“. . . the States were NOT strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already. . . ” (Daniel Webster)

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

Many semesters in teaching “discourse” at SMU, the opening subject matter of my classes was the Gettysburg Address. Everyone reading this knows, and nearly every student to whom I assigned it over the years knew who wrote it and vaguely (some more vaguely than others) why it was written.

The first lecture/discussion I led in those classes began with the question, “Can you finish this sentence in a way that most Americans would know? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that. . .’” Always there were 1 or 2 students in a class of 15 who could not, but everyone else chimed in, “all men are created equal.”

Then I would ask where the sentence came from, and we usually had a difference of opinion about equally divided in the class. Half would say the Constitution, and half would timidly say the Declaration of Independence. Often one lonely student would insist that the words came from the Bible.

The Constitution, of course, in its original form says something quite different. All men are not created equal. For starters, a black man who happened to be a slave, by the calculation of the Constitution, was only 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, section 2). And women were not part of the political process. The equality of the Constitution is for free white males.

So where did this “all men are created equal” nonsense come from—and, more importantly, why do about half of the students (not a scientific sampling, to be sure) at a major exclusive/expensive university think the words are in the Constitution?

That so many Americans assume the phrase about equality is in the Constitution derives from the thinking of men like Daniel Webster and others before him.

At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, [the states] had been in some measure, and for some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation . . . the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, united States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union.
(Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution Not a Compact between Sovereign States.” U.S. Senate, February 16, 1833. Web. Gutenberg.org).

The purpose of the Continental Congress in 1787 was to make a “more perfect union,” not to create one. We simply assume—or we would not celebrate this holiday—that the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the nation.

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

[The Declaration of Independence] was “a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled”—“by the delegates of the good people of the colonies. . .” It was not an act done by the State governments . . . It was emphatically the act of the whole people of the united colonies. . . From the moment of the Declaration of Independence . . . the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it, created and acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. (Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Bk. II, Ch. 1, “The History of the Revolution,” pp 157-158).

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, secured the concept of one nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and interpreted it for all time.

Abraham Lincoln, despite what some current “conservative” and “original intent” authors and film makers (Willmoore Kendall, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Dinesh D’Sousa, for example) want us to believe, did not redefine the Constitution. He simply restated so that all Americans understood the founding principle of the nation—the nation that already existed on July 4, 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier time so feckless . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a [single] proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
(Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Page 147.)

All children are not created equal.

All children are not created equal.

“. . . fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it. . . “

That my left shoulder is healing and my arm in a sling may be what some of my friends would say is, ‘God doing for me what I cannot do for myself’ – that is, I must  listen to others instead of publishing my unruly palaver.

Here, then, are two of my favorite Thanksgiving texts. The first one ought to read. The second, one will take joy in having read.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

HD_LincolnA8Nov1863zc.previewThe year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln


Be Kind 1324405259_md
by Michael Blumenthal

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“. . . extensively careful to give no offence. . .”

William Penn, Founder and FRIEND

William Penn, Founder and

At important times I have been influenced by members of The Society of Friends (Quakers). The first was Leslie Pratt Spelman. Dr. Spelman was Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands. Another was my dear friend and mentor at the time my life was being pulled together (notice I did not say I was pulling my life together) in the late 1980s.

Members of the Boston Meeting of the American Friends Service Committee—the cook and a couple of the nurses at the AIDS Hospice in Boston where I volunteered in the early 90s—also set for countless others examples of selflessness and charity.

Recently I tried to explain to a friend the Quaker concept of “equality” so he could find a way to address a letter to a famous person whom he greatly admires. I found this explanation online.

The Quaker testimony of equality has its origins in the spiritual experience of Friends that each person has . . .  equal access to God through the provision within each person of a measure of God’s own light. . . Quakers are [historically involved in] reform movements: abolition of slavery, women’s rights . . .  civil rights. This work arises out of a . . . desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. . . [and] the biblical injunction of equality, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. . . Friends avoid the use of titles that designate artificial rankings of superiority. . . [such as] “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” (1).

The website cites Robert Barclay and John Woolman as two historical leaders of the Friends on whose writings these ideas are based.

When I was in junior high school, our family had great admiration for Dr. Arthur M. Clarke, Executive Secretary of the Nebraska Baptist Convention (2).

Dr. Clarke was as sophisticated and refined as anyone we knew, and we stood in some awe of him. His degree was D.D., an honorary Doctorate of Divinity. But somehow that made it even more important, that a college chose to honor him, not that he had earned the degree by hard work.

One day my mother and I were in our kitchen (she was cooking, I was washing dishes). Dr. Clarke was to visit us soon. I commented to my mother that I’d go to school and someday people would call me “doctor,” too. Mother drew herself up into her most corrective full height and said, “People will call you ‘doctor’ when you deserve to be called ‘doctor.’”

This is not the place to discuss (because my mere mention of it will be enough for those who understand) the effect her comment had on me as it became a tape loop in my memory. (It took me 14 years during which I got sober to finish my PhD.) I will be called “Dr.” when I deserve to be called “Dr.” The humor—or sadness—of this little vignette is that to this day if anyone calls me Dr. Knight, my response is to wonder to whom they are speaking, and then to be embarrassed. I have deserved to be called Dr. Knight since 1988 (because I did the work—jumped through all the hoops—to get the degree; it is not “honorary”).

Will it ever be deserved?

Will it ever be deserved?

John Woolman (1720-1772), described by Wikipedia (don’t tell my students!) as “a North American merchant, tailor, journalist, and itinerant Quaker preacher, and an early abolitionist in the colonial era.” I don’t remember which of my Quaker friends first told me about John Woolman, but when I read about him on the Guilford College website, I knew immediately who he was.

In purity of heart the mind is divinely opened to behold the nature of universal righteousness, or the righteousness of the kingdom of God. “No man hath seen the Father save he that is of God, he hath seen the Father.” The natural mind is active about the things of this life. . . [a]nd so long as this natural will remains unsubjected, so long there remains an obstruction to the clearness of divine light operating in us; but when we love God with all our heart and with all our strength, in this love we love our neighbour as ourselves; and a tenderness of heart is felt towards all people . . . even those who, as to outward circumstances, may be to us as the Jews were to the Samaritans (3).

As long as our will is not subject to universal righteousness, our mind is obstructed from the clearness of divine light. But when we love God with all our heart, we love all people.

It’s disingenuous of me to use a quote about subjecting my will to universal righteousness because I really have no clue what that means. As I have made abundantly clear in previous posts here, I have lost all understanding of “religious” language.

I am, however, intrigued by the biblical question, “Who is my neighbor?” Woolman says that when we follow the famous answer of Jesus to that question, that is

The American Friends Service Committee, "a tenderness of heart  is felt towards all people"

The American Friends Service Committee,
“a tenderness of heart
is felt towards all people”

manifested in a full reformation of our lives, wherein all things are new. . .  the desire of gain is subjected . . . [and] When employment is honestly followed in the light of truth . . . [people] are so separated in spirit from the desire of riches, that in their employments they become extensively careful to give no offence, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ (4).

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be called “doctor.” But more important, I wonder what it means to be “extensively careful to give no offense, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ” in one’s employment.

I end as I will not allow my writing students to do by asking a question. What would happen if the goal of all of our economic life together were to “honestly [follow] in the light of truth. . . [and] give no offence?”
(1) “Equality.” Guilford College, About.  guilford.edu, 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.
(2) Mention of Dr. Clarke from the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star  from 26 September 1954 is online at
http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/46058033/ . For my friends in the ELCA, this is interesting because the story about the Nebraska Baptist Convention is mixed with a story about a meeting to discuss the merger of four Lutheran Synods. Hmmmm. 1954.
(3) Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. E-text. Web. (p.122).
(4) Woolman, ibid.

Let’s amend the Constitution

I propose a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading:

“Neither Congress nor any State Legislature shall pass any law limiting any person’s right to be free from violence at the hands of those who bear arms.”

A book I know well says, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” I have tried for years to come to terms with that concept. To make it part of my self-perception. Internalizing the idea is pretty difficult for me because much in my past I wish had been otherwise than it was.

I know, I know. Everyone can say that—and would if she were being unabashedly honest. But whether wishing it were not so is the same as regretting, I’ll let keener minds than mine decide. My distinction is that I can regret only those choices I made consciously and willingly, while I can wish experiences over which I had little or no control had not happened.

Ah, sweet mysteries (read certainties) of life

My dad used to say that Democratic presidents start wars. In his experience that was (at least marginally) true. Woodrow Wilson presided over the US entry into WWI, FDR presided over the US response to Pearl Harbor, and Harry Truman was responsible for the still-ongoing hostilities in Korea. JFK and LBJ got us into the quagmire of Viet Nam from which Nixon took so long to extract us.



I’m sure I’m forgetting some US wars/invasions/”police actions” in my lifetime, but “Operation Urgent Fury” (Grenada), “Operation Just Cause” (Panama), and “Operation Desert Storm” (Iraq I) were the brainchildren of Republican presidents. And the current quagmire of Afghanistan, with its collateral damage in Iraq, was Dick Cheney’s idea (oh, he wasn’t president, was he?).

My guess is that until he was 90 or so (2004)—and this seems to be some sort of insult to or criticism of him, but it certainly is not—my dad would have said, if asked, that Democratic presidents start wars and Republican Presidents are men of peace. I don’t mean to say that as any negative reflection on my dad’s beliefs or intellectual abilities. This was one of very few over-simplified ideas he ever expressed.

In two weeks the SMU campus will host Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama as the most honored guests at the opening of the “shrine” (yes, that’s how WFAA TV referred to it the other day) to George W. Bush, his Presidential Library on the SMU campus. Five Presidents at one occasion. Funny thing, that. Of the five only two presided over wars/invasions/police actions, and both of them are named Bush.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some military action Carter and/or Clinton trumped up, and Obama has yet to extract the US from the Afghanistan swamp, so my characterization is probably not true.

The first-year writing course I teach is titled “Discovery & Discourse.”  I’m supposed to try to get students to discover interesting ideas and write comprehensible discourse about those ideas. My assumption is that’s an impossible goal. Discovering ideas may be possible. Teaching a student to write coherently about them is not.

The reason is simple. They already know too much that may or may not be correct. Like my dad’s certainty that Democratic presidents start wars.

I have a favorite example. Students are taught (and I use passive voice purposefully here—note it’s the only passive verb in this piece) to begin an essay with a general idea and move to the specific (with some sort of “hook” for the reader at the point of the specific). I can’t remember if that’s inductive or deductive reasoning, but whichever, it makes for ridiculous student writing:  “In the history of the world. . . “

My students write in one semester about the rhetorical means used in three presidential speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Conceived in Liberty

Conceived in Liberty

begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That seems pretty specific to me.

Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Address (written mostly by Peggy Noonan) begins, “Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger.” That one’s pretty specific, too.

And Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech asking Congress to declare that, because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a state of war existed between the US and Japan (note, he did not ask Congress to declare war) begins with one of the most famously specific sentences in all of political discourse, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Shock and awe

Shock and awe

As an example of writing, the last is my favorite, not because it’s the best writing, but because the most famous word in the speech was a revision (oh, to get students to understand that good writing is re-writing). Roosevelt’s first draft was, “a date which will live in world history.” If he had not changed “world history” to “infamy,” how famous would the speech be?

I’m not saying high school instruction in writing is wrong, but that it’s inadequate just as simplistic ideas about politics and history are not necessarily wrong although they often are—Democrats are not more likely to start wars than Republicans.

The gathering of Presidents in Dallas in two weeks, it seems to me, is designed to enshrine a simplistic idea that a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday. The entire presidency of George W. Bush is legitimized in many Americans’ minds by saying, “I learned all I need to know about Islam on September 11, 2001.”

When is a person NOT like a snake?

A pain in the

A pain in the

Geneticists say we share a whole bunch of DNA with all other animals. You know, snakes have spines, and so do we. Snakes have eyes, and so do we. If you want to study how human lungs take bad things out of your blood and replace them with oxygen? you better have yourself a big snake.  I have a friend who did that kind of research at the Harvard School of Public Health, and he introduced me to his snake. A big snake with lungs remarkably like ours.

A snake could not fall in the bathtub and break her hip. Obviously. She doesn’t have one. We wouldn’t either if we didn’t need strength and balance for doing things like standing up.

On about February 1, I was putting up the shower curtain in my bathroom—which I had accidentally pulled down cleaning—and was standing in a precarious position with one foot on the tub and my other foot on the toilet. I fell right after I told myself what you’re telling me right now, “This is dumb. You’re going to fall.” This was not one of those old man “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” moments. It was just dumb.

I landed on my hip on the bathtub—not in the tub, but on it. Even when I dislocated my shoulder the first time, I did not feel pain like that. The pain made me nauseous. I slowly got up and decided that, since I could stand, I probably had not broken my hip.

Last week (seven weeks later) both my doctor and my (newly found) physical therapist told me that most likely I bruised my Sacrospinous ligament, or one of my Sacrococcygeal ligaments, or—most likely—my Iliolumbar ligament. Or all of them. And yes, the PT did point them out on a plastic skeleton.

If you bruise a muscle, it heals pretty fast because all that blood the snake’s lungs and our lungs clean up and send out to do its job goes to muscles, not ligaments. You bruise a ligament, and it hurts like hell for a long, long time. If it’s in your hip, every time you get in and out of your car you stretch the bruise and never give it a chance to heal.

So now I’m doing PT twice a week for a while, and I have to wear this belt around my butt 24/7. It holds my butt together so I (supposedly) can’t move wrong and stretch those ligaments again, and they will have a chance to heal. The picture is inaccurate. I wear it under my jeans. It’s a pain in the ass.

In a (campaign) speech he delivered on March 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln said,18630124_Emancipation_Proclamation-Harpers-Nast

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] *

Funny that Abraham Lincoln and I should both use snakes as a metaphor. He used it as a metaphor for slavery, of course. I’m not sure what my use is a metaphor for.

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was an act of war, not of morality or compassion. He had no power to free the slaves, especially in the secessionist states. He had the power to conscript slaves to leave their masters and join the Union forces in war against them. The 13th Amendment was the vehicle of ending slavery in the United States.** Nevertheless, we all know the work—the long, painful process—of bringing equality to all Americans is not yet finished. Emancipation is a long way off.

Yesterday on Facebook, notice of a posting by one of my friends (an actual friend, someone I love dearly) on his Wall surprised (“shocked” is a better word) me. It was a picture of President Obama’s daughters on vacation for Spring Break. The caption was vile. It purported to be a criticism of the Obama family spending our money to go to the Bahamas. Of course the ridiculous inaccuracy of that criticism is obvious.

blc02Because I am not a snake, I am wearing a ridiculous belt around my ass.

Abraham Lincoln’s metaphor of the snake drew great laughter and applause that day in New Haven, Connecticut.

Anyone who sees my friend’s Facebook post knows it’s not about the President’s family spending tax money. It’s about those uppity people daring to have a family vacation together. The nerve!

My writing skill, I am afraid, is not great enough to tie all of this together.

Snake. Racism. Equality. Pain in the ass. You figure it out.
* Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech at New Haven.” The History Place. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.
**  The most accessible and accurate account of the situation surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation I know of is:  Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

You, too, can shock an SMU student

Zach. A fine student, too.

Zach. A fine student, too.

Some morning when I won’t bother anyone, I’m going to take a picture of my clock when I wake up. 3:59 AM. Almost regular enough to set your watch by—except no one needs a watch with all of our electronic gadgets showing the exact time. How does that happen? How do my computer, my iPad, and my phone all know exactly the same time? One of the mysteries of the digital age that—if I ponder it longer than it’s taken me to type this sentence—can drive me to distraction.

My neurologist told me once that as I get older the symptoms of TLE would “soften.” That was his word. “Soften.” I have no clue. The only thing that has changed over the years is that actual seizures are almost a thing of the past. Your seizures couldn’t withstand the massive doses of Carbatrol I take, either. Oh, right—you don’t have seizures.

Maybe you do. Perhaps I’m the one with the normal-firing synapses and all of you are really living in constant seizures. That would explain a lot. Consider John Boehner. Perhaps his problem is the massive misfirings in his temporal lobe, misfirings he thinks are normal, and he’s glad I take Carbatrol to make my brain like his. Glad as long as I pay for it myself because his wife has hundreds of shares of Shire? Who knows? Makes as much sense as any other theory I know.

But the TLE symptom that has not gone away? I’m in pretty much full hypergraphic mode this morning. It used to scare me or piss me off which, of course, only made things worse. Now I simply write and write and write and write, and who knows what might dribble off the ends of my fingers.

On a morning when I thought of something to write about the day before (or even when I woke up in the night ready to write and took an Ambien instead) it’s not so much a problem. But on a day like today when I simply have to write and have nothing in mind, it’s a pain in the ass.

In fact, I did have an idea last night, but  I can’t write about my students and put it out here to zoom around in the Ethernet for all of eternity (apparently).

I can tell one little harmless student anecdote. This week is conference week—we suspend classes and I meet with students individually to try to help them make sense out of the essay they’re writing (the person who is writing this is going to help someone write something sensible? There you see the entire problem with our educational system). I have sixty twenty-minute conferences in one week. No wonder I’m in full swing this morning.

They’re writing about the rhetorical means of the Gettysburg Address. Seems a little like having a picnic lunch at the Tomb of the Unknown

The team.

The team.

Soldier at Arlington. The word “desecration” almost comes to mind. I’ve suggested to most of them that they should see the movie Lincoln. Really, it’s a great movie and passably accurate historically. One kid said when I asked if he’d seen it, “My grandfather told me it was boring.”

Well, now. Let’s unpack that sentence.

My grandfather. And just what kind of man is his grandfather? First his age. If the kid is 19 (he’s what we used to call a “Freshman”—now they have much fancier non-sexist names) he was born when his father was, say, 23 (married just out of college), that’s a total of 42. So if his father was born when his father was 23, that makes the grandfather 65. I’m older than his grandfather. Yikes! What am I doing in that office, anyway?

So his grandfather is either 1) not a movie buff, 2) an old man who likes “Terminator” movies, 3) not a history buff, 4) from Texas and has little use for Lincoln, or 5) a grandfather who understands the great chasm between generations.

Those possibilities pretty much unpack the rest of the statement. There’s no way to tell without meeting the grandfather. I don’t want to do that because he’s obviously an old straight white man, and they are a dime a dozen. He’s old. I’m in the prime of my career. Enough said. Except that I do have quite a few straight friends.

So I told the student the story of my being one degree of separation away from Abraham Lincoln. He was pretty amazed—not that I have a real personal reason to be so caught up in studying Lincoln, but that it was possible I could be that old. That’s not what he said, but I could, as they say, see the wheels turning.

Now we come to the end of this little exercise in slowing my mind down. Or not. Is there a point here? That study of rhetorical means? Anyone who knows the Gettysburg Address knows the metaphor of “conceived in liberty” and “new birth of freedom.” What lofty language. Our nation came to be in the fervor of liberty. So, I ask my classes, what is the metaphor, really? Blank stares.

Eminently shockable

Eminently shockable

“What’s the semen for the conception of America?”

That’s how you shock a bunch of college kids.

And probably you, too. Mr. Rarefied Lincoln couldn’t possibly have meant that.

And I say President Lincoln understood liberty in an earthy, primal way John Boehner and the Tea Party cannot even imagine.

“With malice toward none. . . “

Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1809—April 15, 1865

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and LASTING PEACE AMONG OURSELVES and with all nations” (Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address)

Abraham Lincoln understood politics, hatred, division, and death. He also understood compassion and true freedom. His vision of a nation united and working together in “a new birth of freedom” has not yet been achieved. We Americans and our representatives in government must—before we have torn ourselves apart—figure out how to conduct our business by his words, “WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE, WITH CHARITY FOR ALL.”

Lincoln (and a drag show)

LincolnI promised this blog would never be serious, so I have to say right off I’m not in any way making fun of Abraham Lincoln. He is my hero, at least as far as history is concerned. I begin my first-year writing classes each semester with a study of the Gettysburg Address.

And I have hanging in my office at the university a 19th-century print of the portrait here. At least I’ve been told it’s that old. Of course the appraisal came from someone not famous enough to be on Antiques Roadshow, so who knows if it’s accurate.

I come by my fascination honestly. I’m one communication link (or is it two – there’s one person between us) away from Mr. President Lincoln.

I’ve told this story before in my other blog, but it bears repeating. When I was five years old I sat on the lap of an old man who had sat on Abraham Lincoln’s lap when he was five years old. It was 1950, and Mr. Johnson was about 87 years old.

Mr. Johnson was a retired railroad conductor, and because I was in my kindergarten production of “The Little Engine that Could” (singing “Little Red Caboose”), he gave me his conductor’s coat and hat. It was, of course, about twenty sizes too big. I could sort of wear the hat, but not the coat.

But I grew into it, and I began to use it for play-acting of many kinds. By the time I was in junior high school, it was well-worn, and the hat had gone the way of all flesh. Somewhere there’s a family picture of me and a girl whose parents were friends of my parents, and I’m wearing the coat.

She is wearing a long green formal. And there’s the story.

Need I say More?

Need I say More?

When my father finished his graduate degree, my parents went to the seminary in Kansas City for the graduation ceremonies. My mother had to have a formal for the occasion. Someone gave her two or three formals, but they were too old fashioned, and she ended up making her own—a black silky dress that I thought was both scary and superb!

But she had these two formals hanging around, stored in a barrel in our basement. I found them. It was about the time Mr. Johnson’s conductor/President Lincoln coat began to fit me.

The picture of me with our family friend used to bother me. The problem was that I wanted to be wearing the formal. It had replaced the coat as my favorite play wear. The coat fit me, and so did the dresses.

As far as I know there are no family pictures of me wearing the formal. My God! What would the good people of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have thought? I’m not sure if my parents ever knew I wore the dress. My sister does, I think.

This isn’t very good story-telling because I’ve already given away the punch line. But Daniel Day Lewis is my favorite actor these days. You see, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for my first drag show appearance in the basement of a tiny house in far western Nebraska. Only my hairdresser knows for sure the extent of my drag clairolcareer. And he’s dead!