In Memory of Neil Peart

Image courtesy of Pitchfork

Friday afternoon, I sat at my desk working at my computer, when my phone buzzed—a text from a friend. Normally I just keep working on what I’m doing and check messages when I’m done, but this time I decided not to wait.

“Hey man, did you hear the news about Neil?”

Oh, no. My heart sank. No way.

A quick Google search later confirmed my feelings of disbelief: Neil Peart, legendary drummer from the rock band RUSH, dead at 67.

I was stunned. I am still stunned. It took me all weekend to process this.

No, that just can’t be true!

Let’s rewind for a minute. We’ve sadly seen the deaths of many great artists these past few years, from Tom Petty to Prince. Now, while I have great respect for these musicians and the bodies of work they’ve produced, and I of course hated to hear that they had passed on, I didn’t feel any great sadness about any of these losses.

This time, though, I get it. In fact, I got it—a punch right to the gut and a hole ripped out of my heart, to be precise.

I’ve written about how I became acquainted, and later infatuated, with the band RUSH in a separate post. I don’t intend to reiterate any of that here. However, when one looks at the band RUSH as a whole, what they represented, and the ethos that drove them almost non-stop through their forty-plus year career—at the center of it all was Neil Peart.

RUSH existed before Neil joined the band. At the time, they were a three-piece rock band out of Toronto that had just cut their first album, which was very Led Zeppelin-esque with hard-rocking riffs and lyrics about girls (with a working-class song thrown in for good measure). Just as they were about to embark on their first big tour, then-drummer John Rutsey quit due to health issues.

Enter our hero.

Had circumstances not worked out the way they did—had John Rutsey stayed with the band, or had Neil continued to work at his father’s farm equipment shop and not auditioned, or had the band decided to go with someone else—I seriously doubt that RUSH would have gone on to do the great things they did.

You see, Neil brought two things to the band that they didn’t have prior: hard-hitting, precision drum technique; and imaginative, thought-provoking lyric-writing. Had it not been for these two ingredients, folks wouldn’t be air-drumming to “Tom Sawyer” or quoting lyrics like “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

This in no way diminishes the contributions his bandmates, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, made to the band—RUSH would not be RUSH without any of them. But when you look at the musical and philosophical genius that is RUSH, you look center stage at Neil Peart.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Neil Peart — Ghost Rider

I’m not a drummer, but I have admired Neil ever since I heard how he could hit the skins. He revolutionized the world of drumming with kits that almost completely surrounded him on stage, playing every component at some point during the show. And his technical mastery was unparalleled—he himself compared it to running a marathon and solving equations at the same time.

And his lyrics—once I started diving into them as an adolescent, my mind opened up. These weren’t your typical “hey baby wontcha come on over” kind of rock lyrics. These were lyrics about almost everything under the sun: science fiction, real science, relationships, philosophy, everyday life. In other words, his lyrics were about the world and how we relate to it and live in it. On the whole, they accept the reality that life is hard and painful (and sometimes downright cruel and evil), but remind the listener that dreams coupled with right action can be transformative.

For these reasons—among others—Neil was, and always will be, one of the few people whom I place on a pedestal. He strove for excellence in all that he did: drumming, lyric-writing, motorcycling, cooking, husband-ing and fathering. He lived no double lives, had no double standards. (In fact, he’s pretty candid about his flaws and foibles in his books—so he’s honest, too.) He inspired me to be a better human being. And I am forever grateful for it.

Love and respect are the values in life that most contribute to “the pursuit of happiness”—and after, they are the greatest legacy we can leave behind. It’s an elegy you’d like to hear with your own ears: “You were loved and respected.”

Neil Peart — Far and Away: A Prize Every Time

Because he lived such a private life, his passing came as a shock not only to me but also to the RUSH community and the rock community as a whole. Most everyone knew that he was through playing music after RUSH’s R40 tour in 2015; tendonitis made drumming painful for him, and he wouldn’t accept anything less than his best—so he quit altogether. But none of us fans had any clue that he had been battling brain cancer for the past three years. In fact, it was three days after his death before we heard the sad news (he passed on the 7th but it was not announced until the 10th).

I knew I had to write something about the impact Neil had on my life, and I soon found that I wasn’t alone. Folks from across the RUSH fan base and the music industry have penned beautiful eulogies, telling stories about how they met him, how he inspired them, and so on. Reading these tributes from other people has reinforced to me just how much of an impact he had on so many people—and that, I think, is something he should be respected for.

So, thank you, Neil. Thank you for all the music, the words, and the wisdom you’ve given the world for so long. Thank you for being a positive influence on young men who (like myself, and like yourself) often found themselves on the outside looking in, and for encouraging them that it’s okay to be that way (in fact, that it might even be cool to be that way).

And above all, thank you for having the courage to stay true to yourself and your convictions, while inspiring others to do the same.

I’ll conclude with a fitting quote from Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame….

He was called “The Professor” for a reason: We all learned from him.

Dave Grohl

And even in the wake of his passing, may we continue to do so.

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone

2019 in Books: My Top Reads

When it comes to reading books, I’m consistently inconsistent. One month I’ll plow through ten, and the next I’ll struggle to get through one. I jump around from fantasy to self-improvement to classic literature. I have a reading list, but I’ll cast it aside to read what catches my eye or intrigues my mind.

In other words, I’m an eccentric bookworm. But I’m a proud eccentric bookworm, because it’s that eccentricity that allows me to discover and savor some literary treats that I otherwise would miss.

I read more books this year than in any year past: 106 at publishing time. Of these 106, twelve are books I had read at least once before. About half of these books I read on my Kindle, and the other half as “real” books.

Without further ado (and boring you with statistics), here are the most entertaining, most insightful, and most impactful books that I read this year. I strongly recommend adding them to your reading list for next year!

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

A childhood favorite. | Image: Amazon.com

It’s the book that introduced us to Hobbits, orcs, and the world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien wrote it for children, so it’s an easy read for us adults (and also a great story to read aloud to your kids). But make no mistake; it’s just as entertaining for grown-ups as it is for kids.

While I like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have to admit that I’m more partial to The Hobbit. To me, at least, it’s more driven because it’s more concise, and one doesn’t have to dive into Tolkien’s lore to understand what’s going on. I first read it when I was eleven or twelve, and while I liked it then, I enjoyed the tale much more the second time around.

I enjoyed rereading the story of Bilbo Baggins, a stay-at-home Hobbit who turns into a world traveller and a great adventurer. It’s a reminder to all of us that it’s easy to fall into the comfort of a mundane routine, but that there’s so much more out there in the great big world to see and experience. And you never know; you might find your true calling out there somewhere. But you never know unless you step out of your front door.

One of my favorite quotes was what Thorin said to Bilbo before he died:

There is more of good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

A great book from a great writer, and after reading it I now understand better (for the first time, perhaps) why people esteem Tolkien so highly. And now I do, too.

The Apology by Plato

Bust of Socrates dating from the 2nd century A.D. on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin. | Author’s work.

This is not a book of its own, but rather an essay by Plato. Plato’s mentor Socrates is on trial for being impious and corrupting the minds of the Athenian youth, and Plato records Socrates’ defense (Greek apologia, hence the title) of himself before the Athenian court.

Whether historically accurate or not, it is an excellent introduction to the man Socrates and his manner of reasoning. With a good translation, it’s also very readable and understandable.

The Apology paints Socrates as a man of conviction, standing firm in his beliefs despite the court’s opinion. It’s one of the greatest speeches I have ever read, and very quotable. Below is one of my favorite excerpts, one that sounds like it could have inspired William Wallace’s famous speech in Braveheart:

I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought I or any man to use every way of escaping death. Often in battle there can be no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.

Propaganda by Edward Bernays

Who’s pulling your mindstrings? | Image: Kobo.com

Want to know how the world works? I mean, how the world really works? How companies, organizations, and governments manipulate public opinion?

While the title calls to mind Communist posters designed to promote hard work and ultimate devotion to the motherland, the book’s subject matter is not as sinister as it sounds—at least on the surface. It was written in the 1920s, when the term “propaganda” didn’t have the negative connotations that it does today. The target market for the book was businesses, specifically marketers.

Bernays breaks down how companies can influence people to buy their products. For example, he explains how the latest high fashion trends from London and Paris are designed by a few people, promoted via prestigious fashion shows, and then suddenly and inexplicably become desirable by the population at large (because “it’s what everyone else is wearing”).

While directed towards businesses seeking to improve advertising effectiveness and public relations, the strategies in Propaganda can also be (and have been) employed by political parties and governments. Bernays himself worked hand-in-glove with the United Fruit Company and the CIA to start a coup in Guatemala in 1954—all to sell more bananas and create a favorable image of Central America in the minds of Americans.

The excerpt below should scare you a little bit:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

It’s an extremely relevant read in the Information Age we live in, where “fake news” is the buzzword and we don’t know who we can trust. If you want to understand how the designs of the few can shape the way the majority thinks, read this book. And then remember to think for yourself.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

A classic illustration for a classic tale. | Image: Wikipedia.org

When I started this book, I didn’t know it was going to be about a dog. Normally, I don’t read dog stories because I’m too fond of man’s best friend (meaning I don’t like stories with dogs that die, like Old Yeller), but since this one came highly recommended, I decided to give it a chance.

The Call of the Wild really surprised me. It took me a bit to get into it, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. (The last half, to me, read easier than the first.) While I’m not sure how accurate London’s portrayal of Buck the dog is in light of what dogs are capable of, it still makes for a good story with highs and lows alike. London must have seen firsthand many of the behaviors, interactions, and fights detailed in the book, as everything is described in vivid detail. (That said, I believe I’ve read that London was prone to exaggeration.)

This is either an excellent book for dog lovers or a terrible one–excellent because of how well London writes about dogs and their relationships with man, and terrible because of the brutality that the dogs are afflicted with, and that they afflict against each other. It’s a “survival of the fittest” kind of story.

If you like high adventure, this one’s worth checking out. If you’re a little bit softer than I am and don’t like stories with bits of animal cruelty (even if it’s the animals being cruel to each other), I’d probably give this one a pass. I, though, will definitely read this one again at some point.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. 

This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Who wants to go to Arches National Park with me? | Image: Goodreads

I decided to pick up this book after reading about it in Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, and also in conjunction with the trip Daniel and I took to Zion National Park in March. I actually took the book with me but didn’t get any time to read it during the trip. (Though I did see it for sale in the Zion gift shop, which is ironic, as you’ll read below.)

Upon returning, I cracked open Desert Solitaire and it enhanced much of what I experienced in Utah. It explained a lot about the natural history of the area, specifically the area around Moab and Arches National Park.

As an environmentalist, Abbey writes candidly, very candidly. It’s a raw read, but a good one. He criticizes pretty much everything and everyone at some point: American standards, capitalism, American wars, Christians, Mormons, The National Park Service (his employer!), the human race, you name it.

While I don’t think all of his heavy-handed, broad-brushed statements are correct, I can certainly understand how he feels justified in saying what he does. This is a book that makes you think about what’s being done to protect nature (and whether what’s being done is really protecting it, or merely making it easier for consumers and tourists to ruin it by urbanizing it).

Aside from all that, Abbey goes on some interesting adventures throughout, including herding cattle on horseback and an expedition through Glen Canyon, which is now Lake Powell. (He has a high opinion of John Wesley Powell, but not of the lake that bears his name or the dam that created the lake or the people who built the dam.)

I thought this book was very much worth reading, especially now that I’ve seen some of Utah myself. I look forward to maybe reading it again someday, perhaps after a visit to Arches National Park. It’s also prompted me to check out more books by Abbey this upcoming year, including The Monkey Wrench Gang and The Good Cowboy.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Original German title: Im Westen Nichts Neues (Nothing New in the West) | Image: Penguin Random House

I read parts of this book in my tenth-grade English class, but never the whole thing. (I also had a broken nose at the time, which temporarily distracted me from my grades!) I remembered it being simple in prose, gritty, and grim.

I read it again and agree with that assessment. This is a book that I think every person needs to read at some point. It simply and purely shows that war is hell. I could sum the book up in those three words, but they still wouldn’t do it justice.

What amazes me, reading this over a century after World War I and nearly a century after its publication, is how Remarque hits around what we call PTSD now, and what they called shell-shock back then. There was no diagnosis for it, but it was every bit as real then as it is now. He does a great job of describing the thoughts and feelings and actions of soldiers, mostly young boys and men, who are exposed to atrocious things and commit the atrocious acts themselves. While Remarque wasn’t necessarily on the front lines or in the trenches as much as his protagonist is, he had to have been there somewhat in order to paint such a vivid picture, I think.

I envision a Saving Private Ryan-esque style of filming as I read this book, and much of the book, to me, could be depicted in the same style as the former’s opening scene. It’s intense, frank, and unapologetic. It needs to be, because people need to know what war is really like. War can be glorious, but this war wasn’t, and that’s why this book is so important. It’s definitely one I recommend and will likely return to someday.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What a classic (and classy) book cover. | Image: Amazon.com

Another throwback to my high-school years. I read this book in eleventh-grade English class, and at the time I liked it because it was short and easy to analyze. My conclusion at the time was that “money and extravagance cannot buy one love, nor can they win back lost love, nor do they provide any ultimate happiness or meaning.”

I reread this book in a span of four days (probably could have read it quicker if I wasn’t simultaneously reading other books), and I have to say that I read much deeper into it this second time around. I realized how interesting and deep Fitzgerald made the characters, how their motivations are communicated through their actions and words. I also found myself relating quite a bit to the narrator, Nick Carraway, especially in the opening chapters when he tells about himself and says that he is the only honest man he ever knew.

For such a short read, it’s a great character study and life lesson. It shows the extravagance of the jazz age and the emptiness of it all when all is said and done. It shows how we cannot recreate the past, or expect the present to fix the past or to fix the past in the present. It shows how desire leads men and women to do extraordinary (if that’s the right word) things. Parts that didn’t make sense to me as an eleventh-grader make sense to me now.

I will likely read this book again sometime in the future, and I’m sure then I’ll glean even more from it than I did on this second read. It’s a classic for a reason, and I can understand how it inspired other great authors such as Ernest Hemingway.

There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Bullfighting and drinking and wandering, oh my! | Image: Amazon

Speaking of Papa Hemingway, one of his works made my list, too. The Sun Also Rises is fiction, but closely based on his travels with fellow expats through France and Spain during the 1920s. There’s romance, bullfighting, soul-searching—and a whole lot of drinking. (Fun fact: The title derives from Ecclesiastes 1:5 in the Bible.)

“Everybody behaves badly.” That could summarize this novel to some extent. I thought it was a good character study (maybe that’s what “the classics” and “literature” are, character studies), but there wasn’t much of a plot. It reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby, which indeed inspired it, just set in Europe. I suppose it does represent the “lost generation” well: No one seems to know what they want in the novel; everyone appears lost to one extent or another. They spend most of the novel going from place to place, café to café, hotel to hotel, drinking and getting “tight” (drunk) at various stages.

The character of Robert Cohn was interesting, and I think everyone can relate to him a bit (not accepting that other people won’t live and act the way you want them to). He reminded me of a more aggressive but less-informed Jay Gatsby, which makes me wonder how much inspiration Hemingway did draw from Fitzgerald.

The bullfights were less brutal than I expected, but still brutal to both livestock and humans, nonetheless. I’m glad I’ve never attended one. (I’m no PETA activist, but I don’t understand why angering a bull and then killing it is considered entertainment—much less subjecting other innocent animals like steers and horses to the bulls’ horns.)

In terms of prose, I found The Sun Also Rises very easy to read, and the dialogue is snappy and realistic. (These are two trademarks of Hemingway’s writing style.) Though there wasn’t much plot, and though I started getting bored with everyone being listless and drinking all the time, I stayed engaged for most of the story. It made me want to visit France and Spain, as well as read more of Hemingway’s work.

I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I really like the use of Caspar David Friedrich’s classic painting Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog for this cover. It fits the story very well. | Image: Amazon.com

Here it is, the classic monster tale that spawned dozens of films and—arguably—the genres of horror and suspense. But let’s get one thing cleared up from the get-go: Dr. Frankenstein is the man who creates the monster, not the monster itself. Got it? Good.

Going into this book, I thought it was going to be antiquated and a bit of a bore. I was pleasantly surprised and found it very entertaining, though still a bit antiquated. It reminded me a lot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (another must-read) in terms of prose, dialogue, and suspense. I also think that the Outsider from Dean Koontz’s Watchers was based in no small part on Frankenstein’s monster.

I think the common conception of Frankenstein’s monster is that he’s this slow, bumbling thing walking around with its arms outstretched—kind of like a zombie. In the book, nothing could be further from the truth. Frankenstein’s monster is agile and intelligent—and that’s what makes him really scary. He even speaks! The fact that Shelley gave the monster feelings, and cognizance of his own conscious, amazed me; I did not expect that at all.

Overall, though a little too verbose in places and definitely Victorian in prose, this is an excellent story and completely worth the read. Any fan of horror, thriller, or suspense stories should crack this one open and enjoy reading from the source.

I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Learn the superpowers of persuasion, then use them for good. | Image: Amazon.com

This book provides a fascinating look into some of the primary ways that people are persuaded to do things that they otherwise might not. The author, Robert Cialdini, is a psychology professor who realizes that sometimes the people who understand the human mind best are (surprise!) marketers and salesmen. Thus, he starts investigating how companies sell products and extrapolates six persuasion techniques used across disciplines: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on human behavior and one that I’ve added to my bookshelf. It’s in an advertiser’s best interest to study these methods of persuasion from an advertising and marketing standpoint; at the same time, it’s in everyone else’s best interest to study these same methods of persuasion in order to resist the methods that are employed (wittingly or unwittingly) against them.

It’s interesting to me to understand how people work and think and react, and how they can be “hacked” when the human “operating system” and its loopholes are understood. The most amazing thing? The mind’s “operating system” is never upgraded, so the same techniques that worked to persuade fifty, one-hundred, or even one-thousand years ago still work today. All this to say, it’s a great book.

All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality…and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he wins, you win.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Is it the only book you need to lead you to success? I’m not sure, but it is one of them. | Image: Damico Gallery

I debated reading this book because Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, wrote about how it’s not necessarily good advice for introverts. Having now read this book for myself… I beg to differ. I think Carnegie proffers some of the best advice on how to deal with people and be liked. (Regardless of extraversion level, that’s what we all really want, isn’t it?)

If I could only own one self-improvement book, it would probably be this one. It’s that good. I’ve already started implementing some of the things I’ve learned and seen the results in real time. It’s great! I’ll be rereading this one for years to come, and studying it and recommending it for sure.

I only wish that I had read it earlier, like in high school when I really needed it. I’m thankful for men like my former boss who taught me some of these “soft” skills before I read this book, as I had already started implementing them and seen improvements in my relationships. Now, with the knowledge gained from this book, I feel I can do even better. In fact, I know I can, and I will. I can’t say enough good things about this book.

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Original German title: Die Verwandlung | Image: Wikipedia.org

The Metamorphosis is Franz Kafka’s most renowned work, and it’s really a novella rather than a full-length novel. It’s about a young man named Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning transformed into a hideous insect, and how his transformation not only affects himself but also his family.

I read part of this book as part of my German studies in college, but never finished it. I restarted it and read the whole thing in one morning, in about an hour excluding interruptions. I found it interesting as the story progressed, then sad and a bit depressing at the end. (No spoilers, but I will say that Gregor never transforms back into human form.)

I thought that there were two metamorphoses in the story: Gregor’s, and his family’s. Gregor’s metamorphosis is pretty obvious: He turns into a bug. His family’s, on the other hand, is slightly more subtle and much more nuanced.

His family “accepts” him for a short while and cares for him, then eventually grows to detest him in his insect state. But as the story progresses, his family—who began the story almost completely dependent on Gregor for their income—begins to grow and improve because they can’t rely on him anymore. His father gets a job, as do his mother and his sister. They would never have been as happy as they were at the end of the story had Gregor never turned into a beetle. Sadly, Gregor pays the price when his family disowns him, whether implicitly at the beginning or explicitly at the end. (Again, no spoilers.)

For such a short read, The Metamorphosis was much more thought-provoking than I anticipated it to be. I’m glad I read it, I can’t say that I “like” it, but I did enjoy it. I may read it in German next.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

What a way to start a story.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

If you’re not American, it’s the “Centre” of the earth. | Image: Amazon.com

Jules Verne. The very name conjures up images of submarines and sea monsters, hot-air balloons, and—in this case—subterranean creatures.

There’s no mistaking that, for his time, Verne was the master of the adventure story. He had a vivid imagination and could put his characters in all kinds of fascinating places on earth, under the earth, and beyond the earth. He also had an uncanny ability to foresee scientific achievements like the moon landing, and one wonders whether the Breitling Orbiter 3 (first balloon to circumnavigate the globe) was inspired by his work.

Journey to the Center of the Earth started out pretty strong, and was interesting throughout. It had some high points and some low points, and on the whole kept a fairly believable plot. A scientist discovers mysterious runes that indicate a passage to a subterranean world, so he and his nephew and their Icelandic guide set out to discover it.

The book did have some segments that I thought were too melodramatic (which I chalk up to the literary trends at the time). I found the story interesting, though the characters were pretty flat. And, unfortunately, I read the transliteration, not the translation. Apparently the “translators” took many liberties with the character names and plot, adding and removing scenes as they saw fit. As the old Italian saying goes, “Traduttore, traditore!” Or in English, “Translator, traitor!”

I now want to read the translated version and compare it to this transliterated one to see how different it is, and also to get a much better feel for Verne’s true writing style. And, I later learned, there is a small controversy on how many of his books were adapted into other languages, and my understanding is that there are some more authentic translations of his works starting to come out. So, if you’re a Verne fan, or just like classic sci-fi adventure stories, keep your eyes out for those.

Overall, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a good, adventurous book for all ages. Just see if you can find a version that’s more authentic to the original than I did!

Science, great, mighty and in the end unerring,” replied my uncle dogmatically, “science has fallen into many errors—errors which have been fortunate and useful rather than otherwise, for they have been the steppingstones to truth.

Clockwork Lives by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart

The cover looks way better in person. In fact, this is one of the best-crafted books I’ve ever seen. | Image: Amazon.com

For those who don’t know, I’m a big RUSH fan. I’m also a big fan of Neil Peart, RUSH’s (retired) drummer, one of the most insightful and eloquent men on the planet. Naturally, when RUSH releases a concept album and an accompanying novel, I listen and read!

In 2012, the Canadian progressive rock band RUSH released their nineteenth and final studio album, Clockwork Angels. Musically, it’s everything RUSH fans love: heavy, hard-hitting, and yet full of soul and spirit. It’s a perfect swan song to an almost-unbroken forty-year career.

Along with that album came the novelization of the story, also titled Clockwork Angels, written by renowned sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson. Anderson has written many books in franchises such as Dune and Star Wars, and based his first novel, Resurrection, Inc., off of RUSH’s 1984 two-minutes-to-midnight album Grace Under Pressure. He’s been a friend of the band ever since.

In summary, Clockwork Angels tells the story of a young man named Owen Hardy, who lives in a “clockwork universe,” where everything occurs just as it is dictated by the Watchmaker, who has banished chaos from the world in order to generate a semblance of stability. But the one type of chaos the Watchmaker cannot banish is the human desire for adventure, which causes Owen to buck against the preordained life he lives. A riveting adventure in this straitjacketed steampunk universe follows. And for those who dig classic works and philosophy, this novel is a retelling of Voltaire’s Candide.

Clockwork Lives is a fantastic follow-up to Clockwork Angels. This story follows Marinda Peake, a young lady who is perfectly happy living her life in a clockwork universe, whose life is turned upside-down when her father dies and leaves her a mission: She must venture forth into the wild world, out of her comfort zone, and fill an alchemical book with the stories of the people she meets. Only when the book is full will she be able to receive her father’s inheritance and live happily ever after.

The word I would use to describe both these books is “charming.” There is a strong sense of the classic fairy tale in both. They’re almost lighthearted enough to be like children’s adventure tales, but also serious enough to remind readers that life is tough. The universe that Anderson and Peart set these stories in is fascinating, one that I would really like to explore myself.

For Clockwork Lives, I liked the way Anderson approached the stories of multiple characters through the story arc of one major character (Marinda Peake). Some characters from Clockwork Angels are revisited and fleshed out in greater detail. Others are new. All provide great insight into the “one of many possible worlds,” and eventually into Marinda herself.

There are beautiful illustrations throughout, and reading the hardcover edition is a pleasure in its own right. The gilded red cover makes it feel like a long-awaited treasure and the pages, while new and crisp, look like antiquated parchment.

This was a fun, inspiring read. I will definitely read this one again, probably shortly after I read Clockwork Angels again. I’m hoping for a third book to round out the series!

As if he could sense her impatience with fanciful tales, old Arlen tried to bring the stories closer to home. “Since you’ve never found Atlantis interesting, I’ll tell you about wondrous places right here in Albion.”

“It sounds interesting enough, Father,” Marinda said as she gathered their bowls, wrapped the last of the bread, and cleaned the kitchen. “But Atlantis and even Albion are too far away for me to bother with.”

“Too far away? What is the distance of dreams?”

The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz

Think big and do big things! | Image: Amazon.com

You’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat”? Well, this book posits that “You are what you think.”

To me, The Magic of Thinking Big was a lot like How to Win Friends and Influence People in many ways, but had its own twist. Whereas the former is geared primarily towards how to act towards others, this one is geared towards how to act towards yourself.

I picked up this book based on an excerpt I read from Donald Trump’s bestseller The Art of the Deal. Trump writes the following:

I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big. Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning. And that gives people like me a great advantage.

That statement made so much sense to me. Most of us box ourselves in with our thinking: “I could never do that.” “I’ll never be good enough.” “That’s impossible.” I started thinking about it, and then lo and behold, I came across this book.

Schwartz lays out some great information about how the mind works and how to really think big. A lot of the information also overlaps what I’ve read in books like The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, such as how to think and act and understand what one’s unconscious (or subconscious) wants. In my opinion, when you start reading the same concepts in different books, you ought to pay attention.

It’s the kind of thinking that Schwartz advocates that allowed great people to invent cars and airplanes and put man on the moon. It’s this kind of thinking that builds business empires and multiplies value and wealth. And it’s this kind of thinking that, against all odds, created the great nation that I call home.

While this is a great book, it’s also one of those books that you can’t just read once and be done with. I read it over the course of several weeks in an episodic fashion, so I didn’t get the best “big picture” view. I need to go back and review sections and stitch them together so that they make sense in the bigger picture. Schwartz also provides some great checklists and questions for self-improvement that I know I should review and implement.

All that said, I’m very glad I read this book. And I’m constantly challenging myself to think big.

Believe it can be done. When you believe something can be done, really believe, your mind will find the ways to do it. Believing a solution paves the way to solution.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Talk about a killer cover. | Image: Goodreads

A gritty, modern take on the classic Western, The Sisters Brothers came highly regarded. It met all my expectations for it and even surprised me a bit, too (which is usually not a bad thing).

The story is a simple one: Charlie and Eli Sisters are two brothers who work as assassins. Eli is very strait-laced, and Charlie is more like a loose cannon. What starts out as a mission from their mysterious boss named the Commodore to kill a creative prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm turns into many misadventures for our two antiheroes. And the story doesn’t turn out at all like you’d expect.

Two words that come to mind for this book are “dark” and “strange”. There is some brutal violence, but it’s not nearly as bad as something like Blood Horizon by Cormac McCarthy. And certain aspects of the story are just, well, weird, with an element of the supernatural.

That said, I liked how well deWitt brought the characters to life, giving them each their own unique personalities that come through in their actions and voices. I really liked how he crafted the relationship between Eli and Charlie, and how it changed as the story progressed. These characters felt real all around.

The story itself really threw me for a loop; I was expecting a flash-bang kind of ending but it wound up being rather mellow by comparison, and that’s not a bad thing. I expected a lot more killing, and suspected that trigger-happy Charlie would be killed, but for two assassins, I think the total body count was only nine or ten. (Okay, now that I think about it, that is a fair body count, and some of those killed were innocent.)

Overall a great book, and now one of my favorite Westerns. I put it up there with No Country for Old Men in terms of grittiness and non-traditional plot. If you like Westerns and/or you like stories that go in unexpected directions, you might enjoy this one.

Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.

The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

A good book to keep next to your checkbook. | Image: Kobo.com

There are so many personal finance “gurus” out there that it can make your head spin. All these folks put out advice, and many times that advice is conflicting. You’ve got to be careful out there!

Dave Ramsey is one of the few personal finance people whom I will listen to. I don’t know that I agree with all of his advice, but what he says does make sense and is grounded in sound Biblical teaching on money and wealth. So, I figured it would be worth my time to read his book on how to manage money and debt.

I found The Total Money Makeover extremely actionable for one’s finances. I’m not in a deep a debt hole like many people are, but this book has inspired me to work hard and eliminate debt from my life while saving for the future.

Dave encourages working hard to pay off debt, because debt is slavery (Proverbs 22:7). You never own your car, you never own your house, etc. The plan he puts forth, coupled with hard work and dogged determination, can help someone dig themselves out of debt and achieve financial independence.

I’m not well-versed in anything financial, but I do agree with Dave on many things. With the exception of a mortgage, debt is not a good thing. Student loans, auto notes, credit cards… it’s very easy to put yourself in a place where you’re paying creditors for much of your life while not having much to save for your future.

I also agree with Dave about working hard to pay debt off and/or accumulate wealth. Outside of a regular ol’ forty-hour workweek, there are tons of ways to make extra money. Most people wouldn’t consider delivering pizzas on the weekends for another hundred bucks, but when you’re drowning in debt, you’ve got to be vicious.

To this point, I’ve been trying to establish a solid credit score in order to buy a house in a year or two. One way I did that was to take out an auto loan through my credit union in order to build my FICO score—my only debt so far in my life. While this strategy has worked out pretty well, I don’t want to be under the bank’s thumb any more than I have to be, nor do I want to be making car payments for the next three years—so I’m reevaluating my strategy in light of this book.

One thing I disagree with Dave on is credit cards. Dave sees them as a quick way to get into debt trouble—which may be the case for some people. I see them as a way to get free stuff—in my case, rewards points or air miles. That said, I only buy what I can afford to pay off at the end of the month; my cards don’t carry a balance.

All that said, The Total Money Makeover is a great book that can light the fire inside and get you motivated to rule your money—because either you rule your money, or your money rules you. I’m glad I’m reading and learning this stuff now, rather than when I’m thirty or forty years old. But even then, it’s never too late to start making changes.

If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Another enticing cover. | Image: Amazon.com

Watchmen is like what you get when the Justice League grows up—I mean, really grows up. And maybe sells out to the American government.

Taking place during the height of the Cold War, Watchmen tells the story of a group of washed-up caped crusaders who are trying to figure out why they’re being snuffed out one by one. These are not your parents’ superheroes. These heroes are deeply flawed and, dare I say, human like the rest of us (partly because only one really has “superpowers”). Some are flawed to the point of being antiheroes, if not villains themselves.

Having read Alan Moore’s other great graphic novel, V for Vendetta, I wanted to give this one a shot. I’ve never been much into graphic novels, but they do offer a different reading experience than the novels that I’m used to. It also allows for a different kind of storytelling, relying just as much on the illustrations as on the dialogue.

I can’t say that I liked nor enjoyed this graphic novel, but it was interesting and thought-provoking—and I enjoyed it in that sense, if that makes sense. It deals with some heavy subjects and deals with them well. I thought the story and characters were well-crafted. I didn’t like all elements of the plot, nor did I like how gritty it sometimes got, but I did press on, and it was worth it.

It’s well-written and well-illustrated; there’s no doubt about that. I am glad I read it, and I do see how it raised the bar for the graphic novel. I recommend it if you like anything to do with superheroes (assuming you haven’t already read it) and don’t mind some R-rated content.

Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.

Rohrshach

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

One series to rule them all. | Image: Amazon.com

Well, I started this rundown with Mr. Tolkien; I figure it’d be fitting to end it with him as well.

Nothing needs to be said about The Lord of the Rings. It’s a classic that stands alone, having created the modern fantasy genre as we know it and inspired countless other books, movies, and games. It’s a treasure trove for people who love diving into world-building and lore. And for people like me who are more “casual” readers, the overarching story has a lot to offer.

There’s a unique sort of magic in these books, and something that resonates with every reader. Whether it’s the undying loyalty of Samwise to Frodo, the brave dutifulness of Aragorn, or the overarching battle between good and evil, The Lord of the Rings has something for everyone.

I first read the series when I was about twelve years old. Dad told me I had to read the books before he would let me see the movies, so I did. At that age, much of Tolkien’s rich storytelling went over my head (partly because I just wanted to see the movies!). Rereading it this year, I gained a greater appreciation for just how well he writes and keeps the reader engaged.

I’m most familiar with the first book in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s also the one that was hardest for me to read. I thought it took a while to get going, and because of that there were many times I wanted to just stop and put it down. But the pace does pick up as the story progresses.

The Two Towers is the ideal second book. Things aren’t going well for our heroes on their quest (otherwise, what kind of a story would it be?), and they aren’t sure how to continue. It is here that Tolkien starts enhancing the story of Aragorn as “the chosen one” while also following Frodo and Sam on their journey to destroy The Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Tolkien is almost telling two (or three) separate stories at this point.

The Return of the King is my favorite in the series, probably because everything happens so fast and the plot keeps rolling right along. There are battles, intrigue, covert operations—a little bit of everything. And while the reader instinctively knows how the story will end, Tolkien does twist things just a bit to keep them interesting.

For anyone who has seen the movies but not yet read the books, you must. For anyone who falls into the other camp, go watch the movies. They complement each other very well, I’m happy to say.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Bilbo Baggins, hero of The Hobbit and uncle to Frodo Baggins. It sums up the series very well.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Conclusion

There you have it! A year in books. I hope this gives you some ideas for what to read in 2020, and that you will enjoy any or all of these as much as I did.

My 2019 Everyday Carry (EDC)

Everyday carry. EDC. It’s a term used by ex-military folks to describe items carried on a daily basis, and it evokes images of concealed-carry handguns, MOLLE packs, and anything else tactical or tacti-cool.

That said, the term EDC is gaining more prominence among those of us who are not ex-mil and even among those of us who are not particularly tacti-cool. If you think about it, we all have our own EDC, even if we don’t call it that.

Gents, you need only check your pockets. And ladies, you need only look in your purses. Whatever you can pull out is EDC. It’s stuff you carry around with you every day.

Thanks to some good Black Friday deals, I’m upgrading my EDC for 2020, but I wanted to share what I’ve carried on my person for 2019. In fact, not much has changed in my loadout over the past couple years because it’s served me so well.

Keychain

Keeping keys together with carabiners.

I bought a rather inexpensive carabiner keychain on Amazon many moons ago. It works great for me because I have to carry a lot of keys. It’s not the slimmest thing in my pocket, but it’s not bulky either. I’d prefer something slimmer, but I really can’t do anything about the number of keys I carry, so I’m living with this for now. I do like the ability to quickly clip and unclip my truck keys on the main carabiner, and quickly take off keys as needed.

Multitool

Possibly the most versatile of my EDC items.

Clipped to my keychain is a Leatherman Micra multitool. This little guy is perhaps the most-useful item I carry on my person every day. He’s come in handy hundreds of times, from opening packages to tightening screws to trimming and filing my fingernails. I’ve even used the tweezers to remove bee stingers.

I received my first Micra for Christmas over a decade ago, and carried it everywhere I could. I lost it sometime during college and missed it so much that I bought another one within a week.

There’s a lot to like about the Micra, but a few features I think are under-appreciated are the engraved ruler (Imperial and international units) on the frame and the fingernail file. No, it’s not a Swiss Army knife, but it’s got what I need. And, assuming I don’t lose it, I know it’ll last me a good, long time.

Wallet

My Flowfold wallet, just a little rough around the edges.

I got tired of cheap leather or faux leather wallets falling apart every couple years, so I upgraded to this one from Flowfold several years ago. It’s made out of sailcloth, which means it’s durable and water-resistant. As a testament to its design, it looks the same today as it did the day I bought it, aside from the creases earned during its natural life. It even floats! (No, I have not tested that!)

It’s not the most stylish thing out there, but it’s arguably one of the most functional. I can stuff more than a dozen credit cards into it (and no, I don’t have a dozen credit cards either) and a load of bills, and it keeps asking for more. I try to keep it slim though, because it fits better in my pants. It also has RFID protection, which helps keep my cards safe from fraud. Never a bad thing.

PocketMonkey

You’ve heard of putting a tiger in your tank? Well, now you can put a monkey in your pocket.

This is a new addition to my EDC, and one I haven’t had to use yet. I bought a PocketMonkey for my dad for his birthday, and didn’t realize the order came with a second one. So, I did what any reasonable man would do and slipped the second one into my wallet.

This little gadget is the size of a credit card but can do a lot. It’ll open bottles, tighten screws and bolts, and even help you wind your earbuds. You can combine it with a credit card to make a makeshift phone stand (though in my experience, use a card you don’t mind getting scratched up).

Funny story: I forgot this was in my wallet when I went to Europe this year, and it made it through airport security in America, the EU, and Britain (the ultra-secure London Heathrow airport) without so much as a batted eyelash. While it is actually TSA-compliant, I don’t know if I’d try my luck again. But that’s information to keep in your back pocket (pun intended).

Phone

It may not be the newest or most attractive thing out there, but it’s tough and it works. Complete with finger smudges on the screen!

Okay, yeah, we all carry phones, so this one’s mostly a given. But I have to extol my LG Escape 3 for being such a trooper for the three years I’ve owned it.

Despite its storage being almost full, it’s still snappy and reliable and it doesn’t even feel like it’s aged. It’s endured temperatures as high as 110° F and as low as -8° F and been with me everywhere from airplanes to camping trips. I don’t see any reason to upgrade until it gives up!

My philosophy on a lot of things, especially on technology, and on phone-buying in particular, is that it’s best to buy something that’s going to last you for a long time. I know that sounds strange given that I was an IT troubleshooter in a former life and that I’ve written a book about computers, but hear me out.

Companies like Apple plan obsolescence into their phones so that you’re forced to buy a new one every few years. That’s how they make money. Plus, they market things as being “new” and “updated” (they are to an extent)—but that doesn’t mean that your phone is automatically old and outmoded.

Buy a good phone, take care of it (meaning don’t drop it in the toilet), and it should last you a long time. Don’t hop on the “latest apps and features” bandwagon and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and needless stress.

Didn’t mean to step on my soapbox, but I felt like that was an appropriate place to air my opinion. Onwards!

Knife

Smith & Wesson make a fine “urban survival” knife for only $20.

Okay, now we’re finally getting to something that’s real EDC, right? Knives!

My EDC knife of choice has been something with a glass-breaker and a seatbelt cutter, simply because I live in a more urban environment and I’m more likely to need to cut a seatbelt than I am a piece of rope. I like that such a knife enables me to rescue myself or someone else from a car wreck, though hopefully I’ll never have to.

I started the year with an M-Tech knife that my dad gave me for Christmas a few years ago, but the clip broke off and the spring mechanism wore out. I replaced it with the closest thing I could find at The Knife Shoppe, which was a Smith & Wesson 1st Response. It looks and feels solid, and I like the grippy scales. It’s sharp enough for my needs—the toughest thing I do with it is cut apart cardboard boxes before recycling them. And I really like the thumbscrew for opening the blade.

I used to carry this knife in my back pocket, which is where most Texans carry their blades of choice. Next year, I’m planning to keep this one exclusively in my vehicle as a rescue knife and carry something else on my person. Stay tuned….

Watch

I’m amazed that Casio can make G-Shocks as tough as they are at the prices they sell them.

This year, I started a (small) watch collection and I can see how easy it is to spend a lot of money on timepieces. As mentioned, I’m all about buying for life, and I’d rather buy quality than quantity, so my collection will remain a small one of superb pieces.

In an era of smartwatches, there is still no replacement for a quality wristwatch. While the smartwatch you’re wearing will be obsolete in a couple years (meaning you’ll have to buy another one), a well-made wristwatch can last you a lifetime. And I don’t think even the most stylish smartwatch can rival the elegance of an analog timepiece.

My go-to, everyday watch is my G-Shock GA1000 Gravitymaster Twin Sensor. (I just call it my G-Shock!) I bought it last year for a pittance and it’s been nothing but tough and timely. I could probably write a whole essay about how much I like my G-Shock, but instead of boring you, I’ll just summarize the main points:

  • Analog and digital timekeeping (meaning it has hour, minute, and second hands as well as a digital display)
  • World-time mode for tracking time in other time zones
  • Chronograph, timer, and alarm functions
  • Long-lasting lume (I can read it in pitch black eight hours after light exposure)
  • Built-in digital compass and temperature sensor (very handy when outdoors)
  • Tough as nails and reliable as heck
  • Antimicrobial and comfortable watch strap
  • Water-resistant up to 20 bars (200 meters)

It’s big, almost too big for my smallish wrist, but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I dig the overall look, especially the aviation-inspired design of the mode dial.

Maybe someday I’ll acquire a G-Shock with an altimeter, if only for the cool factor of having an altimeter and barometer strapped to my wrist. Also, this model requires a battery change every two or three years depending on usage, while others are solar-powered. As with most things, you pay more to get more, but I’m very happy with my G-Shock and I don’t know anyone who has ever been unhappy with theirs.

Backpack

Still in great condition five years later, but you can see it’s been around the block a few times.

I’ve been carrying this SwissGear backpack for over five years and it’s a tank. I know I’ve had to carry fifty-plus pounds of books and gear around during college, and this bag didn’t complain in the slightest. The stitching is rock-solid all around, especially on the straps. The zippers may require coercion when the bag is stuffed, but they don’t break!

Given, there are some things I don’t like about it: When loaded up, it looks bulky and can cause achy shoulders. (I wish it at least had a chest strap, if not a waist strap, to place the weight on the back rather than the shoulders.) It’s also not the most stylish backpack out there. But it holds a lot, keeps stuff dry, and shows very few signs of wear after I’ve worn it all over the place.

Due to changing needs (I’m no longer schlepping textbooks around campus), next year I’m switching to a messenger bag for EDC, so I’m retiring this backpack from active duty. That said, I’m still keeping it for that odd occasion that I need (or prefer) a rugged and reliable backpack.

Kindle

You can see I’ve got A.J. Baime’s Go Like Hell queued up. After seeing Ford V Ferrari, it’s worth a second read.

I never know when I might have some down time to dive into a book. Sure, I could read on my phone or carry a tablet for greater versatility, but I prefer the e-ink display of my Kindle Paperwhite. It’s more like a real book and much easier on my eyes—not to mention that it won’t distract me with notifications or tempt me to spend my time surfing the Web.

My Kindle Paperwhite has 4 GB of storage, which I’ve heard equates to somewhere around one-thousand books. It has a backlit touchscreen for reading in the dark, though I find the backlight hard on my eyes sometimes. My first Kindle didn’t have a touchscreen—buttons only—and it could be a pain to navigate, so I think the touchscreen on this one is one of this model’s greatest features. I like that I can use my finger to highlight words to get immediate definitions; it’s also great for books like War and Peace where the language changes a lot, because you can highlight words and phrases for translation.

I just have a relatively inexpensive faux leather case for my Kindle. There are fancier ones, yes, but this one provides adequate protection. I’m also unwilling to pay a lot for a case for something that I may upgrade a few years down the road.

I’ve loaded my Kindle with a small library of books, so I never worry about being bored anymore. I don’t know that I’ll ever get through them all, but to quote The Sun Also Rises, isn’t it pretty to think so?

Book

He’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

Even though I have a veritable library on my Kindle, I always try to have a real, physical book with me—a paperback, if possible. There will never be a replacement for reading words on paper and flipping pages.

The kind of book I carry varies from week to week. One week it might be a work of fiction; the next it might be history or philosophy. I do own several books, but more often than not I patronize the local library for books to tote around. I check out a book, and if I like what I read, I may then buy it—shelving space permitting.

Lunch bag

Fortunately, the stains are on the backside!

I’ve used this bag well for several years now, at least since I started college. My mom bought it for me from The Container Store way back when. It fits decently inside my SwissGear backpack and keeps food cold. What more could you want from a lunch bag?

Unfortunately, this bag has some irremovable stains, so I’m also going to retire it from active duty at the end of the year. Also, since I’m upgrading my EDC pack to a messenger bag, I’m planning to upgrading my lunch bag/pail. Stay tuned on this one, too.

Earbuds

My brother’s old EarPods are my current pair of ‘phones.

Did you know that wired earbuds are old-fashioned now? No? Well, apparently they are. Wireless rechargeable earbuds are where it’s at.

I don’t have a beef with wireless, but I like the convenience of a pair with wires. And my phone still has the standard 1/8″ (3.5 mm) audio jack (unlike the new iPhones!), so it makes sense to keep using them. These used to be my brother’s, but he gave them to me when he upgraded (because his phone is one of the new iPhones that doesn’t have the audio jack!).

I don’t plug in and tune out much, but when I do, I use these. They sound good; they’re neither too trebly nor too bassy. And they have a built-in microphone for taking calls, a feature I don’t use very much but find convenient nevertheless.

I grew up listening to music cranked through my dad’s old Technics hi-fi stereo, and I’m convinced that the only real way to listen to music is through this kind of system, because you don’t just hear it—you also feel it in your body. But since it’s impractical to carry a big stereo around and impolite to blast your music for all to hear, these earbuds do the trick.

Pens

A handful of pens, with a drawing pencil, a mechanical pencil, and a Sharpie to boot.

What’s more embarrassing than needing to write something down but not having a pen? (Yes, lots of things, but this is pretty bad, too.)

I’ll admit that I don’t carry a pen on my person, so I don’t always have one readily available. The exception is that sometimes, when I’m wearing a jacket, I have a pen in one of the pockets. But I always have a writing utensil in my bag.

I’d say most of the pens in my arsenal fall into the category of finders-keepers, rescued from uncertain fates on classroom floors and in lecture halls. I’m not particularly attached to any of them, but none of them are bad pens, either. They’re standard fare, they get the job done, and I won’t be sad if I loan one to somebody and they don’t give it back.

To this point I’ve not carried any special or tactical pens. I have a $10 tactical pen that looks deadly but doesn’t write worth a flip—so I don’t carry it. A lot of people swear by Fisher space pens, so that may be something I acquire next year.

First Aid

Unused and unopened, thankfully.

A couple years ago, I took a Red Cross first-aid class because I wanted to learn the basics of first aid and CPR. After the class, I decided to buy a mini first aid kit and a CPR breathing barrier—better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them. Thankfully, I’ve not needed to use either so far. They’re both lightweight and compact enough to carry around and almost, but not quite, forget about.

Gideon’s Bible

Did you know they could make Bibles this small? Well, they do have to take out most of the Old Testament, but this is perfect for sharing God’s Word with someone.

I’ve got Bibles on my phone and my Kindle, but this one doesn’t need batteries.

For those that don’t know, the Gideons are an organization composed of Christian men who distribute Bibles free of charge. They’re the ones who place Bibles in hotel room drawers. They hand out these small orange Bibles at public schools (at least in my state, where it’s not a crime or politically incorrect to do so), and that’s where I acquired this one.

I carry it for two reasons: One, to read in the event that I can’t use or don’t have my phone or Kindle; and two, to give to someone else who needs it more than I do. And should I give it away, I’ll just acquire another one for the same two reasons.

Planner

Planner and pen to keep me on task.

I’m big on having to-do lists and keeping track of appointments. I do place reminders in my phone calendar, but I prefer a planner for ease of use. And, like the Gideon’s Bible, this doesn’t run on batteries.

If I have something I need to do on a specific day, I’ll write it down in my planner. Every night before bed, I’ll go over the next day’s to-dos and objectives, and make note of anything I didn’t get done that current day. Rarely do I get everything done in one day, so I also aim to take care of the “leftovers” first on the next day.

I bought this planner for $1.99 at my local Half Price Books. In the past, I’ve used 5″ x 8″ planners but I thought I’d try this smaller format this year. It’s okay, but I like having more space to write and take notes, so next year I’m going back to a larger one.

Flashlight

This Nitecore P12 is about 5.5″ long and 1″ in diameter.

I have two very bright, tactical flashlights. The first is a Nitecore P12 that is longer and looks more like something a law enforcement officer would carry. The second is a less-menacing Soonfire (Chinese knock-off of Surefire) that I picked up before my trip to Europe. Each is good in its own right, and both have a max output of 1000 lumens.

I like the Nitecore because it’s big and bright. It feels good to hold, with enough weight to have substance but not so much that it’s heavy. It has four brightness settings and is powered by two rechargeable batteries. My first one disappeared somewhere and has likely (hopefully) been found by a happy new owner. I bought a second because I like the design so much.

This Soonfire E11 is 4.3″ long and 1″ in diameter, just a wee bit shorter than the Nitecore.

The Soonfire has a different set of uses and features. It’s shorter than the Nitecore and is a gunmetal gray rather than a tactical black. It has five brightness settings plus two strobe modes. I bought it specifically for traveling, and it’s made it through American, British, and European airport security with no problems. It’s also rechargeable via USB, which means I can use the same cable to charge my phone, tablet, and this flashlight. That’s brilliant (pun maybe intended).

Which one I carry depends on what I’m doing that day. Normally I’ll carry the Nitecore simply because it’s what I’m used to. But the Soonfire is easier to pocket and takes up less space in a bag, so I may reach for it when I need to carry it in my pants pocket rather than a bag.

Computer Glasses

These glasses have saved my eyes. No kidding. Gunnar didn’t even pay me to write that.

A new addition for this year, I bought these glasses from Gunnar, a company that specializes in eyewear for computer users and gamers. I’ve always had problems with bright light and especially with light from monitors and TVs. My optometrist didn’t think that these would do me any good, but let me tell you that my experience has proven otherwise.

I tried using blue-light filters on my computers, but they only helped a bit. I’ve also followed the 20-20-20 rule: “Every twenty minutes that you’re in front of a monitor, take twenty seconds to look at something that’s twenty feet away.” That also helped, but didn’t solve the problem.

I figured there wasn’t much to lose, so I ordered a pair of prescription Gunnars with the amber lens tint. On the first full day I used them, I noticed an immediate difference. No eye strain, no dry eyes, no headaches. No more staying off the computer after work because I simply couldn’t stand looking at a screen anymore. No more avoiding watching TV with my family.

These are the real deal, and you can quote me. I’m not even paid to write this; I’m just amazed and thankful that someone designed this product. They are now an essential and permanent part of my EDC.


And that’s it! It seems like a lot when it’s written out, but I’m so used to carrying it around every day that I don’t even think about it—that is, until I create a list like this and start revising my loadout.

What about you? What’s an indispensable part of your EDC? Do you think I should add anything to my list?

Two Weeks Abroad: What I Learned

Prague, a very fairy tale-esque city (in the Grimm-est sense).

Nearly six weeks ago, I boarded an airplane bound for Europe where I would spend my first time abroad, living out of two bags for two weeks. This was the fulfillment of a life goal (older people call them bucket-list items!) I had had since I started learning German in high school—to visit Germany and, more generally, Europe. Even though I was over two years out of formal German education and my language skills were not what they used to be, this trip happened at the right time, in the fullness of time.

First, a bit of a backstory: I had started monitoring airfare through a subscription-based service called Scott’s Cheap Flights, and I quickly learned that it’s always cheaper to travel during off seasons or “shoulder seasons” in your destination of choice. For Europe, this means visiting during spring or fall, not during the peak tourist seasons of summer and winter. (Why would you want to be very hot or very cold while surrounded by thousands of other tourists anyway?)

In March, I got my first taste of shoulder-season airfare: round-trip tickets to Amsterdam for the fall in the $500 range. I spent too much time debating whether to spring on the deal or not that the deal eluded me, much like how an animal eludes a hunter if the hunter hesitates. Eli Wallach said it best in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!”

Fortunately for me, another deal came around in May: $600 round-trip to Prague on American Airlines, my preferred airline. This time I sprang, and sealed the deal. I had about five months to prepare for my first trip overseas—which also happened to be my first solo trip, too.

I spent quite a bit of time reading travel books and travel blogs so I could know what to expect from wandering around alone in a foreign country. But there’s no replacement for first-hand knowledge, so even though I had equipped myself, I still had to go and experience.

I could write another travel blog post about the top ten things to do in Munich or Berlin, but that’s not very unique, and it’s not what I like to do. Instead, I want to enumerate, if possible, the big things I learned from this trip. Whether you’re planning a trip or are a seasoned traveler, I hope you enjoy this list and take something away.

A beautiful house and flower arrangement in the quaint Bavarian town of Oberammergau.

1. Look like you know where you’re at, even if you have no clue.

It’s very easy to look like a tourist. Simply buy a guidebook and stand in the middle of a city square while paging through said guidebook, looking confused as you’re trying to figure out where the heck you are.

Although I consulted Rick Steves’ excellent book, Europe Through the Back Door, I left it at home. Instead, I made notes on my phone about how to get from place to place, which busses and trains to take to get to various places, and good restaurants in each city. I loaded my phone with maps of public transportation routes for all the cities I would be in; this way, I could consult them on the fly without rummaging in my daypack for a map.

This is a really good way to look more like a local—or at least someone who’s not a tourist. Everyone has their head in their smartphone these days, and it’s a lot less conspicuous to consult your phone for information than it is to whip out a guidebook and flip through pages like a madman. If you’re using your phone, the people around you don’t know whether you’re checking a map or checking social media.

Why is this important? Because, especially in large tourist destinations, con artists and thieves prey on unwitting tourists. Someone may come up and ask if they can “help” you, only to demand money for their “services” once they’ve “helped” you. Pickpockets can take advantage of you while you’re distracted. (More on this in a minute.)

So, look like you’re not lost, even if you are. And if you are lost, approach someone for directions—don’t let them approach you. In my experience, Europeans are more to themselves than Americans are (especially here in the South and Southwest), and they don’t readily offer help to visitors. But if you ask, most are happy (or at least obliging) to assist you.

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate at sunrise, before all the tourists flock to it.

2. Keep moving.

In a crisis, the first thing you want to do is “get off the X,” to use CIA terminology. In travel, you want to do the same.

This goes along with the previous point about looking like you know where you’re at. If you’re trying to get from Wenceslas Square to the Charles Bridge, don’t just stand around and try to figure it out. Start moving somewhere, and correct if necessary. (In Europe especially, lots of attractions are in a city’s center or old town, and are so close to each other that a slight course correction won’t ruin your day.)

Staying in one place for too long can attract attention of thieves and con artists. If you need to stay put, find a bench to sit on or go into a restaurant. Preferably, hang out in an area where police or security guards are on patrol. Keep all your belongings in sight and by your side at all times.

A shot through one of the garden paths of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

3. Be suspicious of everyone (in a good way).

Most people do not want to rob you, and even fewer want to kill you. But you want to be aware that, as a foreigner and a tourist, you are automatically a high-value target for seedy individuals.

I have no problem with dropping coins in a beggar’s hat. What I do have a problem with is giving money to people who approach me—especially if they invade my personal space.

This happened to me in Bratislava in a Metro station. As I was walking through, a man came seemingly out of nowhere and nearly stood chest-to-chest with me. He muttered something in Slovak—I knew it was money he wanted—but I brushed him aside and kept moving forward. If I had stopped, even to try to understand him, he could have had a partner somewhere behind me try to pull my wallet.

Yes, it seems rude, and yes, it seems heartless, but you’ve got to look out for yourself first. If you’re going to take a guilt trip for not giving to an audacious individual, drop a few coins in a beggar’s hat.

Bratislava Castle in Bratislava, Slovakia.

4. Equip yourself with knowledge.

Do you tip or not in Germany? What about in Austria? The Czech Republic? And if you do tip, how much is appropriate?

It’s questions like these that stump a lot of foreigners and can lead to some cultural faux pas. Fortunately, there are hundreds of answers to these kinds of questions online, and any good guidebook will contain this kind of information as well.

Don’t be that guy (or gal). Brush up on cultural norms before you leave and you can be confident that you’ll be more like a local and less like a tourist. Plus, the locals will like you more, and you’ll gain a better appreciation for local customs.

(Since I’m sure you’re wondering, the answer to the tipping question is that no, you do not have to tip in these countries because the “tip” is rolled into the purchase price, so what you see on the menu is what you pay. However, it’s a courtesy and a convenience to round the price up to the nearest whole Euro, or higher if the service was exceptional. I, for one, much prefer this method to the American tipping system.)

Another shot of Prague by night, taken from the Charles Bridge.

5. Carry at least one change of socks and underwear in your personal item.

My trip started on a bit of a sour note when American Airlines forced me to check my bag on the first leg of my trip. The 757 ran out of overhead bin space, so I handed my bag off to the gate attendant at the jetway. Unfortunately, due to my bag being mislabeled and a flight delay that led to a tight connection, my bag did not get checked through to Prague, my final destination. That meant I landed in the Prague airport with only the clothes on my back and the few personal belongings in my personal item. What a way to start a trip, eh?

I bought a few articles from H&M and got by until I got my bag back—three days later—but my trip would have been a lot less hectic had I at least had a few things in my mini backpack. I’ve talked to other travelers who have run into similar situations and they all agree to carry at least extra socks and underwear, if not a complete change of clothes, in your personal item.

Sometimes you stumble across lovely views, like this one in Oberschleißheim outside of Munich.

6. Most people are helpful.

I arrived in Prague without a functioning cell phone because my international SIM card was in my lost bag. As a result, I had no way of contacting the manager of the apartment I was staying at.

Fortunately, I managed to communicate my predicament to a tenant in the apartment building. Overcoming the language barrier, I asked her to call the manager and, long story short, help me get checked in. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but a good experience in the end. The lady was very kind and genuinely wanted to help me out. I thanked her in broken Czech as best I could, and then she stayed with me and talked to me in broken English while we waited on the apartment manager to arrive.

I think that most people are willing to help those in need, even if there’s nothing in it for them. Actually, there is something in it for them—the good feeling of helping another human being. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, and pay it forward by helping a fellow traveler or a foreigner in your own town.

The Deutscher Dom and the TV tower behind it. Grand designs if I ever saw any.

7. Avoid big crowds, but also avoid being alone.

As with most things in life, a balance must be struck. In terms of travel, I found it important to strike a balance between the crowds of tourists and the lonely side-streets of major cities.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either situation, but both have inherent risks. In a crowd, it’s easier to get jostled around and lose something or be pickpocketed. I remember one instance in Munich where a gentleman bumped into a passer-by and unknowingly dropped the glasses he was holding in his hand. I and a few other pedestrians stopped him and gave him his glasses back.

When you’re all alone, especially if you’re traveling solo or in a small group, you feel isolated and could become a target for beggars and thieves. If you’re unfamiliar with the locale, you could be walking into a seedy area that you’d best avoid. I remember turning down one desolate side-street in Prague where a guy appeared to be cat-calling both women and men. Needless to say, I doubled back and found a different route.

If possible, hang out in places where there are groups of people, but not crowds. Don’t let people get too close to you, but don’t get isolated either. And, as before, be aware of places where police and security are—and aren’t.

If you think this photo of Schönbrunn Palace is beautiful, it’s even more beautiful in person.

8. Have at least a two-hour layover between flights.

I had a two-hour layover in Philadelphia, which I thought would give me plenty of time to eat dinner and chill out before my overnight flight to Prague. And it would have, had my flight to Philly not been delayed.

A thirty-minute delay due to a lack of cabin crew turned into an hour-long delay on the Dallas tarmac, as Philly was experiencing bad weather and our flight had essentially missed its arrival window for a gate. Altogether, I had about thirty minutes to deplane and traverse two terminals to make my next flight.

It turned out that my flight to Prague got delayed due to maintenance, so I did have time to eat and decompress a bit. Lesson learned: If you have to change planes, having at least a two-hour layover allows time for flight delays and other incidents.

Just a typical street in Bratislava’s old town. Note the lack of tourists!

9. Carry a flashlight and a money belt.

A good flashlight serves as both a means of light and as a weapon. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it for the latter, but let me explain.

I own two “tactical” flashlights. One is a Nitecore that looks like something a SWAT officer would wear on his belt, and the other is a Soonfire (probably a Chinese knock-off brand) that I bought expressly for this trip. Both put out extremely bright beams (the Soonfire can illuminate at up to 1000 lumens), far more than your average flashlight does.

The Soonfire flashlight (probably a knock-off) that I bought in a pinch.

The Soonfire is smaller and looks less tactical, and I assumed (correctly) that it wouldn’t arouse any suspicion from airport security in any airport. When sightseeing, I could slip it in my pants pocket comfortably and inconspicuously. It also is rechargeable via USB, so I didn’t need to bring any special charge cables or buy batteries; I could use the same cable I use for my phone.

It came in very handy when staying at the apartment in Prague, which had no exterior or hallway lighting (until you found the hall light switch, that is). I also used it a few times to check that none of my belongings had fallen under beds, and when digging through my bag inside a darkened airplane.

The flashlight doubles as a weapon in two ways. Firstly, its beam on the highest setting can temporarily blind an assailant. All it takes is a flash in the eyes, and an attacker will be reeling backwards in disorientation, giving you enough time to fight or flee. Secondly, should you need to fight, you can use the butt of the flashlight as a blunt weapon, or similar to a kubaton. This gives even those of us who are relatively unskilled in hand-to-hand combat an advantage—a strike to the temple or sternum with this will incapacitate even the strongest neer-do-wells.

Next, the money belt. I learned this tip from Rick Steves, and it turned out to be a good one: Buy a money belt with RFID (radio-frequency identification) protection and wear it underneath your pants. Place items you don’t want to lose, such as a passport, credit cards, and cash, in the belt and leave the belt there all day.

The Venture 4th money belt with RFID-blocking design. A great buy.

The money belt is pickpocket-proof and after a while you’ll forget you have it on. Keep the cash and cards you need access to throughout the day in your normal wallet. Yes, your normal wallet is still fair game for thieves, but you don’t want to be digging into your waistband every time you need to pay for something.

For guys, you can place your wallet in the front pocket of your pants for added security. Or, you can just carry loose cash in your pocket and dispense with the wallet altogether. In this case, a money clip might be a good idea.

For gals, carry a purse or handbag by all means, but you should still have a money belt with your essentials just in case your purse gets lost, stolen, or pickpocketed. If you’re not wearing a skirt or dress, you too can slip some cash for the day into your front pants pocket, which makes it easier to retrieve.

Flowers decorating the streets in Wittenberg, Germany.

10. Learn the basics of the local language.

Learn the basics of reading, writing, speaking, and listening to the local language. Yes, many people speak English, but not all do. In general, the more rural the locale, the fewer people that know English.

I recommend using apps like Duolingo or Mango Languages to learn the basics. I had no problem in Germany and Austria (because I know German at an intermediate level), but ran into language barriers left and right in the Czech Republic. If only I had spent more time learning some Czech words and phrases, I wouldn’t have had these problems.

My one souvenir: A Graf Zeppelin watch purchased from the Deutsches Museum. It was meant to be.

11. Pay with cash.

Other countries are not like North America—not everyone accepts credit cards! Yes, hotels and most dining establishments will, but you can’t expect the family-run trinket shop to have a card reader at the checkout counter.

My advice—and I also learned this from Rick Steves—is to pay with cash. You can either acquire foreign currency through a bank before you leave for your trip, or visit an ATM when you arrive. I went the ATM route and never had any issues.

Always use ATMs that are secure. Local banks will have ATMs inside their establishments that are monitored by CCTV cameras, whether on the street or at the train station. I avoid using ATMs that are just along the sidewalk, as you don’t know who could be surveilling you or whether the ATM has been skimmed.

If you can, use a debit card with low or zero foreign ATM fees. If you can’t, withdraw enough cash to make your ATM fee negligible. This also prevents you from having to make multiple trips to the ATM throughout your stay.

Don’t travel without a credit card and debit card, but always carry cash with you. Spend down any extra cash before you return home, as you will likely have a hard time converting it back when you arrive. Airport currency exchange kiosks are notorious for giving terrible rates.

Breakfast in England: Truffled toast at Heathrow.

12. Carry reminders of home and stay in touch.

In the olden days, soldiers off to war would carry photos of their wives, girlfriends, and families. They’d write letters when they had down time. The modern equivalent is having photos of loved ones on your phone and calling or FaceTime-ing when you’re both awake.

I found traveling alone to be an awesome experience that I think everyone should have, but it did get lonely at times. To combat this, I stayed in contact with friends and family back home through Google Hangouts, and was able to call and text this way. I’d put on my favorite music in my hotel room to remind myself of home, or check local news websites just to see what was going on back in Dallas.


Hopefully these tips equip you and inspire you to get out there and have some adventures. Benjamin Franklin noted that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the Boy Scouts advise us to be prepared, so take these things to heart and get prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally for travel. That way, you can travel more carefree and enjoy the moment!

Yours truly at the fairy-tale castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein in Hohenschwangau, Germany.

The 2019 Bell Fort Worth Alliance Air Show

Airshows are a tradition in my family, and every year we make our best effort to attend the annual one at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth. With Fort Worth being home of two major aerospace and defense companies—Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin—their products feature prominently in both static displays as well as in the live performances. And that also means that many other squadrons, units, and other organizations send planes out for the big event every October.

I enjoy taking good photos. I’m no expert, far from it, but I’d like to think I know how to frame a shot and polish the end product just a bit. So to give you a taste of airshow excitement (especially if you’ve never been to one before), here are the best photos from the day.

Mig 17 vs. Ferrari. Which would you rather be in?
A different kind of fire truck.
Former Red Bull Air Race pilot Kevin Coleman.
An F-16 Viper pilot showing us how it’s done.
Viper Moon?
David Martin and Mike Gallaway.
The one-of-a-kind Yak-110: two Russian Yak-55 aerobatic planes conjoined at the wing, with a rocket added for good measure. Why not?
The F-22 Raptor with afterburners on.
Bombs away!
The U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight. From left to right, top to bottom: A-1 Skyraider, F-22 Raptor, F-16 Viper, and P-51 Mustang.
The new Bell V-280 making its airshow debut!
And it wouldn’t be an airshow without the Blue Angels to wow the crowd.

If you enjoyed these photos, find an airshow near you and go when the opportunity comes around!

A Letter to Myself, Age 23

Tomorrow marks another trip around the sun for me. This time I’ll be twenty-four years old. That’s kind of a cool number: 24 hours in a day, 24 elders before Christ’s throne (Rev. 4:4)—and growing up, Jeff Gordon was my favorite NASCAR driver in his #24 DuPont Chevrolet.

As I thought back on the past year, I realized how much I’ve experienced, how much I’ve learned, and how far I’ve come. I’ll be honest: Age 23 was a tough, trying year. I asked myself questions I never thought I’d ask because I felt things I never thought I’d feel. (Welcome to the real world.)

But I came through the darkness back into the light. I am in a much better state of mind as the meter rolls over once again. And I’d like to think I learned some things along the way.

As a way of recollecting, I decided to write my 23-year-old self a letter. It’s the letter I probably wouldn’t have expected at the time, yet it contains everything I would need to know to get through this rough patch of life.

And instead of journaling it and tucking it away to get musty on a shelf, I am writing it publicly in the hopes that perhaps it will help you, too.

Without further ado, here it is.

Dear Matthew,

Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished so far. You’ve worked so hard to be where you are today, and now you’re starting to enjoy the fruits of your labor after all these years. Having a job and a stable income, with some spending money to boot, is a birthday present all on its own!

For your birthday, I want to give you something more important than money, and that is wisdom. Not just any wisdom, but some lessons I’ve learned that you’ll do well to keep in mind as you go through this next year.

You see, for better or for worse, you’re about to enter what is going to be the darkest time of your life so far. I don’t mean to scare you, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it, either. I know you’d rather have someone tell it to you straight. I know—I do, too.

But you’re not going to go into this blindly. I’m not going to tell you everything that you’re going to experience, but I am going to tell you what I’ve learned after coming out on the other side. This is by no means the ultimate guide to life, but I think it’s the guide you’re going to need for this season that God’s about to allow you to be in.

The first thing you’re going to feel is a sense of helplessness. Even though you’re well-off financially, you’re going to feel that your life—your career, your future—is out of your control. You’re going to feel like someone else—a man, The Man—is running your life. You’re going to feel trapped in a job you don’t want to be in, doing things you don’t want to be doing. And being the independent-minded individual you are, you’re not going to like that feeling. You’re not going to like it at all.

As a result of this helplessness, you’re going to start feeling that God has abandoned you. You’re going to call out to Him—cry out to Him on many an occasion—and you’re not going to hear an answer. It’s going to make you question your life and your faith up to this point. You’re going to start to wonder whether He led you to a stream of water that’s suddenly dried up—and now He’s nowhere to be found.

To quote a Styx song, you are going to feel like a man in the wilderness.

The good news is, there’s hope—both in this life and in the next. You confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that guarantees you eternal life with him. Just remember that one day, all this pain is going to be washed away, and he will dry every tear from every eye.

“That’s great to know,” you’re going to say, “but I’m still living in my earthly body! I’m dealing with problems in this life, not the afterlife!”

And you’re right. So let me offer you what I’ve learned from the wilderness so that you can survive it, too.

First, the question is not whether God has abandoned you, but whether you have abandoned Him. I’m not going to speculate—you know where you need some work. Start by getting on your knees and rededicating yourself to Him. Do this daily, every morning right when you get out of bed. He wants to be number one in your life, so put Him first—and don’t even have anything else on the list.

Second, understand that life is full of pain and suffering. You don’t need to look very far to see this. It’s a result of The Fall, of sin entering the world and corrupting God’s very good creation. Until Christ returns and sets things right, this is a fact of life.

Along that line, don’t try to find some deep meaning in life except for God. Nothing else will satisfy. It might fill you up for a bit and make you feel good inside, but before long it will leave you feeling empty and depressed—longing for more, for something else. The wisest man in the world said so himself: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!”

But that same wisest man also said that to fear God and keep His commandments is the end of all things. In other words, that’s the meaning of life—of every life, including yours. Fear God and keep His commandments. This is the duty of all mankind.

Outside of that—listen to your emotions. If you feel strongly about something in your heart, pay attention to whatever it is. Especially if you feel it in your solar plexus—what one might call your “heart of hearts”.

But be sure to use some logic and reason before you go off and make a decision based on emotions alone. You could make a serious mistake and derail your life—your job, your career, your future—for years to come.

The exception is a “gut feeling”. If you feel something deep in the pit of your stomach, regardless of what it is, follow that instinct. It’s the strangest thing, but you’ve got to do it.

Now, aside from that, you need to strive for optimization in all four aspects of your life: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Being sick or out-of-shape in one will start to affect the others, and your whole well-being will deteriorate.

Exercise consistently. You don’t have to work out every day; two or three times a week will do. But be sure to push yourself so you can become stronger. Don’t stagnate—that’s a great way to become mediocre in any aspect of your life. And the neat thing about working out is that it stimulates the other aspects of your life. It’s also a natural stress-reliever!

Do things that mentally stimulate you. Read books—you enjoy doing that anyway, so carve out time to read. But be sure to read books that you enjoy, or that edify you in some way. If you don’t like book, stop reading it! There’s no law that says you have to finish it!

Oh, and keep your German skills sharp. You never know when they may come in handy. In fact, consider working on another language in your spare time. You’ve wanted to pick up some French—maybe even Koine Greek or Ancient Hebrew—so why not start now? There’s no better time than today.

In terms of emotions, one of the most powerful things you can do is to choose to be a glass-half-full person. Yes, you can choose to be positive. The lenses that you wear determine how you perceive the world. And you live in a vibrant, colorful, bountiful world that God has given mankind dominion over! Celebrate that! Celebrate life every day! Celebrate all the possibilities that you have!

Also, surround yourself with positive people as much as possible. That’s not to say that you should cut negative people out of your life completely—sometimes that’s not feasible, and even if it is, it’d be pretty rude to do so. But you have to look out for your own emotional well-being, and if that means spending less time with people who drag you down, then so be it.

On the flip-side, always be an encourager. Listen to those who, like you, are walking through the wilderness. Remember that each of us is fighting our own battle of survival every day. Have mercy and compassion, and show the love of Christ to everyone you encounter.

And I’ve already addressed the spiritual aspect somewhat. Pray every day, read the Bible every day, and obey the Lord’s commands. Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.

In all things, strive for balance. Strike a balance between work and play. Strike a balance between producing and consuming. Strike a balance between order and chaos. (Have one foot firmly planted on the shore of order while you dip your toes into the sea of chaos!)

Take things one day at a time. Live for the day while keeping an eye on the future. Again, strike a balance—between today and tomorrow.

Remember that you have only one life, and that there’s a unique place for you in the grand scheme of things. So, while I don’t advise you to make rash decisions, if you feel like you’re the square peg trying to fit into the round hole—make a change! Do something different! Take a step, even a small one, towards what you think you were made to do.

I’ll wind this long-winded letter up by saying that you’ve always navigated through life by finding out what you don’t like to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. On the cusp of age twenty-four, I still haven’t found that “one thing” I love to do above all else. You may never. And that’s okay. As long as you can find pleasure in your work, your play, and your people, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. In fact, if you can manage that, you’re already a wealthy man!

Oh, one last thing: Never let go of your dreams. They are what drive you when you’re down. I happen to believe that they’re uniquely yours, given to you by God Himself. Keep that boyish gleam in your eye, that roguish smile on your face, and don’t chastise yourself if you catch yourself looking out the window and thinking about what could be. Do what you can to make those dreams reality. Follow them, even if it will take years to get to the end of the trail. It’s better to wonder “What if I hadn’t?” (which you won’t) than to wonder “What if I had?”

That’s all I’ve got for now. I think this is enough for you to chew on and digest over the coming year. You’re young and you’ve got a big, bright future ahead of you. (Look at all that you’ve accomplished already!) Just don’t let a few black clouds obscure those silver linings.

Stand firm,

Matthew

Don’t Judge People by Their Titles

Back in high school, I was a member of my school’s Christian organization. Every Tuesday at lunch, we met in Gym B to hear a local pastor or church leader give a mini-sermon or devotional. Usually these sessions focused on a topic relevant to high-schoolers, but sometimes we had studies in other areas (such as other religions and apologetics).

I was one of a small handful of guys who volunteered to be “sound guy.” Every other Tuesday, I had the privilege of leaving class ten minutes before lunch to set up the small soundboard, microphones, and dual PA speakers for our little worship band and the speaker du jour. This also meant that I got to meet a lot of the speakers as I was setting up or taking down the equipment.

One Tuesday meeting in my sophomore year drew a larger-than-normal crowd. A prominent religious leader was coming to our humble campus to speak about the Book of Revelation. Everyone was excited. I was excited, not so much because of the gentleman’s prestige, but because I looked forward to hearing what such a studied, esteemed man had to say about one of my favorite books in the Bible to study. And I was running sound that day, so I’d get to meet him—and maybe even discuss Revelation with him a bit!

I remember him being escorted from the front office into the gym by a couple students on the leadership team. He stood around and talked to our group president and some of the other officers as I sound-checked the praise band. Once I finished setting up, I excused myself for a minute so I could introduce myself to our honored guest.

“Hi, my name is Matthew,” I said, extending my hand. “It’s great to meet you!”

He shook my hand and said likewise. I then asked him a question about prophecy being fulfilled in Revelation—something I had heard that linked the popes to the seven kings (cf. Revelation 17), and admittedly I can’t quite remember what the question was.

What I do remember was his answer.

This esteemed leader smirked, scoffed, and used an ad hominem against the man who purported the theory I asked about. “Most of us scholars don’t regard him as reliable because he gets drunk.” And that was that.

I sat through the meeting and listened to his talk on Revelation, elementary as it was, but at that point most of what he said was lost on me. I didn’t feel much respect for him based on the way he’d dismantled my question without even answering it.

I may have asked a dumb question, but he treated it like one. Instead of enlightening my ignorance, he widened the gap between his knowledge and mine. And in doing so, he not only espoused his pride—he lost a potential fan.

Remember, this is a distinguished man in the Baptist denomination. This is a man revered both by Christian academics and by laypeople. And I’m in no way trying to denigrate him wrongly.

But I feel like a got a glimpse into that man’s true soul that day, when I asked him that question. That may be a glimpse that few people have had—I don’t know. But that glimpse told me, despite all his titles and accomplishments, that he was inauthentic.

Imagine my surprise when, last year, evidence emerged stating that this faith leader may have defended sexual abusers in the church. And even this week, more evidence—that he very likely swept sexual abuse claims against a specific pastor under the rug and tried to dumb down the accusations—came to light.

Now, I don’t harbor ill will towards this man for what he said to me that Tuesday in Gym B. Nor do I wish that he be accused of covering up sexual abuse and dragged through the mud as part of the ongoing #MeToo movement. But the sad fact is, judging him by the thirty-second interaction we had, I feel like these accusations fall in line with his character.

This taught me an important life lesson: We should not judge by titles and “reputations,” but by actions and words.

Diplomas and lofty titles look great in an email signature, but what about the soul of the man behind the desk? It’s great that everyone else esteems so-and-so—but does that mean you should, too?

I can give another example, one I can smile and laugh at in retrospect.

I took my first business class in college with a tenured professor—I’ll call her Dr. Brisk. Dr. Brisk not only had her Ph.D, but a long list of managerial jobs at some big-name companies in the Metroplex.

She seemed like a decent lady, fairly approachable after class if I had questions, but something didn’t quite sit right with me about her. I started getting the same feeling of inauthenticity that I got from the faith leader years before.

All went well in Dr. Brisk’s class until the final exam, which she decided would be online since it was the end of the semester, she was busy, we students were busy, et cetera. Admittedly, I did not study as hard for her exam as I did for others, because I had tougher classes to deal with an I already had an A in hers. But study I did, and I sat down at the library computer feeling reasonably confident in my ability to maintain that A.

At the end of the test, I was very surprised to see that I had scored a low B. Being that it was an online test (and perhaps Dr. Brisk did not configure it the way she wanted to), I got to see my answers contrasted against the correct answers. Some I could tell I legitimately missed, but there were others I was sure I answered correctly.

I realized that some of the questions (about 10%) had wrong answers listed as right ones. I knew that because many of the questions came right out of the study guides in the textbook. I took screenshots of the answers in question (no pun intended), attached them to an email, and sent them off to Dr. Brisk.

Imagine my surprise when Dr. Brisk wrote back and asked how I had been able to see the correct answers at the end of the exam. (“Because you set the test up that way, lady!”) I asked if I could have the points for the questions I missed. She said no, because the questions were programmed correctly.

I then sent an email to the head of the department and explained the situation. He wrote me a polite email explaining that the three of us (me, Dr. Brisk, and himself) would have to sit down together to discuss remediation, if any could be done. By this point, she had given out our final grades (my A downgraded to a B), and it would apparently take more effort to reverse that B to an A once the final grade posted.

I could tell from the email chain that neither Dr. Brisk nor her boss wanted to deal with me, a freshman with a cause. And frankly, I didn’t want to deal with them either. I just wanted credit for the erroneous questions so I could have my A.

In the end, I dropped it. Maybe it could have gone somewhere had I stuck to my guns. But no one else in the class complained (did they review their answers?) and this lady had tenure. It felt like it would be me against the network of good ol’ boys (and girls).

To contrast these experiences, I’ve had many great professors with Ph.Ds who genuinely cared about their students and listened to their concerns. I’ve run into the same situation before, where questions aren’t entered correctly in online tests, and the professor promptly fixed them or awarded credit when I brought it up.

I’ve also had the pleasure of knowing some really great pastors and youth leaders, many of whom I met during my time as “sound guy,” and later as group co-president. These men (yes, they are mostly, if not all, men) genuinely cared about the high-schoolers they came to speak to, and it was evident. They answered questions and prayed with students. They came back multiple times to shepherd the flock or water the seeds.

So I don’t have a jaded view of every big-wig with lots of titles, accomplishments, and work experience. I just have the ability to look past that and into their soul to see who they really are.

Jesus taught that we should not judge by appearances, but by right judgment (John 7:24). There are a lot of people these days who, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, strut their sophistication and lord it over other people. They act like nothing can touch them.

Many “plebeians” look up to these people as celebrities (or as celebrities in their respective fields) and place them on pedestals. “He’s my hero!” they might say. “I want to be like him!”

But do you really? Do you want your soul to become like theirs? Do you want to have status and success at the cost of truth and authenticity?

That’s why we all need to start judging rightly. If there’s one thing that the #MeToo movement has shown, it’s that people our society lauds are quickly cast down from grace. If people had rightly judged these wicked men and women years and years ago, we wouldn’t be in this ongoing mess.

And it doesn’t just apply to sexual harassment. Look at things in the business world like Enron and Bernie Madoff. Look at things in the realm of politics like the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s or, more recently, Operation Fast and Furious.

Once you start looking past titles and stop putting people on pedestals, your eyes open. And they open very wide. You start seeing into a person’s true self rather than the façade he wears. You start to see whether she really cares.

And you start to think for yourself by taking a solid step away from the powers of mass media and groupthink.

So, my petition to you, my rallying cry to us all, is this: “Let us judge rightly.” Not by prestige, not by empty words, not by virtue-signaling actions. Let us judge by testing integrity, by examining things said or done in private, and by not idolizing anyone.

And may truth and justice prevail.

The Ultimate Guide to Applying for Jobs Online

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A couple years ago, as I wrapped up my undergraduate degree, I started applying for jobs with local companies. I quickly realized that many of the jobs I was interested in required different résumés, some required cover letters, and nearly all had a unique application process. Soon I found myself with a dozen copies of my résumé, a half-dozen cover letters, and a version control nightmare on my hands.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way for you! Applying for a job can be stressful enough as it is, right? I went through the fire and learned the lessons, so I’ll share the top tips I have for submitting job applications to any company.

First, Get Organized

If you’re applying for a lot of jobs and have a folder with different versions of your résumé and various cover letters, it’s going to be hard to keep track of which is which. That’s why the first thing you need to do is to create a folder hierarchy.

I suggest creating a folder in your Documents folder titled “Job Applications” or something similar. Pick a title that you’ll remember best—one you won’t have to go hunting for.

Within that folder, create a subfolder for each company you’re applying at. For example, you might have a folder titled “Apple” and one titled “Google”. (Shoot for the moon, right?)

Finally, within each company folder, create yet another folder for each job you’re applying for at the company. You could have “UX Developer” and “Test Engineer” within the “Google” folder.

Within each job folder is where you’ll store the résumé, cover letter, and any other documents or information you will submit in the application. This hierarchical structure makes it easy to navigate to the exact documents you need when editing or uploading. You don’t want to upload your Apple cover letter to your Google job application—that would not be too good.

Get Your Documents in Order

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Once you have your folder hierarchy created, you can start working on your documents. If you already have a résumé, CV, or cover letter, copy it into the specific job folder and get to work. If not, start working on a new file and make sure to save it in the folder for the specific job you’re applying for.

When you save a file, your computer automatically updates the date information for the file. This makes it easy to sort by date and see when you last edited the file—which is very handy if you have multiple copies of the same file, or different versions.

To make it even easier to identify, I suggest appending the date information to the end of the filename, like this: “Matthew_Baker_Resume_08-19-19.docx”. When you make updates to the file, update the filename too.

Since I mentioned filenames, I’ll give you my tips on how to name your files. First, name your file what you want the recipient to see when he or she downloads it. This is pretty obvious—but make the filenames look as professional as the documents themselves do. To me, and probably to most hiring managers, a filename capitalized like a title looks more professional than all lowercase (“Matthew Baker Resume” vs. “matthew baker resume”).

Second, keep it simple. Don’t use “Matthew Baker Quality Engineer Associate Resume”. That’s overkill. The hiring manager knows which job you’re applying for, and your résumé should reflect that. Plus, you’ve created a folder hierarchy, so you don’t have to be this specific with the filename because the file itself sits inside the job folder.

Third, I recommend using underscores instead of spaces. Some computer systems don’t play well with filenames that have spaces in them. This is becoming less and less common, but since this is a job you’re applying for, I suggest you play it safe. Use “Matthew_Baker_Resume” instead of “Matthew Baker Resume”.

Whether you’re using Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Google Docs, or another word processor to create your documents, you need to submit final copies in PDF format. I cannot emphasize this enough. A PDF (Portable Document Format) file preserves all your formatting so that what the recipient sees is 99.99% guaranteed to match what you see.

Generating a PDF file is easy. All you need to do is click the File button in your word processor’s menu and look for an option like “Save As…”, “Export”, or “Export to PDF”. Double-check that the file will be in the .pdf format. If you mess up, that’s fine. Just go through the steps again and make sure you’ve selected the right format. If you need help, do a Google search for “How to export a PDF file in [your word processor]”.

If you submit a Word document or other a file in another word processor file format, there’s no guarantee that the recipient will see what you do. I’ve opened Word documents that probably looked great on the creator’s screen but looked hideous on mine: messed-up formatting, missing fonts, and more. Sometimes, the recipient may not even be able to open the file format you send!

Hopefully I’ve driven this point home. Even if the company’s job submittal tool accepts files in formats like .doc and .docx, send a PDF (.pdf). It comes across as more professional (to me, sending a Word document is like sending a draft), and you can rest assured that what the hiring manager sees is what you saw when you created it.

Submitting All the Stuff

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All right, you’ve got your folders in order, and your files ready to go! Now all that’s left is to submit all the documents and turn in that application!

Before starting the online application, make sure you have all the information you need in order to complete it in one sitting. Many companies offer the ability for you to save an application in process, but in my experience this doesn’t always work. If it’s an incredibly long and thorough application, you may have no choice but to save your work and come back later.

Otherwise, if you have all the information on-hand, you can knock the application out in one sitting and save yourself the hassle of stopping to get more information, throw together another document, and come back later to wrap up. I realize not every company lists what they expect you to submit up-front, and that’s why this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. It just makes life easier if you can do it this way.

If the company has any browser requirements or recommendations for submitting online, follow them! If you use the wrong browser, it might crash mid-application and then you might have to start all over! Just download the right browser and do it the right way—at least then you’ll have reason to complain to the company’s IT department if something goes haywire.

If the company doesn’t list browser recommendations, go with Mozilla Firefox. In my experience, it’s the best all-around browser, and the large majority of sites work well with it.

You may also have to enable pop-ups in your browser when completing the application. If the company doesn’t provide instructions on how to do this, do a Google search for “How to enable pop-ups in [your browser]”. If possible, consult the browser’s official website.

Once you’ve got all your information together and you’ve got the right browser loaded up, go ahead and breeze through the application! Double-check all information you input into forms before you advance to the next page. Make sure you upload your résumé or CV in the correct place. (Don’t upload your résumé as your cover letter, or vice versa!)

If possible, at the end of the application, do a final check that all information you entered and uploaded is correct. Then fire that application off, sit back, and wait for that interview!

Bonus: General Job-Application Tips

Overdelivering (some might say overachieving) is something I pride myself on. If you’re reading this post because you need to apply for a job online, great. But why not stick around a bit longer for some general tips for job applications and interviews?

I’ve picked up a lot of tips along the way, sifted through them, and separated the wheat from the chaff. Here are some of the best ones.

For your résumé or CV:

  • Use bullet points to highlight your talents, responsibilities, etc.
  • For less-experienced applicants, stick to one page
  • For applicants with 10+ years of experience and/or lots of past jobs, two pages is fine
  • Use numbers when possible (e.g., “Supported 50 clients…”)

For your cover letter:

  • Almost always stick to one page
  • Less is more—talk about important stuff, but save some things for your interview
  • Keep sentences short; this makes them easier to understand
  • Keep paragraphs short; this makes them easier to read
  • Address the letter to the hiring manager, if you know his or her name
  • Include the job title and requisition number at the top of the page

For all documents:

  • Use consistent design/formatting across documents (e.g. header, font choice, font size)
  • Use two fonts maximum
  • If using two fonts, opt for a sans-serif font for headers and a serif font for the main text body (e.g., pair Arial with Times New Roman)
  • Use strong, action verbs (e.g., managed, performed, developed)
  • Avoid weaker verbs (e.g., helped, assisted, aided)—be assertive and take credit for your accomplishments!
  • Avoid passive voice (e.g., don’t use “Changes were made…”; use “I made changes…”)
  • Use parallelism in writing (e.g., “I woke up, got out of bed, and dragged a comb across my head.” All the verbs are in the simple past tense. Bonus points if you catch the reference.)

For interviews (these tips came from a presentation I gave to high-school students interviewing for internships):

  • When asked a question, don’t be afraid to ask for a minute to think before answering
    • A good interviewer will realize that behavioral and experiential questions require thoughtSilence can be awkward, but only if you let it beA more thoughtful answer is a better answer!
  • Smile!
    • Whether in person or over the phone, smiling will reflect in your toneSmiling communicates interest and eagerness to the interviewer
  • Speak at a “Goldilocks” speed
    • Not too fast, not too slow, but just rightEnunciate your wordsThis prevents the interviewer from asking you to repeat yourselfIt also showcases your speaking skills!
  • Eliminate filler words
    • Um, uh, well, like, you know, I mean, okay, so, actually, basically
    • This makes you sound smarter and appear more thoughtful!
  • Maintain eye contact with your interviewer
    • Don’t look away the whole time
    • Don’t stare!
    • This establishes rapport
  • In a face-to-face interview, mirror your interviewer’s posture
    • This establishes rapport
  • When the interviewer asks if you have any questions, ask questions!
    • Be prepared with two or three questions ready to ask
    • Ask questions that you think of during the interview
    • Asking questions shows interest in the company and the position

Conclusion

That’s a lot of info, right? Hopefully you find it useful, because applying for a job doesn’t have to be stressful or time-consuming. In fact, if you get your ducks in a row, you can easily knock out a handful of applications in an hour!

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to drop me a note below. And if you have any additional tips you think your fellow readers would benefit from, please feel free to share in the comments!


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What if I told you that you could quickly and easily learn how your computer or smartphone works?

What if I told you that troubleshooting your technology can be easy and painless?

Well, now I’m telling you! My book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains, in everyday English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to.

It teaches you about the basic components without getting too technical, so you can become more computer-literate.

It walks you through simple steps to fixing common computer problems, so you can get back to using your computer instead of struggling with it.

It explains how to easily solve issues such as sluggish performance and virus infections, so you can keep your computer running smoothly—instead of running out to buy a new one.

And… it includes over 30 full-color pictures, so you can actually see what I’m talking about.

I’ve spent a great majority of my life solving computer problems (and I’m only in my twenties!), and I studied IT in college partly for this reason. I’ve helped kids, seniors, and everyone in between… and now I want to help you.

This book contains all the “secrets” I use to solve computer problems… secrets that everyone can use, including you.

Imagine feeling confident that you can solve your own tech problems without calling your tech-savvy friend, child, or grandchild. Imagine quickly feeling at home with software or apps you’ve never used before.

With How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t, you will!

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on Amazon in all regions for Kindle and in paperback. Why not pick up a copy today and start becoming comfortable with computers?

P.S. If you opt for the paperback version, you can also get the Kindle version for only $0.99 more and read wherever you go on your smartphone, tablet, or Kindle e-reader. Also, be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book.

My Education: American Public, Private, and Homeschooling Compared

I consider myself fortunate to be one of the few people in America, and perhaps in the world, to have attended the three major kinds of schools: public school, private school, and homeschool.

It all started around at age four, when my parents enrolled me in preschool at our church. I remember looking at all the books on the classroom bookshelf. They fascinated me. Some of them had words, which I couldn’t read!

Mom picked me up from preschool one day, and I remember making this statement to her: “Mom, I want to learn how to read.”

So, Mom started teaching me how to read when I was four years old. Evidently I made great progress, even though I don’t remember all the details. Instead of enrolling me in kindergarten, she started teaching me first-grade material at home. That meant I started “real school” one year before my friends did. And so my educational journey began.

In this article, I’m chronicling my educational experiences in American schools. This is subjective, and by no means comprehensive. I know others have had far different experiences from my own. Yet I try to be objective in my analysis of the pros and cons for each.

I didn’t include any pictures today, because a) I didn’t have any relevant ones on-hand to use, and b) I couldn’t find any good, fair-use ones instead. Also, I think they would distract from the gist of the article, which is to, well, educate. It’s not that pictures aren’t important, but they’re just not always relevant. I’m not going to add photos just for the sake of adding photos.

Now, let me educate you a bit about American education.

Homeschooling

I really enjoyed being homeschooled. Even as a young boy, it taught me how to think for myself and depend on only myself for getting work done.

A typical homeschooling day involved Mom going over the previous day’s assignments with me, then teaching me a bit, and then giving me new assignments for the current day. I would then hit the books, solve math problems, write essays, or do whatever I needed to do that day.

Often, I would learn what I needed to learn and get my schoolwork done by noon. I had all afternoon free to do other things: read other books, build LEGOs, or play video games (moderated by Mom, of course). And yet I learned at the same rate as my peers who spent all day in public elementary school. Many times, I learned faster.

In other words, homeschooling allowed Mom to tailor the curriculum and teaching/learning styles to best fit me.

Homeschooling allowed me to learn about things and do projects that my peers in public school didn’t. For example, equipped with a World Book Encyclopedia CD-ROM (this was before Wikipedia was in vogue), I would research ancient Greece and Rome. I would take care of a bonsai tree as part of a report on Japanese culture. And I would start learning Spanish thanks to Rosetta Stone (also on CD-ROM). As part of religious education, I read the Bible cover-to-cover and studied the tenets of other belief systems. I did all these things and more before I was twelve years old.

Another beauty of homeschooling was the flexibility. When my grandfather passed away in May 2008, my mom, brother, and I spent most of the summer living with my grandmother. We had to help her get acclimated to living alone. Homeschooling got put on hold for a bit, but I could continue learning over the summer. (There’s not much else to do in Wichita Falls, TX, when it’s over 100º F outside.) I read Around the World in Eighty Days for the first time, and my first book on how computers worked. (And now I’ve written my own book on computers to help the average Joe and Jane!)

One downside of homeschooling can be the lack of socialization. Some groups of homeschoolers come together every week so their kids can play and learn together, so that helps. Still, homeschooled children get much less socialization than their public-school peers do.

Depending on how you look at it, this could be either good or bad. In my case, because I wasn’t around other kids as much, I learned to think for myself, and I became pretty resistant to peer pressure. Yet that also meant that I was, and probably still am, a social anomaly because I was raised and educated outside of the “normal” social sphere. But hey, I’ll take being unique and authentic over conforming to social norms any day.

Another downside to homeschooling is that parents who homeschool may not have the technical expertise required to teach high-school subjects. For example, my mom could teach me pre-algebra and basic science just fine, but there was no way she would be able to teach me pre-calculus or physics.

Some homeschool groups mitigate this by having a parent, who is an expert in a specific area, teach multiple kids in a class. An example might be a homeschool father, who is an engineer by trade, teaching a calculus class for homeschool kids.

I took homeschool math classes at my local community college. (As an eighth-grader, I felt really sophisticated when I told my friends I took geometry in college!) That helped me tremendously because I had hit a wall trying to learn algebra on my own, and Mom couldn’t help me over the hurdles. It also got me around some more homeschoolers and into a classroom setting, better preparing me to transition into…

Public School

Mom homeschooled me and my brother until we finished our eighth- and sixth-grade years, respectively. At that point, our parents decided that we needed more socialization with our peers and teachers more equipped to teach us advanced concepts.

So, we wrapped up schooling at home, each got a diploma for graduating into this next phase of life, and prepared ourselves for the transition.

I remember meeting with the high-school counselor as I prepared to integrate into public high school. He helped me enroll in the classes I needed to take; he also signed me up for a math competency test so I could take advanced geometry instead of algebra (since I’d already taken algebra in my homeschool years).

I also, at Mom’s urging, tried out for the jazz band. I played guitar, had played for a little over a year, and didn’t think I was anywhere near good enough to play in a jazz band. Yet I got the sheet music and started learning etudes so I could try out.

On the last day of school, the summer before my freshman year, Mom drove me up to the school to try out. I walked into the empty band hall with my guitar case in one hand and my cheap Marshall amplifier in the other. I plugged in, got out my music, and played it for the jazz band director.

To my surprise, I passed the audition! Turns out, they didn’t have a guitar player at all, so I made the first (highest) band. And I played in jazz band all four years of high school.

So, I began high school by taking advanced classes, playing in the jazz band, and navigating a school of over 3,000 people. (Everything’s bigger in Texas!) Thankfully, I had a few friends at the school, and I made new friends, so I socialized quickly and found my place.

Public high school gave me opportunities that I would not have had anywhere else. For instance, my friends and I built a website for the 2013 National History Day competition and got to compete nationally in Washington, D.C.! I was also co-president of the school’s Christian organization for a year and a member of the National Honor Society service group.

I also got to explore other interests, such as computer science and German. I found that I was a decent programmer, while learning German awakened an interest in the language—and all languages—that I would never have had if I stuck with Rosetta Stone Spanish at home! I doubt I would ever have learned to program on my own, and I likely never would have thought to learn German on my own, either. (I had the choice of Spanish, French, German, or Latin. I opted for German because I am 1/8th German—my great-great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Wittenberg.)

I took mostly advanced classes (called Advanced Placement, or AP) in high school, which helped prepare me for the rigors of college. They also allowed me greater freedom of study than the “regular” classes would have. In that respect, public school wasn’t too different from home school—just a different environment.

Of course, there were several things I didn’t like about public school. For one, when I did have to take a “regular” class, I was usually bored. The teachers had to teach well below my learning capacity. This was because the material had to be easy enough for the other students to learn and pass the class.

This is part of the fallacious idea in many American public schools that kids just need to pass tests and move up to the next grade and out of the school system. The blame often rests on the teacher’s shoulders if the student isn’t being successful in her class. It’s a shame that it is that way, but it’s true.

Another thing I didn’t like about the public school system was standardized testing. Every spring, we had to take a test mandated by the state of Texas so someone in the Texas Education Agency could plot us out as data points on a chart.

The tests were easy, sure, but annoying. And, unfortunately, teachers had to teach their students not what was important to learn, but what their students needed to know in order to pass the test and make them, the teachers, look good. I didn’t have to deal with this so much in AP classes, but I did experience it a bit. That’s just another way the public school system is messed up.

And finally, I hated the lack of respect that students showed teachers, and the disdain for learning in general. Most kids came to school, did the bare minimum, and left. They had so much more potential, but they were in an environment where all they had to do was get a C to pass and then move on.

Not all kids were like this, and not all were disrespectful, but many were. Again, this wasn’t the case in AP classes very often, but it definitely was in the “regular” classes. And that was one reason I tried to stay in all the AP classes, because I didn’t want to be drug down with that crowd.

That’s not to mention the fights, threats, graffiti, bullying, drug use, and more that went on every day. Thankfully, I stayed away from most of that, but it was in the environment. No wonder people have noticed correlations between how high schools and prisons are constructed.

(My parents and other Baby Boomers will tell you that it was not always that way. If you misbehaved in class or bombed a math test, you either had to deal with the wrath of the principal, the wrath of your father, or both. Rarely was it the teacher’s fault—it was your fault. And, when disciplining misbehavior, both typically had paddles.)

If I sat and thought long enough, I could come up with a dozen more things I liked and disliked about public school, and American public education in general. But these are the main things that come to mind, and they’re enough for the purposes of this article.

And that leads into the typical alternative to public school, which is…

Private School

I’ll admit, I don’t have nearly as much experience in private school as I do in public school or in being homeschooled. However, I’ll discuss what I experienced during my limited time there, things I liked, and things I disliked (mostly disliked). Some details come from friends who spent their entire youths in private schools.

Mom enrolled me in some private school classes from second grade through fourth grade, and again in eighth grade. She intended these classes to supplement my homeschool education. I took extracurricular subjects like music, physical education (PE), art, and writing. I also took science and history classes there for a couple years.

What did I like about private school? Well, classes were small, because the school had fewer students than a public school does. That allowed teachers more time to work with students one-on-one—never a bad thing, in my opinion.

I enjoyed my art and music classes. I got exposed early to some of the great artists and composers throughout history, and developed an appreciation for art in general. (How many second-graders learn that Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker or that Van Gogh painted The Starry Night?) I also improved my art skills, though sadly I’ve let them go to the wayside since then!

What did I not like about private school? Mainly the strictness and uniformity. Uniforms, haircut regulations, and so on. Being that it was a Christian prep school, it was very legalistic. Some kids may not mind that, but I did. I liked to wear my hair longer and thicker, and got reprimanded for it a couple times—but I didn’t care. Then again, I don’t care much for legalism, period.

The legalism didn’t prevent bad behavior, either. The boys, who were supposed to be “model young men,” were just as bad as—or worse than—boys in public school. Because it was a smaller school, I was more privy to their antics than I was in high school, where I could choose to associate with a more even-keeled group of guys. One memorable instance involved someone writing nasty words on the bathroom wall, day after day, with their filth… and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Lastly, because the private school was so small, it offered limited extracurricular opportunities or advanced classes. It had no band or orchestra. I could not have studied German in private school, and I don’t think I could have studied computer science, either. Demand was not high enough, and no teachers on staff could teach these subjects.

In Retrospect

Looking back on my life, I’m blessed and thankful that I received the education I did. I’m grateful to live in the United States, specifically in the great state of Texas, where parents still have the freedom to decide how their children receive education.

None of these three types of schooling are inherently better than the others. They’re just different. Where one is lacking, another compensates. There is no perfect, or even best, option.

I would not change anything about my education journey. I’m thankful I started out in homeschooling because I learned to be self-reliant, to prioritize, and to work dutifully. I was responsible for my own success, Not the state, not the school, not my friends—just me. Put simply, I learned how to be autodidactic. I learned how to teach myself.

I’m also grateful I got to attend public high school. It afforded me many great opportunities I would not have had if I kept being homeschooled. And, it helped me better prepare for college by taking college-level classes in a high-school environment. I also learned how to help others learn, and effective ways to teach material by tutoring friends.

Private school was all right, and I can see its benefits since it can provide a more focused, higher-caliber, classical-oriented education. I wouldn’t want to go back, though. I can (and have, and did) provide myself a classical education on my own.

How will I educate my future kids? I’m not sure yet. Who knows what the future landscape of education will look like?

What I do know is, I will ensure my kids understand that it’s their responsibility to learn, not the teacher’s responsibility to make them learn. If they attend public school, I will be very involved in school events, as well as ensure that they learn outside the classroom. If they are homeschooled, I will ensure they are learning the things they need to know to prepare them for life in the “real world,” and also spend enough time with other kids so they become well-rounded and sociable.

I almost certainly will not send them to a private school, however. Those are overrated!

Feel free to leave any questions or comments below. I’d like to hear your thoughts, and different perspectives are always good. Thanks for reading!


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What if I told you that you could quickly and easily learn how your computer or smartphone works?

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It walks you through simple steps to fixing common computer problems, so you can get back to using your computer instead of struggling with it.

It explains how to easily solve issues such as sluggish performance and virus infections, so you can keep your computer running smoothly—instead of running out to buy a new one.

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This book contains all the “secrets” I use to solve computer problems… secrets that everyone can use, including you.

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In the Wake of Three Shootings

Photo by Ivandrei Pretorius on Pexels.com

My heart sank on Saturday when I saw reports of another mass murder—this time in El Paso. My heart sinks every time I hear of a shooting, but this one hit close to home. After all, Texas is my home.

Then I woke up Sunday morning to learn of another mass murder in Dayton, Ohio. Once again, my heart sank.

And this comes hot on the heels of another mass murder in Gilroy, California last weekend.

It’s enough to make one stop and ask a question: What’s going on here?

I’ll tell you what makes me sad and then mad about these shootings. First and foremost, people die. In most cases, they’re defenseless and shot senselessly. Many times, children die. Lives are cut short.

Second, the mainstream media immediately politicizes (polarizes) the narrative and jumps to conclusions. Forget just mourning with the victims and letting people internalize what happened, much less waiting for reports from the front lines. Everything has to fit the preconceived narrative, whether that’s liberal, conservative, or something else. The philosophy is, “If it doesn’t fit the narrative, don’t report it.” Or worse.

Third, the talking heads who immediately start calling for gun bans, gun control, and gun whatever.

You might be wondering, “Why do calls for gun control make you mad, Matthew? Isn’t that a sensible thing to do?”

No, it’s not, because it’s ignoring so many other factors.

I once saw an analysis of four countries’ gun laws and gun violence statistics: Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, and the United States. Here is the essence of that analysis:

  • Japan: Low gun availability, very low gun violence.
  • Mexico: Low gun availability, very high gun violence.
  • The U.S.: High gun availability, very high gun violence.
  • Switzerland: High gun availability, very low gun violence.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

People like to point to gun ownership as the cause of these mass murders. They then demand “gun control” to prevent future mass murders. But that’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Switzerland, until recently, had very free gun laws. Every citizen is required to serve in the military, issued a firearm, and then allowed to keep that firearm upon honorable discharge. Consequently, most Swiss households owned guns.

Yet you don’t hear about mass shootings in Switzerland. Ever.

Contrast that to Mexico, the complete opposite. Mexico has strict gun control laws that should prevent even the cartels from owning them, and yet people get shot and killed every day, even in touristy places like Cancún.

Within the United States, one need only look at Chicago, a city with strict gun control laws, to see how well gun control is working out. Chicago banned handguns from 1982 to 2010—at which time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional. During that period, 59% of all murders in the city were committed with handguns. From 2003 to 2010, that figure jumped to 71%.

Gun control worked pretty well for the Windy City, then, huh?

Here’s another piece of data: There are approximately 393 million guns owned by civilians in the United States alone. That’s 1.2 guns for every American citizen.

If guns were the problem, we’d sure as heck know it by now. We’d be seeing shootings on an even more massive scale.

These facts are not intended to diminish gun violence in any way. Gun violence is tragic. Any loss of life is tragic. There’s no argument there.

But realize that guns are just a means to an end. Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City using fertilizer. Terrorists on 9/11 used airplanes. The Boston Marathon bombers used a pressure cooker.

My point is this: Guns are not the problem. Guns never were the problem.

So, what is?

Mental health or instability? Radicalization? Social isolation?

Race-baiting politicians? Brainwashing? Mind control?

The “Deep State” or the “New World Order”?

Far-fetched, you say? Maybe not entirely. But you have to ask yourself these things and do some digging. Rarely does the “official story” match up with all the facts.

Frankly, I don’t know the answer to why. I wish I did. And until I do, or at least think I do, I’m going to keep looking.

But even if I did, the sad fact is that most people will not think beyond what appears to be the immediate solution: ban guns.

Banning alcohol worked so well in the 1920s that they had to pass the 21st Amendment to overturn the 18th.

What makes anyone think that guns would be any different?

And, I hate to say this, but mass murders make me more in favor of the 2nd Amendment than I was before. I want to have a gun on my person if a bad guy starts shooting at me.

And in the current state of our nation, being shot at has become less and less far-fetched of an idea.

I hope this short article has prompted you to think. Ask yourself these questions. Does it really make sense, what these political talking heads are demanding?

Or are they just pushing a narrative?

Pray for the victims of these attacks and their families, pray for our nation, and pray for our world. May God bless our leaders with wisdom and discernment as they grapple with these tough issues. May our nation get to the root causes of these issues so that innocent people can safely go about their lives without fear of being shot.

And may Truth prevail.


Sources and further reading

Guns in Other Countries — Gun Facts: http://www.gunfacts.info/gun-control-myths/guns-in-other-countries/

Estimating Global Civilian-Held Firearms Numbers — Small Arms Survey: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/T-Briefing-Papers/SAS-BP-Civilian-Firearms-Numbers.pdf

Gun Control — Just Facts: https://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp