Skip to content

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Some of my reactions to “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” (2000), by Joseph Ellis.

This is the second time I’ve read this book, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. I don’t remember when I first read it. Maybe 10 years ago. Last year I also read “His Excellency,” which is Ellis’s biography of George Washington.

The book is not a comprehensive history of the Founders, but an account of selected episodes from the late 1700s and early 1800s, examining the complex interactions among eight key players: the Big Six — George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton — along with Aaron Burr, and Abigail Adams (John’s wife and primary political adviser). These interactions were sometimes collaborative and sometimes deeply antagonistic. At one point they became violent, when Burr killed Hamilton in a duel (the subject of Chapter 1). Ellis notes that the interactions among the Founders represented checks and balances on a personal level, at a time when the United States was more a nation of men, than a nation of laws, institutions, and traditions. Those latter things had not yet congealed.

The founding and early years of the United States were chaotic and improvisational and precarious, a lot messier than we are perhaps led to believe when we first learn about them as children. One of the main points Ellis stresses is the tension between the “spirit of ’76” and the “spirit of ’87” — that is, between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of the Constitution. The Declaration was all about self-determination, and a repudiation of power exercised illegitimately from a faraway place. The Constitution, on the other hand, was about replacing the ineffective system of the Articles of Confederation with a consolidated federal government that would be able to get things done. Critics of the Constitution condemned it as a betrayal of revolutionary principles, and feared this new centralized government would inevitably become as corrupt and illegitimate as the one just overthrown. It took a lot of effort by the Founders to convince the electorate that the new government was a necessary compromise to meet national needs.

On one extreme, many Americans today view the Founders as near-demigods. On the other extreme, some view the Founders with mostly disdain — a group of wealthy men of European descent who enslaved people of African descent, started the process of wiping out Native American peoples and cultures, and prohibited women from participating in political affairs. Ellis, I think, does a good job of navigating between these two extremes, honoring the elements of truth in each, and giving us a portrait of men who were both extraordinarily talented, and flawed. They did not fix the nation’s original sin of slavery — instead, they mostly observed a code of silence about it, and kicked the can down the road (the subject of chapter 3). But they also established a democratic republic, over a large landmass, that has now endured for nearly 250 years, and that over the years has become more inclusive than it was. Historically speaking, this is an unprecedented achievement.


Finding Your Roots, season 4

Some of my reactions to season 4 of “Finding Your Roots,” after watching all 10 episodes. (I haven’t seen any episodes from the previous three seasons.)

By far the best moment of the entire season was Téa Leoni learning the identity of her biological maternal grandmother, and seeing a photograph of her for the first time. That was a truly powerful thing to watch. The show had had to do an unusually large amount of paper-trail and DNA detective work to track this person down. (Leoni’s mother had been adopted.)

I also enjoyed the first episode, which featured Larry David and Bernie Sanders. David has famously impersonated Sanders on “Saturday Night Live.” The two of them found out that they are distant cousins to each other, which they both thought was hilarious. David also learned that his ancestors were on both sides of historical racism — his maternal grandfather had nine siblings who almost certainly died in the Holocaust, while one of his paternal great-great-grandfathers was a slaveholder, and one of 3,000 Jews to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The story of Fred Armisen’s paternal grandfather, Masami Kuni, was also fascinating. Kuni was a dancer and choreographer in Japan, which Armisen already knew. But Armisen learned several things about Kuni that he hadn’t known — first, that he was actually quite famous in Japan (there is a whole museum there dedicated to him); second, that he worked as an entertainer in Nazi Germany, while also probably leading a double life as a spy for the Japanese emperor; and third, that he was actually born in Korea, not Japan, and that his Japanese name was not his original name. Armisen, who was bowled over by these revelations, later went to visit his grandfather’s museum in Japan, and shared footage of his visit with the show.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Some of my reactions to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I think I can do this without spoilers.

I don’t consider myself to be an intense Star Wars fan, the way many people are. That said, I’ve seen all the films in the trilogies (I haven’t yet seen “Rogue One”), and they’ve all been good diversions, even the ones in the prequel trilogy that seem to be widely disliked. And I mainly like the fact that the Star Wars phenomenon exists. These days people consume their entertainment, their news, and everything else in niches and small groups, and there is very little that we all watch together, nationally or internationally. Star Wars movies are one of the few remaining widely shared experiences we have, across cultures and generations. My wife and I went to see both “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” with her sons and grandsons, and we will probably repeat that with Episode IX.

I liked “The Force Awakens” better than “The Last Jedi.” The former movie had a better major plot twist and a better ending, I thought. Also, the major scene in “Last Jedi” involving the attack on the rebel ship and what happened to Leia, seemed a bit silly to me, even within a fantasy universe. But I feel like I ought to watch both movies again before forming a solid opinion about either one.

Breaking Bad

(Spoilers ahead.)

Some of my reactions to “Breaking Bad,” after binge-watching all five seasons last month.

It’s an extraordinary show. Its reputation as one of the greatest TV series of all time is well deserved.

I’ve been thinking mainly about the manhood theme. “Breaking Bad” is about Walter White’s quest to transform himself from beta male to alpha male. (The first episode famously opens with Walter literally not wearing pants, and out of control of his situation.) As I watched the series, I was expecting Walter to eventually become that alpha male — he appeared pretty alpha in a lot of the promotional images I had seen before watching the show. But interestingly, I don’t think he ever really got there. There always seemed to be a beta side to Walter, even as he was defeating or getting the best of the show’s full-fledged alphas (Tuco, Gus, Mike, Hank, Jack). Maybe the lesson is that he’d have been better off not even going to the trouble, if he was never going to get all the way there.

I find myself ambivalent about Walter, in a way that perhaps mirrors my ambivalence about society’s manhood standards. In both cases I find myself having no strong opinion one way or the other. Walter has many flaws and failings, engages in deceit and violence, and eventually destroys his family and himself — and yet I find myself accepting who he is, not hating him, and mostly just trying to understand him. Similarly, society has certain expectations for men — we’re valued for our status and wealth and ability to provide for our women and children, we’re supposed to avoid showing emotion or weakness, we feel like we need to be constantly jockeying for power advantage, and so forth. These expectations are not always fair, or rational, or healthy — and yet I find myself mostly accepting them, trying to understand them, and trying to find my place within them, rather than rebelling against them.

Blog revival

In 2018 I’m planning to share my reactions to every book I read, every movie and TV series I watch, every album I listen to, and every other major creative work I consume.

I’m doing this because I want to catalog what I read/watch/listen to, as well as experience the pleasures of self-expression and intellectual discussion.

Thanks for reading!

The 10 most important, iconic, quintessential Nebraska attractions

Today is the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. To mark the occasion, I’ve prepared this list of the top 10 most quintessential, iconic, must-see Nebraska attractions. (Source: Me.)

10. Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arbor Day Farm, in Nebraska City (two separate but related attractions). Birthplace of Arbor Day, the tree planter’s holiday.

9. University of Nebraska State Museum, Morrill Hall, in Lincoln. The state’s best museum. Best known for its collection of fossil elephants, including the world’s largest Columbian mammoth fossil. Also, there’s a planetarium, and an excellent and relatively new exhibit about evolution.

8. Homestead National Monument of America, near Beatrice. Tells the story of the Homestead Act of 1862, which transferred millions of acres of land in the United States from public to private ownership.

7. Scotts Bluff National Monument, near Gering and Scottsbluff. A series of steep, majestic bluffs that were an important landmark on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails.

6. Sandhill crane migration, in central Nebraska. More than half a million of these birds converge each spring along the Platte River Valley, on their way to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. One of the continent’s great wildlife spectacles.

5. The Sandhills of western Nebraska, covering about a quarter of the state. A region of mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes. Vast, undulating, relatively empty, beautiful. State Highway 2 from Grand Island to Alliance is widely regarded as the state’s most scenic drive.

4. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, in Omaha. The state’s top paid attendance attraction. Widely regarded as one of the world’s best zoos.

3. Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, and Husker football. One of the nation’s most storied college football programs. Five national championships. Intense fan base, even when the team isn’t doing well.

2. State Capitol, in Lincoln. Second tallest in the USA. Beautiful inside and out. Houses the nation’s only unicameral, nonpartisan state legislature.

1. Chimney Rock, near Bayard. Prominent, pointy rock formation. One of the most famous landmarks on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, and probably the state’s most iconic visual symbol.


That’s me, admiring Chimney Rock in July 2015.

Here are 30 runners-up for the list.

  • Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
  • The Archway, Kearney
  • Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
  • Bailey Yard and Golden Spike Tower, North Platte
  • Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, Omaha
  • Boys Town
  • Brownville
  • Carhenge, near Alliance
  • College World Series, Omaha
  • The Durham Museum, Omaha
  • Fontenelle Forest Nature Center, Bellevue
  • Fort Robinson State Park
  • Hastings Museum, Hastings
  • Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
  • Lake McConaughy and Kingsley Dam
  • Mahoney State Park
  • Missouri National Recreational River, Lewis and Clark Lake, and Gavins Point Dam
  • Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, Omaha
  • Nebraska History Museum, Lincoln
  • Nebraska National Forest (Bessey Ranger District and Pine Ridge Ranger District)
  • Niobrara National Scenic River
  • Old Market, Omaha
  • Pioneer Village, Minden
  • Strategic Air and Space Museum, near Ashland
  • Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Grand Island
  • Toadstool Geologic Park
  • Wildcat Hills
  • Willa Cather State Historic Site and Red Cloud Opera House, Red Cloud
  • (tie) The rest of the state parks (Chadron, Indian Cave, Niobrara, Platte River, Ponca, Smith Falls)
  • (tie) The rest of the state historical parks (Ash Hollow, Bowring Sandhills Ranch, Buffalo Bill Scouts Rest Ranch, Fort Atkinson, Fort Hartsuff, Fort Kearny, Rock Creek Station)

Nebraska tourism project, 2013-2014: Overview

In 2013 and 2014, I traveled extensively throughout Nebraska, my home state. I made a ridiculously long list of tourist attractions and events, and visited them all.

The list included every attraction that the average Nebraskan has heard of, as well as many that the average Nebraskan hasn’t heard of.

I began my travels in March 2013 at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, where a friend and I observed one of the state’s oldest and most iconic attractions — hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes. These majestic birds make a migratory stop in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley each spring.

I ended my travels in December 2014 at one of the state’s newest attractions — Ascent, a multicolored glass tower in downtown Lincoln. Designed by artist Jun Kaneko, it had been installed just three months prior.

In between, I went to nearly 350 other sites — including all three national monuments (two visits apiece), all eight state parks, all nine state historical parks, all four accredited zoos, all six national wildlife refuges open to the public, all four national forest and grassland areas, the four largest lakes and their dams, and all nine sites maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society (including three visits to Chimney Rock). I visited the state’s three major art museums (Joslyn, Sheldon, and MONA), several smaller galleries, and a number of public art works, including Carhenge near Alliance (two visits), and in Omaha, the Fertile Ground mural, the First National Sculpture Parks, and Stored Potential (grain elevator banners that have since been taken down). I visited many natural and cultural history museums, including all the major ones (Durham, Stuhr, Hastings, U of N State Museum, Nebraska History, Strategic Air & Space). And I dined and drank at many notable restaurants, breweries, wineries, and tasting rooms.


Chimney Rock (Mike Tigas, CC BY 2.0)

I didn’t visit every historical marker in the state. But I did check out all five of them in my home county, Furnas County.

Nebraska has nine roads designated as scenic byways. I drove parts of all of them. But the only one I drove in its entirety was the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway — a 272-mile stretch of Nebraska Highway 2, between Grand Island and Alliance, through the Sandhills, recently described by Jim Harrison as “the most mysterious landscape in the United States.”

I went to the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island both years. I went to several college sports events — Nebraska football, volleyball, and women’s and men’s basketball, Creighton men’s basketball, Omaha ice hockey, and the College World Series. I went to NEBRASKAland Days in North Platte, Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell, the Wilber Czech Festival, the Wayne Chicken Show, Seward’s 4th of July Celebration, the Offutt Air Show, the Brownville Fall Flea Market, the Omaha, Winnebago, and Ponca tribal powwows, Blue Man Group at the Lied Center in Lincoln, and performances of the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha, and Omaha Community Playhouse.

Memorial Stadium on game day (Bobak Ha'Eri, CC BY 3.0)

Memorial Stadium (Bobak Ha’Eri, CC BY 3.0)

On foot and in vehicles, I did LOTS of organized tours. Three of The Durham Museum’s River City History Tours, which are guided bus tours of Omaha. Guided agricultural tours of Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Prairieland Dairy near Firth, Kreycik Riverview Ranch near Niobrara, and Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. Guided walking tours of Omaha’s North 24th Street area (the heart of the city’s African American community), Omaha’s South 24th Street area (the heart of the city’s Latino community), and the Henderson Mennonite Heritage Park. A cruise on the Missouri River aboard the Spirit of Brownville riverboat. Self-guided auto tours of the national wildlife refuges, and Boys Town, and the Naval Ammunition Depot site near Hastings. Self-guided walking tours of Memorial Stadium, and Wyuka Cemetery, and Fort Omaha, and Saint Cecilia Cathedral, and Lauritzen Gardens, and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, and the vast Stuhr Museum grounds, and Ashfall Fossil Beds, and Fort Robinson State Park, and Toadstool Geologic Park. A guided tour of Willa Cather sites in Red Cloud, a self-guided tour of Wright Morris sites in Central City, a guided tour of the historic sites of Bellevue, and guided or self-guided tours of several historic homes, including those of Thomas P. Kennard, George Norris, William Jennings Bryan (Fairview), Bess Streeter Aldrich, J. Sterling Morton (Arbor Lodge), Buffalo Bill Cody (Scouts Rest Ranch), General George Crook, George and Sarah Joslyn (Joslyn Castle), Father Edward Flanagan, the Fort Sidney post commander, and Nebraska’s governor. And of course, a guided tour of Nebraska’s outstanding State Capitol.

Nebraska State Capitol (Carol M. Highsmith)

Nebraska State Capitol (Carol M. Highsmith)

Besides these organized tours, I did informal, but thorough, walks around many other sites — Omaha’s Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis and Clark Landing; Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket; the three national monuments (Scotts Bluff, Agate Fossil Beds, Homestead); and lots of nature areas (Wildcat Hills, Chalco Hills, Crane Trust Nature Center, Fontenelle Forest, Neale Woods, Schramm Park, Spring Creek Prairie, Willa Cather Memorial Prairie).

In both 2013 and 2014 I participated in the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s Passport program, which encourages travelers to visit up to 80 specified attractions, collect stamps, and win prizes. The first year I got 70 of the 80 stamps, and the second year I got 57. Also, in 2013 I participated in a similar passport program sponsored by the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, and got stamps at 30 of the 33 sites in and around Lincoln.

I plan to do at least a few more blog posts about my Nebraska travels. The next one will probably be a Top 20 list.