Americans so crazy and conspiratorial. His findings don’t disappoint.

“The message of all of this was that Americans were now supposed to make their own sense of the world. There was no dependable authority left to turn to, no life raft in the increasingly perilous informational sea. This coincided with an age when Americans now needed to understand more of the world than ever before. A factory worker in suburban Ohio now needed to understand the cultures of places like Bangalore and Beijing if he wanted to know why he’d lost his job. Which, incidentally, he probably had. Now broke, or under severe financial pressure, with no community leaders, no community, no news he can trust, Joe American has to turn on the Internet and tell himself a story that makes sense to him. What story is he going to tell?”

After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedediah Purdy

Purdy’s book lays out the reasons why we need a new “environmental imagination” for the Anthropocene—an era dominated by climate change and factory farms and an expanding human population, all of which loom over us all. New values and aesthetics and politics will be necessary for the future that cannot thrive with the environmentalisms of the past. Brilliant and provocative.

“Bennett suggests that adopting a new animism—not exactly as metaphysics, but as a moral attitude and mode of experience—might alert people to the dangers afoot in a disrupted world (climate change as a Pandora’s box of actants). It might also dignify the widespread sense that things matter: mountains move us; the atmosphere is healthy or unwell. We know that, if these perceptions are to move us in the Anthropocene, when everything has changed, we must admit that what moves or frightens us is partly what we have created: the timeless mountain and the unchanging atmosphere are myths that we have lost and temples that we have broken.”

A Bone to Pick: The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more by Mark Bittman

A good  refresher on everything from factory farms, to organics, to GMOs, to why we’re all getting fat. Bittman isn’t afraid to suggest something radical or politically impossible (which are joys to read) because his ideas are always well-grounded in solid research and good sense.

“If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers… And small-scale suburban and urban gardening has incredible potential. Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens ‘could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.’”

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum

The Unspeakable contains a level of nuance, and Daum, a command of the language, that’s superior to most any memoir writing out there. She has an almost superhuman power of introspection, all of which allows her to get closer to capturing the very essence of a thought or feeling. Something to aspire to.

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future. The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson

It’s a shame Johnson committed suicide. It’s clear from reading Big Dead Place that he could have had a long and fruitful career as a travel writer. Like the best travel writers, Johnson gets obsessed with his subject, and Big Dead Place is crammed with careful and extensive research about everything-Antarctica. He writes with a British dry wit (I thought he was British for much of my reading), ridiculing mindless bureaucracy better than anyone.

“I have never heard one person say that the most difficult thing about Antarctica is working outside, or being cold. I have never heard one person imply that Antarctica's tough physical environment would be the main reason not to return. I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it's the world's highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit.”

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster

A Passion for Nature lacks the storytelling flair of a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography, but it’s a solid and comprehensive portrait of John Muir, which was precisely what I was looking for.

“[Muir] was certainly not able to draw up a clear blueprint for his life, in contrast to what he was achieving on the work floor, or to manage the conflicting advice he was getting from so many strong-minded women and men, or even to see what his end product ought to be. Inventing machines or organizing them into a coherent system of production was much easier than inventing a life or finding coherence in what one thought or believed.”

The best books I read in 2014.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Op-Ed Addendum

So this Saturday I'll be publishing an Op-Ed in the New York Times! 

After I put up my blog post, “The Art of Keeping Warm,” about my 45-degree experiment, I wondered if any publication would be interested in publishing an actual article about my experience. I knew the Times’s Op-Ed pages often feature quirky, first-person stuff, so they were my first choice. They responded to my pitch, saying they’d want to see the article before they agreed to publish it. To enrich my quirky experience with interesting research, I spent a week researching countries’ excess winter mortality rates, studies on the concept of “comfort,” the thermal properties of certain clothes, and a whole bunch of other strange stuff. 

It always feels like I’m wasting time researching because 90 percent of what I read won’t have any impact on the piece, and the 10 percent that makes it in could very well get edited out. My Op-Ed was shortened from 2,000 words to 850, so I did in fact lose a lot (though, needless to say, I’m still plenty thrilled and grateful to make it into the Times). 

I imagine a few readers will wander over to this blog after reading my article, so if you’re one of those people who wants to learn a little bit more about my experiment and my research, feel free to browse the subjects below. My sources, signified by numbered brackets (ex: [1]), are listed at the bottom of this entry.

First off: Comfort is cultural.

As I point out in the article, there are cultures, like the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego, who’ve contentedly endured temperatures as low as 42˚F (5.5˚C). The Yaghan had few clothes and no access to fossil fuels [1]. On the hotter end of the dial, Pakistani office workers are comfortable in office temperatures as high as 88˚F (31˚C), which would make most any American melt into a salty puddle of goo [2]. In an essay called “Understanding the adaptive approach to thermal comfort,” researchers found that we basically determine what’s comfortable to us based on what we’re used to [3]. It's as simple as that. No need to point out that we wouldn’t be comfortable in -70˚F (-57˚C) or 120˚F (49˚C); comfort obviously has its limits. 

There are possibly some benefits to living in the cold.

It’s a custom in parts of Scandinavia for parents to leave their well-wrapped babies outside in strollers to nap in freezing temperatures. They claim that their babies sleep better in the cold [4]. Also, some researchers claim that being colder helps us lose weight through a process called “non-shivering thermogenesis.” In an essay called “The ‘metabolic winter’ hypothesis,” researchers suggest that obesity is a result of over-nutrition and constant warmth [5]. 

In cold countries fewer people die of cold-related causes. 

This was one of my most fascinating research discoveries. At first glance it makes little sense: Why would warm countries experience more cold-related deaths? Basically it’s because the colder countries are more prepared, better clothed, and have warmer winter homes than people in warm countries. 

Check out the following chart. “CSVM” (Coefficient of seasonal variation in mortality) sounds complicated, but all you need to know is that a higher CSVM indicates more cold-related deaths experienced in that particular country. Also, look at the column “Mean Winter temperature.” You’ll see that the warmer countries (Portugal and Spain) have really high winter death rates. The coldest country studied (Finland) has the lowest winter death rate of them all. 


We are not thinking about the environment when managing our indoor heat. 

According to a Harris poll, by 2010 only 4 percent — just 4 percent! — of households reduced their utility use to make their lifestyles more environmentally sustainable [6]. Yikes. 

Why don’t we just wear more clothes to keep warm, save money, and help the environment?

It’s puzzles me why we aren’t more keen on saving money on our heating bills when we could just throw on an extra layer. Writer Kris De Decker, on his website Low-Tech Magazine, surveyed the thermal properties of clothes and calculated that putting on a pair of cotton long underwear will allow you to lower your thermostat 4.5˚F (2.5˚C) without causing any reduction in comfort, while saving you more than 20 percent in heating costs [7]. (De Decker’s essay, “Insulation: first the body, then the home," was easily the best thing I read in all my research.) 

U.S. homes are really big.

U.S. and British homes are heated similarly (nighttime bedroom and daytime living room temps are typically set between 65-70˚F (18-21˚C)). [8]. But Americans use far more energy given the size of the average American home (2,394 square feet), which is two and half times larger than the average U.K. home (914 square feet) [9]. 

I confess: I use fossil fuels, too.

I anticipate the argument: “How can you speak against fossil fuels when you use them.” This is the sort of senseless argument the extractivists’ screech when they don’t like it when Al Gore, who lives in a big home, talks about climate science (as if the size of his home somehow magically makes scientific fact, independent of Al Gore, discreditable). So let me come clean: I acknowledge that I use more than my fair share of computer power, gasoline, and air travel—all powered by fossil fuels. I use a lot of energy, but, really, I have very little choice as to what kind of energy I get to use, as most things like hybrid cars and solar panels and enormous wind turbines are unaffordable for the average American. To exist and function in our country — with its fossil fuel infrastructure that's been built around us for 100+ years (well before most all of us were born) — we must use fossil fuels. The best we can do is: 1. Limit the amount of fossil fuels we do use, and 2. Publicly criticize, protest, mock, vote against, or fight the fossil fuel industry so that our culture as a whole can move on to better sources of energy. I am not dismissing the importance of fossil fuels in our lives. (I realize civilization would savagely collapse if we went cold turkey on fossil fuels tomorrow.) I’m merely arguing we need to take dramatic steps away from toxic resources, as useful as they have been. 

We use way too much energy. 

Way too much. The U.S. and Canada use about twice as much energy as Europe and Japan, yet there's no clear difference in quality of life between countries that are fossil fuel gluttons and countries that are on fossil fuel diets. One of the things I wondered was: Do fossil fuels make us happier? That’s really tough to answer, but I took my best shot at it, looking at the UN’s latest World Happiness Report that ranks countries based on life satisfaction. I looked at the happiest countries and tried to see if there was any correlation between their happiness and their fuel consumption.

Below is my list. The U.S. is the 17th happiest country in the world and one of the biggest fossil fuel gluttons, consuming 17.6 metric tons of fossil fuels per capita [10] There’s one country, the United Arab Emirates, that’s happier than us that uses more fossil fuels, but all other happier countries use less. I’m not sure what to make of the statistics (as I'm sure there are countless variables), but it makes one wonder: If consuming tanker-loads of fossils fuels is not automatically making us happier, than why are we consuming so much? 

List of happiest countries with their per capita fossil fuel consumption in metric tons

17. United States (17.6)
16. Mexico (3.8)
15. Panama (2.6)
14. United Arab Emirates (19.9)
13. New Zealand (7.2)
12. Costa Rica (1.7)
11. Israel (9.3)
10. Australia (16.9)
9. Iceland (6.2)
8. Austria (8)
7. Finland (11.5)
6. Canada (14.7)
5. Sweden (5.6)
4. Netherlands (11)
3. Switzerland (5)
2. Norway (11.7)
1. Denmark (8.3)

Americans use, consume, burn, and eat way more than we need to. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben reports that, “In 2007, the average American male had 2,600 calories worth of energy left over each day after his metabolic needs had been met.” Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book Energy of Slaves, says, “About 27 percent of edible fruits, vegetables, oils, and dairy products in North America spoil in transport, rot in the fridge, age in a grocery store, or get thrown out at home. In England, food waste may be as high as 50 percent. A University of Arizona study found that the average U.S. family squanders about $2,275 worth of food a year. The amount of energy lost through rotting or uneaten food accounts for 2 percent of annual oil and electricity spending in the United States” (p. 88-89).

I’ve wondered what this world would look like if we simply consumed only what we needed to consume. If we consumed a reasonable amount of calories, how many factory farms could we replace with forest, or smaller organic farms? If we moved into UK-sized homes and lowered the thermostat five degrees, how much fewer fossil fuels would we burn? If we stopped buying so much cheap and certainly unnecessary plastic crap, how much cleaner and less acidic would our oceans be? We talk about renewables all the time, but honest conversations about reducing consumption are far too rare.

Lastly, am I still living in a cold home?

I lived in my icebox through Christmas, then spent about three weeks in a warm home in Lincoln, Nebraska to house- and dog-sit for friends from about Dec. 26 - Jan 17. To make myself qualified for a summer job I’m applying for, I had to move to Denver, where I am currently living and enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder course. Here, the daytime temperature is set at a very reasonable 61˚F (16˚C). If I ever find myself in a house of my own again, I know from experience that I’d be plenty comfortable in a 45˚F (7˚C) home, though I can’t see myself going lower than that.


[1] Goldsmith — Use of clothing records to demonstrate acclimatisation to cold in man’, Journal of Applied Physiology, 15 (5), 776–80

[3] Understanding the adaptive approach to thermal comfort — Humphreys, Michael A; J Fergus Nicol. ASHRAE Transactions104 (1998): 991.


[5] The "metabolic winter" hypothesis: a cause of the current epidemics of obesity and cardiometabolic disease. Cronise, Sinclair, Bremer. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2014 Sep;12(7):355-61.




[9] (p.10).

[10] &

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The best books syllabus

More and more, it's becoming a struggle to find a book worth reading. The classics no longer seem relevant to my life. Contemporary novels (half of which seem to be set among the cultural elite in NYC) don't do much for me either. Travel books all seem so wimpy and unambitious. Lately, I've had to resort to nonfiction science writing and biographies. For every four books I start, three are given up by page 30. 

I'd love it if someone, whose tastes are similar to my own, would give me a syllabus of decent books to read to save me the trouble of sampling and discarding so many. With that in mind, I've decided to list my favorite books for those of you who may also be struggling to find a decent book. 

Many books that I admire and respect, but that didn't agree with me (Joyce's Ulysses for instance) didn't make this list. These are simply my favorites. Still, many of my favorites didn't make this list because I felt that they wouldn't appeal to most readers, or maybe I fell in love with them at an impressionable age. And there are many books that I liked that I've regrettably culled; these are books that I loved. I chose the following because they were enriching, entertaining, or beautifully written (or all of the above), and would appeal to the general lover of books. They aren't listed in any particular order, except by genre and alphabetical order by author. 

Fiction 1700 - 1899

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Fiction 1900 - Present

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

White Noise by Don DeLillo
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence
Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
1984 by George Orwell
Close Range by Annie Proulx
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Stoner by John Williams
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Non-Fiction - Travel/Nature

Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
On Nature: Selected Essays by Edward Hoagland
A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Larry’s Kidney by Daniel Asa Rose
Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
Voyageur by Robert Twigger

Non-Fiction - Philosophy

Consumed by Benjamin Barber

Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Abstract Wild by Jack Turner
Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

Non-Fiction - Memoir/Autobiography/Essays

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Denial by Jonathan Rauch
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Naked by David Sedaris

Essays from the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka 

Non-Fiction - History

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
The Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Non-Fiction - Biography 

Che by Jon Lee Anderson
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding
Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
Henry Thoreau: Life of the Mind by Robert Richardson
Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West
Grant by Jean Edward Smith

Non-Fiction - Special Interest

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel
Story by Robert McKee
The Conundrum by David Owen
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The best books I read in 2014

I spent about the first quarter of 2014 researching books on the Great Plains—many of which were great, but few of which would interest the general public, and therefore don’t make this list (with the exception of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner).

For the rest of 2014, I struggled to find a decent book. It used to be my policy to finish all books that I start, but with millions of books out there, why waste time on a book I clearly don’t like when I could be reading something better? My new policy: If a book doesn’t grab me by the first 30 pages, I move onto something else. I must have skimmed, started, or stopped well over 50 books this year (of many different varieties), and have read in full a great deal more than are present on this list. So the ones that make this list are special. If your tastes happen to align with mine, here are a few recommendations to hopefully save you a bit of the time it takes to find something worthwhile. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Perhaps my favorite book of all time. When I get disillusioned with what passes for style and storytelling nowadays, I reread Freedom to remind me that there are still true novelists out there. Franzen has a beautiful style—rich metaphors on every page, sparkling dialogue, gleaming insights. To me, Franzen has the elegance of the best 19th Century British writers (Eliot, Hardy, Austen), yet I favor Franzen because, unlike his predecessors, his concerns speak to my own as a youngish, 21st-Century male American who's concerned about the state of the world. I think what makes Franzen so readable is that it’s clear that he’s had fun writing this book. I imagine him, at his keyboard, when he’s thought of something funny to write, tilting his head back and letting out a hearty chuckle.

“A navigational beacon in Katz’s black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was sparking back to life. Where he ought to have felt guilty, he instead was getting hard. Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick: it could see the future in a heartbeat, leaving the brain to play catch-up and find the necessary route from occluded present to preordained outcome.” 

A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy

One of my interests is American mythology: how we got to be the way we are; why we believe the things we believe; how we came to define our own particular brand of American “freedom.” Purdy goes back to our nation’s founding and finds compelling insights into, say, why we deny climate change or buy into libertarianism. Purdy is a lovable guide: it strikes the reader that he has no “agenda” except to discover the plain truth of things.

“Americans’ foremost secular creed is the belief that common sense, the heart’s impulse and the mind’s untrained judgment, solves all problems and removes all mysteries. This appealingly democratic idea has the price of honoring our habits and prejudices as self-evident truths, enabling us to hold together our radicalism and our conservatism without fully confronting either.”

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I’d read this once before, but I picked it up again because I’m writing a book about my own cross-country walk, and desired to re-familiarize myself with successful books on the subject. I read it in two days, and I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Bryson is lovable, despite being cranky and sometimes mean, partly because he’s so honest about it and partly because he's quick to make fun of himself whenever he can. The dialogues with his hiking partner, Katz, are superb.

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret."

Energy of Slaves by Andrew Nikiforuk

Nikiforuk's research is flabbergasting. He borrows from countless disciplines, taking us on an odyssey through our smoggy 21st Century world. We learn that food, obesity, social relationships, population, and (needless to say) the environment are all very much connected to our dependence on fossil fuels. Immensely readable, full of fascinating studies, philosophical theories, and jaw-dropping statistics. Should be required reading for our species.

"'It may be impossible to conceive a reorganization of society adequate for the removal of some admitted evil without destroying the social organization and civilization which depends on it.' [writes Alfred North Whitehead] 'An allied plea is that there is no known way of removing the evil without the introduction of worse evils of some other type.' … Whitehead’s assessment wasn’t far off the mark. Mechanical slaves, powered first by coal and later by oil, effectively eliminated the need for widespread human slavery and serfdom."

Stoner by John Williams

(Has nothing to do with pot or being stoned.) It’s about a young student’s journey into academe. It’s full of social awkwardness, painful shyness, stupid decisions, and absurd squabbles in academic departments. Stoner is a hero you want to root for, even if he’s far from heroic. I'm not sure if the book has a core message, but if it does, it's this: that society should endeavor to promote rich emotional lives within its citizens and that each and everyone of us ought to strive to “know thyself."

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart."

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Superb book on climate change, climate change denial, and the current state of the environmental movement. See my full review here.

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

It’s about a spell that’s cast over a suburban town that makes all the women not want to have sex with their menand what results. It’s lighthearted like a Jon Franzen read, also poking a friendly finger into the gut of liberal suburban America. The plot of the book might sound like a crafty way for Wolitzer to condemn male sexuality and champion female empowerment, but it's actually quite fair to males. Wolitzer might agree: It’s a happier world when we’re all getting laid.

"Sexlessness had awakened some churlishness in him. Was this all it took in order to find a bad side of a man? Was it like depriving him of an essential nutrient?"

Gun, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

I had some trouble reading through Diamond’s Collapse, so I was reluctant to open his magnum opus, but have been nothing but pleasantly surprised. It’s a study of why Europeans dominated the world (in a nutshell: guns, germs, and steel), but at its heart it's about something much bigger: the dawn of civilization.

"Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers. The spread of farming from those few sites of origin usually did not occur as a result of the hunter-gatherers' elsewhere adopting farming; hunter-gatherers tend to be conservative.... Instead, farming spread mainly through farmers' outbreeding hunters, developing more potent technology, and then killing the hunters or driving them off of all lands suitable for agriculture.”

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Easily the most revolutionary book I’ve read all year. Has me seriously doubting the wisdom behind conventional marriage and permanent monogamy, which has always seemed to me like a cruel and ultimately unappealing punishment. Sex at Dawn validates those feelings with hard science and keen insights into our sexual evolutionary origins.

"Only by arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human sexuality will we learn to make smarter decisons about our long-term commitments. But this understanding requires us to face some uncomfortable facts." 

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

I’ve read a lot of books on the Great Plains. This is by far the best. It’s an autobiography by Stegner about his youth on the Saskatchewan plains. His descriptions are beautiful and vivid, yet I most respect him for looking at his home and the people with a critical eye.

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.”

The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson is perhaps the greatest writer-scientist of them all. He's built his career on studying on something as tiny as ants, but he can't help himself for setting his sights on the big picture. 

“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Barnes does a superb job ensuring that a novel does what a good novel must do: to have a sense of mystery and tension on every page. One of my fascinations is with memory, the inadequacies of which are central to the plot. 

"We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return."


In 2014, two friends published books. I can’t claim partiality, but they’re as worthy of this list as any other.

Fugue in Ursa Major by David Dalton

A sci-fi apocalypse novel set in the Appalachian Mountains, Fugue is one of the most heretical books I’ve read. David is especially talented with dialogue, specifically the Socratic dialogue between teacher and student. Unbeknownst to the reader, by the end you’ve consumed more than a fair share of history, theology, and physics lessons.

"[Men] have ancient instincts in a crowded world that's much too far from nature. Oh, they can channel their male instincts into the competitiveness of sports, or the cut-throat corporate world, but those things are a poor substitute for the real thing—you know, a horse or even a boat underneath you, the wind in your face, the stars over your head, the thrill of hope, and danger, and promise. That's what men were made for."

The Chain by Ted Genoways

You’ll probably never want to eat Spam again after reading about the ghastly treatment of the animal and the workers who butcher them in slaughterhouses across America. It’s The Jungle for the 21st Century.

"I sat and watched as evidence of our national industry and know-how arrived by the truckload. Our whole history of conquering the West, industrializing agriculture, and turning hog slaughter into a 'custom meat operation' arrived... And, in that moment, an illness like PIN and all the other social ills brought on by Hormel in their quest for increased output seemed an inevitable by-product of an industry that has grown too large and gained too much momentum to ever stop or even slow down."