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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

All things Gettysburg

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I started writing this blog two and a half years ago, and I’ve mentioned the Gettysburg Address thirteen times before today. Here’s a link to all of the previous references.

I love Abraham Lincoln, and I love the Gettysburg Address. I’m not apologetic about it, either. Slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in this country that I call home, and it took all of Lincoln’s genius to bring it to an end.

We should all revere Lincoln for what he did, and to the extent that present-oriented American culture ever looks towards its past, I think we do. I honor us all for not consigning Lincoln to the scrap heap of history, where you can find every president who followed him up until Teddy Roosevelt.

Today I plan to visit at least one of the various Lincoln statues in Chicago (there are six that I know of) and record myself reciting the Gettysburg Address for learntheaddress.org. When that happens, I’ll be sure to share it here, as well.

 

Working in publishing has its perks

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I suppose that I was born to work in the publishing business, as  I love reading, writing, and creating new materials. I love telling stories, essentially. I enjoy it so much that I spend much of my free time doing it for kicks, either here on this blog or some of the other websites that I write for.

One of the primary qualities that someone in publishing should have is a love of books. Yes, the industry is following society’s lead and trying to migrate into an online environment. It’s the dreaded “paperless society” that will be talked about for decades to come, but never fully realized. Books are who we are as humans, and all of the ereaders on the planet can’t rub that out.

Today I was called into a room full of books that I had not seen before. It was filled with titles of books, some of which I had heard of before, but many I had not. I was told that I could pick out some of the titles, in return for some of the work that I had been doing around the office. Some people would prefer money or a formal recognition for their efforts, but turning me loose in a roomful of free books is about the best expression of gratitude there is.

I chose a few books that interested me, or that I knew someone else would enjoy. But the best one of all was Russell Friedman’s Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. It’s an hour or so to read it through, and it comes with a marvelous array of visual images, many of which I had not seen before.

I’m very glad to be a part of the organization that brought this book to market, and I am grateful for the knowledge that I gained through reading it. And whatever time and effort I put in around the office has been richly rewarded. Every day should go so well..

Towering over Lincoln

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Last weekend, I was at the Sangamon County courthouse in Springfield, Illinois. I was originally directed to the sixth floor, and when I got off the elevator I was greeted by a large bust of Abraham Lincoln, who never practiced in that courthouse, but who was a pretty successful Springfield lawyer.

I posed for a picture next to the Lincoln bust, and leaving aside the cartoonish look on my face, what strikes me is the way that I seem to tower over Lincoln. When Lincoln walked the earth, he towered over practically everyone, being that he was six feet, four inches tall. He would have towered over me, too, or at least had a couple of inches on me.

But whenever we see Lincoln statues today, or the Lincoln monument in DC of the face on Mount Rushmore, we aren’t able to tower over Lincoln. He towers over us, in both a physical and a metaphorical sense. And that’s as it should be, really.

So when I sidled up to the Lincoln bust in the courthouse the other day, I had a chance to tower over Lincoln instead. I wish I looked a little bit more dignified, and less like I was on the happy pills, but that’s how it is. I still like the picture, because it reminds me of how prevalent Lincoln is in our society. I can’t imagine that any other president merits a bust in a courthouse, anywhere.

As a society, we revere Lincoln, and deservedly so. He ended our greatest national wrong, and by remembering him as we do we perpetually honor his act, and commemorate the price that he paid for doing so. You can’t tell from this picture, but I’m proud to associate myself with Lincoln, in any way, shape, or form that I can.

The coolest place I can think of

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As a certified baseball junkie, and an Abraham Lincoln fan to boot, I can’t think of a better place to visit than where I am right now.

When Lincoln was riding the legal circuit in Central Illinois, before anyone knew his name, he came to Postville park in a town that would one day bear his name: Lincoln, Illinois. Here, he and some of his friends played a game called Townball, which later was known as baseball.

The park today is a far cry from what it was back then. But to imagine what it must have been like is still pretty cool. It’s the stuff that history is made of, really.

OK now back to my regularly scheduled trip.

Life is short, especially for ex-Cub pitchers

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The death of Frank Castillo–who Cubs fans like me remember, but hardly anybody does–was the fourth such death of a Cubs pitcher from the 1990s in the past few years. I don’t know why it’s only the pitchers involved, but even one of these would be strange enough. Four of them, though, is just too bizarre not to mention. So I wrote a piece about it, and it appeared on ThroughTheFenceBaseball today.

Let’s all enjoy our lives while we’re still lucky enough to have them.

Looking for Suck

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I realize that this post has a provocative title, and anyone who came here looking for porn is bound to be disappointed. There’s nothing of a sexual nature (I assure you) in this post, and if you’re looking for that, go someplace else. But if the title is intriguing, read on a little bit.

This afternoon my teenager and I were at Oak Woods cemetery on the South side of Chicago. It’s a beautiful place, with nearly 200 acres of natural beauty. I find cemeteries fascinating, and have written about them before in this space. But today we had a particular mission to find the gravesite of Adrian “Cap” Anson, the major leagues’ first superstar player. There are other things of note, and we saw most of them, but Anson was the reason we were there. We needed a photograph of his grave for a History Fair project. Once we had acquired that, it was time to explore a little bit.

After finding an Abraham Lincoln statue, and the Confederate Mound, and the grave of the man who invented Cracker Jack, the final thing that I wanted to see was a grave for a baseball player named Anthony Suck. He had only played in two games in the majors back in 1883, but his on-field accomplishments weren’t the reason I was seeking his grave. The man was born with the last name Zuck, and for reasons that only he knows, he changed his name to “Suck” instead. The word probably didn’t have the same overtones as it does today, is the only reason I can think of for why he might have done this.

I suppose that I just wanted to see a tombstone with the word “Suck” on it. No full name, no dates of death, and no other people buried by his side. Just a big slab of marble with the word “Suck” carved into it. Although it would probably be in all capitals, so it would read “SUCK.” I was already there at the cemetery, and will probably never find myself there again, so why not?

I had a map of the sections of the cemetery, but no more information than that. I parked my car, and the teenager chose to stay in the car, listening to the radio and texting her friends instead. I left the car running, and got out in search of Anthony Suck. I didn’t find him, most likely because there was snow on the ground, and I later learned that he has a flat headstone. I may have even stepped on it without knowing it. And, even if I had found it, I would have been disappointed, because apparently he’s buried under his birth name of Zuck. But I found something else that made the search worthwhile.

As I was wandering about in section B1 of the cemetery, I happened upon four cannons, a likeness of a soldier, and about four dozen graves. There was some story about who the soldier was supposed to be, but the elements had worn away the engraving, and that story is now lost. But it was a nice setting anyway, and the parting clouds on an overcast day made it even more so. I took a picture with my cellphone camera, and am putting it up on the Internet, both to honor the soldiers who are buried there, and to give anyone who finds this some sense of the beauty of the scene.

I walked back to the car, unsuccessful in my original goal, but appreciative of the fact that the men buried at that site had served my country, and helped to eradicate the scourge of human slavery. I don’t know anything more than that, but that alone is enough.

Rob Chill Manana

On Oscar night a couple of years ago, I put some of the winner’s names into an online anagram maker. And this year, I found myself sitting at the computer on Oscar night.

Just for fun, I typed in the name “Abraham Lincoln” not because he was nominated, but because there had just been a clip with scenes from the movie. Actually, Led Zeppelin being played over the Argo clip is what drew me into the room with the TV, and the Lincoln clip was on after that. And then Seth MacFarlane made a really bad Lincoln joke. If you saw the show, you know what the joke was. I’m not going to repeat it here, but I will say that I didn’t like Seth MacFarlane as a host, either. I’ll take Steve Martin as a host, anytime. I suppose that makes me old school, doesn’t it?

There were 12,000 anagrams that came up, and the list is here. I haven’t looked at all of the posibilities yet, but I know that “ROB CHILL MANANA” just has to be the best one: I go by Rob, I like to Chill, and Manana is always a good day, especially if it involves Chilling.

There’s not much more to say than that, other than “A Roman Chin Ball”, or “Mr. No Cabana Hill,” or possibly even “China Born Llama.” Maybe there’s 12,000 things to say, now that i think about it.

.

What’s in a name?

robert harris loading coffee

I have a new-found respect for the work of William Shakespeare, after seeing Romeo and Juliet performed onstage these last couple of nights. He tells a great story, and the words coming from the actors’ mouths are secondary to the emotions being displayed. That’s what doesn’t come through in simply trying to read the plays. The annotations get tiresome, and the fact is these plays weren’t written to be read; they were written to be staged. For the first time in my life, I understand that.

Maybe Shakespeare’s most well-known line–and he has many of them–is in the balcony scene, where Juliet calls “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” People who don’t know the first thing about Shakespeare know that line, 400 years after Shakespeare first penned it. But there’s another, also well-known line that Juliet speaks in the same scene.

Juliet is trying to come to terms with the fact that Romeo is a Montague, and she is a Capulet. Their families are enemies, and Juliet cannot understand why that should get in the way of her feelings about him. She asks the audience “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would, by any other name, smell just as sweet.” And he’s got a point there.

Abraham Lincoln–who was known to be an avid Shakespeare enthusiast–would ask this question of his son: “How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” His son would answer “Five legs” and Lincoln would say no, reminding his son that calling a tail a leg did not make it a leg. The gist of this, I think, is that you can name something whatever you like, but that does not change what that thing actually is.

I use Shakespeare and Lincoln, two men I have great respect for, to bring up the fact that I have a very good name, but also a very common one. I share my name with many, many people and, as I discovered this week, an AP reporter in Great Britain.

So when a story that I wrote–under the name I’ve used in everyday life since I was about 12–became a big thing on the internet, I have no doubt that this reporter got inquiries and calls from people thinking that he wrote it. I hope this wasn’t an annoyance for him, and I apologize if this was the case. It’s mildly frustrating for me because I don’t write for a living–although I’d like to think it might happen some day–but getting recognition for what you do is half the battle. And that’s impossible if someone else shares that same name.

There was a band in Los Angeles in the early 1970s that called themselves Mammoth. They started playing in clubs, doing the things that a band has to do to get noticed, but they had a problem. There was already a band named Mammoth, and people were never going to get to know their Mammoth if they had to figure out which one it was. So the newer band changed their name to reflect the last name of the guitarist and the drummer, and so Van Halen took flight. I think that name change worked out pretty well for them, so I’m going to try it for myself.

I can’t use the more formal version of my name, since that’s also the name of an established novelist (and I’m very fond of his work). It’s the name of a coffeehouse chain in New Zealand, as well, and one of my goals in life is to one day go to New Zealand, so I can walk around with a cup of coffee bearing my name (and his). So that’s out, too.

The most logical thing to do, then, is to look to my middle name. I’ve written before about how much I admire Lincoln, and how fortunate I feel to carry his name around with me through life. I’ll never be Abraham Lincoln–nobody could–but I can honor him, while also setting myself apart from all the others who share my name. So my Twitter handle is now going to be my pen name, as well. And if there’s anyone else out there using that name, they’re just going to have to get used to the competition.

Lincoln 101

Although he died a century before I was born, Abraham Lincoln has been a big part of my life, and I’ve written about him on many occasions before. On the occasion of Presidents Day, I humbly offer the following:

Lincoln

For an explanation of how Lincoln came to be my middle name, click here.

lincolns-hat

For a time that I once dressed as Lincoln for a costume party. click here.

DSCF5825

For a review of Lincoln statues in Chicago, click here and here and here.

GraceFor Lincoln statues in other places, click here.

Lincoln posterFor random Lincoln sightings, click here and here and here.

There are many more pieces like that on this site, but these are just a few to get things started. Happy Presidents Day to everyone.

Springfield as Mecca

1909 postcard

Something I’ve never considered before is the Muslim practice of facing toward Mecca to pray. I know it’s their faith, and far be it from me to wander into an area I don’t have any knowledge about. But five times a day is enough to make the point that Mecca is very important for Muslims.

I say this because I recently received an inquiry from a reader of this blog about the Gettysburg Address tablet that is on the wall of my younger daughter’s school. He sent me some fascinating materials about the observance of the Lincoln centennial in 1909, of which the Gettysburg tablets were a part. There were roughly 450 of them installed, in every public and parochial school in Chicago at the time. I was told that four of these are known to still exist, which sounds about right after 103 years have gone by. It’s a fascinating thing to know this was ever done in the first place.

So where does the Mecca part come in? I had read, some time ago, that school children were told, on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, to face toward Springfield and recite something or do something or I can’t remember exactly what it was. But this was a one-time event, on a special day, and it struck me as a strange thing to do.

I understand the desire to pay tribute to Lincoln, and few are more enthusiastic about him than I am, but this act of reverence seemed out of place in this country. Part of me hopes that I’m imagining this, or that I misunderstood what was in the book I was reading. But I’m also trusting my memory enough to report that this did happen, or at least was supposed to happen, on February 12, 1909.

Many thanks to the reader who provided all of the interesting Lincoln materials, including the postcard above. They have certainly given me food for thought, as all things Lincoln generally do.

Remembering Aaron Copland

Thirty-five years ago, roughly, I got myself into trouble. It was during music class, the once-a-week excursion outside of the classroom in the Catholic school that I attended in the 1970s, and into the music teacher’s classroom on the first floor. I’ll call the teacher Ms. F, but her full name isn’t really important to this story.

One day, as Ms. F was playing her piano and expecting us to sing along (I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time), some of my buddies and I were cutting up in class. We feared the nun who was our regular teacher–as we were supposed to do–but the music teacher didn’t scare us so very much. She probably ignored more of our misbehavior than she should have, but at some point she must have decided that we needed a punishment of some sort. So she told a couple of my buddies and I that we each had to write a report about Aaron Copland, who was probably the composer of the piece that she was playing for us that day.

A week went by, and I hadn’t done a thing for the report, and none of my buddies had, either. On the day that these reports were due, we all began writing reports that gave Copland credit for all sorts of amazing things. I specifically recall claiming that he had invented electricity, and the others were probably even more generous than I was. By the time we had finished out reports, Aaron Copland was just about the most accomplished man of the modern age.

I don’t remember what happened as the result of our creative academic works about Mr. Copland. We didn’t have Google back then, but it was pretty obvious that Aaron Copland hadn’t done any of the things that we gave him credit for. But today, all these years later, I read that Aaron Copland was born on this day (November 14) in 1900. So I decided to actually learn something about the man I was once sentenced to write a report on. And it turns out that I learned quite a bit.

But the single most amazing thing, which but for that long-ago punishment I would have missed out on, has a connection to Abraham Lincoln. The release of Lincoln in movie theaters has set me off on a bit of a Lincoln writing bender, so here’s still another piece about the Great Emancipator. But this one’s really good, I think.

In early 1942, when the nation was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a concert was organized by conductor Andre Kostelanetz. Copland and two other composers were commissioned to write orchestral pieces about American themes. In the early 1940s, there was no television, no pay-per-view, and really no record industry as we know it today. There were no televised benefits where viewers could call in to an 800 number and make a donation with their credit cards. It was just a concert in a place, and in this case the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was playing the music in May of 1942. The piece that Copland wrote for Kostelanetz was called Lincoln Portrait.

What made this piece so special was that it made use of Lincoln’s own words, from the Gettysburg Address and his 1862 Message to Congress, in which he stated “We cannot escape history.” It also told details from Lincoln’s personal life, in the hopes of rallying its audience, and the nation itself, to war. Almost eighty years after his death, Lincoln’s life and words served as an artistic inspiration. And, as Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are now showing us, they can still inspire us today.

Thanks to some Googling this afternoon, I was able to get the idea that Ms. F is still around, and probably living not very far from where I grew up. She probably won’t ever read this, as I’m sure that teaching music to me and my classmates is buried deep in the recesses of her memory. But thanks to her, and Google, and a composer’s name that I never forgot, I was able to learn something new and interesting today. Every day should hold such a pleasant surprise, shouldn’t it?.

Finding Lincoln, again

I’ve written about unexpected encounters with Lincoln before. I grew up in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and I now live in Chicago, where he would have most likely returned to, had he lived to complete his second term. Lincoln seems to be everywhere, and yet I’m always happy when he turns up anew.

Last weekend, I was marveled at the recently-opened doors to the Deering Library on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois. When the main university library opened up in 1970, the doors to the Deering Library–which was built during the 1930s–were closed up, until they were re-opened just a few days ago.

I worked in the Deering library as an undergraduate, so I knew it was a special place on the inside. But because the entrance was never used, the exterior was never really examined, by me or anyone else. We came and went through the main library entrance as Deering sat there, the hidden gem of the campus.

And then, a strange thing happened. A series of books about young wizards appeared, and they were all hugely successful. These books were then turned into movies, which were also tremendously successful. And the Deering Library, which seems as if would fit right in at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, has now been reopened to the public. Not really a coincidence, if you ask me.

While wandering around the exterior of the building last weekend–taking it all in as I never did a quarter-century ago–I spotted a stained glass window containing Lincoln’s familiar visage on the second floor, facing out toward the main library entrance. The window was created when the library was built in the 1930s, but observing it for the first time was a joyous experience for me.

I took many pictures of my new find, wanting to capture the surrounding brick and the red ivy that adorned it. While the window had been for all the years that I was on campus, I only noticed it for the first time last weekend. But better late than not at all, which is also true for most good things in life.

The Lincoln movie is opening up later this month, and I’m sure that it will spark a revival of all things Lincoln. I’ve written many Lincoln pieces in this space, and entering “Lincoln” into the search bar of this blog yields quite a few results. This one is a special Lincoln find, though, and it comes with the added bonus of having a wonderful old library all around it. It’s well worth a look for any Lincoln fans who might be in the area.

It’s astounding

Lately, on the occasion of taking a run around my neighborhood, I take an iPhone along and listen to the music, to help pass those seconds and minutes when I actually am running. And the title to this post comes from the first line of The Time Warp, which is on my running playlist. I love the way the line is delivered in such a deadpan fashion, completely undermining whatever astonishment Riff Raff may have been feeling at the time. These are the sort of things that stick with me, for better or for worse.

What’s astounding to me, and what I wanted to write down in the few moments that I have available, is the subject of word counts. The average word count for what I put in this space has remained right around 500 words per post. Sometimes I go past a thousand words, and some times I don’t even reach 100. But 500 seems to be the sweet spot, as far as I can see, when it comes to making a point or holding someone’s attention.

And I compare that 500 word figure, which I could use up describing the squirrels in my backyard if I had a notion to, with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. 292 words that summed up the Civil War so perfectly that we still remember the words more than a century later. I’m going to cap this post at 292 words, recognizing that I never have, and never will, address a topic as weighty as he did back in November of 1863. I can go on for 500 words and more and say nothing, while he hit the nail on the head in under 300 words. It’s, well, as I said at the beginning of this post, it’s astounding. No other word fits better.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing

In 1860, there was a four-way presidential election held in America, the likes of which had never been seen before, and will likely never be seen again. The winning candidate–Abraham Lincoln of Illinois–prevailed by getting a majority of the votes in the electoral college. That’s what the Constitution requires, and that’s what he did. But a handful of states couldn’t abide by those rules, so they decided to leave the game and start their own one.

Lincoln had a choice to make, upon taking the oath of office in 1861. He could recognize the doctrine of secession, and let the states go on their way, or he could ignore it and act as though nothing had happened. Lincoln chose the latter course, and in so doing committed the federal government to preserving the Union. The Civil War began, soon after that decision had been made.

The war was waged long and hard, and all states suffered terrible losses before it was over. But it ended with the understanding that states could not decide to leave the Union. The nation we live in today, all 50 states of it, are bound to follow federal laws, including accepting the outcome of presidential elections, whether their candidate wins the election or not.

I’ve lived in Illinois–the Land of Lincoln–all my life, and this has pretty much insulated me from expressions of sympathy for the Confederate cause. I watched the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, unaware of the meaning of that flag that was painted on top of the General Lee. I’ve seen Confederate flags at flea markets in Wisconsin, which made no sense to me because Wisconsin fought on the Union side during the Civil War. And I’ve seen the flag on items in gift shops in other states.  But Lincoln lost his life preserving the Union, and his martyrdom, I thought, protected his home state against any overt Confederate sympathies.

But this afternoon, in a large shopping mall near the Wisconsin border, these illusions were brought to an end. A store in the mall had a Confederate flag on display, presumably for the purposes of selling it. Although I was stunned at the sight, I was able to snap a picture of it, and it is posted above.

There is a Naval station not terribly far from the mall, and some of the other items offered for sale in the store had Naval terms on them. Apparently, a store catering to military families sees a market for the emblem of a failed attempt to bring the United States down. And that’s just what would have happened, had the Civil War ended with a different result. But thanks to Lincoln’s leadership, the Union was preserved instead.

A person who buys a Confederate flag from this gift shop in a mall in Northern Illinois–or anywhere else where this emblem might be sold–is offering their support for what? The idea that presidential elections can be disregarded by states that don’t like the results? Or the idea that America is a collection of independent states, who can decide for themselves when they’re free to leave the Union? Those ideas have already been tried and, fortunately enough for us all, defeated.

This is a symbol that belongs in the history books, instead of on the sales floor. And yet, America being what it is, it can’t be–and shouldn’t be–just legislated away. That change can only take place in the hearts and minds of Americans who appreciate, and ultimately reject, what the flag really stood for. And until that day comes, the Civil War is still with us in some sense.