book suggestions

A former student emailed me asking for suggestions on some history books to read, so I thought I’d share with you what I shared with her.  If you end up reading any of these books, please comment here, email me, or send me a Facebook messages with your thoughts on the book(s).

The best – hands down best, no kidding – history-related book I have EVER read came out not too long ago.  It’s called Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.  It happens that one of my favorite movies (ever) is “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the author deconstructs the movie as well as the reality of TE Lawrence.  Just a fantastic book, no kidding, plus it really opens the mind to why the Middle East is the way it is now.

Another really good book is Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion & the Armies of Rome, by Stephen Dando-Collins.  He’s written a bunch of books in this series and they’re all OK, but this one is the best of the bunch.  The cool thing is that they read more like novels/stories than history books – maybe I appreciate them because that’s the way I like to teach!

Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, is a cool book that takes a serious world-spanning look at how the effort to acquire just one of life’s minor luxuries helped shape the world as we know it.  Fascinating.  This book was recommended to me (along with another book that wasn’t quite as good) by a 17-year-old home-schooled girl, and I’m glad I listened to her on this one.

If you’re interested in Cold War-era stuff, look at The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, by Lewis Siegelbaum.  You wouldn’t think a book about crappy cars made in Bulgaria or Hungary would be that interesting, but when you look at them in their geopolitical context, pretty cool stuff.  Another good CW book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik & the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski.  It’s a little more … dense & academic … than most of the other stuff I’ve listed here, but I’m obsessed with sci-fi, so I always liked this book because it combines history and space.

OK last suggestion, and this one might be a little off the wall: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman. It’s a graphic novel filled with mice, cats & pigs, but it’s a really powerful book about how an American man learns to cope with his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.  My copy is 2 volumes, but I think it’s available as one complete book now.


what is a veto?

There’s a lot of tooth-gnashing, hair-pulling and hand-wringing these days over President Obama’s threat to veto legislation related to the Keystone XL pipeline making its way through Congress as of this writing.

What, though, is a veto?

It’s very simple. The Constitution – you know, the document that lays the groundwork for how the government of this country is supposed to operate – sets up a system of checks and balances that theoretically prevent any one branch of government from becoming too powerful. This was an idea originally set out in the early 1700s by Charles-Louis de Secondat, better known as the Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu – or just Montesquieu. We know it as a government formed of branches; if you ever watched Schoolhouse Rock!, though, you’ll recognize it as the three-ring circus that it is.

Our three branches, as you probably know, are the Executive (led by the president), the Legislative (Congress), and the Judicial (the Supreme Court of the US, or SCOTUS). Each has its responsibilities and the ability to override or cancel out the others and therefore affect change in this country.

Congress’ job is to write our laws – this is why they’re called the legislative branch. While it’s not important to this post, I just want to mention that any bill (which is what they call a law before it’s a law) that involves spending the public’s money has to start in the House of Representatives.


For a bill to become law, it must pass both chambers of Congress – the House and the Senate – by a simple majority. “Simple majority” is something the Senate doesn’t seem to understand these days, but that’s a subject for a different post.

Once Congress passes a bill, it then goes to the president. It’s not officially a law until the president signs it, mostly because the job of the executive branch is to enforce our laws. The president, therefore, has to be willing to set his people about the business of enforcing a law passed by Congress.

No-StampIf the president is unwilling to enforce a law, then, he can cancel it, and that, my friends, is called a veto. In my mind, the president has two rubber stamps in his desk, one that says YES and one that says NO… but that’s beside the point. The president can just veto the bill (NO!) or he can send it back to Congress with suggestions on how to rewrite it. The president has 10 days to decide whether he’s going to sign or veto a bill – not including Sundays. Depending on when that 10 days occurs, the bill will either become law without the executive’s signature (the president can’t stall forever, after all) or disappear like so much dust in the wind. (see pocket veto, below)

Once the bill goes back, Congress has two choices. They can rewrite it and resubmit it to the president, or they can override the veto. Overriding a veto is fairly difficult; while the original passage of the bill requires a simple majority of votes – say, 51 to 49 in the Senate* – overriding a veto requires a “super majority,” or 2/3 vote. Overriding a veto is a nearly impossible task in modern times given the abjectly partisan nature of Congress. The override rules are such that only a 2/3 majority of the people present must approve the override; the Senate has overridden with as few as 63 votes and the House’s overrides have hinged on as few as 276 votes.

We’ve had 44 presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. Seven of those presidents never vetoed a bill, but every president since Chester Arthur (served 1881-85) has vetoed at least one bill. Franklin Roosevelt holds the record, having vetoed 635 bills. Second place is Grover Cleveland (414); third place is Harry Truman with just 250.

The president with the most overridden vetoes is Andrew Jackson (15), who saw nearly half his overrides negated by Congress. Next up is a three-way tie between Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, both with 12 on the override list. Third place – another tie, at 9 – Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Just for a little perspective, the two most hated presidents in recent memory – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – didn’t do much vetoing. GWB only vetoed 12 bills, and 4 of those got overridden. Obama has only vetoed two bills so far, and neither was overridden.

Interestingly, though, Obama has only done active (regular) vetoes. There’s a form of inactive veto called a “pocket” veto. Use the mental image of the president folding a piece of paper up and tucking it in his suit pocket. If Congress sends a bill to the president with less than 10 days left in the Congressional session, and the president refuses to sign it before the session ends, that’s a pocket veto. Congress can (and often does) appoint an agent to receive an expected veto while Congress is not in session; this tool prevents the pocket veto.

James Madison was the first president to use the pocket veto; he did so in 1812 to quash a bill that would have standardized the rules of naturalization (how foreigners become citizens). Ronald Reagan had 78 vetoes – half standard, half pocket. Franklin Roosevelt nixed 263 bills with pocket vetoes, the most prolific use of the pocket veto in US history. Dwight Eisenhower loved the pocket veto, using it on 108 of the 181 bills he vetoed.

The veto is the president’s check on Congress’ power, and the override is Congress’ check on the president’s power. That leaves SCOTUS.

You remember SCOTUS.

The Supreme Court of the United States, the judicial branch of our government, can exercise its authority as the body that interprets the laws. According to the Constitution, SCOTUS has one job: determine if a law adheres to the Constitution or not. If it does, it stays. If it doesn’t, it goes – no matter what the president or Congress say. That is their check on the power of the other two branches. Since the very first time SCOTUS exercised its authority to shut down Congress and/or the president – with the case Marbury v. Madison (as in President Madison) in 1803 – some say SCOTUS has overstepped its mandate … but that’s a topic for a future post.

Bottom line: a veto is the president’s ability to tell Congress to pound sand.

* Because of the bullshit, dysfunctional way the Senate operates in the 21st century, “simple majority” now means at least 60 votes, but, again, that’s a subject for a future post.

following in the footsteps of giants, or around the world in 5 years

There are titans in the world of travel writing.  Bill Bryson, certainly, but he doesn’t ride motorcycles.  In the motorcycling world, there’s Ted Simon (Jupiter’s Travels and Dreaming of Jupiter) and Neil Peart (Ghost Rider and Roadshow). Those four books define the art of the motorcycle travelogue* – equal parts adventure, misfortune, introspection and advice.

With The University of Gravel Roads, Peart’s countryman Rene Cormier is trying to work his way into the lexicon of the world rider; for the most part, he succeeds, but there’s probably more wrong with this book than there is right.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Cormier hasn’t written a bad book. It’s … well, around here, some folks say middlin’, and by that we mean not bad, but not good, either.

IMG_0762The biggest and most glaring problem with The University of Gravel Roads is the photos.  Look at that photo of the book.  How big does that book look?  Just looking at it, it looks 8.5 x 11 in landscape mode, right? It’s actually …uh… 8.5 x 11 in landscape mode.

Now, when you see a book like that, run sideways and with giant, glossy photos on the front and back covers of scenic vistas – albeit one with a half-naked biker on it – it’s not unreasonable to assume, as I did, that the book I was about to read would be filled with large-format, high-resolution photographs.

It’s not.

There are photos on nearly every page, but Cormier admits that on the first leg of his journey, he not only went cheap on his camera, but he went cheap on the storage as well, setting his camera to its lowest resolution in order to pack as many photos as possible onto the memory chip.  Mid-journey, he runs out of money and is forced to return to Canada to work/earn/save for a year, and during that year he buys a new camera and clearly learns his lesson about camera memory cards, because the quality of the photos jumps up about halfway through the book.  Other than a few beautiful panoramas, however, Cormier wastes the landscape format of his book, and frankly, he includes only a very few spectacular photos.

That seems like a petty complaint, and I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did like it just fine.  There’s a little Simon-ish action and adventure related, including shenanigans at various border stops.  There’s a little Peart-ish soul searching, including the realization that he’s not cut out for travelling with a companion for long periods of time.  He learns some lessons and through his lessons, we gain a little advice.

Reading the title, The University of Gravel Roads, the expectation is that we’re about to learn something, because the author learned something.  I suppose he does, but other than a highly introspective (but short) final chapter, we don’t really learn what he learns other than his Central/South American experiences seem more rewarding because of the shared language, which he committed himself to learning as well as he could.  Travelling in Africa and Asia was a miasma of changing languages, and he makes a point of telling us that the only phrase he had in most of them was “I only speak English.”

I suppose my disappointment with Cormier’s book isn’t because of what it is, but rather holding onto what it is not. It’s not Ghost Rider, Peart’s journey from the depths of emotional pain to something resembling normalcy.  It’s not 10 Years on 2 Wheels, Helge Pedersen’s absolutely stunning collection of photos taken during his decade-long journey. I wanted Gravel Roads to be either – or both – of those things, and it’s not. It’s Cormier’s journey, and every journey is different.  This book just feels a lot like a fundraiser so he can take another journey.

I say it’s worth reading, but only if you’ve already read the other books mentioned in this post and can – unlike me – let go of some lofty expectations.

* You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There’s a good reason for that – it’s not a motorcycle travelogue.  A lot of people think it’s a book about zen and/or a book about motorcycle maintenance – or at least motorcycles. It has nothing to do with zen at all, and, while there is a solid chunk of motorcycle journey (and a well written one, to boot) at the beginning and again at the end, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s about values and the pursuit/examination of those values.

a far more likely apocalypse

Dystopian fiction is all the rage with kids today – both in print and at the movies.  The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, all that noise.

(I’ll do us all a favor and not get into how weak those movies really are – and other than The Giver, how unbelievably weak and derivative their source material is. You want to watch a great dystopian flick? Check out Children of Men or Soylent Green. Plus there is no better dystopian novel than 1984. Period.)

IMG_0757All that aside, I think dystopian fiction is popular because we don’t see those situations and the people that rise above them as reflective of our own lives.  We’re unable to think that our world would be divided up into districts, each of which is required to send one boy and one girl to fight to the death in a special arena in order to determine which of us eats well next year.  It’s pure, unadulterated fantasy.

If that’s why you enjoy dystopian fiction, then you absolutely should not read William Forstchen’s One Second After, because it is absolutely not that kind of dystopia. Only read this book if you’re ready to face some hard truths about the nature of humanity and what happens to people when everything around them goes straight to hell.

(By the way, you can skip Newt Gingrich’s foreword. It adds nothing to the credibility of the author and comes across as cloying and pedantic. Worst part of the book. The afterword by Bill Sanders is fantastic, though.)

Our hero, John, is a former Army colonel who has retired from the hectic life of rising through the ranks, left the hustle and bustle of command, and headed for the hills of western North Carolina. He chooses his family over his career, a choice which immediately endears him to us and pulls us into a place where we inherently trust him.  We know right away that he prioritizes his kids over his job, even though his new, post-Army job is a cushy tenured professorship teaching history at a tiny (>600 student) Christian college a few miles east of Asheville.

It’s his youngest daughter’s birthday as the story opens, and we get to the meat of it quickly – in a split second, all the power goes out and everything with modern electronics dies a silent, irrevocable death.  Since I read the back of the book before reading the inside of it, I already knew that the cause of the power outage was an EMP, so I wasn’t surprised by that.  You knew it was going to happen because the first chapter is titled “Day 1.”

If you don’t know, EMP stands for Electro-Magnetic Pulse.

(Don’t say “EMP burst.” That’s like saying “ATM machine.” Pulse is another word for burst in this context.)

An EMP is a side effect of a nuclear explosion, and this side effect fries everything electronic in sight.  It results from an extremely powerful burst of gamma radiation originating from the detonation site.  Draw a straight line from the detonation point out in every direction, and if that line touches something electronic, that bit of electronics is fried.  The only electronics that survive are items that are “hardened,” or specially prepared to resist this specific burst of radiation, and items that are otherwise (luckily) shielded – perhaps behind or under many inches of concrete or something like that.  If you take that detonation and put it up in the sky, then that line-of-sight effect is expanded, and even more so the farther up in the air you do it.  This is the basic premise of the book – that some enemy of the United States (we never really find out who) sets off a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere over the USA, frying EVERYTHING.

Well, nearly everything.  While John may be our hero, his hero is a 1949 Edsel that’s too old to be affected by the EMP and runs throughout the book.

Needless to say, the EMP takes out pretty much everything, sending the community of Black Mountain, NC (a suburb of sorts of Asheville) into the Stone Age.  They say (in the course of the book) that they’ve gone back to Medieval times, but I think that’s being generous.  In Medieval times, those people knew how to cope with their environment.  What the residents of Black Mountain are faced with is more like being dropped on an alien planet.  They’re simply not equipped to handle their new lives, and things go downhill very, very quickly.

John’s family follows some predictable patterns.  His mother-in-law, Jen, is tough as nails, but her husband, Tyler, is riddled with late-stage cancer and suffering in a nearby nursing home. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is 16 and unequipped to handle the end of civilization; once Forstchen starts John to worrying about her relationship with her 17-year-old boyfriend Ben, you know how that plot line is going to end (it is, sadly, the most predictable part of the story – the upside, though, is it’s one of the few predictable parts of the story).  His younger daughter, Jennifer, has Type 1 diabetes, and as the pharmacy infrastructure breaks down soon after the electrical one dies, you know her demise is a matter of when, not if.  That’s the only spoiler I’ll lay down, because it’s not really a spoiler, you just don’t ever want to face that reality, even when John is screaming into the phone at an Asheville doctor who refuses to give up a tiny slice of his critical supply of insulin.

The Asheville doctor, after all, realizes that Jennifer’s death is an inevitability. The EMP has destroyed civilization as they know it, and at that moment towards the end of the book – about four months after the EMP – it’s quite possible that Jennifer is the last Type 1 diabetic alive in the region.  Every other T1D has already died, and the only reason Jennifer is still alive is because John bullied a scared pharmacist into giving him a supply of insulin that slowly goes bad without constant refrigeration.

Jennifer, however, is not the only lamb sacrificed in the wake of civilization’s collapse, and this is the main point of Forstchen’s book. We are not prepared to handle being cut off from everything modern living affords us – food (which will run out way faster than you think it will), information (which, even when it’s very bad news, allays fear and promotes hope), and medicine.  Imagine everybody with high blood pressure or schizophrenia running out of their medication.  EVERYBODY.  All the medical conditions we manage with pills, within a few weeks, become a very real problem.

The climax of the story is a battle between a large, aggressive Satanic cult called The Posse and the Black Mountain Rangers, the militia – mostly made up of the young adult men and women attending the college – led by Colonel John, US Army, retired, and his former USMC drill instructor, Sergeant Washington. What Forstchen does, though, is (if you ask me) nearly brilliant. It would be easy to throw down a blow-by-blow accounting of the battle, looking at every enfilade and defilade, discussing every death in detail, but Forstchen doesn’t do that. We know the battle is coming, and he skips 95% of it, dropping us in as the battle ends and the survivors deal with the dead and wounded.  It fits in with the general theme of the book, surviving the tragedy and trying desperately to hold civilization together as a survival exercise.

The reality of just how many people would die in 2 weeks, a month, a year after everything shut down – just from medical problems and starvation – is well portrayed in the book, and it’s entirely disheartening. Now you have to remember that we all have guns, and as civilization deteriorates, the have nots will quickly grow desperate enough to try to get at what the haves are holding onto.

One Second After, then, is not a book about a nuclear holocaust. It’s a book about a humanity holocaust, and it’s a good book to boot. I started reading it at about 4 pm after work and literally could not put it down until I finished it about 7 hours later.  It’s not an easy book to read from a subject standpoint, but it is well written and flows easily. Calling it a “page turner” would be a little cliche, but I seriously had to finish it in one sitting. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep if I didn’t find out who lived, who died, and how long it took for relief to arrive.

OK – one more spoiler. Relief does arrive, but it takes way longer than anybody thought it would, and for the vast majority of the Black Mountain community, it’s too late when it does show up in the form of a column of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and regular Army troops.

a resolution for 2015: eliminating guilt, regret and forgiveness

This is the time of year when a lot of people engage in resolutions – promises they make to themselves that they hope will, in some way large or small, improve their lives.

Some promise to eat better, to lose weight, to read more, spend less time on the computer, pay better attention to their family/kids, drive less, exercise more, quit smoking (or some other bad habit), go back to school, find a new (more satisfying job), save money, reduce stress, eliminate debt, practice piano/guitar/tennis/chess more, take an epic vacation, volunteer more, dry out, get organized, clean out the basement/garage/attic… there’s as many resolutions as there all people.

Including me.

You know me, though. My resolutions aren’t going to be on that list because, frankly, none of those things are challenging. All those things require is simple will power. I’ve seen the world, I’ve studied history, and I know that the vast majority of people have no will power. Sure, some folks do, no doubt about that, but those folks tend to be at the extremes – Josef Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi had amazing amounts of will power. What I’m saying is that if Stalin wanted to quit smoking, he would have. If Gandhi wanted to … well, I was going to say lose weight, but that seems kind of tasteless. Too soon, I guess.


Here’s my resolution for 2015, then:

I resolve to eliminate guilt, regret and forgiveness from my life.

Wait – what?

OK, most people can understand why eliminating guilt and regret from one’s life would be beneficial, but that’s pretty selfish – totally focused inward. But forgiveness? That’s something you do that helps other people, right? Forgiveness is something that eases the minds of others, and that can’t be a bad thing – or can it?

Let’s start with guilt and regret.

Guilt is the most destructive psychic force in the universe. It leads to more bad decisions and poor behavior than anything else – more than avarice, lust and all the other so-called deadly sins wrapped up together in a nice little package. Many of our lives are wrapped up in guilt cycles, though, and I’m not going to allow myself to suffer from guilt any more.

Guilt comes from thinking you’ve done something wrong, so the solution is simple: Determine if you’ve done something wrong. If you have, apologize, correct it, and vow not to do it again – then don’t do it again! If you have not, refuse to apologize, refuse to accept responsibility for it, and vow not to do whatever it is. That doesn’t mean you can’t help repair the damage done by whatever it is, but it does mean that you understand it’s not your fault, nor is it your responsibility.

Guilt comes from making bad decisions. Eliminating guilt is only possible if you make good decisions, which means you must decide deliberately in everything you do, every day. Choosing a path to follow in a deliberate fashion means that you are steering your life with purpose and determination.

Does that mean every decision will turn out to be a good one? Of course not! I fully realize and accept that I will make mistakes in the coming years of my life. By refusing to feel guilty for the outcomes (or consequences, as we refer to negative outcomes), I am empowering myself to objectively analyze my decisions and decision-making processes. This will allow me to identify errors in judgment and alter my life in a positive direction.

Guilt clouds judgment. I refuse to be clouded. I refuse to feel guilty. If I make a good decision, then yay. If I make a bad decision, guilt will only prevent me from identifying the reasons behind that decision, and furthermore, guilt will prevent me from changing my behavior.

Guilt, then, is an emotion that promotes suffering in the present. If I’m constantly in a state of suffering, I cannot grow or move forward. I refuse to feel guilt.

(Having said that, it’s often difficult to control emotions. This will, I recognize, require work on my part. You know, will power. There, see? Everything comes down to will power!)

Now let’s move on to regret. Regret is just sublimated guilt over decisions made in the past that you’re convinced have conspired to make your life miserable. More suffering in the present, but this time the suffering is precipitated by wishing you’d done something different in the past.

Regret often comes from feeling like you missed an opportunity at some point in your timeline, and if you’d only made a different decision in 1990, your life would be filled with joy in 2015. If you hadn’t broken up with that girl, you think, you’d be happier now and have better kids.

The problem with that line of reasoning is that you could also be miserable now and have two kids in prison. There is no way for you to know what your life would be like now based on a fork in the road you took 25 years ago. Regretting that decision prevents you from living in the present and making good choices now.

The underlying cause of your happiness isn’t your decisions, it’s you. If you’re miserable, it’s because you’re miserable, not because your life has been a series of bad choices. Apples and oranges. I know plenty of people who I think make poor choices, yet they seem perfectly happy. I know plenty of people who make great choices, yet they remain the most miserable human beings on Earth. It’s not your decisions that make you happy, it’s your decision to be happy that does so. Just as you can choose joy and happiness, you can choose suffering and misery.

Regret, then, allows you to focus on the past and engage in a cycle of “what if” thinking. You cannot improve the present if you are constantly focused on the past, and since regret is focusing on the past, I refuse to feel regret over my past decisions. I will accept them for what they are and analyze their effect on my present, thus improving my decision-making abilities now, when it truly matters.

This brings us to forgiveness.

I have never been a fan of forgiveness, and this is something I’m quite open about. The chances are high, if you know me well, that you’ve heard my anti-forgiveness rant at least once. It’s time to codify it, because I think it plays into this resolution to eliminate guilt and regret.

Forgiveness does one thing, and one thing only: It assuages (or relieves) the guilt of another person.  I hereby affirm or avow that doing such a thing is not my responsibility!

If I’m not engaging in guilt on my part, why the hell should I engage in guilt on your part? If I can abandon guilt, then so can you. If you can’t abandon your feelings of guilt, that is your problem, not mine.

You do something that wrongs me. Ignore my feelings for the time being and deal with your own. You feel guilty about it? Identify the bad decision, engage in analysis of your decision-making process and vow to make better decisions. Give up the guilt and work to avoid regret about the choices you’ve made.

Asking me to forgive you absolves you of the responsibility to examine your decision-making processes. You get to feel better about making a bad choice, while now I’m left to feel miserable about the shitty thing you did to me. Forgiveness shifts the responsibility to the victim, and we already have too many victims in this world.

Instead of asking for forgiveness, acknowledge that you’ve made a bad choice that harmed other people and STOP DOING THAT. Instead of offering forgiveness, acknowledge that you’ve been wronged and work on not hating the person who has wronged you.

By refusing to forgive, you’re helping to short-circuit the guilt/regret cycle. You’re forcing the person making bad decisions to reflect on those decisions, rather than letting them feel better after hurting you.

My resolution for 2015, then, is to give up guilt, regret and forgiveness.

To eliminate guilt, I will make more thoughtful decisions.

To eliminate regret, I will live in the present.

To eliminate forgiveness, I will hold people – including and especially myself – accountable for their actions and refuse to be responsible for making them feel better about their poor choices.