REVIEW: Not Fade Away, Peter Barton

Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well LivedNot Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived by Laurence Shames
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In perhaps a misguided attempt to explore what it means to “live well”, a couple months ago I bought a bunch of books on dying. Or more correctly, on living knowing you are dying. While everyone is dying, most people live like it will never happen to them. Rarely do you hear from those who are actively living a life with the full, active knowledge that they are dying. The Stoics say EVERYONE should live every day like this, and wrote in detail about how to do that. Unfortunately modern man tends to not consider death until it is too late. The ones who do write about it tend to have some kind of terminal illness that brings the question to the top of mind. So the most available modern thinkers on living well while dying are the rich, smart terminally ill. Like Peter Barton. Or Paul Kalanithi.

Barton is not a philosopher. He was a very successful and smart business man. The book (thankfully) doesn’t spend too much time on biography and all the self important things done in life (although Barton did some awesome things). Barton stays focused on what the cancer was TEACHING him about living. On how to separate the body and the mind/soul. On how to focus on building the present. Barton had a partner writer live with him and help write the book over the last 9 months of his life. While I understand why he did this (he was not a writer), the chapters trade off between Barton’s first person account and Shames’ second person account. I didn’t like that structure and wish it had all been first person (even if it was ghost written).

I guess what I am looking for in these books are the nuggets that become self evident when you know your days are numbered, that you should have figured out beforehand. Here are some of my favorites.

“… as death grows imminent, the fear of it no longer serves a purpose.”

“My frame of mind was something I could still control.”

“Don’t ask permission, just beg forgiveness. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it with your foot on the accelerator. If you drive with one foot on the brake, you’re not for us.”

“No future. If that notion is surreal and terrifying, it is also vastly liberating.”

“…wealth is a great deal more enjoyable if you’ve already taught yourself that you can have a good time without it.”

“There’s a next level where the soul can go, and the body can’t. Not that dissolving a partnership is every easy. But the alternative is even worse. Let the sout be sullied by the complaints of the body, and you’ve lost not only in one of life’s arenas, but two. ”

“When I hurt, I hurt. But it’s the attitude toward the pain that makes all the difference. Pain can make you thoroughly miserable, or pain can just be pain.”

Overall, a worthwhile read, but not 5 stars due to the clunky structure and mixed narrative.

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REVIEW: Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition

Jonathan Livingston SeagullJonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Third time reading this book. First time in 20 years. First time reading the Complete Edition (including rediscovered Part Four).  The photography included in this edition really adds to the beauty and contemplation of the story: it is worth buying the printed book for the pictures alone.

This book never gets old. It just gets more useful and I understand it better. When I first read in college, it seemed like a weird fantasy story about a bird. My young self was a bit of an outcast. I very much wanted to have the tenacity to dig deep into a passion everyone else thought was useless and prove them all wrong. So I did that (computers). This is probably why Seagull is on every college reading list and rightfully so.

Then re-reading it in my 30s after leaving the Catholic church and recently returning, the religious undertones popped out. Especially in (new) part four where the true meaning of the initial quest has been lost in the bureaucracy of the belief system built around it (sound familiar Catholics?) This is a classic Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Hero is passionate, gets cast out of society, becomes enlightened around his passion, comes back to teach the TRUTH, is initially scorned, then accepted, then revered, then co-opted for other purposes and the TRUTH is lost. That is also the story of the Catholic Church in many ways.

Reading it again in my 50s after settling down a bit, the later parts of the story resonated. The desire to share your life wisdom with love and kindness. The frustration with success leading to misinterpretation and co-opting of original intent. But still the desire to give back to the next generation. The hope that an open mind willing to learn still existed.

Some favorite quotes:

“Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose in life?  For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to life – to learn, to discover, to be free!  Give me one chance, let me show you what I have found.”  Jonathan  “The Brotherhood is Broken”  said the other birds and they turned their backs on him.

“His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see.”

He spoke of very simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.  The only true law is that which leads to freedom, there is no other.  The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.

A long silence.  “Well, this kind of flying has always been here to be learned by anybody who wanted to discover it; that’s got nothing to do with time.”

“Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself i he’d just spend a little time practicing?  Why should that be so hard?”

“To begin with,” he said heavily, “You’ve got to understand that the seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.”

They were honored, and worse – revered, but they were no longer heard, and the birds who practiced flying were fewer and fewer.

Anthony Seagull didn’t have answers, but he knew that he would gratefully, gladly lay down his life to follow any bird who could demonstrate what he was talking about, show him just a few answers in life that worked, that brought excellence and joy into everyday living.  Until he found that bird, life would remain gray and bleak, illogical, without purpose; every seagull would remain a coincidental collection of blood and feathers pointed toward oblivion.

My suggestion: Read this every 10 years. You will learn something new each time.

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Review: The Valkyries: Paulo Coelho

The ValkyriesThe Valkyries by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have been reading quite a few [author:Paulo Coelho|566] lately. Recently reviewed The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist. The Valkyries was a recently given to me by a friend who said it helped her through a messy divorce. While I am not going through a divorce, when she mentioned something about leather clad motorcycle lesbians and a desert spiritual ritual, I started right in.

Unfortunately for me the Valkyries fell flat. Third best of the three I have read. Skewered on the pitard of too much angel, ritual, “Tradition” talk and not enough context or engaging story narrative. While at times Coelho wants us to believe the story actually happened (mentioning in the epilogue that a letter from a reader verifying the existence of a shrine in the desert is filed with Brazil’s national library as proof of something), I became completely lost and uninterested in his search for his “Angel” and some kind of “Tradition” which remains unexplained. Half allegory and half biography, The Valkyries fails at both. After reading it I don’t know what the characters were looking for, I don’t know what they found and I don’t care. The story confused me and didn’t engage me.

As with all Coelho books, there are glimpses of insight worth underlining. Unfortunately these are few, far between and deeply hidden in The Valkyries. Here are a few of my favorites:

“In order to live in the present, you have to control your second mind. And look at the horizon.”

“Don’t fight your thoughts. They are stronger than you are. If you want to rid yourself of them, accept them. Think about what they want you to think about until they grow tired.” (standard meditation stuff, but well told)

“Let’s suppose that paradise is here. And every person on earth is here in the plaza. Each of them has their own path for arriving here. That’s why people talk to their angels. Because only angels know the best path. It does no good to seek advice about it from others.”

“I’m saying that everything is a ritual. Just as a mass is a great ritual, composed of various parts, the everyday experience of any person is, also. The name of that ritual is ROUTINE. When the ritual becomes consolidated, the person becomes a slave.”

“You need yet another miracle. And you will always need yet another. You will never be satisfied, and you will never understand that the kingdom of heaven cannot be conquered by force.”

“Each would always be fascinated by the other – so long as each remained exactly what the other imagined.” Imagination is better than reality for most people.

After the confusion, I sat back and tried to figure out what my friend gleaned from the book that helped in her divorce. Going back through my notes in the book, I found these notes around the “ritual” Paulo did in the desert cave with one of the Valkyries.

“There was a pact,” valhalla said, “What was it?”
“I promised I would abandon my dreams.” “I promised that I would never grow again. I thought that I could no longer trust myself.”

I have found it to be true that our lives are in large part governed by sacred promises we made to ourselves long ago that we may not be aware of today. Those promises were made to deal with a condition back then, but may not serve us today. Awareness of those pacts and contemplation of their use going forward in our lives is a critical skill I believe everyone should learn and perform about every 5 years. I recently did just that. While this skill and recognition is valuable, it is so far buried here in the story I missed it the first time. This piece is what my friend learned from. I am afraid most people will miss it.

After being completely underwhelmed by the narrative, the Epilogue turned out to be the best part. Coelho says clearly what his story did a terrible job of doing.

“We can share our experiences – as I have tried to share mine in this book but there is no formula for growth. God has generously made His wisdom and His love available to us, and it is easy, very easy, to find them. We, at this moment in history, must develop our own powers. We must believe that the universe doesn’t end at the wall of our room. We must accept the signs, and follow our hearts and our dreams.”

My recommendation: Skip the book, read the Epilogue and you will understand everything.

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Review: The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Much ink has been spilt over Coelho and The Alchemist. Here is some more (e-ink).

Having heard Coelho recently with Krista Tippett ON Being, I was motivated to re-read The Alchemist. The first time I read it was shortly after everyone else read it. Just after Bill Clinton was photographed with the book. That is the first and last time I ever took a cue from Bill Clinton. I wonder if he gave it to Hillary? She should probably read it now. And Bill should re-read it. But I digress.

After a 23 year hiatus, the re-read fell a bit short. My first read was in my late 20’s in Italy as a single guy working for Microsoft. I was searching for something and hungry for guideposts. The Alchemist spoke to me on many levels. At that time, it did help me move in the right direction. Re-reading it today at 52 with three children, an ex wife and multiple careers behind me the context was a bit off. When I read the story around the same time as “the boy” it was motivating and engaging. Today it seems a bit naive and idealistic.

Yet I still rate it 5 stars. Not every book has to connect with me the same way every time. This is truly one of the top ten books anyone under 30 must read. In a weird way I might also put it on the list for those over 50 who are looking for an “act three” in life to also read. For at the core it is a story about moving on, about taking a risk, about having faith, about re-discovering what you know but lost. Despite setbacks it is never too late to regain faith. Go ahead, you won’t be disappointed.

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Review: The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho

The PilgrimageThe Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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A couple weeks ago I had a long car trip so I caught up on pod casts. One of the backlog was the Paulo Coelho interview with Krista Tippett for On Being. I read The Alchemist years ago and rehearing the story and Coelho’ deep spirituality I decided to read some of his other books. I had also been considering walking the Camino de Santiago and wanted to read more about The Way.

Unfortunately, I was thoroughly disappointed in The Pilgrimage. Ok, it was his first book, written very late in life. But there is nothing special about the book. No great insights, no great narrative, lots of weird magical plot lines without much context. It is unclear how much of the story is supposed to be allegory (as he perfected in The Alchemist) and how much is memoir. I found the story unengaging and plodding. I only finished it to write this review, not because the story was enjoyable or interesting. If you are you read The Alchemist and are looking for more of the same, go forward in his works, not back to The Pilgrimage. Give the Pilgrimage a pass.

There are a few tidbits of appealing philosophy tucked into the book, but they are surrounded by ramblings and magical sword searching so as to be almost unrecognizable. For example,

” Changing the way you do routine things allows a new person to grow inside you.”

“We kill our dreams because we are afraid to fight the good fight.”

“The first symptom in the process of killing our dreams is the lack of time. The second symptom of the death of our dreams lies in our certainties. …the third symptom of the passing of our dreams is peace.”

“All of us seek eros, and then when eros wants to turn itself into philos, we think that love is worthless. We don’t see that it is philos that leads us to the highest form of love, agape.”

I also found the exercises Petrus gives Paulo during the trip to be useful. I have tried them all. While not as spiritually transformative as daily meditation, they are interesting diversions. Try them.

Review: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe: On Homecoming and BelongingTribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I heard about this book from a couple pod casts and an NPR interview. Then Sebastian was in my town on a book tour. I had read his other books and was interested in one core idea that seemed quite revolutionary. Could PTSD be primarily not about trauma but about loss of purpose and poor social reintegration ?

That rang true to me. Junger explains this Thesis very well and documents historical and research to support the thesis. Basically there are well known ways to get through trauma but they lean on basically a communal society’s where everyone feels some sense of common duty and shared responsibility and every person has a way to contribute. In modern America with all our independence and two party systems and stratified work place and closed hate neighborhoods and private schools and single apartments and single occupancy vehicles, how is someone supposed to feel a part of anything?

This book will give you a brain work that will be hard to get rid of. In. A good way.

Review: Life on Purpose, Victor Strecher

Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes EverythingLife on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything by Victor J. Strecher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Been reading alot of positive psychology books lately. As well as thinking quite a bit about what i want to do when I grow up. Am very interested in the science behind purpose and how having a purpose changes your life and even more importantly how to get focus on a purpose that makes sense and doesn’t overwhelm you. Victor does a good job in the first part of my questions, a very bad job on the second. This book has alot of his own science and research on the value of purpose in life, work, etc. He also spends quite a bit of time talking about the wonderful companies he has started to commercialize his work (two of which are now owned by Johnson and Johnson), all of which are focused on employee performance (the enterprise – where the money is). If you mostly care about purpose to drive your work career forward, you will find lots of justification for hiring his companies to do that for you in this book. In many ways, this book seems like a sales job for his enterprise software company, Jool Health.

If, on the other hand you are looking for some practical ways to develop purpose in your personal life, this book fails to deliver. While he proposes a framework of positive habits that support development of purpose : Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, and Eating (SPACE), there are no detailed interventions only high level platitudes like “meditation is good” and “more sleep is good”. The analysis and direction of how to develop purpose is missing. I actually thought that would be part of the book, but it is sorely lacking.

If you want to understand Strecher’s framework for Purpose, read this book. If you are looking for how to develop or define purpose in your own life, go find another book.

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