Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Courting Mr. Lincoln – a Novel” by Louis Bayard

Courting Mr. Lincoln: A Novel

What was the chance that my restless search for entertaining fiction would lead me to the Mississippi River (in the first half of the 19th century) TWICE in a row? Is there a message here? Time to book a riverboat cruise?

Courting Mr. Lincoln is mostly set in Springfield, Illinois, when that city was being built on the prairie. Mary Todd (eventually Lincoln) arrives to stay with her married, older sister. The family’s intent is to find Mary a husband, preferably with wealth and good manners. We see the courtship of Lincoln and Ms Todd through Ms Todd’s eyes.

The other character used to illuminate Abraham Lincoln is his close friend Joshua Speed. Sections of the novel alternate between the perspectives of Joshua and Mary. In some ways, they compete for Lincoln’s attention and affection.

Abraham Lincoln was… unusual? complex? troubled? So much has been written about him. Mary Todd Lincoln has also been extensively analyzed. The documents available have been thoroughly analyzed.

This book felt like ordinary historical fiction for a number of chapters, then suddenly took flight about 80% of the way through. Took flight, surprised me and romped on to a strong conclusion!

The turning point and surprise, for me, was the account of Abraham Lincoln becoming embroiled in an “affair of honor” which almost ended in a duel, to be fought with (of all things) cavalry swords. High drama, and in the end, no one was injured.

Louis Bayard has written a number of other books, and I’m looking forward to sampling them. One is entitled Roosevelt’s Beast. What on earth?!

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Memoir – the Columbine High School massacre, April 1999

I found this document quite by accident. My computer, like my house, is cluttered with “stuff”, and I’m trying to get rid of some of it. I don’t remember writing this, but I find it to be entirely accurate and painfully relevant.

Why post it NOW? I’m under a general request (from a family member) to share memories. Every once in a while, I come up with something odd or interesting. “Write it down!” says my son. Okay… Another reason is that violence, especially among and directed towards the young, continues to prey on my mind. I follow the news, worry over loved ones, and recently overheard a conversation that disturbed my soul. More about that later. Maybe.

This is what I wrote in May of 1999, a few weeks after Columbine, when my sons, ages 9 and 14, went off to public school daily. I have not edited it in any way:

Since the disastrous murders in Littleton, Colorado, I’ve been thinking hard about schools, and one direction my thoughts have taken is the path of memory. What was it like to be a teenager? What worked and what didn’t in the school system I traversed? How did we get along? Who were the disaffected? The successful? How tight were our cliques? How hurt were our outcasts? I found one memory that seems to be important. It’s very clear and coherent. And I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone.

I was thirteen, sitting in math class. I was the kind of kid teachers want in class, well behaved and easily able to learn. I wasn’t “popular”, but I had friends. I was a “brain” in a town where that was mostly OK. I wore glasses and was a little off-the-mark in terms of dress and hairstyle, but nothing drastic. I was supported and protected by a home and community that were reasonably consistent in their expectations. There is nothing wrong with this picture. The important memory is what, in that idyllic time and place, I was thinking about.

Unfolding in my head as I sat there in math was a violent fantasy. I was very systematically destroying the school. I smashed (with a baseball bat?) everything breakable, overturned desks, savaged textbooks, broke windows. I was very, very thorough. I must have spent lots of time on this fantasy, to be able to find it waiting so clearly in my head, 35 years later. What was I so incredibly ANGRY about?

I don’t find an answer in any of the expected categories – abuse, change in family structure, etc. I think my problem was junior high school. After seven years in what is now called the “self-contained” classroom, we switched to a seven period school day. Ten different teachers when you add in homeroom, gym, etc. Three minutes to get from one place to another. I know I bitterly resented the regimentation, but I think my anger was based on the fact that NO adult knew me. Not the way (for better and worse) my elementary school teachers knew me. A kid with high test scores and a good behavior record merited no particular attention. All my other traits – creativity, capacity to love, longing for adventure – were ignored. And I was furious. The sociological term, I think, is alienation. I had a bad case of it.

To me the message of junior high (or middle school) is “You kids are poison”. Too nasty to be around the cute little tykes and not big and smart enough to mix with the high schoolers. What kind of a message is this for children on the brink of physical adulthood? Meaningful adult contact is lost and the peer culture moves into the vacuum. It was luck, not good rearing, that kept me from serious trouble.

From this derives my first suggestion for school change. Bring back the K-8 school. If its necessary to shift students around to fit the expertise of teachers, do it so a student has three teachers, not ten. Everyone says teachers “should have noticed” something wrong in Colorado, but a teacher who sees more than 100 students each day just isn’t going to.  Make seventh and eighth grade special by adding privileges and (much more important!) responsibilities. By eighth grade every student should do meaningful work for the school, and in a K-8 setting opportunities abound. Play and read with the kindergartners, run flashcard drills and clean up after art with the second graders, work in the Library and office. Plant a garden. Organize classroom parties and put on good assemblies. Eighth graders can do all this.

What to do about high school? I’m open to suggestions here – it’s time to try anything and everything. We know specialized schools work well in cities. Perhaps we should regionalize and specialize. Make high schools smaller – how about a top size of about 1000? Move some teachers along with the students when they enter high school. Selected teachers could alternate between 8th and 9th grades to provide continuity. Look for other opportunities to keep student/teacher groups together for more than one year. Increase guidance counselors and reduce teaching loads until meaningful mentoring is available for every student.

“Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” (by Lucy Kennedy, 1957) and “Audubon – A Biography” (by John Chancellor, 1978)

I’m such a sucker for romance! I picked up “Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” from the used book shelf at the Northwood Cape May Bird Observatory, a New Jersey Audubon Society Center located in Cape May Point (NJ). It is a fictionalized account of the courtship and first three decades of the marriage of Lucy and John James Audubon, told from the viewpoint of Lucy Bakewell Audubon. It covers events from 1800 to about 1830.

Lucy Audubon was a well educated English girl brought to Pennsylvania by her family. Audubon was a young Frenchman of uncertain origins, wealthy but spottily educated. Like Alexander Hamilton, he was born in the Caribbean. Audubon’s father returned to France a little before the Haitian revolution, which began in 1791.

At the time of their marriage, Lucy and Audubon intended to travel west and engage in trade. Kennedy describes in detail their journey, including river travel much earlier than described by Mark Twain. Wonderful to read!

Audubon was a wanderer and a dreamer and left Lucy and their two sons on their own for years at a time. In his biography, Chancellor asks whether she recognized and wanted to support Audubon’s unique genius, or if she was simply foolish. At this remove, we can only speculate. I am unreservedly impressed by Lucy’s success in supporting herself and her sons by teaching in wealthy households.

Chancellor’s biography of Audubon is a delight, because he provides extensive documentation, much of it visual – paintings by Audubon and others, letters and lists, photos of artifacts, woodcut prints…

Both these books are highly suitable for nature lovers and history buffs. Enjoy!

“A Beginner’s Guide to the End – Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death” by BJ Miller and S Berger

A Beginner's Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death

[480 pages plus resources, notes and index, published 2019 by Simmon and Schuster. TED talk available.]

I didn’t finish reading this book, but I have to return it to the Library because there is a “Hold” on it. Good! Someone else is interested in this topic.

It’s difficult to talk about death. Even language becomes a problem. Euphemisms abound. The one I try hardest to avoid is to say that I “lost” someone. No! I didn’t “lose” my mother! She was not misplaced. She DIED, despite good care and strong family support.

It’s easy to be confused and overwhelmed when a loved one is dying. The time to read and plan is NOW, before a crisis hits. Like many self help books, this one begins with the authors’ accounts of their experiences with the topic at hand. Miller survived electrocution, and Berger helped care for her dying father for several years.

Chapter 1 (“Don’t Leave a Mess”) resonates with me and most of my friends. We are trying to get rid of stuff! Sometimes I envy people who have moved every 5 years. Surely they are doing better than I am at downsizing. This book also discusses the psychological messes some of us carry around.

Chapter 13 (“Hospital Hacks”) is for everyone, but especially those with little or no experience with contemporary hospitals. Everything changes rapidly in the medical field.

The authors describe their book as being for

  • Anyone with a serious diagnosis
  • Anyone who loves a person who is aging
  • Anyone who wants to make his or her exit easier on their family
  • Those who want to make the most of life NOW

Pretty much all of us, right?

Constitution Day at Stockton University – Joan Biskupic lecture on Chief Justice John Roberts

This year, Stockton’s celebration of Constitution Day fell on the actual anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. This being one of my favorite holidays, I attended the plenary lecture which followed a day of activities with guest speaker Joan Biskupic.

Biskupic is a journalist (CNN), lawyer and biographer. Her talk focused on John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her biography entitled The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts was released in March of this year, and already Roberts has served up more surprises, particularly blocking a citizenship question on the US census. His opinion was based not just on the question of whether the agency involved had the right to add a question, but also whether the reasons for making the change were “contrived”.

Biskupic emphasized the importance of the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals as a “pipeline” to the Supreme Court.

During his years of private legal practice (1992 to 2003) Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

Roberts is a conservative, placed on the Court in 2005 by GW Bush and, unusually, elevated directly to Chief Justice, rather than serving as Associate Justice first. Some of his opinions reflect his attitude that the Supreme Court is “not a legislature” and many matters must be left to the states.

What interests Biskupic most is judicial PROCESS – the “horse trading” and “sausage making” behind the decisions which often (as in gay marriage) have huge impacts on American life. Much of this is reflected in drafts that are circulated as justices develop their opinions. How does one justice influence another? Justice RBG warns observers “it’s not over ‘til it’s over”. The Supreme Court sometimes surprises even the most sophisticated analysts.

Biskupic says that in her next life, she wants to be an archivist. She loves pouring over documents. I consider this a very valuable contribution to society (and I never met anyone else who shared that aspiration).

I didn’t stay for the entire Q/A session, but it got off to a good start due to excellent moderation. The first question was about whom she interviewed for The Chief. Roberts is a persistent interviewer. She describes Roberts as “inscrutable”. He never permitted recording of their conversations. Other questions directed to Biskupic pertained to “sleeper decisions”, decisions of greatest consequence and “term limits” for the Supreme Court.

Biskupic published three other Supreme Court biographies and additional related books, some coauthored by Elder Witt (C-Span). I’m most interested in Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014). I believe I read Biskupic’s 2006 biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, though my memory is uncertain, and perhaps I read a different author.

“The Department of Sensitive Crimes – A Detective Varg Novel (1)” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive Crimes: A Detective Varg Novel (1) (Detective Varg Series)

This is McCall Smith’s first novel set in Sweden, introducing a new protagonist, detective Ulf Varg. Why Sweden? McCall Smith has so many other irons in the fire! In books like the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, the reader feels like he knows his territory (as well as his characters) so intimately. You can’t help but love Mma Ramotswe and Botswana. Does McCall Smith really know Sweden equally well? Or has he found a formula he plans to extend to new countries at random?

Indulge me while I ponder the matter of cultural appropriation. Again, why Sweden? Admittedly, McCall Smith’s novels deal with the interior life – the thoughts, feelings, joys and sorrows of his characters. So maybe it doesn’t matter where they are set. But will Swedes find his portrayal of their country sympathetic? Or condescending? Possibly stereotypical? And (getting down to the tiniest detail…) whence came the umlaut (double dot) over the “A” in McCall Smith’s name (see cover above). Sorry, Sir, you can’t just help yourself to an umlaut! That’s linguistic appropriation. Stay in your own lane, as we say in the USA. (This may prove that I have NO sense of humor.)

The plot deals with a series of criminal investigations, and with the interactions between a group of co-workers (and one “outsider”). Also included is Ulf Varg’s psychoanalyst, who conveniently illuminates the disorder afflicting a person targeted in one investigation, clinical lycanthropy. In other words, the overwhelming that delusion that one is, in fact, a werewolf. Clinical lycanthropy is NOT a crime.

I enjoyed the end  of this book (when a romance emerges) more than the beginning, so perhaps I will continue to read about Detective Varg. He and the other characters may grow on me.

Why I Support Medical Aid in Dying – death of a friend

I remember…

Karl (not his real name) was my friend from 1975 until he died in 1997. He was a retired Professor of Physics and an avid tinkerer, installing solar hot water on his house in 1976! We were neighbors, and in lived in identical tract houses. Whenever something went wrong at my house (plumbing, or birds nesting in the dryer outlet), I called Karl and he told me how to fix it.

Karl and his wife moved away in 1987, but we kept in touch. Karl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease around 1990. It was treated with some success, but inevitably, over time, it progressed. Karl hated dropping things, and stumbling. He detested the idea of losing his independence and wanted control of his fate.

In January of 1997, Karl shot himself in the head. This action was carefully and thoughtfully planned, though not explicitly announced in advance. He made sure his wife was not alone when his body was found.

Karl died alone, and he died by violence. These two circumstances were in total contradiction to his life and values. Karl was sociable and extensively connected to family and friends, and certainly he was never violent. What a shame that he had no better choice. What a shame that my memory of him is darkened by the grim thought that at least he got it right on the first try.

Please, listen to that again.  At least he got it right on the first try. Something is profoundly wrong when this is the best that a dying person can hope for.

I doubt that New Jersey’s new (and still controversial) Aid in Dying law would have helped Karl. Would any doctor attempt to project the life span of a person suffering from Parkinson’s disease? Possibly not. But, as medical science continues to prolong life, we need to consider and reconsider how best to support human dignity and autonomy at the end of life.

 To brighten my dear friend’s memory, a cheerful anecdote: One day I spotted Karl in the restaurant next to the local Post Office, drinking coffee. I didn’t have time to stop for a cup, but I dashed in. “Karl, let me smell your coffee!” I inhaled deeply over his cup – wonderful! We exchanged 30 seconds of news and I rushed off. Unfortunately, I was recognized by somebody as “that lady from the Health Department” and a rumor started that there was something wrong with the water, or the coffee, or the restaurant! I had to reassure anxious neighbors that no health department ever evaluated drinking water (or coffee) by smelling it.