Partition – Is It Ever A Good Thing?

I live in the United States of America and I am very proud of its melting pot of culture, religion, ethnicity, and political beliefs. In respects to religion, I am a Christian sharing this great land of freedom with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Scientologists – among many others. In general, people get along in America counter to what people see on the news and social media – the fact that it is “news” gives you a marker for context. This cohesion is in large part due to economic, social, and geographical cooperation. The fact that all 50 states have relatively fluid borders – sorry Hawaii – allows people to interact and form connections; connections which provide the zest to America’s delicious stew. Not everyone agrees with me on these points and some desire to split away from the red, white, and blue; nearly every election, there is a call for Texas, Northern California, Southern California, Florida, the south, or the north to form their own country. Today, around the world, there are serious calls for partition. To better understand this history of division, I read about one of the most contentious partitions in history – the separation of Palestine and Isreal – in the book O, Jerusalem! By Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.   

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The partition of Palestine occurred after WWII and was caused by several concurrent events: A British desire to withdraw from the region because of increased retaliation from both Jews and Arabs; reparations for Holocaust victims and Jewish refugees who had no place to go; an increased nationalist movement by Zionists; and the West’s desire to keep communism from gaining a foothold. The United Nations voted to partition the region in 1947 and on May 14th, 1948, the state of Israel became official. Partition began a war that still rages today between Arabs and Jews – the first year of conflict claimed the lives of thousands of men, women, and children. Between 1947 to 1967, the Arabs had the upper hand on the Jews with their control of Jerusalem and major trading settlements. The Jews flipped the table in the War of 1967, and since then they have been slowly suffocating the Palestinians. Today, the state of Israel, with the backing of America, maintains dominance in the region. That dominance results in the persecution of Palestinians and continued hatred between the two groups.

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My question is this – Why was Palestine partitioned in the first place? Why couldn’t the region be one cohesive state with multiple religions like America? Maybe a better question…Why does America support the current state of separation when it goes completely counter to her own beliefs? Another example of the disaster of partition is the formation of Pakistan and India in 1947 which resulted in the death of 600,000 people and today is one of the most dangerous borders in the world. On paper, partition seems like a great idea; divide people based on their differences and then each state will have cohesiveness. The problem is that we don’t live in a bubble and arbitrary borders don’t mean much in real life. When a partition occurs, it is impossible to expel all members of a religion or ethnicity – there will be Jews in Palestine, Arabs in Israel, Hindus in Pakistan, and Muslims in India. The result is an obvious division between states and greater conflict within countries because the “unwanted” groups are seen as “internal outsiders” – separate in identity and a matchbox for intra-neighborhood conflict.

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So is partition ever a good thing? I think not. I think the state can unify people under a common banner of religion, ethnicity, and culture. I am a white-Christian-male, but that doesn’t mean I should have my own country. I am an American and that means that I share a connection with all Americans. The key is a balance between the two extremes; we can respect differences while maintaining a collective identity. So what is the solution to the problems in Palestine and India? To start with, we need to be good role models of statehood – let’s show the world what it looks like to be unique and united at the same time. One of my favorite leaders is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He didn’t push for a separate black nation but pushed for a united America behind a universal belief – the belief that all men are created equal. Is this an easy thing to do? Heck No. Is this something that can work? Heck Yes. Change is slow, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. What’s impossible is unification through division.

 

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John D. Rockefeller – Sinner or Saint?

A way to a man’s heart is through sex, food, and Ron Chernow books. The last one is probably particular to me, but thankfully my wife knows me very well; for Christmas last year she bought me Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr by – you guessed who – Ron Chernow. I first became interested in Rockefeller after watching the History Channel series The Men Who Built America which profiles the dominant imperialists of the Gilded Age. The History Channel usually churns out complete garbage, but this show was actually informative and entertaining – compared to the ubiquitous alien conspiracy theory shows. Rockefeller is one of the most complicated men I have ever read about and hence Chernow’s biography of him took up a mammoth 700 pages.

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Rockefeller, unlike Vanderbilt or JP Morgan, was not your typical Rober Baron who accumulated money for the sake of hedonism. Wealth and success to Rockefeller represented God’s blessings – blessings which could not be squandered. He lived a simple life relative to his fortune which in today’s money was worth 400 billion dollars. Oil was the foundation of that fortune and for decades his company, Standard Oil, dominated the global refining business. With vast wealth comes enormous controversy – Rockefeller was a ruthless businessman who negotiated unfair trade deals with the railroads – squeezing out small refiners in the process. These shady business practices were during a time when industry was mostly unregulated in America. Ida Tarbell, the famous Muckraker journalist, vilified Rockefeller – subsequently rallying public opinion and the US government to break up Standard Oil’s monopoly. Ironically, the break up of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even wealthier – he continued to own large shares of his stepchildren’s companies still known today: Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Sun, Conoco.

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Rockefeller stepped away from the oil business in his late 50’s and enjoyed a long retirement of philanthropy. Thanks to several Rockefeller foundations, the fields of education, medicine, and research were expanded. It can be argued that the United States world-renowned college system is a direct result of Rockefeller – he set the standard for medical research and founded the prestigious University of Chicago. Before Rockefeller, the state of medicine in the US was that of snake oil salesman – after Rockefeller medicine evolved into a rigorous scientific discipline. Some would question whether we should support philanthropy from “dirty” oil money? I would argue that Rockefeller made business decisions like a strict father; they were harsh but many times fair, as the oil business was in large part saved by Rockefeller’s big thinking principles. During the financial crises of the late 19th century, many small refiners went bust all while Standard Oil maintained record low prices for the consumer. Capitalism is tough and Rockefeller was one of the toughest. When we critique his decisions, we must look at things contextually. Rockefeller was not without blame, but I don’t think that his legacy is one of a sinner. I think his legacy is complicated and the fairest assessment should come from his opponents…

“The press, once hostile to him, formed his biggest cheering section. ‘It is doubful whether any private individual has ever spent a great fortune more wisely than Mr. Rockefeller,’ Pulitzer’s World editorialized in 1923, while the Hearst press, not to be outdone, states, ‘The Rockefellers have given away more money and to better advantage than anybody else in the world’s history since the ark stranded on Ararat.'”

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I believe that Rockefeller is no saint when compared to the world as a whole…but maybe a saint when compared to the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. Excessive wealth usually corrupts and leaves no positive legacy. Rockefeller following his religious views used each penny wisely. Those pennies may have been tainted, but in the end, they were shined up for a noble purpose; a purpose which Rockefeller pursued until his death at 97 years old. So what’s your verdict? Was Rockefeller a sinner or a saint?

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Working (Words) Out in the Nude

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Confused? This actually is a grammatically correct sentence. There are three meanings of the word Buffalo…

  1. The proper noun referring to the city Buffalo, New York
  2. The verb to buffalo, which means “to bully, harass, or intimidate”
  3. The noun referring to the animal – buffalo (biologically a Bison).

This sentence translated would read: “Buffalo (the place) bison (the animal), whom other Buffalo bison bully, themselves bully Buffalo bison.” Take a deep breath and don’t give up on this post quite yet. This oddity of the English language is a great example of etymology – the study of word origins and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The average person usually doesn’t think before they speak; it is even rarer to find someone who questions the very foundations of speech itself. Mark Forsyth is one of those people – the author of the #1 International Bestseller – The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. The title “Etymologicon” is a real word that means a book written about etymology. Forsyth is a word master, and his work became a #1 International Bestseller. All words have a history, and those histories are fascinating. Below I am going to highlight the origin of ten words that were detailed by Forsyth in his book. These are just a few examples of what is in the book, and if your curiosity is piqued, I highly recommend you reading it for yourself.

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  1. A long time ago there was a tribe named the “Franks.” The Franks invaded the Gauls whose occupied area became known as “France” – the K replaced with a C. The Franks “disenfranchised” the Gauls and hence were themselves “enfranchised.” This oppression by the Franks allowed them to speak freely or “frankly.”
  2. A long time ago, there was a significant swath of persecuted people in Eastern Europe known as the Slavs. The Slavs were slain and subjugated by the Byzantine Empire to the south and the Holy Roman Empire to the north. Eventually, the word Slav became synonymous with forced labor – or Slave.
  3. A long time ago, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were lords and peasants. The peasant was required to work the lords’ land and a small portion of his own which was granted to him. This mindless labor system was called Robot.giphy3
  4. A long time ago, Englishmen had trouble with persistent coughs. They could take morphine – a standard treatment at the time – but they didn’t want to become addicted. Scientists came to the rescue and invented a morphine substitute. This new medicine needed a brand name so the marketers asked the test participants how it made them feel. They all unanimously said it made them feel great and like “heroes.” Heroe was turned into the brand name Heroin.
  5. A long time ago, Hitler formed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei); the official identification of all Hitler followers in Germany. This Party name was unfortunate because in Germany there were many jokes about Bavarian peasants who were seen as stupid and lazy. The identifier of this class of peasant was the typical male name Ignatius – or its shortened version – Nazi. Hitler’s opponents jumped at the insult and abbreviated Hitler’s party name.
  6. A long time ago, medieval doctors believed the vein on the fourth finger ran directly to the heart. This anatomical connection eventually proved false, but the tradition of encircling the heart through the vein continued on – with the ring finger and the wedding band.giphy4
  7. A long time ago, monks were a common sight in Catholic Europe – hooded men who were far from models of chastity and virtue. Many saw them as filthy sinners who were no better than animals. When explorers decided to name hairy-man-like animals, they used a similar name – Monkeys.
  8. A long time ago, America decided to test a new hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. This weapon was more potent than previous – incidentally exposing Japanese fisherman to radiation. This event inspired the movie Godzilla and a French clothes designer who needed a name for his scandalous swimwear – which would cause an explosion of lust in all Frenchmen. This explosion would be named after the bomb test site – Bikini Atoll.
  9. A long time ago, Greek men enjoyed exercising outside in the nude. This arena of flesh was frequented by old and young alike – the older participants came primarily for sightseeing. The Greek word for naked is “gymnós” which eventually gave us Gyms and Gymnasiums. 
  10. A long time ago, people wanted to buy a house and hence needed a loan. There were two ways this loan could be fulfilled or said in another way – be put to “death”: it was paid off over a lifetime, or it was canceled after a missed payment. In many cases, it was doubtful that the person would make all these lifetime payments and so the loan would be dead to him. In either outcome, there was the likelihood of death, and hence the loan was called a death pledge – Mortgage. giphy5

So does this make you more curious about the words you use every day? I for sure look at diction differently now. Just remember that word meanings change over time and that new words are continually being invented. Don’t get too stringent with etymology and hop on the treadmill in the buff.

The Greatest Founding Father – Alexander Hamilton

Every 4th of July I get excited about cookouts, patriotic swimwear, and most importantly, Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers were the men who helped found the United States of America and are remembered mostly by their white wigs and stern portraits. Many of these influential members have been in the limelight recently via the popular Broadway play Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This play motivated me to read about its main character, Alexander Hamilton; I thought it appropriate to use the same biography that inspired Miranda – Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

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Hamilton is most well known for his portrait adorning the 10 dollar bill and dying in a duel against the former Vice President Aaron Burr. Unfortunately, it was this duel that cost Hamilton his rightful place in high school textbooks – unexpectedly dying at the age of 49 allowed his enemies to perpetually smear his name and downsize his accomplishments. In opposition to history’s unfair treatment, I feel confident in declaring Alexander Hamilton the greatest Founding Father of all time. I’ve read the biographies of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – none of those great men matched Hamilton’s political accomplishments and moral fortitude.

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Hamilton was born as an illegitimate child on the island of St. Croix in 1757. His family life was far from ideal and he had to work extremely hard to rise up from the poverty that consumed his future prospects. He was a precocious child and by the time he was a teenager, merchants were noticing his work ethic and his magnificent writing style. Some wealthy families desired to sponsor Hamilton’s education – allowing him to move to the mainland and later enroll in what is now Columbia University in New York City.

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While studying at Columbia in 1774, Hamilton was taken under the wing of many revolutionary mentors who shaped his eventual desire to fight for American independence. Once the fighting did commence, Hamilton helped form local militias and was actually an artillery captain in several engagements: The Battle of White Plains, the Battle of Trenton, and the Battle of Princeton. Although he desired to be on the frontline, higher up officials later employed him as an aide-de-camp because of his writing skills.  His incessant work ethic caught the attention of George Washington who made Hamilton his Chief Staff Aide. As Chief Staff Aide to George Washington, Hamilton ran the Continental Army with his behind the scenes paperwork – Washington was the figurehead but Hamilton was the orchestrator.

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After the war, Hamilton took up a law practice and pushed more than any other Founding Father for the ratification of the Constitution. His famous Federalist Papers argued for a stronger central government and the states to be a united body. Once the Constitution was adopted, George Washington was elected President and he quickly nominated Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton changed the United States forever by forming the first National Bank which took responsibility for state debts. This genius move forced the states to unify under the central government and showed foreign countries that America was a stable investment.

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It was Hamilton’s push for a stronger central government that drove his political opponents mad. Thomas Jefferson hated Hamilton and paid people to publish false reports that the Treasury Secretary was a monarchist and wanted to anoint a British King. This rift between Hamilton and Jefferson formed the first underpinnings for political parties in America. Hamilton was seen as a Federalist and Jefferson a Republican (no connection to the modern day party) – Federalists were stereotyped as the aristocratic class who were pro-British while Republicans were stereotyped as the agrarian class who were pro-French. Hamilton was accused of pocketing money from the Treasury Department and his reputation was constantly being smeared – all accusations were pursued by Congress but Hamilton was found completely innocent.

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The Federalists would be pushed aside by the Republicans when Thomas Jefferson was elected President; Hamilton at that time was seen as an evil adulterer, monarchist, and money monger. His political decline culminated with a duel with Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President – Aaron Burr. Hamilton purposely did not aim at Burr because he believed Burr did not wish to kill. Unfortunately, he was completely wrong. Hamilton died the day after -leaving his wife and seven children behind. A parade commemorating his death in New York City was said to be bigger than the funeral parade for George Washington.

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Alexander Hamilton is the Greatest Founding Father because in the words of Chernow, “No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.” Hamilton not only got his hands dirty with nation building but also kept his hands clean from owning slaves – he actually was a practicing abolitionist. I think this passage sums up his place as #1…

We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned. (Hamilton’s staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of this economic vision.) He has also emerged as the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government. At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.
-Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

Flint, MI – The Best City in America

Many of you know this already but for those who don’t…I live in Flint, MI. Yes, pause for gasps of wonderment but wait a second before you do a Google search for the “most dangerous cities in America.” Flint is actually not that bad of a place to live in. Sure we have lead in our water and crime in our streets. Sure we have decaying roads and decaying homes. Sure we have Michael Moore and Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield). But Flint is actually on the up and up. We have a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden. There is a mall that has cute puppies and free samples of Chinese food. And most importantly, Flint has citizens who participate in nonfiction book clubs.

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In all seriousness though, I enjoy living in Flint most of the time, and the city is in the progress of reinventing itself. So, as an ode to the Vehicle City, my feminist- librarian book club decided to read a book about Flint – Tear-Down: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young. This is an account of a former Flintoid trying to reunite with his childhood city after living in San Francisco for the past decade. The memoir, for me at least, was a great look at the history of Flint and how its past is just as complicated as its future trajectory. 

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It is believed that Flint was formerly called Pewonigowink, which translated to “place of flints.” The area was originally a trading hub for furs and in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French author of Democracy in America, visited Flint. The fur trade was eventually surpassed by the lumber business which blossomed in the city from 1855 to 1880. At the peak of the lumber industry, there was a significant need for transporting logs – this led to Flint’s next big industry – carriages. By the turn of the century, Flint was producing 150,000 carriages, making it the largest carriage producer in America and most likely the world.

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One of these carriage makers was Billy Durant who ended up investing heavily in a new burgeoning car company called Buick – he would eventually combine Buick with various other automakers and parts companies to form General Motors in 1908; he then went on to create Chevrolet in 1911. The rest is history – the automobile became an American necessity, and Flint provided that dream for millions of people. By 1955, Flint peaked with a population of 200,000 people and had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world at the time. That year the city celebrated its centennial parade that featured GMs 50 millionth car – a gold trimmed 55′ chevy. Flint was the poster child of manufacturing potential and the middle class – the model city of the future.

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Everything seemed to go to crap in 1973 with the OPEC oil embargo that brought higher gas prices, fuel shortages, and lines at service stations. GM, at this time, was at near peak employment in Flint but soon began layoffs after the crisis. This led to an unstoppable pattern which culminated in the 80’s and early 90’s with GM closing factories like Buick City which employed nearly 30,000 people. At its pinnacle, GM employed 80,000 Flintoids, after the closures, less than 10,000 remained. Today, the population of Flint is half of its 1955 zenith – with around 100,000 inhabitants. This dramatic loss of jobs and population led to increases in crime and infrastructure breakdown. In 2016, Flint had the highest vacant home rate in America  (source).

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Flint today is struggling with a tax base which is forcing the city to consolidate police, firefighters, parks, school buildings, and almost every public service imaginable. Funds were even cut on treating the drinking water – causing lead to leach from aging pipes and a multi-billion dollar public health crisis. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with Flint, but the people that still live here are resilient and make it a better place to live in every day. Here are some recent examples: the city will be replacing all lead service lines (funding is already secured), the crime rate is no longer one of the highest in the country, and abandoned homes are regularly being removed to decrease blight. Is Flint, MI the best city in America? No. But in my opinion, it is far from the worst, and I am proud to call it my home. Flint shaped America, and it is compelling to live in a place with not just a significant history but also a promising future.

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America’s Jello War

Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.

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Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?

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The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.

In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.

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The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.

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The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively.  At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.

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James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of  war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.

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A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…

“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”

 

Old World vs. New World

One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the Image result for native american stereotypesearth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.

Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the Image result for incan empirelargest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.

Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Image result for Tenochtitlan sketchTenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?

One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history. Image result for native american disease and epidemics
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.

What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Image result for native american mound builders sketchAztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.

Guaranteed Happiness in 3 Steps

“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”

-English poet William Blake

Are you a bubbly unicorn or a grumpy cat? I find it interesting how some people are just naturally “happier” than others. There is a reason for this phenomenon. We are all born with an emotional set point that affects our everyday mood and outlook on the world. My set point is a slightly uncomfortable 62 degrees while Ashley, my effervescent coworker, has a toasty set-point of 78 degrees. How do I raise my good-feelings thermostat? Why are we obsessed with happiness? Is there any hope for us folks who seem to always be sitting on a cactus? In search of these answers, I recently read Spontaneous Happiness by Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil is a hippy who got his MD from Harvard and spent most of his career researching techniques to cultivate happiness.

Before we address how to become happier, we need to first look at some unrealistic expectations. America is obsessed with being happy. Every time we greet each other there is an automatic response of “good” “great” or even “absolutely fantastic.” This drives me crazy because I am usually feeling mediocre or just average. Whenever I respond with a “mediocre” the person who just asked me contorts their face in a matter that says, “do you need the suicide hotline number?” America is obsessed with happiness because of many cultural reasons: constant products being sold to increase happiness, the belief that happy people are more productive, America’s preeminence as being the best in every thing – including positive emotions. Happiness is an unrealistic emotion to have at all times. Think of our emotions as a seesaw, they pivot up and down on a fixed set point. This set point is not happiness but best described with the words: contentment, serenity, comfort, balance, and resilience. The Swedish term for this is known as Lagom and means “just right” or “exactly enough.” So our goal is to increase our frequency of Lagom which provides two things: greater emotional balance and the ability to reach spontaneous happiness more often.

So what is spontaneous happiness? Let me give an example. Say I am reading a book under a comfortable blanket and I feel content and at peace. I am not necessarily “happy” but rather in an emotional equilibrium. As I am reading, the doorbell rings and to my surprise it is a free pizza gifted by a fan of my blog ;). This provides me with a rush of happiness and tilts my emotional seesaw upwards. That is spontaneous happiness. How can we cultivate that spontaneous happiness and increase the set point of our contentment?

  1. Go out in nature: We are designed to be outdoors. When we get more sunlight, fresh air, and exercise we feel better and have a greater ability to avoid negative thoughts.
  2. Spend time with people who bring you happiness: This one seems like a no brainer but we tend to isolate ourselves and spend a lot of time with our faces on our screens. Happiness is best fostered with people who regularly laugh, joke, and view the world in an optimistic light. Avoid interactions with conspiracy theorists or people who regularly write book reports on Herbert Hoover.
  3. Foster gratitude: Gratitude is the single greatest tool that can raise your Lagom set point and hurdle you into happiness. It takes practice but start focusing on three things that you are grateful for each night before going to bed. Gratitude and nature also go hand in hand. Walk outside in the cold and when you get home you will be ecstatic to have a warm cup of coffee and blanket to snuggle under.

We don’t need to be happy all the time. The view that we must feel like a unicorn running through a field of ice-cream cones has in part led us to seek antidepressants at a record number – the rate of depression has increased ten-fold since WWII. Depression is complex but it is many times influenced by our expectations that happiness is the norm and our lack of understanding of how to live a content existence. We need a seesaw of emotions so we can appreciate both the highs and lows. If your “thermostat” runs a little cooler than others don’t feel inferior – it is perfectly normal. If you would like to warm up a little bit just practice those techniques – wrapping yourself in a blanket of Lagom and spontaneous happiness.

How Islam Shaped Shakespeare

Did you know there was a time when Protestant Christians partnered with Muslims to usurp the Catholic Empire? Did you know that Queen Elizabeth sent a carriage to the head of a harem as a political gift? Did you know Shakespeare included many Muslim characters in his most famous plays? If you knew all these things give your brain a break and go watch the remake of Gilmore Girls. For all of us still reading, let’s take a weird journey into 16th century England where the teeth were black from Moroccan sugar and the houses were ordained with Turkish rugs. As a guide to our journey, we will reference my most recent read – The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam by Jerry Brotton.

Our journey begins in 1558 when Queen Elizabeth took the throne and began ruling a island in a very fractured world. Elizabeth was a protestant while Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were obviously Catholic. The Holy Roman Empire was the beez neez back in those days and made the rules of the land. Well, Pope Pius V and King Phillip II of Spain hated Queen Elizabeth because of her religious views. They colluded against her for decades and finally in 1570 the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth from the church and all of its domains. This put the Queen in a sticky situation – England could no longer trade openly with European countries but needed trade to survive on an island. Added to her woes, Elizabeth was also cut off from the Americas because of Spain and Portugal’s dominance. She had one option that could work but the chances of success were slim. Trade with Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

Englishmen were sent to the Ottoman Empire and Morracan Sultanate in hopes of opening up economic partnerships. What is interesting is the fact that when the Englishman met with the Turkish Sultan, he didn’t know where England was and viewed it as politically insignificant. He was correct in this assessment because England and Europe as a whole during the 16th century were far less powerful than the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople had a population of 500,000 compared to 200,000 in London). The Sultan agreed to the trade because he needed valuable metals to make weapons and in exchange the English would receive all sorts of exotic goodies. Guess where a lot of the metal came from for the production of Turkish weapons? Catholic church bells. Protestant English were using Catholic metal to arm Muslims. The same Muslims that were targeted by the Crusades. By the late 1580’s, thousands of English merchants, sailors, and privateers were moving about the Muslim world exchanging goods, beliefs, and culture.

One unlikely cultural exchange occurred in the world of English theater. The theater, up until that point, had primarily consisted of moralistic plays which followed similar patterns of plot and structure. This all changed with the play Tamburlaine which enlisted Muslim characters with plots that included conflicts of religion, politics, and power. Guess who was inspired by Tamburlaine and came out with his own play 6 months later? William Shakespeare. Shakespeare would go on to include 150 references to Islam in 20 different plays – many of which included main characters who were Muslim.

This weird time in history, thanks to inter-Christian quarrels, led to major cultural changes that we still experience today. Every year thousands of students read about Islam through Shakespeare. Everyday millions of people use words that were introduced to the English language from this period of trade: candy, turquoise, and tulip to name a few. Maybe most of all, the Moroccan sugar that blackened Queen Elizabeth’s teeth, led many to search for new sources in the New World. Unfortunately, Christianity and Islam’s 16th century partnership soon ended after Elizabeth’s death. Fast forward today, what can we learn from these previous partnerships? Would we have Shakespeare? Would a England, who decided not to trade with Muslims, have the resources to settle the New World? Interesting questions that all root to the fact that intermingled cultures are powerfully synergistic.

5 Non-Conventional Thanksgiving Facts

This week is my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving. On Thursday I will be smoking my turkey for 5 hours and roasting some dark meat to add extra variety. We will be serving all the best sides: green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, apple pie, and pumpkin pie. I really enjoy talking about Thanksgiving with other people and hearing about their favorite dishes; macaroni and cheese seems like a popular one along with yams topped with marshmallows. I always wondered where all these traditions came from? To better understand my favorite holiday, I am reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick which is all about the Pilgrims and their first 50 years in the New World. The Pilgrims were the type of people that today you may describe as “cultish.” They believed that their form of worship was the best and they wanted to be completely isolated from the world to practice their extreme form of Christianity. They were so deadset on escaping the Church of England that they risked their lives to travel to a land where death and despair were everyday occurrences. Could you imagine a pastor today saying that he knew the true meaning of the Bible and that everyone should follow him to Antarctica to build a Godly community? It sounds insane but to an extent that is what the Pilgrims did back in 1620.

God had a plan for those crazy Pilgrims because they defied the odds and were able to not only make it safely across the Atlantic but were also able to find a relatively safe place to live – Plymouth. The first winter, half of them died and all looked lost until they met Squanto. Squanto was previously a slave and spent time in Europe before coming back to his homeland. The Pilgrims were desperate for help with planting crops and they needed to make alliances with the local Native Americans to survive. Squanto secured both these things, and that following fall, the first Thanksgiving took place. The first Thanksgiving wasn’t called “Thanksgiving” and it wasn’t connected to any religious celebration. The Pilgrims didn’t believe in religious holidays because the Bible didn’t mention any such events – in their minds the adulterated Catholic and Anglican Church were responsible for them. No, this first celebration was a secular event that mimicked the annual harvest celebration common in England during the medieval age. The Native Americans didn’t split a big table with the Pilgrims and feast on our modern day dishes. The celebration was so large, with Native Americans far outnumbering Pilgrims, that there were several fires scattered outside that hosted small groups. Each fire was used to cook a menagerie of choice meats: wild turkey, eagle, bass, venison, shellfish, and water fowl to name a few. The day was meant to celebrate the alliance and friendship formed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.

The rest of history didn’t go so well for the Native Americans but the message of the First Thanksgiving is still vital today. America was founded on friendship and unity between all different types of people. We’re at our best when we let go of our divisions and selfishness so that we can be generous with our unique blessings. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and remember these loving attributes when your uncle starts ranting about Donald Trump.

Here are some really fun facts about Thanksgiving 🙂

  1. Scanto’s name, means the “Devil” or the “Dark Spirit”
  2. There were no utensils at the first Thanksgiving – everyone used their fingers and hunting knives
  3. The beverage of choice during the feast was homemade beer
  4. The Pilgrims believed the apocalypse was near and their settlement would usher in the “end of times”
  5. The Pilgrims didn’t believe in “Hymns” – instead they sang verses directly out of the Bible