Taking back Joy.

I have been suffering a bit of melancholia of late and combined with a brisk schedule, have not posted. It got a little worse than a visit from the “black dog.” I get that from time to time–but this was heavier. I needed a little help through it and consulted with my doc. Too much stress, too many things at once, finances, work, deadlines, etc. Too much. And I was on Thanksgiving break, which broke the routine, a general salvation for me. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit and when the routine is disturbed–I’m disturbed.

I’m climbing out of it slowly, but surely. I’m really looking forward to Christmas and while that is a routine break, I can handle it. It works for me. Christmas is a grand time of year and Shannon and I get into it. She set up our Dickens village this year again–like she did last year–and I’m teaching a class through the month of December at church on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Looking forward to that.

A little Christmas music, a few nights by the fire place as the rain falls. Quiet gray clouds lining the sky, cooling the temperatures–all is going well. Ignoring politics, ignoring the stressers of media induced insanity—and concentrating on family, friends, good food and wine–and maybe a cigar or two.

It’s time to take back some joy.



My older brother and I occasionally engage in conversations about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Brother Doug is a Libertarian, fair to say, perhaps, a radical Libertarian. His view of the 16th president, and he is not alone in this view, is that Lincoln usurped power that wasn’t really his. He broke the Constitution in order to save it and he illegally prosecuted a war for the purpose of keeping states who had no desire to be in the union from seceding. His view is that slavery as a system would have died out about the same time that it ended with the war and that the south should have been allowed to secede.

My view is quite different, though I am a Libertarian. It was the south who fired the first shots on Fort Sumter, not the north. It’s true that Lincoln was ready for that eventuality and expected it. When it came, he unleashed the U.S. military and its purpose was simply to say to the southern states-secession by force will not stand. Over time, the war practically became a fight to end slavery and Lincoln saw it that way. Yes, he was a pragmatic politician and he did indeed say that if he could end the war while keeping slavery, he would do that. He said he would do what it took to end the war-period. It is true he “broke” the Constitution in order to save it–but most wartime presidents do that. From suspending Habeas Corpus to the creation of the Great Society to the Patriot Act, wartime presidents have violated the Constitution. Right or wrong? In my view, slavery was an abomination that needed to be decisively destroyed and the war did that. You decide…

None of that changes the complex and grand character of Abraham Lincoln and his treatment in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals reveals much more than the humble man from Illinois. It reveals a practical political character who made deals, compromised, cajoled, pushed and won a war. Steven Spielberg has masterfully, if somewhat incompletely, rendered Lincoln for the movie that bears the president’s name. It is as grand and sweeping a film as any I have seen.

The film occupies a small space of time, January to April of 1865. It’s the last 3 and a half months of the war and the last 3 and a half months of Lincoln’s life, unbeknownst to him. Spielberg brings us inside the relationships between Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward as well as Secretary of War Stanton and, of course, the relationship between Lincoln and his wife, Mary played resoundingly and gorgeously by Sally Field. Occupying a character who is, if such a thing is possible, more complex than Mr. Lincoln, Field shows us the penetrating and practical “Molly,” as Lincoln affectionately referred to her, as she wavers between being a true help-mate to the president, a kind of unhinged and negatively charged jealousy and finally to chaotic insanity at the loss of their son, Willy, and the feared loss of their oldest son, Robert when he enlists in the army late in the war.

In typical Spielberg fashion, the acting is brilliant and top notch actors establish the important roles: Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, the founder of the Republican party, Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, David Strathairn as Seward, James Spader as lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as Robert Lincoln and the list goes on.

But it is Daniel Day-Lewis who becomes Lincoln, who occupies him and who for about 2 hours and 20 minutes, commands our attention. It’s not a one-man show, however. One of Day-Lewis’s great attributes as an actor is the room he gives other actors. He doesn’t steal the show, however much he is its center of gravity. He affects not just Lincoln’s disheveled appearance, unruly hair and clumsy gait, but his tenor and nasally voice, a kind of Midwestern twang, which so many people commented on during Lincoln’s time and his way with words.

In one of the most glorious scenes of the film, Lincoln is in the war room where dispatches arrive by telegraph and messengers come and go. He is monitoring the battle of Wilmington awaiting word that the fort there has fallen into Union hands along with Secretary of War Stanton. As he gets up from his seat, he weaves an affectionate tale about Ethan Allen who, while in London, made light of a picture of George Washington in an outhouse. Before he begins, Stanton, stressed with the day’s news, says, “Oh no! You’re going to tell one of your G-d damned stories! I cannot listen to another story from you!” Lincoln merely dismisses Stanton with a waive of his hand and proceeds to hold the gathering of officers, soldiers and messengers in the other. Yet at the moment when the news comes in that the fort has fallen, Lincoln is side by side with Stanton, the two of them holding each the other’s hand tightly.

The White House, as the Lincolns used it, is one of the small miracles of the film. History records that Tad and Willy had the run of the entire place and after Willy’s death, a large portion of allowing Tad to mend was giving him free reign and access to his father. So it is that the boy comes running into the office in the middle of cabinet meetings, hugging his dad and moving across the room.¬† He does not disrupt, Mary was careful to instruct him that while he could be in the room, he could not disrupt–but he does play and dress in his blue army uniform. In the midst of a meeting between Seward and Lincoln, a specific knock comes to the office door. “I’m honor bound to answer that distress call,” says Lincoln and he opens the door to a worried Tad who has lost a specific toy.

One cannot help but be moved, whether you take Doug’s view of President Lincoln or mine or something else, by the tragedy that his presidency portrays. Alone in the residence with Mary, the two argue a stormy and destructive fight over whether Robert should be allowed to enlist. Originally, the president says no, but he acquiesces as Robert tells him that he doesn’t need his permission. Mary, in the throes of her grief after losing Willy says, “Robert is our first born, you are supposed to favor him, but you don’t! He is a reminder of a marriage you didn’t want, a child you didn’t want and you will not see my grief! When Willy died, you ignored Tad who needed you so and now, you ignore me!” That’s not verbatim, but close.

Lincoln, standing above a kneeling Mary, calmly, though with great passion says to her, “When Willy died, I wanted to crawl down into the earth and into the coffin with him. I did….don’t you lecture me about grief.” His voice barely raises beyond its normal tenor, but his eyes tell the whole story as Spielberg brilliantly closes in on the warn crags and creases in Lincoln’s long and drawn countenance. While in the field with his officers, General Grant, played by Irish actor Jared Harris, tells Lincoln, “you look 10 years older than you did a year ago.” So he does.

Perhaps the film will open more discussion about the 16th president, the great cataclysm of the Civil War and other issues. If it does, that can only be healthy. But surely the film’s great gift to its audience is to provide insight into men and women who didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and objectivity to look at the great war, the Constitutional issues and slavery. It is naturally told, if sympathetically–Spielberg’s films are always emotionally wrought. But the sheer gift of watching Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, is so grand and so gorgeous, that you cannot help but weep at the sadness and tragedy. And if, most of all, you are distraught by the current state of politics in the U.S., this film will cure you of that bit of hubris.



Veteran’s Day-And we’re the ones standing down

The weekend has worked as we wished (alliteration in there, don’t you know…). Peanut continues to heal and get better apace. I’m pretty good now, though I could use a bit more rest–and I’ll get it with tomorrow off. Only thing on the agenda? Grading papers.

Worked yesterday and today we went to a church here in our hometown–it’s not our church, New Hope in Agoura–and no, we’re not looking about. Peanut goes to confirmation class at Mt. Cross by agreement between our church and Mt. Cross and once in a while, we like to go over to Mt. Cross because Shannon is getting her Christian education there. Just seems the right thing to do to us.

Meanwhile, I’m digging into my class on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that I’ll be teaching at New Hope next month. I love the research phase and just reaffirming some of the things I knew about the great British novelist. His wit, his compassion and his love for his family (though he and his wife did separate in later years) was really a fine example. He was a man of true faith and, as usual, it wasn’t a conventional faith.

Cold weather settled in late last week and it has been welcome. We burned some old tree branches in the fireplace last night from a plum tree Sue has been slowly whittling¬† away at on account of its poor condition. The branches burned with splendid fragrance, too and it was a quiet night at home. Tonight, we’ll visit our friends Brian and Karen. Normally, Peanut would go along, but she’s opted to hang out with Aunt Laurie and the dogs. She’s getting better, as I say, and wants to “veg.” Good call, I think.

Simon and I took a walk today and as we were on the sidewalk going south down Charter Oak Avenue, a squirrel caught his attention and he froze. I had the Blackberry out and took this picture:

After I took it, Simon leaped from that point. His body lifted off the ground with such ease, that it seemed a miracle. If you’ll note, the long black line in the pic is his leash-he simply moved that across the flowerbed and up the wall. From the sidewalk, his front paws gripped the top of a six-foot wall. The woman whose feet you see in the picture stopped to comment on how pretty he was–and how athletic. Yes, ma’am. Thank you.

Simon currently is curled up in a tight ball next to Peanut on the couch. She breaks out blankets and he loves that and lies next to her. We’ve come to realize that unlike Scoop, who often did not seek our company, often moved to other rooms in the house rather than be with us, Simon loves being with us. If we’re still for any more than 10 minutes–and this is actually not as common as you might think–Simon’s in the room. He’ll be glad to go with Peanut to Aunt Laurie’s tonight. Doesn’t like being alone, this one.

A grand Sunday, gentles–a day of true remembrance and honor for the men and women who have volunteered to serve our country. Thank you one and all. You are greatly admired and we love you.



Catching Up

Well…that was depressing. And it will be depressing for quite some time. I’m fine–and we will be fine, I think. But I’ll tell you, the fact that we voted for four more years of the same as the past two years, at any rate, concerns me. God help us–and I say that with all sincerity.

It has been a long ramp up into November. Peanut is sick, I’ve gotten sick, Aunt Laurie had her big surgery on October 30–she’s recuperating nicely, thank you–and we’re just a little haggard. A three-day weekend ahead as we celebrate–commemorate Veteran’s Day and it may well be that we need it just now so that we can recuperate a bit more. Shannon stayed home from school today–and that was probably a good idea. She’s doing a little bit better.

That too was depressing. Gotta wonder if there is more here than meets the eye, as the Powerline folks indicate. I can’t help but think it’s so, but it is all speculation, so not really worth pursuing too much.

The Holidays close in upon us and make me happy. It’s the time of year, I suppose–and the very nature of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The family, friends, gathering, the food, the laughter–and a break in the year. I’m so glad to be headed to it.

I’ll be teaching a class on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this December at New Hope Lutheran Church in Agoura, where we’re members. Random, I know-but my friend, Pastor Craig, asked if I’d consider it and to be frank, I’m such a Dickens nut that I can’t wait to do it. It’s a small group gathering and we’ll read and discuss, imagine and ask and dig into the text in ways that I simply love.

So, a random evening of healing and writing, watching tube and falling asleep. I need this, gentles–and I apologize for the lackadaisical approach to tonight’s post.