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Tag Archive: Thomas Jefferson

Feb 17

On Presidents Day, two still tug at our hearts

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”—George Washington

On Presidents Day, two presidents still tug at our hearts; it is almost romantic.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln remain as respected and revered today as they did before they entered office. I guess you could say America is in love with them.

And, their reputations do not tarnish.

I say this despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1976 that “No man will ever bring out of the Presidency the reputation which carries him into it.”

These two former presidents did.

If this were a question on Family Feud, the survey would say George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are inarguably the most venerated of presidents and continue to hold our high esteem.

In fact, Washington and Lincoln were so revered when I was a child that schools honored their birthdays on two separate occasions, one for each president.

Things were different before 1971, the year that Presidents Day became a federal holiday. Schools and banks did not close prior to that, and the post office delivered mail.

The president in 1971 was President Richard M. Nixon who issued a proclamation stating that the third Monday of February would honor all past presidents of the United States.

There was a glitch, however.

A federal statue was already on the books designating that day as Washington’s birthday, and a presidential proclamation, although weighty, was not the same as an executive order.

No one split hairs, and eventually the holiday simply came into being. Thereafter, Presidents Day became the term commonly used.

But long before the federal holiday was proclaimed, the country celebrated Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th , his actual birthday, and Washington’s on his, February 22nd.

Their birthdays were met with great fanfare in most elementary schools and featured elaborate classroom decorations, the singing of patriotic songs, the telling of legendary stories, the recitation of poems and the consumption of yummy cupcakes with white icing and red sprinkles.

We imagined Lincoln living in a log cabin and learning to read by candlelight and Washington chopping down a cherry tree and never telling a lie.

Yes, I suppose one could indeed call it romantic.

Our school celebrations were not quite as exciting as on Valentine’s Day, however, but they were close.

Pupils cut out head-size construction-paper silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln. The artwork, usually on white or black paper, was then pasted onto red paper or white doilies with messy white paste from a jar. The presidential likenesses were hung on classroom walls just above the blackboards.

It occurs to me that the reason schools made such a big deal over Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays had a lot to do with teaching about character and reputation.

Washington and Lincoln did not waiver. They were principled, rock-solid individuals with unshaken courage, strength and determination.

Charles Francis Adams noted about George Washington, “More than all, and above all, Washington was a master of himself.”

And of Abraham Lincoln, David Lloyd George observed, “If you look at his portraits they always give you an indelible impression of his great height. So does his life. Height of purpose, height of ideal, height of character, height of intelligence.”

As we prepare to officially honor all presidents on the third Monday of February, it is just fine with me that Washington and Lincoln still tug at our hearts. It is for a good reason.

Jul 16

Telling a story in six words

“It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” –Robert Southey, English poet, 1774-1883

I was reading through an AARP magazine recently (and yes, I admit I am old enough to be a subscriber) when I discovered an article with an intriguing title, “Really Short Stories, in half a dozen words” by Larry Smith.

How can anyone write a story in six words, I wondered. Impossible, I decided.

Reading on, I learned that Ernest “Papa” Hemingway was once asked to do just that, tell a story in six words. As the story goes, Hemingway wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

His powerful and fascinating story in just six words brings all sorts of possible scenarios immediately to mind. How did he choose exactly those six words and how could we write our own-six-word stories if we tried? Turns out, it is not so easy.

Give it a whirl yourselves; lots of folks have already tried. In fact, AARP The Magazine is currently challenging readers to do just that on its website.

Incidentally, six-word story telling started some time ago when Smith Magazine challenged readers to tell their life stories in six words. Harper Perennial later published favorite submissions in “ Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.” Currently, websites such as sixword memoirs.com and smithmagazine.net are still encouraging readers to submit their own six-word life stories.

Here are some of my favorites from Smith Magazine and AARP The Magazine.

Nearing 60, still on rough draft.

I wear orange socks with red.

Degree in programming, now I bake.

Knocked on my door, never left.

What scares me, I’m considered above-average.

I still make coffee for two.

Sour grapes just need more sunshine.

Like it or not, I’m twittering.

There are tens of thousands of such six-word stories, and all leave me with searing questions as I try to imagine what the real life story behind each of these is.

The joy. The pathos. The humor. The pain.
Although I know better and for one fleeting moment, I did indeed entertain the thought that writing six-word stories would be easy. But, as any writer knows, writing short is exceedingly difficult.

Stumped after a few attempts, I asked my third-grader grandson for help. Halen and I agreed that ten words instead of six would do just fine for our experiment. Without flinching and in a blink, he created these 10-worders:

“I like to shoot at hoops while watching flowers droop.”

“Playing baseball rocks especially in your long-colored socks.”

“I’d like to have a maid get my Gatorade!”

A word of warning: it takes time to write short, lots of time unless you are a third-grader.

To write concisely as Thomas Jefferson once said, “… is the most valuable of all talents.”

And William Shakespeare, in Hamlet, was the master of succinctness when he penned this famous six-worder, “Brevity is the soul of wit!”

To which I add: “So, I’ll sign my name and quit.”

But wait, that was seven words. I’ll try again.

“Six worders, no piece of cake!”

Ta Da!