Friday Night @ Gramedia Books in Jakarta

I love a bookstore.  I think it says a lot about a place, a people, a culture.

Whenever I am in a new town or even someplace I know well, I seem to eventually – usually within the first 24 hours – end up wandering the aisles of a bookstore. I don’t even need to be able to read the books.  I just love the idea that there are people there who do read the books, write the books and think about the books. Continue reading

The Second World – Parag Khanna

I bought The Second World thinking that it would be heavily academic.  But that is thankfully not what I got.  The Second World is the companion volume to a couple of other “pop” – meaning broadly accessible, but not trivial – non-fiction books: Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat , Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  All three try to describe the planet we will inhabit in the next 50 years.  Like in Friedman and Gore, Khanna traces a couple of simple and clearly visible lines that describe the future.  Khanna has just articulated the obvious in a way that Americans can’t ignore.

First, the world will be increasingly multipolar.  There will be three quasi-imperial powers – the US, Europe, and China.  It seems an obvious statement when you visit Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, but most Americans don’t  travel, nor do they have much interest in international news.  The implication for America is clearly we will need to understand how to operate in a world where we do not set the agenda.  Frankly, agendas will no longer be dictated from on high.

Second, there is a message that is shared with the other two books, though may be not as explicitly called out as the first one.  Free trade, globalization, and privatization of nationalized economies have unleashed a huge reservoir of human potential, resulting in the development of the two largest cultures on the planet – China and India.  The implications are greater demands on the world’s resources, greater competition and the need for greater long-term investment in developing human capital and the physical infrastructure required to for human success.

Third, that the goal of development is first livelihood – food to eat, a home to live in, the ability to travel in safety; and then the more abstract concepts of personal freedom.  Electoral democracy (often called “freedom”) the concept that American foreign policy has flogged for the last decades, is really an American conception that is relevant to the Western context; but it has limited roots in Asia or the Middle East or Africa.  When we laud the countries in those regions for their democratic institutions, it is generally a simple-minded complement, referring to presence of elections that resemble the American system, though usually grafted on to a much more complex civic tradition.  As Khanna points out, America has unfortunately equated our foreign policy with the presence of electoral democracy but not its goals.

Democracy can create a dynamic link between ruled and rulers to ensure that the top reflects the bottom. Are there other methods for making sure that a government reflects the will of its people?  There well may be.  Will they allow as much personal freedom as we have come to expect in the US?  That remains to be seen.

In addition to providing a vivid, sometimes almost melodramatic, description of the coming geopolitical competition, The Second World tries to highlight for Americans the challenges that lay in front of us as the world becomes increasingly multipolar and increasingly developed.  In foreign policy, there will be more players with different opinions and different approaches.  In economics, there will be more competition and resources will be scarcer.

Probably my biggest disappointment in the current presidential race is none of the candidates talk honestly about the implications of the increasingly developed, global, multipolar world.  Can Americans continue to live further and further beyond our means?  What does that mean for traditional interpretation of the American Dream?  Can we continue to inflict a set of institutions on other countries because they have worked in different ways and for different reasons in the past in our own country?  I think the answer to both is no.  But who among our leaders and potential leaders is prepared to talk about the implications of NO.

“Americans have shown a fear of the future, one that may only accelerate its arrival,” Khanna writes in his concluding chapter.  America has changed dramatically to adapt to changing environments, but do we have the will and the leadership to do so again. Or will we go through a wrenching re-assessment that will leave the whole planet poorer for it.

We must be less bitter – yes Obama used the right term – Americans look at the golden days and they regret, they are bitter for the coming changes. Bitterness leads to fear.  Fear to reaction.  Think globally.  We can’t begrudge the Chinese or Indians their development.  Or would we rather feel sorry for and superior to them because of their quaint, backward ways.  We should embrace their development for the potential it helps to realize.

Breadcrumbs

Eat, Pray, Love

Image via Wikipedia

I am a little superstitious.  I secretly check my horoscope and I am constantly reading signs into everything.  Breadcrumbs pointing to some future action or consequence.

So over the last four weeks I had heard a snippet of an interview with a woman who had written a travel memoir.  I remember the interview because of some reference to food and Italy (one of my favorite topics), then I think I saw a newspaper review of the book.  Didn’t read it, but noticed it was there.

Well about two weeks ago, I was in between meetings and walked through a bookstore in Palo Alto, and there on the counter is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love with the subhead “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia”.  OK, that would be considered a breadcrumb pointing to my own trip.  I am not planning to stop in Italy, but I am also not planning to be away for a year.

I read the book in three sittings one for each country.  Afterwards, I was forced to ask myself, “Why am I taking this trip, again? What exactly will I gain?” Living and working in the midst of America’s abundance, it is easy to get lost in all of the desires and expectations.  People are never really happy because they can always have something deemed by someone to be better – better clothes, a better home, …  You are always lamenting some missed opportunity or planning some way to rectify it in the future. [This becomes particularly acute in your mid-40’s]  Well, somewhere in the midst of that there should be happiness.  Not happiness as I have traditionally thought about it – the good feeling that comes from something else, probably the consumption of something else, but also the approval of someone.  Now that I think about it that is really a description of pleasure. Maybe the right word here is contentment, maybe bliss. These words suggest a timelessness that isn’t the result of the satisfaction of a momentary desire.

So, one of the goals of my practice and my trip is to pursue contentment, maybe in the next life I can work on bliss.  Looking back at Eat, Pray, Love a lot of Gilbert’s trip was about self-acceptance.  Something I am perpetually lacking.  Like a schoolboy, I am always preparing for someone’s evaluation.  Well, if at the end of the this trip I can accept some of my perceived shortcomings.  [I mean I am 46 years old.] I will consider it time well spent.

Now the part of the book that most appealed to me  – was not the eating part (Italy) or the boyfriend part (Bali) – but the ashram stay and Gilbert’s description of meditation.   I appreciated the tongue in cheek way she refered to her quest for something else.  Spirit, love, universal love, … Irony and a smile is at least what I require right now to even talk about these things without a raised eyebrow and an expectation of some polite ridicule.

So, my goal is personal acceptance and contentment (Santosha) and somehow maintaining that in a world that is built on the need to create a desire for something new to make you better, more desirable.    Balancing personal desire with a need to claim acceptance for myself is a struggle and one that I haven’t generally won.  And I am going to have to work to put this into action, to have this be more than just another mid-year correction on my perennial New Year’s Resolutions.  The best I can do now is to augment my asana practice with meditation to see if that helps solidify my direction.  If anyone has any suggestions on how to get started and stay focused, please let me drop me a comment.

Finally, if you are looking for a very human, very funny [I did actually laugh out loud a couple of times] description of a journey to “happiness”, I recommend the book.