Friday, June 30, 2023

Polarity Management: A Tool for Managing Complex Problems

30 years ago or os my brother Ron (Dr. Ron Newman, a PhD psychologist) introduced me to the concept of polarity management. For Ron, thinking about polarities and finding balance has been a lifelong habit of his, almost an involuntary obsession. Once you become aware of the variety of ways polarities emerge, you can't help but notice them yourselves. 

Examples abound. Security vs. freedom, efficiency vs. creativity, competition vs. cooperation. Polarity management is a tool to help us manage or resolve complex issues. The key idea is to understand that opposites are not necessarily enemies.

The goal is not to find a solution that eliminates one of the opposites, but rather to find a way to manage the tension between them in a manner that is productive and sustainable. 

Here's another example that happened with an acquaintance of mine. After a very busy time in his life he decided to go live on a beach in Florida for a year. After four months he was so bored he found a job that was fulfilling for 18 months but not something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. During this period he recognized his calling and followed that for the rest of his life.

Too much activity left him exhausted and he opted for inactivity. This resulted in a sense of meaninglessness, which propelled him to think more deeply about why he was here on earth. Ultimately he found fulfillment in a career that involved helping others.

My brother publishes a column about seeking balance that we hope will become a book or series of books. Topics he's written about include seeking balance with anger, depression, anxiety, happiness, grief, aspects of parenting and more. As a Christian counsellor he has spent more than two decades training church leaders in South America and elsewhere on this principle of finding balance.

Aristotle's Golden Mean is a similar concept in philosophy. Moral virtue lies between the two extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, finding the balance between recklessness and boldness is the path to virtue.

Giving is an example of this challenge. Stinginess is one end of the spectrum, extravagant giving to the neglect of paying your bills and neglecting your children is at the other end of the scale. How do we find the Golden Mean? For each of us this can be a perplexing problem in a world where there is so much need.

What about fun? Is "fun" the purpose of life? Or is laughter something that we enjoy because it lightens our load as we pursue our responsibilities? You can read my thoughts on that topic here: Eudaemonia vs. Hakuna Matata: Two Views on the Pursuit of Happiness

Much more can be said but I have to catch a plane. You can read a few of my brother's articles here... and encourage him to continue his writings. He's thought deeply on this topic for a very long time and has a bundle of useful insights.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Hitchcock's Rope: Morality, Guilt and the Tension of Secrets

Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash
Monday evening the film Rope was on one of the cable networks, and even though I've seen this Jimmy Stewart classic several times I couldn't help but watch it yet again. What makes it a great film isn't just the acting and the dialogue, but also the psychological probing and collision of philosophical ideas that director Hitchcock explores.

Based on Patrick Hamilton's book by the same name, it later became a play before being adapted to film in 1948. It's a story of two young men, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, who strangle their friend David Kentley and then invite his friends and family over for dinner. The body is hidden in a chest in the middle of the room, and the two men pretend that David is still alive while offering various suggestions for his absence.

One of the guests is Rupert Cadell, a philosophy professor whom Shaw and Morgan admired when they were his students at University. Brandon is proud of what they have done, Phillip is rattled by the terror of being found out. It's one thing to imagine doing something audacious, quite another thing to actually do it. 

When David Kentley fails to show up for the party, Rupert begins to suspect something is amiss. Little by little the pressure is on, and Phillip begins to sweat. As the evening unfolds, Rupert's suspicions feel a little like thumbscrews being applied by a master tormentor. 

Brandon is so proud of his "achievement" that he's not concerned about Rupert's inquisitiveness. Phillip, however, begins drinking heavily to calm his nerves. Like a bloodhound, once Rupert is on the trail he's determined to follow it wherever it leads. When he finally discovers Kentley's body, the story is not yet over. Brandon points out how Professor Cadell's own words were what inspired him. 

And what were these words? Rupert had presented Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch, the "Superman." The Superman is not constrained by the conventional morality of the common man. Brandon justified their murdering someone as a philosophical decision, their way of demonstrating their superiority, that they belonged to the class of "exceptional people."

For Brandon, committing the perfect murder was something akin to an art project. The flawless execution of his idea was his way of proving his eminence. Living inside the bubble of his imagination, he assumed Rupert would actually appreciate his achievement.

Both perpetrators fell victim to the self-deception that they could detach themselves from the consequences of their actions. Guilt has a corrosive effect on one's conscience, and as the party proceeded it became increasingly difficult to hold normal conversations. As Neil Young once sang. "How slow and slow and slow it goes to mend the tear that always shows."

In past viewings, I focused on the masterful manner in which Hitchcock built suspense. Also, the way he creates situations in which everything occurs within a tight space. Lifeboat is an example of this, as is Rear Window. In the latter, as in Rope, there is a sense in which the audience is present in the room, watching voyeuristically.

The story explores power and manipulation as well. Paul Tournier's The Strong and the Weak examines how people react differently to external circumstances. Brandon's dominance is clear, and Phillip goes along with Brandon's smooth-talking persuasive arguments. How many people have "gone along" with things they felt uncomfortable with, that violated their foundational beliefs because they failed to be strong, failed to take a stand? Whether it be a gang or a simply a relationship, things get messy when values are at odds. In the end, both characters will suffer the same consequences and be held accountable for their crime. 

We can pity Phillip but in a court of law he was an accessory to murder and likely will not get a break in the courts.

* * *

In 1979-80 I met a man who had been an accessory to murder. I was in Puerto Rico at the time. His uncle had planned to murder a man in Chicago and the nephew was used to lure the victim into an alley where the uncle took the man's life. Both the uncle and his nephew, whom I will call Antonio here, went to prison. Antonio's wife, a strong Christian, visited him every day no matter the weather. (She had to take a bus and walk miles to get there and home.) Her sacrificial love broke his heart and he gave his life to the Lord. When I met him he had a beautiful spirit and was dedicated to helping others to make a different choice from the one he made years earlier with his uncle. The hardships he'd endure, his wife's love and the mercy of God changed him on the inside. He approached life with humility because of what he had been through.

There's a Middle Eastern proverb that goes like this: The same sun that hardens clay melts wax. We all make mistakes and sometimes especially bad choices. How we respond determines the "what next" of our own lives.

It would be interesting to see how the story of Rupert, Brandon and Phillip plays out. One of these young men may become hardened bitterness whereas the other's eyes are opened and sees things in a new way. Perhaps Rupert will write a book that addresses these issues, that counters the creeping cynicism and amorality fostered by Nietzsche, Existentialism and (later) post-modernism.

What are your thoughts on this?

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

I've Invented a New Word (And Why You Should Care).

I've Invented a New Word for 2023: Herdwinked 

When I Google it, I come up blank, so it may be original. Should I patent it? I use it like this:

When a majority of people in a large group believe something that is not true, that has been promulgated by propaganda or mass media, they have been herdwinked. The new word combines "hoodwinked" with "herd think" to describe the process of mass formation psychosis. 

Related Words:

Herdwinked--  A Hoodwinked Herd of Sheeple 

Heardwink: When people hear propaganda and accept it as true.

Examples abound.

Nickname for Propaganda: Weapon of Mass Manipulation

* * * * *

Why should you care? You'll find my answer in this article here:

Monday, June 26, 2023

How Much Do You Know About Singapore?

Merlion Park, Singapore
If you have trouble keeping track of all the countries in the world, you're not alone. For some reason it seems like not that many years ago there were 212 countries, though as of 2023 there are only 195. This number includes 193 member states of the United Nations and 2 non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine. This number has changed over time. For example, in 1945, there were only 51 countries in the world. The number of countries has increased since then, however, due to decolonization, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the reunification of Germany.

There are many countries most people are familiar with by name, but know little about. This is especially so in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. One of these countries is Singapore, so today I would like to make an introduction.

Is Singapore an island?
Yes, Singapore is an island. It is a city-state located in Southeast Asia, off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It is made up of one main island, 63 satellite islands and islets, and one outlying islet; the combined area of these has increased by 25% since the country's independence as a result of extensive land reclamation projects.

What is the population of Singapore?

As of 2023, Singapore has a population of 5.7 million people. It is the most densely populated country in Asia and, after Monaco, is the second most densely populated country in the world with over 20,000 people per square mile, slightly more than San Francisco.

By way of contrast, the rural township that I live in (Solway) is 36 square miles in size with only 1100 people. Therefore the population density here is approximately 30 per square mile. Duluth, our nearest major city, covers 80 square miles with a population of just over 86,000 and a population density of approximately 1209.  

How much land does Singapore occupy?

The country is 280.2 square miles  

What people groups live in Singapore?

Singapore is made up of a diverse mix of people, primarily Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. 

How many Americans live in Singapore?
There are approximately 26,000 Americans living in Singapore. 

What language or languages are spoken in Singapore?

The official language is English, but Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil are also official languages. English is used in government, business, and education. Malay, the national language, is used in official ceremonies and in the media. If the media is broadcasting in Malay, that should tell you something about what the general public speaks though Mandarin is the most spoken native language, the language of the majority of Chinese Singaporeans. Tamil is the language of the majority of Singaporeans from India.

What is the economy like there?

Marina Bay Financial District
Singapore is a developed country with a high standard of living. The economy is based on trade, manufacturing, and finance. Singapore is also a major global financial center, a hub for a hub for technology and innovation. It is home to the headquarters of many multinational corporations. It's also a tourist destination, known for its clean streets, efficient public transportation, and diverse cultural attractions.

How old is Singapore?

Archaeological evidence suggests that people first arrived in the region of modern-day Singapore around 3,000 years ago. The earliest known historical reference to Singapore comes from the third century Chinese historical text, the Records of the Three Kingdoms, which mentioned a place called "Pu-luo-chung" or "Pú Luó Zhōng" in Chinese. This is believed to refer to Singapore or its vicinity.

What can you tell us about the history of Singapore?

The country was originally part of the Srivijaya Empire, a Buddhist empire based in Sumatra which is modern-day Indonesia. Later it became part of the Majapahit Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist empire based in Java. The island was known as Temasek and served as a trading port.

In the early 19th century, Singapore became a strategic port for the British East India Company when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 and established a British settlement. Singapore grew rapidly as a trading hub, attracting immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds. It eventually became a British colony in 1867. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further boosted Singapore's importance as a global maritime hub.

During World War II, Singapore was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. The Battle of Singapore in 1942 resulted in the fall of the British stronghold and marked a significant turning point in the war in the Pacific.

In 1959 Singapore gained self-governance and obtained complete independence from Malaysia in 1965. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore embarked on a path of rapid economic development, focusing on education, infrastructure, and attracting foreign investments.

Today Singapore has been transformed into a modern and prosperous city-state. By prioritizing economic diversification, trade, and investment, it has become a global financial center and a major port. Policies attracting foreign companies and promoting innovation have helped develop a skilled workforce.

Singapore is also known for its multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. The government adopted policies to promote racial harmony, multiculturalism, and religious tolerance. Singapore's population comprises various ethnic groups, including Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian communities.

Political stability and strict laws and regulations help ensure social order, economic growth, and a high standard of living. Its economic success, urban development, and harmonious multicultural society have made it a unique and influential player in the global arena.

Why am I writing about Singapore today?

While reviewing my blog analytics, I noticed an influx of readers from Singapore. Thank you for visiting and sharing. Feel free to leave a comment. 

Photo Credits

Merlion Park: Photo by Joshua Ang on Unsplash

Marina Bay: Ray in Manila, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Why Do Russia's Wars Always Start with Disaster?

Unherd, a publication whose mission is to push back against herd mentality, today featured a story titled "How Putin enabled the Wagner revolt." The article begins with the following opening paragraph:

"Why do Russia’s wars always start with disaster? The answer is straightforward: because the autocrats who rule Russia — be they Tsars (with the exception of Napoleon’s nemesis Alexander I), Joseph Stalin or Vladimir Putin — appoint obedient toadies sadly lacking in military talent to command their forces."

According to the Unherd piece by Professor Edward Luttwak, "And none is more out-of-his-depth than Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s minister of defence."

Is  Prof. Luttwak suggestion that Putin's minister of defense is the worst Russian war leader ever or the world's worst ever? Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 goes into great detail describing the ridiculous unpreparedness of the Russian army at the outset of WWI. The lack of preparedness included inadequate equipment, outdated tactics and a lack of direction which all contributed to abysmal morale. 

What's more, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich's military command structure suffered from massive inefficiencies and poor leadership. Decision-making processes were often slow and bureaucratic, hindering quick and effective responses to changing circumstances. As Solzhenitsyn discloses, the lack of clear strategic direction and coordination among the leadership contributed to disarray and ineffective operations. In the first month of the war the bumbling and blundering was so great that after a major loss in the Battle of Tannenberg General Samsanov took his own life. 

It isn't just Russia that is prone to this problem. G.J. Meyer's WWI overview, A World Undone, devotes a chapter to the incompetence of Britain's military leaders. When you see the consequences there's nothing funny about the tens of thousands of men whose blood was pointlessly spilt. (cf. The British Generals at the Dawn of World War One)

How ready are our U.S. troops should they be called into combat? Here are a few matters of concern.

Technological vulnerabilities with regard to emerging threats include cybersecurity vulnerabilities, potential disruption of satellite communications, and reliance on outdated systems in certain areas should concern us. Maintaining readiness across all branches of the military can be challenging. Aging equipment, insufficient training resources, and personnel shortages can impact the military's ability to respond promptly and effectively to threats.

The appalling amount of red tape in all levels of government will have an impact on our capacity to respond should there be a time of need. The acquisition and procurement process of new military equipment and systems can be lengthy, bureaucratic, and prone to cost overruns. Delays and inefficiencies in acquiring cutting-edge technology will hinder military readiness and modernization efforts.

It's true that Russia has been tested and found wanting. In this country, it waits to be seen how capable and effective we'll be until we're tested. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Read: How Putin enabled the Wagner revolt


Photo Credit: Photo by Dominik Sostmann on Unsplash

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Duluth: Jan Chronister's Poetic Visions from the Zenith City and Beyond


Duluth: Zenith City & Beyond by Jan Chronister is an entertaining and thought provoking catalog of observations. You can tell right off that she's a writer, ever drawing inspiration from what's going on around her, surveying and cataloging. I'd be interested in her "writer's notebooks." 

That's what poets do. They carry a butterfly net in their heads, eyes scanning the terrain like a predator seeking prey, observations that glisten. Catch them before they flutter away, then pin them in your writers notebook. (Forgive me for mixing metaphors, but that's the way the the ball bounces after it falls off the table like a lead pencil.)

There are more than 17,000 species of butterflies in the world, and butterflies are but a subset of the Leipodptera classification of insects of which there are more than 180,000 species. Ideas for poems are something akin to this, too numerous to number, and challenging to catalog. But poets do it anyways. Some ideas are big, some small, some brilliant, some whimsical. Chronister's poems vary as well, whether humorous or serious, lively or pointed. Here's the opening stanza from the first poem in the book, titled "Urban Renewal."

In a certain year 
all the wooden stairs downtown
must have been painted
by the same man.

It sets a tone.

Many of these poems are sketches of various people she's observed--a bag boy at the grocery store, a father and son buying a Mother's Day card, a June wedding, an actress with a broken leg, a newspaper designer from Miami, a waitress at an unnamed restaurant. 

The book is divided into four sections: Town Life, Almanac, Waterways, and Roads. Almanac is a waltz through the seasons. I also liked the quotes she selected to accompany each section. A George Santayana quote leads off the Almanac section:

"To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring."

There are so many nice touches here. Like this one from a poem titled "Golden Delicious."

I see our tree

obscured with blossoms, 

courting pollinators.

Or this image from "Keeping Secrets."

I hear secrets, keep them frozen,
knowing what torrents

would flow if I thawed.

I suppose we all read poetry for different reasons. For me, it's little gems like these that make reading poetry so rewarding. (Rilke, Billy Collins and Robert Frost come readily to mind.)

Poetry can serve as many purposes as public speaking or journalism. Virgil's 9,896 lines of dactylic hexameter, The Aeneid, is an ambitious, comprehensive overview of the birth of Rome out of the ashes of Troy. Chronister's Duluth is a gathering of snapshots from this Northland territory hugging the shores of the world's largest freshwater lake.

In the midst of serious contemplation, there are often amusing pieces that can't help but make you smile. For instance, "The Summer We Bought the Farm" is about stumbling across a forty acre farm with an artesian well and a trout stream, the "inside joke" being the title, which has become a euphemism for something else.

Speaking of inside jokes, Chronister embeds numerous subtle references to things you might only be aware of if you'd lived here awhile. I suspect these make the poems especially rewarding for the locals who are paying attention.

* * * 

Jan Chronister is an award-winning regional poet whose new book was published in mid-May. A retired teacher (University level and several technical schools), Chronister is well-known in local poetry circles. 

If you don't live near a Northland bookstore, you can find Duluth: Zenith City & Beyond online, along with several other poetry collections from her six decades of enriching readers.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Billie Holiday's Artistic Reverberations in Baltimore's Public Spaces

Cities benefit from public art in a variety of ways. Public art can generate a measure of civic pride.It also has social benefits, giving residents a sense of place. Certainly this has been happening in Duluth as it has in other places. Public art can lift our spirits and it can also cause us to think. (I'm thinking here of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial). According to a study at USC it can even improve academic achievement. Many cities use public art is a means of honoring significant luminaries who had once lived there or were born there. 

"America's Photographer" Gary Firstenberg sent these photos from the neighborhood in Baltimore where Billie Holiday was raised.

Other luminaries from Charm City include Eubie Blake, Can Calloway, Frank Zappa, Babe Ruth, Thurgood Marshall, H.L. Mencken and many more.

Related Links

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Public Reacts with Sadness, Anger, and Questions to Titanic Submersible Disaster

Creative Commons. IsabelJohnson25
As most of you know, who even modestly follow the news, a submersible craft carrying a wealthy billionaire and other well-heeled passengers into the deep to see the Titanic imploded, killing all aboard. Like the story of the Titanic, this story has many facets, including a few that bear resemblance to the original tragedy.

The craft that imploded, apparently on Father's Day, was a Titan submersible operated by OceanGate Expeditions. the five-person submersible was purportedly designed to dive to depths of up to 12,500 feet. The submersible had a titanium hull and a acrylic viewport that provided an unobstructed view of the underwater environment, a deep sea version of the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs in Florida.

The five passengers who lost their lives were: --Stockton Rush, the founder and CEO of OceanGate Expeditions --Shahzada Dawood, a Pakistani energy and tech mogul --Suleman Dawood, his 19-year-old son --Hamish Harding, a British billionaire explorer --Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a French diver and Titanic expert

Shortly after communication lost a search and rescue was undertaken. News stories indicated that they would be searching an area twice the size of Connecticut, which is a fairly large swath of ocean real estate. U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards were launched, generating much news coverage. Once debris had been beed discovered near the Titanic wreckage, the search was called off.

A representative of the Coast Guard explained that the five passengers in the bathyscaphe were "squeezed like a jar" by the water pressure, 487 meters from the Titanic.

The widespread media coverage left many people mourning, though there were other kinds of emotions expressed on the Twittersphere. Anger, dismay, and even a conspiracy angle. Here are few of these responses:

--The accident of the Ocean Gate Titan like that of the RMS Titanic could have been avoided. This will be a key lesson going forward. --Perhaps, after 111 years, we should all agree that it is time to let the Titanic rest in the deep sea without disturbing the souls of those who perished in the awful incident in 1912.

--It's shocking how unprepared the Coast Guard was to handle something that should never have happened, has never happened, and happened about 900 miles from the U.S. Coast

--‘The Simpsons’ writer and producer Mike Reiss revealed he went on three trips with OceanGate, including one to see the Titanic wreckage last summer on the submersible. He details that passengers were required to sign a waiver that mentioned death three times on the first page.

--It is sad the CEO of Oceangate ignored repeated warnings about safety in pursuit of adventure. It is sad that a 19 year old whose life was just beginning was onboard. 5 lives ended.  People laughing at this are despicable 
I am glad to learn they did not suffer.

--Cameron: Here’s a case where we didn't remember the lesson of Titanic, these guys at Ocean Gate didn't, because the arrogance and the hubris that sent that ship to its doom is exactly the same thing that sent those people in that sub to their fate.

--I'm most angry that OceanGate already suspected submersible failure, hid that information, and let multiple governments endanger their sailors and specialists when we would have found the debris quicker if they had been honest. This in no way means the efforts were not heroic.

--It’s quite interesting that the wife of OceanGate CEO is directly related to Isa & Ida Strauss, founders of Macy’s that perished on the Titanic in 1912.
What’s even MORE interesting, is that the Strauss’s were on their way to a meeting in the US to attempt a STOP to the creation of the Federal Reserve bank. They OPPOSED the idea, likewise other richest titans of the time, John Jacob Astor & Benjamin Guggenheim. Then, the Titanic sank. The dots, oh how they CONNECT!

--The Biden administration knew the Titan submarine imploded Sunday. But waited until today to make it public. Convenient smokescreen for today’s House Ways & Means release of IRS whistleblower testimony of DOJ sabotage of the Hunter Biden investigation.

* * *

Related Links

Titanic Reflections
Titanic: A Metaphor for Our Times?
Tempest Takes You There

Throwback Thursday: Setting the Trajectory (Revisited)


Republished with comments
July 23, 2009

I've been reading Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers, a book about the first decade of our Republic. Ellis, who wrote a National Book Award-winning bio on Jefferson did this piece as a follow up, no doubt because of his love for that period, but probably also to utilize all the research he'd dug up to produce the first book.

Ellis argues that of all the decades in our history, the first one was preeminent in importance because it set the trajectory our country would take. From the manner in which conflicts were resolved to the manner in which power was wielded, there is probably some truth to Ellis' assessment.

Take, for example, the matter of Washington stepping down as president after two terms. This was unheard of in the era of monarchies. King George III said Washington was the greatest man ever if he could do that. Well, he did it. The torch was passed to another, John Adams. It was unprecedented, but served as just one example of how things were different over here.  (Contrast this with Xi Jinping or Fidel Castro.) Instead of being about power, Washington's presidency was about service.

The book begins with the story of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It is inconceivable today that a sitting Vice President would kill a man in a duel -- though our previous VP did shoot a lawyer. The significance of the Burr-Hamilton event is this: even though Burr won he lost. When he shot Hamilton, his reputation was shot. The real significance is that the old order, the code of the duel, and all those "gentlemanly" things that were vestiges of old British ways, fell to the wayside and from this instance on were no longer acceptable in the New America.

Another major chapter in the book is about the manner in which the founding fathers avoided resolving the slave issue. In thinking about how to tell it I was reminded of a dream I once had.

In the dream there was a giant tortoise in my small house. It was making a mess as turtles do, but it was also so enormous that I could not get it out of the house because it was wider now than the doors. I was in despair, and I prayed to God for help. A ray of light came down from above and shone on the tortoise, and almost immediately the critter began to become translucent, then transparent and a misty nothing... but just before disappearing altogether, she gave birth to four more baby turtles which were just so cute. Then I woke up.

The meaning of the dream for me was this: deal with a bad habit or situation when it is small and you can maybe get rid of it, but allow it to stick around and you have a major problem on your hands. The only way to get rid of that tortoise would have been to tear a wall out.

Well, the slave issue was not cute like those little baby turtles, but it was a much smaller problem in 1790 than in 1850. The founding fathers would have been better off facing it, and dealing with it while there were fewer slaves and a lesser economic impact. Instead, though they knew sooner or later it was going to tear the fabric of the Republic, they shuttled it off for another time the way many groups and individuals deal with their problems. Try to put a good face on it, try not to make waves.

Aside: How about in your life? Is that an elephant in your living room?

The book goes on to underscore a number of key observations. Foremost, the country was quite fragile in its infancy. Success was not guaranteed, and the men who helped shape it were are aware that they were putting everything on the line, making consequential decisions that would be costly should they fail. 

These people were also human, therefor flawed. Ellis doesn't ignore their struggles with issues of personal integrity, political expediency and the temptations of power.

For sure, reading Founding Brothers has me eager to find the Jefferson book by Ellis. I very much enjoyed David McCullough's insightful John Adams a couple years ago and recommend it to you as an intro to this period of our history. They were remarkable times and remarkable men. They were not passive about the world they lived in. The issues they wrestled with and how they resolved them set the tone for what made America the influential nation it would later become.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

John Evans and the Medicis

John Evans had always been fascinated by history, and the city of Florence in Italy seemed the perfect vacation destination for him. He had planned his trip for months, reading every book he could find on the city and its rich cultural heritage. From the first moment his feet touched the pavement he felt he was home.

On the morning of his second day in Florence, John woke up feeling disoriented. He sat up in bed at the AirBnB he'd found two blocks from the Duomo, and rubbed his eyes, trying to shake off the grogginess. But as he looked around the room, he realized that something was very wrong. The furniture was different, the walls were made of stone, and there was no electricity. When he looked for his iPhone it wasn't anywhere to be found. In fact, he couldn't even find the outlet he'd plugged it into the night before. A chill run down his spine.

He stumbled out of bed and bolted to the window. To his amazement, he saw a bustling city street below. Instead of squads of tourists he saw the narrow street alive with people dressed in clothes from another era. His first thought was that he'd awakened somewhere in Hollywood and was on a film set. Could he actually have been transported back in time?

John was wide awake now as he went outside. He began to wander the streets while trying to make sense of his situation. As he walked, he noticed that people were staring at him, puzzled by his strange appearance and unfamiliar clothing. "Mi scusi," he said to the first few people he encountered. "Parla inglesi?" 

Their replies made no sense to him. He couldn't understand the language and wished he'd been better prepared for this trip to Italy. (He'd wisely memorized a few essential words.) Each and every one spent half their time glancing up and down his attire in bafflement. A few asked where he was from but they spoke so quickly he couldn't understand a word.

Eventually, John found himself in the Piazza del Duomo where he saw a group of well-dressed men in an animated discussion. He approached them tentatively and asked for their help. To his surprise, they welcomed him warmly and offered to take him in, but he couldn't grasp what they were saying. 

"No copisco," he said with a shrug, his face conveying that universal expression of confusion.

The men laughed heartily at this. One extended his hand and said, "Venire. Unisciti a noi." (That is, "Come. Join us.") The shortest of the four men made several quick commands to the others, citing one of them by name.

John couldn't believe it. "Medici?"

At this, all four stared at him, their eyebrows raised.

"Conosci i Medici?"

John suddenly realized he'd traveled back to the time of the Medicis. "Do you know Machiavelli?" he blurted out, not realizing he'd spoken in English.

The short man glared at him. "Niccolò Machiavelli?"

The American hesitated before answering. 

"Sono Niccolò Machiavelli. Cosa vuoi?" (Trans. "I am Niccolò Machiavelli. What do you want?")

John bowed deeply. "I studied your book when I was in school," he said. 

Their blank stares indicated he'd spoken in English again. And that's when the real remarkable thing began to happen. Words were forming in his mouth before he spoke them. In Italian! "Ho studiato il tuo libro quando ero a scuola."

The Medici turned to face his friend, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Niccolò? You've written a book?" (He said this in Italian, of course.)

Machiavelli now stared into John's eyes with suspicion. "How did you know this? No one has yet seen a word of it."

"Chiedo scusa." ( Trans. "I beg your pardon.") "One day people all over the world will be reading this book. Even in America."

"What! Did Amerigo put you up to this?"  

John again looked perplexed. 

"Amerigo Vespucci. He lives down by the Arno." (For those unfamiliar, the Arno is a river that runs through Florence.)

John sighed. He didn't know whether to tell them that one day two continents would be named after that man... North and South America. 

Having finally realized that he had traveled back in time to the era of the Medicis, one of the most powerful and influential families in Italian history, he was prepared to accept his fate. He was amazed by the beauty and splendor of the city, with its magnificent cathedral, bustling markets, public art and vibrant energy.

Over the next few weeks, John immersed himself in this birthplace of the Renaissance, learning about their art, architecture, politics, and daily life. He heard about Booksellers Row and was given permission to handle a Greek manuscript and ancient scrolls from the time of the Greeks. He made new friends and also fell in love with a young woman named Maria who was equally fascinated by this stranger from the future who told them stories about Galileo ("He's a crazy old buzzard from Pisa," she said.) and Da Vinci and flying machines and World Wars, though he was stumped when it came to trying to describe the Internet and Social Media.


As days turned into weeks, John began to realize that he didn't want to leave this world. He believed he was home when he first arrived in Florence, but now he thoroughly felt himself to be home. After a couple months he began courting Maria and eventually, with a new sense of purpose, started a new family.  

Shortly before his son was born he had an unsettling dream. Though strange in its particulars, he took it as an omen. In his heart he knew he couldn't stay here forever. Maria's love was strong, though, and when he saw the infant for the first time he wept. "Can we call him Leonardo?"

Maria said, "Sì, lo chiameremo Leonardo."

He knew that life is a miracle and a gift, but this was something he had not been prepared for. 

In the end, John did find his way back to the present day. It happened like this. As he was walking with his friend Niccolò, Machiavelli began telling him that the world is more strange than he'd ever considered. "As crazy as it sounds, I'm starting to believe you're not really mad. And you'll never guess the dream I had last night."

"I'm sure I won't," Evans said. "Tell me." 

"Well, it happened right over here behind this chapel."

Uncomprehending, John Evans stared down a narrow street there and realized something. He had been here before.

Niccolò clasped his hand with two hands and said, "Grazzi." The full weight of his words struck John as he realized the man was saying goodbye. Niccolò then pointed to the door. 

John was overcome with a sense of foreboding. Unable to resist the pull he stepped through the door and found himself in the foyer of the AirBnB he'd rented a year before. Or rather, four centuries in the future.

Listlessly he walked up the staircase and found the room, with his iPhone still plugged into the outlet. After checking his travel pouch--yes, his passport was still there--he looked outside his window and saw a batch of tourists following a man carrying a flag who while herding them along that historic ancient path. John's eyes became moist as he thought of Maria and little Leonardo.

He never forgot his journey to the past, and the lessons he learned about love, friendship, and the enduring power of human connection. And whenever he returned to Florence, something he would do every spring for the rest of his life, he always felt a sense of nostalgia and wonder, remembering that time when he had lived among the Medicis, and felt truly alive.

* * * 

In 2023, during his eighth trip to Florence to pay homage he did as he always had done, reflected on that strange chapter which seemed increasingly unreal. While in the airport in Paris Evans purchased a copy of The Atlantic to read on the plane. One of the articles was about a surprising revelation that Leonardo DeCaprio had come across while doing genealogical research. 

The story began with a museum administrator who had discovered a folio of unpublished writings by Machiavelli. The author of The Prince had gone into great detail describing a man from the future named John who lived for a season with the Medicis and talked much about the future. Experts at first dismissed the papers as a hoax because they were uncannily accurate about so many things. North and South America were mentioned. So, too, were many names of famous 20th century Italians including Enrico Fermi, Mussolini, a tenor named Luciano Pavarotti and an actor named Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Atlantic reprinted one of the pages from this folio and a page from the original manuscript for The Prince to show how identical the handwriting was. By using the latest forensic technology to examine the paper and ink, a pair of scientists from Milan confirmed that not only was the paper identical but the ink as well.

The main point of the article, however, was not simply that something inexplicable had happened. The lengthy article was a story of DeCaprio's own personal quest to trace his genealogical roots. To his astonishment, he found that his family not only lived in Florence during the time of the Medicis, but that during that time he had a mother named Mary and a father named John who, according to Machiavelli's notes, said he was an American.

* * * 

On the flight from Paris to Florence, Evans reflected on the incredible tale he'd just read. Then a niggling thought entered his brain. He tried to push it away but it wouldn't leave him. Evans was a writer and a researcher. In the early 1990s he had completed an incredibly detailed outline of the many branches of his family tree for his mother, brother and sisters, going all the way back to 12th century England, seeking to prove a family legend of royal roots. Despite failing in this, he found the whole process satisfying nevertheless. 

In 2004 Evans heard a couple friends talking about new genetic tools that people were using to learn more about their roots. "I found out that I have German and Spanish roots that I never knew about," said one. 

"I have roots that go back to Africa and a branch from the Netherlands," said another.

When John Evans got his results from he learned about an Italian line he'd never uncovered before. You can guess where this is going. When he pursued his past looking for where this Italian line entered, it turned out to be a sailor during the time of Napoleon who had shipwrecked off the coast of Dover. And yes, as you've already guessed, while tracing that man's roots, John Evans learned that he was descended from himself.

* * * 

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