Friday Nov. 6, 2015

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My Life Was the Size of My Life

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept, it opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off               our clothes on
our tongues from

"My Life Was the Size of My Life” by Jane Hirshfield from The Beauty. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this date in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. He had been a real long shot. Newspapers called him a “third-rate Western lawyer” and his chief appeal to his own party was that he was from the swing state of Illinois, and he didn’t have any skeletons in his closet. It also helped that the Republican convention was held in Chicago that year, so it was easy to get his supporters to turn out. He had only served one term in Congress, and he’d lost two Senate bids. Certainly nothing in his track record gave any indication that he would one day be named one of this country’s greatest presidents. But in 1858, he had impressed people with his performance in a series of debates against Stephen A. Douglas during a campaign for the Illinois senate. Lincoln ultimately lost that race, but the Lincoln-Douglas debates brought him, and his Republican Party, national attention.

Once Lincoln secured the nomination, he didn’t campaign heavily. In fact, he barely campaigned at all. His strategy was to keep quiet and let his three opponents talk themselves into trouble. The Democratic Party had split into northern and southern factions: his old rival Stephen Douglas was the nominee of the Northern Democrats, and John C. Breckinridge was the choice of the Southern Democrats. John Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate, rounded out the quartet. Slavery was a central issue in this contentious campaign.

Lincoln had first officially declared his opposition to slavery in 1854. In a speech against the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln said: “I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.” During his 1858 Senate campaign, he delivered his famous “House Divided” speech, saying: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” This was directed at Douglas, who believed states should be able to decide for themselves. But in 1859, Lincoln tempered his rhetoric a bit. While he was still vehemently opposed to the spread of slavery or the revival of the African slave trade, he was willing to compromise if it meant averting a civil war. “We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists,” he wrote in his notes for a series of speeches to Ohio Republicans, “because the Constitution, and the peace of the country both forbid us.” It was not enough to reassure the Southern states, however, and they were sure that his election would signal the end of slavery.

In the wee hours of the morning on November 7, 1860, Lincoln received word that he had become the 16th president of the United States. He won only 40 percent of the popular vote and carried not a single slave-holding state. By the time of his inauguration the following March, seven Southern states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America. By the time Lincoln left Springfield, he had already received several death threats. He had to make his way to Washington in disguise, traveling at night, and sneaking into the capital in the pre-dawn hours. His critics accused him of cowardice and spread the rumor that he had sneaked into Washington dressed in his wife’s clothes.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln appealed to the disgruntled Southern states: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Today is the birthday of the “March King,” John Philip Sousa, born in Washington, D.C., in 1854. He began studying music when he was six. And over the course of his life, he studied voice, violin, flute, piano, trombone, cornet, baritone, and alto horn, as well as composition. When he was 13, he tried to run away from home and join a circus band, prompting his father to enlist him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice musician. He published his first composition in 1872, at the age of 18, and was conducting a Broadway orchestra — for Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore — by the time he was 21. He went back to the Marine Band in 1880, this time as its leader, a position he held for 12 years. During his tenure, he composed “Semper Fidelis,” which became the official march of the United States Marine Corps.

After he retired from the Marines, he formed his own concert band; they were the first American band to go on a world tour, and they even had their own baseball team. He was a strict perfectionist: everything they played was note perfect and was accorded the same respect, whether it was a classical piece or a pop tune. During World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and led their band; by this time, he was a wealthy man, so he donated his naval salary to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund.

He composed many kinds of music, including suites, fantasies, humoresques, and dances; he even composed several university fight songs, operettas, and other vocal pieces. But he is remembered for his marches. On Christmas Day, 1896, he composed one of his best beloved marches, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was named the official march of the United States by an act of Congress. In addition to his skills as a composer and conductor, he was also a fine marksman, and is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. His Hall of Fame biography includes the following quote: “Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead.’” He wrote several articles about trapshooting; he also wrote a full-length autobiography and three novels.

He was not a fan of the new recording industry and all its technology, and spoke adamantly against it at a Congressional hearing in 1906: “When I was a boy [...] in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

He was a hard worker, devoutly religious, and known far and wide for his personal integrity. He often said, “When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead!” and his words were prophetic: he died suddenly of a heart attack following a rehearsal in 1932.

It’s the birthday of the founder of The New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado, in 1892. He was a reporter from the time he was 14. Ross became the editor of The Stars and Stripes, the American forces’ newspaper in France in 1918. In 1925, after several false starts, he launched The New Yorker. Ross was proud of the fact that The New Yorker achieved a paid circulation of 400,000 without actively soliciting subscriptions. He attracted a galaxy of talent to write for him: James Thurber, Ring Lardner, Clifton Fadiman, A.J. Liebling, and Charles Addams as cartoonist. He told E.B. White, “This isn’t a magazine — it’s a Movement!” Ross stayed at the helm of The New Yorker until just before he died at age 56. His motto as an editor: “Editing is the same thing as quarreling with writers. Same thing exactly.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®