Thursday, January 29, 2015

Poetics for Abe Lincoln

“And Lincoln is charismatic even in death.”
Donald T. Phillips

My last few essays have been an excuse to feature a poem worth knowing at the end. Rounding off today’s piece is a poem about a “green pine” who went on to become the sixteenth U.S. president, and then, as we know, continued to grow in office. Even in Outer Mongolia, as Dale Carnegie reported in the nineteen thirties, some tribesmen had heard of Abraham Lincoln, and asked their guest for stories of him. In the mid-west of America, the chuckle goes that every year some college president retires and embarks on writing a book on Lincoln. And everywhere, of course, every nerd knows that Lincoln is the hero of a certain federation starship captain.

For such a stately figure, is there anything new to say? Actually, yes. I have a book on my “keeper” shelf that I won’t lend out: Lincoln On Leadership (1992) by Donald T. Phillips. Ahead of his time, Lincoln used techniques that management theorists didn’t even have a name for yet. If leadership is common sense, then I can only conclude that good sense is not very common.   

Lord knows politicians can be just as self-deluded—NOT what you want in a leader—as anybody else. In Canada, for instance, the federal government raised the salaries of the Members of Parliament (MP’s) to obscene levels because, they said, they thought they had to compete with the business world. Really? From the States, during the Reagan years, comes the story of a gathering of Chief Executive Officers and Vice Presidents for business training. The trainer asked, “How many of you voted for Ronald Reagan?” Every hand went up. “How many of you would put him in charge of your smallest factory or department?” Not a single hand was raised.

While some politicians, and maybe Reagan himself, may fantasize about being great managers, the reality today, according to a British observer, is that most of their man-hours are not spent in stretching their leadership skills, but merely going out fundraising and trying to get re-elected. The congressional lunchroom is becoming a ghost town. For that insight I am indebted to economist Edward Luce in his A Time To Start Thinking. (Archived October 2013 as America in Descent)

Abraham’s rare managerial ability is what makes him stand head and shoulders above other U.S. presidents—he was not a figurehead, not a legislator, but a leader… a leader who was the right man at the right time. Before him, the U.S. had five lame presidents in a row. After him, the office was never the same. Lincoln innovated new expanded powers for the “commander in chief.”

When Lincoln died the Secretary of War, Stanton, said, “He belongs to the ages now.” I am struck by how Lincoln’s ageless leadership is especially relevant to our generation. As you know, with the spread of computers (and inflation) business organizations are no longer pure pyramids as back in the time of the TV show Mad Men. (Madison Avenue) Now we speak of a “flattened pyramid,” with fewer managers. Another trend is that personal computers have led to an ever-increasing work from home, remote work, distributed work—call it what you will.

If there are fewer managers, and remoter managers, then today’s rank and file must be self-managers, having management’s goals, mission statement and vision statement glowing on the screen between their ears, rather than being a dull cog. (Of course some people still want to be cogs, see my essay The Borg Have Jobs archived January 2012)

Lincoln knew about vision. Lincoln On Leadership notes that, “Over time, as values decay and incentives dwindle, leaders must constantly provide a rejuvenating process… Lincoln strategically applied himself to this task. … and reminded all citizens why the United States was  formed in the first place, just as all leaders should remind subordinates why their organization was formed in the first place.”

I said Lincoln innovated his office. Today innovation is a trendy buzzword, a cliché. While we especially see the need for continual innovation in the computer-tech region, (Poor Blackberry) it is needed throughout the business world. When it comes to innovation, Lincoln, the only U.S. president to hold a patent, (for floating grounded boats) was far ahead of his contemporaries. Regarding weapons during the civil war, according to Phillips, “…he set up dozens of demonstrations in and around Washington that he personally attended. By doing so, he was acting as something of a one man research and development department.”

Of course, there are always some people who don’t get the memorandum to go innovate. In our day, Steve Jobs was disregarded and fired from Macintosh. In Lincoln’s day, the Chief of Ordnance, General Ripley, ignored Lincoln’s orders for 25,000 Marsh breechloaders. Two months later Lincoln ordered 10,000 Spencer repeating rifles, and this time Lincoln had his way. To us it seems so obvious that Spencers would be better than muskets, but innovation is seldom self-evident—or else it would have been done already.

I learned long ago that whenever I read about Lincoln I would find myself being inspired to rise to the better angel of my nature. And so I have memorized, not for school but as an adult, on my own, his visionary Gettysburg Address. I recited it one night at my University of Calgary Toastmasters club when we had a lack of speakers. On another night a not-so-young speed skater ended his speech by reciting the long list of Lincoln’s consistent failures before becoming the president. The young skater had considered “hanging up his skates” after he consistently failed to make the national or even his provincial team…and then went on to win internationally. My memory is suspect, so I won’t venture his name or achievement. Sorry. (This was before the Internet)

In the poem below, “but he didn’t stay” refers to how Lincoln only did one term in congress, because his constituents wouldn’t re-elect him. Luckily, Honest Abe managed to get a job as a frontier postmaster, and would carry “letters in his hat” until he met the addressee. His wife, although she was from the respected Todd family, lacked the social grace of being amiable. (At first she wanted to marry Lincoln’s great rival Douglas, but he wisely turned her down) His “cross wife” was so cross that Lincoln used to ride the legal court circuit, as a lawyer, for six months at a time to avoid home. She was so cross, the whole town marveled when the family finally managed to keep a servant: Today we know that Lincoln, unbeknownst to his wife, secretly paid the maid an extra dollar.

One of the first poems I ever memorized:

Abraham Lincoln
by Stephen Vincent Benet

Lincoln was a long man.
He loved the out of doors.
He loved the wind blowing
And the talk in country stores.

He liked telling stories,
He liked telling jokes.
“Abe’s quite a character,”
Said quite a lot of folks.

Lots of folks in Springfield
            Saw him every day,
Walking down the street
            In his gaunt, long way.

Shawl around his shoulders,
            Letters in his hat.
“That’s Abe Lincoln.”
            They thought no more than

Knew that he was honest,
            Guessed that he was odd,
knew he had a cross wife
            Though she was a Todd.

Knew he had three little boys
            Who liked to shout and play,
Knew he had a lot of debts
            It took him years to pay.

Knew his clothes and knew his
            “That’s his office, here.
Blame good lawyer on the whole,
            Though he’s sort of queer.

“Sure, he went to Congress, once,
            But he didn’t stay.
Can’t expect us all to be
            Smart as Henry Clay.

“Need a man for troubled times?
            Well, I guess we do.
Wonder who we’ll ever find?
            Yes — I wonder who.”

That is how they met and talked,
            Knowing and unknowing.
Lincoln was the green pine.
            Lincoln kept on growing.

Sean Crawford

~Honest Abe was involved in his war: He managed by walking around, now called MBWA, and he went to the telegraph office for news every day during battles.

~In contrast, as the nation’s first 21st century CEO, Bush couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag. There was no point in having speed-of-light communication when he did not have even a single White House person responsible full-time for covering his war on terror in Iraq. (Counter insurgency) Gentle Lincoln fired people, but Bush did not even reprimand anyone, not even the staff who forever dirtied Colin Powell’s reputation by leading him down the outhouse path for weapons of mass destruction. (WMD)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Poetics for a Future Arab Spring

Will there be another Arab Spring? Yes, as surely as mountains are washed to the sea, as surely as people long to be free. (Bob Dylan) …History repeats.

In biblical times, the Assyrians used terror to maintain their empire: They went in for showy things like making pyramids of heads of their enemies. One day Egypt revolted. Revolt failed, people screamed. Then Syria tried, it too was bloodily repressed. Various lands, in sequence, revolted. At last Egypt tried again—and this time broke free. From that day it was only a matter of time before the evil empire passed into history. Merely two hundred years after the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh was destroyed, reduced to a great earthen mound, peasants in the area did not know what the mound was. As a Jewish scholar wrote, “Nineveh is gone, and who shall bewail her?”

Of course modern Arab dictators are careful not to provoke a revolt, and of course they are supported by the police and organized Arab religions, just as how in WWII the various organized religions in Japan’s East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere supported the Japanese empire. Of course Arab peasants don’t believe in separation of church and state, human rights, freedom of speech and democracy. Not most, not yet, but… they are talking. And they can talk to cousins in North America. Even if the workers are too busy to read, many can still hear. They might hear how the Muslim parts of Eastern Europe are prospering, even though—or else because—after renouncing communism, they went secular, not sharia.

I think Egypt, with it’s vast population, will be the site of the new Arab spring, although it might not happen until Arab babies being born today, born crying for democracy, are grown adults. The day will come. And what will they think of us, in their excited days of freedom?

Will they remember how back when Obama was president the U.S. still believed in “Yankee imperialism?” As in Secretary of State John Kerry going to Cairo and twisting Egypt’s arm to take a huge loan, and military hardware, without attaching any strings, any requirement whatsoever, for human rights? This although there is blazing evidence that terrorism is associated with lack of civil rights? I know, yes, I know Obama never utters the words “war on terror” but the next generation of Arabs won’t know that: They’ll just think that back when they were children the Yankees wanted imperialism more than they wanted to win "peace and freedom" for Arabs.

And then, in the seasons following their liberation, idealistic Arab college students gathering in their libraries to converse and research will know whether the West set an example in freedom or in appeasement. As in cartoons. Did westerners self-censor, to save their own skins, or instead set a “tough love” example to help Arabs learn?

Here is a verse I memorized from a school history textbook:
The Destruction of Sennacherib
By George Gordon Byron

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in silver and gold
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue waves roll nightly on deep Galilee.

(Link to the rest of the poem)

Sean Crawford

~Well blog fans, today in my title I am trying the word “poetics” because while having “poem” in a post gets a low hit count, having “remarks” gets a count so low you wouldn’t believe me. (I’ve blogged since 2009, I know my stats)

~During the cold war we compared and contrasted our way of life with the dull Russians and communists, now in the war on terror I sometimes compare us to Arabs and Muslims.

And so I thought of Arabs today when I was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Simone was only 11 years older than my father, yet she lived in a dutiful time when her culture was too extreme, too rigid—like the Muslim cultures of today. It strikes me this was merely a hundred years ago. I don’t worry about Arabs reading it, since only 600 translations per year are made into Arabic, but I wonder about dutiful Muslims in Europe or America: Would it hurt the feelings of Muslims with too much ego (and without “boundaries”) to read Simone and then realize the West is merely 100 years ahead? Such a short time. I think of it this way: While it doesn’t hurt the youngest boy in a huge family if the eldest brother is far ahead, surely having a brother merely two years older who was successful and liberated would feel like a sad reproach.

~Simone is like my friend Blair in finding most people boring. No wonder her boyfriend was Jean Paul Sarte. On page 236 she writes:

“The students I tried to get friendly with at the Sorbonne were all, I thought, both male and female, without any interest: they kept rushing about in noisy groups, laughing their heads off; they weren’t interested in anything and were quite complacent about their indifference.”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Remarks for a Fainting Robin


In the mystery section are the books of Travis McGee, who lives on a boat in Fort Lauderdale. I mentioned McGee’s words of wisdom in my university class for Aging And Health. He said: Don’t buy into a white picket fence retirement “community,” because it’s hard to feel community when your neighbors keep dying and having “for sale” signs. My professor, a fellow enthusiast, immediately responded, “Travis McGee is a God.”

In The Dreadful Lemon Sky, by John D. MacDonald, (Dedicated to my prof and I) Travis finds a condominium community of singles, around courtyards and pools, where everyone is cheerfully determined to “feel like a family” and have fun… but Travis observes it’s “…a slightly frantic gaiety…Twenty years from now it was going to look a lot less graceful and productive.”

In Free Fall In Crimson Travis earns an “associate” gang pin that, he is earnestly told, entitles him to the protection ef the “brotherhood” of a biker gang. Only to have a very senior gang leader look at his badge with amusement. Apparently the “meaning of life,” besides not being a singles condo, is not brotherhood either.

Travis has enough self-awareness to see himself with irony, as a knight-errant in silly battered armor. In his Fort Lauderdale he experiences sunshine, yes, and also rain. At sea he longs for the land, on land he longs for the sea. So realistic. What he wants to know, in book after book, is “What is the Meaning of Life?” At my university it was a cliché to see students, usually a boy and a girl, earnestly discussing that—but never directly, never framed in just those words. Back then we thought there were answers; back then our student radio station played optimistic indie rock. Pessimistic country music could wait until a different time of life.

McGee’s best friend is a brilliant economist, Meyer, who lives on the next boat. In the excerpt below, (Page 48 hardcover) Meyer is the first speaker:

We walked back across the bridge together, squinting toward the western sun setting into its usual broad band of whisky soup. “I guess it doesn’t matter in any case.”

“What doesn’t matter?”

“What happens to anybody. Look at the cars, McGee. Look at the people in the cars, on the boats, on the beach, in the water. Everybody is heading toward their own obituary notice at precisely the same speed. Fat babies, and old women like lizards, and the beautiful young with long golden hair.  And me and thee, McGee. A ticktock speed moving straight toward the grave, until all now living are as dead as if they had died in Ancient Rome. The only unknown, and that is a minor one, is how long will each individual travel this unchanging, unchangeable pace?”

“Good God, Meyer! I was going to buy you dinner.”

“Not today. This is not one of my good days. I think I’ll open a can of something, go walking alone, fold up early. No need to poison somebody else’s evening.”

Away he trudged, not looking back. It happens sometimes, Not often. A curious gaiety, followed by bleak, black depression. It was a Meyer I seldom see and do not know at all. ++

University is far behind me, but I still wonder about things: I think a meaningful life can include good mystery novels, good learning and good music.

For me, a good life includes discussions, such as the ones shared by McGee and Meyer. Sure, I try to be a “regular guy” but let’s face it: I’m an intellectual—and “us intellectual folk” discuss as if we were still in university. The British essayist George Orwell, in a piece on Rudyard Kipling, has pointed out that intellectuals never go off to the colonies. He meant they stay with their own precious few in London. The American poet Emily Dickinson, in her mid-west small town, had no poems published until after her death. To the townsfolk she was known as a recluse. A recluse? How understandable, how natural, in the eyes of award winning science fiction writer Connie Willis. Willis has pointed out that Dickinson wrote her brilliant classic stuff while surrounded by mundane people who just wouldn’t understand.

Here is a poem where Dickinson surely had been thinking about meaning:

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking
by Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one heart the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Sean Crawford

~Here’s an old joke:
Q: What do you get when you play a country record backwards?

A: You get your dog back, your truck back, your wife back… …

~In the last three posts I’ve had “poem” in the title—which (I think) has drastically reduced my hit count. So I this time I switched to “remarks.”

~I was young when I read Orwell; I thought then that intellectuals stayed in London to be soft, not truly grasping how rare their fellowship would be. In the essay Orwell often used the term “sensitive” as part of explaining Kipling (not sensitive enough to gag at seeing the realities of imperialism, for instance) but I did not make “sensitive” part of my vocabulary, and I did not think of applying it to myself. I was young, with a blind spot.

~Orwell fans know that his essays are far better than his novels.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Poem for Richard Cory

I got invited to a party! Oh boy!

Well, not just me, everyone who had ever attended the Advanced Toastmasters club was invited. I had attended the last two meetings before the party. Normal clubs meet weekly, but this advanced one met monthly—or perhaps fortnightly …it was all so long ago…—and I never went back.

It was a special party, where “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!”

The “spending limit,” you might say, was to bring something from home you were willing to part with, of about a dollar’s worth, and wrap it up. Maybe it was near Christmas, I forget …but I surely didn’t feel any Christmas spirit afterwards.

Back at my house, I have always liked art and design. I appreciate it even when graphic artists use a “four color sheet” for designing a chocolate bar or popcorn wrapper; while I feel awe seeing art where the sky, of truly indescribable color, grows ever duskier towards the stars—how do they paint something like that? I still don’t know. Until the night of the party I had a big tin with a wrap-around picture of peaceful cows under the trees at dusk, with their barn awaiting them in the background. No printing on the tin, just the painting. It was big enough to use to hold my fleecy zip-up-the-leg over-pants. Well. Not only did I gaily wrap it, but first I rolled up some long lengths of newspaper and put them around it too, hiding the geometric shape, making more of a fun mystery. I doubt that I put something inside to make an intriguing rattle—that would have been gilding the lily.

We did some usual party stuff, and then came the anonymous presents, one by one. I think I received a tiny novelty book of things to say in the bar. I remember looking in askance at a present that was a coconut-rice chocolate bar—Bounty, I think—while wondering: why would anyone bring a mundane present, of zero creativity, that just gets eaten?

A man started pulling apart the wrappings of the present from me. Then came the loud harsh voice of a witch: “What are those—are they newspaper things? That’s just stupid.” The man got down to the pretty tin. “What is that?” asked the witch “Hey, it’s only a stupid popcorn container...Who would ever wrap that?” Who indeed. And who would ever attend a party that included a witch? A witch everyone would condone, enable and approve. Nobody told her “hush,” and nobody said “Nice painting.” And now I was out a really nice tin.

I’m sure I kept a straight face without turning red, or white, or any revealing combination of colors. The party swirled on and I had no chance to go over and ask my friend, as a perception check. Or, to be honest, there was no chance I would embarrass myself by asking. I went home feeling a little too young, too poor, and with all my “oh boy’s” used up.

Once home, besides thinking, “I guess I could have wrapped a Bounty bar…” I thought of an orphan. No, not Oliver, and not Ann: I remembered Friday, the young woman in the book Friday by Robert Heinlein. Poor Friday, like a boarding school orphan out of Never Let Me Go, (now a movie) couldn’t leave the cold orphanage until adulthood. Referring to the rest of us as humans, she said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’ll never understand human behavior, all I can do is memorize the rules.” I hear you sister.

I’ve got nothing against rich humans—what the scientists call the “middle class.” In fact, as a university graduate, I suppose I’m an honorary member of the middle class myself. Another honorary member would be the Boss, a working class singer. I’m sure Bruce Springsteen's television set is in color, and really big too. One day, looking at his set, he said in disgust, “Fifty-seven channels, and nothing’s on.” If rich people think a candy bar they can gobble down is better than something real and permanent, then maybe it’s because they own far more than 57 things— so their stuff is “nothing” to them. Does this mean they don’t collect buttons to sew on? Don’t put patches on their old blue jeans? I guess so, if their stuff is nothing. Must make it real easy for them to de-clutter.

When I was a boy, with parents who came of age during the Great Depression, we’d economize by wearing sweaters in the house and turning the thermostat down. I was the kid who slopped coffee grounds on himself doing the chore of taking stuff to the compost: a practical way for us to save money. We’d recycle stale beer bottles for cash. We’d re-use and we’d repair. That was how we coped. Now I’m a grownup, living alone. If I wake up feeling hung-over, looking out at a Sunday morning sidewalk, wishing that I was stoned, I don’t want to complain, “My fingers are cold and nobody loves me.” I can’t control love, but I can sure control my thermostat.

Owning my own place now, with no grubby compost, I always keep it hot enough to wear a T-shirt, and never mind the expense. Besides, my condo suite is right over the boiler room. I had dreamed of a warm house, but I never dared hope one day I’d have nice wall-to-wall warm linoleum…

Some behavior I have witnessed, but which my thrifty parents would never have understood, is this: Now it’s the rich who are into recycling, as something exotic, as a voluntary noble joy. That, and they think the lower classes need to be ignobly forced to recycle as a drab chore, for their own good.

I can just imagine that rich witch from that party saying, “Anyone who doesn’t recycle like me is stupid.”

I’ve memorized the rule of “Next time, just giftwrap a chocolate bar” but I’ll never, ever understand a witch.

Here’s a poem,
Richard Corey
by Edwin A. Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Sean Crawford

~My favorite Star Trek episode is the one where Captain Kirk and Nurse Chapel are underground, where Lurch from The Adams Family played Ruk. (I like it for the “blocking,” where the actors stand) In that one, Dr. Roger Korbyn—surely named for Richard Cory—while respected and rich in knowledge, is misunderstood by the landing party and he even, as he realizes at last, misunderstands himself.

~A brilliant piece of characterization in TV’s Sarah Connor Chronicles is where a tragic high school girl, a friend of John, describes a wonderful time by saying, “It’s all carrots and apples.” She says this because in the show her sort never, ever, get to taste “peaches and cream.”

~Years ago I went through a phase of reading every nonfiction essay by Dorothy Allison, best known for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, now a movie starring Anjelica Huston. Something Allison said struck me, and although there are oodles of her quotes on the Internet, I could not find the one I read so many years ago, so here it is in my own words: “I’m an incest survivor, a feminist, and a lesbian: And none of those things have affected me as much as growing up poor.”

~Speaking of artistic tins, here’s a quote of hers: “Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.”
Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, 1995

~A related essay is my Poverty and “The Hunger Games,” archived February 2012.