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.

Infamy

Infamy

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.”

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. . . “

Lincoln
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!