Book Review: Integral Meditation by Ken Wilber

I’ve been making a conscious effort to be more mindful in various aspects of my life. Somehow, I stumbled upon this book (perhaps it was a Goodreads recommendation), and thought the blurb sounded interesting. Could this be what I need to take my mindfulness practice to the next level?

Uhhhhhhhhhhh. What?

First, the good news: I finished it!
The bad news: Seriously, what did I just read?

Okay, sure, maybe I should have been more familiar with “integral theory and practice” before I started reading this, (“more” meaning, any sort of familiarity at all). But come on, the blurb sold me: “a radical approach to mindfulness—combining an ancient meditation technique with leading-edge theory, resulting in a powerful new method of self-transformation.”

The 240ish something pages start off interesting. Ken Wilber makes an effort to explain what integral mediation is and how we can use it to grow up (not just wake up / achieve nirvana). This is the first I’d heard of “growing up” used in this context. Wilber uses various stages of human societal evolution as an analogy for the different aspects of growing up and becoming a better, more aware / awake person.

As the book goes on, it goes deeper down the rabbit hole of how awake you should be for given stages of your personal development and steps are needed to achieve the next level.

But as you progress through the book (and presumably through the levels), things seem to make a lot less sense and start to sound downright silly.

A random, out-of-context quote that highlights some of the word soup you’ll need to wade through:

“This, needless to say, was not an incentive to contemplative development, and the religious engagement of individuals increasingly focused on legalistic creeds, codes, and mythic-literal dogma of a particular stage of spiritual Growing Up, namely the mythic-literal. And so we ended up with the two major problems with religion in today’s Western world: no spiritual Waking Up, and rather low levels of spiritual Growing Up. Taken together, this is a cultural disaster of the first magnitude. I just can’t emphasize enough what a staggering nightmare this has been for Western civilization.”

Ultimately, it was a lot of random words jumbled together that I don’t entirely understand. There might be a time and place for reading it and getting something out of it, but I don’t think I will ever get there.

If you’re a Wilber fan, there’s probably a lot here you’ll like (it seems like others do). If you have no idea who this dude is and it’s your first time wading into one of his books (like me), I wish you the best of luck.

★★☆☆☆

Book Review: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs

“I think this is scarier than the Cuban missile crisis,” said my mom, as we recently chatted on the phone about the current events in Europe and the lack of response by the West due to the threat of nuclear war.

That seemed a bit extraordinary  — but then again, I realized how little I knew of the Cuban missile crisis. Sure, President Kennedy seemingly went “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 and the world was this close (*makes pinching motion*) to nuclear armageddon. The Soviet Union eventually blinked and the world breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m always one to dig into history, and given the relevancy to current events, I decided to find the best book I could about this topic.

Oh, wow. This was a doozy.

It’s an hour-by-hour account of those stressful 13 days in October of 1962, switching between Washington DC, Moscow, and everywhere in between.

It’s surprising how close we actually were to war.

Kennedy agonized over whether to invade Cuba to remove the missiles, knowing that Russia would probably respond in kind in Europe. He had to balance the more hawkish elements of his cabinet (those who favored immediate airstrikes) with more diplomatic suggestions (remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and seemingly backstab a NATO ally).

A number of mistakes and miscommunication along the way didn’t help:

  • A U2 on a reconnoissance mission over Cuba was shot down by a Russian SAM site and the American pilot was killed. A highly ranked supervisor was off duty, so subordinates took it upon themselves to shoot down the plane, believing it to be part of an imminent attack on Cuba.
  • At the same time, a U2 on a high-altitude air sampling mission over the North Pole got lost, due to the aurora borealis (and being unable to properly sight stars for navigation), and ended up over Russia. Miraculously, the U2 made it back to Alaska (just barely). Russian fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. American fighter jets were also scrambled to escort the plane and defend it, if needed. The kicker: the fighter jets were armed with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles and the pilots had ultimate authority on whether or not to use them. Fortunately, the Soviet fighter jets had returned to base by the time the American planes met up.
  • A Russian submarine that was being chased and harassed by American naval forces (who were dropping practice depth charges and grenades into the water) couldn’t surface at appropriate times to get the latest communications from Moscow. The captain of the sub feared that World War 3 could have already begun and they didn’t know it. The kicker: the sub was equipped with a nuclear-tipped torpedo that the captain had authority to fire if they felt they were in mortal danger.
  • NORAD reported an (erroneous) missile launch reading from Cuba that was headed toward Florida. By the time military officials realized it was a false alarm due to a configuration issue, the “missile” would have already landed.

Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamarama, was later asked how we managed to survive and avoid a nuclear war:

Luck. Luck was a factor. I think, in hindsight, it was the best-managed geopolitical crisis of the post-World War II period, beyond any question. But we were also lucky. And in the end, I think two political leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were wise. Each of them moved in ways that reduced the risk of confrontation. But events were slipping out of their control, and it was just luck that they finally acted before they lost control, and before East and West were involved in nuclear war that would have led to destruction of nations. It was that close.

May we always be as lucky.

Book Review: The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

Edit: I wrote this on the morning of March 25th. Later that day, we find out news that Foo Fighters drummer, Taylor Hawkins, died while on tour with the band in Colombia.

An excerpt from the book on the fast friendship between Taylor and Dave:

“Taylor and I had become practically inseparable since he had joined the band the year before, becoming devious partners in crime from day one. During his stint as Alanis Morissette’s drummer, long before he became a Foo Fighter, we would bump into each other backstage at festivals all over the world, and our chemistry was so obvious that even Alanis herself once asked him, “What are you going to do when Dave asks you to be his drummer?” Part Beavis and Butthead, part Dumb and Dumber, we were a hyperactive blur of Parliament Lights and air drumming wherever we went…”

—-

One way to know I’m getting old is that I’m reading (and enjoying!) all sorts of biographies. Some of the more recent ones I’ve read are about Bad Religion and Kurt Cobain. There’s something especially fascinating about sitting down and learning about the people who shaped the soundtrack to my adolescent life.

Anyway, The Storyteller by Dave Grohl has been on my to-read list for a bit now. He’s always seemed like such a character and though I don’t consider them one of my favorites, I’ve definitely enjoyed listening to the Foo Fighters over the years.

His story seems so improbable. (Interestingly, I said the same thing after reading Heavier than Heaven: “Also, after reading this, I think it’s incredible and seemingly improbable that Nirvana actually happened.”)

How did this guy go from a scrawny, goofy high school dropout who was just bashing on the drums for Scream (and then onto Nirvana) to fronting a mega rock band, collaborating with some of the biggest names in music, appearing / performing at countless awards shows, the White House and appearing on Saturday Night Live more than any other musician?

Luck, being in the right place at the right time, and raw tenacity. Plus, being open to whatever the universe throws at him and always up for going along for the ride.

He reflects on his life as he’s gotten older:

“Sometimes I forget that I’ve aged. My head and my heart seem to play this cruel trick on me, deceiving me with the false illusion of youth by greeting the world every day through the idealistic, mischievous eyes of a rebellious child finding happiness and appreciation in the most basic, simple things.”

Aye, I hear that!

He writes about how much music affected and shaped his life and it’s so true. How he spent countless hours practicing guitar and drums by playing along to his favorite bands. I can relate — I remember looping songs over and over again so I could try to nail certain guitar riffs and trying to imagine the slightest bit of what it would be like to be a rock star.

The book is a quick read and I found myself wanting more details about every aspect of his life. But I found myself laughing out loud at a number of parts, and nodding my head in agreement in others (the passages he writes on being a dad and how much his daughters mean to him got me good).

Anyway, if you appreciate Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters, or rock music in general, you’ll probably dig this.

Book Review: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands cover

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, I found myself glued to Twitter, reading updates and reactions. As the war ground on and Russia increasingly attacked and destroyed civilian infrastructure and lives, I saw various people mention an informative book that details some of the struggles Ukrainians (and Poles and Belarusians) have endured over the last 100 years due to murderous policies of both Germany and Russia and the geographical location between these two countries.

How do you realistically review a book like this? You really can’t. It’s an insightful and depressing look at humans at our worst. When discussing the horrors of World War II, we often think about the raw numbers of dead — 14 million people explicitly murdered between 1933 and 1945.

It’s a number that is so huge that it makes no sense and it’s impossible to understand. How could something like that happen?

This book explains how. In excruciating detail, it dives into the famines induced by Stalin’s collectivization of farms, which caused the starvation of 3 million Ukrainians.

It examines Stalin’s Great Terror (700,000 victims in 1937 and 1938, many of Polish ancestry) and the killing quotas Moscow imposed.

The killing and imprisonment quotas were officially called “limits,” though everyone involved knew that they were meant to be exceeded. Local NKVD officers had to explain why they could not meet a “limit,” and were encouraged to exceed them. No NKVD officer wished to be seen as lacking élan when confronting “counter-revolution,” especially when Yezhov’s line was “better too far than not far enough.” Not 79,950 but five times as many people would be shot in the kulak action. By the end of 1938, the NKVD had executed some 386,798 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of Order 00447.

It explains how German armies marched through towns, rounding up Jews to murder.

…then they lined up the prisoners against a wall at the bank of the Vistula River and shot them. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the river were shot—as the one survivor remembered, like ducks. Some three hundred people died.

…in one case a hundred civilians were assembled to be shot because someone had fired a gun. It turned out that the gun had been fired by a German soldier.

…in Dynów, some two hundred Jews were machine-gunned one night in mid-September.

…then they drove several hundred more Jews into the synagogue and set it on fire, shooting those who tried to escape.

And on, and on, and on.

From front to back, this book is just a sea of destruction and despair. But it’s important history to know and remember.

A salient point this book makes that equally applies to current events as we see endless news of Ukrainians being murdered, and cities and homes destroyed:

“Jewish resistance in Warsaw was not only about the dignity of the Jews but about the dignity of humanity as such, including those of the Poles, the British, the Americans, the Soviets: of everyone who could have done more, and instead did less.”

Slava Ukraini.

Book Review: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Art of power

I’ve slowly been working my way through presidential biographies and just finished this book about Thomas Jefferson. (Obviously, this is going very slowly, as he was the third president of the United States).

One thing that has struck me as I’ve read through three books is how my impressions and opinions of various founding fathers has evolved:

After reading “Washington by Ron Chernow”:

  • George Washington: Sometimes aloof, a reluctant leader that seemed indecisive. Also self conscious about his teeth.
  • John Adams: Arrogant, argumentative. Short and bald. Seems like a total dick.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Charismatic yet condescending. Non-confrontational yet passionate. Politically savvy. Introvert.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Ambitious, eager, whip smart.
  • Ben Franklin: Wise old sage.

After reading  “John Adams” by David McCullough:

  • George Washington: Sometimes aloof, a reluctant leader that seemed indecisive.
  • John Adams: Righteous, passionate, good and loving husband and father. Prolific writer. Deeply interested in human behavior and feelings.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Humorless, spendthrift. Flirt. Defensive. Incapable of compromise. Seems like a total dick.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Smart kid with great ideas.
  • Ben Franklin: Wise old sage.

And now, after reading “The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham:

  • George Washington: Sometimes aloof, a reluctant leader that seemed indecisive. Yet he was not the hero America deserved, but the hero America needed.
  • John Adams: Misguided monarchist. Power hungry.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Thoughtful philosopher. Defender of individual rights. Patient. Methodical.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Wrong about everything. Preferred a British style of government. Along with John Adams, seemed like he wanted to tear up the constitution and destroy America. Seems like a total dick.
  • Ben Franklin: Wise old sage.

Bottom line: Biographies paint the subject in the most favorable light and throw everyone else under the bus.

I really enjoyed digging into his life and his underlying philosophies. I’ll admit to not knowing much more about Jefferson other than he was the third president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, and his mug and home adorn each side of our five-cent coin.

He was a savvy politician, deep thinker and someone who was completely curious about every facet of life, science and technology.

And man… he really did not like Alexander Hamilton.

Another thing that I didn’t really pick up in previous biographies was the struggle and friction between northern and southern states, 50-some years ahead of the Civil War. There were threats of succession (by Northern states, no less!) in the early 1800’s due to his election and the political power that Southern states held.

Both this book and the John Adams biography went into a lot of detail about their early friendship, the animosity the grew between them while Jefferson served as Adams’ Vice President and the subsequent rekindling of their friendship in the years after Jefferson left office as the third President. They ended up exchanged something like 360 letters with each other until they both died… on the same day:

July 4th, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Bonkers!

Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games

The Civilization series is easily one of my favorite video games of all time. (See here, here, here, here and here). I have very fond memories of talking to my middle school teacher about various strategies to utilize within Civ I and I still vividly remember the wickedly cool box art.

So, it’s no surprise that I’d dig into the memoir of the man who created the games himself, Sid Meier.

It’s a nerdy trip through early computer gaming history and fostered a bunch of nostalgia for old DOS games that I used to play. It’s also a fantastic romp through the mind of a game designer.

There were a number of fun little quotes and life lessons, as well:

“I think that in life, as in game design, you have to find the fun. There is joy out there waiting to be discovered, but it might not be where you expected. You can’t decide what something’s going to be before you embark on it, and you shouldn’t stick with a bad idea just because you’re fond of it. Take action as quickly and repeatedly as possible, take advantage of what you already know, and take liberties with tradition. But most importantly, take the time to appreciate the possibilities, and make sure all of your decisions are interesting ones.”

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

★★★★☆

Andy Weir has clearly found a formula that works. A brilliant lone scientist stuck in space, who must overcome calamity after calamity in order to survive and hopefully get home.

This time, the story involves space fungi that are eating our sun (technically, it’s more like a space algae, but whatever). The nations of Earth band together and launch a mission to the stars in order to turn the tide on this interstellar parasite.

Our narrator wakes from a coma and doesn’t remember a thing. Where is he? How did he get there? What is his name?

Like Mark Watney before him in the Martian, our narrator is going to have to “science the shit” out of his situation in order to answer all the questions above, and also hopefully, maybe save Earth, too.

Oh, and sprinkle in a bit of first contact as well. Mark Watney never found himself a sidekick while he was on Mars.

Some parts were overly verbose, other parts were cringe-worthy and corny, but this was still an entertaining story I tore through in about 3 days.

If you liked The Martian, you’re going to like this book. If you didn’t, well, sorry. This book is more of that and then some.

Book Review: The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

This book really spoke to me and it was something I didn’t realize I needed to read right now, at this exact moment of my life.

Maybe it’s because I’m having some sort of pseudo mid-life crisis (because I found my first few gray hairs on my head). Or maybe I’m just perpetually tired thanks to our rambunctious kiddos and trying to keep up with them. Or maybe it’s the COVID doldrums and a feeling of languishing and the constant grind.

But the various topics related to mindfulness and living a happy life that Thich Nhat Hanh covered in this book really resonated with me and I found myself to be much more at peace (and, dare I say, happier) while reading it.

I tried to have a routine mindfulness practice in the past and have fallen off that wagon in more recent times. But I always found myself happier, calmer, and more at peace. Reading this book helped me realize that this is something important that I’ve been missing and I’ve since tried to get back into it.

Here’s an interesting contradiction: I enjoyed this book so much that I didn’t want to finish it. As I started reading through the last half of the book, I really slowed down, because I didn’t want it to end.

Overall, the book can be summed up with the following quote:

“Happiness is not something that arrives in a package in the mail. Happiness does not fall out of the sky. Happiness is something we generate with mindfulness.”

Book Review: Futureproof by Kevin Roose

The first part of this book offers some interesting historical context and insight into how machines have replaced human workers in various ways since the industrial revolution. The second part essentially focuses on how to be a decent human being.

I thought his examples of how automation has / will replace workers was interesting and something to keep in mind when people say that robots will replace our jobs. The more likely scenario is that our positions aren’t filled or replaced when we leave a company due to increases in efficiency.

Some of the author’s personal anecdotes were interesting, if not relatable, as well — as he talks about his constant addiction to his electronics devices and the things he’s done to try and counter it.

Book Review: Do What You Want by Jim Ruland

Do What You Want

★★★☆☆

Bad Religion was probably one of my top 3 favorite bands while growing up as an angsty teenager. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of my punk rock sensibilities and the desire to keep up with the bands that I used to love so much.

But I have so many pleasant and vivid memories of listening to various albums on full blast in my room or car, while driving around during the sweltering Southern California summers. I remember wearing my cross buster t-shirt and feeling so smug when a fellow student (who went to one of these crazy mega churches) in a high school class asked “why on Earth would you wear something like that?” I remember keeping a dictionary nearby to look up every third word of a song because their wordy lyrics were so ridiculously complex.

And although some of their albums came out half a decade or more before I started listening to them, “Suffer”, “No Control”, “Against the Grain”, and “Generator” were critical components in the sound track of my teenage life.

I think one of the reasons I liked them so much was because their lyrics were a bit more highbrow than the average punk band of the day. It was less “fuck yeah anarchy, smash shit up” and more thought provoking stuff that pondered our existence and place in the universe — for example, these lyrics from “No Control”:

There’s no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end
When we all disintegrate it will all happen again, yeah
If you came to conquer, you’ll be king for a day
But you too will deteriorate and quickly fade away

Hopeless? Sure! But also a thought provoking message about how the universe and existence is about so much more than just us and what we do? Sure! Excuse me while I go listen to this song real quick.

Anyway, it’s been awhile since I’ve given them a serious listen, so, imagine my surprise when I see a friend add “Do What You Want”, a biography about Bad Religion, to their reading list. A book?! About Bad Religion?!

The book spans 40 years of the band’s history, from their first practice sessions inside a hot garage in the valley, to their most recent album (Age of Unreason). (Have they really been at it for forty years and have something like 17 albums!? It’s really unbelievable to me that these guys are pushing 60 and still at it and enjoying it.)

Despite being fairly emotionless and dry (imagine reading about a history of a band in a newspaper article), this book was a really easy read. There’s nothing scandalous or exceptionally profound within, but it does share interesting anecdotes from tours and recording sessions of every album they’ve put out. And hey, I definitely learned some interesting things about the band!

I also found myself flipping back and forth between this book and then loading up Spotify in order to listen to various songs and albums that were mentioned. I forgot how good some of these early albums are. And I’ve really missed out on some of the more recent stuff. There are some good tunes there.

All in all, the book provided a nice sense of nostalgia and even helped me rediscover some more recent tunes from one of my all-time favorites.

Do What You Want by Jim Ruland and Bad Religion