My Mom and South Sudan?

My Mom occasionally buys me books that she thinks I will like. She has bought me about ten books in the past couple of years, and all ten books were far from my usual reading selection. I try my best to have a diverse reading list, but my Mom is in a league of her own when it comes to getting me out of my comfort zone. The most recent example of her eclectic curation came from the book – What is the What by David Eggers. What is the What is a nonfiction book written as a fiction book…yes I did say my Mom expanded my horizons. It is technically a piece of fiction because it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng – one of the lost boys of the Sudanese war during the 1980s. Valentino was a child when the war occurred, and hence his first memories are not 100% accurate – but doesn’t take away from the real nightmare that made up the first two decades of his life.

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When Valentino was seven, his peaceful life in the southern region of Sudan turned upside down when war broke out. The war was between the SPLA, who wanted an independent South Sudan, and the government of Sudan who wished to maintain control over the area. Southern Sudan was primarily Christian while the political north was primarily Muslim. The Islamic government wanted to bring an Islamic state to the south, and the SPLA wanted to maintain its unique Afro-Christian identity. The conflict has been known to posterity as the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1987 and ended in 2005. During that time, two million people were killed – almost three and half times more people that died in the American Civil War – and thousands of children were left orphaned to fend for themselves.

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A large portion of those children were boys who were too young to enter into the SPLA and fled their homes to escape the conflict. Valentino was one of 20,000 lost boys who marched from South Sudan to safe havens like Ethiopia and Kenya. The boys walked to these places many times in small groups and had to endure starvation, government attack, and even predatory animals. Valentino witnessed his friends being dragged into the jungle by lions, shot by overhead helicopters, and eaten by parasitic flies after dropping dead from exhaustion. The walk he took consisted of hundreds of miles and months of toil – on several occasions, he laid on the ground for hours unable to move from extreme malnutrition and infection.

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Valentino was able to obtain some semblance of life at a Kenyan refugee camp that was funded by the United Nations. He lived in the camp for several years until the US allowed several Lost Boys to resettle in the states. While in the States he met Dave Eggers who recorded his story and wrote the book What is the What. Through funds of the book, Valentino started his own foundation to support education in Southern Sudan. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 but is still in conflict with various internal organizations – it is one of the most depressed countries on earth. I had no idea the turmoil in Sudan until reading this book, and it has ignited in me a desire to learn more about Africa in general. Oftentimes, we get consumed with our own interests that we miss seminal events around the world. All these things impact us, and we must continue to learn and help those who are suffering. Refugees need help more than ever, and we need to seek practical policies which benefit not only the “lost” but also the countries who take the “lost” in as citizens. Thanks, Mom, for expanding my horizon, and I always appreciate your eclectic tastes – I never thought I would be mentioning your name with South Sudan. Expand your world…I am continuing my expansion by reading a book that is far from my comfort zone – Emma by Jane Austen.

Here are 9 out of the next 15 books that I will begin in June:

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Mormons – Murders – Multiple Wives

In 1984, two fundamentalist Mormons – commanded by God – slit the throats of their sister-in-law and baby niece. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were victims in a long chain of Mormon-related violence stretching back from the 19th century. Today, mainstream Mormonism is a peaceful religion with almost 15 million followers – equal to the world population of Jews. I once knew a Mormon and toured their facilities in Salt Lake City, Utah – quite a sight if you ever get a chance to visit. Mormon history is very peculiar, and I wanted to learn more about it through Jon Krakauer’s book – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer highlights how fundamentalism can lead to violence and subjugation in his compelling tale of present-day murder and the Mormon church’s growth from obscure to mainstream. 

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Let’s start from the beginning. Joseph Smith – the founder of Mormonism – was visited by an angel named Moroni while praying one evening in 1823. This angel revealed the location of golden plates that contained lost religious writings. After several failed attempts, Joseph was able to acquire the golden plates at the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. The plates contained sacred records in an unknown language called reformed Egyptian. Joseph was the only one able to translate these tablets using special glasses. These plates would lead to the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. Several followers joined Smith’s church which claimed that a lost tribe of Isreal came to America and that Jesus visited them after his crucifixion. Early followers joined Joseph’s church because he proclaimed that God could be reached through personal revelations and that there were no barriers in communicating with God. This was at a time when American religion was experiencing a Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, membership was not boosted by the sight of the golden tablets because they had to be given back to the Angel Moroni.

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Joesph moved his church from New York to Ohio where Smith was charged with financial fraud – forcing him to take his flock west to Missouri. While in Missouri, the Mormons fought with their “gentile” neighbors and after a bloody fighting, they were forced to relocate to the state of Illinois. The Mormons, being a tight-knit group who disliked outsiders, did not get along with their Illinois statesman – violence and murder were common. Things began to fall apart for Joseph when he received a revelation from God that he should take multiple wives. The church split from Joseph’s philandering, and the prophet was arrested for suppressing the local press. While in custody, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry “gentile” mob who saw him as a religious fanatic. The Mormon church was in chaos after their founder’s death but one of their leaders – Brigham Young – led them westward to safety. By 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had left American soil and entered the Mexican territory of what is now Utah. 

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Joseph’s polygamy revelation was not taken well by most of the Mormon leaders. Joseph’s wife actually declared that God had revealed to her that she should have multiple husbands – this did not sit well with the prophet. After the prophet’s death, the church split into polygamous and non-polygamous sects – the polygamous group headed to Utah and the non-polygamous group faded into obscurity. Brigham Young supported polygamy and believed it was the best way for men to live virtuous lives since they wouldn’t be tempted by extramarital sex. The United States government banned plural marriage and fought the Mormons on this front until the late 19th century when they passed laws to seize all Mormon church holdings. The Mormon church finally bowed to the law and changed their policy of polygamy in 1904. Since the prophet proclaimed polygamy to be a God-given right, many Mormons broke from the main church to establish their own “fundamentalist” branches.

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Today about 40,000 Mormons are fundamentalists and still practice polygamy. A famous example is Warren Jeffs, who was purported to have 70 wives, many of which were 14 years old at the time of marriage. These fundamentalists are responsible for most Mormon-related violence and kidnappings – the most famous being Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Of course, there is a lot to say about this subject, but the point I want everyone to take from this post is that fundamentalism – in any religion or secular viewpoint – is never a good thing. To be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is nothing more to learn from the world – many times an outlook that leads to dehumanization. Remember that we must be open to both truth and empathy – when those two things are absent the result is the murder of a mother and her child.

What are your views on Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and/or Polygamy? I love to read your comments.

Is God Dead?

Today is the holiest day on the Christian calendar – Easter. It is a holiday that celebrates the resurrection of life; Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for the sins of the world. The secular version of Easter involves bunnies and Easter egg hunts which in Michigan is complicated by the presence of snow. Easter is also the symbolic beginning of spring which makes everyone optimistic about the weather and life in general. I always had mixed feelings about Easter while growing up. I loved the chocolate and the ham, but the church services just didn’t pique my interests. Sure, the flowers and the choir were a magnificent sight to behold, but I didn’t really understand why the pews were filled to the brim. The philosophy of Easter was complicated for me because I didn’t have a good grasp of what it meant to suffer. My parents did an excellent job of sheltering me and protecting me from the horrors of the world. It wasn’t until I went to college that I reexamined the importance of this holiday. My eyes were opened during my Senior Seminar class which focused on the three days of Easter.

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Good Friday is a misnomer because it was the darkest day in the history of the world. Jesus died by excruciating crucifixion on Good Friday and for all intents and purposes – God was dead. People don’t like to think of Good Friday like this, but it is entirely accurate – Jesus was both man and God – His death was the death of both God and the Son. This was the ultimate sacrifice, and for two days, the disciples of Jesus were in a complete state of darkness. All their hopes for the future were gone, and the man they had thought was their savior was gone. We are fortunate to know the end of the story; Jesus rose from the dead, and the world was changed forever – God is not only alive but interconnected to us through that sacrifice.

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To truly appreciate Easter I believe we must understand suffering. We must enter the skin of the disciples on that Friday and Saturday. Unfortunately, we enter that skin way too often even after knowing about the resurrection on Sunday. We live our lives many times as if God were dead – trying to be masters of our own universe; hope and faith are absent more times than we would like to admit. It is for this reason that pews on Easter are filled. People understand suffering and want to feel the mighty power of the resurrection – in their hearts, they know God is alive. So this Easter you need to make a decision whether God is dead or alive. Do you want to live your life trying to be your own god? Do you want to live your life as if there is no one looking out for you? I am tired of trying to control my little universe – I want to give my worries to the Creator of the actual universe. So it’s your decision, Friday or Sunday, dead or alive. I have a postcard on my desk that says “God is here with you Jon!” If you are reading this, know that God is with you right now

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“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. …” Mathew 6:25-34

So this Easter really contemplate the beginning, middle, and end of the story; the end, in this case, is a happy one with an essential sequel. So is God dead? For me, I know God is alive, and I hope you feel the same way in your heart. Happy Easter.

The Forgotten Genocide

I found myself last night eating a double-decker plate of apple pie with an unfortunate amount of whip-cream on top. While feasting, I thought about how thankful I was to be able to shove my face with food. Have you ever been without food before? Not like a diet or a 3 pm snack type of hunger; the kind of hunger where there is no escape and no relief to the pain of emptiness. I am thankful this holiday weekend that God has blessed my family with the polar opposite of that painful state. Unfortunately, there are individuals around the world who suffer from hunger on a daily basis – over 796 million people lack enough sustenance to lead a healthy lifestyle (foodaidfoundation.org). That statistic is doubly disheartening with the fact that the world wastes one-third of all food production each year – 1.3 billion tons (fao.org).

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I bring up hunger specifically because I just finished a book that details one of the worst genocides in our modern history – Not Even My Name: A True Story by Thea Halo. This genocide took place between 1913 and 1922 against the Christian ethnic groups of Turkey – Armenians, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks. In total, the Turkish government killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, 300,000 Assyrians, and 500,000 Greeks through blatant murder and death marches. The book pointedly tells the story of Sano Halo – a Pontic Greek – who experienced these events and actually escaped with her life to America. As you’ll read, the Turkish authorities were ruthless against Halo’s family and used hunger as their principal weapon.

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The causes of this genocide are myriad, but one of the most significant catalysts was the Ottoman Empire’s fall during World War I. The Ottoman’s were prolific during the medieval ages but slowly declined by the 19th century – their central territory located in modern-day Turkey. At the turn of the 20th century, the Turkish government began changes in their state that aimed to lift up Turks and bring down historic ethnic groups located in the country. These “reforms” mixed with defeats in WWI to form a true hatred for everything “Western”; leading to the systemic extermination of millions of people to purify the decaying Turkish state and bring it back to its once glorious Ottoman apex. The government forced these “foreigners” – who historically lived in the area for thousands of years – into work camps, deportation marches, and mass graves.

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Sano Halo was 10 around the time the Turks came to her village and told her family to prepare to leave the next day. With guns pointed at their heads, they abandoned all their possessions, their livelihood, and their history. They were forced to march all day without breaks for food or water. The Turkish guards would beat them if they took a break or begged for food from local villages. Sano would end up marching 6 months straight – her younger siblings all died from hunger during that time. Eventually, even her mother died of exhaustion and Sano was forced to live with a Turkish family as a maid so she could have regular food.

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Sano was poorly treated by this family and eventually ran away. She was ultimately taken in by a family friend who arranged her marriage to an Assyrian man from America. She was able to reach Ellis Island and eventually had a happy family of 10 children. Sano was the unfortunate exception to this horrific story, and the Turkish government did their best to cover up its despicable deeds. In the aftermath of the genocide, textbook producers were paid by the Turkish government to exclude their actions and paint the country as a modernized beacon of the middle-east. This cover-up is one of the reasons Hitler felt so empowered to begin his own genocide…

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
-Adolf Hitler 1939

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Sadly, this Holocaust is still seldom recognized, and the Turkish government refuses to officially refer to it as a “genocide.” However, the genocide and death march was crystal clear for Sano, and thankfully her story was recorded so we can honor her family by spreading this knowledge. I challenge you this Thanksgiving weekend to think about how hunger can destroy and think about how blessed you are have not only food but a place to call “home.” Spread this message and help others learn this history. Not only will it help us prevent another genocide but it will help us be more thankful for the blessings we take for granted each and every day.

Further movies and books on this period in history…

Aghet: A Genocide (Documentary)

Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction (Documentary)

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (Book)

Want to Join a Cult?

What does it take to start a cult? What does it take to join a cult? Both of these questions are extremely interesting because they try to get at the heart of human behavior. We are social creatures who crave acceptance – sometimes this acceptance leads people to believe in bizarre things. For example, take the Mormon cult leader Warren Jeff who controls a group of fundamentalists from prison – even after being charged with sexually assaulting children and having 70 wives.

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How about one of the most famous cult leaders of all time – Jim Jones. Jones led a group of over 900 people to Guayana, South America to start their own socialist colony. This socialist experiment in Jonestown quickly turned into a horror movie after Jones convinced everyone to commit mass suicide. I am amazed at the ability of cult leaders to have total power over their followers; I barely can keep my chihuahua from peeing on the carpet. To better understand the birth, growth, and death of Jim Jones, I read The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. This book is exceptional and really helps the reader understand the evil of Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader who never backed down and desired complete control. Unfortunately, these traits were mixed with just enough moral ambiguity that followers thought they were being led to the promised land rather than their gravesite.

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Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in a small Indiana town. He was raised by an eccentric mother who defied conservative social norms with her independent attitude, beliefs in reincarnation, and prickly personality. Jones’ father was a WWI vet who could not work because of his disabilities and who had no energy to raise an energetic boy. Jones was a loner and soon began to stand out from the other boys with his religiousness. On any given Sunday, he would go to several services, not to praise God, but to understand what preaching style worked best to energize congregants. By the time he finished high school, Jones was working at a hospital where he would eventually meet his future wife, Marceline Baldwin (not pictured below).

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Jones and his wife would quickly move to Indianapolis where Jones attended some college and preached at evangelical-tent events. Jones would eventually establish the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s – a church that trumpeted racial integration, socialism, and community action. It was at the Peoples Temple that Jones discovered the power of deception by performing false healings and false prophecy; he would many times walk around the congregation with rotted chicken offal claiming it was cancer just removed from a member. Jones quickly gained followers from all walks of life who appreciated his message of social equality and marveled at his God-like abilities. Jones would eventually move this congregation to Northern California using the tool of fear – he claimed that there would be a nuclear holocaust in the Mid-West and that they were no longer safe.

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It was in Northern California that the Peoples Temple morphed from an eccentric Christian church to a full-blown cult. Jone’s began to have his members live communally and give large portions of their paychecks to the “socialist” cause. With greater wealth, Jone’s was able to expand his ministry and garner even more membership. Jone’s quickly began to stretch himself too thin and eventually, he began to take painkillers and amphetamines. His drug use made him more erratic and power-hungry – he would gradually start asking for sex from his female congregants. This sex was supposedly meant to lift up the women, and few members resisted; he would even have sex with several male members asking some if they wanted to be “fucked in the ass” after church meetings. This “uplifting” sex gave Jones greater control which eventually expanded to increased paranoia. Staged assassination attempts led his followers to believe that the FBI, CIA, and Fascists were after their happy community.

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The Peoples Temple morphed into a military compound with several members patrolling the grounds with firearms. This paranoia and the fear of nuclear holocaust led Jones to found Jonestown in Guayana. Jonestown was meant to be a sanctuary, but it actually represented the apex of Jone’s control over his members. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown which led to him being attacked by a Temple member – Ryan escaped with 15 of Jone’s followers. Jones, in all his paranoia, told his members that the government would soon come to torture them and convert the children to fascism – to prevent this from happening everyone had to commit suicide. 909 people, including Jones and his wife, died from cyanide in the mass suicide – 304 were children.

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So how did Jone’s get 909 people to commit suicide? It began with his ability to twist the truth so that the majority of his followers believed he had special powers – all while an elite inner circle assisted with these deceptions. Why did the inner circle help him? Because they often believed in his message of social change and felt powerful being in the graces of such an influential leader. Most of the congregation was made up of poor-uneducated members who were entirely dependent on Jones for their jobs, housing, and food.

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It was hard to leave the cult because Jone’s would actively prevent dissenters and it was easy to rationalize that he was telling the truth – “If there are lawyers, teachers, and businessmen following him, then he must be the real deal.” Finally, Jones was an expert at fear which he used as a tool to further separate followers from leaving the Temple. All these things mixed to create a twisted peer pressure that propagated infidelity, drug use, bullying, harassment, corrupt morals, and eventually death. We need to study these things because there are cults today and leaders who use the same principles. Be wary of half-truths and always seek knowledge so that this particular past will never be repeated.

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Buddhism for a Christian

As a Christian, I think it is important to have a working knowledge of world religions. Studying a different religion not only expands your understanding of varying beliefs but also helps you appreciate your own spirituality to a greater extent. Some people are wary of studying different religions because they believe it will tarnish their devoutness or lead them astray. In reality, the opposite almost always happens – for example, learning about Buddhism made me appreciate Jesus Christ to a far higher degree. Thanks to my physical therapist, I was recommended an excellent book on Buddhism called Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hand is a Buddhist monk, and a proliferate author – he wrote this book as a factual biography of the Buddha – heavy on doctrine and light on myths.

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It follows the life of Siddhartha, a wealthy prince who seeks the path of enlightenment and eventually becomes known as the Buddha. The word Buddha actually means “the enlightened one” and this book explains how Buddhism was initially spread throughout eastern India around 450 BC. At that time, many religions believed in various gods and degrees of asceticism – how much humans should avoid or indulge in pleasure. Siddhartha followed the greatest spiritual leaders but was never able to reach enlightenment until he understood the actual source of human suffering.

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What is the central root of human suffering? Ignorance. Not knowing the truth is the cause of all the pain in the world. Well, what then is the truth? The Buddha believed that…

“People were caught in endless suffering because of their erroneous perceptions; they believed that which is impermanent is permanent, that which is without self contains self, that which has no birth and death has birth and death, and they divided that which is inseparable into parts.”

Put in another way, people have the wrong perceptions of the world and hence inaccurate realities of truth. So the next question then is how can one fix their reality? Again the Buddha believed that…

“…the key to liberation would be to break through ignorance and to enter deeply into the heart of reality and attain a direct experience of it. Such knowledge would not be the knowledge of the intellect, but of direct experience.”

This “direct experience” is achieved through mindfulness of the present moment. Complete mindfulness requires one to understand that there is no “self” and that there is no permanence – all things depend on each other in a cyclical-eternal fashion. Understanding this interdependence of life – the Buddha was able to shed all the sources of suffering: fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. The Buddha taught his followers to meditate to reach this awareness and connectedness. In a way, Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion – there is no soul, higher power, or afterlife; the goal is to reach Nirvana which is complete enlightenment and the extinction of self.

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Buddhism is complex – especially with reincarnation – and what I have described are the main tenets; there are many different schools of thought just like those in Christianity. So how did I apply these Buddhist teachings as a Christian? First off, Christianity teaches that you can not earn your way into heaven and that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. In Buddhism, the individual is responsible for their enlightenment, and the path to salvation is earned rather than gifted. Just that fact makes me want to shout “Praise the Lord for Jesus!” I did, however, find several parallels between Buddhism and Christianity in respects to suffering.

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Jesus, just like the Buddha, teaches that we need to love one another and that we are all interconnected – we fall apart because of fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. I also took away the important message of impermanence and mindfulness. Nothing on this earth is forever, and this life is just a blip on the map of eternity; we shouldn’t be sad about death because it is transient. We must be mindful of the present because it not only makes us more aware of our blessings but it gives us a glimpse of what eternity will actually feel like – no past or future. I actually have been meditating more, and it helps me with gratitude, calms my mind, and rids me of thoughts that cause suffering. No matter what you believe, learning about different religions will always give you a greater sense of the world and the human condition.

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

When Death Surprises Us

It is always remembered as that definitive moment in time. That very instance in which bad news was learned. Before the news, life seemed normal. After the news life seemed forever tinged. Very few things in life bother us more than an unexpected death; the death of a person whose time should not have come. When death surprises us it is one of the most shocking and disorienting moments of our existence. We see our lives as journeys that have some sort of predictive storyline: go to school, get married, have kids, move up the ladder, travel, retire, die of old age. When this plot suddenly falls off the tracks, we tend to pause in befuddlement – questioning our destiny. Usually, we try to rationalize an unexpected death. We convince ourselves that there was a “cause.” We try to put order to a thing that just seems random. Death caused by something is better than death caused by nothing. Randomness is scary and we quickly rush for explanations to help us rationalize our control on life. It’s like watching a scary movie and saying that we don’t live in that haunted house so we couldn’t possibly be killed.

Of course, there are sensical things to be done to avoid death. We know not to stand in the middle of the road, play with venomous snakes, smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. Along with the obvious, there are daily health habits which can help a person reach old age: eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, limit stress, etc. In general, people tend to live longer and healthier lives than past generations. It is for these reasons that we tend to forget about the inevitable – death. We think that if we follow a formula that the outcome will be fireside chats with grandkids and a peaceful death at the ripe age of 95. More than ever we believe that our “own” choices can dictate our future. Unfortunately, we have absolutely no control of the future. Sure, we can do our best to live healthy lives in the “hope” of old age, but there are no guarantees. This may sound fatalistic, but it is the truth – we have zero control over the future. Our lust for control is why unexpected death always sends us into an internal panic. We reassess our goals and look at our loved ones in a new light. It is this mindfulness that is always so fleeting but yet so vital to our existence.

A very special co-worker of mine died this weekend, and I feel almost frozen with questions of why. Why did she have to die so young? Why did God take someone so smart and amazing? Why did it seem so random? Grief is a complicated beast, and I had to write this post to tweeze through a lot of my thoughts. I miss my friend, and I do believe she is in heaven. Life teaches us to never take for granted the present. What we have today is not guaranteed tomorrow. It is ok to make plans for the future but never rush through your days trying to get there. We can’t escape death, and we can’t control our futures. Love deeply whenever you can because you may never get a second chance.

 

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.

Escaped Chihuahua!

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Of all the dogs that run away each year, the Chihuahua is the least likely. A Chihuahua by nature is a helpless creature that parasitically thrives off the heat and comfort of its owner. No Chihuahua ever enthusiastically runs to the door to go wee wee. Most Chihuahuas feign the outdoors unless it mirrors their natural desert habitat. Max, my Chihuahua of 8 months now, is almost always by my side. He lies on my lap and I pet him like Doctor Evil. If I have a book in my lap, he lays on my legs. If I have something on my legs he lays on my feet. The dog is always seeking human touch. In general, he has more ADHD than a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. At any given moment he is alert to his surrounding environment-especially whenever the refrigerator door opens. I believe Max to be some kind of mix between a Chihuahua, a dingo, and Will Ferrell in Elf. I keep learning new things from Max that make me a better person. I would recommend to everyone that they own an animal. Animals teach responsibility, respect, compassion, unselfishness, and patience. So what has Max taught me on this glorious Sunday? Well, that Chihuahuas can run away.

As stated previously, Max is always by my side. So how the frick did a seven-pound-deer-headed-pea brained Chihuahua escape from the house? It all started with my desire to talk on the phone with my old roommate-while on the porch of my house. It being almost 70 degrees outside I wanted to bask in the glorious sun which has been absent for the past 4 months. I took my chair, my phone, and my Chihuahua outside. While talking with my roommate, Max sat peacefully on my lap while taking in the rare solar heat. All was well with the world until Max started to get comfortable. See, Chihuahuas are very timid up until a certain point. They have an action potential of meekness which is negated whenever they sit in one place for a period of time. By sitting on my lap on the porch, Max became the king of the porch-anyone who came close was in his territory. While chatting with Chris, his action potential was bathed in some sort of Chihuahua gusto, and Max began to bark at every single thing that came past his wooden domain. Adults. Dogs. Children. Grandmas. Leafs. Paper Bags. Nothing was safe from his wrath and I subsequently threw him inside because of the interruptions to my conversation. As earlier stated, Max must have human contact at all time. After constant whining, Christina opened the door and let him come to me; he quickly regained his state of superiority which subsequently forced me to throw him back inside. It was at this point that I must have not shut the door completely.

In about a half hour, Christina was heard through the window frantically calling for Max. I thought nothing of it because I figured he may be snuggled under a synthetic human substitute-his blanket. But there was no miniature deer to be found under the many blankets which are exclusively for his comfort. This sent a wave of panic through my spine and I thought he may actually have run away. The house was checked and now my wife was going all Filipino on me. I asked myself why would Max leave the porch? He has never left my side. Nevertheless he was gone and we were contemplating the worse – that a hawk swooped down and grabbed his rat-like body. Thinking that he couldn’t have gone very far, I scanned the neighborhood from my porch. I didn’t see anything at first but then my eyes caught a small figure in the far distance. It was Max, in the road, starring at a stop sign as if he could read it-with a car rapidly descending in the foreground. I called his name and as if nothing happened he ran back to me with haste. I embraced him with the utmost ferment as if this little dog was my own child. So why did Max leave the porch? I will never know the answer but it has taught me a lot about my relationship with this dog.

I actually care about him and would be extremely sad if he died. I actually appreciate that his brain and balls may be bigger than I had previously thought. I actually need to respect that he is a strong dog and not a mutated rat. The moral of the story is this: When life gives you a metaphorical Chihuahua, a situation that you don’t respect or appreciate, think twice before making judgments and discounting it. That Chihuahua may highlight your vulnerabilities, making you more emotionally sensitive and more appreciative of what you have. I know my Chihuahua did.