Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Travels of Marco Polo

I was never a big fan of water as a kid.  I took swimming lessons a couple times and knew how to keep myself above water (more or less: treading water was always difficult for me), but I really didn’t enjoy being in the pool too much.  As a teenager and in college, I had fun playing water basketball, which was always understood to be a no-holds-barred version of water polo with a basketball hoop hanging over the water.  No matter if it was a young men’s activity or a get-together with friends (even in a co-ed setting), it was a brutal, but fun, game.  Since I was so adverse to the water as a kid, I never played the childhood pool favorite, Marco Polo, ostensibly named for the XIII-century explorer (Wikipedia claims the game is not connected, but that honestly seems a bit daft).  I never read his famous and influential book as a kid, either, but as I’ve come to be more interested in the world’s classics, I thought I’d give it a try.

Book cover.The Travels of Marco Polo translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN: 978-0-14-044057-7) is the famous and influential (Columbus was inspired by reading Polo’s account of his travels) tale of travel and adventure that is really quite ethnographic in nature.  There is no authoritative version of the book since there are over 150 extant manuscripts, and there are many significant differences.  Latham, a Polo scholar, did this translation in 1958 and worked to meld the major manuscripts together, giving the reader a very complete view of Polo’s travels.  The focus of Polo’s account is his time in the court of the Mongolian khans, but he discusses his time in what is now Turkey, Iran, Burma, China, Sumatra, India, and Arabia.  The descriptions of the people and places are often quite detailed, especially when it comes to court life.  Commoners’ lives aren’t given the same level of detail, but the major industries and agricultural pursuits of each region are listed, along with general religious customs, and usually a note or two about interesting flora, fauna, and cultural customs (for instance, sharing wives seems to have been a thing in more than one Asian culture 700 years ago).  Polo talked about the spread of Christianity.  He talked about various technologies, shipping methods, and Oriental warfare.  He always took time to describe the local take on alcohol.  He also relayed tales of the supernatural and used interesting words, like “unicorn” (argued by some scholars to mean “rhinoceros”) that renders some of the description of the travels rather hard to believe.

Although tough at times because of archaic language and downright lies in some places (i.e., men with tails or people who look like dogs or the ability of some of the natives to conjure up storms to defeat their enemies), the book is an enjoyable read and the general idea of the work is considered by most scholars to be true.  A lot of what is written in the book is true, and more of it is based on truth, leaving only the really crazy stuff to be outright lies.  It was interesting to read the accounts of ancient peoples, places, customs, and religions.  It reminded me of my time in Russia as a missionary and my first visit to the Czech Republic, both instances of my own travel where I kept a journal, often detailing the things I saw around me that were new to me.  Polo likely did the same, and it’s quite important that he and others did, since such records provided knowledge and inspiration for others.

Creative Commons License
This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Original Argument

Politics and history seem to have always interested me.  I’m not sure when or how that interest began.  My guess is that it has something to do with reading the newspaper as a kid.  To be honest, the comics were the main draw, back when they had two full pages and each strip was printed at a size that didn’t require a magnifying glass to read the print.  Classics like Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side are what I cut my teeth on.  To get there, though, since they were in the C section of the Deseret News, one had to work one’s way through the national, state, and local news, including the editorial pages.  I read a lot of the stories.  I am sure that I also heard my parents discussing elections and politics.  We had this Dodge minivan as a kid, and I usually sat on the middle seat behind the driver.  Back in the day when rear seats only had a lap belt, though, I would often extend it pretty much as far as it would go so I could sit on the edge of the seat, thereby having my head right up with the front seats, where I could hear my parents’ discussions.  I learned a lot and probably said plenty of dumb things (and now think that those conversations and my parents’ willingness to let me be a fly on the wall are something I could learn from as my own kids get to those same ages).  As for history, it has really just been inherently interesting, but things like war, exploration, and rebellion capture the mind of a young boy.  It was always easy to put myself in the place of the famous patriots fighting the British or as a Union supporter and an abolitionist.  Reading the news and wanting to understand politics showed me early on how history is necessary to understanding the situations we face today.

Book cover.In The Original Argument: The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century by Glenn Beck with Joshua Charles (ISBN: 978-1-4516-5061-7), an attempt is made at making history more accessible to the modern reader.  The book is essentially a translation of the majority of the famous Federalist Papers from the archaic language of the XVIII century to more en vogue English.  It’s still very high-level stuff, but it is simplified.  A good comparison might be a King James Bible and a New English Bible.  Glenn Beck has inserted some explanatory material at the beginning of each section (the papers are not presented chronologically, but in groups based on their major theme(s)) and in an infobox-like page for each paper.  The Federalist Papers were written, mostly by Alexander Hamilton, but also by James Madison and John Jay, in an effort to support the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which provided for a stronger central (federal) government than what the Articles of Confederation had.  They are considered to be invaluable because of the insight they provide into just what the Founding Fathers thought when they wrote the Constitution. 

The book was a great read, although not something that was necessarily easy to get through.  The reader’s brain really must be fully engaged to get through the argumentation of the concepts that were so basic to America’s beginnings.  It’s really a book that one studies more than simply reads.  The commentary was interesting, but, for me, quite secondary to actual text of the papers.  I checked on a few occasions how closely what I was reading aligned with the originals, and it seemed to be good, but there is no way I can guarantee that for the entire, rather thick, book.  I thought the principles behind the Constitution were brilliantly argued.  As I read, there were a couple instances where I didn’t think I agreed, but there were plenty of those for the people in the U.S. at the time, so I am really no different.  Many of those who were in favor of the Constitution had reservations, but they recognized that it was as close as it was going to get to being perfect and did provide a solid, inspired foundation for our country.  In the vast majority of cases, I agreed with the arguments.  It was interesting to note, though, how different the Founding Fathers’ vision of government was from what we have now.  The federal government’s roles and powers were severely limited.  National-level bureaucracies like the Department of Education, the Social Security Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency were not part of the plan.  The Founders abhorred taxes.  They recognized them as a necessary evil to pay for the recognized powers of the government, but otherwise they hated taxes.  They were religious men, who recognized the hand of God in our affairs (and those few who weren’t had no problem with those who were expressing those views and living according to their consciouses, even in the public arena).  They valued the rights of local governments.  Most people at that time saw themselves as citizens of their states first and citizens of America second.  That local government was perceived, rightfully so, as more responsive to the voters, so the Founders saw that as where more governmental powers should be.  It was all written in plain English, and even though these kinds of updated-language books really just make me want to go back to the originals, I thought the book provided a very clear idea of the way the writers of the Constitution thought.  Were people in better tune with these ideas from history, I think, some of today’s political questions might not be so big and today’s politically driven contention might not be so intense.

Creative Commons License
This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

Visions of Freedom

Growing up as a Mormon in Utah, especially back before the advent of what are often called in Mormon culture “small temples,” the Salt Lake Temple reigns supreme.  It is photographed endlessly.  It is the crown jewel of Temple Square even though most visitors cannot enter it.  It is the subject of both the state’s and the Church’s history and the stories that involve the Salt Lake Temple intertwine the two.  As a result of that situation, some of the state’s other temples are a bit lesser known to the general populace, myself included.  The fact that I always have to stop and think and remind myself that the St. George Temple was the Church’s third temple, not the Salt Lake Temple, proves that point.  I first heard, from my parents during a visit to Southern Utah as a kid, that the Founding Fathers appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple.  The story was amazing and one I always remembered.

Book cover.Visions of Freedom: Wilford Woodruff and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence by Michael de Groote and Ronald L. Fox (ISBN: 978-1-60861-227-7) is a book about Wilford Woodruff’s visions (he had two of them on this subject) and the men that appeared to him.  The first part of the book discusses the history behind modern vicarious ordinances in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (anciently, the Bible contains one passage discussing baptism for the dead, and scholarly literature discusses a few others).  The next major theme of the book is how Wilford Woodruff’s preaching about his visions and the work he did in the St. George Temple for the men who appeared to him, as well as for some other famous people throughout history, changed, to a significant degree, the Mormon outlook on work for the dead in the temple.  Before President Woodruff’s visions, the vast majority of temple work was done only for ancestors or very close friends.  What that meant was that once a person had traced his genealogy as far as he could, he didn’t have much of a reason to attend the temple.  President Woodruff’s work for the Founding Fathers and others taught that temple work was necessary for all who had ever lived, which also gave faithful saints a reason to come to the temple again and again.  The majority of the book, though, consists of short biographies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Each signer gets at least one page, although most have more than that.  There are some appendices that discuss the actual temple work and various accounts of President Woodruff’s visions.

I am not normally attracted to reading about Church history.  The history of the United States fascinates me.  I’m sure this overlap helped this book be of interest, but I think it had more to do with the fact that the story was one that was of interest to me as a kid.  I found the discussion of baptisms for the dead in the early Church quite intriguing.  What I missed in the discussion of Wilford Woodruff’s dream was the actual sermons in which he talked about it.  I found them, later, in the appendices.  I thought that was an unnatural place for them.  They should’ve been front and center.  Finally, the biographies were interesting.  They were just snippets and, usually, not very long, providing highlights of government service and the thoughts of other Founding Fathers on the person in question.  I enjoyed learning about how they came to be involved in the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Many of them were what would be called “flip-floppers” in today’s toxic political environment (although maybe not necessarily since that term, at its purest, refers to those who change positions for political expediency, not because of any deeply held personal belief).  Many were British supporters until things just got too out of hand (it was almost always taxes that bothered them, but property rights and religion played a role, too).  The wide cross section of society was interesting, too.  Most of the signers were from the upper or upper middle class.  Not all, though.  There were guys who had worked their way up from being the apprentices of tradesmen to being judges.  There were merchants, clergymen, lawyers, and others.  What they had in common was a desire for themselves and their fellow countrymen to be free.  The book typically pointed out when one of the signers owned slaves or not.  This is a fascination that modern history has, but I thought it was dealt with admirably by the authors, who noted, at the end, that, unfortunately, many of our Founding Fathers were slave owners, but that was a burning issue then, and most of those who owned slaves struggled with it, later freeing some or all of their slaves or helping to write laws that hampered the slave trade in the U.S., but the important thing was that the founding documents (many signed not just the Declaration, but the Constitution as well) made it possible to later eliminate slavery in America.  Ultimately, that’s why they came to President Woodruff: they wanted to be free, free from spiritual prison in the afterlife.  It was an interesting historical and theological read that made me think about my amazing national heritage as well as my testimony in a loving God that has provided a way for all men to return to him and experience salvation.

Creative Commons License
This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Dream Team

I was always a basketball fan as a kid — admittedly, more as something I enjoyed playing than watching — and I was always a fan of the Olympics.  When it started to be rumored that American professional players would be allowed to compete in the Barcelona Olympics, my imagination was definitely captured.  There was an incredible amount of speculation as to just who would play.  As I recall, Michael Jordan was the only automatic selection, but as a Utah Jazz fan, I was sure — and later proven right — that Karl Malone and John Stockton would be on what was labeled as the Dream Team.  Dream Team it was, and they were incredibly fun to watch as they dominated any and all competition in the Olympics in Barcelona.

Book cover.Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever (ISBN: 978-0-345-52050-0) by Jack McCallum takes a pretty in-depth look at that most famous of basketball teams.  The book goes into a lot of detail about how it even came about that the pros were allowed in the Olympics.  It was a long, drawn-out process that involved FIBA, the USOC, and the NBA.  Once all the egos involved in such organizations were sorted to an acceptable degree, the path was open, and the U.S. got to work putting the Dream Team together.  McCallum, who was an NBA writer for a long time, chronicles how each member of the team was selected.  He profiles them, some briefly, some in great detail.  The qualifying tournament and the Olympics themselves are also described, with the Olympics, obviously, getting more attention even though the games had similar outcomes: blowouts.  Since there is so much spectacle that attends the Olympics, and the Dream Team only compounded this effect, there was a bit more to cover.  The book finishes with a short section on how the Dream Team had a large impact on the the global game of basketball and talks about the mess that were the next to U.S. Olympic teams.

As a basketball and Olympic fan, the book was a fun read.  I think I wish I had paid more attention to the subtitle since the book definitely concentrated on Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley.  The first three are some of the greatest players ever, with Jordan being the greatest player ever.  Barkley is a larger-than-life personality and, I got the impression, easy to write about.  So, it was interesting to read about them, but there just wasn’t much about my real basketball idols, Stockton and Malone, nor really about the other six players on the team.  I enjoyed reading about what Jordan called the best basketball game he’s ever played in, which was a five-on-five scrimmage right before the Olympics started where the skills and driven, competitive personalities of the superstars were pitted against each other.  The discussions of the background behind the team was quite interesting.  I was, of course, impressed with Stockton’s approach to playing: it was an honor to be selected and who wouldn’t play for one’s country?  The final negative was that there was more R-rated language than I would’ve like to have read.

Creative Commons License
This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Contract

I’ve been a BYU basketball fan as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid, the season was a little shorter and there were hardly any games on TV.  Most of my early memories of BYU basketball were generated by listening to the radio.  Paul James, whom my dad seemed to really dislike, was the play-by-play guy.  In my early teenage years, guys like Gary Trost and Russell Larson were among my basketball idols.  While a student at BYU, I attended a number of games in the Marriott Center and loved watching future NBA player Travis Hansen who brought some athleticism and passion to BYU’s team, something that, admittedly, it sometimes lacks.  Jimmer Fredette, though, was a whole different level, even though I remember the first time I saw him on the court thinking, “Oh boy, another wimpy white guy that will bring nothing but embarrassment to BYU basketball.”

Book cover.The Contract: The Journey of Jimmer Fredette from the Playground to the Pros by Pat Forde (ISBN: 978-1-60907-140-0) is essentially the story of how Fredette overcame naysayers like myself throughout his life and achieved one of the lofty goals he has set for himself in his life by making it from a backwater in New York to the NBA.  The book draws its name from the highly publicized contract that Fredette signed with his older brother, TJ, pledging that he would do whatever it took to get to the NBA.  Fredette had a supportive family, and the book chronicles bouncing balls in the house and a makeshift full court in the back yard that was the place the neighborhood kids wanted to be.  Most of all, though, he had TJ there to support him and serve as an unofficial coach and trainer throughout his formative years.  The book actually spends a significant number of pages discussing TJ because of his large role in Fredette’s progress both as a basketball player and person.  The book chronicles Fredette’s rise through high school and college, where he proved me and about a few million other people wrong by sweeping national player-of-the-year awards his senior year and being the tenth pick in the NBA draft.

The book ends with that accomplishment, and those who have followed the Jimmer’s career since then know that it simmered and then went out as far as the NBA is concerned, but why is a bit of a debatable subject.  The more important thing from the book are the lessons of hard work and dedication.  I also believe there’s one more lesson to be learned, and it’s one reason, I think, anyway, why Fredette was popular and remains so even though his NBA career never really took off: humility.  Fredette, like most elite athletes, is a driven, competitive person.  You have to be to get to that level.  One reason I never excelled at athletics when I was young was that, while competitive, I was never driven and never put in the hard work.  It’s nice to read a book sometimes that reinforces the concept of hard work.  The stories of the drills concocted by TJ for Jimmer or hard hours put in out in the makeshift gym in the garage can be turned into life lessons.  I enjoyed the lessons and had fun reading about Jimmer’s younger years.  I thought the book was long on TJ, although I understand his role and (again) know that Jimmer is humble and willing to give credit for his success to others, where it’s due.  I also might have liked a little more substance on the high school and college years.  For fans, it’s a must-read book; for the more casual observer, it might seem a little on the dry side.

Creative Commons License
This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.