Time to give a history lesson to Donald Trump

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The man seems to be unaware of what the reason for the Civil War was, so here goes:

In 1860, there was a presidential election held. In that election, there were four main candidates: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John C. Breckinridge. Here’s a primer on Breckinridge, in case anyone hasn’t heard the name before.

Lincoln got a majority of the electoral votes, so he was declared the winner. I’m certain Trump knows all about that. Lincoln won 59.4 percent of the electoral vote, a landslide in comparison to Trump’s 56.5% in 2016. But 50% plus one is really all a candidate needs, Trump’s braggadocio aside.

Presidential inaugurations didn’t happen until early March in those days, so some Southern states–slaveholders all–decided they were not going to wait around until Lincoln took the oath of office. By the time Lincoln arrived in Washington,  seven states had already gone ahead and left the Union. They believed they could do it, and so they did. Election results be damned.

When Lincoln came into office and said that he was not going to interfere with slavery where it already existed, the die had already been cast for those seven states. How Andrew Jackson could have prevented this is unclear, because he had already been dead for over ten years, but Trump isn’t one to give any details, is he?

Lincoln never considered secession to be a legitimate course of action, because there is no mechanism for it spelled out in the Constitution. He always considered South Carolina and the others as part of the Union, even as they had soldiers in arms trying to destroy it.

Virginia and three other states left the Union after the Confederacy opened fire on federal troops at Fort Sumter, in South Carolina. Lincoln said there would be no armed conflict without the South being the aggressors, and he was right about that.

Flash forward 156 years, to the election of 2016. Trump got a majority of the electoral college votes, and he took office as president as the result. I really don’t like typing out those words, but that’s what happened. The issue of whether California or New York or my home state of Illinois would be allowed to disregard the election results and just walk away was definitively and forever settled by the 600,000 soldiers who died on the battlefields of the Civil War. States like mine would just have to live with the results.

The fact that this country is still united today, in the face of such overwhelming opposition to the policies of Donald Trump, is a testament to the finality of the Civil War’s outcome. But how many of those seven states who didn’t even give Lincoln a chance to take office first did Trump win in 2016? All seven. And how many of the other four states that seceded did Trump win? All except Virginia. Maybe it’s no accident that the man who won 92% of the old Confedercy’s electoral votes is ignorant about why the Civil War broke out.

The electoral college–the sole reason why Trump holds office today–was Lincoln’s key to the White House in 1860. The rash and impulsive decision by eleven Southern states to withdraw from the Union–absent any Constitutional authority for doing so–was the reason for the war’s outbreak, not any failing by Lincoln or anyone on the Northern side of the conflict. The backhanded suggestion that Lincoln should have tried to negotiate away an election that he won fair and square is outrageous, and needs to be labeled as such.

Elections have consequences, as Trump supporters are quick to remind us. If the Southern states had acted upon this conviction back in 1860, perhaps the war could have been avoided. But the Southern states are the ones that started the war, and any responsibility for the conflict and the suffering it caused lies squarely on their shoulders. Or, to put it another way, with the states that form his 21st century base.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

A horrible image

 

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Since this is the 4th of July weekend, I pulled a copy of “Masterpieces of American Literature,” published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1891, off my bookshelf about an hour ago. I once bought it for 50 cents at an estate sale, and have found interesting things in it from time to time. I wanted to see what insights it would offer me this evening, so I started paging through its contents.

I came upon an essay written by James Russell Lowell for The North American Review in January of 1864. For some people, anything written that long ago has nothing to say to them. A world without the internet, or even indoor plumbing, holds nothing of interest to those who think that the 20th century was a long time ago. But the historian I’ve always tried to be takes the opposite approach. As Patrick Henry once said, “I know of know way to judge the future, but by the experiences of the past.” And 1864 certainly qualifies on this front.

Lowell was an influential poet and an abolitionist, and his writings received considerable attention at the time. Something that he wrote, in the midst of a lengthy election-year defense of President Lincoln, made me realize what a horrible candidate–and person–Donald Trump truly is.

In describing Lincoln, Lowell wrote that “he has always addressed the intelligence of men, never their prejudice, their passion, or their ignorance.”

I stopped when I read this, because Donald Trump’s appeal seems rooted in a continuing appeal to all three elements. The historic stereotypes about Jews and money seem to be on full display in the image above. And if replacing the image of a six-pointed star with a circle instead is all it takes for Trump to avoid responsibility for this image, that will be the most stunning example yet of what Trump has been allowed to get away with in this campaign.

How about passion? Consistently referring to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” instead is about as low as it gets on this front. People don’t want crooked politicians, in any form or fashion, and attempting to use this term to create an automatic, unthinking association to his opponent is a manipulation of people’s passions about politicians.

The third element Lowell refers to is ignorance. Is Hillary the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever”? How would that ever be quantified or proven? The point is there’s no desire to do so. Trump says it, so it must be true. That’s about as ignorant as it gets.

For James Russell Lowell, who lived during Lincoln’s time as president, there were some appeals that simply weren’t made. And we continue to love Lincoln for exactly the reasons that Lowell described. So when Donald Trump–or any of his supporters–attempts to lay claim to Lincoln’s political party as his own, his routine appeals to prejudice, passion, and ignorance must be pointed out. He’s no Lincoln, as this affair makes perfectly clear.

 

Five Years and Counting

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I wanted to start a blog for a long time–probably for at least a year–before I actually did it. But I put off doing it, because I thought there was some special quality I was lacking. Others who “blogged” (the word was still new and unusual back then) had it, whatever it was, and I simply did not.

That type of self-doubt has always held me back in life. Others are better than me, and I’m not good enough, so why bother? Why take a risk, if it’s just going to end up revealing all of my flaws?

So for all of 2010 and a good part of 2011 I kept things to myself, just as I had been doing all my life. Until one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I had a story to tell, so I typed it out–that part has always come easy to me–and I wondered what to do with it. And that was the point when I remembered something Jimi Hendrix once said: “My own thing is in my head. I hear sounds, and if I don’t get them together, nobody else will.”  So I took the leap and stated writing a blog, five years ago today.

I once thought, if I kept up with the same frenetic writing pace that I had for the first two years I did this, that I’d be upwards of a million words on this blog after five years. A million is a nice big number, and I’d like to say I wrote a million words for free online. But as it so often happens in life, that old crazy dream kinda came and went.

For one thing, I started sending my writings to other websites. I always enjoy seeing my words in print or online, so sending out hundreds of pieces to someone else seemed like the natural thing to do. And I also found that sleep is nice, too. I went from 700-1000 words per post down to 200-300 words.  So a million words, at least on this blog, feels like a long shot anymore. I stopped counting how many words are here some time ago, anyway.

But I continue having fun with this. I consider this blog as a digital legacy, for people I love and for people I’ll never meet, in equal measure. If my relatives going back a few generations had something like this available to them, I’d be happy if they put some of their thoughts and fears, their hopes and memories down where I could learn more about them. But this blogging thing is still too new for anything like that.  I can write these things down, and so I do. And bravo and good day to anyone who happens upon them, too.

Five years of sharing my thoughts and ideas with the world feels like a lot. But at the same time, it’s now been so long I don’t know why I didn’t start earlier. When it comes to writing a blog–like so many other things–there ain’t nothing to it, but to do it.

Here’s to keeping at this for as long as I’m able…..

Unleashing my inner History teacher

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The room where it happened, 1860 style

I was a history teacher in a previous life, as I like to think of it. It was all during the same life I have now, of course, but it feels like I’m not that person anymore. Will I ever teach again? Who knows? But yesterday I presented something of a lesson to a small section of the internet. The results have been pretty gratifying, too.

On Friday, I was paging through a book by Dale Carnegie titled “Lincoln the Unknown.” I bought it at an estate sale some time ago and, like many of the books I have acquired that way, I didn’t read it right away. My thinking is you can always read a book later, but you have to first acquire them whenever you can.

On the pages of the Carnegie book, which was published in 1932, I found a story about Lincoln’s nomination at the Wigwam in Chicago, shown above, in 1860. I knew that it was the first “western” nominating convention, and Lincoln’s supporters used this to wrest the Republican nomination away from William Seward. I knew that fake tickets had been printed up, and used to pack the house with Lincoln supporters. But every story has details that can add a new wrinkle to what is already known, and this was no exception.

What I learned I tucked away in my brain, and when I saw a post on a Facebook wall from the Bernie Sanders campaign for president, I decided it provided a parallel that could apply to the present. That’s why history matters so much, after all. Patrick Henry said he knew of no way to judge the future but by the events of the past. And here was a moment to put this philosophy to work.

In reply to a post suggesting that Senator Sanders’ wide lead over Donald Trump in public opinion polls makes him a better candidate to face Trump than Hillary Clinton, I wrote the following blurb:

There once was a senator from New York who went to a party convention expecting to win the nomination. But a challenger was able to successfully make the case that he would be a stronger candidate against the nominee from the other party. The year was 1860, the party was the Republicans, the presumptive nominee was William Seward, and the eventual nominee was Abraham Lincoln. I don’t think anyone would have rather had Seward prevail, simply because that was the expected result. Fight on, Senator Sanders. You have millions behind you.

I am a Sanders supporter, and I know that his uphill climb has been sandbagged by a media and a party establishment that has opposed him at every turn. The Clintons are a known quantity, and they are the establishment of the Democratic party in every way. But Senator Sanders has tapped into a wide vein of resentment for this establishment, and has come very far to get to the point, like the Cheers theme song says, where everybody knows his name. He’s won more states, and earned more votes, than anyone imagined he would. But the headwinds against him have reached a gale force recently, and I wanted to help out.

Carnegie’s book pointed out that dissatisfaction with Seward–who was well-known and had the kind of political advantages that Lincoln never did–came from the idea that Stephen A. Douglas was a formidable opponent in the fall election. Lincoln had already run against Douglas in 1858, and was better suited to defeat Douglas than Seward. The persuasion paid off, and Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot in Chicago. And we all know what happened after that.

My post seems to have resonated pretty well, gathering over 1,700 Facebook likes in the 20 hours or so since I posted it. There have been hundreds of replies as well, both pro and con,  and the notifications of all this activity have exploded my email inbox. Let’s say I now understand why many posts don’t allow for comments. They can get messy.

And, in response to someone’s suggestion that my post seemed like a Limerick, I came up with this beauty:

There once was a Senator Will

Who thought a convention was chill

But Abe came along

And proved Will was wrong

Just like Bernie will do unto Hill

That bit of online freestylin’ got another 50 likes, and I’m preserving it here because I’m happy with how it turned out. I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda or anything, but a rhyme written to inform about the past came to me, and I like the way that feels.

There’s a ton of pressure on Bernie Sanders to drop out, based on the idea that he’s hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances by staying in the race. Seward, back in 1860, rented a cannon and brought it to his estate in New York. The idea was to announce his nomination to the world by firing off the cannon, but he never had the chance to do it. And would the Civil War have happened, and slavery been brought to its much-needed end if Seward had fired off that cannon? We can’t know that, but we can say that Lincoln’s election changed the course of history in a very profound way.

I don’t want Hillary Clinton to fire off her proverbial cannon this summer. I’m convinced that her vote for the Iraq war, and her bellicose actions and language, reveal her to be far too hawkish for my comfort. She’ll speak the language of the Republicans in Congress by leading us into a foreign entanglement somewhere, which will require weapons being used and soldiers being killed. A cannon is a perfect metaphor for her candidacy, actually. Trump, on the other hand, is a horrible danger to life on this planet, and I realize that he must be stopped. But Hillary Clinton is not the way to do that.

There are many reasons not to like her, and my point here isn’t to go through those reasons. For me, she’s a hawk who will lead us to war, which will have disastrous consequences. And I can’t vote for her for that reason alone.

How will this all play out, over the summer and into the fall? I don’t know. But the idea that a candidate should give up when they are behind, in the name of “party unity,” is not an idea that Lincoln went along with in 1860. There’s an election that must be won in the fall, but there’s still a fight to be waged over the summer months. Or, to put it in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s HamiltonWhen you got skin in the game, you stay in the game But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. So why not keep on playing?

 

Pick up a pen, start writing

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My heroes are writers. I’ve come to realize this in recent years, probably in some small part because of my experiences with this blog. It will be five years next month that I took the plunge and started collecting my thoughts and stories in one place. And I wish I had started it earlier than I did. But it has taught me a couple of things.

The first thing is that it takes a willingness to open up with yourself. Finding an idea to explore is not hard, but turning it over and spinning it around takes some time and some extra thought. The time is something I don’t always have, and that’s the main barrier to writing more often. But going beyond surface-level thought isn’t easy, either. And writing that which deserves to be read, as Pliny the Elder once called it, requires this step to occur.

The second thing I’ve learned is that inspiration is a funny thing. It strikes at odd hours, and it doesn’t linger for too long. It’s essential to capture a thought and preserve it in the moment, because going back to it an hour later doesn’t work. The thought, whatever it is, won’t wait until you decide to address it. Like a deer staring at you from a distance, once it takes off you won’t be seeing it anymore.

The other day I had occasion to meet a fellow left-hander who enjoys writing. I told her I find writing to be therapeutic, and she indicated that it’s cathartic for her. These ideas both come from the notion that writing is beneficial. As the Beastie Boys and Nas once counseled, if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out. My experience is this is reason enough for writing a blog, or anything else.

When I suggested that writers are my heroes, I was asked for examples. I mentioned Lincoln’s name, along with Alexander Hamilton’s. The amazing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me to pick up an old copy of the Federalist Papers, and his writing is exquisite. But there are many more that I wish I had also mentioned, and here are a few: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and Rachel Carson. There are hundreds more, and in three hours I would come up with a list of different names than the ones here. That’s the nature of writing, after all.

I’m not far from the library at Nothwestern where I worked when I was in college. “Library” in an abstract sense for me is pretty much what the old Deering library looks like. But it’s a repository for the work of thousands, if not millions, of writers who managed to create something that endures. I used to handle books written on vellum in the Middle Ages, as well as comic books from the 20th century. The creators of these books, and all the others, committed their ideas to paper, and created something that endures after they’re gone. That’s what writers do. And for five years of my life, I’ve been doing that in this new electronic medium of a blog. It’s been an enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic experience, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

A Freudian Slip

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It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

Something Old, Something New

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It’s been a quiet February on the blog front. The enthusiasm I once had for doing this has ebbed, and I like sleeping at night, too. But I recently had my annual Cubs preview posted on Cardsconclave.com (has it really been five years of doing that? Time flies!) and I had a piece that I reconstructed from a post in this space published on HistoryBuff.com  It looks like the kind of website I’ve been wanting for a long time. May other stories make their way onto that site soon.

There’s a few things I want to say about life, and hopefully I’ll have time for it soon enough. But for now I just wanted to plug my writing a little bit, and remind myself that I still enjoy doing it.

A Lincoln gallery

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One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Abraham Lincoln began the process of righting America’s greatest wrong. Slavery had existed for centuries, sanctioned by law and practiced by many of the men who spoke of human liberty when they applied it to white folks, but were more than willing to deny it to those who did not look like them. Hypocrisy at it worst, it appears to me.

But Lincoln upset that apple cart. He said that slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. He was elected president, and the slaveholding states (most of them, anyway) decided to leave the Union before they accepted him as their leader.

Lincoln held firm to his position that secession was not allowed for in the Constitution, and was therefore not a legitimate course of action. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and the rest did not leave the Union, because they could not leave the Union.

The first year-and-a-half of the Civil War was a fight about preserving the Union. But in the fall of 1862, Lincoln gave the abolitionists what they wanted. It’s true that not one slave was freed as a result of this action. It’s also true that slaves in Missouri and the other border states were not affected by Lincoln’s action. But the die had been cast, all the same. Slavery became the war’s defining issue, from that moment forward.

We can never do enough to honor what Abraham Lincoln did. I have tried many times to explain what Lincoln means in this space, and here’s a sampling of them on this day.

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I’ve said many times that Lincoln is with us still, so long as we want to see and acknowledge him and the new America that he brought about. May we never lose sight of this.

Calling out the biggest gun of all

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My younger daughter’s school finds itself without a principal, at the beginning of a new school year. This is a recipe for disaster at any school, but when a school has thousands of students, the stakes are raised immeasurably. In such a situation, a leader is needed to provide a firm hand.

I know of no greater ally, in important matters like this, than Abraham Lincoln. The historian David Donald called this process “Getting Right with Lincoln,” and it’s something that every politician seeks to do. Nobody can say what Lincoln would have said or done in any given situation, of course, but getting him on your side anyway is an advantage worth seeking.

To that end, I sent the following email to the head of the Chicago Public Schools today:

It is quite unacceptable that one of the largest high schools in the state, and one of the most prominent schools in all of CPS, has not been able to identify a principal, due to a stalemated LSC selection process.

The Civil War would not have ended as it did without the firm, decisive leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! speaks to the ability a leader has to shape the events around him or her. Leaving my daughter’s school without a leader in command would be an irresponsible act, and I implore you to not let this happen.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter.
I have redacted the name of my daughter and the school, as well as the leader I am supporting in this process. I don’t think direct advocacy serves any purpose here. But the invocation of Lincoln, as filtered through the creative genius of Walt Whitman, is the most compelling reason I can think of for taking action at a time like this.
The education of children–mine, yours, and everyone’s–is too important to sit one one’s hands, or shut your eyes and hope for the best.
Here’s hoping for a resolution of this matter, and soon.

Beauty with a side of thought

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Last night, I was watching my older daughter’s play at an outdoor venue in the suburbs. The previous two shows had been cancelled because of rain (such are the perils of outdoor performance), and it looked questionable whether last night’s show would meet with the same fate. But the huge puffy clouds in the sky held no rain, and the show went off without a hitch.

At one point during the first act, I noticed that the sunset had started to change the colors of the towering clouds that remained in the sky. I wandered closer to the water, since we were not very far from Lake Michigan, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset, as shown above. The camera didn’t do the scene justice, as it never can in such a beautiful scene. But it was all I could do to capture the moment.

I wanted to be post this picture with a nod to what Henry David Thoreau called “the Great Artist.” Most people consider it to be God (or G-d to those who don’t want to spell out the full name), but I prefer the concept of “The Almighty” which appears in some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.

I’m not religious in a traditional sense. I like the way Thomas Paine put it in The Age of Reason: My own mind is my own church. Nobody needs to tell me of creeds and prophets and holy books, because I’ll dismiss all of them. Organized religion has always felt like some way for people to claim a kinship with a deity that can never be fully understood. And giving money is always, always, at the root of this kinship.

Tithing and other forms of religious giving might make someone feel closer to their concept of a supreme being, but for me that money goes to put nice suits on the backs of those who profess their kinship most fervently. I have no quarrel with those who do this, but it’s not something I’m comfortable with doing myself.

Am I cynical to believe this? That could be a fair accusation. But organized religion has no place in my world, and never will. I can recognize the hand of some great power in the beautiful sunset I saw last night, but I don’t relate that recognition with the need to sit in a church, listen to a sermon, and drop some money into a basket.

To repeat what Paine said, my own mind is my own church, and my own church exists wherever I can find a nice sunset. No admission fees are required for that.

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

A day to honor Lincoln

image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

The year I started working

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For some people, the penny is a waste of effort. It costs more to make them than they’re actually worth, so why bother with them in the first place? I can understand this line of thinking, but I respectfully disagree with it. For me, a penny is a relic from the past, and a chance to be transported back in time, if only for a moment. And so it was today, when I bent over to pick up a 1978 penny in a 7-Eleven parking lot here in Chicago.

1978 was an interesting and important year for me. That may be true of any given year, as I’m sure I made that point about other years in the past in this space. But 1978 was the year I got my first job, delivering a local paper called the Springfield Shopper to houses in my neighborhood at a penny apiece. The Shopper was a new paper, the 1970s equivalent of a start-up. Perhaps this was a reason they signed up a ten year-old to help get the word out. You do what you have to do, especially when you’re new.

I was glad to discover that the Shopper still exists. It’s still loaded with ads, trying to help people find places to spend their money. In the internet age, I’m sure that the business climate they operate in today is far different from what it was in the late 1970s. They probably don’t deliver to people’s homes anymore, either. That’s progress, isn’t it? And if nothing else, The Simpsons have borrowed their name many times through the years. That alone is something to be happy about.

My teenager recently auditioned for a musical based on Studs Terkel’s Working. The irony is that besides a few babysitting gigs, she hasn’t ever worked for anyone in her life. Her studies come first, of course, but the experience of making money through working for someone has been lost on her.

My Shopper experience lasted until I turned twelve, and then I started delivering the local newspaper instead. It was a job that I held until I turned sixteen, and got my first “real” job as a grocery bagger. I’ve done lots of things–for lots of people–in the years since then, and I’ve spent the past 36 years as a working man. And I’ll likely be working for someone until the day I die.

My two children will likely start working at some point in the future, and in the American tradition this work will probably define who they are to the rest of the world. When somebody asks “So what do you do?” they aren’t wanting to hear about the places that you travel to or the hours you spend parenting your kids or doing anything else you find interesting.

I’ve had some great jobs in my life–and some lousy ones, too–but doing something for someone else has been a constant in my life since 1978. Things really changed for me that year, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until now. That’s a lot of self-realization to be gleaned from a discarded penny.

I may be freakin’ or peakin’

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I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t get Paul’s Boutique right away. I loved Licensed to Ill, the first Beastie Boys album, when it dropped in 1986. A couple of years later, I was expecting the follow-up to be Licensed to Ill, Part 2. And I was frankly disappointed when that didn’t happen.

The band went in a whole different direction, instead. The sampling was off the charts, and the lyrical references came so fast and furious that it was impossible to keep up, at first. The record needs multiple listens before it makes any sense, and I didn’t give it that. The vibe was different, and different wasn’t what I wanted. Most people didn’t want different, either, and the record tanked, at least when compared to the first record, saleswise.

If it wasn’t for the internet, I doubt I would have ever come around to getting Paul’s Boutique. But YouTube videos pulled me into Hey Ladies, they only thing resembling a single on the album, and also got me into Shake Your Rump. The rest of the album came to me over time, and I realize today that it’s groundbreaking, and funky as all hell, too. Whether intentionally or not, they followed an old quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks out regions hitherto unexplored.” They did exactly that with Paul’s Boutique, and I, for one, am glad that I eventually caught up to them.

Complicated and off-kilter

 

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I’m a big Abraham Lincoln fan, and I’ve written about statues of him, and busts, and artworks, and really anything else I could find. But Lincoln Avenue has somehow escaped my attention, until now.

Last night I found myself driving down Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, and I realized a couple of things. There are two distinct parts to it, one that begins in a neighborhood appropriately called Lincoln Park, and another that begins in a different neighborhood called Lincoln Square. And in between, it disappears into Western Avenue for a few blocks. It’s not a street that you can stay on for as long as you want to. You need to know the way go if you want to stay on it. So it’s certainly a complicated road to follow.

But even more important is the direction that it takes. More than 90% of this city’s streets run north/south or east/west. In fact, the city’s grid system depends on streets like this. In the picture above, for example, Southport Avenue runs north and south. But Lincoln Avenue, like the man it is named for, doesn’t follow a tidy, straightforward path. It runs diagonally its entire length, turning many traditional intersections into six-way adventures. It’s as if the street takes on the character of the man who really has no parallel in the scope of American history.

I write about Lincoln statues and the like because they exist to commemorate the railsplitter who became president. But a road is a bit harder to conceptualize as a tribute. It serves a different purpose, that’s for sure. But thinking about this road, and how and where it cuts its route through the city I call home, I realize what a fitting tribute to him it really is.

An unexpected payoff

Wrigley

Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

Remembering the fallen

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Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the heaviest fighting at the battle of Spotsylvania in the Civil War. A century and a half ago, the Civil War was grinding on and on, with no end in sight. A presidential election was coming up in the fall, and the staggering losses were dimming Lincoln’s reelection chances. We know how it turned out now, but the spring of 1864 must have been a very tense and heartwrenching time for the Union side.

Although Lincoln himself is never too far away here in Chicago, the lack of a battlefield from that conflict can make the war seem remote sometimes. The Confederate mound is on the South side, and I’ve written about it here before, but it seems like a well-kept secret sometimes. And thousands of dead Confederates evidenced the war’s human toll for me, but they were also fighting to preserve a government that was built upon human bondage. It was hard to feel any love for them.

I wanted to take a moment to honor the fallen, not necessarily from Spotsyvania itself, but from the totality of the war that shaped this nation that my family calls home. So I drove to Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve also written about before, and stood among the rows of fallen Union soldiers.

There were hundreds of them in all, and they represented untold numbers of widows, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins and nephews who had to carry on with their lives after they fell. The lives that were lost were in evidence, but the lives that were forever altered as a result could only be surmised.

I read the names and the dates and the company designations, and wondered how many of these fallen soldiers had someone come to pay their respects. Two men named Stewart from separate companies in Vermont, for example, found their earthly rest a very long way from home. Perhaps they were biologically related, and perhaps they were not. But there they are, 150 years later, lying not too far from each other in a Chicago cemetery. And there I was, wondering about what their stories were, and paying my respects to them and all of their comrades in arms.

I wouldn’t know how to behave in the presence of a slave, or a person who considered himself worthy of owning another human as his property. I want to believe that I would comfort the slave and afflict the slaveholder in any way that I could, but the law would be on the slaveholder’s side, and not mine.

Whether the men who lie buried in Rosehill cemetery opposed slavery or not–and I have no illusions that all of them did oppose it–their sacrifice spared all of us from having to witness the debasing nature of slavery.

Confederates had their principles too, I suppose, but I cannot–and will not–honor their sacrifices. If Davis and Lee and the other Confederates had prevailed, the world today would be so ugly that I can hardly imagine it. It’s a great and glorious thing that what some consider the “lost cause” was, indeed, lost.

The surrender at Appomattox is the symbolic end of the Civil War, but in many ways the war still continues today. Those who had their families torn apart, or who spent the rest of their lives carrying the physical and mental scars from the fighting, have all left us now. Their sacrifices are often lost, amid the sacrifices made in more recent American wars. Those wounds are still fresh, after all. But appreciating the Civil War, with its permanent reordering of American society–both North and South–must also be done.

This piece was written with love and gratitude for the sacrifices they made.

The Gladness of Nature

KeyWestWhenever a person starts naming poets, there aren’t too many who would put William Cullen Bryant on their list. He lived in the 19th Century, and he became a lawyer because poetry didn’t pay the bills. He was also a political supporter of another poet named Abraham Lincoln, and he introduced Lincoln at his speech at Cooper Union in New York in 1860. It just shows how people can go about their daily lives and still find time for writing and reading poetry.

This is my third Poem In Your Pocket day, and my previous selections are here and here. I find myself relating to poetry more than I did when I was younger, and it’s comforting to know that centuries of poets are still out there for me to discover.

The poem that I chose, and shared with my colleagues from work since I won’t be in the office today, is Bryant’s “The Gladness of Nature” which reads as follows:

The Gladness of Nature

by William Cullen Bryant

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around;
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space,
And their shadows at play on the bright green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There’s a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There’s a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There’s a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he’ll smile thy gloom away.

I like this poem for several reasons. Since Earth Day just passed, I wanted something with a nature theme. I also wanted something not too overly long, and relatively easy to follow. And I wanted something to remind me of the time that I just spent on Spring Break in the Florida keys. There are no palm trees or beaches in this poem, but the idea that sunshine and nature can cheer a person up is enough for me.

Please feel free to share poems in the Comments below. And happy Poetry month to everyone reading this.

The Gladness of Nature

by William Cullen Bryant

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around;
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space
And their shadows at play on the bright-green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he'll smile thy gloom away.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20299#sthash.RUUpypT4.dpuf

The Gladness of Nature

by William Cullen Bryant

Is this a time to be cloudy and sad,
When our mother Nature laughs around;
When even the deep blue heavens look glad,
And gladness breathes from the blossoming ground?

There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;
The ground-squirrel gaily chirps by his den,
And the wilding bee hums merrily by.

The clouds are at play in the azure space
And their shadows at play on the bright-green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a dance of leaves in that aspen bower,
There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.

And look at the broad-faced sun, how he smiles
On the dewy earth that smiles in his ray,
On the leaping waters and gay young isles;
Ay, look, and he'll smile thy gloom away.

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20299#sthash.RUUpypT4.dp

A night at the theater

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149 years ago this evening, Abraham Lincoln went to see a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington city (as they called it then).

Many years later, I went to see a play in Ford’s Theater. The box that Lincoln sat in that night is still on display, and there was a feeling of sadness in my heart as I saw it.

Lincoln was a great man, and we’re all better off that he once walked the earth. And the anniversary of his shooting is as good a time as any to realize this.

Jon Stewart nails it

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I admire Abraham Lincoln like no one else. I think he is the reason that slavery came to an end in this nation, and he took a stand that ultimately cost him his own life in order to see to it that slavery disappeared. And suggestions to the contrary never have–and never will–make any sense to me.

So when someone comes along to suggest that Lincoln did something wrong by fighting the Civil War to end slavery, that person needs to be called out. That person needs to understand things that they either didn’t learn or have chosen to deny, for whatever reason. And Jon Stewart, with some help from three History professors, did exactly that. It’s a joy to watch.

The golden arches and Abe Lincoln’s hat

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I took this picture yesterday as I was waiting at a red light in Chicago. I love this view, and I could probably crop out the McDonald’s sign attached to his stovepipe hat, but why not leave it in, instead?

Would Lincoln eat McDonalds, if he were alive today? We’ll never know for certain, but at least the McDonald’s jingle could be twisted in honor, as follows:

Ba da bum ba baa,
I’m Lincoln it!

It may be the last time, I don’t know

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I went through this entrance to the Lincoln Restaurant a hundred times, at least. Having breakfast there was a Sunday tradition in the days before my kids were born. And now, unfortunately, it’s shut down.

I hadn’t eaten there in a long while before it happened, and few restaurants get as long of a run as they had on Lincoln Avenue and Irving Park Road in Chicago. So worse things are going on in the world than this. And yet….

I wish there was some way to know when the last time I went there really would be the last time. And that goes for lots of things in life. If you know it’s the end, you can soak it all in and enjoy it a little bit more.

That’s what Barack Obama did at his second inauguration last year. He knew it wasn’t coming back again, so he spent a few seconds enjoying the view. There was something very human in that moment, no matter what anyone might think about him personally.

But we don’t always get that kind of a heads up. We go to places and we do things every day not knowing if, or whether ever, we’ll get a chance to do them again. Will the passport that I’m now waiting in line for be my last one? I hope it isn’t, but life won’t let me know that for certain, either.

The only thing to do is appreciate the uncertainty, and hope that the passport will get some use along the way. I’m sure that I’ll write something about it when it does.

Marilyn Monroe and Jack Daniels

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I’m a big Lincoln fan, as I’ve shown in this space time and again. But for some reason, I haven’t yet read Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln books, The Prairie Years and The War Years.  I’m in the process of rectifying that now, and reading these works makes me understand that the man certainly had a way with words.

Today is Carl Sandburg’s birthday, and I wanted to find some words of his to post onto social media. He said lots of very worthwhile things, and it was difficult to pick just one, at least until one phrase caught my eye. I did some research on the quote, and a very interesting story began to present itself. And that’s the reason I write this blog, to tell interesting stories like this.

The phrase “a candle in the wind” is one that’s burned into our collective consciousness, but Carl Sandburg wrote that phrase long before Bernie Taupin ever did. In a poetry book titled The People, Yes–first published in 1936–Sandburg wrote that our lives are like a candle in the wind, and like hoar-frost on a stone. I liked both analogies, but they took different paths after Sandburg loosed them on the world. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

In late 1961, Marilyn Monroe paid a visit to a photographer friend of hers who was also acquainted with Carl Sandburg. The phrase that Sandburg had written decades before was still years away from entering the public’s awareness. After all, there was no reason to say goodbye to Norma Jean just yet. She was still walking the earth, and she paid a visit to one of the most famous American writers alive at that point.

The story goes that, after many photos were taken by Steckler, Sandburg and the others drank Jack Daniels together. I know that Sandburg did many things in his lifetime, but drinking Jack Daniels with Marilyn Monroe had to be one of the most interesting of all. I would think so, anyway.

From that visit with each other in late 1961, the two went their separate ways. Monroe died eight months later in August of 1962, and Sandburg died in July of 1967. And that might have been the end of the story, but then fate intervened, in an odd kind of way, a few years later in 1970.

After Janis Joplin died that year, she was remembered by a newspaper writer–whose name I haven’t been able to pin down–as being a “candle in the wind.” Whether this writer had read the term from Sandburg or not is impossible to know, but the article was read by a young songwriter named Bernie Taupin. Taupin liked the phrase so much that he put it in a composition for his collaborator, Reginald Dwight, to set to music. And I hope that nobody needs to be told what Reginald Dwight is better known as.

So a phrase that Sandburg wrote was thus applied to someone he once met, through the intermediaries of an American singer, an unknown newspaper writer, and a British songwriting duo. And Sandburg’s phrase will forever call Marilyn Monroe to mind, even if neither one could have known this when they met with each other in 1961. I have to believe that they would have enjoyed this story, at least as much as I did in telling it.

Sandburg rightly pointed out that we’re all candles in the wind, and hoar-frost on a stone. And for this reason his words will always live on, in a way that he and Norma Jean never could.

From one brilliant president to another

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The only guest post I’ve ever had, in the more than 1,100 posts I’ve put here through the years, was a tweet that Barack Obama sent out on the night he was re-elected. He went out and spoke to his supporters after sending it, but those who follow him on Twitter got to hear the news of his re-election first. As a social media dabbler, I loved that gesture.

Today’s post isn’t a guest post, per se, but it is a statement on Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address that is eloquent and very appropriate. I’ll just shut up and let anyone who hasn’t seen it take it all in.

Thanks to President Obama for capturing what Lincoln’s speech means, and how it still applies–and will always apply–to the American nation. Bravo, Mr. President!