A WORLD ADRIFT

BLOG #43, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A WORLD ADRIFT
October 28, 2015

Once, very long ago, we had Pax Romana, which lasted for a very long time. If you include the Eastern Byzantine Roman Empire, it lasted well over a thousand years. Then came Pax Britannica that lasted over a hundred years. It was followed by Pax Americana—it has lasted about a hundred years. But now that America has all but abdicated its role of global peace-keeper, the proverbial Pandora’s Box has been opened with a vengeance.

Up until recently, a system of global alliances, anchored by the authority and credibility of America, has helped keep the world from ripping apart. Not so today: Hardly any nation seriously believes America cares much about anyone other than itself any more. Result: Russia has stormed into Ukraine—and now Syria; America is retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan; and is permitting China to challenge it across the Pacific. The Middle East is in shambles and millions of displaced people are overrunning the nations of Europe. Europeans assumed national boundaries meant something—but when people are starving, nothing short of wholesale slaughter will stop them from their desperate search for a better life.

In history, democracies have rarely lasted longer than two centuries. Now many are wondering whether or not the same will hold true for America.

In economics, if global trust breaks down, nothing will be able to save the global economy.

If we ever needed God before, we certainly need Him now.

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Robert Barr’s “The Sword Maker”

BLOG #18, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #40
ROBERT BARR’S THE SWORD MAKER
May 6, 2015

Well, there’s always a first time for everything. Quite candidly, when I re-read Robert Barr’s A Prince of Good Fellows after an interval of over half a century, although I was pleased by the second reading, I failed to recapture my original delight. So much so that when I returned the book to my library after writing the April 1 blog (Blog #13, Series #6), I noticed another Barr title I’d evidently never read before, The Sword Maker. After scanning it, I decided to read it and see if I’d been mistaken about Barr’s writing power.

I had not. I literally could not put The Sword Maker down! Turns out it is a much more unputdownable read than was A Prince of Good Fellows. I didn’t quit reading until I reached the last page in the middle of the night. The result? Concluding that I must follow up last month’s blog by another book by the same author.

The setting is imperial Frankfort in Germany back in medieval times. I’ve always been fascinated by the hilltop castles overlooking the Rhine River, thus when I discovered Barr’s protagonist daring to pit his wits against the robber barons who from time to time brought river commerce to a halt, it was a great opportunity to learn more about that period of German history.

I will be most interested in hearing from you, seeing if or not you agree with my featuring this second Barr title.

For biographical information, please refresh your memory by re-reading the April 1 blog.

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I’m guessing that a number of you will now be interested in reading more of Barr’s novels.

Here’s a list to help you in your search.

•    In a Steamer Chair and Other Stories (1892)
•    The Face and the Mask (1894)
•    In the Midst of Alarms (1894)
•    From Whose Bourne (1896)
•    One Day is Courtship (1896)
•    Revenge! (n.d.)
•    The Strong Arm (n.d.)
•    A Woman Intervenes (1896)
•    Tekla: A Romance of Love and War (1898)
•    Jennie Baxter, Journalist (1899)
•    The Unchanging East (1900)
•    The Victors (1901)
•    Prince of Good Fellows (1902)
•    The O’Ruddy, A Romance, (with Stephen Crane) (1903)
•    The Tempestuous Petticoat (1905)
•    A Rock in the Baltic (1906)
•    The Triumphs of Eugéne Valmont (1906)
•    The Measure of the Rule (1907)
•    Stranleigh’s Millions (1909)
•    The Sword Maker (1910)
•    The Palace of Logs (1912)

* * * * *

The Sword Maker by Robert Barr (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1910).

Making Memories with Grandparents – Part 4 – Seth’s 2014 Cruise

BLOG #45, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART FOUR
SETH’S 2014 CRUISE

November 5, 2014

For two years after Taylor’s cruise, the big question was, “Is Seth even interested in mastering the geography of the world?” After all, he’d seen how much work it took for his mother and Taylor to successfully complete such a learning marathon. Furthermore, given that Seth is such an “I’m-the-boss-of-me” individualist, just because

Cezanne’s home in Aix en Provence

IMG_5321his brother did it would not by itself mean much if Seth himself wasn’t equally interested in such a challenge. And, just as was true with Taylor, not until his twelfth birthday did he give the green light to his mother.

Turns out the pace was similar. Not until we were within days of his thirteenth birthday did he clear his last hurdle. When Seth was asked what he’d most like to travel to, he was succinct: “Islands and deep blue sea!” And just as was true with Taylor, his summer sports program was so demanding that we only had a three-to-four-week window to work with; consequently, that reduced our cruise options to a rather small number. We didn’t want to book a cruise that was a carbon copy of Taylor’s because we wanted Seth to feel that there were aspects of the itinerary that were his alone.

In the end, we booked early, in order to get an advance rate, with a cancellation clause that permitted us to back out if Seth failed to complete his challenge in tine. We found a cruise on the Norwegian Spirit that played all the destination hits (from one end of the Mediterranean clear to the other).

Here is the itinerary:

July 3, 2014 – Arrive in Barcelona
July 5 – Leave Barcelona
July 6 – Toulon, Aix en Provence in France
July 7 – Liverno, Florence and Pisa
July 8 – Citavecchia, and Rome
July 9 – Naples, and the Isle of Capri
July 10 – At Sea
July 11 – Mykonos, Greece
July 12 – Istanbul, Turkey
July 13 – Ephesus
July 14 – Athens, Cape Sounion Temple of Poseidon
July 15 – At Sea
July 16 – Venice
July 17 – Return to Philadelphia

As we tested Seth, it didn’t take me long to discover that he was especially susceptible to side-trips beyond the required. In that, he reminded me of my own Grandpa Herbert Leininger, who’d always suffered from an incurable itch to find out what was on the other side of a given hill.

He even expressed his own individuality in his written response to being sent a journal with the trip’s itinerary pasted in at the front of it, and symnopses of each day-trip we had booked.

He wrote,

“Dear Grammy and Poppy,

Thank you for dedicating the last 13 years to save up to take me on a journey of a lifetime. I can’t wait until then. We will have a great time. I wonder what the hotel room on the ship will look like. There are so many things I wonder what will be like. Can’t wait to see you guys.

Love, Seth”

This time, Greg didn’t even try to surprise the new traveler. Of course, he wanted to go along. But no more cramming four people into one small stateroom; he booked an adjoining room for him, and we had Seth bunk with him. Both times, it was great to have Greg along. Of course, the whole purpose of both cruises was the opportunity, at least once in each grandson’s lifetime, to be able to give them our undivided attention. But even so, given that Greg was only one generation removed rather than two (our case), it gave both boys two generational options rather than just grandparent/grandchild.

_MG_5500St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

This time, we made the transatlantic flight without Greg, as he was flying straight to Munich in order to pick up a brand new BMW there. He later met us at the ship early afternoon of the sailing day.

It didn’t take us long to discover that Seth had three obsessions: science, art, and sports. Words too: from someplace he inherited a love for words—individualized, like Ogden Nash, in his case. Rarely a day in which he failed to coin a new word.

At Barcelona, we were lucky enough to get an early check-in, so after our long transatlantic flight we were able to crash for four hours before venturing out on Las Ramblas. Seth was particularly fascinated with the mime who was impersonating Salvador Dali, complete with long twirly mustache. That evening we played a domino game our family calls either “O’Henry” or “Ah Shucks.”

When we got to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, next day, after ten hours sleep, we had to wait in long long lines over an hour and a half just to get tickets—and then two more hours waiting to get in. It was truly amazing to see how much progress had been made in only three years. Of course, 25,000,000 people a year, each paying a hefty admission price, ought to result in progress!

Later on, I was traumatized to discover that somewhere along the way I’d dropped three sets of very expensive bus tickets. We completed the day’s activity by a visit to the great Palace of Art on the hill. Seth was especially fascinated by the Gothic and Romanesque art.

Next day, finally got into the magnificent Palace of Catalonian Music — hadn’t even been able to get in three years before.

Then, check-out, meeting Greg at the ship, and we were on our way late in the afternoon. No storms this time.

Two days later, in Florence, we lucked out with a much more effective and articulate guide than the one Taylor had lampooned three years before. I’ve discovered over the years that great guides can make a trip and poor guides wreck them.

In Rome, we braved long lines in order to get Seth into Michelangelo’s magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Next day, high up on the legendary Isle of Capri—first time ever for Connie and me—, by agreement, we separated into two groups of two. Almost disaster! Connie and Seth waited at the Clock Tower rather than the bus stop, so after waiting a time, the other bus passengers left for the fast ship back to Naples. The guide stayed with Greg and me. Finally, Greg was able to get through to Connie’s almost dead cell phone, and the guide put us on a separate bus. We just made the last ship back!

GangFormal(1) Our Formal attire for dinner one night!

Seth’s journal commentary was uniquely Seth-ish:

July 3 – “When we went through security [Philadelphia Airport] Grammy got searched because her bling-pants set off the beep.”

July 7 – Florence and Pisa – “Today was fun. It was tiring though. It took a little more than 10 hours. This was Florence too and not just Pisa. We saw 2 cities! I also got some cool pics of me and leaning tower. We had the BEST GUIDE EVER! She could actually speak English we could understand.”

July 8 – Rome -“Today we had a ninja tour guide, she kept walking away, expecting all of us to follow, leaving about 10 people behind each time…. We only had 10 minutes in the Colosseum. It shtank!”

July 9 – “Capri – O.M.G. Island with clear water. I took a chairlift to the top of the island. I’m still trying to take in the awesome view. It was so majestic.

July 11 – Mykonos – “Clear water! Yah! I went to Greece! The water was as clear as this circle. [He drew a circle]. It was pretty warm too. I stuck my foot in the water… Or accident, with my shoe on. The greek houses were sicik [sic] too, all white and blue highlights.”

July 12 – Istanbul – “Yah, another cool guide. I got 1 spinnything [a top] and we got 4 scarves for Mom and Grammy… Sheese! There was also a cool welcoming band. We went into a mosque where we had to not wear shoes and Grammy had to wear a thing on her head.”

July 13 – Ephesus – “YESSSS! [pronounced with an h sound at the end]. I slept in. Today was okay but we had the best food than the other excursions. Uncle Greg and I got lost/separated from our group, but we eventually found the group again.”

No journal entry for Athens and Venice. A pity. But Seth compensated for it on the last day of the cruise (almost every day he coins a new word): SHMECKLE – for thingees, words, or terms you can’t think of , or any word you want to substitute for.

I had earlier suggested to Seth that he’d be protective of his Grammy as there are so many pickpockets in the crowded streets. He took me at my word, and almost invariably he’d be protecting one side of her, and expecting Greg or me to cover the other. For crowd-control purposes, each bus-load of people is given in advance stickers designating which bus to board for a designated tour. Seth delighted in later planting those stickers somewhere where we wouldn’t notice them – often on our back-sides somewhere.

_MG_6098Our Sticker Boy!

All too soon, we had to bid adieu to the Norwegian Spirit in Venice; Greg flew back to Munich to pick up his BMW for a few days before having it shipped home to him, and we boarded the plane for Philadelphia.

When I asked Seth to rank his experiences, this is how he did it:

1. View from the Isle of Capri [just as Taylor fell in love with the nearby Amalfi Coast, Seth will most likely never ever forget the sight of the incredibly deep blue sea as seen from the ramparts of Capri].

2. Sagrada Familia [like Taylor before him, he was overwhelmed by the interplay of light inside—it literally takes one’s breath away].

3. Free Soft-Serve Ice Cream! [Seth gave Taylor a run for his money in his multitudinous raids on the poor ice cream machine on the ship].

4. Venice. Especially the late afternoon gondola ride.

5. Pool-side Strawberry Daiquiris. [Clearly, the boys are related!]

6. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

7. Soccer on the ship! [Everyone in Europe, it seemed, was riveted to the World Cup soccer play-offs; besides that, Seth played soccer on evenings or sea days, with other young people on the ship].

8. Pisa and Florence.

9. Beaches of Mykonos

10. Aix en Provence.

As to Seth’s post-cruise thoughts, he too has developed an apparently incurable case of travelitis. Any time we now go anywhere without him, he sulks.

* * * * *

On Nov. 12, I’ll wind up this series on grandparenting, with some last thoughts and conclusions.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.

Making memories with Grandchildren – Part 2 – Master the Geography of the World Before You are 13

BLOG #42, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART TWO
MASTER THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE WORLD
BEFORE YOU ARE THIRTEEN

October 15, 2014

The years flowed swiftly by, as years have a way of doing. I married Connie, the golden-haired love of my life; over time, we were blessed with two children: Greg and Michelle. Michelle grew up and married Duane Culmore. Two sons were born to them: Taylor and Seth (three years apart).

In today’s society, all too few intergenerational families live close to each other. Sadly, the same is true with us: our grandchildren are half a continent away from us. So we see them all too seldom. But there are no easy answers for what to do about it. In our case, Connie’s folks moved half way across the country to live near us, in Texas. Some years later, we moved away and left them there. One has to go where the jobs are.

So how could we spend quality time alone with our grandsons? Some years ago an idea came to me, born of Grandpa Leininger’s love of National Geographic maps and from my own fascination with geography and travel. We shared it with Michelle and Duane first, then with Taylor and Seth while they were still young.

Here is how we phrased it: “If you master the geography of the world before your thirteenth birthday, Poppy and Grammy will take you anywhere in the world you’d like to go.”

Well, the years rolled along and Taylor reached eleven. No apparent interest in the challenge. We began to breathe easier: there would not be big-time draining of our bank account after all. About a year later, just before Taylor’s twelfth birthday, our daughter Michelle phoned us with the news that Taylor was seriously interested in holding us to our promise. “So, Dad, how will it work? What are the requirements? We’ve only twelve months left, and Taylor will have to fit it in against school, sports, music, etc.”

I told her he’d have to know all the countries of the world, capital cities, major cities, mountain ranges, major rivers and lakes, deserts, and islands; also oceans, seas, bays, gulfs—and any unusual geographic features. She would have to be the hands-on instructor and pre-tester; only when he was ready with a country or region would Taylor phone me and the three of us would test him on it together.

And so it began. At first we waited until he’d mastered entire regions; but that proved too difficult to retain in his head, so gradually we reduced the testing areas to a more humane level. Because of his many other involvements, and Michelle’s and mine, it proved to be a long, slow process. Michelle became the taskmaster on that end. The U.S. and Canada (states and provinces too) proved relatively easy since Taylor already knew a lot about them. But after that, it got harder. Harder yet when we tackled European, Asian, and African areas of the world.

Once in a while Taylor would pleasantly surprise me: learning more about a country or region than I required of him. Michelle and Duane reported in to us that Taylor had already experienced a serendipity: when his history teacher referred to a certain Latin American country, Taylor was the only one who knew where it was. More and more, during class discussions, Taylor’s would be the lone-hand raised.

Another problem now surfaced: If Taylor didn’t master the geography of the entire world before his thirteenth birthday, he’d forfeit the promised reward. However, in order to get good booking rates, we couldn’t afford to wait. Yet another problem came in tandem: If he didn’t yet know the world, how could he then choose where he most wanted to go? We finally concluded that we’d need to rephrase the original question so it now read: “Where are three places in the world you’d like to see?” and we would select one of them and book it. Which resulted in yet another problem: Because of Taylor’s busy summer sports program, the available time-frame before school re-started provided us with only a small window of time.

One of his possible choices had to do with the South Pacific, but the time frame and distance to get there and back precluded our booking a destination there. Another two choices: central Italy and Venice worked better. So we booked a 12-day Mediterranean cruise that would feature both locales. But we didn’t tell Taylor because until and if he completed the challenge, we could still cancel the booking. To take him on the cruise without his completing the task would be a travesty and set a terrible life-precedent for him.

Meanwhile the remaining time interval was shrinking alarmingly and his progress towards his goal proved erratic. Our daughter knew she could push him only so far and so fast.

And something totally unexpected had come up: our son Greg had decided he wanted to go along! Many years earlier, when he was about Taylor’s age, I had mandated that he master the world’s geography, promising only to give him a nice reward when he finished. Well, he did complete it, and his munificent reward was only a train trip from Fort Worth to Cleburne, Texas—all of forty miles! Unbeknownst to us, Greg had been sulking about this ever since—and to add insult to injury, here we were promising a European cruise to his nephew for the same task! So, we now added Greg to our already full room in our cruise booking. But we didn’t tell Taylor for Greg wanted it to be a surprise. Naturally, we had to keep Michelle and Duane up to date—and that was tough given all the secrets involved.

The last month came, then three weeks, two weeks, and then there was only one week left—and still Taylor was not done. Needless to say, there was a lot of tension for all of us. Finally, only hours away from his birthday—Taylor tested out on the last piece in the jigsaw-puzzle of the world.

At last, we could send him a journal for him to write in during the cruise which we could now detail for him.

* * * * *

Next week: Taylor’s reward.

What Was the World Like 100 Years Ago?

BLOG #36, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHAT WAS THE WORLD LIKE
100 YEARS AGO?

September 3, 2014

In a nutshell, it was a different world from the one we live in today. In many ways, changed very little from what it had been for more than a millennium. As 1914 approached, so many things seemed to be going right for the nobility, princes and princesses, kings and queens and emperors.

Ever since Darwin, there had been the perception that the world was rapidly becoming a better place. According to evolutionary theory, it was assumed we could expect global peace in the future. As Emile Coeu famously put it, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” It was then easy to believe in the goodness of God: God would no longer permit mankind to do terrible things to each other.

Back then, England ruled the world, thus, ruling over one quarter of the globe, it was said, “The sun never sets over the British Empire.” At the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, her sway extended over half of North America, slices of Central and South America, a vast part of Africa, a whole continent in Australia, some of the richest lands in Asia (including India), plus other island possessions spread clear across the globe. It was the British sea-power that enabled it to rule over the ocean, and Britain’s merchant fleet that made Britain the greatest of all trading nations.

On the European continent, the Hohenzollern Kaisers had gradually forged such a powerful military power that the German army was perceived as being almost invincible. And now, vain, impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II worshiped the art of war. A huge naval shipbuilding program had begun in order to challenge Britain’s supremacy over the seas.

France had mostly recovered from its 1870 defeat at the hands of Germany. France now had a world-wide empire, second in size only to the British.

East was the vast land called Russia, composed of one-eighth of the land mass of the world. A proud and imperialistic nation ruled by the Romanoff czars, now Nicholas II. Nicholas, a narrow-minded aristocrat who wholeheartedly believed in the divine right of kings and was totally oblivious to the plight of his people, was incapable of handling the forces sweeping across the steppes of the empire. Politically inept, he was dependent on his strong-willed czarina, Alexandra, who was herself manipulated by the Svengalian mystic, Rasputin.

Dominating Central Europe was the far-flung Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by its beloved emperor, Franz Joseph, last of the great Hapsburg monarchs. The empire shouldn’t even have existed, yet somehow did, composed as it was of 12,000,000 Germans, 10,000,000 Magyars [Hungarians], 6,000,000 Czechs, 5,000,000 Poles, 4,000,000 Ukrainians, 3,700,000 Serbs and Croats, 3,300,000 Rumanians, 2,500,000 Slovaks, 1,300,000 Slovenes, and 800,000 Italians. But all those diverse peoples remained a unit mainly because of the respect they had for the emperor. In reality, it was just one big powder keg waiting to explode. And Franz Joseph was old.

Then there was the increasingly formidable Japanese Empire. To the north, Japan annexed the Kuriles; to the south and east, the Ryukyus, the Bonins, the Volcanoes, and Marcus Island. After its victorious war against China in 1894-95, the Japanese annexed Taiwan and the Pescadores; and Korea became a vassal. In 1904, Japan had an epic showdown with Russia, and won. Nicholas II never recovered from that ignominious disaster. So now, Japan was spoiling for a fight in order to acquire even more territory.

Thus the western world was ruled from five great cities: London, Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris. Most all the European royal houses had intermarried to the extent that they were all cousins.

It is fascinating to read eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction. The protagonists, the heroes and heroines of that age were invariably royal, among the nobility, or aristocratic. In America, it seemed every girl yearned to marry a prince, duke, earl, count, or lord. And many did just that. Reason being that the European aristocracy and nobility, due to their frivolous and lavish lifestyles, were almost always in debt: desperately needing money. Since there were plenty of rich Americans who had lots of money, and would gladly pawn off their daughters to the highest bidder, Americans bought their way into European high society. That most of those marriages had nothing to do with love, yoking title to money, more often than not, they proved disastrous.

It would not be until the end of World War I, and the resulting doom of royal supremacy, that fictional heroes and heroines shifted away in the direction of media, entertainers, and sports protagonists, such as we see today.

The tragedy of 1914 was that, in reality, no one deep down really wanted war. Times were good. Sidewalk cafes were full. Monarchies were becoming ever more democratic, the middle class was increasingly prosperous, education was becoming more and more accessible to all, European tours were something more and more people wanted to take. In most cases the populace would rather have the ruler they had (the devil they knew) than the ruler they didn’t know (the devil they didn’t know).

Then came June 28, 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, Serbia, on a state visit, was assassinated.

And the world exploded into war . . . and has never been the same since.

References: The Five Worlds of Our Lives (New York: Newsweek, Inc., 1961).

WHY SHOULD WE TAKE VACATIONS?

BLOG #34, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHY SHOULD WE TAKE VACATIONS?
August 20, 2014

Why indeed?

This was the question Washington Post columnist Brigid Schulte tackled in her August 10 column in The Denver Post.

Schulte notes that “We Americans work hard. Weekends are more like workends. We sleep with our smart phones. And we think vacations are for wimps. So we don’t take them. Or take work along with us if we do.”

We are indeed a nation of workaholics. Indeed we are the only advanced economy with no national vacation policy. One in four workers, typically in low-wage jobs, have no paid vacation at all. Those who do, get, on the average, only ten to fourteen days a year. Europeans enjoy twenty to thirty days of paid vacation every year.

Terry Hartig, an environmental psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, maintains that “when people go on a relaxing vacation, they tend to return happier and more relaxed. . . . And those mellow, good vibes spread like “a contagion’ to everyone you come in contact with. . . . Send everyone away on vacation at the same time [as is true in Europe], and that contagion takes off through the population like a viral happiness pandemic.”

Hartig and his colleagues conducted a major study based on the incidence of anti-depressant prescriptions in Sweden during the years 1993 through 2005. They discovered that the more people took vacations at the same time, the more prescriptions dropped exponentially. True for men, women, workers, and retirees. Since 1977, Swedish law has mandated that every worker must be given five weeks of paid vacation each year (and they may take four of them during summer months. “The benefits,” maintains Hartig, “are huge. Not only is the society measurably happier, but workers are more rested and productive, relationships are closer and people are healthier. And depression is a very costly disease.”

Depression alone costs the U.S. economy an estimated $23 billion a year in lost productivity.

* * * * *

We were not created to run non-stop, but rather to take time off from work at least once a week. Scripture mandates Sabbaths during which we may regenerate. Longer Sabbaths were also mandated periodically. Multiple studies have confirmed one universal truth: Those who work non-stop soon reach the point of diminishing returns. The more hours they put in on the job the less effective they are, the staler their ideas are. So employers who work their employees to death end up losing even more than their employees do.

Furthermore, unless you frequently get out of your workplace squirrel cage, you never gain fresh ideas at all, but merely recycle increasingly outdated concepts and methods.

So back to Hartig who notes that, in Sweden, “It’s like there’s this national agreement that it’s vacation time, and work will be left aside. So instead of working and being distracted and busy, people get outside. They do things they like and enjoy. They see friends, visit their aging parents, or finally have time for that cup of tea with a friend who has been blue.”

* * * * *

America continues to pay a terrible price for our workaholocism. The current epidemic of depression and suicides ought to be a wake-up call for us.

We must take time to live!

Dr. Joe’s Book Club – Laurence Bergreen’s “Over the Edge of the World”

BLOG #22, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB
LAURENCE BERGREEN’S OVER THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
May 28, 014

 

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Recently, while we were visiting my sister Marjorie and her husband, Elmer Raymond in Red Bluff, California, Elmer asked if I’d yet read Bergreen’s landmark biography of Ferdinand Magellan. I had not so he loaned his copy to me. All the way back to Colorado, on Amtrak, I continued reading it. By the end, I knew it had to be my next Book of the Month selection.

The book is a biography, true; but much more than just a biography, it is the story of one of the greatest and most daring adventures in the history of this planet. If you’ve ever wished to cut your teeth on a book guaranteed to stretch your mind, this would be it.

Thirty years that doubled the size of the known world! It boggles the mind just to imagine such a thing. It is true that supposedly Scandinavian mariners had reached Labrador in 986 and 1000, but few people were aware of it. Many considered such a voyage to merely be a myth.

It was the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks that dramatically shifted the western world’s attention in a totally different direction. For now, the Turks controlled the land and sea routes to the East. There was then no consensus that the world was a sphere. The great land mass of Europe and Asia constituted, with Mediterranean Africa, the known world. But then, note what happened! Two nations: Portugal and Spain were to dominate the doubling of the known world in just a few short years, at the then fastest sea-speed known to man, sail-driven caravels and galleons.

Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator inaugurated the commercial revolution that was to transform the map of the globe. Spain came late to the game. Not until 1479, with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella did Spain even become a state. Even then, it took their conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492 to enable Isabella to send Christopher Columbus on his voyage, seeking a sea route to the Indies. Columbus landed on Watling Island in the Bahamas on October 12 of 1492; he discovered Cuba on October 18; on December 25, his flagship, the Santa Maria was sunk in Haitian waters [it has been in the news during the last couple of weeks–apparently its wreckage has finally been found]! During his four voyages to what he mistakenly assumed to be part of the Indies, Columbus also discovered Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Dominica, the Orinoco River, Honduras, and Panama. Had he only known it, when he was on the Panamanian east coast, he was only 40 miles from discovering the Pacific Ocean, the vastest ocean on earth, that Christmas of 1502. He died in 1506, still not knowing just what it was he had discovered.

In 1513, Nuñez de Balboa discovered a new ocean, which he called the “South Sea” (the Pacific).

In 1497, King Manuel of Portugal, jealous of the honors and wealth that Columbus was bringing to Spain, commissioned Vasco de Gama to find a sea route to India (at that time no one had any idea just how huge Africa was). Mariners for centuries had been too terrified of the unknown to venture south of Africa’s big hump. Forced by storms to take a circuitous route, the 28-year-old captain took 137 days, voyaging some 5,000 miles, to reach the Cape of Good Hope. It would take him 178 more days, and 4,500 more miles to reach Calicut on the Malabar Coast, where he anchored on May 20, 1498. Finally, the Portugese had found a route to India to replace the land routes through Arabia and Persia.

Proud of having finally reached the real India while the Spanish navigators were still stumbling around the Caribbean, Portugal hadn’t given a thought to the world west of them. But in 1500, Portugese navigator Pedro Cabral, driven far off the coast of Africa by a terrific storm, found himself on the coast of Brazil. Two years later, Amerigo Vespucci arrived at the conclusion that South America was actually a continent–not part of India.

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Enter Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 1521). In 1495, he entered the service of Manuel “the Fortunate,” King of Portugal. He spent his early years sailing under Portugese captains such as de Almeida, in the islands of the Indies. The object of their search was the legendary Spice Islands (the Moluccas), which they finally reached in 1511. In 1513, he was wounded in Morocco. Afterwards, having fallen out of favor with King Manuel, Magellan renounced his Portugese citizenship and offered his services to Charles V” of Spain. He announced his desire to seek out a western route to the Spice Islands by sailing around South America, hopefully discovering a strait through which his ships could traverse. On August 10, 1519, Magellan left Seville with a fleet of five vessels. Little did he know what lay ahead! Of those five ships, only one of them would return after circumnavigating the globe, for the first time in human history.

Magellan himself would be killed, after unbelievable hardships, complete with mutinies, desertions, loss of ships, and epidemics of scurvy that decimated his mariners. In those days, no one knew what caused scurvy or how to cure it. As fate would have it, he’d be killed in the Moluccas, the Spice Islands he’d already explored back in 1511. He’d also escaped being murdered by the express directive of the King of Portugal who was willing to kill the explorer rather than have him complete the first circumnavigation of the globe. Even after Magellan’s death, the Portugese did the utmost within their power to keep any of Magellan’s mariners from making it back to Spain alive. On September 8, 1522, three and a half years after leaving Seville, only eighteen of the original 280 mariners arrived back in Spain, more dead than alive, in a crippled ship that barely made it into port. They had traveled over 60,000 miles (the equivalent of over two and a half times around the world!).

Fortunately for Magellan’s memory, aboard that one battered little ship was Antonio Pigatetta, the indefatigable chronicler of the expedition; it would be his incredibly detailed chronicles of the epic voyage, published in Venice twenty years later, that would set the record straight, for Charles V cared only for the vast treasure in spices that came home with the eighteen survivors–didn’t even give a passing thought to Magellan’s giving his life on behalf of him and his realm.

By making it into the harbor, by that act, Spain displaced Portugal as the world’s premier maritime power, Magellan proved that the world was a sphere and much much larger than anyone had ever dreamed of, that it was possible to circumnavigate the entire globe, and that the known world had in that moment – doubled.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Magellan’s name has never received its due recognition in general history. It ranks with those of Columbus, Marco Polo, and Henry the Navigator. The circumnavigation of the globe is as great an event as the discovery of America. Magellan achieved what Columbus planned–the linking of west Europe with Asia by direct transit over the western ocean.”

* * * * *

With all this as a preamble, you ought to be ready to pounce on a copy of the book, sit down, and get ready for one of the greatest reads of your lifetime.

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen (New York: William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2003). It has now been published in trade paper; in fact it is already in its 13th trade paper printing.

A NEW “LOST GENERATION”?

BLOG #40, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A NEW “LOST GENERATION”?
October 2, 2013

The most famous “Lost Generation” was the post-World War I generation who came of age in the war and Jazz Age that followed. The term was coined in a letter Gertrude Stein wrote to Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway then incorporated it into his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, that captures the attitudes and life style of the hard-drinking, fast-living, hedonistic, and disillusioned young expatriates living in Paris (authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, e. e.. cummings, Archibald Mac Leish, Hart Crane, and others).

These writers considered themselves lost because the unbelievably brutal so-called “Great War” had stripped them of their illusions, turned them away from religion and spiritual values, and left them in a twilight world in which nothing made sense. Not surprisingly, it segued into theater of the absurd writers such as Pinter, Ionesco, Brecht, and Beckett, who wrote plays in which little or nothing made much sense.

On the front page of the weekend Wall Street Journal (September 14, 15), was a jolting article by Ben Casselman and Marcus Walker titled “Help Wanted: Struggles of a Lost Generation.”

In it, the writers postulate that the economic meltdown of the last five years has created a group of young people who have come of age during the most prolonged period of economic distress since the Great Depression. Only this time, unlike the earlier “Lost Generation,” today’s young people are lost because the economic underpinnings they assumed their education prepared them for, are no longer there now that they have graduated and are looking for such jobs.

They are worse off in another respect: they are saddled with student loans that, in good times, they could gradually pay off, but in bad times (think no job at all, minimum wage, or part-time jobs), they don’t see how they can ever pay them off! The writers note that the unemployment rate for Americans under the age of 25 is two and a half times higher than the rate for those 25 or older. But even that rate ignores the hundreds of thousands of young people who are going back to college, enrolling in training programs, or just sitting on the sidelines.

The writers, backed up by Pew Research studies, feel that today’s young people are likely to suffer long-term consequences for their current inability to get full-time decent-paying jobs: “Economic research has shown that the first few years after college plays an outside role in determining workers’ career trajectories: about two-thirds of wage growth, on average, comes in the first ten years of a person’s career. In weak economic times, graduates are likely accept lower wages and work for smaller companies with fewer opportunities for advancement. And in many cases, they never move off that second-tier track.”

They also note that our weak economy is leading to potentially seismic societal changes: “An
entire generation is putting off the rituals of early adulthood: moving away, getting married, buying a home and having children.” 56% of 18-24-year-olds are living with their parents.

In earlier times, young people could at least look forward to a strong recovery, however all the current projections are for a long weak economic recovery, and by the time it finally does happen, the bloom will long since have been gone from the degrees of untold thousands of young people caught in the backwash of today’s global fiscal collapse.

In Europe, it is even worse today for this age-group: “Over 23% of the European Union’s workforce under age 25 is unemployed, and youth jobless rates in the worse-hit European countries approaches 60%.”

* * * * *

Although Casselman and Walker’s economic study contains plenty of doom and gloom, it appears to me it is nowhere near as bad as the generation that graduated in 1929 and had to face the Great Depression when things were so bad life could be summed up in that generation’s six-liner: “Brother, can you spare a dime?” (A dime could get you a simple meal back then.)

Perhaps we shall need to re-evaluate the entire educational construct. With four years of college now costing $100,000 – $200,000, it may be necessary to come up with an entirely new method of preparing our youth for their adult life and careers.

A Trembling World, Part Two

 A TREMBLING WORLD
 Part Two

 WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In earlier blogs, I have referred to my own fascination with the turning of zeroes, how every fin de siecle results in a fruit basket-upset of all the values by which society lives.

Well, the last eleven years have proved that my assumption remains valid.  Almost nothing is the same as it was back in the 1990’s.

For one thing, never before has our planet been more interconnected, with national borders meaning less than today.  The world wide web has nailed the lid on that old order.  Thanks to this web, dictatorships are falling like so many dominoes in the Middle East.  But what takes their place is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the supreme question is this: Is democracy possible in the Muslim World?  Or does the theocratic nature of Islam preclude the establishment of a true democracy.  As I write these words, thoughtful Egyptians are extremely apprehensive about what may follow Mubarak.  No one knows if Tunisia is capable of establishing a free society.  The same is true of Libya.  Turkey has been tilting backwards from a secular free society towards theocratic governance.

What we do know is that all across the Middle East there is a yearning for the freedoms we westerners take for granted.

STAGGERING TOWARDS A NEW TEMPLATE

What is coming at us, no one knows.  All we know is that there are ominously deep cracks in the old one.  According to famed economist, Kenneth Rogoff, “Europe and the U.S. are not experiencing a typical recession or even a double-dip Great Recession. That problem can ultimately be corrected with the right mix of conventional policy tools like quantitative easing and massive bailouts.  Rather, the West is going through something much more profound: a second Great Contraction of growth, the first being the period after the Great Depression.  It is a slow-or no-growth waltz that plays out not over months but over many years. [Quoted by Rana Foroohar, in “The Decline and Fall of Europe (and maybe the West),” Time, August 22, 2011].

In the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, what is desperately needed is not politicians but statesmen: men and women who put the good of their country over mere re-election.  In times like these, weakness at the top will inevitably prove fatal.  Not a temporizing Chamberlain but a Washington, a Lincoln, a TR or FDR—a Winston Churchill.  This is why so many current “leaders” are going to be “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” (See William Broyles “Oval Office Appeaser” (Newsweek, Aug. 22, 29, 2011).

Foroohar is anything but optimistic in her analysis: “The euro is the only viable alternative to the dollar as a global reserve currency.  The British pound is history, and emerging-market currencies are still too small, volatile and controlled.  And while plenty of investors are fleeing into gold, the world gold market isn’t big enough to accommodate serious dollar diversification without massive inflation in gold itself. . . .  It is unclear at this stage whether the euro will even survive the debt crisis that has engulfed Europe, one that is in many ways worse than the one we’re experiencing in the U.S.”

So, will Germany be the white horse that rides to Europe’s rescue” Foroohar is doubtful: “Even in good times, it is never easy to balance the fiscal needs of a high-cost exporter like Germany with those of cheap and cheerful service economies like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.  In bad times, it’s impossible.”

What about the U.S., are we likely to be the white horse again like we were after World Wars I and II?  Foroohar’s assessment of that likelihood is bleak: “both Europe and the U.S. will continue to struggle with the crisis of the old order.  Populations will have to come to terms with no longer being able to afford the public services they want.  Investors will have to cope with a world in which AAA assets aren’t what they used to be.  Businesses will deal with stagnating demand, and workers will face flat wages and high unemployment. . . .  It’s the end of an era in which the West and western ideas of how to create prosperity succeeded.  The crisis in Europe and the challenges yet to come on either side of the Atlantic take us into a whole new era.”

So, with Japan still reeling in the East, does that leave China as the answer?  Not likely.  China’s current growth rate of 8% will inevitably stall, and ominously its people are pouring billions into a housing bubble that may be even worse than those experienced by Japan and the U.S. (See Niall Ferguson’s “Gloating China, Hidden Problems,” Newsweek, August 22, 29, 2011).

So what are our options?

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss some of them.

A Trembling World

A TREMBLING WORLD
Part One

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In early August, our grandson Taylor and our son Greg, joined Connie and me on a whirlwind visit to Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Vatican City, and Croatia. The day-trips were long (9 – 11 hours the norm for most of them) and the pace far faster than we’d have preferred [more on that in a later blog series].

I had the advantage over the other three in that I knew Spanish. Because of that, I understood some French and two-thirds of the Italian dialogue. Croatian, of course, was a different story.

Connie and I had been to Europe three times before. This time, however, the mood there was radically different from what it had been earlier. Gone was the assumption that united Europe (the Common Market) was a global powerhouse on a par with the United States and (during the 1970s, U.S.S.R.). Not so this time. As one Italian told me, “I am frightened, for the whole world is trembling beneath my feet.”

I found that perception reinforced by others I spoke with. Gone is their erstwhile euphoria and smug complacency; gone too the unspoken assumptions that the entire continent would bask in lolling on their beaches during the entire month of August and that the cradle-to-the-grave care they’d been promised by the state was a given. In their daily news, the dominoes continue to fall: first Greece, then storm clouds gathered over the likes of the U.K., Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy—and now, possibly France. No one knows what nation’s economy will come under fire next.

As for the U.S. and our part in the global fiscal mess, I found that, rather than anger they felt disillusioned, accompanied by a profound loss of respect. They clearly expected much more of us than for our administration and Congress to put their possible re-election ahead of the needs of the American people and the world. For it was our inexcusable unwillingness to come together for a solution to our national debt ceiling that has exacerbated and even precipitated the world-wide plunge of stock markets.

In this vein, deeply sobering is Time Magazine’s August 22 cover story: “The Decline and Fall of Europe (And Maybe the West).” It begins with these riveting words: “Its economic union is unraveling, London is ablaze, and the continent’s once dependable trading partner the U.S. is too feeble to save the day or the euro. Say goodbye to the old order.”

Rana Forgohar (the writer of the cover story) postulates that “This is no blip but a crisis of the old order. . . . It is a crisis that is shaking not only markets, jobs and national growth prospects but an entire way of thinking about how the world works–in this case, the assumption that life gets better and opportunities richer for each successive generation in the West.”

Dominic Sandbrook in his “Capitalism in Crisis (London Daily Mail, Aug. 6, 2011) begins his sobering essay with his conclusion: “Eighty years ago, a banking collapse devastated Europe, triggering war. Today, faith in free markets is faltering again. . . . But in the summer of 2011, with the euro zone in chaos, the British economy stagnant and the U.S. crippled by debt, with social mobility at a standstill and millions of ordinary families squeezed until they can barely breathe, it feels disturbingly familiar.”

Sandbrook goes on to point out that not since the global meltdown of the 1930’s has the gap between rich and poor been as great as today; “with bankers still pocketing gigantic bonuses and Europe swept with a wave of austerity, even the Right are beginning to wonder whether the system is intolerably loaded in favour of rich metropolitan elites.”

And what happened next eighty years ago? In Sandbrook’s words: “Many turned to the Right, swelling the rank of the Nazis and their allies. In Britain, a generation of intellectuals turned their backs on capitalism, placing their faith in the utopian idealism of Soviet Communism and closing their eyes to the horrors of Stalin’s barbaric regime.”

In that same issue of the Daily Mail, City Editor Alex Brummer penned these scathing lines: “There has been a terrible failure of politics in America and euroland, where leaders have shied away from bold decisions and the gritty determination needed to follow them through. Those who will suffer the most from this inaction are millions of households in Britain and the rest of the western world, who face dramatic falls in their living standards.”

Truly, we are faced with a global crisis of epic proportions, a subject I have referred to from time to time in earlier blogs: That no global template lasts. Sooner or later it wears out, and something entirely different inevitably follows—usually after years of world-wide trauma and upheaval.

We will continue to explore this subject in next Wednesday’s blog.