A letter to Terry Bradshaw

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With the Super Bowl coming up tomorrow, the time is right to share these two artifacts from my younger days — a colored-pencil illustration and a printed letter to former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. If you watch Fox NFL Sunday, then you are likely familiar with Bradshaw’s unique mix of humor and insight.

Growing up in the 1970s and early 80s in Pittsburgh, PA, my brother and I quickly became fans of the hometown Steelers and their roster of now-legendary players including wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Lambert, fullback Franco Harris, and center Mike Webster. Please see the end of this blog post for critical health information about Webster, who tragically died at the age of 50.

These men that we cheered on felt less like all-stars and more like the tough blue-collar laborers who spent their days in front of blast furnaces in Pittsburgh’s steel mills. The members of our football team were symbolic neighbors. Here is an example of those everyday heroes. These are the members of the formidable defensive line known as the Steel Curtain: Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, and Ernie Holmes.

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Although I never played even one season of touch football as a kid, cheering on the black and gold was almost a cultural requirement if you lived in Pittsburgh at that time. After all, under the watchful gaze of coach Chuck Noll, the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1975, 1976, 1979, and 1980. They were the first NFL team to win four championships.

It must have been close to 1980 when I created the illustration pictured above — and the letter seen below. Despite the time and effort that were invested in these two pieces, I never mailed them to their intended recipient. Sorry, Terry. I hope you can forgive me.

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The sheer number of spelling errors is laughable given the fact that I became a high-school teacher and earned a master’s degree in English literature and composition. But at least you can see that even as an elementary school student I was dutifully editing my initial draft. The erasures are evident, but my “corrections” may be just as bad as — if not worse than — the mistakes that came before them. I was really trying hard, though.

What I find especially charming is the question that concludes the letter:

isn’t it niec Terry _____?”

The superscript yes no and accompanying arrow bring to mind the stereotypical folded paper note passed to a love interest across the classroom. Such missives often seek an answer to this question: “Do you like me? Yes or No.”

I’ll never know if Mr. Bradshaw would have found value in my artwork or composition skills, but as a man in his forties I take pride in the fact that I created these offerings — and that I was thoughtful enough to keep them as part of my small collection of childhood memorabilia. I still enjoy expressing my creativity, and I love to explore the possibilities of the written word. Those two interests have only grown.

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This Sunday the venerable Tom Brady (age 41) and the much younger Jared Goff (age 24) will take the field at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with their teams, the Patriots and Rams. Although I may watch part of Super Bowl LIII, I’ll still be rooting for the Terry Bradshaw and Pittsburgh Steelers of my youth. The game seemed much simpler then, more like a true athletic contest than a media-saturated “event.”

But I recognize that somewhere in New England and Los Angeles there are young boys — and girls! — excitedly drawing pictures of their gridiron heroes and penning sincere letters of admiration. I hope that the parents of those children encourage them, and that they search out stamps, envelopes, and mailing addresses. But before you send off their illustrations and fan mail, please take pictures of their finished work. Years from now, you’ll be grateful that you did.

The Brothers Bishop (1980) — Pittsburgh, PA

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The importance of Mike Webster (1952-2002):

If you have seen the 2015 film Concussion, which stars Will Smith as the real physician Dr. Bennett Omalu, then you are likely aware of Mike Webster’s name. In that sobering movie, Webster is played by actor David Morse; his portrayal of the declining physical and mental health of the former Pittsburgh player is haunting. If you enjoy football, I strongly encourage you to watch this film.

Mike Webster, who was a Hall of Fame athlete and recipient of four Super Bowl championship rings, played for the Steelers from 1974 to 1988. But the man known as “Iron Mike” eventually suffered unbelievable horrors because of the game he loved. As a center, Webster’s body — including his head — was hit repeatedly by opponents. The innumerable collisions caused what is now recognized as CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The condition, which forensic pathologist Dr. Omalu was instrumental in identifying, is unforgiving in the way that it destroys the brain.

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After his career ended in 1990, Mike Webster’s life began to unravel. The best description of what occurred to him can be found in his New York Times obituary. In that article, Webster’s downward spiral into homelessness, addiction, and psychological trauma is described. Mike Webster went from an on-field superstar to a divorced, confused, shame-filled, and broken man in less than ten years. He died at the age of 50 of a heart attack.

The damage from concussions is very real. And those injuries harm not only the physical body, but the mind.

Please investigate the topic of CTE, and please use good judgement when deciding how you, your friends, and/or your children play sports that can result in repeated blows to the head. Short-term success is no replacement for long-term suffering.

Note — The photograph of the players who formed the Steel Curtain was obtained from the Heinz History Center. The photographs of Terry Bradshaw and Mike Webster were borrowed from the website of Behind the Steel Curtain. The publicity image for the Super Bowl was found on the website of the Tampa Bay Times.

Disney Characters Journal

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Perhaps the most vibrant notebook that I own, the Disney Characters Journal is the third to be featured from the group that I affectionately call The Fantastic Four. Why choose this name? The set of four unique journals was designed and constructed by a pair of my former students, Meagan and Kathryn. If you missed the first two blog posts in this series, please see the following:

  1. “Let’s Make It Count” Journal
  2. Many B’s Journal

This notebook’s front and back cover feature dozens of Disney characters — including both heroes and villains — that were carefully cut from multiple sources and then assembled into collages that sit beneath a veneer of packing tape. This process likely took hours.

Before I share the journal’s first entry, please realize that it was penned on June 4. There is no significance to this particular date, but the fact that it lies less than ten days before the end of the school year (and thus on the eve of summer vacation) means two things:

  1. I was likely exhausted from months of instruction and innumerable weekends spent critiquing essays, and…
  2. I was surely giddy with anticipation that a decrease in work-load was right around the corner.

So if you sense an excessive level of optimism in the following passage — as though I was channeling the spirit of Walt Whitman — these are the reasons why. Not four cups of coffee. But I do enjoy coffee, especially dark roasts. Anyway, I created this entry (which is followed by a transcription) in either my 1st- or 2nd-period class during a five-minute free write with my students. It was Thursday, June 4, 2015.

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Beginning a new composition book today. I like starting off, embarking on a new writing adventure with limitless potential in front of me. My pen directs the course. My mind pushes it forward.

Summer rises up ahead, a bright orange-yellow glow that beckons for a marriage of reality and possibility. So much intellectual freedom. So much openness. So much joy. Barriers previously noted have been withdrawn, and my senses expand wildly as I imagine the possibilities of the spaces in front of me. Every day becomes worthy: it is full of possibilities, tantalizing the spirit, coaxing out the best from the soul, provoking the imagination.

Days are investments — conscious efforts glazed with the unexpected. Releasing so much that could be!

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This journal’s Disney theme was not accidental.

Although I am not a mouse-ear-wearing fanatic, I do have a history with the company that has brought dozens of legendary characters to life through animated features, live-action films, and theatrical productions. For a semester during my undergrad years I participated in the Disney College Program Internship in Orlando, FL. Rather than attend classes at Michigan State in the spring of 1996, I spent five months immersed in Disney culture, tradition, and hospitality. My students — including Meagan and Kathryn — knew this.

Pictured below are my identification card and name tags. You might notice a yellowish hue to the latter; that was caused by long exposure to the bright Florida sun.

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During my internship I enrolled in a series of classes taught by Disney executives that dealt with such topics as marketing, communication, guest service, and hospitality management. I was also taught about the rich history of Disney culture, learning about such concepts as the two-finger point (never a single finger, as that could be perceived as rude) and the understanding that all Cast Members exist “on stage” and thus they constantly inform the Guests’ experience.

Although the classes were instrumental in helping me understand Disney philosophy and gain some awareness of how large corporations function, the real learning occurred at my work location. For 40+ hours per week I served in a retail shop situated on the ground floor of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, which is more commonly known as The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to park attendees. The tall salmon-colored building looms ominously at the end of Sunset Boulevard in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (one of WDW’s Orlando theme parks).

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After Guests plunged multiple stories in a fright-filled elevator car, they were deposited into a hallway that led to my gift shop. There we offered them picture frames, bellhop caps, and all manner of custom-themed products that you might find in an upscale hotel: monogramed towels, guest books, door hangers, disposable cameras and film (it was 1996, after all), and small collectibles. Our biggest seller? T-shirts featuring various Twilight Zone-inspired designs and slogans. We sold hundreds of t-shirts every week.

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While working in my location, I wore the costume seen below. It featured a double-breasted suit, white dress shirt, tie, and striped suspenders. The young ladies between Mickey and me were two other MSU students who were also participating in the College Program Internship in the spring of 1996. They are wearing the costumes that were used at their work locations. Please note that although Cinderella Castle stands in the background, I did not work in the Magic Kingdom.

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Now let’s shift gears. What follows is this journal’s second entry, which was written on the same day as the one featured above (June 4, 2015), but during the next class period. You will notice a significant shift in tone and content, because an event loomed ahead that was causing me considerable nervousness: reading students’ names at the graduation ceremony held at DTE Energy Music Theater.

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Turning the page to the next class! Sitting in third hour now. Graduation is coming up next week. Wednesday evening at DTE in Clarkston will be our destination. We’re there for a relatively long span of time: about three hours. I’ll be ready. I am under less stress than last year. Should not have any trouble with getting my names ready. Middle of the alphabet. Won’t have to wait nearly as long as last year. Felt dizzy last year, but I am optimistic that that was a consequence of incredible levels of stress being revealed at a time of heightened challenge — an especially demanding situation requiring considerable focus and public presence. I know I will be calm next [week?]. Like the SEALs

  1. Goal setting
  2. Rehearsal
  3. Positive self-talk
  4. Controlled breathing

Results will come from these steps.img_4917 2A few observations…

First, the optimism of the first entry has been replaced with a realism shaded by caution. I am clearly apprehensive about the upcoming ceremony and the fact that I will — for a short time — be reading students’ names before an audience of close to one thousand people.

Second, the wordy sentence dealing with “an especially demanding situation” refers to an event that profoundly changed my life. During the previous school year, in April of 2014, I began experiencing surges of acute anxiety in my classroom. These unannounced waves of fear and paralysis occurred when I was leading instruction, and they normally overwhelmed my senses. I was often forced to stop speaking and regroup, which was deeply humiliating because I was typically standing in front of dozens of teenagers. A symbolic narrative documenting what occurred that month — and during the three years that followed — can be found in The Ranch Hand, which was my first blog post. That composition stands as one of the most honest pieces I have ever written.

Third, the reference to “SEALs” (and the four steps that follow it) emerged from watching a History Channel feature called The Brain: Mystery Explained. In that documentary, which you can watch a portion of right here, the narrator explains how U.S. Navy SEALs manage fear and stay focused in incredibly stressful situations. They rely on goal setting, rehearsal, positive self-talk, and controlled breathing. As soon as I watched this program, I latched onto the four-part series as a way to try coping with the periods of anxiety that were disrupting my professional life.

My last observation…

Although I worked for The Mouse over two decades ago, I am aware that modern life rarely plays out like a Disney movie. Instead, the moments of joy, comfort, and belonging that enliven us exist alongside those that are filled with sorrow, distress, and loneliness. Navigating these highs and lows shapes our character. 

I would like to thank Kathryn and Meagan — my former Honors English 10 students and current college undergrads — for providing me with this journal that features another kind of character. The colorful faces on its front and back cover keep me smiling even long after I filled its pages with my thoughts.

Since I was 16 years old I have been journaling because it helps me process the events and emotions that I am experiencing. When something excites me, I write about it. When something terrifies me, I write about. When I face a challenging decision, I write about it. Nearly thirty years of journaling have shown me that it yields relief and insight.

If you are struggling with soul-testing lows — or surging to great heights and wondering how to capitalize on those peaks of creativity or vision — consider picking up a pen and recording your thoughts on paper. Not for an audience, but for you. In time, you may realize that the small world inside you is actually a castle full of wonders.

Curious to learn more? Please see my Getting Started Page for a few suggestions.

img_4917Note — The image of The Hollywood Tower Hotel was obtained from the website of WDW Theme Parks. The photograph of the inside of the Tower of Terror’s gift shop was borrowed from insidethemagic.net.

Authenticity in exhaustion

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When do you feel like your most genuine self?

During moments of praise or celebration? After achieving a victory, beating a fierce opponent? In the wake of reaching a long-standing goal? While experiencing an insight or stumbling upon a link between seemingly unconnected events?

Or, do you feel most authentic when you have reached your limits — when you have nothing else to give?

The man pictured above may be uniquely qualified to provide an answer, one that could reveal a fundamental (yet often ignored) truth about the human experience. And his answer might change the way you think about the relationship between the intelligence of your mind, and the wisdom of your body.

More than three weeks ago I listened to podcast host Rich Roll’s interview with former water polo player Ross Edgley (above), a 33-year-old British phenom known for extra-ordinary athletic feats. For example, he has…

  • run a marathon while towing a Mini Cooper
  • rope-climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest in 24 hours
  • swum 100 kilometers in the Caribbean while dragging a 100-pound tree stump

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Google his name, and you’ll find more photographic evidence. The man’s accomplishments are incredible. And as you can see, he looks like a cross between a Navy SEAL and a magazine cover model.

But you would never assume Edgley’s unfathomable physical determination and athletic prowess by listening to his cheerful banter, which features a disarming English accent. His laugh-punctuated delivery and self-deprecating humor make him sound like a twenty-something sociology major living on his own for the first time in a London flat.

During Edgley’s conversation with Rich Roll, the Brit recounts his experience swimming around mainland England — a distance of over 3,200 kilometers (more than 1,700 miles) — in 157 days. During the nearly six-month journey, he never once stepped foot onto land. The closest he got to terra firma was the boat he slept on for six hours at a stretch before he got back out into the Atlantic’s frigid waters. This incomparable event was known as the Great British Swim.

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Rich Roll’s full podcast interview is available at “Ross Edgley is the Real Aquaman — Lessons in Fortitude From (Arguably) the Fittest Man Alive.” Even if you are not into swimming or endurance sports, what Edgley accomplished — and the struggles he faced while doing so — will blow your mind. He voluntarily subjected himself to unbelievable hardships, and he shares the insights he gleaned from those obstacles in his conversation.

Perhaps the most powerful remark from the cheerfully-boyish Englishman is the one that Rich Roll, who is himself an ultra-endurance triathlete and former Stanford swimmer, featured in the podcast’s promotional image:

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This is the line that — more than three weeks after listening to the full two-hour conversation — continues to reverberate in my head.

“You find the most honest version of yourself in complete exhaustion.” 

Every time I consider these words I acknowledge the wisdom that they contain. As more and more of us are spending our days seated at the office, riding elevators instead of taking the stairs, and stopping the car at the mailbox rather than walking to the curb, true physical exhaustion is almost never encountered.

Yes, many of us do work ourselves into stupors while leaning toward computer monitors for hours on end. And many of us do run ourselves ragged chauffeuring the kids to six different after-school activities every week. And many of us do frantically tackle every imaginable task in order to climb one rung higher on the corporate or organizational ladder. In these efforts, however, we become weary out of wear.

What about exhaustion caused by physical exertion for the sake of exercise? Or transportation (e.g. walking or bicycling)? Or gardening? Or the sheer joy of movement found in climbing a tree, navigating a playground, or scrambling up a steep hillside to catch a sunset? 

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Far too few of us experience the pleasurable fatigue of a body testing its limits, however modest those current limits might be.  

I don’t believe that a person needs to resemble Ross Edgley to benefit from the clarity of mind, sharpness of focus, and renewal of the spirit that complete exhaustion can yield. As a recreational runner — and a very slow one, at that — I regularly shuffle through one-hour workouts and feel physically depleted. But I also feel remarkably calm, centered, and capable. My senses of sight, touch, and smell become acutely sharp, and I am aware of subtle shifts in wind speed, humidity, and temperature.

Somewhere along my normal route, which features a long stretch of rail-to-trail hard-pack, my mind releases the worries that were churning when I laced up my running shoes. I’ll likely return to those stresses later, but during the slow cool-down walk to my apartment door I revel in the steady insistence of my breath and the reassuring prominence of my heartbeat. My limbs are tired, but also fluid and responsive.

The moments when I feel the most authentic — the most me — occur when I am physically spent. And maybe that is where we all can find our truest selves.

You don’t need to be Ross Edgley to do this, however.

  • Rather than tow a Mini Cooper through a marathon, what if you briskly towed your kids in a wagon for 26.2 minutes?
  • Rather than rope-climb the equivalent of Mount Everest, what if you climbed the stairs to your office every day next week?
  • Rather than swim 100 kilometers while dragging a tree stump, what if you swam several lengths of the local pool while pulling your doubts through the water?

In these efforts that exhaust the body, you just might find who you really are.

Instead of working yourself under, what if you worked your body out?

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For more about Rich Roll (pictured below), please see these blog posts:

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Note — The image of the map of the Great British Swim and the photographs of Ross Edgley were obtained from redbull.com. The only exception is the one of Edgley towing the Mini Cooper, which was located on the website of Littlegate Publishing. The publicity image for Edgley’s appearance on the Rich Roll Podcast (RRP) and the photo of Rich Roll were obtained from richroll.com. The photograph of the sunset was taken in Longmont, Colorado by the author of this blog post.

Suicide, and the inadequacy of language

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The following was originally shared as a Facebook post on Sunday, December 16, 2018.


As a long-time Michigan resident, I am deeply saddened by the loss of Jessica Starr. As an English teacher, I am also remorseful for the seeming inadequacy of language to address the manner of her passing: suicide. This limitation is very troubling.

The word suicide can strike such fear, grief, and discomfort in us that we do not even want to *consider* discussing the concept of taking one’s own life – and, nearly as important, the painful circumstances that precede that dire decision. Few words carry such terrible weight.

I am not a psychologist, nor a physician. But as a human being, I believe that greater awareness about suicide needs to be spread. That understanding begins with conversations — ones that necessitate vulnerability. Therefore, they are not easy. So too often, I fear, they are avoided in favor of less-sensitive topics.

Since learning of Ms. Starr’s passing Thursday morning, I have been wondering if I should say anything about her loss. In the wake of such a tragedy, demonstrating respect and remembrance are essential. As the days have passed and I have read stories about her life, my resolve to express “something” has built. That something is this post.

Our current language around suicide is insufficient; the dialogue is often too infrequent, and too clinical. A change is needed. If you are a Lake Orion resident, and you feel similarly, please feel free to reach out to me – or to share any comments and/or ideas below. I want to get a conversation started. Thank you.

Respectfully,
Brian

Postscript — If my words have caused any unintended offense and/or exceeded my good judgment, then I humbly apologize. They are meant to, in some small way, honor Jessica Starr’s life and legacy.


Note – The image featured above is the official headshot of Jessica Starr (1983-2018), and I obtained it from her bio on the Fox 2 Detroit website.

“Alexa, Should We Trust You?”

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Whether or not your home contains one of the so-called “smart speakers,” I encourage you to spend 15 minutes with the cover story of The Atlantic’s November 2018 issue. Judith Shulevitz’s “Alexa, Should We Trust you?” serves as a captivating look at the present state of voice-activated virtual assistants and an evenly-weighted consideration of the future of devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod.  (Full disclosure: I do not own any of these technologies, but I have seen several in operation in friends’ households.)

Before I share a few more comments about the article, it is useful to identify the distinctions between the pieces of hardware that may be sitting on your kitchen counter or bedroom dresser and the web-connected digital assistants that these gadgets allow users to interact with. The most popular line of smart speakers is the Amazon Echo, which — as of 2018 — 31 million U.S. users have plugged into a socket. The Echo hosts the upbeat female voice of Alexa. The bulk of Shulevitz’s article examines the relationship between human users and this admittedly robotic yet eerily articulate domestic oracle.

Less popular than the Echo/Alexa pairing — at least as measured by units sold — is the combination offered by Google, the search engine titan that powers 90% of web inquiries. Google’s devices, which number roughly 14 million active units in the United States, are identified as the Home series. The web-connected medium that they channel is the Google Assistant. Lastly, one of the most recent entries into the smart speaker market is the Apple HomePod. This cute, bulbous device lets users interact with Siri, the virtual assistant that many iPhone owners are familiar with.

With definitions out of the way, let’s move on to a few teasers in the hopes that you make time to read this worthy piece. The article’s introduction features some noteworthy statistics, namely that 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers (i.e. that multiple devices are found in their homes) and that by the year 2021 estimates suggest that there will be nearly as many smart speakers in operation as the number of people on earth. That’s a stunning amount of domestic tech with ears eager to hear what we are up to. As Shulevitz notes, “They [the device manufacturers] want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, car, office.”

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And the fact that digital assistants like Alexa are constantly waiting for our input is one of the reasons that trust is a central theme that runs through the psychological aspects of human-computer interaction that Shulevitz explores. Users are, after all, not conversing with an entity located next to the kitchen sink; rather, they are speaking to a voice-recognition system whose computing “brain” is housed in gigantic server farms humming inside warehouses far from our homes. In reality, devices like the Amazon Echo serve as portals. Our words pass through them even though it feels like we are speaking with them.

When we employ the “wake word” that cues Alexa or Siri to pay attention, it prompts a system that inhabits a sprawling climate-controlled facility. Our queries about everything from the weather in Miami to the number of Ted Bundy’s victims are then tallied, analyzed, and categorized by the algorithm-infused AI infrastructure. These vast digital networks dispassionately learn everything they can about our likes, dislikes, and curiosities with the ultimate goals of (1) being able to predict what we might next desire, and (2) establishing metrics about how we — and others like us, based on demographics — think and behave. We are entrusting our personal data to Big Tech, and those firms are hungry to harvest it.

Although sharing information online is certainly not a new concept, especially given the billions of people worldwide who use Facebook and other social media platforms, the trust dynamic shifts when the devices we are interacting with can talk intelligently with us. When prompted by a seemingly humane entity, humans can be persuaded to divulge intimate questions and confessions. Large technology companies possess the power — and, in many cases, the incentive — to sell the fruits that grow from these sensitive topics to bidders who want to market products, services, and lifestyle aspirations to us. Consider this potentially unnerving fact from the article: if a web-connected Roomba sweeps crumbs and dog hair from your linoleum, then its manufacturer (iRobot) owns a partial floor-plan of your residence and knowledge of where your furniture is located. (!)

If the preceding paragraph suggests that The Atlantic’s cover story serves as an ominous deep-dive into the dark intentions of Silicon Valley, that would be inaccurate. Instead, the article is far more about our human nature and what our willingness (and desire) to direct questions to small devices that possess a voice — but no eyes, face, or conscience — means about our curiosities and vulnerabilities. We seek to be informed. And we don’t want to be lonely. Increasingly, it appears that we are willing to ask Alexa for assistance with both. What does it suggest about the human condition if we are more comfortable telling the black soup-can-like pod on the windowsill that we are feeling down than we are picking up the phone and discussing that same sadness with a friend?

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Judith Shulevitz writes that, “We’ve been reacting to human vocalizations for millions of years as if they signaled human proximity.” And until now, they have. But today, in houses around the world, there are children, teens, and adults holding conversations with voices whose convenient accessibility and lack of moral judgement signal not a human proximity, but the nearness of a tantalizingly powerful amalgamation of trillions of data points arranged in the silhouette of a human form.

That form provides correct answers — at least, in many cases — but can it yield the right answers? And what does it mean if we believe that it can? It is the latter question that I think needs to be carefully considered. Are we nearing a cultural tipping point where humanity deems it desirable to not only request objective clarification from virtual assistants (e.g. “Alexa, how many acres can fit in a square mile?”) but also preferable to seek understanding or comfort from their AI brains (e.g. “Alexa, why am I struggling to make friends at my new school?”) instead of from fellow human beings?

By assessing one outcome of the quickening pace of technology advancement — and, in doing so, identifying a potentially alarming reality — Shulevitz remarks: “The line between artificial voices and real ones is on its way to disappearing.” If (or when) this distinction is fully realized, what will occur to the perceived value of face-to-face interactions? If discussing difficult subjects with a faceless digital assistant becomes good enough — or even better than talking to one’s closest confidants — will humanity have taken a step forward in sync with technology, or a step backward from genuine intimacy? Please, do not delay another minute. Follow this link to The Atlantic’s full article. You’ll be glad you did. Trust me.

Note — The images in this post, which were created by acclaimed illustrator Roberto Parada, are featured in The Atlantic’s on-line article and its November 2018 print edition.

Habits — with author James Clear

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This afternoon I finished listening to Rich Roll’s interview with entrepreneur and author James Clear, and I was impressed. Actually, I was surprised and impressed. So much so that I am recommending the podcast — which is available in video form on YouTube here — because I believe it will be worth your time if you are trying to either establish good habits or break bad ones.

A regular follower of Rich Roll’s weekly podcast, I listened to a preview of his interview with James Clear last week. It was there that I learned that Clear was being featured as an expert on the topic of habits. Never having heard of the man, I searched the web for details about his education but could find nothing — no evidence of a Ph.D., university affiliation, or history of peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Having read enough books about psychology to know that it is not a field where one can make casual claims, I was suspicious of Clear’s authority on the subject of behavior change. My suspicions deepened when I learned that his new (and only) book is entitled Atomic Habits (2018).

As an English teacher, I can’t imagine any relationship between the words atomic and habits that seems reasonable. After all, atomic most frequently precedes either bombs or energy. And habits seem to have nothing to do with cataclysmic warheads or slamming tiny particles together to produce usable energy. Why didn’t James Clear choose a more authoritative — or at least serious — adjective for his first book? Like strategic or formidable or purpose-driven. Even Life-changing Habits would suggest content that is substantive rather than sensational.

For me, Atomic Habits sounds like a title that a motivational speaker would sell — not an educated investigator who had spent years delving into the science behind motivation, decision making, and cognitive processing. And in order to take Rich Roll’s interview seriously, I was really hoping for the latter. That’s what I thought before I started listening several days ago. Thankfully, I learned that my doubts were largely (though not entirely*) unfounded.

Yes, the title of James Clear’s book still feels like an odd choice. But the man who wrote it seems legitimate even though he has not earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Clear has a passion for understanding the human condition, and he appears to have done his homework. In fact, only several minutes into the interview he references author Charles Duhigg, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Before Duhigg transitioned into long-form non-fiction, he was a respected reporter for the New York Times. In 2012 he wrote The Power of Habit, a brilliant behavioral analysis that features over 60 pages of source notes. As an investigator and a writer, Duhigg is The Real Deal. I highly recommend his book, which I own and have read thoroughly. That’s my stack of hand-written notes next to it.

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Anyway, Rich Roll’s interview with James Clear is very engaging; I learned a number of strategies and perspectives (ways of thinking differently, you might say) that I can immediately implement to encourage the formation of better habits and begin the disassembly of poor ones. For instance, Clear advocates rehearsing the first two minutes of any behavior that you’d like to become a routine. How can two minutes possibly make a meaningful difference? Consider the following example:

Let’s say you’d like to improve your health by taking several 30-minute walks each week. In order to engage in this low-impact exercise, you must first put on the proper socks and shoes, grab your keys, put on your jacket, and walk out the door. Clear asserts that if you move methodically through that two-minute routine several times each week — from opening your sock drawer to locking the front door behind you — that you will ingrain the habit of setting off with intention. Remember: if you won’t step out onto the porch, you can’t take a long walk. Therefore, the most important part of this fledgling habit is arguably its first two minutes.

Obviously, you can’t return to the warm comforts of your family room after this two-minute scenario and expect to see any health gains. So on several of those evenings you continue beyond the two minutes and complete your 30-minute walk. As a consequence of this sustained effort, positive health results will slowly begin manifesting. Meanwhile, the two-minute rehearsals that occur on the evenings that do not extend to the half-hour walk will add value because they perpetuate the habit of getting you out the door. And Clear believes that what prevents most people from establishing positive habits is that they don’t have the discipline to simply begin the process.

Having not read (or even seen firsthand) Clear’s book, I remain cautious in my endorsement of his scholarship. That is why the asterisk* appears in the fourth paragraph. But I am confident in recommending Rich Roll’s interview with this first-time author. Their conversation is very engaging, and I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the insights that Clear offers as well as most of the well-reasoned answers that he provides to Roll’s questions. Consider giving it a listen, or watching it on YouTube.  Links are featured above. And if you choose to read Atomic Habits, please let me know your thoughts!

Note — The image at the beginning of this post was obtained from Rich Roll’s website.

Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” is here!

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The latest book by renowned social worker Brené Brown is now available. Dare to Lead, which is the sixth title published by the respected University of Houston researcher and ground-breaking TED speaker, is likely to receive both scholarly and popular praise.

Brené-Brown-approved2-photo-by-Maile-WilsonDr. Brown, who is the author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers, has pioneered a new understanding of the roles of vulnerability and shame in the human condition. Her writing — which draws on decades of research largely conducted via personal interviews — has positively impacted thousands of readers from all walks of life.

Please see Brene Brown’s website for more details about Dare to Lead. It is sure to be an informative and inspiring read, especially for those interested in the culture of leadership that exists at their workplace, church, non-profit, or community organization. Amazon reviews of the book can be found here.

Note — The images featured in this post were obtained from Brené Brown’s website.