Friday, August 31, 2012

Gettin’ It Right

At this time of year it is common and sweet to hear parents say things like, “Well, our little boy is all grown up and ready for school!” In fact, I heard my dear friend Karen Enszer Raquet say that exactly a month ago in Dallas as she talked about her son Jensen and how he was gettin’ ready for kindergarten!

Forty-some years ago, I suppose the same was said about a little five-year old boy on Montana Avenue in Cincinnati who was gettin’ ready to go off to kindergarten at Westwood School. In fact this little five years—going on six year-old year boy—had just been signed up for piano lessons with Cousin Evelyn as well. So much had happened in his young life to prepare him for Westwood School and Cousin Evelyn’s piano lessons…so much comes together in those five years going on six…

So, in a funny way, I could amend that time-worn statement a little and announce, “Well, our little school is all grown up and ready for school!” KA, our little school, is at the wondrous age of five years going on six…and wow…so much has come together in these years. I can get a little misty-eyed when I think of the progress and how we are all grown up and ready for school now!

I have been back in Jordan, back at work for 17 days—meetings with senior staff, greeting new faculty, helping them orient themselves to our school and to Jordan, full faculty meetings, department meetings, and now today our proctors return, our international students begin to return, on Sunday the new students arrive, and finally on Monday, the returning students return. And I gotta say, so much is going well. We are gettin’ it right.

Mona, our expert head of HR, has perfected the welcoming of new faculty. She meets them right outside their gate at the airport, whisks them though all the channels in the airport, offers them cold drinks in the van taking them to their new home, deposits them in the apartments with the air conditioning already on, beds made, and shelves and refrigerator stocked. Wow! That is a far cry from the days when sometimes new faculty got neglected and had to find a taxi and entered a new apartment with no food and no prospects for how to get food. Mona, along with the help of the Operations Czarina Ola, is gettin’ it right.

Each year we have surveyed the new faculty, eagerly inquiring on what else would have been helpful in their opening days. When should we go shopping (always and often!) and how much should you know about the diversity of our students and how can we generalize and characterize them. How often should we go out to eat? Oh, every night—no problem! Mona organizes trips to both fancy and the comfort diner food stops of Amman. By this time they have had 2 weeks to adjust and feel like Jordan is gettin’ a bit more comfortable.

This week when the full faculty met an amazing and unprecedented occurrence rocked my world. (Oh! The suspense mounts!) On Monday, our first day with the entire faculty, headmaster John Austin scheduled two hours for the faculty to meet in groups of 8-10 and discuss passages from a book by Mike Schmoker about teaching.

Did you get the unprecedented nature of this??? No???

The faculty talked about teaching. On the first day of a school year. Still don’t get it???

Well, this fall marks the 25th year I have walked into a classroom to teach, the 25th beginning of a school year, and this year marks the very first time, on the first day of a faculty year when the faculty has discussed teaching. Wow. Big Wow. Sad wow…

So that means that in the other 24 first days of my career a faculty did not discuss teaching. Yes, now you are getting’ it. We met in groups with our colleagues, discussed the passages of the book, and discussed teaching. This was the first first day where that has happened in my career. What do we normally discuss? Oh, you know, policies, and procedures, and blah blah blah. This year we discussed what we do. What discussed what we hope to do. We discussed the life blood of our career choice! Yes, we are gettin’ it right…

Julianne, the omniscient Dean of Student Life, has a herculean task in the beginning of the year. She estimated that her Office of Student Life team has about 3800 assignments to make at the beginning of the year: advisor/advisee assignments, duty rosters for every floor of every dorm, weekend duty assignments, I mean, there is so much! This week those packets went out, smoothly, calmly, triumphantly. Yesterday they finished stuffing the packets for the 450 students with all the pertinent information—the team laughing and efficiently gettin’ it right. I sat in on the meeting triple-checking everything for orientation, and it is set up like a German train schedule. I noticed that they had even thought when the new students might get lost, and set up posts with team-members in the right places to help any errant, lost souls. They have gone over the schedule with a fine-tooth comb, and wow—they are gettin’ it right…

As I met with my department this week, I eschewed some of the policy talk—one can always check on those things, and we spent three happy hours teaching each other something new. I had asked each member to come up with a cultural artifact to teach the department. I reminded them that we hadn’t flexed our teaching muscles in almost three months, and we should polish off those skills. One colleague assigned a short story to read the night before, and by the end of the morning we had enthusiastically explored a short story from Latin American history, a 19th century photograph from a southern university, a Chinese combination lock, an ancient cylinder of policies from Persia, a West African drum, an illuminated manuscript from 17th century India, a statue from early 20th century Cuba, the concept of a bull-ish and bear-ish stock market, and a 17th century Japanese print. It was exhilarating doing what we came here to do: teaching and learning. We are gettin’ it right…

So is everything perfect in this little five going on six year old school? Well, I went the other afternoon to check 2 magazines out of the library (just overnight actually too) and 6 people were trying to figure out how to make this happen. They were a little flummoxed. I don’t know if they had forgotten how to check things out, but it took about 10 minutes for the six of them to come up with something that should go a little smoother! Oh well…

And there was a car issue the other day…oh my, car issues always make my palms a little sweaty. I have had car issues over the years…

Last Saturday I went to the car wash—can you imagine what cars look like here after 10 weeks in the desert without a bath????? While sitting in my car in the right place waiting for the next available car wash dude, one of the young car wash dudes backed into my car. I had seen him coming, laid on the horn, yelled to watch out, all to no avail. Gee whiz…what now?????

They looked a little surprised that a car was in their path, they looked somber, went about the car wash (gee whiz, what now?????) and then the owner came out to discuss the situation. The language barrier became a problem for us, I called dear Tourkan on speed dial, and the owner offered to take the car to a body shop and get it fixed for me. Oh…lots of things are comin’ out okay!

I am not so na├»ve to think that we have solved all our problems, but when I look back to the school in its infancy, and rummage through the old blog entries from the days of “Scratch,” I marvel at the progress. I marvel at what we are gettin’ right…

One time at Hackley a mother spoke softly to me as she pointed out her son a little bit away. She said, “See that tall guy over there. That’s my son. He’s a sophomore. He looks all grown up, doesn’t he? He sure is tall—but you know what, those looks can be deceiving! He’s grown up tall, but he’s not grown up yet. He still needs our help.” What an astute comment about how we look and how we all need a little help yet.

We are certainly gettin’ it more right these days—I revel in that. Now, let’s get this year started and see where we can continue to polish and evolve!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Borrowed Time

As you know, I have been back at school for meetings with new faculty for 11 days, but this weekend is when the rest of the old faculty is pouring in for the return of the full-faculty and full-department meetings. The other day one of my colleagues asked me a great question:

What is your “most summer” summer moment of all?

What a great question…it wasn’t, “Was the summer good?” Not that I mind that, but I loved the reflection involved with, What is your “most summer” summer moment of all?

So what would it be? What should the criteria be for finding the answer? Well, I decided it couldn’t be as simple as saying, “being with family,” or “seeing shows in New York,” since I happily enjoy those experiences three times a year. What happens only in summer? Hmmm…so much of what I do in my USA time is stuff I do all three times a year—summer vacation, winter break and spring break—so it can’t count as my “most summer” summer moment of all…wait. There is one thing, one thing that is only in the summer, and I have done it every single summer of my life, and yes, this is the answer. Drum roll please…my “most summer” summer moment of all is that trip down to the bottom of Montana Avenue where I have spent parts of every summer for the last 40,000 years to Putz’s Creamy Whip. That’s it. While my order of choice is usually their incomparable banana shake, at least once a summer I get a vanilla cone. I have gotten a vanilla cone every single summer of my entire life. THAT is the “most summer” summer moment of all!!!!!!!!!

When your tongue touches the frozen white nirvana on top of a Putz’s cone, every moment of every joy of every summer of your life is condensed into one simple swipe. It’s the sweetness, the creaminess, the cloud-like texture. I dare you to close your eyes, taste it, and not think of your summer memories—of getting invited to a friend’s new pool in July. It is the simplicity of the vanilla cone that makes this place the uber-memory of summer. In my childhood, when I was maybe 9, as I-74 was being built, the plans had the expressway to land three feet from Putz’s back door. As bizarre as this sounds, the U.S. Department of Transportation actually moved the freeway—a little—for Putz’s. I guess they do that thing for holy shrines. Putz’s opens in the late spring—my family tortures me on the phone recounting their first visit of the season. It will close soon around Labor Day. I can go there only in the summer and well, it wins the prize…

This summer, among my trips to southern Italy, New York, Disney World, Dallas, and Cincinnati, I enjoyed many summer moments. One moment that gripped me, gripped all of us, was the senseless July killing at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. There are no more words that I will add about the tragedy, but one survivor’s comment has resonated in my mind in those six weeks since. One survivor noted simply, “We live on borrowed time,” reminding us to observe that truism, love each other, cherish one another, savor each day. The comment has stuck with me, and shortly after I heard that interview, I went through my 6924 songs in my Itunes library and found two versions of a song entitled, “We Live On Borrowed Time.” Oh, baby. If you don’t know this song, well, go get it now. The two versions I have, and my favorite two are by Nancy La Mott and Norm Lewis (who I saw perform Porgy in Porgy and Bess this summer on Broadway). Go find these if you don’t know them! Man, I repeated these songs several times and just basked in that gentle warning to indeed remember our borrowed time. Here are some of the words of this song,

We live on borrowed time
No one can be sure when the loan will finally come due
But I'm loving all of mine, I know what time is for,
I've borrowed it so I can spend it all right here with you
There was a time when I believed that life held guarantees
There was a time when I was sure my future was secure,
But life had other plans, the future's in God's hands
And knowing that just makes me love you even more

We live on borrowed time
Yesterday is past, tomorrow seems a million miles away
But I promise you that I'm gonna make love last
By living every moment, every hour, every day

Now we may have a year, or we may have a lifetime,
No one can be certain what the future will allow,
But you and I are here, and this time is the right time
'Cause one thing that I know is that we have each other now, and now,
And we live on borrowed time

Let's celebrate and sing as we walk bravely into the unknown
'Cause we're gonna be just fine, whatever life may bring,
We'll face it all together and we'll never be alone

Summer time for me is about time with people I love—yes, I know, not a very original statement, but let me linger for just a moment more about some memories of the summer of 2012, and the enjoyment of this borrowed time:

I left Jordan in the wee hours of June 21st and met friends in Rome. The iconic Anne Siviglia and her delightful cousin Janey and I spent a week exploring the Amalfi Coast then we went to Rome and met the inimitable Gary Klein. Oh, my. There I was with these three New Yorkers in St. Peter’s—basking in the stimuli around me. St. Peter’s Basilica has a way of shrinking mere mortals. I am always a little thrown by its vastness. Then you see the armies of pilgrims genuflecting, tilting their faces skyward. Soaring nearly 100 feet above us is the baldacchino, the four twisting columns of bronze and gold that form a crowning canopy for the altar. There we heard a choir rehearse for a performance the following day for St. Peter and St. Paul Day. A majestic, yet intimate moment, with wonderful travelers.

A few days after I returned to Cincinnati I headed up to see my dear friend Tracy (“Leaving so soon,” my father asked sardonically). A heat wave baked—well, everywhere I went this summer—but it was really bad in Heath, Ohio. We had tickets to see Singin’ In The Rain, but the power had been out for days around Heath. Uh-oh…finally power made it back to the theater, Tracy secured a place for us to stay that did have power and A-C, and we got to have a theatrical tryst. Two of the three leads were young, dynamite, and exuded such joy…the third tried mightily, but made me remember how effortless Gene Kelley always appeared…never enough time with Tracy, but another example of a wonderful borrowing of what we have.

New York for me is always a cacophony of joy and binges—theatrical, artistic, gastronomic, financial, everything…and this summer Christy and I did as much as we could. We looked for theatrical bargains—I got up at 5 to stand in line for the 12 seats sold every day for $30, and yup, I got the last two. Each production was a joy, but perhaps the nicest moment was sitting down that first night trying to see how we could cram a lot of livin’ and explorin’ and excitin’ stuff into a week. We took a great loan and loved it.

Within 36 hours of the return from NYC was the family trip to Walt Disney World—the 6th such trip to Disney since 2004!! One moment that moved me happened during a brilliant behind-the-scenes- tour of the Magic Kingdom by genius Rae. We had entered the park before the crowds, and when the park opened, Rae urged us to stand by and watch, study the faces, and think about that “each person has a story, each person comes here trying to touch, to embrace, wonder. Think about that as you study their faces.” Man, what a powerful thing! The next day I sat and watched my family at the pool, unbeknownst to them, and sat end reveled in their joy at splashing and relaxing together. My father, a big-believer in this ‘borrowed time’ business always reminds us, “Do as much as you can for as long as you can…”

A day after that extravagant affair I hopped a plane to Dallas, soaking in the love and fellowship of the Enszer family, a family I taught in Charlotte between 1991 and 1996. We ate, sang, visited, relaxed—simply savored two decades of friendship and personal evolution. Their weddings are all over, so once and awhile, without a major reason, you just have to hop a plane to Dallas to see the Enszers.

That next Saturday, as the grains of sand seemed to speed up through the hour-glass of summer, I basked in what has (luckily for me!) become a tradition of summer. My kind friend Sylvia has made it a tradition to invite my father and me over for a grand Austrian-style luncheon. Sylvia invites her gentle mother and our English teacher, Mr. Justice as well. Sylvia fills her table with Austrian-style salads and wiener schnitzels and strudels. We visit, we laugh, we comment on the beautiful meal, the elegant effortlessness of Sylvia’s handiwork—and then we laze in the living room, letting a summer afternoon dawdle away…now, that’s another summer memory that is hard to beat.

In all the coverage of the tragedy in Aurora, one phrase from some news writer kept stinging my summer contentment. The writer observed that the dead were in a “hostile world in which they struggled to survive…” I suppose that is true for all of us. The world—even though we try and insulate ourselves—is pretty hostile, and the best we can hope for is to struggle to survive. But we are struggling together. And the time we borrow, each of those moments, we might as well acknowledge, is precious. I look forward to next June, 2013, when I get the swipe of that vanilla nirvana at Putz’s. I will borrow a little more time in that hope.

Now summer is over…the barrage of full-faculty, full head-of-department meetings, full History department meetings begins…but you know what that also means—the classroom teaching is just around the corner. 10 days from now!!!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

From Our Own Emmaus

Last week, in one of my last days in Cincinnati before this week’s flight back to Jordan to resume my school life, I sneaked in another visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum. I wanted to have a look around a special retrospective exhibit the museum had mounted about artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist in the late 19th and early 20th century. I had seen several of Tanner’s works before, admired his palette and sense of mystery in his works, but didn’t know much of his story. As I toured the retrospective, the ethereal work seen above riveted my attention more than the others.

This is a painting called Christ and His Disciples On Their Way to Bethany. I am sure you know the statistics of how short our collective attention spans are toward art works in museums—most people offer a work no more than a few seconds. However, this crepuscular landscape held my attention as I thought about the many things it opened up for me. First of all, the title caught my attention. Here in Jordan, I am but just a few miles away from the Bethany that is in the title of the painting. If I were to drive down to Bethany I would encounter many people on my way who still dress exactly like this. This moonlit sky which engulfs the wayfarers also seems to cast its light as well beyond the frame at the viewer. So it was more than just the title and the dress which caught my attention. It was somehow in this painting that I felt similar to the experience I always feel as I leave my one world of summer vacation and move back to my one world of teaching in Jordan. It’s hard to explain—not a timewarp exactly, but a strange transitioning of states of mind. This painting transcends a Bible story and the more I gazed at it, the more I sensed that Tanner endeavored to offer an image that is about what is visible and what is invisible, about what is ordinary and what is miraculous, about what is present and what is past, about closures and about openings. Somehow all those crazy contradictions are present in my mind as I make the journey from the United States back to work in Jordan—somehow all those things resonate with me as I begin another year teaching in this interesting place.

I could tell you exactly where this school is—on the King’s Road, southwest of Amman, towards Madaba, on the plains of Moab, about 45 minutes as the crow flies from Jerusalem. But it has always been a more complex state of mind for me than just those geographic particulars.

Rumor has it that Lake Wobegon does not appear on any maps of Minnesota because of a mistake made by cartographers more than a century ago. As author and humorist Garrison Keillor recounts the mystery of this mapping error, we learn that four surveyors each began at one of the four corners of the state. Proceeding to move inward, they traveled on foot at different paces and over uneven terrain. The result was that they failed to meet up as expected. When their separate maps overlapped awkwardly, Lake Wobegon got left out in the process.

As I looked at this painting of Bethany, executed by Tanner at the same exact late-40s age range that I currently occupy, I thought about the states of mind of teaching here, of the blending of the past with the present and the hopes of the future. I think about how so much of teaching is trying to make visible the invisible. Each beginning of a year, really every day, is another wonderful opening of a mind. On the airplane, as I traveled the 12 hours from Chicago to Amman, my mind raced from my world of Cincinnati and Amman, pausing about Bethany and Lake Wobegon, and another place drifted across my mind.

Like Lake Wobegon, in a similar way, biblical archaeologists still have no idea where the little town of Emmaus might have been situated. It does not exist today, or if it does, no cartographer can say definitively where it is. The writer Luke indicates that it was about 7 miles from Jerusalem (or today about 30 miles from where I am at this moment).

It could be that like Lake Wobegon (shhhhh!), Emmaus is just a symbolic place, a symbolic place for our lives of faith. It is where we go when the wind empties from our sail. It’s the place we head when grief makes our compass bearings go haywire. When confused and distraught, we often stick out our thumb and hitchhike to Emmaus. Theologian Barbara Brown calls the road to Emmaus “the road of deep disappointment.”

Plane rides are wonderful times for a mind to wander. As I thought of these disparate places, somehow I recovered a few lines from the final section of T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land":

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

Anyone who has read Luke’s Gospel knows what this passage echoes, as undoubtedly it was meant to do: the scene takes place on that first Easter Sunday, when two of Christ’s downtrodden disciples are on the dusty road to a village some seven miles from Jerusalem. “They were talking with each other about everything that had happened,” Luke tells us—the surprise capture of Jesus in the garden, his rushed trial and execution by crucifixion outside the city walls. The Jewish and Roman authorities had done away with this troublesome, charismatic figure, and his disciples had scattered like shot dogs in a field.

Suddenly, while they are discussing these catastrophic events, Jesus is there, walking with them, three now, where a moment before there seemed to be only two, though—as Luke tells us—“they were kept from recognizing him.”

The figure asks the two pilgrims what it is they are discussing. “They stood still,” Luke says, “their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?’”

“What things?” the figure asks.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they reply. And they tell him of the last few days (“we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel”), not leaving out how the women disciples had gone to the tomb and found it empty.

Jesus listens, then chides them for not taking to heart the words of the prophets who went before: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Then, according to Luke, he went on to explain to them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

With darkness coming on, the figure agrees to stay with the two for the night at their invitation, and Luke’s narrative continues:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. . . . They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and . . . told what had happened on the way, and how they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

For two ordinary disciples, that’s exactly what that road was: a dusty road of deep disappointment. We know that there were two people walking and talking, grieving for what was—or for what wasn’t. These two people had faith, but they felt void of vital power. They knew what they were to believe. They understood what had happened to Jesus in their midst. They just didn’t know what the story meant. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said. We had hoped. Can there be any words in the Scriptures sadder than those three? Not many. As they poured out their hearts to the stranger beside them—the one whom they could not recognize—at least they were honest. They shared questions, not answers.

If “we had hoped” are three words of great sadness, “stay with us,” are three words brimming with hospitality. Their hearts may have held no answers but they were not closed.

Something dramatic happened at the table that evening in Emmaus. The instant the unrecognized stranger blessed the food, broke the bread and gave it to them, their eyes were opened. It must have been the eyes of their heart, since the eyes on their face were working fine.

When Viktor Frankl was at the end of his rope in the horror of the Nazi concentration camp deprivation, every possession lost and every value destroyed, someone gave him a piece of bread. “I remember how a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration,” he wrote. “It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human “something” that this man gave to me—the look that accompanied the gift.”

It is that “human something” which has moved me the most in my teaching career—whether it be on the road in North Carolina, New York, or Jordan. It is that “human something” that Tanner captured in that ethereal painting. Keep on the lookout for that “human something” the next time you break bread with another person. Their words may offer more nutrients than the bread in your hand. Their look may open the eyes of your heart. It might all be a small taste of the first Emmaus.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Election Year

Summer is winding down now. I have fewer than 48 hours in Cincinnati before I jump on that plane heading back to Jordan. Of course, there are many things I will miss about summer, but one thing I am fairly certain I will not miss—grrr…the barrage of the 2012 presidential campaign TV commercials! I wondered if I was making it up about this overwhelming bombardment of TV commercials, but then a story in The Cincinnati Enquirer a couple of days ago confirmed that bombardment is certainly an apt word. The newspaper analyzed TV time and found that Cincinnatians trying to enjoy a little summer TV or watch the news (my father fits the category) had campaign candidate commercials battering their psyche at the rate of 9.7 an hour in the last month! Soooo…if we watched the CBS News (my father’s favorite) from 6-7 PM, an average 9.7 Romney/Obama ads blistered our brains in the course of an hour.

Yes, as a reminder dear readers, Ohio is a “battleground” state. I would bet there are no ads in either New York or Wyoming. Seeing the same ads over and over from both sides not only makes one a little crazy, wish for a respite from the mental fatigue of an election year, but made me want to retreat into history—a quieter time, an easier time, when all Americans wanted the same thing. Ahhhh…no ugly characterizations or political posturing…

If you are a historian, you know that that time has never existed! People just say it did…and they don’t remember accurately.

I did decide to go back 150 years in my mind to think about another election year, the mid-term election of Abraham Lincoln’s first term. Would that fit for a time when all Americans wanted the same thing??? No, that year of 1862 must have made many Americans tremble. It was one year into the Civil War, but that November would be an election year for Congress, and as we always note, a referendum on the sitting president.

Let’s leave the swelter of the summer of 2012 (seriously—I think I have enjoyed maybe 2 whole days this summer with temperatures under 90 degrees!!!!) and think about the time before TV campaign ads and wonder a little what it was like 150 years ago:

By January, 1862, fighting had quieted down in the East. The troops were in winter quarters, and the new Union commander, General George McClellan, was sick with typhoid fever. Only President Lincoln seemed to be champing at the bit for action. Lincoln never could extract more than flip promises from the temperamental, preening McClellan. The day after Christmas Lincoln had ordered General Ambrose Burnside “to be off at once.” Exactly where Burnside was to go, Lincoln didn’t say, so everyone stayed put.

In this winter lull, President Lincoln decided to spend some time with the troops. He had received an invitation from the 55th New York Infantry Regiment for a celebration in early January, and Lincoln accepted. The regiment enjoyed considerable good buzz because it was a French regiment known for good food and the flashy uniforms of the zouave. Lincoln heard the colorful uniforms were patterned on the French North African troops and consisted of a red fez, red pantaloons, and a short, blue jacket.

We think of Washington today as a hothouse of partisan bickering, but let’s recover the context of 150 years Washington. We need to remember the realities of wartime Washington at this time—what a crazy time where Confederate sympathizers played host to Union officers and Northern soldiers toiled not far from enslaved African-Americans. Washington had become an army camp.

The regiment’s French chefs prepared their best dishes for the President’s visit, and the leader of the regiment toasted the Commander-in-Chief: “May you quickly see the Union reestablished—but not so soon, however, that the 55th may have an opportunity to contribute to it on some field of battle.” Lincoln returned with a few words of thanks, which he closed by remarking, “All that I can say is that, if you fight as well as you treat your guests, victory is assured us.”

By the end of 1862 roughly one quarter of those sartorially splendid zouaves will have died in battles across Virginia. But it’s not really the war that interests me, but the fact that 1862 was an election year, doing what Americans may do better than anyone. And it was not lost on Americans in 1862 that this election year had a harrowing risk: The New York Herald Tribune noted that this would be the first democratic election ever successfully held during a civil war, anywhere, at any time! As we hear emphatically every election, this really was an election in which the issue was what kind of nation this was going to be—unified, however painfully, without slavery, or forever split with or without it. It was an election campaign in which the issue was truly our young nation’s future…

How would the election go as a referendum on President Lincoln’s tenure so far? If you scour the news of the day, one is hard-pressed to find compliments for the politically savvy Illinois Lincoln. Cartoons lampooning him, pegging him as a humbug, among many things, were a dime a dozen. If you suspend your knowledge of the outcome of the 1862 mid-term election, and also his re-election bid in 1864, there really is no sense of inevitability in Lincoln’s win and future lionization. These were nasty campaigns, albeit, ones without TV ads at the rate of 9.7 an hour.

So when election day in November, 1864 came, President Lincoln ran against his old general-in-charge George McClellan. When the electoral smoke cleared, McClellan wrote a friend that he had conducted his campaign with “dignity and had nothing to be ashamed of.” He continued, “For my country’s sake, I deplore the result—but the people have decided with their eyes wide open. It was a struggle of honor patriotism & truth against deceit and selfishness & fanaticism…” Oh my, maybe the French are right with their phrase about the more things change, the more they stay the same! I am picturing a Frenchie in a zouave outfit wagging his finger through time…

As people reacted to Lincoln’s re-election there were many who believed it was “one of the greatest national acts in all history” (and yes, we seem to have always loved hyperbole!) and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Seldom in history was much staked on a popular vote—I suppose never in history.” I enjoyed this comment as well, from George Strong, a New Yorker known for his colorful diaries: “The crisis has been past, and the most momentous popular election ever held since ballots were invented has decided against treason and disunion. My contempt for democracy and extended suffrage has been mitigated. The American people can be trusted to take care of national honor.”

The Civil War would end within six months, and of course, President Lincoln would be assassinated within a week of that historic conclusion.

How interesting—for me, at least!!—to think back 150 years and wonder what those elections were like. In bad history books we ossify the players too easily, we crop out the dissension, and we reduce it all to a stale inevitable conclusion. What a pity! How much more fun—for me, at least!!—to recover the context and think about the fights and the fears, the editorializing and the hyperbole, and realize again how alike we are. Granted, we are not now in the middle of an official civil war (will the Chik-Fil-A brouhaha make it into history books?) but it is always a question of the trajectory of our nation. President Lincoln, in his simple words, always makes reconciliation seem desirable and easy, spoke to a crowd gathered the day after the election in 1864 saying, “May we not all re-unite in a common effort to save our common country?” If you delve more deeply into the history of that election you find that President Lincoln made plans in the summer for the transition for another president. He told his cabinet in another hot August, he felt he had “no friends” and would work for a smooth transition.

But come November, when the re-election passed into history, Ulysses Grant telegrammed Lincoln praising the United States that “no bloodshed or riot throughout the land” had occurred and that that “is a victory worth more to the country than a battle won.”

You know, I remember in 2007 being asked in Jordan what I loved most about the United States. Without much time at all I responded that I love the day after election days the most. Even though elections are contentious and commercials in these battleground states constant and exhausting, the day after, just as Grant said 150 years ago, there is no bloodshed and no riots. Think about it. Americans rarely savor that peace and quiet. To sound a little 19th century like, “since ballots were invented,” few places on earth have enjoyed such acceptance and calm about electoral results.

Time to return to 2012…a little more enjoyment of the United States, and on Monday late afternoon my father will drive me to the airport and I will return to another home…