Monday, June 23, 2014

Presidential Biography: Jefferson

Photo of Thomas Jefferson

While sitting under a canopy of trees in Arkansas, I finished Jon Meacham's biography of our third president entitled Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

After reading the biographies of Washington and Adams, I was left pondering: Who was the real Jefferson?  Was he Ellison's 'snake in the grass' or was he Ferling's benign politician.

Well, although Meacham never referred to Jefferson in such negative terms, he did explore Jefferson's duality.  He was probably both.

There were definitely two sides to the man.  One the idealist and the other the pragmatist.  He was the declarer of independence who enslaved others.  He was the great republican who willingly wielded executive power.  In that, he's like the rest of us who do not always act in accordance with our more noble impulses.

Whatever his faults, his talent and greatness stand with the talent and greatness of Washington and Adams.  Plus, he is infinitely more interesting.  I would love to have dined at Monticello on French food amongst the art and the books and the distinguished guests and experienced some of the Jefferson charm.

Meacham's book was my favorite presidential biography to date (including those I've read in previous years).  It was a fascinating book about a fascinating man.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Natural State

Last week, we packed up the family sedan and headed east to Arkansas.  Our destination was Devil's Den State Park.

The park was built in the late thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corp (the CCC).  We felt their presence throughout our three-day stay.

We stayed in this quaint cabin perched on a hill.  It was one of two in the park built by the CCC.  It had been modernized with air-conditioning and satellite TV, but it retained its historical vibe.

I spent hour upon hour on the little deck, catching up on my reading amidst the hickories and the oaks.  It was so cool under the leaf canopy.  Maybe it was the bat population from the den, but I was never bothered with mosquitoes even in the twilight hours.

One way the park commemorates its CCC history is with a daily four o'clock softball game.  Reportedly, the guys played baseball everyday after building dams, cabins and the like, and the park rangers organize a family softball game to maintain the tradition.  Excuse me, they're not 'rangers' anymore, they're Park Interpreters.  What?  I'm sure there is a good reason for changing a perfectly good job title, but I'm not sure what it is.

The park was full of hiking trails that provided a wonderful mix of scenery including caves, waterfalls, creeks and timber.

Besides all the natural beauties, there were manmade amenities as well,

to which we gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reading Warriors


As good parents, we encourage our kids to find their own path, their passion, that thing they love.  But, all along, we're hoping that that thing will just so happen to be the same thing we love.

For me that thing is reading and that's one of the passions I'm rooting for for my kids.

Although he'll listen to books all day, my son has always leaned a little towards the reluctant end of the reading spectrum.  He reads quite a bit, but mostly because I require it.  He does it more dutifully than enthusiastically.

There have been bursts of enthusiasm over certain books, mostly those in a series.  I remember Dav Pilkey's Ricky Ricotta books as being the first series he requested over and over


He later showed some inclination toward The Magic Treehouse series


and The Secrets of Droon.


He read these with more eagerness than usual, but those tell-tale sign of a reader in love were not there...the reading into the night, the toting of books to places books don't belong (e.g. baseball practice), the suspension of all other interests.

But this year his cousin recommended the Erin Hunter's Warriors series to him, and I began to see book-wormish signs.  From the first book, he began clamoring, begging, and wheedling for these books and was devouring them in short order.

Fire and Ice (Warriors, #2)

What?  You want another Warriors book so soon???  Sure, son, I'm happy to comply, you chip off the old block.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


I've been obsessing a little about Jeopardy! lately (I'm going to dispense with the exclamation point now).

First, there was the Battle of the Decades pitting the best against the best from the last 30 years.  For the May finals, I mostly cheered for the guys from the end of the third decade.   As a johnny-come-lately fan of the show, my personal favorites, Stephanie Jass, Keith Whitener and Kristen Morgan, were all from the 2012 season.

None of them made it to the finals, which left me cheering for the newer guys who were left--the guys I formerly loved to hate, Colby Burnett and Roger Craig.  Colby Burnett won me over when he told that he bought his mom a house with his winnings and Roger Craig won me over with his fool-hardy gutsy wagering in the finals.  Although Ken Jennings was before my time, I cheered for him most of all.  I found his Opie Taylor looks and lisp endearing.  And, of course, he has the brains.  One cannot forget the brains.

We all know how it turned out.  None of my guys won.  It was that Brad Rutter.  Ugh.  Still.  So fun to watch!

Then there was Julia Collins, the one with the second longest winning streak after Jennings, who ended her run yesterday.  It was fun to see history (Jeopardy history anyway) being made.  I watched 20 of her 21 episodes.  As the shows progressed, she didn't really make that strong of an impression because her style is rather low-key.  She's sharp but shy.  Reportedly, she was too tongue-tied to pass the auditions in a previous attempt to be a contestant.  Shy girls unite!

I'm somewhat inspired to invest in a crew neck sweater in every color in her honor (maybe a few nice necklaces too).  I was so sorry to see her streak end.  Now I have to wait for her Tournament of Champions appearance, which will hopefully end in a show-down with the other 2014 standout, the infamous Arthur Chu.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Presidential Biographies: Washington and Adams

I have half a mind to read a biography of all the U.S. Presidents.  Knowing myself, I expect to accomplish much of the goal, but since, to me, reading biographies is something of a chore, it's not likely I'll finish.  I have, however, recently read two:  His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis and John Adams: A Life by John Ferling.

Photo of George Washington

His Excellency: George Washinton

The Ellis book focused on the inner Washington.  It was more of a character study than a comprehensive story of his life.   Ellis expounded on Washington's bravery, self-possession and innate ability to lead leaving no doubt Washington was a man born for his time.  It would seem he was the ideal individual to lead the Continental Army and to serve as the first president of a fragile, new nation.

Photo of John Adams

John Adams: A Life 

Ferling's book was much more thorough.  As I read the Adam's biography, I was struck by both the contrasts and similarities between Washington and Adams.   There were, of course, physical differences--Washington was tall and muscular while Adams was short and rotund.  While relatively uneducated, Washington rose to his position because of the competency he demonstrated in leading and fighting during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.  Adams, on the other hand, was highly educated and earned his place in history primarily by sheer brain power.  As a statesman but never a soldier, Adams' weapon was his tongue.

There were many similarities as well.  Neither were instigators of revolution.  They were a little slow to come around to the idea of independence from Britain.  However, once they embraced it, both sacrificed the majority of their adult lives to the cause.  Although both ambitious, they were also men of principle who put the nation's best interests ahead of their own.

Of all I read, what leaves me pondering the most are the peripheral players in the Washington and Adams' sagas:  Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  These two are treated differently by Ellis and Ferling.  Ellis describes Thomas Jefferson as the 'original snake in the grass' (I don't have the benefit of having the book anymore, but I'm fairly certain he used those words).  He was the forerunner of today's conniving politicians using underhanded means to promote his own interests.  Ellis' treatment of Hamilton was more favorable.  He did describe him as smart, ambitious and powerful, as the key advisor to Washington, but he didn't cast him in a negative light.

Ferling, on the other hand, makes Jefferson a comparatively benign political player.  Certainly he was mentioned as John Adam's opposition in the 1800 election, and their idealogical differences were explored.  However, Thomas Jefferson was NOT portrayed as the villain by Ferling.  To Ferling, Hamilton was the villain.  He was Washington's puppet-master, he was an unprincipled blackguard, he was the reason Adams lost the second election.

The difference in treatment helps me to see that these biographies are subject to interpretation and bias.

Incidentally, David McCullough's biography of John Adams did treat Jefferson as a treacherous individual.  Although it's been several years since I read McCullough's book, I don't recall similar descriptions of Hamilton.

My interest in both Jefferson and Hamilton is definitely piqued.