Waterloo

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CameraCanon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Waterloo, Belgium

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Book Recommendations – Volume IX

What better way to enjoy the Winter season than by enjoying a few good books by the fireplace or in a coffeeshop. Whether its’ fiction or non-fiction, being able to sit down and read for an hour each day is one of the best activities one can do during those cold, winter months. The three books I have recommended cover very different themes and topics but each of them is worthwhile reads especially if you are into non-fiction. From Candice Millard’s vivid storytelling of President Theodore Roosevelt’s perilous journey to the Amazon, James Clear’s atomic habits to build a better life, and author Chris Hedges’ look into the dark underbelly of American society, each book is one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone depending upon what kind of non-fiction they are looking to dive into.

1.) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

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In our current era where past Presidents settle into retirement by creating foundations, writing memoirs, and going on paid speaking tour circuits, it can be difficult to recall that there was a time when the American president would not stay still but rather seek out new adventures. President Theodore Roosevelt was just such a former President when he embarked on a perilous and physically strenuous journey down the Rio Duvida (River of Doubt) in the heart of the Amazon. In the aftermath of his election defeat in 1912, the former President did not stand idly by and settle into a quiet retirement from politics. Instead, he did what he did best and ended up taking upon himself an adventure that no other modern President would think of doing nowadays.

Still in the early days of the 20th century, it was still the age of exploration as explorers from the Western world would go to the lesser known parts of the world to make their mark on mapping areas and landmarks that had not been discovered yet. From Antarctica to the Himalayas to the Amazon, men like President Roosevelt were drawn to both the adventure and the notoriety but also to discover the flora, fauna, and newly discovered animal species, which had never encountered humanity before. This expedition’s success relied upon the men whom Roosevelt and his Brazilian counterpart, Colonel Candido Rondon, would bring on to make sure it was successful in its mission of mapping the extent of the mysterious Rio Duvida. Because of the courage, hard work, and perseverance that men including the former President’s son, Kermit, displayed, they were able to get through a series of trials and tribulations that would have broken lesser men.

Over the six-month period of 1913-1914 when the 19 Brazilian and American men descended the River of Doubt, they were faced with multiple challenges including diseases like malaria, perilous weather conditions, intense rapids, and murder among their ranks. President Roosevelt dealt with near misses to his life including a close encounter with a venomous snake as well as a ghastly injury suffered when trying to retrieve a loose canoe that caused a serious gash injury to his leg. The President flirted with thoughts of suicide after his injury and infection leading his son and counterparts to decide whether they should honor his wishes or to carry him the rest of the way’s journey. Because of their pledge to not leave any man behind including the President of the United States, Kermit and others pushed through the physical obstacles ahead of them to arrive at the successful end to their journey through perseverance and the belief in their mission to map the entire river.

Brilliantly told and remarkably intense in its description as a fast-paced tale of adventure, Millard’s ‘River of Doubt’ is an excellent book that details a harrowing journey of the 26th President, his son, the Brazilian colonel Rondon, and his courageous men. It is hard to believe that there was a time when an American president would go on a journey like this one well into his 50’s but that was the kind of man Theodore Roosevelt was. Because of his courage and his perseverance, the Rio Duvida was renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. This story reminds us of what it takes to push past our mental and physical limits and why we remember these tales to understand what true bravery looks like and how Presidents should act in the face of a great challenge.

2.) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

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‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear is an excellent book on how to re-think our habits and our reliance on them based on our awareness of how they come to be, how they are implemented, and how to change or remove them based on their overall utility. As Mr. Clear explains, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We can only develop ourselves based on the habits we have on a daily basis. In order to change them effectively, small changes that lead to incremental improvements are what we should be aiming for. It’s not advantageous to change our systems of living overnight but rather to slightly shift our habits each day and start to see progress over a longer period of time.

One example is going to the gym for the first time. You may not stay for very long but if you are there for five to ten minutes and get through the initial hurdle of showing up, you can feel better about the progress you have made. Over time, you should start to feel more comfortable and attuned to going to the gym as well as staying longer once you get used to the new routine. I found James’s four-step process to breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit to be very persuasive in its argument. The ‘cue, craving, response, reward’ system is laid out in greater detail in his book but I believe that it’s an effective tool for developing better habits and eliminating bad ones.

Also, keeping track of both your bad habits and good habits will help you measure if you are making progress with either by understanding what habits you have on a daily or weekly basis. In order to better change our habits, we firstly have to be aware of them and classify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their utility to our lives. For example, if you don’t floss your teeth, perhaps you have to make it attractive by highlighting the benefits associated with the action, putting the floss in a visible place on your bathroom counter so it’s visible, and then make it easy by not using mouth wash without flossing first to develop the system.

Mr. Clear’s book is easy to read, the system he advocates for is immensely appealing, and the four-step process is clear in its methodology. You cannot change your habits without doing it yourself but ‘Atomic Habits’ successfully gives its readers a vision of how you can do so while not making it overly complicated. The system is easy to follow and he incorporates outside materials like the ‘habit tracker’ to make it easy to start changing them while reading his book.

3.) America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges

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Beyond the stock market, the unemployment rate, and even the gross domestic product, notable author and journalist Chris Hedges writes eloquently and profoundly about the state of America in 2019. He does this through excellent on-the-ground reporting from Anderson, Indiana to Atlantic City, New Jersey in an effort to understand how while Americans at the top of wealth and power are doing well, the rest of us are struggling to get by in this new gilded age of income inequality. Hedges pulls no punches regarding the societal ills that have been wrought due to political dysfunction and record income inequality in America by describing in great detail the effects of the opioid crisis, the recent rise of hate groups, increased reliance on gambling, pornography, and sadism to escape reality.

Our ability to combat these negative societal trends is nullified when communities are weak and the bonds that religion, union membership, and rotary groups provided have been cast to the side. In an age of increased atomization and loneliness, Hedges argues that the average person will not be able to build a better future for themselves or their families if they have no ways of accessing economic opportunities or through having deeper social connections.

This book is a true warning sign that time is running out and that we must start paying attention to the swirling negative political and economic trends going on because it is likely that the next generation in America will be worse off if serious changes are not made. By failing to combat income inequality, climate change, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and failing infrastructure, faith in both the economic and political system will continue to decline. When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, that prosperity is not going to spread around or ‘trickle down.’

While it may be a dark and disturbing book to some, Mr. Hedges is a student of history and is eloquent in describing what are the warning signs or symptoms when a society is on the verge of decline or overall collapse. From the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, the warning signs were there in the forms of inept political leadership and an unholy concentration of wealth. Mr. Hedges warns that we are on the same path to potential ruin and that the societal hollowing out relating to increased suicides, the fall in overall life expectancy, and the epidemic of gun violence are the sad consequences of how we are failing the average American citizen in 2019.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the sheer effort that went into meeting with people across the country to get a sense of how difficult things are and what challenges they are facing. Mr. Hedges should be commended with focusing on the real issues that confront us as Americans and being a truth-teller when it is not always popular to do so. My hope after reading this dire book is that we are able to make the necessary changes and confront these systemic challenges before it’s too late.

Chiemsee

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Chiemsee, Bavaria, Germany

Salzburg

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Salzburg, Austria

The Brilliance of a Speech – Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin, one of the great film figures of the 20th century and known for his silent work in film, took a great leap of faith and showed moral courage by his performance parodying Adolf Hitler in ‘The Great Dictator.’ This film was the first one where Chaplin had any actual dialogue even though he had been in numerous silent films in previous decades from the 1910s through the 1930s. By that time of the late 1930s, Chaplin had achieved worldwide success and critical acclaim as an actor and a comedian but at that tumultuous time in world affairs, he knew he had the responsibility to speak out about growing militant nationalism that was surging in both Europe and Asia.

Compared to the modern times in which we live, Chaplin was taking a big risk with both his career and his personal safety by mixing politics and world events in his roles in ‘The Great Dictator.’ Because this film was the first of his to use sound and the fact that still in 1940, it was not common to condemn and criticize the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe by Hollywood. Even though World War II had begun, and the U.S. had remained neutral up until that point, Charlie Chaplin brought to life through satire and comedy just how ridiculous dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were in their desire to conquer territory and expand their rule.

It was unknown to Chaplin and the other people involved in making ‘The Great Dictator’ though that Hitler and the Nazis would create concentration camps and extermination chambers to kill over eleven million people, including six million Jewish men, women, and children. Chaplin, like few other actors of the time, was able in this satirical film to play both the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin in both roles was able to lay out how clearly to the audience how prescient of a threat the rise of fascism in Europe was but also how important it was to poke fun still at the Nazi threat in order to be better able to confront it later on.

While 95% of ‘The Great Dictator’ is making fun of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the last five minutes is a speech given by Chaplin playing the satirical role of Adenoid Hynkel in full costume but talking seriously about the need to confront Nazism and how it got to this low point in world history. This speech is extremely popular and brilliantly crafted to put it simply. It is no wonder that this film was commercially and critically acclaimed especially in the United States and in the United Kingdom. The invigorating words that Chaplin passionately and profoundly passes on directly to the audience of ‘The Great Dictator’ carries real weight to it especially by the end of the film where it’s been comical and relatively lighthearted up until that point. At the time of the film and of the year it was released, 1940, the horrors of World War II were far from being fully realized yet. However, the ending speech was not just foreboding of what was to come but it was also a forewarning to humanity that this can happen at any time and in any part of the world. Chaplin urges the audience to consider how it got to this point, how we can turn it all around, and how to avoid the dictators who pit us against each other and separate us into us vs. them.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”

Being able to take care of people and to treat each other with respect and dignity is crucial to one’s humanity regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious background. In Chaplin’s speech, he caters to the better angels of our nature and how we really should yearn to make each other’s live better and spread happiness, not hate. The Earth that we have been given is big enough for everyone regardless of who we are and is ‘rich’ in its natural resources and its ability to provide for everybody with food, water, etc. The natural state of man should be yearning for freedom and beauty, but sometimes we have to collectively steer ourselves back in that direction when we have ‘lost the way.’

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost….”

Greed has turned men against one another, has caused hate to fill our souls, and has led us down the paths to misery and bloodshed. Similar to the pre-WWII period, we live in a time of rapid technological change where ‘speed’ is the essence of progress, but this same ‘speed’ has led to the consequence of alienating ourselves from others with these ‘advances in technology.’ While we live in abundant times, there are many out there who still ‘want’ for more because of increasing inequalities. Too much knowledge without wisdom can lead to cynicism. There is a lot of cleverness in the world but what really matters is how you treat other people and that ‘kindness’ and gentleness’ too often takes a back seat to ‘cleverness’ and showing your ego off to others. When there is not enough humanity, Chaplin tells us, life is violent, brutal, and the progress we have made can be reversed all too easily.

“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.”

Substitute the iPhone and social media for ‘the aeroplane and the radio’, and this part of Chaplin’s speech is just as relevant as it was in 1940 with regards to technological change and its effects on humanity. While these devices and inventions can bring us together in an effort to achieve ‘universal brotherhood’, these same tools can be used to drive us apart from one another and lead to more universal forms of control, subjugation, and surveillance if we are not careful. Reaching out using technology to help men, women, and children in trouble thousands of miles away is what we should be striving for especially when they are in danger of being tortured, imprisoned, and killed.

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

Misery is temporary and so is greed which cannot go on forever because it stands in the way of both human progress and human development. Those men who benefit from hatred and violence also fear the progress of humanity because it will prevent them from taking all of the resources, money, and land for themselves. Dictators like all humans will eventually die and disappear from the face of the Earth and the power that was taken from the people will eventually be returned to them. There is always a chance for liberty to exist as long as the people have hope and as long as dictators can have their power be taken from them by force or by the passing of time. The torch of liberty can only be fully extinguished if people give up hope or if one dictator is exchanged for another dictator like nothing ever changed.

“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!”

Dictators and authoritarian brutes do not care about the soldiers who they command and use them as pawns in their game of chess with other nations. These ‘leaders’ give the soldiers commands and teach them what to think, do, and feel, but they don’t instruct them on why they are fighting or what they are fighting for? The men who order soldiers to battle think like ‘machines’ rather than as human being. Men are born with the love of humanity in their hearts and were not born already hating others. Only those who are ‘unloved’ and ‘unnatural’ can be led to hate others (often by dictators). Soldiers enslave themselves to dictators and other leaders by fighting without questioning and instead should fight for the liberty of all human beings to live in peace, pursue their dreams, and better the world. The only fight worth having, Chaplin argues in the speech, is the ‘fight for liberty!’

“In the 17th Chapter of St Luke, it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.”

“The Kingdom of God is within man.” We are born imperfect as human beings but in order to create peace, prosperity, and liberty, it is within us alone to make. Only when all men unite together and not just one group or one man alone, there is nothing that we can’t accomplish together. For one, the power to create technology and machines is one that we have exercised for the past few centuries now. This power can be used for terrible things but if we unite together as one humanity then there is the power to do great good such as to pursue happiness, justice, and to make life free and beautiful for all peoples. One man can’t do it alone nor can a group of men from a country or region, but we must be all together united in the struggle to create a better future. These ‘machines’ that man creates can be used for evil or for good, and it is ultimately up to us in how to use the technology we have to further the progress of mankind.

“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!”

Democracy and not dictatorship are the only power we need to unite under a banner of shared humanity. Dictators look to divide and conquer but democracy urges unity and peace among all nations in order to create a decent world. Being able to work and create is what men desire to give future generations a shot at a good life and to aid the elderly in age to have a secure retirement. Brutes promise a lot of things to their peoples under the guise of democracy, but they do not care for democracy or its principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all. Brutes are dictators and authoritarians who lie to the people in order to free themselves financially and politically, so their own families, friends, and connected elites can benefit. They never fulfill the promises that they were elected to handle, and they use the people’s trust to enrich themselves and consolidate power for themselves while criticizing anyone who thinks differently from them.

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

When dictators rise to ultimate power, they keep that power for themselves and quite literally ‘enslave the people.’ This was the case in World War II with Hitler and Mussolini and is still the case today almost eighty years later. Chaplin argues that the only way the world and its seven billion inhabitants can be truly free is to do away with the borders we have imposed on ourselves to cause unnecessary tension, conflict, and violence, and to stop greed, hate, and intolerance in all of its forms or before it becomes too powerful to resist.

Democracy, liberty, equality, and justice are everlasting principles for human freedom but they must be fought for and obtained with each generation. These principles are not perfect either and they must be reformed and improved upon so that all humans can benefit from these ideals. Only in a world with reason, education (science and other subjects), the quest for humane progress can happiness and self-satisfaction be achieved. In order to prevent dictators from seizing power, democracy must be strengthened not just by ‘soldiers’ but by ‘citizens’ of all nations. Only when we unite together to disavow of false prophets like dictators and rather work together in a fair and free democratic system can we ensure the continued progress of man, woman, and child through the decades, generations, and centuries to come.

Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ was a brilliant speech that tried to warn the world about the coming world war that would be the deadliest in human history. His words still carry immense weight and troubling foreboding in our world today. I hope and pray that we continue to heed his speech for its vision of a better, free, and just world or we could once again find ourselves staring into the abyss of future conflict, violence, and destruction….

You can read the full speech here: https://www.charliechaplin.com/en/articles/29-The-Final-Speech-from-The-Great-Dictator-

“Get Action”

“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was unlike many of the men who came before him or who came after him who served as President. He was a truly unique individual in how much he was able to do during his life. While Roosevelt only lived to the age of 60 years old, looking at how much he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do with his life, you could easily make the argument that he lived the lives of five men put together. To put it simply, he was a man of action regardless of how strenuous and difficult that action may be.

When you look at Teddy Roosevelt, he wasn’t just President of the United States which is a massive accomplishment in its own right, but he was also Vice President, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war, and a Harvard College graduate. On top of all of that, he was a noteworthy explorer who spent over two years in the Amazonian basin of Brazil, a hunter who herded cattle out in the Dakotas, and a historian who wrote several books including a military history titled, ‘The Naval History of 1812.’ On top of everything that he did, while he was boisterous and a bit cocky to a fault, he backed up his words with actions, and he did his best to maintain his integrity in everything that he did. Roosevelt was not a man who cut corners or looked for shortcuts. Once he committed himself to something, he made sure to give it his best effort.

While Teddy Roosevelt was a member of a wealthy family from Oyster Bay, New York, he struggled with adversity throughout his life. He had severe bouts of asthma and would suffer from attacks that were debilitating. Instead of staying still and not exerting himself, he found that being active, physically and mentally, would actually help to minimize his asthma and improve his spirits. Roosevelt was not a man who would go about and pity for himself ever.

He was home-schooled, naturally curious about the world, and self-educated himself in a number of subjects including taxidermy, geography, French, German, history, etc. Roosevelt to make himself physically stronger would take it upon himself to learn boxing and then rowing in his desire to keep himself fit and active. Roosevelt lost his father at a young age, which was an almost unbearable loss for him, but he used his father as an example of who he should strive to be in life in terms of his father’s morals, career, and his overall character. Also, when he was only 22 years old, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his mother and his first wife within a few hours of each other.

Losing your mother and wife in such a terrible manner would break a lesser man but while Roosevelt grieved in a manner that was natural, he knew that he must go on and that he must live up to the memory of those family members who passed before him. Theodore was not one to sit around and grieve forever but a man who desired to make the most of his life and commit himself to action. Even when he was almost assassinated in 1912 when he was campaigning for the Presidency a second time, he would read his speech and refused medical attention for over ninety minutes before seeking assistance with a bullet lodged in his chest.

What lessons can we draw in our own lives from the energetic and boisterous life of Theodore Roosevelt? There are many lessons to draw upon but the most important one that can just be summed up in two words is to “get action.” Roosevelt believed that man is most content in the pursuit of action whether its’ in the form of academia, physical exertion, public service, and military duty. Roosevelt’s life was made up of numerous actions that fit his various interests and he committed himself to these actions over a long period of time. When we read about Teddy, we admire how much he was able to accomplish and how possibly he could have done of all that. My take on it is that Roosevelt made the most of his time and committed himself to pursuits instead of lazing about and being distracted by idle pleasures.

How many of us can say that we would be able to do ½ or 1/5 of what Theodore Roosevelt was able to do during his life? Not many. In this day and age of Netflix, smartphone, video games, and virtual reality, it’s easier now than ever to not get action but to be lazy. You have to put blinders on and prevent yourself from being distracted from the technologies of today. While Roosevelt may have had a harder time accomplishing everything he did in the early 20th century compared to what he may have done in the early 21st century, his core personality, his priorities, and his spirit would not have changed. Roosevelt’s life is a testament to the power of taking actions in various pursuits and to push both your body and your mind to the limit.

He did not let his setbacks, failures, and limitations hold him back from becoming the great man that we recognize him as being today. He fundamentally knew that he was at his happiest and his most vibrant when he was putting himself to work. His hobbies, interests, and his professional career were his number one priority and he still managed to re-marry, raise six children, and explore the world from Brazil to Egypt. Did he have a leg up in life due to his family name and his wealthy background? Yes, you could argue that fact, but he made the most of the deck of cards he was dealt but still had the common decency and integrity to commit himself to public service and helping out his countrymen and women as well.

Roosevelt could have enjoyed his wealth, spent opulently on material goods and hedonistic pursuits, and sat back for the rest of his days but he was not that kind of man. Not only was he aware that he had one life to live but he knew fundamentally that every day counts and that every day matters. Luckily, he used his mental and physical prowess in the service of others whether that was in the United States Army, the Governorship of New York, or Office of President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt put his energies and his time into productive matters and was able to do amazing things in his life. If Roosevelt were to give anybody a piece of advice today, it would be to simply ‘get action.’ Without action, there is stagnation and with stagnation, there is no future. Even if you are not successful in your actions, don’t ever be so discouraged that you do not try again or try something new.

Whether it was reading, writing, making speeches, hunting, traveling, Roosevelt was a man who embodied the human spirit when it is fully unleashed. He made the most out of this thing we call ‘life.’ If you are feeling down in the dumps and aren’t sure what to do next, just ‘do something.’ By doing something and sticking to it as a routine, you’ll get better at it and it may take you places in life that you never thought was possible to begin with. Taking any kind of action in your day to day life is the natural and healthy thing to do. Sitting in bed, lazing around, letting your mind and body wither away is no way to go through life.

When you commit yourself to getting out in the world in whatever way appeals to you, you move forward as a person and you develop yourself in various ways. You’ll fail, you may get hurt, and you will learn a lesson or two but at least you got yourself out into the arena as Theodore Roosevelt did. ‘Get Action’ are two words that can make a world of difference in one’s life. Make sure you make the most of the time for which you have been given.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

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Location: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site; Washington, District of Columbia, USA