“. . . a pulse of thought, To memory of Him . . .” (Walt Whitman)


Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809
“The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind” (Garry Wills).

The Declaration of Independence was only the “proposition” that all men are created equal, not a statement of the reality of the time.

The 13th Amendment making slavery illegal was passed in Congress January 31, 1865, under President Lincoln and ratified December 6, 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law by which Brown v. Board of Education and all of the cases declaring same-sex marriage un-Constitutional –and many other draconian laws–was ratified July 9, 1868. These two Amendments are Abraham Lincoln’s chief legacy, making real the possibility that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish.” Today is the day we should commemorate, not some arbitrary weekend designed for the moneyed interests in the United States to hold “President’s Day Sales.”

I quote Garry Wills at some length:

Lincoln did not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster had. He made history. He came not to 060present a theory but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, expressing emotional urgency in calm abstractions. He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not yet been broken—he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

[Lincoln] not only presented the Declaration of Independence in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution … What had been mere theory. . . —that the nation preceded the states, in time and importance—now became a lived reality of the American tradition. The results of this were seen almost at once. Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun: “The United States are a free country.” After Gettysburg it became a singular: “The United States is a free country.” This was a result of the whole mode of thinking that Lincoln expressed in his acts as well as his words, making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality. When, at the end of the address, he referred to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was not . . . just praising popular government . . . he was saying that America was a people accepting as its great assignment what was addressed in the Declaration. This people was “conceived” in 1776, was “brought forth” as an entity whose birth was datable (“four score and seven years” before) and placeable (“on this continent”), and was capable of receiving a “new birth of freedom.”

Thus Abraham Lincoln changed the way people thought about the Constitution …

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 he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it … By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.

(This passage is from The Atlantic, November 23, 2011. It is abbreviated from pages 145-147 of Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. I discovered this book four years ago when I was teaching my seminar based on the rhetoric of three Presidential speeches. “The Gettysburg Address,” Roosevelt’s “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Challenger” speech. The book is an extended discussion of Lincoln’s “rhetoric” at Gettysburg.)
gettysburgIn a rare image of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, he is shown hatless at the center of a crowd on the orators’ platform. (Library of Congress)

One of Walt Whitman’s five Lincoln poems:
To-day from each and all, a breath of prayer, a
pulse of thought,
To memory of Him—to birth of Him.

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“Little is certain, other than the tide. . .” (Amy Clampitt)

Birthday number 2 - NOT un-satisfactory

Birthday number 2 – NOT un-satisfactory

This is it! The first day of my 71st year. I’m either bummed out or excited, depending on the hour of the day.

One of the few regrets (but perhaps the major-est) I have at this moment is my lack of discipline in writing. I’m a damned good writer from moment to moment, but I have no ability to sit four or five hours a day and pour over what I’ve done and make it better, make it cohere, make it either beautiful or rhetorically sound. Writing is, as, Pete Hamill, pointed out, “The hardest work in the world that doesn’t involve heavy lifting.” For many years as a professor in writing classes at several colleges and universities, I copied Hamill’s adage at the bottom of my syllabuses. My ulterior motive was to try to convince my students to “do as I quote, not as I do.”

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) was a poet who either was or was not a “formalist” (whatever that is) according to which literary critic you’re talking to. She either did or did not write poetry with a proper “narrative.” Her work either is or is not too wordy, too descriptive.

I dunno.

I don’t know what an educated, literary person is “supposed” to think of the last stanza of her (longer than it needs to be, I suppose) poem, “A Hermit Thrush,” published in a collection of her work in 1997.

. . . there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

This botched, cumbersome, much-mended, not-unsatisfactory thing. I suppose the academic literary types who think her poetry is too wordy, too descriptive, would say this string of adjectives is a primary example. But I think it’s both charming and right on the money.

Botched. I’m not going there. But I can remind myself of a failed marriage, several relationships ended without much grace, a PhD instead of a DMA, insufficient savings to live the “lifestyle” I’d like in retirement. Cumbersome. So much left undone because I simply don’t have the will or the energy to finish all I’ve started. And the heaviness of still (at this advanced age!) trying to figure out how to life with freedom and joy. Much-mended. Two messages already this very morning apologizing for insensitivity and inattention to friends.

But all of this is not un-satisfactory. Clampitt doesn’t say “satisfactory” but the double negative “not unsatisfactory.” Does a double negative make a positive or simply imprecise writing? I used to tell students who wrote double negatives they were being needlessly wordy and confusing their rhetorical project by trying to express two contradictory ideas at once. (Speaking of wordiness.) I, however, being no longer an “academic” can say I like the idea: not un-satisfactory.

My life is and has been not un-satisfactory for the most part. I have a photograph of myself on my second birthday (January 3, 1947). I’m sitting outside at a small table with my birthday cake in front of me. Outside because my father’s camera didn’t have a flash so sunlight was necessary. I’m bundled up in a snowsuit and hat that nearly covers my face. Bundled because it’s January in Wyoming. Snow.

Here we have two negatives, darkness and cold. But the picture exists. My mother made a cake, and my father set up the picture to record the day. Our family was as dysfunctional as any. But that picture is proof enough to me that I was loved in every necessary way. Life has not been and is not now un-satisfactory.

Dad, brother, and little me - how I know life is more than satifactory

Dad, brother, and little me – how I know life is more than satifactory

I could write seventy years of not un-satisfactory examples, but I don’t need to. Anyone who has any imagination can imagine, can extrapolate a gazillion examples from my life and their own. Mine even includes Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar II Disorder. And falling into a tub of boiling water a year after the second-birthday picture was taken. And. . . there’s no reason to belabor the negatives.

I’m having a little party tonight, and a few of my closest friends will attend. About 40. Who has 40 friends? Someone whose life is not un-satisfactory. And to try to keep it that way, my party will include a silent auction for the benefit of the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas.

I think the best way to keep my life not un-satisfactory is to remember that I am a white, male, (not-straight), highly educated American, and whatever I think might be unsatisfactory about my life, it’s better than the lives of about 99% of the people in the world—through no goodness or achievement of my own.
Happy Birthday – EVERYONE!

(Here’s Amy Clampitt’s poem. It is wordy, but to heck with the critics: it’s wonderful.)

“A Hermit Thrush,” by Amy Clampitt

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic–

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons–there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.

The Hermit Thrush knows

The Hermit Thrush knows

Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency–
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto–

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice–

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic–today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet–

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive–
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human–there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

Happy 97th to Elizabeth May Knight

Mother, please, I'd rather do it myself.

Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself.

Today my mother would have been 97 years old. I’ve never read (at least don’t remember) any writing about his mother by any man that seemed easy, unforced, matter-of-fact. I think it can’t be done. Perhaps the truth is that my feelings about, my relationship with my mother are so ambiguous and conflicted that I simply assume (I hope? I don’t want to be alone in this) every man’s feelings about his mother are the same.

The last home my parents owned before they moved to the retirement community where Mom died was in Sacramento, CA. This is important at the moment only because place is such an important part of any memory I want to write about. We were standing in the kitchen on one occasion when I was visiting when she announced that she had made arrangements for me to play something on the organ on the following Sunday at their church.

That I love to play is obvious. What may not be so obvious is that performance of any kind must be on my terms. I’m not, as my mother was, a natural musician. When she was young, playing the piano was second nature to her. Even when she was 90 years old and in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, she could sit down at the piano and play her favorite hymns when she had only the vaguest notion that she was in the lounge in the assisted living unit of the retirement community because it was next to the dining room where she had just eaten breakfast.

Unlike my mother, I don’t simply sit down and play. I regret that. Standing in the kitchen of my parents’ home in Sacramento was not where I wanted to hear offhandedly that my mother had arranged for me to play in public. And the place was, of course, only the smallest part of the problem. She had arranged for me to play without consulting me first.

If you were around in the ‘60s and paid attention to pop culture, you remember the TV commercial in which an over-sensitive woman virtually screamed at her mother—who merely made a suggestion about cooking, as I recall—“Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!” The commercial was for Anacin and was meant to convince us that Anacin would eliminate the pounding headache that was causing us to come unglued and be rude to our mothers.

That day in my mother’s Sacramento kitchen I did not have a pounding headache. I simply wanted, by myself, to make any arrangements to perform. “Mother, please. . .” For the first time in my life, I was able to tell her so. I did so with as much vehemence as the woman in the commercial. I was about 42 years old at that time. I know because my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary during the three or four years they lived in Sacramento. And I got sober during that time.

Mom in a pensive moment at her 50th wedding anniversary party.

Mom in a pensive moment at her 50th wedding anniversary party.

So it took 42 or so years, when I was chairman of the music department at a college, living a continent away (in Beverly, MA) in a committed relationship with a man whom my parents knew, before I was able to make clear to my mother that I did not want her to make arrangements for me to make music in a public place simply because she wanted to hear me.

OK. Petty.

Or the sort of thing a healthy man in a grown-up relationship with his mother would have managed to communicate long before he was 42 and she was celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary. Oh, come off it. Your relationship with your mother is just as complicated.

The fact is, of course, that much of what is important in my life today comes directly from her musical talent—and her pushing me to develop my meager ability. That’s almost as obvious as reporting that the earth is going to rotate far enough for me to see the sun in about fifteen minutes (it’s a few minutes after 6 AM as I’m writing this). Half of my nature and probably more than half of my nurture comes directly from her. Or whatever the psychological cliché is these days.

I still have the toy xylophone she bought me for my fifth birthday. Fortunately in those days such instruments had brass tone-bars and no computer components. I had to learn a melody in order to play it. No little stars twinkled simply by virtue of my pushing one key. My mother was my first piano teacher. She taught me until I was in first grade and could read “Silent Night” in four parts to play it, and then—with some wisdom about my learning more proficiently if making music were not simply doing what my mother did—my parents sent me to a “real” teacher (whose musicianship was probably eclipsed by my mother’s).

So the conundrum is that I’d rather have done it myself, without my mother’s meddling, but I couldn’t have done it at all (and still could not) were it not for her. And I’m reporting nothing that anyone reading this doesn’t already know about her relationship with her mother.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, just crowned the oldest man in the world, said a daily intake of bananas and six Anacin tablets contributed to his longevity.

Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, just crowned the oldest man in the world, said a daily intake of bananas and six Anacin tablets contributed to his longevity.

Of Cars, Cakes, Cumpleaños

2028 -- 28,000 miles

2028 — 28,000 miles

Fifteen years from now when my cats petition the DMV to take away my license to drive because I’m just too absent-minded to be behind the wheel, some lucky person is going to get one of those little-old-grandmother-who-drove-it-only-to-church deals on my car.

I bought my 2012 Honda Civic Coupe on December 31, 2012. In the 40 days since then, I have driven it 470 miles. It needs its second fill-up of gas this morning. At that rate, in 2028 someone can expect to buy a 2012 Honda Civic with 28,800 miles on it. My birthday—my 68th—was three days after I bought the car.

A good friend of mine was car shopping yesterday because the hybrid battery in his Prius is not long for this world. His situation is like mine in one convivial respect—his birthday was Friday (he’s a young thing, only 55). Can we extrapolate from this that buying a car is a birthday event?

Make a place for the birthday cake

Make a place for the birthday cake

In January my inamorato hosted my birthday party. (It was a gentle affair, with my closest friends surrounding me with love and jollity.) He moved his African violet collection from his dining table to the counter to make room for my birthday cake. The cake—dense, rich, and chocolate—by the way, was uncommonly special to me, a one-of-a-kind gift from another friend. `birthday fb

My car-shopping good friend’s birthday party was last night at one of his (and many of the guests’) favorite Thai restaurants. It was another warm and jolly affair in which, as he said, circles of friends from all areas of his life “collided.” The collision was wonderful.

His cake was colorful, fruity, and much healthier than mine.

`birthday alanAll of this sweetness (literal and figurative) is much more than car-buying and cake. We old guys (and our not-quite-yet-old friends) need birthday parties as much as you youngsters do. Remember, if it weren’t for us, the world would still be wearing gray flannel suits, skinny neckties, button down collars, and wing-tip shoes. We loosened up the world for you. You owe it to us to keep the party going.

Here’s where my old-man mind needs help. I want to make some clever connection between the expensive collision insurance on my new car and the “colliding” of Alan’s circles of friends. There’s a great metaphor here, but I can’t work it out. You’ll just have to write it for yourself. And keep the party going.

Birthday boy with old age in background

Birthday boy with old age in background