Pick up a pen, start writing


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.

Complicated and off-kilter



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.

A night at the theater

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.

The golden arches and Abe Lincoln’s hat


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!

A Thanksgiving message from the founding fathers


With the arrival of Thanksgiving day, everyone turns their attention to Abraham Lincoln and the proclamation that made this into a national holiday. My love and respect for Lincoln has been well-established here, but thanks to some online research, I found a Thanksgiving story that pre-dates Lincoln. And it has a lesson for our times, as well.

The first American Thanksgiving, as we know the United States to be, happened as the result of a proclamation made by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777, roughly a year and a half after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Revolutionary war was going on, and Washington and his troops were at Valley Forge that winter. So we’re talking a long time ago.

Since the link provided above is a web page, I couldn’t copy and paste the text as I wanted to. But it’s a very good read, and the bulk of it appears on the page shown above. It’s well worth a read, for anyone who is so inclined.

But the best part, to me, is the final paragraph that appears at the bottom of the page. And I am going to type that out, because I think it’s very important in the face of all the Thanksgiving day sales that are going to be happening at shopping centers near you and me.

“And it is further recommended, that servile labour, and such recreation as, thought other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”

Do you get that, Walmart? Target? Kmart? Heck, I’ll even throw Starbucks into that mix, too. Any business that wants to open its door on Thanksgiving day, in order to make a buck, would be considered “unbecoming” to the men who risked their lives to found this nation. But the un-becomingness doesn’t stop there, either.

Everyone who goes out for the Thanksgiving day sales and “doorbuster” prices is also engaging in behavior that the founding fathers would consider unbecoming. I’ll go so far as to say it’s UnAmerican to take what should be a solemn day of remembrance and turn it into a shopping spree. The materialist and consumerist culture wants to make it seem otherwise, but the source material says it’s so.

Shop on Thanksgiving, or work on Thanksgiving, if you must, but understand that there’s some very old–and very wise–reasons not to.

Unbecoming, indeed.

A reason to admire Lincoln


I write about Lincoln all the time here, and there’s a reason for that. He righted this nation’s greatest wrong, and he lifted the scourge that undercut everything America claimed to stand for. He made the nation that calls itself “the land of the free” into a closer approximation of that. And if we don’t realize that, we should.

The Gettysburg Address may be the most startling evidence of Lincoln’s brilliance, but there are so many others, as well. Read one of his speeches and you’ll understand.

A Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

Today I had some time on my hands, and a clear mission in mind. I wanted to film myself reciting the Gettysburg Address and upload it to Learntheaddress.org, a once-in-a-lifetime project to record and upload Lincoln’s speech for posterity. There’s still some time to do this, as I type this out three days before the 150th anniversary of the Address on November 19.

I had wanted to film myself with Lincoln over my shoulder as I was speaking, to create an effect that he was hovering over me and somehow looking on approvingly as I was speaking his words. So I drove to a Lincoln statue located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. I’ve written about the statue before, and it seemed to be the best spot to accomplish what I wanted to do.

It was a blustery gray day in Chicago, perfect for the kind of outdoor backdrop I was looking for. From what I’ve read, the day that Lincoln delivered the address was sunny, but on a day for honoring war dead, a gray day seems more fitting. I found a parking spot, walked up to the statue, and went to work.

The statue is located at a bus stop near a busy intersection, and there were lots of people milling about, and cars were passing by. I felt a bit sheepish recording myself in front of the statue, but this was important to me and I wanted to see it through.

After a few flubbed lines and false starts, I finally got the best version I was going to get. But it had a flaw that there wasn’t any way to work around, in that a Walgreen’s store is located nearby, and the incessant bell-ringing of the Salvation Army volunteer turned up very clearly on the video. As I watched it, I realized that the bell-ringing was a dealbreaker. It was time to move on to plan B.

There’s another Lincoln statue–this one a much younger representation–a bit further north, near Senn High School. I’ve written about this statue, as well. I was on my way to that statue when a burst of inspiration hit me. I pulled off into Rosehill cemetery instead.

Not surprisingly, I’ve written about Rosehill before, too. The thought that I had was that Lincoln was speaking to honor dead soldiers at a cemetery dedication, and if I could recite Lincoln’s words against a similar backdrop, it would make it all the more authentic.

After finding a spot, and saying a silent thank you to the Civil war dead buried there, I pulled out my cellphone camera and went to work. I fumbled a little bit toward the end, but I think I captured the spirit of it. I then uploaded it to YouTube and shared the link with the learntheaddress people, and it’s being moderated before it goes live on their website. I’ll post that link when it happens, but for now the YouTube version appears above.

It was an honor and a privilege to share Lincoln’s words, and to have them recorded for posterity in a way that Lincoln’s actual speech is not. I’ll be forever glad I did this, and I’m happy to share it with the world here. It’s not the best version, I’m sure, but it’s meaningful to me, and a clear reminder of what the purpose of the speech actually was.

Lincoln would have loved this


Today was the first time that I had ever been inside Carl Schurz High School on the northwest side of Chicago. It’s over a hundred years old, which gives it a historical cache that many schools just don’t have.

I found my way to the library,  which has a scale to it that I’ve never seen before. There are many beautiful murals adorning the walls and ceiling, and I felt very happy to have discovered such a hidden jewel. But what inspired me to write, as usual, was Abraham Lincoln.

The building itself was constructed in 1910, and when the walls were painted I can’t say. But a number of portraits of scientists, writers, and the like had been painted onto the walls, and the position of Lincoln’s was most interesting.

As seen in the picture above, Lincoln and William Shakespeare are located alongside each other. To the other side of Lincoln was George Washington, and he would have appreciated that, as well. But I have to believe that Lincoln’s fondness for Shakespeare’s work would have made this placement most appealing to him.

Shakespeare was a brilliant writer, and Lincoln was gifted in his own right. So to see these two linguistic champions in the same place is quite a sight, and I offer my congratulations to the long-ago artist who made this happen.

The coolest place I can think of


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.

Only in Springfield


Last weekend, my Chicago family (wife and two daughters) and I drove to Springfield to visit my family there (parents, two brothers, sister, and two nephews). It was a great day, and I couldn’t have been any happier with how everything went. And I even stumbled upon a Lincoln story, entirely by accident. But those make for the best stories, don’t they?

My parents decided, correctly, that everyone could go for some pizza. They called up the nearest pizza chain restaurant on North Grand Avenue, and I volunteered to go and pick it up. So with my youngest brother and my older daughter in tow, I headed out to gather up the food.

The pizza place was just a few minutes away, and I was able to take a shortcut through Oak Ridge cemetery, which is best known for being the site of Lincoln’s Tomb. I drove past the tomb and explained to my daughter the custom of rubbing Lincoln’s nose for good luck. I wanted to go and do it for myself, but parking was a bit too scarce, and I knew better than to dally for too long. And I was a bit hungry, too, so it will have to wait for another day.

We left the cemetery, and the pizza place was literally at the end of the block. We pulled in a few minutes earlier than the agreed-upon time, and the pizzas were still in the oven. It was at this point that I noticed a random Lincoln quote displayed on the other side of the street. My brother agreed to continue the pizza vigil, as I crossed the street for a better look at the quote.

It was a fragment of a sentence from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which he delivered in Springfield in 1858. With the benefit of hindsight, his words proved to be nothing less than prophetic, as the states did indeed become all one thing, when slavery was abolished. It took years of warfare, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of deaths, but it did play out just as Lincoln said it would.

I took a picture of the quote and ducked back across the street, just in time to help my brother get the pizzas out to the car. On the return trip, I asked myself what Lincoln would have thought of pizza, since he never tasted it for himself. I then wondered if he would have taken any satisfaction from knowing that his words were proven true in the end. As I drove past the tomb, on my way back to my parents’ house, I decided that some things would just have to remain a mystery.

Here’s why the Civil War began


With the attention being paid to the battle at Gettysburg–the Civil War’s pivotal moment–it bears repeating why the war started in the first place. It’s really not that complicated, but it cannot be brushed aside, either.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were running for a seat in the U.S. senate. They agreed to a series of debates in the summer and fall of that year, even if the people attending those debates could not vote for either Lincoln or Douglas. They voted for their state legislators, who in turn elected the senator, as the Constitution directed back then.It wasn’t like it is today with the direct election of senators by the people. But that’s getting away from my point.

In the first debate, held at Ottawa on August 21, 1858, candidate Lincoln said the following:

“There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence–the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects–certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

We might think that such sentiments were commonly held back in the 1850s, but they were not. The United States–North and South–had tolerated, and even depended upon slavery for centuries. Lincoln’s words were accepted by a small group of Abolitionists, and no one else. In the place and time he lived in, Lincoln’s philosophy was nothing less than revolutionary.

So when the man who proclaimed the equality of a group that had been customarily enslaved and denied their rights was elected as President two years later, the states that did not, and could not, accept Lincoln’s views left the Union. They did not wait for him to be sworn in, and to hear his conciliatory inaugural address, which was specifically directed to them. No, the South simply could not abide having a president who thought as Lincoln did. And any suggestion to the contrary is disingenuous and should be ignored.

My lifelong Lincoln tour continues


Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln comes to you through osmosis. Lincoln’s Home, Lincoln’s Tomb, the Old State Capitol where the “House Divided” speech was delivered, it’s all right there. And I’ve been to them all. And it’s expanded into other Lincoln sites outside of Springfield: The Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre in DC, the birthplace and childhood home sites in Kentucky, the bed that he died on in Chicago, various statues and art pieces that I’ve written about here, and others I can’t think of at the moment. If it’s Lincoln-related, I’m interested in it.

So the chance to see the Mary Todd house in Lexington, Kentucky yesterday was something I could not pass up. It intrigued me because Lincoln would have come face to face with slavery within the Todd household. I wonder how it went down when that happened. It was probably an interesting time, I would imagine.

I took it all in, made a couple of suggestions based on things I had heard or read about Lincoln, and bought a Lincoln pencil sharpener in the ever-present gift shop at the end of the tour. I even signed the credit card receipt with Lincoln as my middle name, which I had never done before. It was an interesting experience, and it was something I’ll likely never do again. The Lincoln bucket list continues to shrink.

Nothing trumps Lincoln, but…


When I saw Lincoln on the screen last year, I felt like a kid on the last day of school. There was so much to look forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. It was the movie of a lifetime for this ardent Lincoln buff, who was born up the road from where Lincoln lived, and carries Lincoln’s name with me everywhere I go.

I was blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation into the man on the penny and the $5 bill. It felt like I was witnessing Lincoln, in a way that I never expected I would. And it felt like the Oscar for Best Actor was the very least that he was owed for this performance. I believe it still.

But yesterday I went to see Les Miserables in a theater. Hugh Jackman’s performance as Jean Valjean was perhaps the grandest acting turn I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. So now I’m conflicted about who will win the best Actor award. It’s a pity that only one of them can win.

Les Miserables was the first professional play experience that I ever had, back in 1989 at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. I loved the rotating stage, and the music, and the costumes, and all of it, really. “Lay Miz” didn’t become the phenomenon that it was for nothing.

At the end of the show, when the actors came out for their curtain calls, the final call–and the heartiest cheers–were for Jean Valjean. The audience really does become emotionally invested in him, as he raises Cosette and runs from Javier and becomes more than just 24601. Valjean must be an actor’s dream role, because he’s the beating heart of the show.

Not every actor could play the part of Valjean. It requires a gargantuan presence on the stage to carry it off, even if all of the showstopping numbers go to the other actors onstage. At the end of the show, it’s clear that Valjean represents the desire in all of us to do the best we can, no matter the obstacles in front of us. When he sings, with his dying breath. the line “To love another person is to see the face of God” it’s an emotionally draining end to an emotionally draining show. That’s a very high bar for any actor to reach. And Jackman fills the role as well as any actor could.

So I’m torn. Lincoln or Valjean? I feel as though I’ve been privileged to see both performances, and it’s a shame they have to compete against each other. I still think Lincoln will win, since real-life American hero (as played by an Irishman) trumps fictional Frenchman (as played by an Australian). But both performances, and the movies that they carry on their backs, remind me of how vitally important the arts are in our society. For a short amount of time, if we’re able and willing to spend $10 or so for a ticket, we can be transported to a place where stories are told and love, in its all of its many forms, wins the day. As it must.

A Lincoln apparition

Lincoln poster

I’m glad that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln lived up to my expectations of it. It was a great movie that told a great story in a riveting way. It will win several Oscars when the time comes, and it deserves to. I don’t think anyone’s going to try bringing Lincoln to the screen again for a long time, either. Except for Saving Lincoln, which I’m looking forward to in a big way.

One of the benefits, besides the actual movie, was the publicity campaign surrounding the film’s release back in November. And this image, taken at a bus stop a few blocks from my house on a rainy night, has a certain spectral feel about it.

There have been many Lincoln posts in this space already, but people have been examining Lincoln from every possible angle since 1865, and the well hasn’t run dry yet. And it never will, either.

A couple of interesting Lincoln views

LincolnRushmore LincolnRushmore2

One of the perks of being a history geek is having some interesting old things. A piece I wrote about Mount Rushmore yesterday triggered a memory of an old issue of American Heritage from 1977. At about the same time Star Wars was redefining the movies forever, the self-proclaimed “Magazine of History” ran a story about the carving of Mount Rushmore. It’s the sort of a story that you probably couldn’t find on a newsstand today, at any price (and do newsstands even exist anymore?).

I love these unique views of the Lincoln sculpture on Mount Rushmore. The cover shot shows the type of maintenance work that is done on the sculptures’ faces to prevent them from cracking. Lincoln had no work done in life, but he’s probably a constant battle in these times. And the second image, which was taken from atop Washington’s head, shows some of the detail on Lincoln’s face that probably isn’t visible from a distance. It shows how finely detailed the work on the faces really is, considering that –as with the cover image–the men doing the work were suspended in midair at the time.

Of all the Mount Rushmore images online, I was not able to locate these two through a Google search, so this could be their online debut. If that’s the case (and even if it isn’t), I’m happy to present the images here. Rushmore is an American shrine, and I’m glad to say that I’ve seen it a couple of times in person. If, for some reason, you have not, I humbly suggest that a trip to South Dakota in the not-too-distant future. It’s worth the long drive to get there.

An alternate version of Lincoln’s words


Everybody knows the Gettysburg Address, or at least the version of it that appears in every history book you’ll ever see, and on the wall inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, and in other public places as well. But I recently came upon a slightly different version of it, and I wanted to share it here.

First, some back story. Last summer I read Lincoln’s Sword, a fascinating book by historian Douglas L. Wilson. In the book, Wilson examines Lincoln’s writings and speeches as a way of explaining Lincoln’s mastery of the language, and the way he used it to shape public opinion about the war. In fact, Wilson claims that our modern understanding of the Civil War comes from what Lincoln said or wrote about it.

But there were limitations to this in the 19th century. The technology to record his words didn’t exist yet, and so any written version of a speech which Lincoln gave depends on the memory of the person who wrote the speech down. Sometimes that person gets it right, and sometimes they don’t. And there’s really no way of knowing which is which.

The first–and perhaps most jarring–example Wilson gave in his book was Lincoln’s Farewell Address in Springfield Illinois upon leaving for Washington in early 1861. Lincoln spoke off the cuff to the people who had come to see him off that morning, and it wasn’t until after the train had left that someone asked Lincoln to write down what he had said. There are several instances of where Lincoln’s words, as written, differed from what reporters and witnesses at the scene claim that he said. Lincoln wrote down what he either believed he said, or wishes he might have said, but even his written words are not necessarily the words that came out of his mouth on that occasion.

With this potential–or even a likelihood–for discrepancies between the spoken and written versions of a speech, I came across a version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that was printed in the Chicago Tribune on November 21, 1863. The version is what a Tribune reporter–who presumably was present in Gettysburg on the occasion of Lincoln’s speech–told the world that Lincoln said. None of the differences changes the meaning of the words, necessarily, but it does leave open the possibility that what Lincoln’s handwritten version of the speech said differed from the words that he spoke on the stage.

Here’s what the Tribune reported that Lincoln said:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers established upon this continent a Government subscribed in Liberty and dedicated to the fundamental principle that all mankind are created equal by a good God, and [applause] and now we are engaged in a great contest. We are contesting the question whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, so dedicated can longer remain. We are met on a great battle field of the war. We are met here to dedicate a portion of that field as the final resting place of those who have given their lives to that nation that it might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a large sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men lying dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or to detract [Great applause] The world will little heed, nor long remember, what we say here; but it will not forget what they did here [Immense Applause].

It is for us rather, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried forward. It is rather for us here to be dedicated the great task remaining before us; for us to renew our dedication to that cause for which they gave the full measure of their devotion. Here let us resolve that what they have done shall not have been done in vain.That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth. That the Government this people founded, by the people, shall not perish.”

This version leaves out a few of the more memorable turns of a phrase that I am used to seeing in the Gettysburg Address: For example, the phrase “The last full measure of devotion” is missing, as is “conceived in liberty” from the first sentence, and “a new birth of freedom” from the penultimate sentence appears to have been clipped in the Tribune’s version of the speech. And the last sentence, with its rhythmic “of the people, by the people, for the people” construction, was not reported by the Tribune in that way at all.

Does this mean that the idealized version of the speech, which the Union soldiers recited back to Lincoln at the beginning of the recent Spielberg movie, is inaccurate? Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible that the Tribune‘s version of the speech was not completely accurate. Again, the person who wrote this down had no way of recording Lincoln’s words for additional reference. This version is what they though they heard, and it’s possible that other newspapers printed other versions of the speech as well. But it does raise the question of whether Lincoln’s words from the stage at Gettysburg are the same ones that we are familiar with today.

Again, in the absence of a recorded version of the speech, we’re hoping that what has been written down by Lincoln is accurate. For as honest as Lincoln certainly was, we all have problems remembering exactly what we said, sometimes. The broad strokes of Lincoln’s message have undoubtedly survived intact, but there’s also a possibility–perhaps even a probability–that some of his rhetorical flourishes may have been added after the speech. Either way, it’s always going to be the most important speech in American history. And I’ve just written almost a thousand words to prove that point.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people

There’s a reason why, in a society where “that’s so last year” is a put-down, Lincoln still rings true. The man’s been dead for nearly a century and a half now, but he spoke the words, and wrote the words, that we all need to understand if we’re going to consider ourselves to be Americans.

This morning, driving north on Western Avenue in Chicago, I pulled my car over and stood at the base of a Lincoln statue. I recalled the Gettysburg Address, and the final sentence which says that “we highly resolve that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” And that hasn’t happened, then or now.

On my tiny little blog–tucked away in internet obscurity–I ask anyone who is talking about secession to consider Lincoln’s words very carefully. We just had an election, and Barack Obama won, fair and square. He got a majority of the electoral votes, and our Constitution says that’s all he needed to do. Our Constitution, as amended, also says that after he serves a second term in office, he can never be the President again. That’s the whole “by the people” part. Are you seriously suggesting that doesn’t apply anymore, simply because your guy lost the election?

In 2004, I felt the same way you did when George W. Bush was re-elected. The thought of another four years with him as the President seemed unbearable. But that’s what the will of the people was, and the four years went by. These next four years will go by, too. But the results of the last election must be upheld. To suggest otherwise is simply unAmerican.

Stop the secession talk right now, and work on making the country, or your own life, better than it is. “The people” that Lincoln was referring to at Gettysburg have already spoken.

Seven score and nine years ago


I had a few moments in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago this evening–on the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address–and so I made a modern-day pilgrimage to the Standing Lincoln statue nearby.

Lincoln’s speech is nothing less than amazing, in terms of its forceful and determined statement of what the battle meant, and the larger context of why the war was being waged. I stood at the base of the statue, looked up, and marveled at what Lincoln was able to accomplish with his words. More learned men than him have come and gone, but it’s Lincoln that we still revere. And that’s something worth celebrating on November 19 and every other day as well.

The ball in the foreground of the picture above has the text of the Gettysburg Address raised on its surface, and I read the words, as I have many times before. But reading them, in the presence of a statue dedicated in his honor, somehow felt right to me. I shut my eyes, gave thanks for the way that things turned out, and went back to my car.

With my pilgrimage accomplished, I’m already beginning to wonder what will be planned for the sesquicentennial of the address next year. I’m hoping that it will be something worthy of Lincoln and his legacy. Our ongoing fascination with Lincoln gives me reason to believe that it will.

Loved the movie, but hated the green screens

I couldn’t wait until Lincoln came out, and so last weekend I went to the only theater in Chicago that’s showing it. I was drawn into the story of how Lincoln got the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed through a lame duck Congress. I’ll never take Lincoln’s political skills for granted again.

But I’m not intending to write a movie review right now. What I do want to say is that there were scenes, beginning with the very first one shown above, that I suspect were shot using green screens. The technology is such that the actors can be filmed standing in front of a  green screen, and then a background shot can be superimposed later on. It works to hilarious effect in some situations, but can also be very distracting. And so it was with this movie.

Lincoln rides in a carriage with his son, in one scene, but I never for a second believed they were anywhere but inside a soundstage somewhere. It keeps the shot more controlled, I suppose, but it felt like a visual trick was being played on me. I’m sure this is done in most, if not all movies, but I wasn’t expecting it in Lincoln. Perhaps I just don’t get to the movies enough anymore.

But this is just a minor quibble. The movie itself deserves to be seen by anyone who wants to understand what Lincoln was up against, on both the legislative and the personal fronts. Neither was very smooth sailing for him, but he somehow held everything together well enough to accomplish some truly great things. The movie makes it clear that our collective admiration for Lincoln is well-founded.

In praise of writers, one and all

I often write about death in this space. I’ve paid tribute to astronauts,  rappers, rock stars, ballplayers, and even people I never knew. And there has to be a reason that I go to, and write about, estate sales as much as I do. Death is an important part of life, and to be fully aware of how exhilarating it is to be alive, we must remember that everyone’s time on this earth will one day run out.

One group of people I’ve yet to honor is writers. I love to write, and consider myself to be a writer at heart, even if I don’t exactly have that as my job title. People who use their ability with words have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. And yet, the deaths of Ray Bradbury and others in the literary realm haven’t moved me to put a few words together on their behalf. I told a personal story after Maurice Sendak’s passing, but didn’t connect it to writing in any meaningful way. So now’s my chance to remedy that.

Gore Vidal was a writer from the days before television came in and sucked out whatever impulses we may have for reading. Yes, we have people like Steven King and J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, who can write books that people will want to read, or at least go and see the film adaptation  of their books. But by and large, superstar authors are hard to find anymore. Ours is a culture where celebrities can attach their names to books (and here’s exhibit A on that score), but authors who do nothing more than write books are another story (no pun intended).

People read Vidal’s books, and his words were always worth the time to read them. His passing is a blow to writing generally, because I’m hard pressed to think of somebody else with his stature when it comes to putting words onto a page or–more likely in these days–onto a screen of some kind. I’m not intending to slight anyone who might actually have such stature, but I honestly don’t know who else is in that league that Vidal occupied.

Abraham Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about great writing, once remarked that “writing is the great invention of the world.” Vidal took this invention and ran with it, and he leaves behind a legacy that few can match. But the great thing about that legacy is that it lives on, so that others who are not yet born might someday open up Burr or Lincoln or 1876 and get something from it. And I would suggest that’s the best thing any writer can hope for.

Quarterly report #3

When I wrote my last quarterly report back in December of 2011, I pointed out that the end of this quarter comes right before the start of the baseball season. I’m a baseball guy at heart, and have been since I was a little kid, so the thought of baseball season starting up again helped me to get through the winter.  

The weather this winter wasn’t bad at all, but I still wrote a piece that came to me as I was shovelling snow one day. I think there were only two measurable snowfalls last winter, and I’ll take that any time.

I wrote over 100 pieces this quarter, averaging more than one per day. If I ever would average two pieces a day, that would be a whole lot of writing, and I’m not sure how that would be possible. But I’ve also learned that you can never say never.

I wrote some baseball pieces, of course, but some of my writing in this realm is being posted on Through the Fence Baseball and on the Cubs page on Fanified. So check those periodically, if you’re so inclined. There may be others, and I’ll post them here in case there are.

I also used this space to write a couple of Lincoln pieces, which have always been a part of this blog that I enjoy writing. Lincoln follows me through life, and I try to reflect on that when my time allows for it. As long as this blog is here, similar posts will keep on appearing.

I also wrote a few pieces about the Trayvon Martin case. It’s a story that picks off the scab of race relations in this country, and reminds me that we still have so far to travel on that score. I want to be a part of that discussion, somehow, and that’s why I’ve waded into this as I have. I’ll continue to do that in the quarters ahead, too. It’s too important an issue to just ignore it.

But the most rewarding pieces that I wrote in the past three months were birthday tributes to my mother and my father, on the occasions of their birthdays. I didn’t want to just send them a card, or an email, with the same old birthday wishes. So I opened up my heart, put it on here for the world to read, and sent them the links. It meant more to me that way, and hopefully to them, as well.

This blog gives me a way of  addressing the world, on any topic that interests me enough to compose a blog post. And I’ve learned how much of the world actually sees this, and it’s enormously heartening. I have no illusions that the posts in this space are any more that small sea shells in the vast ocean that is the World Wide Web. But at the same time, putting my shells out into that ocean is really the most that I can do. And I’m more than willing to keep at it for the forseeable future.

I wish a Happy Spring to all who may see this as it is being written, at the end of March, 2012. And now for the all-important phrase that I’ve waited a long time to hear:

Play ball!

A jewel of a sculpture

Chicago never ceases to amaze me. I’ve lived here for more than twenty years, and I’m always finding unexpected things. Today was just the latest example, and I wanted to take a few minutes to tell the story here.

In June of 1865, just a month after Abraham Lincoln’s casket had come through town, Chicago renamed a street called Little Fort Road as Lincoln Avenue. Lincoln is now a major street on the  North side of Chicago, eventually meeting up with US Route 41. And along Lincoln Street, there was a building with a terra cotta facade and a bas relief portrait of Abraham Lincoln. I never saw the building myself, as it was built in 1922 and torn down in 1974. But before it was torn down, arrangements were apparently made to preserve the Lincoln sculpture, as it was presented to the  Chicago Public Library.

I first came upon the sculpture this afternoon inside a large library on–what else–Lincoln Avenue. It had a plaque alongside it, but the life-size bust of Lincoln was striking all by itself. I stood in front of this likeness for a few minutes, grateful that people had honored Lincoln: first by creating this work,  and then by preserving it long enough that I could see it. After all, I was six years old and a long way from Chicago when the building that originally housed this artwork came down.

Lincoln’s greatness is something that can never be forgotten. He almost single-handedly succeeded in preserving the Union, while also ending the most monstrous injustice that America has ever committed. The continuing fascination with him, in a culture that otherwise doesn’t seem to value its past very much, is an inspiration to me.

The best desk calendar

Over the past year, my job allowed me the flexiblity to work from home for long stretches at a time. On the days I was in the office, the first thing I would do is tear off the daily entries for the Lincoln desk calendar that I received as a gift last Christmas. Lincoln’s words and deeds were always a good way to begin the  work day.

This week was the first time I had been in the office in 2012, and I discovered that my 2011 Lincoln calendar had run its course. All things must pass, and that applies to desk calendars as well.

Rather than throwing each day’s entry away–as I would probably do with other desk calendars–I put them all into a filing bin sitting on my desk. At the end of the year, instead of gathering up all of the pages and throwing them out, I arranged them into a stack, put a rubber band around them, and will find a place for them somewhere in my office work space. Throwing them away just felt like a foolish thing to do.

So now I have a stack of Lincoln quotations and facts at the ready, for whatever situations may present themselves in this and other years to come. And on a psychological level, that’s comforting to me.  I was born and raised in Lincoln’s hometown, my ancestors knew Lincoln when he was just an ambitious young man on the prairie, and as a result Lincoln is literally my middle name. As I see it, Lincoln is the ideal desk companion to have.

Life, Death, Alcohol and New Jersey

I met up with a friend recently when I was visiting New York. It was the day after Clarence Clemons had died, and since my friend lives in New Jersey I offered him my condolences. He told me that if you don’t live in New Jersey, you can’t appreciate how much Springsteen and his band mean to the people who do. And I take him at his word on that.

As I often do when I consider matters of life and death, I shared with him a bit of wisdom taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet says that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” I wish I could say that I’m well-versed on Shakespeare, but unfortunately I’m not. I only learned of the quote because it was often cited by both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These two men represent, in my mind, the truism that overarching brilliance can take a person far beyond their original station in life. If Shakespeare’s words had an impact on these two great men, who am I to question it?

I’m not a religious person, in the least. All of those many years of Catholic school just didn’t take root with me. But the beauty of Shakespeare’s words is that I don’t have to be religious in order to believe them. If a person falls out of an open window, and an awning breaks that person’s fall and they walk away without a scratch, well it just wasn’t their time yet. But if somebody else gets run over by a sightseeing bus, as recently happened in the city where I live, it just meant that that person’s time had come around. And there’s nothing that either person could have done to change that. I believe that as much as I believe anything in life.

Since my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in 25 years, we had a lot of catching up to do. And with all that catching up came lots of drinks. Pitcher after pitcher of beer, topped off by a concoction of Hawaiian Punch and too many types of hard alcohol added in (makes the karaoke sound better, I was told). So when we left the bar at 2 AM, the story here began to take shape.

I had stopped drinking, by and large, late last year. I hadn’t had a beer in almost seven months, which probably hasn’t happened since about 1983. I had grown tired of battering my liver, and decided on my own to see if I could live without it. And it turns out I could. But being out with a friend–and one who I hadn’t seen in so long, at that–made everything else go out the window. I reverted to my old habits, and drank with reckless abandon. By all rights, I should have been falling down drunk, due to a lowered tolerance for alcohol. But, as it turned out, the opposite was true.

I found myself on Canal Street in New York with my drunken friend, and realized that I had to take control of the situation. With just a few dollars in my pocket, and no idea where I was, I knew this was not the time to be staggering about. I told my friend I was going to get him home, no matter what it took, and that was the end of it. The problem was that he lives in God-knows-where, New Jersey. Which it might actually be called, because I had no idea what the town’s name was, let alone what the street address in this unknown town might be. And good luck getting into a cab with that.

I made the decision to get my friend back the hotel I was staying in, which was a few blocks away on Canal. Maybe I could stash him in the hotel lobby (they would love that one, I’m sure) or maybe I could get him into the fitness center or the laundry room or something. Anyplace would be better than where we were.

We made it down one block on Canal, and he’s alternating between calling me a dick and threatening to fight me. Thanks for nothing, right?  But he was my charge, and I had a mission to get him off the street safely, so he could say whatever he wanted to.

At the first intersection, my friend stepped off the curb and into the street. That was when his knees gave way, and he fell down and hit his head. But he didn’t just hit his head, he cut it open, too. So now there’s blood everywhere, and I’m really thinking that something needs to happen, and fast. Cabs wouldn’t pick us up because of the blood, and I wouldn’t know where to have them take us if they did.

Fortunately, I had my friend’s cellphone, and so I called 911. The ambulance came after what seemed like a very long time (magnified by the situation, I’m sure) and they loaded my friend in and sped away. I saw a spot of his blood in the street, and realized that he might not come out of this alive. Shakespeare’s words weren’t quite so comforting to me then.

After an extended cry–thinking that I had let my friend down and failed in my self-appointed mission–I got up and walked back to the hotel. As I walked,  I began hoping that Shakespeare had been wrong. Maybe, if my friend was in the hands of paramedics and doctors and technicians who all knew what they were doing, my friend would still be OK. I wouldn’t call what I was doing prayer, but I’m sure that more religious people than me would call it just that. I was hoping against hope, and pleading with the ‘divinity” that Shakespeare spoke of to give my friend a break. It was all I could do at that moment, and if I had really believed Shakespeare’s words I would have thought it was a waste of time. So my faith in the wisdom of  Shakespeare/Lincoln/Douglass was tested that night.

The next morning, I got a text  from my friend saying that all was well. But in the meantime, I learned about what had happened to Ryan Dunn of Jackass and his friend. (FWIW, I’m completely of the thinking that Ebert said what needed to be said, and Bam Margera should STFU about it). No Porsches were involved with my friend and I, fortunately, but a night of drinking had turned out bad for them, and I went back to worrying that maybe something bad had happened to my friend. It wasn’t until I got a Facebook message from him the next day that I knew everything would be OK. And I can’t describe how grateful I am for that.

It was a harrowing night, and one which I probably won’t forget anytime soon. For one thing, I am going to cut out drinking for good. I don’t need it, and if nothing else I realized that drinking can have some bad consequences, even where no driving is involved. But, more importantly, I realized that life can be subject to tragic turns at any moment. We can’t be afraid of them, but we can’t pretend that they don’t exist, either. Every day is a gift, meant to be enjoyed to the fullest extent possible. Plan for the future, yes, but don’t be fooled into thinking that life will last forever. It never has, and it never will.