Cleopatra≈Game of Thrones

Have you heard about the series Game of Thrones? For sure it’s a stupid question because even a squatter in the middle of the woods has the mass market paperback. Christina and I started the HBO show about 4 years ago, and I finally convinced my parents to give it a try – they are almost caught up after binge-watching for a month straight. I started to read the first book because I figured in 50 years it will be considered a classic like Lord of the Rings – there are five total installments in the series with two more set to release in the distant future. The reason I love Game of Thrones is that it reads like historical fiction and it helps me understand real life ancient history. Of course, the plot, characters, and dragons are not real, but the foundation of the series is based on an era of our very own past: an era of kings and queens,  love and murder, conquests and defeats. While reading the first book in the series – A Song of Ice and Fire – I was concurrently digesting a nonfiction work on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. At times I thought both books were fiction because Cleopatra’s life mirrored the drama taking place in the medieval fantasy. Cleopatra’s rise and fall is no fantasy, but I hope to clear up a few misconceptions about one of the world’s most powerful women.

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Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, Egypt and was a member of the royal Ptolemaic family. The Ptolemaic dynasty began its rule over Egypt after Ptolemy I – a general of Alexander the Great – was appointed the leader of the region. The Ptolemies believed in keeping their family line pure and hence practiced incest. The very close-knit and confusing family tree of the Ptolemies resulted in an endless stream of murder for the sake of political power. By the time Cleopatra took control in 51 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty was in a severe decline from its once prosperous beginnings; that decline was primarily due to the rising power in the west – the Roman Empire. Cleopatra was a ruthless politician who understood how to wrestle with Rome; her domestic resume included killing her brother-husband and most of her family members to ascend the throne.

 

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The most authentic image of Cleopatra we have today…not what most people imagine.

 

Along with murder, Cleopatra understood the art of seduction, and she found favor with Rome’s highest official – Julius Ceasar. The couple would have a child together and Cleopatra gained a critical military alliance. All came crashing down however for the Queen when Ceasar was assassinated by his fellow senators. Wasting no time, Cleopatra seduced Ceasar’s predecessor Mark Antony. Mark Antony was one of three Roman rulers after Ceasar’s death and was the man most likely to take total control of the empire. Antony would eventually be defeated by his co-ruler Octavian – later known as Ceaser Augustus. Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide in their defeat; arguably history’s most dramatic love affair.

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Cleopatra’s life is fascinating, and throughout the ages, her image has been negatively caricatured. She is portrayed as a beautiful temptress who used sex to advance her political power. This picture is not entirely accurate and doesn’t give the Queen her due justice. Cleopatra was not physically beautiful, and she had to use her personality to seduce the greatest playboys of the age. That speaks to Cleopatra’s intelligence and wit during an era when women were little respected for their minds. Cleopatra also was not a sex-addict who was only concerned with hedonism. She was a compassionate ruler who was loved by the Egyptian people – her conquests of love brought prosperity to the citizens and her dynasty. More than anything, Cleopatra genuinely loved Antony and her children – a benevolent wife and mother until the very end. Cleopatra was one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the history of the world. We turn her into a sexual sound bite today, but have no doubt, she was an intelligent, reliable, and compassionate ruler. To understand Cleopatra’s success, let’s remember that the span of the Ptolemaic dynasty covered three centuries – a period longer than the current age of the United States of America. Cleopatra was the most successful and famous leader during that long rule. Before you dig into Game of Thrones, read about Cleopatra; incest, murder, politics, and power has no better model.

The Best Gift I Can Give

During the Christmas season, I am generally a scrooge. Not surprisingly, I loathe shopping malls where the almighty god of commercialization is most worshipped. This past weekend, I was at a mall in Metro-Detroit – a suburban sprawl which requires a 30-minute commute to seemingly every destination. This mall was packed to the gills, and I felt like a human bumper cart weaving in and out of overpriced clothing stores. Me being me, I ranted to Christina the whole time about how stupid it all was and how I couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over. My wife is the opposite of my curmudgeon self; her ideal world would probably be the one located inside a snowflake where celebrations occur for maxed-out credit cards – Whoville. After a few grumpy rants, Christina started to deter my negativity with every woman’s rationalization for the holidays…

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Me – “What is the point of buying all these gifts that no one needs?! I can’t wait till the 26th.”

Christina – “MY LOVE (not said in a loving way) stop being an old man. Christmas is all about tradition and celebrating family.”

Me – “Why can’t we just celebrate family without all the gifts? It just makes us materialistic.”

Christina – “We have to give gifts because God gave us the gift of baby Jesus. That is why we need to stand in line for an hour at Pandora and buy a $100 charm. And if you don’t shut up I am going to buy some gifts at that new vegetarian make-up store that doesn’t believe in “sales.”

Me – “Alright, I’ll stop. Maybe we can find a “What Would Jesus Do” charm?”

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This conversation is a microcosm of the American Christmas experience. That is why I wanted to write this blog about the reason for the season. Jesus is indeed a forgotten figure during this time, and I thought it would be fun to juxtapose some of His philosophy with the philosophy in my most recent classic The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

The Prince is a how-to guide to being a powerful and successful monarch during the 1500’s. Although the book is old, it has many sad truths about how politicians can climb the career ladder – the term “Machiavellian” is defined as…

cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one’s career.

Essentially, Machiavelli makes the point that a Prince needs to be ready at any time for battle…

“A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study; but war and its organisation and disciplice, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands…”

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 A key component in the battle of politics is to know when to be good and when to be evil…

“Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.”

This advice sadly has a lot of relevance today for politicians and government officials. Put in another way, one must appear in public as an angel and in private as a demon – sounds like a House of Cards episode.

The advice of the Earthly Prince must be juxtaposed with the Heavenly Prince of Jesus. Jesus said that…

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” Luke 6:27-30
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Humility and generosity should be the most common tools of today’s leaders. Aggression, deceit, and pride all help individuals reach temporary power – shortsightedly killing the goose to get the golden egg. Leadership depends on relationships and relationships depend on some degree of love.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
So this Christmas let’s give each other the gift of mercy. Let’s be more patient with each other. Let’s be more empathetic with each other. Let’s be more honest with each other. The material gifts on the 25th will eventually fade away, but the rewards of virtue will make you feel like royalty throughout the rest of the year.
Merry Christmas Everyone

A Most Unlikely Emperor

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Today is my third wedding anniversary. Three years ago I read vows to a woman while crying like a little baby. Our relationship since the wedding has continued to mature – our laughs and conversations keep getting better and better. Probably the best part of being married is that I can feel loved even when I am laying on the couch in my underwear while simultaneously eating pork rinds and singing along to Toto’s “Africa.” Without Christina, I would not be able to regularly read and write; it would be nearly impossible to complete classics while getting texts and updates from Tinder or eHarmony. Instead of swiping right or left on an app all I have to do is swipe right or left while cleaning the floor – this causes an immediate summons to the bedroom.

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Thank you, Christina, for helping me to be a better man and helping me get through the tough books which my former self would never have opened. One of those tough books was my most recent classic I, Claudius by Robert Graves. There are some books that are hard but interesting and others that are hard and boring – the latter is I, Claudius. Before reading it, I had the feeling one gets right before running the mile for the Presidential Fitness Test – an increase in heart rate, anxiety, dread, and the overarching desire to play dead on the ground. However, like the mile run, upon completing this story about the Roman Emperor Claudius, I felt a euphoric high that only comes from adversity.

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I, Claudius is technically fiction but written with historical accuracy as the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius. Claudius was a family member of the Roman court and the book details his life from his birth in 10 B.C. to his ascension as Emperor in 41 A.D. What is cool about the autobiography is that Claudius details the lives of fascinating Emperors like Agustus, Tiberius, and the evil Caligula. Claudius was born with a limp and a severe stammer which forced him into isolation from his more “Romanesque” brothers and sisters; at the time physical strength, aesthetic beauty, and elegant speech were desirable attributes in the royal court. Claudius became a bookworm and spent his time writing obscure histories. Most people thought he was stupid and treated him like a second-class citizen.

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Rome was a brutal place, and his family members were routinely killed by rival factions to climb the political ladder. When Claudius was middle aged, his nephew Caligula took over the throne. Caligula was a monster who slept with his sisters, killed his father, and smothered the former Emporer Tiberius. Caligula would end up killing most of his rivals and any family member envious of the throne. The only one who survived Caligula’s insanity was Claudius. Claudius played dumb and used his wit whenever threatened. In the end, Caligula was assassinated, and by accident, Claudius was chosen to be the Emperor. It’s actually a great story because Claudius more than any of his siblings deserves the throne because of his humility, intelligence, and levelheadedness; ironically, these attributes not only make for a great Emperor but also a great marriage. Here’s to many more years with you Christina – thanks for helping me always get to the finish line.

“I am supposed to be an utter fool and the more I read the more of a fool they think me.”
-Robert Graves ,  I, Cladius

The Greeks of Wrath

Let’s flashback to your high school years when pimples were regularly popped and homework assignments were regularly turned in late. Everyone took an English class and I bet in that English class some sort of Greek Mythology was studied. I remember reading Greek poems in those huge textbooks and being assigned questions that went something like this, “Who are the main characters?…What did the God Apollo represent?…Why is this particular passage so boring?” I dreaded these questions and usually wrote BS answers with lists of adjectives to satisfy the teacher, “Apollo represents endurance, stamina, longevity, and perseverance.”

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Fast forward to today and I am reading one of the most celebrated pieces of Greek Mythology of all time – the Iliad by Homer. The Iliad is a poem that doesn’t rhyme and takes up over 550 pages of text – it is the furthest thing from Dr. Seuss or a Haiku. I cringed when I saw that I had to read this classic and I really only had one happy memory from when I read similar poems in the past – recalling a sexy illustration of Aphrodite with a healthy amount of nakedness. This time around there were no juicy pictures but I did finally grasp the importance of this 2700-year-old text.

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The Iliad is set in the 10th year of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans – Achilles is the great fighter for the Greeks and Hector is the great fighter for the Trojans. The gods – Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, etc. – choose sides and constantly interfere with the happenings of the mortals. The main point of the plot is the journey of Achilles in his search for glory and his eventual victory over Hector – which is necessary for the final destruction of Troy.

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Achilles is really a jerk throughout the book; similar to a big man-child who is mad about not getting his way – refusing to fight with his fellow soldiers because of pride. There are many symbolic points to this poem but the most pronounced involve the role of “rage;” rage controls the mortals and immortals – sometimes facilitating and sometimes handicapping. Achilles more than anyone wields rage like one of those dancing air guys at a car dealership – you never know which direction he’ll swing next. In the end, he loses his best friend, Patroclus, to Hector’s spear because of his rage – and subsequently wields its force to destroy Troy.

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The question is, does rage hurt or hinder the greatest fighter? He looses Patroclus but gains all the glory for bringing down the great Troy. I think rage in our own lives, just like Achilles, is a force to be weary of. I know I have raged in the pursuit of being “right” to gain glory; that glory is important at the moment but what do we sacrifice – relationships, friendships, precious time? Pride, glory, and respect are a three-headed god which feeds on our selfish desires. Sure Achilles is remembered…but his rage and selfishness taint our view of his victories – his ultimate glory permanently smeared.

 

War and Peace

Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of  a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.

As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.

“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

The Myths of Happiness

Once upon a time, an old farmer lived in a poor country village. His neighbors considered him well-to-do because he owned a horse, which he used for many years to work his crops. One day his beloved horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors gathered to commiserate with him. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically, “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors rejoiced. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors visited the farmer to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” said the farmer. The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” the farmer replied.

This insightful story is from the most recent book I read, Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t-What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The farmer is wise in the fact that he doesn’t presume an outcome to be positive or negative. This is extremely insightful because we are more times the “neighbors” who are quick to congratulate or commiserate. How can be go through life and know whether future events will bring happiness or dismay? We are not fortune tellers, but we can learn from those who have gone before us and experienced similar events first hand. Let’s go through some key life events and figure out what will and will not make us happy.

I will be happy when I find Mr/Mrs. Right-When you begin a relationship with a partner, who you see as your perfect match, the passion can be described as unworldly. Everyday is magical, sex is incredible, conversations endless, and compliments bountiful. This of course fades with time; fast forward into a busy marriage and you may find yourself bored of your partner and wondering why you even got married. This is called hedonic adaptation which is the process of us getting use to things overtime. This occurs in relationships because we remain with the same partner who presents us similar stimulus on a daily basis. How can we fight hedonic adaptation and keep our relationships strong and happy? Change up the stimulus: try a new sex position, go to a new restaurant, give out a compliment, write a note, spend a weekend apart, etc. Give your relationship a buffet of stimuli to maximize the variety.

I will be happy when I obtain (fill in the blank)-In our consumer culture we are told that obtaining a certain amount of money, status, or power will bring us happiness. Money can buy happiness but only to a certain degree. Once we have food, shelter, heat, and safety (including health insurance) we derive minimal happiness from additional monetary funds. The additional money we earn frequently used to increase our luxuries which we become accustomed to overtime through hedonic adaptation. For example, my wife and I bought a house; in the first month we were on cloud nine but we soon got use to our surroundings and our happiness returned to normal levels. This happiness myth also applies to obtaining titles or promotions. The initial feelings we have after achieving new status is soon adapted to and often times replaced by unhappiness related to new stresses and unforeseen responsibilities.

I can’t be happy when the test results come back positive-Our predictions of the future are very inaccurate because we tend to only focus on the positives when we desire something and the negatives when we don’t want something. For example, when I think about going on my vacation I imagine the sun and relaxation but not the stressful travel and overpriced services. Conversely, when I think about having cancer I imagine vomiting from chemo but not celebrating holidays or listening to good music. We have a strong psychological immune system that tempers negative situations and allows us to be more optimistic than we thought possible. Adults who became blind were reported to have the same happiness after one year compared to when they weren’t blind. Time heals all things and terrible events are not so terrible because life is made up of many small happy events: having dinner with friends, seeing a full moon, reading a good book, etc. If the test result is positive, know that your post-tragedy happiness will in short be similar to your pre-tragedy happiness.

As you can see, happiness comes in many different forms and what we think will make us happy or unhappy is not always the case. To foster the most happiness we need to be conscious of the small things that bring us pleasure. I love yoga, coffee, conversations, reading, and tv shows; deliberate appreciation of these things makes my baseline happiness high. If those things that make me happy start to not make me happy then I take a break and come back to them-this is done to ameliorate hedonic apadtation. Lifelong happiness can be obtained if we understand our adaptability to both the positive and negative outcomes in life-when thinking about present and future events say to yourself “May be.”

 

The Helpfulness of Habits

I have a lot of bad habits. Some of my habits have been around since I was a wee toddler and others I have picked up in recent years. One habit that I really want to kick is keeping my back straight when I bend over. I know this seems like an innocuous maneuver but I tend to have this grotesque hump in my back from never bending at my waist. This hump is more of an aesthetic annoyance currently but I am a few decades away from being that old guy who is permanently bent at a 90-degree angle. Speaking of habits, my lovely wife who loves all things psychology checked me out a book called The Power of Habit: Why We do What We do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Essentially, the brain uses habits to conserve a crap ton of computational power and energy. An example of this is when you started to learn how to drive. At first, backing out of the driveway was a seemingly impossible task. You had to check your mirrors, slowly release the brake, look for pedestrians, look for oncoming traffic, etc. The brain was learning and using a lot of energy during these first few attempts but over time it got easier and easier. Today, you may back out of your driveway without thinking about it because your brain has turned it into a routine. Habits occur whenever there is a cue such as grabbing your keys before leaving the house. When you wake up you probably go straight to the bathroom-the cue was your alarm going off. Smoke cigarettes or eat crappy food? Usually these habits have cues like being bored, tired, or when you’re with certain people. All this is pretty easy to understand but until you identify your cues and habit framework then you can’t change your behaviors.

The framework for changing a habit is as follows:

-Identify the routine (I sit on the couch all night after work)
-Experiment with rewards (I like the feeling of walking after work for a half hour)
-Isolate the cue (Before I sit on the couch I always grab chips)
-Have a plan (I am going to put walking shoes next to the chip bag)

To better isolate the cue, write down the location, time, emotional state, other people around, and immediately preceding action at the moment you feel drawn to the habit. For example, whenever I want ice cream I am at my parent’s house, it usually is around 3:00 pm, I am bored, I am with my mom, and I had just eaten. Which cue is causing me to want the ice cream? Well if I record these indicators over multiple occasions I would figure out that I want ice cream because I am bored. Hence, to break my ice cream habit, I could go do something like watch a movie. Of course, this is all easier said than done but understanding the framework can help you identify which habits you would like to modify, keep, or stop. We all are trying to better ourselves, let us use this knowledge to make it easier and more automatic-in the end, habits can either be our best friend or our worst enemy.