US Grant – America’s Unlikely Hero – Part 1

A long time ago, my good friend Chuck asked me an interesting question. “Jon do you have a favorite author that writes like a fine wine or a three-star Michelin restaurant? I honestly had no answer to this detailed inquiry. At that time I was just starting on my journey of reading, and I couldn’t distinguish an average author from a great author. My palate was not entirely up to par, and my neural taste buds were still in an immature state. I finally have an answer for my friend after being exposed to so many different writing styles – the author Ron Chernow. Chernow writes biographies in such a detailed way that the reader feels like a fly on the wall of history. He is most famous for his book on Alexander Hamilton which became a hit Broadway play and his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on George Washington.

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His books regularly make appearances on the New York Times bestseller list even though they are on antiquated topics and extremely large in breadth. I picked up his most recent book Grant, which is 1100 pages and a fascinating tale of 19th-century history. I would argue that any person who dislikes history would love this book and find newfound interests. Think of Chernow as a gourmet chef and Ulysses S. Grant as a prized but unknown ingredient. Through excellent writing, Grant’s powerful life hits you in the mouth like Emeril Lagasse throwing spice into a hot skillet.

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US Grant was born in Ohio on April 22, 1822. His father was a tanner and he grew up as a shy boy underneath an outspoken father and overly standoffish mother. Grant was described as silent, modest, respectful of women, and courageous against neighborhood bullies. From a young age, he stood up for the underdog and spoke few words of malice towards even his most ardent detractors. He was sent off to West Point by chance since a cadet was kicked out at the same time Grant’s father requested his son’s admittance. While at West Point, Grant excelled at horsemanship but was no star pupil. He did excel at mathematics, but his career in the military did not look promising. Upon graduation, he was stationed in Missouri where Grant met his future wife Julia Dent and his future Confederate father-in-law Colonel Dent.

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During this time, America entered into war with Mexico and Grant was jettisoned into combat – an environment he excelled in. He served as a logistics specialist and honed critical military strategies during this conflict. Grant also learned something even more indispensable while in Mexico: the characteristics of the future generals of the Confederacy. Upon the completion of hostilities, Grant was stationed in the burgeoning gold rush town of San Francisco and Northern California. This was a difficult time for Grant because he missed his new wife and his family. He took to drink and was reprimanded for drinking by a persnickety leader – eventually leading to resignation and a marred reputation for the rest of his life. Grant did have a drinking problem, but it never got in the way of his leadership. If it had, he would not have achieved his remarkable feats after leaving the military in 1854.

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Civilian life was hard for Grant and he struggled to find his place in society. At one point he was so economically distraught he had to pawn his watch for Christmas presents and take a job at his Dad’s tannery store as a simple clerk. He walked around Galena, Illinois with his old military jacket and an unkempt beard – most people astonished to see his state of poverty. Compounding his problems, both his Father and Father-in-Law saw him as a failure and regularly forced their views upon him as if he were a child. He was a beaten man during this time, and his woes continued to worsen after his former California business speculations soured; these speculations were undertaken because Grant overly trusted acquaintances and people in general.

1867 Chromolithograph of Ulysses Grant by Fabronius, Gurney & Son.

He had such high integrity for himself that he couldn’t understand how other people could be cruel in their business dealings. When all seemed lost in Grant’s life, the most significant conflict in American history broke out – the Civil War. As if awakened by a jolt of electricity, Grant felt it was his chance to use his former military talents and serve the Union. The only problem was that no one wanted him because of his previous drunkenness and his paltry political connections. Not receiving any worthy commissions, Grant decided he would bake bread for the soldiers. Just before applying for this culinary position, fate opened up her doors. To be continued…Part 2 next week.

The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.
– Ulysses S. Grant

Japan is Finally Here!

***Due to my vacation, this will be my last post until September 10th :)***

The wait is over. Christina and I will be flying to Japan this week, and I feel like my Chihuahua when he hears the words “let’s go bye-bye!” The travel will be arduous, but I am trying to remember that you have to eat an elephant one bite at a time. The flight is a 13-hour red-eye which will probably leave me depleted – I am bringing some boring books and Benadryl which will hopefully help me sleep.

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As most of you know, I have been reading various texts on Japan to obtain a greater understanding and respect for this complicated country. My last book before heading off was an excellent summary of the history of Japan by Christopher Goto-Jones – Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction. This book is actually one of many in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series; each book tries to concisely address difficult topics. These books are similar to my Tackle the Library series *cue shameless plug*  except they are longer and dryer in nature. Nevertheless, I was able to get a comprehensive view of Japan from its feudal past to its post-modern present; Japan’s history is pertinent to Western readers because it shows how modernization can both destroy a culture and uniquely define national identity.

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Today Japan is the third largest economy in the world with a population of nearly 130 million people – for context, Japan’s neighbor, Russia is the 12th ranked economy with a population of only 145 million inhabitants. Japan was not always a powerhouse of human resources, and it wasn’t long ago that it was completely isolated from the world. For 250 years, Japan had very little to do with the burgeoning powers of Europe and the United States. It wasn’t until 1853 that Japan was forced by the United States to sign a trading agreement – within 50 years of that date the entire country would undergo a political revolution, establish a new constitution, become an industrial economy, and begin a colonial empire.

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Japan was highly motivated to develop their country because of the “Unequal Treaties” which were Western treaties that viewed Japan as a backwater not worthy of fair trade. This view was partially accurate, but Japan was far from simplistic – by the 17th century, Tokyo was the largest city in the world and Japan had a sophisticated religious system that facilitated the famous samurai class and a revered Emperor. Suffice it to say, Japan in the 19th century was primed for development, and with Western technology, it shot off like a rocket into the “modern” age.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Japan was involved in a paradoxical policy of Imperialistic Anti-Imperialism. Confused? The Western countries were trying to dip their fingers into the honey pot of Asia – taking land from less developed societies in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Japan believed Asia should be in the hands of Asians and subsequently went to war with Russia, Korea, and China to secure their own holdings; they were extremely successful in these endeavors, and the Japanese began to get a taste for military power.

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By the time of WWI, Japan assisted the Allies and was given a seat for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. This “seat” was celebrated in Japan as a concrete symbol of their worldwide respect and modernity. All optimism was short-lived once Woodrow Wilson and the other Western nations decided that Japan would not have an equal voice. This “Western racism” highlighted to the Japanese that no matter how modern they became, they would be inferior because of their ethnicity and culture; this would lead to the conflicts of WWII in which the Japanese highlighted their national superiority.

 

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Following their hard-fought defeat in WWII, General MacArthur occupied Japan and modified their constitution: disbanding the military, adding a bill of rights, and transforming the role of the Emperor. In the 50’s Japan’s economy quickly rebounded thanks to the Korean War and by 1960 Japan was the world’s largest shipbuilder. The next 57 years followed a close line with the development of the United States – cars, technology, and the middle-class became the standard.

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Japan however to this day differs from other modern countries. Because of their early isolation and disrespect, Japan was determined to maintain their culture and their Emperor. With the US occupation post-WWII, Japan was able to stay out of the Cold War and invest in their country – leading to its cutting edge technology, education, and infrastructure. Japan’s forced pacifism has made it difficult for them to reconcile their past and to reconcile their place in the “post” modern world. With an aging population, an overworked middle class, and a technological-isolated youth the question for Japan today is defining what the “Japanese Dream” actually represents and how it is different than the “American Dream.”

The Diary of a Nobody

“It’s the diary that makes the man.”

-George Grossmith

Did you ever have a diary? I always thought a diary was for wimpy little girls who needed to get their emotions on paper via multi-colored pens. I kept a paper diary only two times in my life. The first time was a dismal attempt at recording my “feelings” after coming home from a mission trip. We were told to read the Bible and write about our sinful teenage misgivings – after writing “I looked at a girl’s butt” for the hundredth time, the diary got thrown out. The second time was when I lived in Honduras for three months. My Mom recommended that I record all the happenings so in the future I could look back at the events with greater detail. That diary was actually a success, most of its contents included missing Christina (my future wife) – and with parallels to my first diary – her well-shaped contours.

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I still thank my Mom today for suggesting the diary in Honduras, and I think it primed me in some ways to create my third diary: SAPERE AUDE. This blog is really just a public journal with an overarching theme of discovering wisdom; it’s kinda like a log for a runner but instead of miles ran, it is the number of books read. Blogging is an incredibly rewarding experience that channels my inner little girl to express myself to people all over the world. Throughout history, people have kept diaries in the hopes that they would be published for public consumption – this was most popular in the 19th century and led to the classic The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

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The Diary of a Nobody is the fictitious diary of George Pooter who is a lower-middle class Englishman in the 1880’s. Pooter writes in his diary in part to record important moments, witty jokes, and mishappenings which are regular occurrences. Mr. Pooter personifies the class structure of late 19th century England; the lower classes try to be more like the upper classes, and the upper classes scorn their faux ladder climbing. One attempt at modeling the upper class was writing a diary which many wealthy people kept to later publish – making them quite famous. The problem is that Mr. Pooter is a “nobody” in a family that makes fun of the idea of his diary becoming syndicated; it’s the modern day equivalent of a friend saying they deserve a reality show because of their exciting life – (cue eye roll). 

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The thing is, I identify with Mr. Pooter with this blog. I know that it is just me rambling about weird subjects, but sometimes I think it may make me famous one day; maybe my post about the War of 1812 will go viral! One can fantasize, but the real motivation for keeping any type of diary is the ability to look back in time. Life is so fascinating that writing consolidates details that may otherwise be forgotten – thankfully I can share those memories with my readers – even if I never surpass the status of a “nobody.”

Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
-Jane Austin Pride and Prejudice

There are some books out there which never seemed imaginable for my reading list; one of which was always Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin – my 6th classic. Jane Austin always seemed like the ultimate kryptonite to male ego. No man could dive into a Jane Austin book and come out with any remaining masculinity. It’s like accidentally using Vagisil Body Wash when taking a shower and then going through the day questioning the existence of your gender; requiring a impromptu Civil War reenactment to reverse any damage. I actually bought Pride and Prejudice at Barnes and Noble which was a big mistake. Buying this book was kinda like buying a dirty magazine – eye contact at checkout being a nonnegotiable. What made matters worse was the fact that I had to ask this little old lady to find a copy for me. Like a scene in some twisted comedy, she had to announce over the intercom, “I need help finding Pride and Prejudice for this nice young man.” We ended up spending the next 30 minutes navigating the store to find a copy that didn’t have a cover designed specifically for hipster feminists. I finally settled on a bright blue copy which was the closest thing to a “manly” version – the old lady quickly ruined this triumph with the words, “oh how cute, my daughter has the same one.” The shame I felt climaxed at the counter when the clerk asked me why I was reading it – my answer was that it was for an “all-female book club.”

Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813 and was a critique of the “Sentimental” novels of the mid-18th century. The Sentimental novels usually focused on the power of emotions over reason – many times in relation to marriage. Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, questions the advantages of marriage and questions the “pride” and “prejudice” between different classes of people. Early 19th century England was all about social distinction, manners, and status. The main characters of the novel continually are judging themselves in relation to others and questioning the proper ways to interact. Marriages are based not on love but rather upward mobility – women with small dowries seeking rich men and poor handsome men seeking wealthy-spinster women. The novel starts out like an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians but actually ends up being pretty captivating by the end; the journey to becoming married is not straightforward and not always a sure thing. Many times, I found myself rooting for a couple but then being surprised by plot twists which totally changed my outlook – highlighting my own prejudices. This novel is not just about romance but rather our human nature to judge others. It also speaks to our stubbornness to accept wrong doing and the barriers that pride presents in our daily interactions. It was actually a great novel that dissolved my long standing pride and prejudice towards Jane Austin. We always need to be reminded to not judge a book by its cover – maybe I’ll go back to Barnes and Noble for the more feminine cover.

 

Would you be Sterilized?

Imagine today if Donald Trump made a decree that all morons and imbeciles must be sterilized to prevent further contamination of the American gene pool. Could you imagine the uproar? Even Fox News couldn’t spin that Twitter rant, but sadly, forced sterilization is still constitutional in the United States. Ninety years ago, in the infamous case of Buck vs. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., declared by many as the wisest man in the United States, wrote the majority opinion summarized by this one sentence:”Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The history of Buck vs. Bell and America’s dark marriage to eugenics is detailed in the fascinating book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen.

Eugenics is defined as the purposeful cleansing of defects in the gene pool to improve a particular species. For example, eugenics is commonly used today when dogs are cross bred to remove negative health traits: English Bulldog + Labrador = Bullador. Human eugenics started in 19th century Europe with the advent of Social Darwinism. Essentially, people thought that “survival of the fittest” not only applied to animals but also to racist white guys. The whitest of the white, Nordic Europeans, viewed themselves as the beez neez and thought all other races should bow to their paleness. Many geneticists believed that every trait, belief, attribute, and characteristic of a person was passed on from their parents. There was very little understanding of the environmental impact on behavior and subsequently all vices were blamed on bad genes. Drunkenness in the Irish. Criminality in the Italians. Promiscuity in the Poles.  Usury in the Jews. Imbecility in the poor. Basically, anyone who was not a white-Northern-European-rich-pious-fricker was deemed to have poor progeny.

At the turn of the 20th century, America was becoming inundated with all sorts of new immigrants: tides of Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans, South Americans, and Chinese. These new immigrants oftentimes lived in squalor and were more likely to commit crimes, have large families, and be less educated compared to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Hence, “real “Americans decided to clean up the gene pool and the States began to pass laws that allowed the sterilization of anyone who had unappealing traits. Intelligence tests were given out to see whether people were imbeciles or morons. These tests were completely erroneous and in many cases found that half of test takers were mentally unfit.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed in direct connection to eugenic beliefs on racial inferiority. It drastically decreased the number of immigrants from countries that were not Anglo-Saxon in origin. The climax of the eugenics movement occurred in 1927 when Buck vs. Bell went to the supreme court to determine whether Virginia had the right to sterilize Carrie Buck –  a poor-white-southerner. The case was a complete sham. Carrie was not an imbecile but rather an intelligent girl who had the bad luck of being raped and blamed for promiscuity. Carrie’s lawyer was actually on the prosecutions payroll and she was not informed about any details of the case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was a firm believer in the “survival of the fittest” and wrote that sterilization did not impede upon Miss. Buck’s constitutional rights.

The eugenics movement in America helped Hitler cement many of his policies during WWII. The Immigration Act of 1924 assisted the Holocaust by  barring Jews from entering America. Nazi Lawyers, during the Nuremberg Trials, actually used the case of Buck vs. Bell as a justification for 1000’s of sterilizations. In total, the US sterilized over 70,000 people throughout the 20th century – the last forced sterilization was in 1981. Today, Buck vs. Bell has still not been overturned and there are cases of coerced sterilizations in prison and mental health systems. Eugenics is still a major concern with advancements in technology that can screen babies for “undesirable” traits. Is it right for a couple to abort a child who has Down Syndrome? What if we get to the point that prenatal screenings tell us the risk of stunted height or ADHD? Who gets to define what traits are good or bad? America’s history with eugenics is scary but its future is even more precarious. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of Social Darwinism and nonsensical-immigration restrictions. I think Charles Darwin said it best:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

Towering Trees to Tiny Ticks

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Christina and I just returned from our first camping trip of Summer 2016. We ventured to Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, Michigan. This park is home to 49 acres of old growth pines which are the last of their kind in the state. White pine was extremely common in Michigan prior to European settlement. However, in the nineteenth century the logging industry ravaged the forests of Michigan and cut down almost all of the white pines. Hartwick Pines was donated by Karen Michelson Hartwick in 1927 and there was originally 85 acres of old growth forest until 1940 when a fierce windstorm destroyed half of the pines. White pine is the state tree of Michigan and they are quite majestic when seen up close. There was a great walking trail in the old growth forest and several hiking trails throughout the entire 9,672 acre expanse. The old trees are very delicate and white pine eventually become susceptible to damage because of their relatively thin trunk to height ratio. Some of the trees in the 40 acres are over 400 years old and the grove was believed to have germinated after a fire in the 1600s.

Being out in nature is extremely relaxing when you are comfortable and properly prepared. Unfortunately, Christina and I found 8 ticks on us after hiking an old railroad trail that had a fair share of grassy areas. Ticks freak me out and Christina was ready to get airlifted out of the campground after picking off that many ticks. Ticks are the creepiest bugs because they can linger on you for hours without you ever knowing it. Thankfully, none were lodged into our skin and I think we are in the clear with Lyme’s Disease risk. After this tick fiasco I am purchasing clothes that are treated with Permethrin which is a safe and highly effective tick repellent that stays in your clothes for up to 70 washes. You can buy these clothes at insectshield.com. Besides the creepy tick scare, the weekend was an amazing mixture of relaxation, learning, and nature loving. I am currently reading a lot of Paulo Coehlo fiction and books on Shenadoah National Park for our next camping trip in June. Get outside and be with nature…make sue to bring some bugspray.

Lehman Brothers: From Superb Cotton to Sub-Prime Mortgages

Does the Financial Crisis of 2008 make you want to punch someone in the face or maybe go run to your cat for a good cry? I would like to punch the bankers, responsible for the world’s most recent economic collapse, right in the man sack. In 2008 I was 18 so naturally Wall Street’s meltdown was not on my radar screen. I have read a couple of books, including Lehman Brothers, 1844-2008: The Last of the Imperious Rich by Peter Chapman. My parents bought me this book for Christmas mainly because it was 70% off (similar to the Lehman Brothers stock in 2008) but I was appreciative because I knew very little about the storied history of this particular investment bank.

Henry Lehman came to America in 1844 from Bavaria and settled in Montgomery, Alabama where he ran a store that sold various goods. His brothers, Emmanuel and Mayer Lehman would join him and in 1850 the store was given the name Lehman Brothers. During the 19th century, cotton was king and the Lehman Brothers would many times accept cotton as a form of payment for their goods; eventually, through this practice, they became brokers-buying, storing, and selling cotton to interested entities. This cotton brokering led them to New York where most commodity trading was taking place. With one foot in the South and one foot in the North they were well placed to invest in both agriculture and industrial operations. This benefited the brothers greatly during and after the Civil War. The Lehmans eventually moved their entire operation to New York in 1870 and continued work in the commodities business until 1906.

In 1906, Phillip Lehman (Emmanuel’s son) brought Lehman Brothers into a new realm of business when he partnered with Goldman Sachs to make General Cigar a public company. Lehman Brothers would go on to underwrite several well known companies: Sears, Studebaker, Woolworth, Gimbel Brothers, Macy’s, Endicott Johnson, Goodrich, etc. Following in Phillip’s footsteps, his son Bobbie Lehman, beginning in 1925 would take the company in the direction of venture capitalism. Lehman Brothers survived the Great Depression by underwriting the first television manufacturer, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Halliburton, and the first commercial airlines. The company saw great success through Bobbie’s leadership and had a focus on family partners throughout the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Bobbie died in 1969 which began the era of non-Lehmans running Lehman Brothers.

The 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s showed promising growth for the firm with a transition from underwriting companies to complex trading through newly introduced computers. By the 90’s Lehman Brothers was among the biggest traders on Wall Street and had been bought by American Express. The tangible commodities of the past were replaced in the tech age by extremely complex-virtual stocks. One of Lehman Brothers favorite investments were in bundled sub-prime mortgages. Lehman Brothers would end up leveraging almost all they had on these toxic investments and in the end they would fail because of them. In 2008, Lehman Brothers stock would plummet 90% and they would file the largest bankruptcy in history-613 Billion Dollars. This would, in large part, become the cause of the Financial Crisis of 2008 and send the world into a recession that is still felt today.