Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Constitution of the United States of America


The Constitution of the United States of America

by James Madison and other delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 representing New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia

Most of us are familiar with the introduction, “We the People, of the United States, in order form a more perfect union …, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” With all 27 amendments, it is roughly 4500 words long and takes about one half hour to read, but have you ever taken the time? The first time I did, it was out of boredom; literally, there was nothing else to do and I was stuck in a waiting room. The second time, however, was because I had recently finished Founding Brothers , by Joseph J. Ellis, (ISBN 0-375-40544-5) which tells the dramatic story of how a roomful of thoughtful men, across a hot summer in Philadelphia, crafted one of the world’s most important and exemplary documents.

The story of the Constitution begins with the Declaration of Independence and ends with the building of the National Archives in Washington, DC. Once independence from England was achieved, the “several states” agreed to unite under the Articles of Confederation. This loose agreement inevitably led to the eruption of numerous problems which nearly doomed the fledgling nation. Inflation was out of control, the government was too weak to wage an effective war, and there was no process for resolving interstate trade disputes. The lack of a strong, central government meant that each state could operate without regard to its neighbors, and this led to bitter conflicts. Moreover, revolts within states began springing up, causing many to fear anarchy and chaos.

James Madison, a young philosopher and political theorist, devoted several years to the question of how to make the new nation work and determined that the Articles of Confederation must be replaced by a stronger agreement in which each state ceded some of its power to a central, or federal, government. This federal government would write and execute laws which would apply uniformly to every citizen of every state and would supersede any laws written by the states’ legislatures. He wrote, “Let it be tried then, whether any middle ground can be taken which will at once support a due supremacy of the national authority”. States’ powers would, he recommended, be “subordinately useful”. All he had to do was get the states to agree.

Madison and John Tyler, both of Virginia, opened the door for a constitutional convention by putting forward a proposal that the Continental Congress assume the power to regulate trade within the Confederation. This led to a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September of 1786, the outcome of which was a call, by Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to Congress to summon delegates from all states to assemble and revise the Articles of Confederation, and Congress complied. The objective, in the words of George Mason, was “…establishing a wise and just Government.”

Each state was invited to send delegates of their choosing to the meeting scheduled for May 14, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t until May 25th that a quorum was present, given the distances and difficulties involved in traveling at the time. In the end, the states appointed 74 delegates and of those, 55 participated. Rhode Island declined to be part of the convention due to suspicions of a conspiracy to overthrow the existing government which worked to that state’s advantage.

George Washington was ailing and suffering from personal problems which nearly kept him home, but at the last minute he decided to journey from Virginia to Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin, at 81 and ill with gout, was still active in business, science, and philosophy and took on the role of the “Sage of the Constitutional Convention.” Without these two venerable statesmen, it is hard to imagine a successful meeting, because other major figures from the Revolution were unavailable. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Jay were busy on foreign assignments. Others, including Patrick Henry, “smelt a rat” and boycotted the proceedings. They believed that their personal liberties, so hard won from the English, were at stake and wanted no part in the convention.

Once a quorum of seven states was obtained, discussion and debate about how to modify the Articles of Confederation began. Within a few weeks the delegates determined that the existing Articles could not be amended and should be replaced with a new form of government. At issue were questions such as regulation and taxation of slavery, fairness in representation of states of different sizes, and developing a central economy based on trade. These issues were divisive and seemingly irreconcilable, but the group’s leaders did a masterful job of crafting compromises which ultimately led to the government which we live under today.

In reading about the Constitutional Convention, it is clear how the effort could have fallen apart at almost any point. Tempers flared and accusations flew and yet, the group understood that they must not fail, for failure would communicate to Europe that the new nation was fragmented and weak. The most divisive and complicated issue – slavery – could not be resolved and so a compromise was reached: slaves would count as three fifths of a person for purposes of representation and federal regulation and taxation of slave traffic would be put off for 20 years. Abolitionists were unhappy with this compromise, but without it the constitution would not have been written. At the same time, there was tremendous tension between those who believed in a strong central government, the Federalists, and those who favored a smaller more narrowly focused central government. Finally, the question of protecting personal liberties had to be addressed.

Balancing the interests of small and large states required two legislative bodies: the House of Representatives based on census and the Senate by virtue of statehood. This creation helped the convention build the consensus required to design the new government. An Executive branch of the government would execute the laws passed by Congress and a Supreme Court would rule on constitutional questions. This brilliant triad with checks and balances is the reason why the United States of America has endured for more than two centuries.

In all it took the delegates to the Constitutional Convention fewer than 100 days to complete their work before copies were printed for distribution to each state where the people – not the state governments – would ratify it. During the ratification period, many amendments were offered by the states’ conventions. It was clear to the Federalists who were pushing ratification that the debating would continue for some time.

With nine states ratifying it, the Constitution became the law of the land on June 21, 1788. George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States on April 30, 1789, but it wasn’t until February 2, 1790, when the Supreme Court held is first session, that the new government became fully operational. Just the same, it was extremely fragile. Federalists and anti-Federalists fought bitterly about the need for guarantees of personal liberties. While the Federalists had been the winners in the debate over the new form of government, the anti-Federalists had the stronger argument concerning freedom. On October 2, 1789, President Washington sent to each of the newly united states a copy of the 12 constitutional amendments recently adopted by Congress. Two years later, 10 amendments – the Bill of Rights – were ratified by three-fourths of the states. A more perfect union had indeed been formed.

While the document itself is securely housed in the National Archives building, our Constitution’s safety is not guaranteed. We the People need to pay attention to how our government operates because if we don’t, our personal liberties can be taken away piece by piece and the legislative branch – which represents us – can become irrelevant. If that were to happen, what would stop the government from reverting to an oppressive regime such as the one we defeated in 1783?

By Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

Friday, January 30, 2009

"Where the Rivers Run North"

Where the Rivers Run North by Sam Morton

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

During the 20th century, Americans learned about the “wild west” by watching cowboy and Indian movies and television programs featuring one-sided and often inaccurate versions of the events which shaped the western United States. Fortunately, historical documents and recorded personal histories exist which tell more of the whole story. Sam Morton, a horse trainer who splits his time between Palm Beach County, Florida, and Wyoming, was fortunate enough to meet some of the descendents of the old-timers and through them heard stories of the humans and horses who made history in northern Wyoming and southern Montana – a place once called Absaraka. He embarked on a multi-year research project to collect these stories and knit them together with imagined conversations based on his understanding of the main characters. The result is a highly satisfying and insightful version of what happened – when, why, how – and who was involved.

The histories of America and horses are as tightly woven together as a tapestry. Modern horses arrived on this continent with European explorers. Some managed to escape domesticity and form great wild herds. Others were stolen or captured by Native Americans. The natives quickly became master horsemen, riding with neither saddles nor bridles into great battles against competing tribes and, inevitably, the white encroachers on their ancestral lands. While there were some unprovoked acts of aggression on the part of the Native Americans – Shoshone, Crow, Blackfoot, Lakota Sioux, et al. – against the white settlers, the natives were mostly on the defensive, clinging desperately to their way of life on lands that had always provided everything they needed to survive.

Waves of white men moved west in the 1800s following the Louisiana Purchase, including soldiers commissioned to “eliminate the Indian problem”. For the natives, this was a time of great confusion and pain. Everything changed very quickly: game disappeared, once friendly tribes turned on each other, and weapons which had been employed since the stone age became obsolete. Moreover, the natives did not understand the white Americans’ notion of land ownership, nor did they quickly enough learn how deceitful and corrupt many of these people could be in their desire to lay claim to land for cattle grazing and homesteads. The result was genocide with the surviving natives being herded into small and inhospitable “reservations’ overseen by tribesmen who had been co-opted, as a matter of pragmatism, by the victorious United States army. Mr. Morton takes a journalistic approach to the history; he describes the events objectively and does not apologize for the tragic and wanton acts of some of the more notorious characters, but rather lets the facts speak for themselves. There are moments in the book when he could easily have slipped into sentimentality as people of all stripes recognized that something precious was being lost to them forever. By avoiding this trap, Mr. Morton allows the reader to focus on the stories and absorb the lessons.

Crazy Horse, a Lakota Sioux warrior, figures prominently during the period when worlds began colliding. In Mr. Morton’s book, he was something of a loner and did not care to accumulate resources. Rather he shared what he had with needy members of his tribe. His reasoning was that he could always steal more horses and kill another deer. This did not endear him to the father of the girl he loved, and so he lost out to a lesser man. Rather than pursue another woman, he redirected his energy and became one of the fiercest and most cunning warriors in American history.

Crazy Horse saw battle against Generals Terry, Custer, and Crook – at Big Goose Creek, Little Bighorn, and Rosebud Creek – and survived them all. He was a master strategist and equestrian athlete who tempted fate daily. Crazy Horse set up numerous ambushes which gave the battlefield advantage to the Native Americans. In the end, however, there were simply too many white soldiers with too much firepower and after decades of increasingly defensive fighting, the remaining Indians surrendered and gave up their land. Crazy Horse eventually accepted his fate and reported to the Red Cloud Indian agency, however when he saw that he would be a prisoner, he changed his mind.

With the Native Americans out of the way, rich and powerful Europeans and Americans set up massive horse-breeding and cattle ranching operations. Horses had always been integral to ranching, but in the aftermath of the Civil War, a horse shortage led to conflicts arising between cattlemen and horse-breeders over grazing rights. Mr. Morton explains these conflicts and through anecdotes brings the principal characters to life. The result was that open range lands were fenced and wild horses were hunted for bounty.

Great fortunes were made for a time by top horse breeders. At their peak, some ranches could boast as many as 30,000 animals. Horses were in great demand for cavalry, agriculture, and industry. In addition, big cities needed horses to pull cabs, streetcars, and wagons. With plenty of people working these very profitable ranches, horse sports became a popular past time. Rodeos came about because cowboys enjoyed showing off their bronco-riding and calf-roping skills. At the same time, horse racing in the United States became formalized as did the ancient game of polo. Breeders improved the quality of horses which were suitable for different types of work and sports. The people behind these enterprises had money to burn and as in Europe and Asia, polo, hunting, and dressage became elite activities, accessible only to the very wealthy.

Where the Rivers Run North chronicles the lives of some of the founders of American horse sports: Oliver Henry “Noll” Wallop, the 8th Earl of Portsmouth, is one of the main characters. In early adulthood, he came to America and fell in love with the land at Little Goose Canyon, near Big Horn, Wyoming. In 1889, he bought several hundred acres and called it OH Ranch. He lived on this ranch, forsaking his title in England, until his father’s death required that he either return to England or abdicate – a wrenching decision. His contemporaries included Edith and Geolet Gallatin who, in addition to horse breeding, recognized the value of Crow culture and collected the tribe’s art and artifacts. Their collection now resides in the museum at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT.

The Boer War, World War I, and World War II consumed hundreds of thousands of horses for cavalry as well as horsepower. American breeders couldn’t produce horses fast enough to keep up with the demand. Then came the rise of the automobile and the demand for good, useful horses collapsed. The big western ranches scaled way back or ceased to exist. Without the existence of large organizations dedicated to promoting equestrian sports, it is likely that the equine population in the United States would be much smaller than it is today.

Where the Rivers Run North tracks the American story of humans and horses through the present time, but the full story began in prehistoric times. It is hard to imagine the human race evolving beyond hunter-gatherers without these great animals. They gave us speed and power which enabled our species to cultivate vast tracts of land so that we could stay in one place and form civilizations. Horses moved us and our possessions across great distances allowing us to expand our population and find new food sources. Without cavalry horses, many wars might have ended differently and warfare would likely not have moved beyond hand-to-hand combat.

While this book is enjoyable and informative, it suffers from a too-thin bibliography. Polo, drill team riding, and dressage all derive from cavalry training and I found myself wishing to know more about how the organizations behind these sports came to be. In addition, Mr. Morton cites many statistics regarding the equine and Native American populations, but does not provide his sources for this information. My final criticism of this book concerns the editing: numerous typographical, grammatical, and usage errors throughout the book suggest that the book was rushed to print and/or published on a very low budget.

Within the last 100 years, the importance of the horse to humanity has been greatly diminished as the internal combustion engine replaced true horsepower in agriculture, industry, and transportation. It is quite likely that a child growing up in the new millennium might never see or touch a horse, let alone ride one. We humans have short memories and don’t give much thought to the role horses have played in our history. Where the Rivers Run North gently reminds us that who we are is largely because we tamed and learned to love these great beasts. Now that horses are used almost exclusively for pleasure and sport they often enjoy long, healthy, and happy lives. The flip side of this is that their very survival depends on our willingness and ability to support them. The days of open range land are long gone.

"The Tortilla Curtain"

The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

If you want to start an argument, ask your neighbors how they feel about illegal immigration, one of the most perplexing challenges facing our nation. T. C. Boyle took on this topic, before it became headline news, and wrote an insightful, poignant, and thought-provoking novel as a way of understanding the depth and breadth of the problem in very personal terms. The Tortilla Curtain is a work of fiction, but it evokes powerful and conflicting feelings and opinions; and that is the point.

President Bill Clinton, in an address to a joint session of Congress on January 25, 1995, stated that "[a]ll Americans...are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.... We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it." So how do we stop it? What makes one immigrant welcome and another not? What do we do about children born in this country to illegal immigrant parents? Is it right to deny education and health care to our fellow human beings just because they lack proper documentation? Are laws more important than humanity? What might be the long-term consequences of decisions we make today? There are no easy answers.

While illegal immigration is a global problem, The Tortilla Curtain is about how individuals are hurt by the existing situation. Mr. Boyle tells the story of two families whose lives inadvertently become entangled as a result of a traffic accident in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The Mossbachers are affluent, cultured, politically liberal, white Americans. Delaney is an environmental writer and stay-at-home father. Kyra is a very successful real estate agent. The Rincóns, América and Cándido, have recently arrived from Mexico with no passports and no money. América is pregnant and the couple are homeless. After enduring a harrowing journey across the Rio Grande, they dream of a home of their own in the country that their child will be a legal citizen of – if they can avoid deportation. The Rincóns hide out in a primitive camp several miles from the main road, in the wilderness adjacent to the Mossbacher’s community. Every morning, Cándido walks to the place where day laborers congregate, hoping to be picked but having poor luck. In the evening, Cándido takes care to stay out of sight before running across the road to the path back to camp. On the day in question, he sprints just as Delaney rounds a curve and is thrown several yards by the impact. Recognizing that Cándido is one of the hundreds of illegal aliens in the area and assuming he will want to avoid legal trouble, Delaney gives him a $20 bill and drives away.

Meanwhile, back at the Rincón’s camp América worries frantically while her husband is missing, and when she finds him he is barely clinging to life. She emerges from hiding in order to find work and suffers harassment, abuse, and assaults by employers and other immigrants alike. Cándido is humiliated that his wife succeeds in finding work when he has failed and that she is now the breadwinner while he is an invalid. He eventually recovers from his physical injuries, but his pride is forever broken.

Delaney maintains his belief that he is a “good liberal” by opposing a movement in their exclusive community to erect a security fence to keep the criminal element (illegal immigrants) out. Delaney and Kyra love that their property backs to wilderness until a coyote kills one of their dogs. This provides the cover the Mossbachers need to join their openly conservative neighbors in erecting the fence. When the fence proves useless, the community then builds a wall around the fence. The wall, like the fence, is no match for coyotes or criminals and succeeds only in shutting out the natural beauty of the setting. No one on the inside feels safer; instead they all become more fearful and Delaney is driven mad by his inner conflicts.

Mr. Boyle uses his characters to bring to life some of the complexities of the illegal immigration debate, and in the end they teach a lesson in humanity. A wild fire and a flood reduce the Mossbachers and their neighbors to homelessness, transforming everyone. When Delaney and Cándido meet in the midst of the cataclysm, Cándido must decide whether to forgive Delaney for the wrongs he has committed, and save him, or let him die. It is a deeply moving conclusion to an intellectually and emotionally challenging story.

Not only is The Tortilla Curtain an important book because of the timely subject matter, it is also a much-studied work of literature. Mr. Boyle uses symbolism and satire to illustrate the dangers of taking a simplistic approach to the problem of illegal immigration. Coyotes easily circumvent the fence and wall around the Mossbachers’ community just as stealthily as “coyotes”, border-crossing guides, lead Mexicans into the United States under cover of darkness. Mr. Boyle pokes fun at extremists on all sides of the debate and succeeds in reframing the reader’s thinking: no matter what your view of illegal immigration, this book will challenge it.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, of the 1 million plus people who enter this country annually, the vast majority do so legally and most illegal immigrants are here on expired visas; in other words they had the means to purchase airline tickets. This puts into question the widely held belief that teeming masses are flooding our borders and draining our economy. While his novel is more philosophical than political and does not reflect a bias, Mr. Boyle received criticism and hate-mail from many people who would like illegal immigration to go away. The problem with wishing that every illegal immigrant would pack up and return to his or her homeland is that our economy depends on them. Many illegal immigrants are productive members of society and successful businesspeople. Moreover, the availability of workers who do not – and dare not – demand minimum wage is an important factor in keeping our economy strong. If American farmers had to pay minimum wage to every field hand, inflation would ruin us. If all these field hands were to disappear, we would starve. Those are the dirty little secrets that nobody wants to acknowledge. Whether our nation will ever have a realistic and enforceable immigration policy remains to be seen. Until that happens we should all become informed of the facts rather allow ourselves to be swayed by demagoguery.

It is important to remember that the notion of citizenship in this country came from immigrants who pushed the Native Americans out so that they could lay claim to and settle this vast continent. Two hundred plus years and many waves of immigrants later, our nation is in what appears to be an identity crisis fueled by economic anxiety and fears of terrorism. If we want to stop illegal immigration, we need to understand why people are willing to risk their lives and everything they own to find a way across our borders. It also requires that we acknowledge that immigrants – illegal and otherwise – are important contributors to our gross national product. This means we must look beyond our resentments and fears and consider what we would do if life in our own country became intolerable. Where would we go? And who would welcome us?

"Three Cups of Tea"

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

Long before the war in Iraq began, one American was quietly waging peace and fighting against ignorance in remote Muslim villages. Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson, an emergency room nurse who often worked shifts no one else wanted so he could pursue mountain climbing. Scaling high peaks was his passion in life until he failed to reach the summit of one of earth’s most challenging mountains in 1993. What felt like failure was the birth of an accidental philanthropist.

After months of conditioning and planning, Mortenson joined a team in 1993 and attempted to climb K2 in the Karakoram Mountain Range, which straddles the border between China and Pakistan. Despite the skill and competence of the other climbers and the knowledge of their Pakistani porters, the team failed. K2 at 28,267 feet above sea level, is among the highest peaks on Earth. Ice, wind, snow, and sun can quickly change climbing conditions, and there is barely enough oxygen to support human life. As a result many, if not most, attempts to reach K2’s summit are futile. When Mortenson’s team aborted their climb, due to the illness and injury of a team member, Mortenson became separated from the team and wandered across the Baltoro Glacier where he nearly died from exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and exposure. Mortenson had the great good fortune to wander into the village of Korphe where he met Haji Ali, whose family took him in and nursed him back to health. This was the turning point in Greg Mortenson’s life.

Mortenson was profoundly grateful to Haji Ali and his wife, Sakina, and their extended family for the kindness and hospitality they had shown him. He ended up spending a considerable amount of time in Korphe and learned much about their way of life, their faith, and the hardships they endured just to eke out an existence. What touched him most of all was the sight of Korphe’s children sitting on the mountain ledge which served as a school room, scratching out their lessons with sticks in the dirt. “I will return to Korphe and build you a school,” he promised his hosts. Three Cups of Tea explains how Greg Mortenson fulfilled that promise not just once, but many times over.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq have long simmered with hostilities. Tribal villages still form the main social structure of much of the Islamic world, and are much more important than national boundaries. Within the Muslim faith, there are two main divisions: the Shiites and the Sunnis. The division happened when the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 AD and left instructions that his cousin (and son-in-law) Ali be his successor, or Caliph. Community leaders, however, did not respect Ali and chose Abu Bakr to be Caliph instead. Across the next few years, a bitter schism festered between the followers of Ali (the Shiites) and the followers of Abu (the Sunnis). The essence of the dispute was whether the Caliph should follow a line of succession, similar to royalty, or be chosen by consensus. Resentment between the two sects boiled over and led to murders and assassinations. In the long run, the Sunnis prevailed and currently represent 85-90% of Muslims world-wide. In spite of their minority status, however, Shiites remain a powerful force in Middle Eastern politics. This is largely due to divisions among various Sunni and Shiite sects, including the Ibadis, Sufis, Wahhabis, Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaydis. While these splinter groups disagree about many aspects of their faith, they do agree on their distrust of outsiders and fear of the corrupting influence of Americans and Europeans.

Greg Mortenson didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he made his promise to build a school in Korphe. Upon returning to the US, following his fateful trip to Pakistan, Mortenson realized the enormity of his commitment. Not only was he poor himself, he didn’t know the first thing about raising money for a charitable purpose, especially for people in a part of the world that most Americans didn’t really care about. Armed with nothing other than determination to keep his promise to Haji Ali, Mortenson found a donor to fund his first school.

That he obtained funding is a testament to his communication and interpersonal skills, that he succeeded in building the school borders on miraculous. There were hundreds of insurmountable obstacles to overcome in order to build the school. Mortenson literally had to build a bridge over a deep and wide ravine before he could deliver the building materials for the school in Korphe. When a local Imam heard of plans to educate girls, he held the project hostage until Mortenson found a way to call his bluff. When funds ran out, Mortenson discovered just how generous Americans can be when they see injustice. It was through a combination of serenity, determination, and love of mankind, that Mortenson found a way around almost every problem which arose.

Mortenson learned early on that Taliban extremeists were filling the heads of villagers with hatred for the United States. With no education or understanding of the larger world, many rural residents of Islamic countries believed the Imams’ propaganda that they and their religion were under siege by “Infidels”. Mortenson understood that the only way to counter this was with education in math, science, language, and vocations, to promote self-sufficiency. Haji Ali and his neighbors very kindly taught Mortenson to let them drive the process; they knew what would work better than their benefactor did. By respecting his friends in Korphe, Greg Mortenson gained their trust and built a reputation as a force of good in Pakistan.

Like most biographers, Mortenson’s co-author David Oliver Relin clearly loves his subject. His introduction, “In Greg Mortenson’s Orbit” is almost reverential. Relin, however, paints a rich portrait of a complicated, intense, and highly unusual person who accomplished Herculean tasks. Interspersed throughout is information about who Osama Bin Laden is and how he became a terrorist mastermind for the Taliban. Various individuals and organizations of the United States government, including the CIA, played significant roles in this story. It is a deeply complicated history of competing agendas which created a nearly ungovernable region.

In his recent book about his years as a White House press secretary, Scott McClellan claims that President Bush’s goal from the start was to spread democracy. Not everyone believes this to be true, and certainly many Muslims did not. Reading Three Cups of Tea helped me understand how unrealistic a goal this was. Democracy is an ancient idea and existed in several societies throughout history. It requires a “social contract” in which everyone agrees to share power and decision-making for the good of society. The Bush Administration’s fundamental mistake was believing that Iraqi citizens, freed of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, would rally together and have their own version of the Constitutional Convention, such as that of 1787 in the United States of America. Instead, invading Iraq destabilized the nation and gave religious fanatics hard evidence that the “Infidels” were out to destroy Islam. By the time Saddam Hussein was captured, life in most of Iraq had descended into chaos.

While it seems that there is no end in sight for the war in Iraq, Three Cups of Tea offers inspiration for a way out: educating boys and girls, men and women, without a political agenda, so they can prosper in their own way and at their own speed. Greg Mortenson with no training or experience in foreign relations and diplomacy created pockets of good feeling towards Americans by helping Pakistanis in remote areas help themselves. The Taliban thrives on ignorance and hardship; education and self determination give people hope and an alternative to religious fanaticism. When Greg Mortenson learned to stop talking and to listen with an open heart and mind to the people he wanted to help, obstacles to building schools disappeared, doors opened, and new resources appeared. . If we want to see our troops come home we would be wise to find ways to emulate Greg Mortenson’s approach to waging peace.

This book reminded me of the aphorism “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” The schools built by Greg Mortenson are teaching Pakistanis that the world is bigger and kinder than local religious fanatics would have them believe. Three Cups of Tea also reveals Muslims to be a gentle and hospitable people. The title comes from the understanding that doing business with Muslims takes a little time and ceremony. The first cup of tea is between strangers, the second between friends, and the third cup of tea makes one part of the family. Once that level of intimacy is achieved, the host family will do anything for their guest, even die.

Three Cups of Tea teaches many lessons. First, one person can indeed make a difference. Second, behind the Islamic terrorists and religious fanatics there are people in families and villages who would love to live in a more democratic society, but first they must be educated and given tools for self-sufficiency. Finally, national unity is far less important than tribal and religious identity. By failing to learn these lessons before going into Afghanistan and Iraq, our leaders set us up for a long, bloody, and exhausting war which may never result in a better life for Iraqi citizens. I believe that if the next administration required all staff to read Three Cups of Tea, the “cradle of civilization” might begin to look less like a grave.

"Their Eyes were Watching God"

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

Books that challenge my views and beliefs earn a place on my required reading list, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, a beautiful work of fiction, is such a book. Growing up, I believed that I was “colorblind” and certainly tried to act that way. Reading this book helped me understand that racism is something we are all born with and must struggle against every day. With this work of masterful storytelling, Zora Neale Hurston opens a window into the history and culture of black Americans. After reading it, I felt a new appreciation for the creativity, courage, and spirituality that helped this nation’s slaves endure abuse, torture, and, after emancipation, abandonment by the only world they knew.

Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Georgia and Florida in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. After being freed, many former slaves were at loose ends and never emerged from poverty. Some of them, however, had the means and the knowledge to form towns and enjoy prosperity. Eatonville, Florida, (near Orlando) was one such town, and on August 15, 1887, became incorporated. Zora Neale Hurston’s father moved the family there in the early 1890s and was elected mayor for several terms. A keen observer of human behavior and recorder of speech, Ms. Hurston used her experience growing up in that town as the backdrop for her story of this time of great change for America’s newly freed slaves.

Janie, the main character, is a teenager being raised by her grandmother, a woman whose world view and beliefs were formed during her years of enslavement. Janie has an intuitive sense of the possibilities that life has to offer and yearns to find a way to live in harmony and happiness. Nanny, however, sees things differently. Out of a desperate need to protect young Janie and ensure her long-term security, Nanny arranges a marriage to a much older man with property and money. Janie is horrified but has no choice other than to submit. When the marriage becomes intolerable, Janie does the unthinkable: she runs off with a man who seems to offer the promise of romance and happiness that she craves.

Janie and Jody Starks travel to what will become Eatonville, Florida. When they arrive, it is clear that the settlers have no idea of how to form a town in a way that it will work to anyone’s benefit. Jody offers the vision and leadership which is sorely lacking and as a result becomes mayor. Janie, meanwhile, has married him and does his bidding by being well dressed and setting an example for the town. Behind closed doors, however, Jody can be a mean and abusive husband. Janie, like her slave ancestors, learns to take the abuse while protecting her heart and soul by not letting the hurt in. This is not to say she is meek, quite the contrary; when provoked, she has choice words for her husband.

After Jody’s death, Janie, now in her forties, meets a handsome, young stranger and the two fall in love. “Tea Cake” takes Janie away from Eatonville to the Glades just south of Lake Okeechobee. The two work as farm laborers and enjoy a lively social life until a deadly hurricane breaches the dikes holding back the lake. “The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God”. Thousands perish, but Janie and Tea Cake manage to survive the flood at a terrible cost.

As a story, this book could stand on its own, however, Ms. Hurston wrote the dialog in southern black dialect which gives it richness and authenticity. I found that I had to read the characters’ words slowly in order to translate the “Black English” into English. In so doing, I felt transported into a new world and was delighted by the clever word play she recorded and beautiful ways the author had of describing her characters’ lives. Savoring the dialog in this way broke through my preconceived belief that Black English was silly nonsense. Black English enabled the slaves to communicate amongst themselves and create their own subculture which white people could not and would not penetrate. It helped them survive the horrors of life in chains.

Their Eyes Were Watching God did not enjoy much success when first published because it was not a “political” book, in that Ms. Hurston was not publishing as a means of communicating a message about the wrongs of social injustice. Ms. Hurston did explore the topic of racism in its most insidious form: between African Americans. Janie becomes acquainted with a woman, Mrs. Turner, who is light skinned and says “Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hating’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em mahself”. She goes on to say “Ah got white folks’ features in mah face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair”. Ms. Hurston likened this type of racism to “the pecking order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t”. This was not a message that early civil rights philosophers and activists were willing to hear.

During her working life, Zora Neale Hurston made her home in New York City and was part of the “Harlem Renaissance” which more militant African Americans rejected as bourgeois. In spite of being a highly educated anthropologist, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and publishing a number of works, Ms. Hurston fell into obscurity. She returned to Florida in mid-life and worked as a maid until suffering a stroke in the late 1950s. This brilliant American writer died unknown and penniless a few years later and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Like many great artists, Zora Neale Hurston was ahead of her time and was unwilling to cater to popular culture. She wrote what was in her heart and mind and lived as a woman of free will. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s work in the 1960s and endeavored to learn more about this gifted and largely unknown writer. It is thanks to her that Ms. Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as other works resurfaced to be enjoyed by scholars and readers of American fiction. Ms. Walker’s research enabled her to locate Ms. Hurston’s grave and in 1973, she placed a marker on it which reads “A genius of the South”. An understatement if you ask me.

"The World Without Us"

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

What would happen if human beings simply disappeared from planet earth? That is the question author Alan Weisman seeks to answer. Rather than treat this as a parlor game, Mr. Weisman takes us through a careful examination of earth’s current state in terms of geology, anthropology, archaeology, physics, biology, and recorded histories. From there he removes the human race and predicts several series of events which might take place and follows the process through to its likely conclusion. What would this planet look like after the dust settled? Which plants and animals would survive the changes and thrive in the new environment? The World Without Us is a thought-provoking and alarming piece of work, but at the same time, it is an appreciative inquiry into the forces of nature which we humans have only recently begun to respect.

In the beginning, Mr. Weisman takes us to an ancient wilderness on the border of Poland and Belarus, a place of near-perfect ecological balance where 150-foot tall oak, linden, and ash trees create a densely shaded, moist and fertile forest floor, fed continually by decaying leaves, branches, animals, and tree trunks. It is a place, according to the author, that feels familiar on a deep, cellular level even to those born into modern cement jungles. These 500,000 acres are all that remain of the vast forest which covered Europe and much of Asia for millennia; until humans cut it all down.

However we got here, humans were fruitful and multiplied, evolving from bands of hunter-gatherers to plant cultivators; and from there to city-dwellers. The move from simple living off the land to dense population centers signaled the beginning of several centuries of technological innovation culminating in the industrial revolution. The internal combustion engine made automobiles possible, unleashing vast stores of carbon, long-buried under rock, dust, and decaying organic matter. However, it was the discovery of nuclear fission which set humanity on a more rapid collision course with ourselves. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we understood just enough of the magic to make it do some useful things, but not enough to control its destructive power.

Without going into how it might happen, if every human being disappeared at the same time, according to Mr. Weisman, some very predictable things would take place: our yards would quickly be overgrown with weeds, insecticides would lose potency and roaches and other creatures would invite themselves into our homes. Mildew and molds would grow in our newly unconditioned spaces. After a time, windows would shatter, roofs would be damaged, and the weather would come in, rotting the wood framing and floors. Soon, water damage would weaken the mortar between CBS blocks, allowing plants to begin growing through the cracks, leading to the inevitable crumbling of the buildings. Within the century, very little evidence of our cultivated and manicured landscapes would be visible.

Where this book gets interesting is in Mr. Weisman’s analysis of the dominoes which would fall as a result of humans failing to show up at work. Take, for example, our water management system here in south Florida. Every day, hundreds of people monitor the water levels in Lake Okeechobee and the vast network of canals which serve to keep the Everglades within its artificial boundaries. If the monitoring stopped, at some point flooding and erosion would begin undoing the work of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Similarly, the subways of New York City, if not constantly pumped, would fill with water causing short circuits and fires. There are countless other examples of complicated systems which allow us to enjoy our high standard of living which, if left unattended, would burn up, melt down, or create other havoc. Mr. Weisman gives the reader an appreciation of the chain reactions, both nuclear and otherwise, which might take place.

Those who believe that nuclear power is a good way for the United States to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels would be wise to read this book, chapter 15 at a minimum. Mr. Weisman’s research into what might happen if the world’s 441 nuclear plants were left unattended includes some sobering information about the accumulating radioactive waste which sits waiting for a permanent disposal site. According to Mr. Weisman, the United States generates about 6,000,000 pounds per year at our various nuclear power plants. The inconvenient fact is that there is nowhere on earth where this stuff can be safely stored for the millions of years it needs to stop emitting radiation. Even if there were, the political problems with opening such a facility would take decades to resolve, while the nuclear waste continued to pile up.

The Panama Canal, one of the modern wonders of the world, is a fragile system of dams and water gates which, if abandoned, would collapse in very little time. Mr. Weisman spent time meeting with some of the people who prevent catastrophe on a daily basis. The canal is situated in rainforest, meaning that vegetation grows faster than humans can clear it away from the dams; without constant vigilance, tree roots could destabilize the whole system. In other words, even with an army of workers on site every day, the dams will probably fail anyway. Ironically, the granite likeness of its creator, Theodore Roosevelt, along with presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, will keep watch from Mount Rushmore for about 7.2 million more years.

Plastic. It is hard to imagine living without it, and yet in time it may be our undoing. Take a walk on the beach and the most plentiful objects you will find are cigarette butts and various other pieces of plastic-containing detritus, some new, some old and some broken down to almost invisible bits. Eventually, most plastic will be reduced to basic polymer molecules. These molecules, however, will last virtually forever. So is that a bad thing? According to Mr. Weisman’s research, there is much more plastic in our environment than we can measure, and because so much of it is now in molecule-sized bits, creatures up and down the food chain are unknowingly consuming it. Richard Thompson, a researcher from the University of Plymouth in Great Britain, sums up the problem this way: “Suppose all human activity ceased tomorrow, and suddenly there’s no one to produce plastic anymore. Just from what’s already present, given how we see it fragmenting, organisms will be dealing with this stuff indefinitely. Thousands of years, possibly. Or more.”

Radio towers, wind turbines, and electric power networks all conspire to kill millions of birds annually. In storms, birds cannot see them and crash. Electric wires substitute for felled forests, giving migrating birds places to rest on their long journeys. Should a wing or beak touch a second wire, the bird is electrocuted. For small birds this is not a problem. Larger birds, such as cranes, herons, and eagles, are frequent casualties. In a world without people, common housecats will revert to their wild natures and survive by killing off small birds. Many dogs will also survive as will rats, mice, and snakes, putting the eggs and nests of surviving birds at risk. For as many problems as humans have created, we are also responsible for keeping many bird species alive simply by feeding our pets commercial foods and controlling rodent populations.

Dogs, cats, horses, livestock, and other kept animals would miss us if we suddenly vanished. It is unlikely that any other creature would, except for those parasites which call our bodies home. Animals which are currently hunted to the brink of extinction might have a chance to recover, over-fished seas would return to some of their former bounty, clear-cut forests, too, would re-grow but with much different plants and therefore provide habitat to a new set of creatures. In other words, the natural world would continue to evolve and incorporate what we left behind. One hypothesis Mr. Weisman considers is whether any of the ape species might evolve to fill the void left by us. Baboons, for example, have larger brains than all other primates, except humans, and successfully moved from forests to grassy savannahs as their ecosystem changed. Could they be waiting for us to fail so they can have a turn at being the dominant species on the planet?

The World Without Us should be required reading for everyone, but especially for those who would be president. In addition to enlightening us about the delicacy of our current world order, it puts human achievements into perspective. While the human race has been short-sighted and our own worst enemy in so many instances, we have also created much that is worthy of pride and reflects how high we can reach when we are not at war, enslaving each other, or destroying ecosystems. With or without us, planet earth is a place of magic, beauty, creation and destruction, but it is our creative energy that will either save us or be our undoing. A little less hubris and a little more humility on the part of our leaders could make the difference.

"The Truth About Dogs"

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky
Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

“Man’s best friend,” according to popular cliché, is devoted, faithful, and downright useful. He waits by the door for us to return home, greets us joyfully, defends us from intruders, and fetches our newspapers and slippers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that prehistoric humans “created” dogs by taming wolves and raising them to be companions and hunting assistants. How else can you explain the nearly constant presence of canines in the human ecological niche? Some of us who keep dogs for pets will insist that they have a deep emotional life, that they suffer from separation anxiety when we go to work, that our dogs know when we are coming home even if our schedule is inconsistent, and that they love us the same way we love them. To all of this, Stephen Budiansky says, “nonsense!” His “Truth About Dogs” is that they are the greatest con artists, optimists, and opportunists in creation.

Mr. Budiansky, according to his biographical statement, is “[a] scientists, author, journalist, and dog lover”. He is also a “correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly [and is] the author of seven highly acclaimed books about animals, nature, science, and history.” In other words, he is well qualified to share his theory of how dogs came to be. In The Truth About Dogs he makes a strong case that most of our dearly held beliefs about our canine companions are false because we think of dogs in human terms. (One of his favorite words is “anthropomorphize” which means to assign human characteristics to things.) Mr. Budiansky supported his thesis by researching archaeological and anthropological studies of human societies over time and across continents. He also studied the evolution of dogs going back to the common wolf ancestor of dogs, foxes, and hyenas. After reading this book, you will most likely look at dogs a little differently than before. And that is not a bad thing.

Mr. Budiansky offers an alternative explanation for how dogs came to be. Wolves – isolated from their packs by accident or circumstance – learned to coexist with early humans and adopted new behaviors. Scavenging, instead of hunting with a pack, led to genetic mutations, giving rise to canis familiaris. This new species lost the wildness of its wolf ancestors and became almost totally dependent on humans for survival. To demonstrate this, Mr. Budiansky examines cultures which revile dogs as well as those which pamper them. In parts of Africa, dogs are considered filthy and are banished to the outskirts of society, where they pick over what humans discard, excrete, or leave unattended. If people disappeared, many African dogs would have to re-learn how to take down live prey but a good number would figure it out before too long. Domestic dogs, having been reared on kibble and canned food, would have a more difficult time adapting to life without us. Many, if not most, would starve if left to fend for themselves.

In another writer’s hands, this book could have been a dry scholarly text. Mr. Budiansky is graced with a wonderful sense of humor and pokes fun at almost everyone: kennel club snobs, politicians, racists, and so-called dog “experts”. I have never learned as much while laughing so hard. Under the veneer of humor, however, this book is quite serious about what people have done to the domesticated descendents of wolves. Kennel clubs bear huge responsibility for propagating unhealthy and unsound dogs all the while convincing breed enthusiasts of the superiority of closed breed registries.

If you took basic biology in high school, you learned about dominant and recessive genes. Recessive genes are not in themselves bad, for example blue eyes in humans is a recessive trait. If, however, two dogs with a recessive tendency toward hip dysplasia produce offspring, chances are one out of four puppies will have it, two in four will have no symptoms but will pass the recessive gene on to their descendents. The fourth dog is the one with good genes. Dog breeders, however, can be fairly unscrupulous (or careless) and crank out plenty of pretty purebred puppies with lots of hidden health and genetic problems. Sadly, the market for pedigreed dogs is very strong which leads to more in-breeding and results in weaker animals, in the same way that making copies of copies eventually yields an unreadable document.

In their early evolution, dogs joined different groups of people with different means of survival. As humans figured out how to train dogs to be useful as herding, guard, and hunting dogs, they also figured out how to breed them for specific traits such as size, temperament, and ability. This early form of genetic engineering is why there is such great variety within the species. As societies became wealthy and more hierarchical, many dogs were bred for status, rather than work. Kennel clubs were formed as a way of authenticating individual dogs as having the most desirable bloodlines. Once established, kennel clubs typically close the book on a breed to prevent the influx of new blood, thereby creating more valuable puppies. As elite as many humans believe their dogs to be, Mr. Budiansky’s research reveals that there is virtually no genetic difference between a champion and a mongrel.

In addition to weakening dogs through successive inbreeding, dog breed enthusiasts also contribute to the problem of dog bites. Mr. Budiansky examines the various schools of thought surrounding what to do about “problem breeds” such as pit bull terriers. Are certain dogs more likely to attack humans than others? Yes, but in his opinion it is a complicated tangle of nature and nurture. According to The Truth About Dogs, every year in the United States there are more than 1 million dog bites requiring medical attention, with “a total cost to society estimated at greater than $1 billion.” The dog breed most associated with these bites is neither the pit bull terrier nor the Rottweiler. Hint: it looks more like a mop than a wolf.

Before reading this book, I was concerned that The Truth About Dogs would make me love my dog less, and while it did make me look at him differently it also made me appreciate him more. What I found most surprising, is how little I care that dogs are opportunists and con artists (not to mention thieves). I was also gratified to know that fancy purebred dogs are not genetically superior to my shelter dog (of questionable parentage). As Mr. Budiansky puts it, when it comes to loving dogs, he “had no choice in the matter.” I feel the same way. Dogs are so successfully adapted to living with humans that they have learned to make us love them against our better judgment. Those of us who share our lives with dogs feel lucky to have such good-natured and comforting companions.

"The Things They Carried"

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

To understand the experience of being on the front lines of a ground war, you have to be there: sweating in the trenches, your stomach rising in your throat, while you watch your buddies lose body parts and bleed to death, screaming in agony. It is a horror that no movie or book can truly draw you into, but The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien gets very close. He was there, against his will, and returned physically intact, but haunted by the experience. In order to regain his mental health and rebuild his ruined life, Mr. O’Brien took his painful memories and invited anyone willing to look directly at the horror of war to return to Vietnam with him.

A soldier in combat never knows if he or she will live to see another day, or even another hour. Everything can change in a split second: all it takes is one projectile. For some, this knowledge is the heaviest thing they carry into battle, for others it is an excuse for self-destructive or degrading behavior, and for the heroic few it is what motivates them to give everything they have with no fear of death. In every platoon, however, there are the lucky ones who, through denial or faith, carry the certainty that they will emerge from the war unharmed and go home to a hero’s welcome.

Veterans returning from Vietnam got little in the way of a welcome home. That was a great injustice and symptomatic of how bitterly divided the United States was at the time. With war protestors facing riot police, black Americans struggling for basic Constitutional rights, and middle-class white teenagers turning to drugs and poor hygiene as a way of rebelling against the “establishment” that was responsible for the war, America had a hard time appreciating the sacrifices of our men in uniform. While their physical wounds may have healed, their emotional wounds were never fully acknowledged, understood, or treated with the result that many Vietnam veterans were unable to return to society. To this day, Vietnam veterans are over-represented among the homeless and substance abusers in our population.

The Things They Carried describes, in visceral terms, the Vietnam War and it’s lingering aftermath. It is written as a collection of short stories which, taken together, reveals the Vietnam experience from the perspective of a reluctant soldier. During that time, the law of the land required all men between 18 and 26 to register to be drafted into the military. If there were not enough volunteers to fill the ranks, then the Selective Service would hold a lottery. It was a scary time to be a young American man: every day’s mail might bring “the envelope” that would determine his fate. Lots of young men, our current President (George W. Bush) and his immediate predecessor included, used a variety of tactics to defer reporting for service with the (often silent) hope that the war would end or they would age out of the system before the Draft Board caught up with them.

While there were young men who enlisted to join the fight against Communism, most were ambivalent at best – not true believers, but doing what was expected of them by their families and communities and hoping to make it out alive and intact. Tim O’Brien was one such soldier. He deferred by going to college and receiving degrees with highest honors, from Macalester College. Following graduation, he had been accepted by Harvard College to pursue a Ph.D. in Government. Uncle Sam, however, had a different plan for peace activist and war protestor, Tim O’Brien: it was time to report for basic training. Vietnam needed more soldiers.

The Vietnam War was the first war to be shown in real time on television, giving Americans an understanding of what it was like to see ugly, brutal death every day. When faced with going to Vietnam, a number of young men went into exile in Canada, knowing that they could only return home in handcuffs. Many draftees, including Tim O’Brien, considered exile, but could not bring themselves to sever their ties to family and home. Going into exile, according to the author, was the more courageous choice and he himself was a coward. He was afraid of the shame he would bring on his family and of disappointing his community. And so, giving in to this perceived weakness, Tim O’Brien returned from the brink and reported for duty.

Basic training and combat drills did little to prepare soldiers for Vietnam. The enemy didn’t play by conventional rules of war; he was invisible and he could be anywhere disguised as anyone. There were no clearly defined battlefields, just jungles, rivers, rice paddies, and villages. Guerilla warfare is quite a bit like terrorism except on a more concentrated scale: the enemy lurks behind every tree, inside every dwelling, around every bend in the river, even when he doesn’t. Fear permeated the environment and led to massacres of innocent civilians. For many soldiers and many more Vietnamese citizens, the Vietnam War was pure horror.

Vietnam’s jungles are hotter and much more humid than the worst Summer days in south Florida. Imagine wearing a five pound metal helmet, fatigues, heavy boots, and a loaded ammunition belt, while carrying two full canteens, C-rations, an assault rifle and your share of the platoon’s field supplies in hundred-degree heat and soaking humidity. Troops would march for miles through jungles, rivers, leech-infested ponds, and centuries’ old waste fields trying to secure their position so they might live to see another day. Land mines were everywhere, making each step feel like Russian roulette, and each completed step offering only a split second of relief.

The title, The Things They Carried works on many levels. On top of the sixty or so pounds of Army issue, each soldier carried something from home. Photographs, mementos, letters, fantasies, hopes, and dreams held close to the heart kept small pieces of soldiers’ souls alive while they endured the physical discomfort, anger, and terror engendered by the theater of war. Some carried emotional baggage, as well, which caused episodes of unspeakable behavior. Vietnam had a way of making sane people crazy and sending crazy people over the edge.

The Things They Carried, while a work of fiction, has a strong basis in reality. The book reads like a memoir, but characters, events, and villages have been altered in the service of literature. The real Tim O’Brien, like his fictional alter-ego, served in Vietnam for just over a year with a similar band of brothers. Mr. O’Brien’s characters are composites of people he knew and illustrate the types of men who served and how Vietnam affected them. There is the good-hearted and innocent Kiowa, the simple and decent Henry Dobbins, the emotionally damaged Norman Bowker, the immature and foolish Curt Lemon, the drug-addicted Ted Lavender, and the mean-spirited and cruel Azar, among others. A central figure in the book, Jimmy Cross, is the lieutenant responsible for Mr. O’Brien’s fictional platoon. Lieutenant Cross was a typical good soldier who followed orders often against his better judgment, but was tortured by guilt when doing so resulted in the loss of some of his men.

An important message from this book is that combat leaders are often immature and emotionally unprepared for command. This was especially so in Vietnam where so many soldiers were not volunteers and did not necessarily agree with or even understand the mission. Orders from Washington, coming through a long chain of command, to the troops on the ground sometimes made no sense and had the effect of sending men to their deaths. Lieutenant Cross and others like him had the agonizing choice of following orders which they knew were mistakes or not following orders and facing courts martial.

The Things They Carried belongs among the classics of American Literature. While beautifully written, it is not easy to read. Tim O’Brien brings the reader into the Vietnam War in a way that no other piece of writing does. This is a book that will stay with you for the rest of your life and will change the way you think about war. It will make you think hard about whether any war is a “good” war if our good, young people return home damaged or dead. I can’t think about this book without tearing up and wishing that back in the day, in addition to protesting the war, I had stopped to thank the soldiers.

"River of Grass"

The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

Every once in a while, something good happens which makes the national news. On Thursday, November 8, 2007, according to a CNN report, “The Senate … handed President Bush his first veto override -- authorizing $23 billion in new water projects.” Two billion dollars of these funds are earmarked for Florida and of that, most will go towards Everglades restoration. If Marjory Stoneman Douglas were still alive, she would be smiling.

In addition to living 108 years, Marjory Stoneman Douglas (April 7, 1890 - May 14, 1998) was unusual in that she was a professional woman in an era when most women did not work outside of the home, and those who did were employed in clerical work. After divorcing her husband, Kenneth Douglas, in 1917 after one year of marriage, Ms. Douglas moved to Miami to work for her father who was the editor of a newspaper which would eventually become the Miami Herald. Across the next several decades, she wrote many short stories and articles for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Woman's Home Companion, as well as a number of novels.

Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947 – when development of south Florida was in full swing along the east and west coasts. As more people moved down to enjoy the beautiful winters, demand for buildable land led to the creation of a vast network of canals to convert the wetlands to dry so that development could continue to move inland. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was so successful in drying the swamps that in addition to almost killing the Everglades, it brought south Florida to the brink of ecological collapse. What no one seemed to understand was that the slow, southward flow of water through the river of grass prevented salt water from seeping into the aquifers which provide Florida’s fresh water. If not for Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her efforts to save the Everglades, south Florida might have become uninhabitable.

In 2007, Pineapple Press published a 50th anniversary edition of River of Grass. It includes two additional chapters which provide an updated look at the state of the Everglades as well as the efforts to reverse some of the damage. Without these new chapters, the book might seem dated as so much has happened, both good and bad, since its initial publication. Just the same, the original work is a timeless and well-researched piece of journalism. Ms. Douglas begins the book with a rapturous description of the vast sea of grass which reads like an epic poem. Her beautiful prose reveals the passion and tenderness she had for the strong, yet fragile, Everglades. In the first chapter, she analyzes each sub-system of the overall: the grass, the water, the rock, the plants and animals, and the people. Her research covers natural and human history which, taken together, enable the reader to understand why the Everglades nearly died, why this ecosystem must be saved, and what the goals of restoration must include.

Even without the drama of saving the Everglades, Florida’s history is fascinating to learn about and River of Grass presents an overview which is detailed enough to give the reader an appreciation of this. Humans have inhabited the Florida peninsula for almost 20,000 years when the last great ice age created mass migrations southward. The tribes settled on the coastlines where fish were plentiful and their descendents – the Seminoles – still live here. Life was predictable for millennia until the Europeans mastered the open ocean in the 1400s and the great age of discovery began.

Christopher Columbus was credited with discovering the American continent, although he made landfall on one of the islands of the Bahamas. It took several voyages for Spain to reach the great continent which would be called “the new world”. During this time, the Spanish proceeded to enslave and exterminate the natives on every island they took. When the Spanish slave ships made their way to the Florida peninsula, the native Floridians, understanding the threat, were prepared to fight and much Spanish blood was shed. The Spaniards did not go away, however, they returned again and again with more men and superior weapons. At the same time, other explorers began encroaching on the Spanish territory. The natives, however, were cunning warriors who refused to be defeated and kept the conquerors at bay.

For approximately 300 years, the natives lived peacefully in and around the Everglades. The Spaniards remained in the north, establishing harbor towns and forts, choosing to leave the natives alone in their watery wasteland. Other Europeans continued to make attempts to encroach on south Florida and as the United States formed and began expanding its boundaries, the native Americans came under attack with increasing frequency.

In the years before the Civil War, escaping slaves often made their way to Florida where they were out of reach of the slave bounty hunters. Some were taken in by the natives and others learned to survive in the wet Florida wilderness. Confederate Army deserters, too, found Florida a good place to disappear and thus the non-native population began to grow and change the nature of the environment by introducing land cultivation and cattle farming. Meanwhile, the United States Government recognized that Florida had both economic and strategic value and began a campaign to kill the natives and displace any survivors by coercing them into signing treaties which took advantage of their naiveté in matters of money and real estate. Some of the natives, understanding that their world had been taken, retreated into the impenetrable cypress swamps where they would be safe for a time. Others, defeated and dispirited, followed the trail of tears to strange and hostile new homelands.

At the same time the United States was fighting the final battles against the native Americans, Spain was causing trouble from its colony, Cuba. Once the United States won the Spanish-American War, trade with Cuba opened up. It was a time of extreme lawlessness on the peninsula with pirates seizing ships and outlaws hiding in the Ten Thousand Islands. Plume hunters ravaged bird rookeries and alligator hunters nearly brought the species to extinction. Mosquitoes plagued everyone and yet, once the natives and the Spanish had been dispatched, industrialists like Henry Flagler and Henry Plant saw opportunities in the swampy south. But, it was Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward who took the idea of draining the swamps and made it happen.

The Army Corps of Engineers, recognizing that Lake Okeechobee turned into an overflowing saucer during hurricanes, built up a levee around its southern shore. In addition to flood control, this levee severely restricted the flow of water out of the lake into the river of grass rather than allowing the water to flow south. Instead, the engineers created canals to channel the water east and west into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers where it emptied into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Healthy, meandering rivers became straight water conduits leaving dried out swamps which no longer could support indigenous plants and animals in their wake. As farming increased, runoff contaminated the water in the lake and consequently, the rivers.

As the Everglades receded, the area around Miami began expanding in all directions. The beautiful climate attracted winter and year-round residents alike and that created a building boom. In the north, from the panhandle and Jacksonville, development along the coasts advanced rapidly, too, surrounding the swampy southern interior and creating additional pressure for drainage. Great fortunes were made in real estate speculation, but not everyone was happy with the changes being wrought in Florida. Some, like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, decided that enough was enough. As champion of the Everglades, Ms. Douglas took on politicians and developers alike in her formidable campaign to save what was left of the Everglades.

Ms. Douglas’ work on the Everglades began as a result of an assignment to write about the Miami River as part of a series on American rivers. In the course of field studies of her subject, she came to understand that without the Everglades, the Miami River would shrivel up and die, along with all the plants and animals living in and around it. Her editor agreed to let her expand the scope of her report and her life’s work was born.

It has taken a long time for us as a nation to appreciate the singular beauty of the Everglades and stop thinking of it as a watery wasteland in need of draining and filling. We should all give thanks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas for being like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike and stopping a catastrophe.

"The New Yorker"

REQUIRED READING: The New Yorker Magazine

My introduction to The New Yorker was made by a nice young man who brought me an issue in 1982 when I was hospitalized following a serious injury. He hoped some good reading material would help me pass the weeks of bed rest. This particular issue which I remember clearly – a Sempé drawing of a cat looking out a window in Paris on its cover and a profile of the great jazz musician, Thelonius Monk – was the beginning of a long love affair. Except for a brief few years, I’ve been a subscriber ever since.

The New Yorker was the brainchild of Harold Ross, an self-taught journalist, and his wife Jane Grant, a writer for the New York Times. Back in the day, the literati frequently ate lunch at the Algonquin Hotel on west 44th Street in Manhattan and a notorious clique dubbed themselves the Vicious Circle. Mr. and Mrs. Ross, Edna Ferber, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Parker, and Harpo Marx and many others involved in New York’s rich cultural life were part of this group, which later came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. Imagine the smartest, funniest, best informed, and most verbally adept people in America having a few martinis and you get an idea of where the energy for The New Yorker came from. It was a heady time and the resulting magazine – designed to inform, entertain, and energize the reader – established a unique presence in American journalism and literary life. As editor, Mr. Ross obtained financial backing from Raoul Fleischmann, founder of Fleishmann’s Baking Company (whose family retained ownership of the publication until selling it in 1985). Within a few years of its inaugural issue, The New Yorker had garnered a loyal readership by publishing some of the most important writers of the last 100 years, including J. D. Salinger, E. B. White, John Updike, and more recently T. C. Boyle, David Sedaris, and Adam Gopnik.

A typical issue of The New Yorker begins with a detailed listing of cultural happenings within the city – concerts, art exhibits, dance performances, theatre, operas, cinema, poetry readings, etc. A recently added feature is “Tables for Two” on dining. “The Talk of the Town” is no longer about the city per se but has become national in scope and is where the editors discuss issues of importance and interest to well-informed people. The bulk of the magazine is some combination of journalism, humor, essays, fiction, poetry, and cultural reviews. Scattered throughout the pages are what the magazine is probably most famous for: the cartoons.

While The New Yorker has had five editors since its inception, and chronicled the most rapidly changing century in human history, it has maintained many long-held traditions such as The Talk of the Town, Personal Histories, Annals, and letters from far flung correspondents. Each cover is an original illustration by one of the many artists who collectively have given the magazine its look. Rea Irwin drew the first cover which featured a top-hatted dandy looking down his nose through a monocle at a butterfly. This was a bit of artistic irony as the magazine was anything but effete; it was all about the American literary and creative spirit. The dandy soon became a personality in his own right and was given the name Eustace Tilley. Eustace continues to grace the cover every February on the issue nearest to the magazine’s anniversary. Cover artists can be quite creative in how they portray him; like the magazine he changes with the times but remains true to himself.

Of The New Yorker’s five editors, Tina Brown, who took over in 1992, was the most controversial. Until her reign, The New Yorker had had no major stylistic changes. It was all black and white with line drawings rather than photographs and had stable of long-term writers. Ms. Brown made an indelible mark by hiring Richard Avedon as the magazine’s first staff photographer. New Yorker loyalists took an immediate dislike to her and were outraged by many of her other changes to the magazine, in particular reducing the number of printed words. As Harold Ross originally described it, the magazine “is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” Ms. Brown agreed with that statement, but decided to appeal to a wider (i.e., younger and less discerning) readership. A significant change she brought about was permitting certain words which heretofore were not considered necessary to good writing. Under Tina Brown’s editorship, 79 writers were let go to make room for 50 new writers of her choosing. Long time New Yorker subscribers, who liked the magazine the way it was, considered Ms. Brown to be “vulgar” and were dismayed at how she seemed to “dumbing down” the magazine. She argued that she cleaned house and brought life back into a periodical that was dying. In her defense, readership increased by approximately 30 per cent while she was editor, and the photographs in the magazine are a nice change. Love her or hate her, the magazine survived her six year tenure and the writing has returned to its former high standards thanks to current editor, David Remnick, formerly of the Washington Post, although the magazine does print the previously unprintable words.

If we ignore the Tina Brown years, most issues of the magazine are worth reading from cover to cover. Because the magazine is published 47 times per year, weekly except for five double issues, subscribers usually have stacks of unread or partially read magazines throughout their houses. The magazine is too good to throw away and you never know when you might need a supply of reading material (see above). The current issue, in celebration of the season, focuses on politics: why Obama won, why McCain lost, and what’s next. Each piece is an example of what journalism should be: painstakingly researched, objective, carefully edited, and factually accurate. If you have had enough of politics, this issue, like most others, includes fiction, poetry, and reviews of the art scene. Or you can browse the cartoons; there is something for everyone.

Across the last 83 years, The New Yorker has published many works which have raised public awareness of important topics. For example, Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, published in three consecutive issues in 1962, explained the hazards of pesticides, awakening environmental awareness in the United States. If it were not for Silent Spring, many familiar animal and plant species would have disappeared, including our beloved bald eagle. Two decades earlier, in 1946, one year after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, John Hersey published “Hiroshima” in the magazine. Then editor, William Shawn discussed ideas for a report on the human dimension of the bombing with Mr. Hersey, a journalist and author who had grown up in China and was working as an overseas correspondent. Mr. Hersey’s article featured six survivors of the attack, a widow with three children, a missionary, a Methodist pastor, a surgeon, an office clerk, and a physician, chronicling their experiences immediately before, during, and after the bombing. The resulting piece, 31 thousand words in all, took up almost the entire issue and immediately sold out.

The New Yorker has never shied away from controversy and Seymour Hersh’s piece on Abu Ghraib may be one of the most shocking exposés in the magazine’s history. Mr. Hersh’s reporting reveals a military prison run amok where a leadership vacuum reduced the wardens to savages like something out of Lord of the Flies. By the time the article went to print, CBS’s 60 Minutes and most national newspapers had already shown several of the photographs the soldiers took of themselves committing atrocities in an apparently Bacchanalian frenzy. Mr. Hersh’s article sought to understand how and why Abu Ghraib deteriorated into a national disgrace. While The New Yorker article offers no cover for the people who committed the abuses, it is damning of that entire prison operation all the way up the chain to the Commander-in-Chief. How could a nation as great as ours permit such human rights abuses? That is the big question Mr. Hersh wants us to grapple with. In addition, he wants his readers to understand the state of temporary insanity that the prison wardens fell into as they tried to make sense of the inhumanities they were witness to and participants in. Mr. Hersh’s article reveals how easy it is to cross the line between human and savage when moral leadership is absent. We all hope that in similar circumstances we would choose the high road, but most of us have never experienced anything remotely like Abu Ghraib.

Unlike pure news magazines, The New Yorker gives its “far flung correspondents” the time and resources they need to dig for facts and the details to support them. It is the details that often tell the real story, but it is the details that daily news reports by necessity leave out. Very few of the crises facing our world can be reduced to multiple choice questions. To solve a problem, first we must understand it in all of its complexity, because without clear, unbiased fact-finding and reporting our leaders will never move beyond political posturing and we, the people, will never know if a solution is viable. Being well informed and able to think beyond simplified rhetoric is a true act of patriotism: our country can only remain great if we care enough to keep watch over our elected and appointed leaders.

We Americans love our country, warts and all, and most often we express that love by waving flags, singing the National Anthem (or God Bless America), and expressing our personal philosophies on our vehicles. The New Yorker is a different celebration of our country: it exists thanks to the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. Unlike many nations, our citizens have permission to express themselves without fear of censorship or worse. While artists, writers, and musicians are a dime a dozen, only a few are doing work with the potential to become classics. The New Yorker is not afraid to look for the merits in controversial works, and a good example of this is the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, whose images of male genitalia and homosexuality were so upsetting that his masterpieces were almost overlooked. Shock value aside, Mr. Mapplethorpe’s work sells in the six figures at auction and is in some of the world’s greatest photography collections. By seeking out today’s cutting edge artists, writers, and musicians, The New Yorker helps us see beyond our personal belief systems so we can understand what is happening in our culture and why it is important and worthy of our attention.

If the idea of subscribing to The New Yorker is daunting, here’s a suggestion: next time you find yourself with time to kill, pick up a copy. Not only will it make the time pass more quickly it might just change your life. Remember that young man who brought me The New Yorker while I was in the hospital? I married him.

On Slavery

By Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey
The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Why do humans enslave their brethren? One answer is that slave labor enables the powerful to achieve great things. Another answer is that slaves, being denied their free will, serve at the pleasure of their masters. A third answer is that slavery is the most severe form of racism because one race can justify enslaving another by claiming genetic superiority. There are many answers to this question, and coupled with the pervasiveness of racism and tribal hatred, suggest that as a species, we still have work to do.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was the sensitive and insightful daughter of a minister who preached vehemently about the evils of slavery during the time when the United States of America was embroiled in an angry debate over whether new slave states should be admitted to the Union. Harriet Beecher had the benefit of a good education and a successful marriage to Calvin Stowe, a professor at a theological seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. While raising their seven children, Mrs. Stowe became a well-known writer and published 30 books, the most famous of which is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book, a classic piece of American literature, was an immediate best-seller and served to raise the consciousness of many Americans, particularly in the north, about the horrors of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln is said to have credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with starting the Civil War because of the public outcry her book generated.

Uncle Tom, a middle-aged husband and father, starts out as the property of Kentucky farmers, Arthur and Emily Shelby. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby express genuine affection for their slaves, however, when bad times come they decide to reduce their inventory. In addition to Tom, the Shelbys plan to sell Harry, the son of Mrs. Shelby’s maid, Eliza. Eliza will not be parted from her son, so she and Harry escape in the hope of reaching Canada where Eliza’s husband lives in freedom. Their journey is fraught with hardship and peril given the cold winter and the pursuit of a ruthless slave catcher.

Meanwhile Tom, accepting his fate with quiet dignity, is taken away from his family and home by a slave trader. While traveling down the river to the slave market, a golden-haired and blue-eyed child named Eva falls overboard. Tom dives in and saves her from drowning. Eva’s father, Augustine St. Clare, purchases Tom out of gratitude for his heroism and brings him home to New Orleans. Tom and Eva become very attached to one another, but the little girl falls ill and eventually dies. Harriet Beecher Stowe uses the St. Clare household as a forum for discussing attitudes toward slavery. Mr. St. Clare does not like the institution of slavery, but knows no other way to make a profit off his land. Eva’s Aunt Ophelia, on the other hand, is an abolitionist but feels disgust toward blacks. In the end, however, Eva through her charitable heart teaches her aunt to love the slaves as humans. Shattered by Eva’s death, Mr. St. Clare decides to give Tom his freedom, but is murdered before he is able to do this. Mrs. St. Clare shares none of her late husband’s humanity and sells Tom to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree.

Simon Legree’s plantation is a hellish place where young black women are kept for sex and slaves are ordered to beat one another. Tom, being the gentle, loving, and spiritual person he is, cannot obey his master’s order to beat a fellow slave. Mr. Legree decides to beat the Christianity out of Tom but fails. Just the same, Tom suffers a crisis of faith wondering how a loving God can let such cruelty stand. Eva appears to him in a vision and restores his faith in Christianity. Thus restored, Tom facilitates the escape of two women from Mr. Legree’s sex slavery and is able to withstand the beatings aimed at making him reveal the whereabouts of the runaways. As death approaches, Tom forgives Mr. Legree and men who are beating him. The end of the story features a tragic and ironic twist which brought thousands of readers to tears.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin unfortunately fell into disfavor during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Many African Americans at the time felt it described African slaves as so downtrodden that they meekly accepted beatings and degradation by cruel masters. “Uncle Tom” became a pejorative label for a black man who didn’t join the fight against segregation. This is a sad mischaracterization because Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important works of the Abolitionist cause, and ultimately set the stage for the end of segregation.

Slavery has been a human practice since before recorded history. The ancient Babylonians under their Code of the Hammurabi (circa 1800 BC) legitimized slavery as a redress for serious crimes against others. In the 1700s, slave labor in North America enabled the British Colonies to develop vast cotton and tobacco plantations, yielding the economic leverage needed to win independence from England. As a new nation, the United States of America faced an immediate crisis when designing an unprecedented form of government: southern states depended on slave labor to produce their crops while many in the northern states felt that slavery was criminal and unacceptable. In order to establish a government, the framers of the Constitution wisely deferred decisions about slavery to a future time. Slavery for some was a way of life, for others a necessary evil, and for many in the original 13 colonies, an abhorrent and sinful practice.

Slavery was emotionally loaded even within the slave states, so it became important to create clear delineations between the different castes. Many, if not most, slave owners considered themselves Christians and in order to avoid damnation for sins against other humans, they decided that Africans were less than human and therefore among the creatures that God had instructed Adam and Eve to subdue. White masters were often sexually attracted to their slaves and pregnancies occurred. Over generations, the clear line between black and white became harder and harder to define. Many so-called blacks were much more white than black, but because they were the descendents of slaves, regardless of how much or how little African blood coursed through their veins, they were denied personhood. The Lost German Slave Girl by lawyer John Bailey, is an analysis of this twisted bit of logic. Based on a true legal case, The Lost German Slave Girl is the story of Sally Miller a slave to a cabaret owner in New Orleans, who looked as white as her master but was said to have had a black ancestor. Salome Mueller was a German child who had travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to America with her mother, father, brother, sister, and godmother in 1818. Witnesses testified that Frau and Herr Muller died en route and the brother disappeared into the Louisiana wilderness. With no money to pay for further passage, Salome and her sister were put off the riverboat and left to their fate.

About 20 years later Salome’s godmother, Eva Schuber, spied Sally Miller and “recognized” her as her missing goddaughter. Mr. Bailey builds his story around the facts of the case which are often in conflict with one another. Was Sally Miller the missing Salome Muller – a white woman wrongfully enslaved – or was she legally owned by cabaret proprietor, Louis Belmonti? Mr. Bailey has an opinion about the truth, but the point of the book is more about the rationalizations slave owners used to deny the humanity of their subjects. In order to enslave another human being, it is necessary not only to dominate him or her, but to believe that you are higher on the evolutionary chain, and therefore closer to God.

Slavery, however, was a messy business. It turns out that a surprising number of African Americans, themselves freed slaves, became slave owners. The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a fictionalized analysis of this phenomenon. According to the author, "In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were 34 free black families... and eight of those free families owned slaves." This is a staggering statistic and turns the notion of slaves being solely under the domination of white owners on its head. Because slavery caused many slave owners anguish, a number of blacks were given their freedom and they had papers to prove it. Some of these newly freed blacks had great talents and highly developed skills and were able to amass a degree of wealth. With wealth came land and land required slaves in order to make the economy of farming work. The title “The Known World” comes from a quote by Voltaire: “All the known world, excepting only savage nations, is governed by books.” It suggests not only that the keeping of slaves is an ignorant and backward practice, but also that slaves having not had the benefit of any education only knew the world within the confines of their masters’ properties. More than any other work cited here, The Known World made it clear that all men are indeed created equal whether pursuing greatness and beauty or ugliness and brutality.