No shirt, no servant

In Joseph M. Marshall III’s The Journey of Crazy Horse, the author recounts an episode in the great Oglala Lakota warrior’s life during which he was honored as part of a revived Lakota tradition. As the Native American Plains tribes rallied to resist a growing threat presented by increased US cavalrymen stationed at western outposts following the Civil War, the elders of the tribe decided to bring back the Shirt-Wearers, a group of courageous men chosen to be servant leaders among the tribe.
As a younger man, Crazy Horse, as many Lakota did, had a vision that was used to provide guidance in his life. He understood that he was to be a fighting man, Mitchell writes, and Crazy Horse did his best to honor this foretelling. Leaders of the band soon recognized Crazy Horse as more, though. The young warrior struggled with this greater responsibility, finding it difficult to shoulder the care and welfare of others.
After his selection as a Shirt-Wearer, Crazy Horse was forced to accept that his life would be one of sacrifice, “lived for the good of others, when all he wanted was to walk his own road.” Shirt-Wearers were expected to be “men above all others,” helping the elderly, the widowed, and the poor. Most of all, they were expected to lead the tribe by example, acting generously, lovingly, and bravely. Crazy Horse’s father, a medicine man also named Crazy Horse, told his son that “such a man does not belong to himself. He belongs to the people.”
In our world today, greatness is a word thrown around at leadership seminars, motivational retreats, TED Talks, and graduation ceremonies. “Be great.” “Do something great.” Phrases such as these are constant.
There are a few problems with this push, as I see it. One is that greatness is set forth as a goal in and of itself. The other is the very definition of what it means to be great. When we seek to do great things, we typically refer to quantifiable or comparative achievements: money, education level, alma mater, job profile, or home value. I believe that achieving greatness should never enter our minds; rather, the goal of any vocation, whether you are a husband, wife, shoe salesman, doctor, mother, or father is to identify the needs of people around you, and with the gifts and abilities you’ve been granted, work to fill those needs. Great mothers serve their babies in the middle of the night, wipe tears from children young and old, and give really good hugs at just the right moments. These are not actions our society would call “great,” but I can’t think of anything greater. I’m sure these women aren’t pursuing glory for glory’s sake, but are simply loving their children. Greatness is not their goal.
Much like the Lakota Shirt-Wearers, we exist to serve our neighbors. We may at times wish to walk our own road (I am certainly guilty of this), and become whatever may delight our heart, but we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to others. A husband and father, capable of achieving great professional heights, may instead, due to circumstances, be called to a life of grinding out a paycheck for his family. Is this man no less noble or great for doing this than the professional who achieves his success with no heart for others? A life spent serving oneself or chasing status in the eyes of others is not a great one.
The lesson we can take from community-based cultures like the Lakota is that we should not strive for glory, but rather strive to serve. And through that serving, we may ultimately be seen as great by our families, our clients, or our friends. But even if you’ve been gifted with an ungrateful spouse, selfish children, or self-obsessed co-workers, your greatness never to be recognized, we still serve. Greatness in others’ eyes should not be the goal of anything we do.
So let’s stop telling our children to go out and be great. Stop pressuring yourself to achieve great things. And instead, start every day by putting on your Lakota shirt, and fulfill the needs of those people who have been placed around you.


Unscrupulous and unprincipled voluptuary: The controversies of Aaron Burr

In a “Got Milk?” television commercial campaign that ran almost two decades ago, one particular ad always stood out to me. It featured a guy preparing a piece of peanut butter bread, an obvious fan of Alexander Hamilton. There were paintings, busts, and books on the famous Federalist shown in various shots. He’s listening to the radio when the day’s $10,000 trivia question is announced: “Who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?” The guy’s eyes grow wide and the camera flashes to a display of the guns used, the bullet, and a painting of the duel which labels one participant “A. Hamilton” and the other, “A. Burr.” He knows the answer and he is the lucky recipient of the radio station’s call! He proudly gives his response, but his mouth is full of peanut butter. The disc jockey can’t understand his shouts of “Aawon Buhh,” so the man tries to pour a glass of milk to clear his mouth, but it’s empty. The disc jockey notifies the man that his time is up and disconnects. Got Milk?
This was my introduction to Aaron Burr generally and to the fatal duel specifically. Burr is a man whose lifelong companion was controversy. With July 11 marking the 213th anniversary of the infamous “gun fight,” it seems to be an appropriate time to delve into some of his more infamous achievements.
Burr, born in Feb. 6, 1756, was a native New Yorker. He served in the military during the American Revolution under Generals Benedict Arnold, George Washington, and Israel Putnam, and later became a lawyer. In 1791, he was elected to a seat in the United States Senate.
A member of the Republican Party, he became a “second choice” candidate for president in 1800. His party’s standard-bearer, Thomas Jefferson, sought to unseat his long-time friend, but political rival, John Adams. The results of the election would change the way presidential candidates run for office.
At that time, there was no way to distinguish between a vote for President and one for Vice President. The runner-up for the Presidency filled the Vice President role. But with party politics emerging at the time, plans were hatched to secure a party could hold both seats. A problem arose, however, when Jefferson and Burr, both Republicans, tied. It was understood beforehand that Burr was running as a second choice to fill the role of Vice President, but with Burr and members of the rival Federalist Party seeing an opportunity to gain more power, all deals were soon thrown out.
The way the deadlocked election would be settled was as follows: Each of the 16 states would get one vote, meaning that the candidate who won nine states would be the winner. The voters were members of the United States House of Representatives. Republicans held majorities in eight states, while Federalists had control of six. Two other states were tied.
Facing a potential political and governmental crisis, Jefferson initially wrote to Burr seeking his support. Burr even seemed to give it him, vowing to “disclaim any competition,” and referred to Jefferson’s administration.
But that all changed as the Federalists and Burr began to consider possibilities. Republicans primarily supported Jefferson. Some Federalists felt they could negotiate more control over the presidential agenda in return for throwing their votes behind Burr. Burr now let it be known he was open to serenades of suitors.
While the Federalists were throwing their support behind Burr, one prominent member of the party was speaking out against him: Alexander Hamilton. Having called New York home for much of his life, Hamilton found Burr an “unprincipled…voluptuary” who would plunder the country.
Voting began and ballot after ballot returned a deadlocked vote over a seven-day span. Neither Jefferson nor Burr could secure the ninth state. Pressure was heavily applied to Delaware’s sole congressman, James Bayard, as he represented the only vote from his state. A Federalist, he supported Burr, but on the 36th ballot, decided to abstain from voting, allowing Jefferson’s eight votes to secure the Presidency.
Burr was fully aware of Hamilton’s role in his loss.
Burr’s challenge of Jefferson also destroyed any relationship the two men previously had. By the time 1804 came around, Jefferson had decided he would not support Burr’s nomination to be his Vice President. This led Burr to seek the governorship of his home state, New York, where he would run into a familiar foe: Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton campaigned against Burr once again. Still no fan of the “unscrupled” Burr, whose career Hamilton felt was his “religious duty” to oppose, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury led the charge against the gubernatorial candidate. Burr’s campaign ended in defeat.
Feeling dishonored by the constant public attacks and writing of Hamilton, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused. Burr challenged him to a duel. Hamilton accepted.
The duel was set for July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, N.J. (Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel at this site three year prior), with the participants being a sitting Vice President and a former Treasury Secretary (and we think Twitter wars are unbecoming of office holders). There is dispute as to what exactly happened at the duel. Hamilton had gone on record with reservations concerning the morality of the “affair of honor,” but would not apologize for his remarks about Burr. It is generally believed that he threw away his shot as a compromise between two competing interests. Burr, however, did not. He shot Hamilton in the lower abdomen, near the hip, breaking ribs and damaging internal organs.
The bullet lodged next to Hamilton’s spine. It was immediately known he was mortally wounded, but he did not die until the next day.
By committing what was essentially homicide, Burr committed political suicide. Immune from charges levied against him in both New York and New Jersey due to his position of Vice President, Burr finished his term as Vice President before heading out west, where trouble would find him again.
In 1807, Burr found himself the center of a treason trial. Residing in Louisiana, Burr had connected with United States General James Wilkinson, who was working as an agent of the Spanish. As Burr built a militia and headed for New Orleans, Wilkinson turned on Burr and reported to Washington, claiming Burr was committing treason.
President Jefferson wanted him found guilty and jailed, but ultimately, there was found to be insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. To this day, Burr’s intentions are unknown. Was he working for a foreign government? Was he looking to create his own independent republic?
Burr was a free man legally but a prisoner for all intents and purposes. His already-poor reputation had suffered yet another blow. He fled to Europe before returning to his private law practice many years later. He died in 1836.
With the Tony-winning musical Hamilton leading to greater interest in Alexander Hamilton’s life, here’s hoping someone writes a spin-off based on the life of Aaron Burr. I’d definitely go see that.
1. Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800. (2004, November 01). Retrieved July 07, 2017, from
2. Aaron Burr. (2016, October 24). Retrieved July 07, 2017, from
3. Ferling, John. “Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800.” Smithsonian Institution, 01 Nov. 2004. Web. 07 July 2017.
4. “Aaron Burr Arrested for Treason.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 07 July 2017.
5. “Burr Slays Hamilton in Duel.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 07 July 2017.

The historical odyssey of Ulysses Grant

If you were to argue that the four greatest United States presidents are represented by the faces chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore, few people would debate you. Chosen in the 1920s by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for their contributions to the preservation and expansion of our nation, the accomplishments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt come easily for us.

But throughout history, there have been others considered great, as well.

In 1892, a medal produced for the Columbian Expo in Chicago featured the silhouettes of three American Presidents on its reverse side, along with the words “Father. Saviour. Defender.” The Father is George Washington. The Saviour is Abraham Lincoln. And the Defender? The Defender is Ulysses S. Grant.

So when America invited the world to its land to celebrate all that made the country and future bright, President Grant was one of faces represented to greet visitors (not in the flesh, he had been dead for seven years). Not Thomas Jefferson, who would later be chosen for inclusion on Mount Rushmore, but Grant.

The shift in the way Grant is considered as a figure in American history is interesting.

In a 1900 speech in Grant’s hometown of Galena, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt declared his view that “Yet as the generations slip away, as the dust of conflict settles, and as through the clearing air, we look back with keener wisdom into the nation’s past, mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant… these three greatest men have taken their place among the great men of all nations, the great men of all time.” Included in the ellipses is a reference to men such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Alexander Hamilton as “merely national heroes.”

In a 2017 C-SPAN survey of greatest U.S. Presidents, Ulysses Grant ranked 22nd.  In 2009, he was 23rd. In 2000, he was 33rd. The Defender of our union, one of the mightiest among the mighty dead, a great man of all nations, of all time, is now considered a middle-of-the-pack President, behind George H.W. Bush and William McKinley. I understand that the “greatness” of Presidents can change for perfectly valid reasons and it happens in both directions. Wildly unpopular at the time of his departure from office, Harry Truman ranked 6th, 5th, and 5th, in that same survey. Our shifting sensibilities change how we interpret presidential actions; leaders prove to be visionaries, with the effects of once-derided policies fully realized and more favorable than first thought. And I also understand that this survey is regarding the men in their service as President, not on the body of their life’s work. But the survey does seem to speak to a broader disregard for Grant’s contributions to our country in all aspects. He simply isn’t viewed with the esteem he once was.

I believe that the general view of Grant goes something like this: Floundered through his life until, inexplicably, he shot to the top of the United States Army during the Civil War, rode military success to the Presidency, and was an alcoholic (and maybe that his mug graces the $50 bill). Consider the comments of President Dwight Eisenhower (a rather accomplished military man and President in his own right) to Walter Cronkite in 1964:

“I think Ulysses S. Grant is vastly underrated as a man and as a general. I know people think this and that about his drinking habits, which I think have been exaggerated way out of line. The fact is, he never demanded more men or material from the war department, he took over an army that had a long history of retreating and losing. That army had no confidence in their fighting ability and Grant came in as a real outsider. He had so many disadvantages going into the 1864 campaign, now 100 years ago. But he met every test and rose to the occasion unlike I’ve ever seen in American history. He was a very tough yet very fair man and a great soldier. He’s not been given his due.

“Grant devised a strategy to end the war. He alone had the determination, foresight, and wisdom to do it. It was lucky that President Lincoln didn’t interfere or attempt to control Grant’s strategic line of thinking. Lincoln wisely left the war to Grant, at least in the concluding moves after he came east. Grant is very undervalued today, which is a shame, because he was one of the greatest American generals, if not the greatest.”

When hearing about the military genius of Civil War generals, we often hear of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Maybe Bedford Forrest or William Tecumseh Sherman. But it was Grant who was the leader of the victorious side. Many Grant detractors quickly attribute the Union’s victory in the Civil War to the vast manpower advantage they enjoyed or the lack of recognition the Confederacy received from foreign governments. Or the fact that Grant had Sherman waging Total War through Georgia, destroying not only the Southern infrastructure, but also Southern will. But that would deny Grant’s accomplishments in taking Vicksburg or his head-to-head victories over Lee in Virginia after President Lincoln appointed him general-in-chief of the Union army in 1864.

As President, Grant secured two terms, taking office in 1869 and serving until 1877. That may seem like a rather common achievement, but considering his time, it is noteworthy. From the election of Martin Van Buren in 1836 to the election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, only two Presidents were re-elected: Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. In fact, in his re-election campaign, Grant secured 55.6 percent of the popular vote, more than any other candidate since Andrew Jackson in 1828.

He not only possessed a great military mind, but also a heart for peace and people. He was instrumental in the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which secured voting rights for Americans, despite “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” He fought the Ku Klux Klan. Despite taking stances contrary to much of the South, his heart did not lead him to harm his former enemies. Grant supported generous surrender terms to the Confederacy, pushed for the passing of an amnesty act for former rebels, and supported federally-funded rebuilding of the South through Reconstruction.

He empathized with Native Americans, Grant biographer Ronald White told NBC’s Arturo Conde, in that he could see their position through their eyes. Consider this Grant quote to his wife in a letter following the Mexican-American War:

“My opinion [is] that the whole race would be harmless and peaceable if they were not put upon by the whites.”

His “peace policy” may have failed, but his motivations were to fight the corrupt Department of the Interior that was harming the native peoples of the Great Plains. Though his push to install Christian missionaries as reservation heads may have been misguided and led to interdenominational fighting, his heart was in the right place. Grant also supported, but was unable to implement, public works programs to aid the unemployed. Many of the causes Grant supported came with political danger, but he felt them to be the right course of action.

What I find odd about Grant’s slide down the historical rankings is that the traits he seemed to possess—a steely resolve in crisis, inspirational leadership, a compassion for people—are all traits that we claim to honor and hold dear today. He supported equal rights and advocated for the disadvantaged. He not only served to save the Union, but also led the effort to put the pieces back together. Grant fought bitterly to win, but had the graciousness to help his opponent off the mat. He had a litany of faults, much as we all do, but I suggest that as figure in our nation, Ulysses Grant deserves a closer look.

  1. Spencer Collection: Politics and Political Science In Medals Washington, Lincoln & Grant, Columbiana, 1892. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from
  2. Presidential Historians Survey 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from
  3. Grant’s Genius. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from
  4. Profiles of U.S. Presidents. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from
  5. Conde, A. (2017, February 20). How the Mexican-American War Inspired President Ulysses S. Grant. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from

Nearly naked and afraid: Truman Everts lost in Yellowstone

In August 1870, a 54-year-old assessor from the Montana Territory named Truman Everts eagerly joined an expedition into a region of uncharted beauty, nestled away in the northwest corner of the Wyoming Territory. The objective of the 19 men, who made up the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition, along with 40 horses, was to map the area surrounding the Yellowstone River.

Everts’ excitement soon turned to terror a few days into the journey. While he was part of the group that named many of the physical features of what is now Yellowstone National Park, he is most remembered for the unfortunate circumstances and the surprising conclusion to his tale.

During a trek through a rather dense patch of the territory, Everts, not known for his outdoorsman skills and the recipient of a bad case of nearsightedness, became detached from his group. A naturally confident fellow, Everts was able to make a fire and laid down for the evening on a bed of pine needles. His plan was to rise early in the morning and, as he wrote, be with the party by breakfast.

The following day, matters became worse when Everts dismounted his steed to look for traces of the group. The next thing he knew, the horse was racing off, probably spooked by something. Everts had not only lost his mode of transportation, but also his blankets, guns, matches, food, fishing gear, and water. He was left with only two butcher knives, an opera glass, and the clothing on his back. To make matters worse, September weather in Wyoming can be volatile, with snowstorms beginning to whip through the region. Difficult circumstances for the seasoned outdoorsman, certain death for a lifelong government bureaucrat like Truman Everts.

Days passed and Everts began to starve. By this point, the two butcher knives were lost. The cold wind that had blown through was freezing his malnourished and improperly-clothed body. He had no fire. He was stalked by a mountain lion, only saved when heavy snow began to blanket the area.

His first bite of food in days came while he was hunkering down under a snow-covered tree. A bird, struggling with the dense snow, landed near Everts. Possibly affected by the cold temperatures, the bird was unable to escape the clutches of Everts, who plucked its feathers and ate it raw.

Everts continued to wander, eventually arriving at a spot that would allow his fortunes to turn around. In the middle of a snowstorm, shivering and delusional, Everts found a boiling hot spring near Heart Lake. He lay down besides, his body warmed by the geothermal wonder. He was able to spend seven days there, gaining functionality and surviving on edible thistle now known as Everts thistle. This period would not be without incident, however. On the third night, Everts rolled over in his sleep, becoming too close to a spring. His hip was scalded, an injury that would cause his pain for duration of his misadventure.

The primary expedition group had begun for Everts almost immediately, but to no avail. Two men nearly rode up to Heart Lake about the time Everts was lying near the spring, but turned around before searching the area. A crew did come across another geyser, one whose reliability made the name “Old Faithful” the moniker of choice for the group.

Everts was able to fashion a knife out of his belt buckle and learned he could make fire from his opera glass. He also made a fish hook from a button.

By this time, Everts’ mental faculties were affected by his hunger. His mind played tricks on him, as two pelicans presented themselves as two sailboats. Old friends appeared to him, offering advice on the best route. His body parts began talking to him, including his stomach, who complained of the thistle he was being fed. And the bumbling outdoorsman continued to get in his own way, such as the time he fell into his campfire while sleeping and severely burned his hand. Or the time he made a pine shelter which caught fire and burned off much of his hair, while losing all of his remaining possessions. Or when he ate raw minnows from a stream and suffered food poisoning.

While the hallucinations were often troubling, it was the image of an old friend that sent Everts on a journey along the Yellowstone River, where his fortunes would ultimately turn around.

His feet affected by frostbite and his body covered in burns, Everts was forced to crawl. He weighed no more than 50 pounds and his death seemed imminent.

In mid-October, 37 days after Everts disappeared, two men travelling along the Yellowstone River saw what they thought was a wounded bear on its belly. Preparing to shoot it, they realized it was a person, and possibly the lost Everts. They shouted out to him, asking if the man was Everts.

“Yes, all that’s left of him,” Everts responded.

The rescuers took Everts to Bozeman, where he recuperated and wrote an account of his adventure. By accident, his travails led to the discovery (by white men) of many of Yellowstone’s greatest natural wonders, both by his search party and by Everts himself. These accounts were, in part, the impetus of the federal government’s establishment of the first national park at Yellowstone. And for his role, Everts was offered the job as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Unlike today, where Everts would have made millions from a book and possibly a movie deal, with the option for a reality show as the result of his ordeal, he still had to think about money. He turned down the superintendent role, citing its lack of pay.

Amazingly, given life expectancy at that time and his arduous experience, Everts lived another 30 years, dying in obscurity in Maryland, little known for his role in establishing the nation’s park service.

  1. Ferry, D. (2016, August 23). The Hapless Explorer Who Helped Create the National Park Service. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from
  2. Lost in Yellowstone, the Misadventures of Truman Everts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2017, from

Showdown in Jamestown

The United States of America is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Since its discovery, this land has been the target of people from around the world. The New World offered a new life for many, and so people set sail to stake out their piece of ground. Rulers sent their explorers westward to claim land and riches. The attention paid by the entire world to this section of North America led to settlements by many countries, and combined with the rights and freedoms granted by the United States many years later, has created the melting pot we experience today.

As a result, the history of this land is marked by difficulties in race relations. This week, we mark the 395th anniversary of one of the most infamous events in colonial America—the Jamestown Massacre.

The Virginia Company of London was founded in 1606 with the purpose of creating settlements along the mid-Atlantic coast of what is now Virginia, Washington, D.C., Delaware, and New Jersey. A sister company, The Virginia Company of Plymouth was founded with a similar objective but with a more northern territory.

The early settlers founded Jamestown in 1607 in present-day Virginia. From the beginning, Jamestown leadership under Captain John Smith struggled to build positive relationships with the natives, while also struggling to survive. The elements, the lack of resources and cooperation, and native relationships put the settlement in a precarious situation.

About five years in, settler John Rolfe was successful in creating a new strain of tobacco, allowing Jamestown to focus its economy on agriculture. The success would allow for the population to grow, which required more land. The downside to tobacco was the damage it caused to the soil. This also called for more land.

The borders of Jamestown began to expand and all of this was watched with a suspicious and hostile eye by the neighboring Powhatans. The English sought to tear down forests to claim more farm ground. The Powhatans wanted the woods preserved for hunting. Of additional concern were the colonists’ attempts to education and “civilize” the natives.

For years, Chief Powhatan had attempted to keep peace with the settlers, as his daughter Pocahontas was married to Rolfe, but by the latter part of the decade, Powhatan had been replaced as leader by his brothers Opechancanough and Itoyatan. The pair was not as interested in peace.

On March 22, 1622, the Powhatan Indians, under the leadership of Opechancanough, attacked Jamestown, slaughtering 347 people, destroying crops, and stealing supplies. The motive for the attack may not have been complete extermination of the English presence, but rather the sending of a message regarding the ever-expanding borders of the settlement. Of note is the notion that a Powhatan boy, who was living in the village, warned the townspeople of the impending attack. Some scholars believe that Opechancanough himself sent the messenger.

Many of the English settlers, rather than being deterred from growing, felt justified in their actions. When King James found out a few months later, supplies and reinforcements were sent. Settlers conducted attacks on the Powhatans. They would resume peace during the growing season and once the Powhatan corn was ready for harvest, set the fields ablaze.

In 1624, partly in response to the warring, The Virginia Company of London was dissolved and Jamestown was placed under royal control. The conflicts, combined with disease, saw the population of the Powhatans plummet from 25,000 in 1607 to a few thousand in just over 20 years.

A final attack was planned in 1644 by an, at this time, elderly Opechancanough. The attack resulted in the deaths of over 400 English settlers but also spurred a two-year war that left Opechancanough dead in a Jamestown jail. The dominance of the English settlers in the region was cemented.

  1. Jamestown: Legacy of the Massacre of 1622. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2017, from
  2. Virtual Jamestown. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2017, from

Brown rice, white rice, wrong rice, right rice

For many people living in first world countries today, and especially in America, health has become a major concern. We all see that despite rising life expectancy, health concerns such as obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression are bogging down our people and healthcare system. One reason is that developments in medicine have been aimed at treating symptoms. The curing of the root problems often comes down to a lifestyle change in the departments of diet and exercise. Which no pill can change. We all know this. It’s simple, but difficult to do.

But it’s not only about the amount of food we eat, but the kind of food we eat. The ever-increasing reliance upon quick meals and processed food is a major culprit in the breakdown of our bodies. Most of what we eat lists ingredients we can’t pronounce, much less understand. If simplicity is key, eating foods that you can actually describe makes more sense (or at least that’s what all those Netflix documentaries tell me). I can explain where a tomato comes from, especially when it’s grown in my garden. I have no idea how a Twinkie is made or what’s in it (other than deliciousness with an aftertaste of guilt). I understand an apple, but sausage is a mystery (and should remain that way, as the old saying goes). The less we do to take the nature out of our food, the better it is for us.

As with most things, the idea that natural foods are healthier is not a new concept. We’ve known about this problem for a long time.

In the late 1800s, the Dutch East India Company saw worker after worker stationed in East Asia come down with a similar illness. They grew extraordinarily weak and lost severe amounts of weight. It grew painful for them to move their limbs and some even faced death from heart failure. The disease was called beriberi, meaning “I cannot,” in the native tongue of the region. As the problem persisted, company officials grew concerned and asked Robert Koch, a physician famous for his work with Louis Pasteur on germs, to investigate and find the germ wiping out their workforce. Koch, unable to commit to the length of time such a task could entail, declined but referred a former student of his, Dr. Christian Eijkman, himself Dutch.

In 1886, Eijkman began his research, using methods any other physician would have at that time. Pasteur and Koch’s research served as a guide, and so he began looking for germs. If the beriberi bacteria could be located, it could be eradicated. Armed with a microscope and syringes, Eijkman drew samples of blood, examined perspiration, water, and air. He found nothing.

Eijkman decided to use the chickens found at the worksites as a way to experiment and control variables. He injected them with the blood of infected workers, but to no avail. Suddenly and mysteriously, the chickens began displaying physical symptoms of beriberi. Their wings went limp and they struggled to survive. And soon, without explanation, their symptoms disappeared. Eijkman turned his attention to their diet. Their caretaker was questioned. Typically, the chickens were fed the less-expensive, less flavorful brown rice. But there was an exception. Some chickens had been given leftover rations from the workers which consisted of the polished, or white, rice. The stuff the people ate. Once a superior noticed what was happening, the caretaker was ordered to stop feeding the chickens the white rice, as it was reserved only for people.

Eijkman had found his root problem. Something about the white rice was leaving people sick. The white rice, processed to improve palatability and increase shelf life, was worse for them than the brown counterpart. Further research found that a deficiency of thiamine, which is removed in the creation of white rice from brown, was the cause of beriberi.

It would take years of study to fully understand the role vitamins play in our health. But it all started with this episode. Eijkman, along with Sir Frederick Hopkins, shared the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, both men receiving the prize for their groundbreaking discoveries on vitamins.

So even in the 19th century, we knew that processing our food with a focus on shelf life and flavor was harmful. Sometimes it just takes a while for lessons to sink in. And some never do.

  1. Tiner, J. H. (2006). Exploring the history of medicine: from the ancient physicians of Pharaoh to genetic engineering. Green Forest, AZ: Master Books.

Stroke of the pen, law of the land, kinda cool: Executive orders and the American Presidency

In his first couple of weeks in office, President Donald Trump has taken a lot of criticism for his executive orders, both the content and the number. He has used his pen to address the Affordable Care Act, immigration, the U.S.-Mexican border wall, and government regulation—all issues upon which he campaigned. Trump is certainly not acting in a manner outside the norm in his use of this executive function. The use of such orders has been around since George Washington, but like much else since the 18th century, this use of power has grown.

Nowhere in the United States Constitution is the president granted the authority to use the executive order. As the executive in charge of administering national laws, all presidents have written them to direct their agencies in “faithful execution.” A law granting the president to issue a specific order must be cited with the order.

The executive order is closely tied to the presidential memorandum and proclamation. The distinction is typically that an executive order sets government-wide policy, while the memorandum directs a specific department secretary to take a specific action and proclamation tends to be ceremonial (e.g. Red Ribbon Week), though Abraham Lincoln once used a proclamation to famous effect.

In 1907, the Department of State began numbering the executive orders, starting with one issued by President Lincoln in 1862. In 1936, the Federal Register Act created a more stringent process for documenting and number the orders. Still, orders pop up that have gone undocumented or unnumbered, in which case they are given a letter with an existing order number.

The American Presidency Project at the University of California – Santa Barbara has posted a table showing the number of orders by president. George Washington did in fact use the executive order, but sparingly. In fact, no president averaged more than one executive order per year until our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, wrote two per year. Martin Van Buren followed him, issuing 12 in his lone term in office. John Tyler averaged four per year. And so the use of the executive order climbed. But compared to today, this looks like the presidential equivalent of baseball’s dead ball era before Babe Ruth burst onto the scene.

So who was the executive order issuing Babe Ruth? It appears to be someone who shared Ruth’s penchant for “carrying a big stick.”

The Civil War and Reconstruction period saw a major rise in the use of the order. Lincoln issued 48 in his four years in office from 1861-65, an average of 12 per year. Franklin Pierce, from 1853-1857, had averaged nine. Following Lincoln, Andrew Johnson wrote 79 in just under four years in office, dramatically increasing the use of the power.

These figures steadily rose until William McKinley was averaging 41 per year. In 1901, his assassination vaulted Theodore Roosevelt into the big chair. A man of action, Roosevelt used the executive order to push his agenda. Whereas no one had ever written more than 217 (Ulysses Grant), Roosevelt issued 1,081 in his 7.5 years in office. Babe Ruth was the man who built Yankee Stadium and Roosevelt was the man who built the West Wing. Fairly symbolic, I believe.

From that point through World War II, the executive order increased in frequency. Woodrow Wilson issued over 1800. Even “do-nothing” President Calvin Coolidge issued 1200 in five and half years in office.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 during the Great Depression. A tool he used frequently to attempt to curb the financial collapse was the executive order. He remained in office for 12 years and wrote 3721, an average of 307 per year. Since that time, no president has come close. Using the baseball analogy, FDR was the steroid era.

Truman issued over 100 per year, but no president since has averaged more than 80 (Jimmy Carter). Reagan averaged 48, Bush 42, Clinton 46, Bush 36, and Obama 35.

So historically speaking, what Trump is doing has historical precedent. Obama issued a number of orders and memoranda in his first few weeks in office, but then slowed down. The same could be true for Trump. The reason I believe presidents use orders frequently after their inauguration is because they have been elected by a public on promises they make during campaigns and given the gridlock in Congress and the focus on the first 100 days, they know they don’t have time to wait to take the action for which voters are looking.

But in my mind, their desire to “get things done” and our similar demand that they act accordingly has had negative consequences. Amidst much fear and panic in the face of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt was able to dramatically and, in many ways, permanently increase the size of government and the power of the presidency. The precedent has been set for a president to make sweeping changes in the name of the common good with a signature. Are we sure that’s really in our collective best interest?

  1. Executive Orders. (n.d.). Retrieved February 03, 2017, from

Trump, Truman, and truth in media

Donald Trump did it. He won. He overcame the Clinton political machine and much of the media. He overcame almost every published poll. And now, in January, he will become the 45th President of the United States.

A couple of friends and I were discussing the election in the days leading up to the vote. We all assumed Clinton would win, but I made the comment that if anyone could topple widely-accepted polling practices and algorithms, it was Donald Trump. This wasn’t a case of genius political prognostication—it was an easy observation that he was running his campaign in an unorthodox way. And I added, maybe this could be our generation’s Dewey defeats Truman moment.

In 1948, after assuming the duties of the President following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Democrat Harry Truman faced an uncertain re-election campaign. Facing criticism from both his political opponents and his own party, Truman was urged to quit by liberal magazine New Republic. Southern Democrats were not pleased with his civil rights campaign. Some saw the former haberdasher with the folksy delivery to be unqualified and underprepared. Others simply didn’t like him because he wasn’t FDR.

But Truman patched together enough support from diverse factions of the Democratic Party to run for re-election. Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, governor of New York.

Truman’s primary mode of campaigning was a 31,000-mile whistle-stop train tour of the country, visiting towns large and small. The electricity of his rallies was undeniable, except to those who never saw them. After a supporter in Harrisburg, Ill., yelled “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” the phrase became a rallying cry amongst his supporters. Truman had a magnetism, but no one from the national media was taking notice.

A poll released just after Labor Day showed Dewey leading 44.3 to 31.4 percent. Internally, some of Dewey’s team were urging the candidate to come out “slugging,” but were drowned out by those preferring a campaign above the fray. Why should Dewey consider changing a strategy that he was proving to be so effective?

Truman, despite the polls, was confident.

On the eve of the election, The Chicago Tribune published a story that predicted Dewey would win in a landslide, tallying over 400 electoral votes. As early voting returns came in, the same newspaper, pressed to get its early edition to print, printed the now infamous headline: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

The problem, of course, was that he didn’t. It was Truman who claimed 303 electoral votes to Thomas Dewey’s 189. Truman also won the popular vote by more than two million. And he shocked a nation. Well, at least, the national media.

Leslie Biffle, a Democratic Party official, was perplexed by the polls showing the nation’s dislike for Truman. So he loaded up in a pickup truck, and posing as a chicken buyer, began driving from farm to farm discussing the election. He became convinced that Truman would win.

The rural vote, accessed by the whistle-stop tour, was the key to Truman’s win. It was also the vote that was ignored by polling methods. Those methods relied upon contacting voters using landline phones, silencing rural residents, who did not own phones at the same rate as urban dwellers. But the rural voice was certainly heard on Election Day.

Information is vital to a democracy, which is the primary reason for the protection of the press in our country. In a nation as large and complex as ours, we must rely on media, but examples like these two elections (in addition to a plethora of others), show the vulnerability of the institution. I highly doubt Donald Trump overcame a 12-point deficit in the final two weeks of the campaign; rather, the reported 12-point deficit never existed. These errors give me pause when I consider a whole host of other reported “facts,” from President Obama’s approval rating, to Trump’s surprise at the scope of the President’s job, or Clinton’s email contents . Or what any of the candidates’ tax plans will really do to the economy. I don’t ever feel confident that I can, with great authority, discuss the certainty of any of these things.

We’re all humans and therefore prone to error, bias, deceit, and downright conspiracy. Even if we’re objective journalists. But we, as engaged citizens of a (somewhat) democratic process, must demand better. And if we are going to uphold and value the institution of the press, it must do the same. News has become a product that needs to be sold and therefore is presented as stories and narratives. Stories and narratives, to be done well, require themes, heroes, villains, and the like, which the facts don’t always provide.

I feel like Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet, imploring the media to report “Just the facts ma’am.” But, as I found out recently, even that phrase isn’t quite the actual one uttered by Jack Webb–it’s “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” So maybe I’m more like the dispatcher from another classic police show, but instead of asking for Car 54, I’m calling out “Truth, where are you?”

  1. Grossman, R. (2016). It’s happened before: Truman’s defeat of Dewey had hints of Trump-Clinton. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from
  2. Truman defeats Dewey. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2016, from
  3. Snopes. (2010). Dragnet ‘Just the Facts’ Retrieved November 18, 2016, from

Rock rivals: Robbins, Harding, and a battle for supremacy in Yosemite Valley


Rivalries in competition serve to draw the battle lines and drive the storylines. Especially the mano a mano type. Think Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Think Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Arnie (RIP) and Jack. Royal Robbins and Warren Harding.

Wait, who? Not the president. Yosemite rock climbers. Yes, even rock climbing has legendary rivalries.

The 1950s saw the rise of the middle class. World War II had served as a boon to the economy and corporations were paying well. People were earning higher incomes, expanding home and auto ownership in the country. Vacations, once something only the elite experienced, were now something the working class could enjoy, as well.

The National Park Service offered America’s great lands to this demographic. Yosemite catered to the middle class white family looking to expose itself to a bit of restrained, censored wildness. Restaurants and cozy accommodations offered families an escape from the suburbs without the hassle of leaving behind modern conveniences.

But there was culture clash emerging at this time, too, and Yosemite would serve as a battleground.

In contrast to the content, picket-fence owning, middle class, this period also saw the rise of the beat generation. The beatniks were a group of disillusioned young people in search of their souls, who focused more on travel, the arts, and experience rather than securing stability. Some were hanging out in coffeehouses and some were riding waves and catching rays on the beach. And, as told in the documentary Valley Uprising, some beatniks near San Francisco and Los Angeles were eschewing the rungs of the corporate ladder to climb the faces of giant rocks.

Eventually these bands of self-proclaimed “dirtbags” made their way to Yosemite, which became their Mecca. Yosemite is home to two famous granite formations that rise thousands of feet into the sky—El Capitan and Half Dome. Instead of being content marveling at the rocks from the valley below, these beatnik deadbeats began to climb them, ushering in a golden age of rock climbing from 1955-1970.

These climbers were hated by the park rangers for their loud parties at base camp. Unemployed and broke, the climbers scavenged for food, even looking to eat the leftovers from guests’ plates at the nearby restaurants. One climber recalled stumbling upon damaged cans of cat food that a grocery store had thrown out. He quickly collected them, providing food for a few weeks for his group.

At the heart of this period was the rivalry between Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, two men who served as stark contrasts to one another in appearance, style, and philosophy.

Robbins was an intense man, hyper-competitive and serious about the craft of climbing. He wore his hair short, was bespectacled, and could be found around camp reading classic literature. Even his name—Royal–gave him a regal air.

Harding, on the other hand, had been given a presidential name, but was hardly civilized. He was in his 30s and still living with his mother. His unshaven face matched his unkempt brown locks. He had a crude sense of humor and a deep penchant for women and booze.

Robbins and his climbing mates set forth principles of rock climbing that included rules minimizing the use of bolts, onto which climbers could hook, assisting them in their climb. He looked to elevate the sport of rock climbing to a noble pursuit, ensuring that climbs were done with integrity and a respect for the granite.

Harding was agitated by this. He mocked Robbins’ rules and snobbish way, referring to Robbins and his clan as the “Valley Christians.” He established the Lower Sierra Eating, Drinking, and Farcing Society, which was dedicated to gluttony and sloth.

Robbins was the first to tackle the northwest face of Half Dome. It was a multi-day climb and many wondered if he would even survive. He and a team of three climbers followed a trail of cracks up the 2000 foot wall, tethering themselves to the side of the wall at night. After five days of intense climbing, Robbins made his way to the summit, becoming a legend and receiving recognition as the best climber in the Yosemite Valley.

This didn’t sit well with Warren Harding, who decided that he’d head up the biggest wall in the valley—the 3000 foot nose of El Capitan. In an effort that took his team two years to complete, Harding used a series of fixed ropes and bolts to the make it to the top. The ropes allowed the climbers to come down at night and for longer stretches of rest. The ropes were used to haul up gear, including alcohol and a Thanksgiving turkey baked by Harding’s mother.

Everything about this climb irked the high-minded Robbins. The length of time, the ropes, the bolts, the obvious disregard for Robbins’ rules. He saw it as a slap in the face and responded in kind with a climb of his own up the nose of El Cap. Robbins scaled the wall without coming down, and without the use of the rope system. Ropes were used, but not in the same manner that Harding had utilized them. The climb reaffirmed his status as king of the climbers.

The next few years saw Robbins establish several new routes along the faces of El Cap and Half Dome. But his rivalry with Harding would include one more legendary battle.

In 1970, Harding targeted the “Wall of the Early Morning Light,” or “The Dawn Wall,” of El Capitan. Robbins had declared this wall off limits, as its blank surface would require the placement of too many bolts. Harding didn’t care.

He decided not to use fixed ropes this time, but hammered plenty of bolts into the face of El Cap. Harding and another climber didn’t come down for rest, even when a storm threatened their pursuit of the top. They clung to the wall, suspended there with jugs of wine, waiting out the storm. A crowd began to gather, assuming that the two were stuck. Park rangers initiated a rescue mission, when an empty can came tumbling down. A note was attached, written by Harding:

“A rescue is unwanted, unwarranted, and will not be accepted!”

The storm eventually passed and the men continued their ascent, reaching the top in 28 arduous days, placing 300 bolts along the way.

Harding became a national sensation, touring the country, appearing on television talk shows to discuss his feat.

Robbins, in defense of his philosophy, sensibilities, and ego, vowed to wipe away the blotches left by Harding along the Dawn Wall. With a chisel in tow, Robbins ascended the rock, chopping off the bolts as he encountered them. But something odd happened as he climbed. Rather than encountering a series of bolts mindlessly placed, Robbins found an incredibly difficult route, an inspired route, one that he could respect. Eventually he stopped removing the bolts and simply followed the path to the top.

The climb would be the last in the rivalry between golden age rock climbers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. Shortly thereafter, both would move on to other pursuits. Well, actually only Robbins did. He founded and still runs a successful outdoor clothing company that bears his name, while Harding spent his days on the front porch with his mom, drinking his red wine. He died in 2002.

Rivalries often define styles of play, but also define generations, divide friends and family, and which side you stand on says something deeper about you. Not just that you love the Celtics or you like trash-talking, socially-conscious boxers. These divides are about the fundamentals of who you are as a person. They’re fights over your soul.

But this dichotomous way of thinking is flawed. On the surface, rivals often represent something very different, but at their core, similarities emerge. Look at Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. One was white, the other black. One was reserved and the other possessed a megawatt smile. One represented blue-collar Boston and the other the flash and excess of 1980s Los Angeles. They may have played basketball differently and represented different cultures, but they both loved the sport and competition. Their fuel came from the same source. And so it was with Robbins and Harding. They approached the sport of rock climbing differently (and possibly life), but both loved it equally.

And so it is with us humans. What is often juxtaposed as a battle of extremes is often, in many ways, a battle of similarities.

“We’re insane. Can’t be any other reason.”

–Warren Harding on the motivation of rock climbers

(I do not own the photographs in use. Simply contact me if they need to be removed and I will graciously do so.)





A blast from the past: A look at the hunter-gatherer lifestyle

No matter our age, we’ve certainly heard from people older than ourselves how much better everything was in the past. I will tell my children how great the 90s were while my parents roll their eyes. Older readers probably think nothing compared to the hippie days or disco nights of the 60s or 70s. Or maybe nothing compared to young slender Elvis in the 50s.

But go too far back and we all hit the brakes. Certainly our lives are better now than they were 250 years ago. The comforts of the Middle Ages can’t beat iPads and air conditioning. We often view history, and especially the human race, as progressive. We are getting better year after year. Our advancements are thought of as improvements. Tractors drive themselves and soon cars will too. The new iPhone 7 just came out and it’s most definitely better than iPhone 6. My house is 72 degrees all the time—no matter how hot or cold it is outside! But with all of the problems of the modern world we so often discuss, why are we so dismissive of the ways of the past?

A couple of books that I’ve read recently have touched on the subject of the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer, which takes us back thousands of years, before agriculture. In Tribe, war journalist Sebastian Junger centers his focus on American soldiers’ experience with PTSD, and how social structures from hunter-gatherer tribes may help.

Junger’s thesis focuses on PTSD occurring as a result of soldiers’ disconnection from the society they serve. While overseas, soldiers live, work, and fight in smaller bands. They know each other, eat together, sleep in close proximity, and are accountable for one another. These living conditions are vastly different than modern American society, which has increasingly become centered on self. Neighbors often do not know each other, as we all focus on our work, our kids, our lives. High school students are encouraged to be thinking about their college choice, their career choice, their this and that. This focus on self creates a difficult transition for people coming from war. They lose that feeling of tribalism that is prevalent in the war zone, the feeling that was at the core of hunter-gatherer societies.

These groups were typically small and close-knit. In Sapiens (which aims to provide the arc of human history, which seems like a rather daunting task), Yuval Noah Harari writes that a person can only trust and know up to 150 people. Beyond that (and maybe below) we need structures, such as government or a managerial hierarchy. Tribes often shared in the raising of children (“it takes a village…”). They hunted together and shared the food (and their women). They provided for the sick and elderly (sometimes—other times, they were left tied to a tree to await their death). There was no need for government as the tribe members held each other accountable. A slacking member or mooch would be punished. Someone who would not share was ostracized. Today, people complain about the poor getting handouts and the rich hording money. But Junger points out that these acts were rare in a small tribe. Today in America, people break tax laws or commit Medicaid fraud because the victim—a group of over 300 million people—seems so impersonal.

Both Harari, from an evolutionary viewpoint, and Junger, from a social one, believe that we all yearn to some extent for the connectedness found in these bands. An interesting anecdote that Junger uses to illustrate this natural attraction comes from one of our own founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin noted that European settlers were leaving “civilized” life to live with Indians, but rarely did Indians join the settlers’ society.

We often have misperceptions of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle being burdened with a heavy workload because they could not depend upon machines or computers. But that was often not the case. In both books, the writers discuss the amount of leisure time afforded members of these tribes. While we are working 40+ hours per week to provide shelter and the “essentials” for a small family, hunter-gatherers often worked between 15 and 30 hours per week and spent the rest of the time playing and laughing. Even today, anthropologists studying the few hunter-gatherer tribes left on the planet remark at how much these people laugh. Their lives revolved (and still do) around relationships. Not success. Not possessions. But people.

Harari writes that contentedness is not the only benefit of such a lifestyle. While we are more intelligent as a collective society today, Harari claims that the breadth of knowledge, attention to detail, and fine motor skills possessed by individuals in hunter-gatherer bands were higher. Today, we are all so specialized, the entire labor force seemingly built like a Henry Ford factory.

While there was a high rate of infant mortality and life expectancy was not as long for these bands, they lived healthier lives. Studies of such cultures today show lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Not to gloss over all the problems with people who have or do live this way, I must point out that the incidence of being attacked by a lion and having your bones picked clean by a group of hyenas (and that’s before the vultures find your body) is/was higher in that form of society. They may not have dealt with chronic health issues but without the type of medical care we enjoy, minor infections or illnesses could send them to their graves. They often killed their young, either because they were a burden or as part of a religious ceremony. In addition, Harari points out that if one were to be ostracized, it was probably difficult to ever re-join or join another group. Life was far from perfect.

So these uncivilized, backward humans do have something to offer us. Despite my instruction, my kids will probably still remember the current time as the best time to have been alive. They’ll tell their kids about Playstations and Fitbits, mp3s and iPads.

And I’ll tell my grandkids about the great days of the 1990s—the 1990s B.C.

  1. Junger, S. (n.d.). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging
  2. Harari, Y. N. (n.d.). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.
  3. Facts and Theories. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from