Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Thought About Madoff

It's not generally been my M.O. to talk about things I know next to nothing about - such as politics, economics, and religion. But I'm about to make an exception.

The more I read about this Bernie Madoff guy and his Ponzi scheme that swindled individual and institutional investors out of $50 billion, the more I had this nagging thought: bad enough this guy is a royal scumbag, does he have to be Jewish, too?

It seems an odd and petty concern, but it's actually rather relevant, especially in light of the fact that so many of the individuals and charities who lost some or all of their funds to Madoff were also Jewish. This includes some very heavy hitters in philanthropic circles, people like Carl and Ruth Shapiro, Robert Lappin, and even Elie Wiesel. Not only did they lose money, but deserving charities, hospitals, schools, and nonprofits also lost out on major gifts they were depending on from these people and many others like them.

Still, why dwell on the religious affiliation? I guess because I'm having flashbacks to the sweltering summer of 1977, when David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, was arrested for killing six people over the course of a year (he later amended his confession to take credit for only three of the murders). I distinctly remember my parents expressing shock, not merely at the scope and scale of the crime, but also at the fact that the serial killer was Jewish. Jews simply don't do that sort of thing.

My sisters and I were raised in a household where we often heard, either overtly or subtly, that Jews are somehow better than other people. Smarter, more industrious. More civilized than to put mayonnaise on a roast beef sandwich or buy retail. I don't think we actually ever believed that, but it was an attitude that pervaded our home. And to be fair, our parents grew up in quite a different community and world than we did, and their attitudes reflected the challenges they faced being Jewish.

One thing that is probably true is that Jews, as a group, became integrated more quickly in American society and became, as a group, more financially successful and politically powerful in less time - and relative to their size - than most if not all other immigrant groups. Part of this, I'm sure, is that they were white. Another reason, I believe, is that Jews have a long history of ghettoization; in most societies in which they have lived, they have been a subject people, kept separate from the mainstream and constrained in how and where they lived and worked. As a result, they were forced to rely on each other, support each other, and conduct trade with each other.

When they came to America, the same patterns held. If a Jew needed clothes, he went to a fellow Jew who was a tailor. If he needed a chicken slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut, he went to a Jew who knew how to do it. Sore throat? Let Rachel make you some soup. This continues to this day. I am 46 years old, and I have never had a non-Jewish doctor or dentist in my life. When Jews need an accountant or a lawyer, they go to a Jew; when they need an appliance, they find a Jew with wholesale connections. For generations in America, Jewish money stayed in the Jewish community. Fortunes were made. And when it came time to invest this money, where do you think they went? Yes, to Jewish stockbrokers.

When you think about it, it's been a long time since a single man has harmed so many Jews as Bernie Madoff has done. And the fact that the perpetrator is Jewish really is striking.

Elie Wiesel, speaking in New York earlier today, called Madoff a "psychopath" and said his punishment should include being placed "in a solitary cell with a screen, and on a screen, for at least five years of his life, [would be] pictures of his victims." The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which provides aid to Jewish refugees overseas, lost almost all its financial assets because of Madoff: $15.2 million. A writer in the Times of London noted, "It takes an extraordinarily heartless conman to swindle a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Nobel Peace Prize winner out of all of his charitable funds."

Of course, just as with the Holocaust, not all the victims are Jewish, and Madoff's religious affiliation has no bearing on his guilt or punishment. But it does make me think that if the Jewish community diversified not only its investments but also its various networks of vendors and service providers, they may find that non-Jews are just as honest, reliable, and skilled - and maybe more so - as their fellow Jews.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"I'm the King of Bad Dreams."

It's a hell of a thing, to open up a new book, crack the spine a bit, the front cover and assorted preliminary pages laying lightly in your left hand, and the entire bulk of the rest of the book supporting page one being borne by your right. You've only just begun and it will be some time before you've finished. What you hope for is a first line that propels you forward, onward, into the book. You need to build some momentum quickly and the first line will either make you hungry for the next or merely serve as that initial slow step you take before you've reached full speed.

Me, I like a first line that sparks the pilot light in my imagination, that instantly leaves me either excited or curious about what comes next. Now, some of the greatest novels in the English language have had first lines that do nothing for me, so a great first line isn't necessary for a successful book. But it helps. For example:

Call me Ishmael. - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Great books, classic lines. But still idling in Neutral. I'm sorry, they just don't do much for me.

I like first lines that make you wonder, that instantly give you a feeling, maybe even a feeling of uneasiness. A feeling that you must go on, if only to learn what bad things might await. Some of my favorite first lines include:

124 was spiteful. - Toni Morrison, Beloved

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. - James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Mother died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. – Albert Camus, The Stranger (OK, granted that's two lines, but they join to make one indelible start.)

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

So I've been thinking lately about my next novel, and not quite knowing what it's going to be about. But I've decided it should be told in the first person, unlike my first novel, The Grave and the Gay, still awaiting delivery to agents. That's a piece of historical fiction with an omniscient narrator telling the story in third person. And I think it works fine, but I want my next one to be more direct, more in your face. I want the narrator to talk to the reader, and I want it to begin with a first line that sets up a sense of an individual with issues to work out, yet those issues are ill-defined and much of the book, I think, will be spent trying to figure out just what's up with the guy. The remainder of the book will be his attempt to address those issues.

It's like therapy - especially if you read it in 50-minute chunks.

So anyway, I was thinking about what some of my issues are and I recalled a recurring dream I've had many, many times over the years. It's a dream where I've arrived somewhere - work, school, a party, some fun event - and for some reason had to leave it because I forgot something or had to drop someone off somewhere. And then I'm not able to find my way back. Either the streets don't look familiar or the place has moved or I no longer have a car, something prevents me from getting back to where I want to be. I get a taste, but never a meal.

There was one time about eight years ago when I had the dream - and actually made it back! It was an incredibly exhilarating feeling. I was on a high for days. A colleague gave me her interpretation as to why that night the dream ended differently. I had recently started this job, and I finally felt like I was in a work environment in which I belonged, in which I truly felt valued and respected. That was an interesting insight. Of course, the novelty has worn off some over the years, and I've since had the dream again, and again I was unable to get back.

And then, thinking about bad or annoying dreams, there are those times when you dream you've tripped and suddenly you're whole body jerks you awake, or you're being chased and your legs are like lead and it feels like you're running through Marshmallow Fluff. I've actually had two dreams in my life where I've gotten shot in the head and both times I felt the bullet enter my skull. So I know about bad dreams.

And that's why I know the first line of my next novel: "I'm the King of Bad Dreams." What happens next, aside from a description of some of them, as I just did above, I have no idea. But I'm hoping I get into a strong creative rhythm and am able to write the whole thing quickly. Because if I don't, if I have to stop or retreat, I'm worried I'll never find my way back.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In Praise of Tuna Fish

Why, you might ask, after several posts discussing the serious neurological illness Lewy Body Dementia and the ways in which my life and been inspired and enriched by the life and legacies of Abraham Lincoln, would I next turn to the subject of tuna fish?

It's a fair question.

Earlier today, I donated blood. In the past when I've donated blood, lying on a rickety green cot with a needle in my arm, drawing my precious plasma through tubing into a plastic pouch while I squeeze a plastic dowel in 10-second intervals, I've been terribly bored. Giving blood takes longer than it should considering how great the need for donated blood is these days. My appointment today took nearly two hours. Anyway, the point is that I wanted to bring a book with me to read while vital fluid dripped out of me.

And I didn't want to bring one of my current reads because my reading would be interrupted by nurses, I would be near staining iodine and blood, and I would be in a most uncomfortable reading position: lying prone with my head raised only a couple of inches, having to hold and turn the pages of the book with just my left hand. So I looked for a small paperback that I wouldn't mind reading just 30 or 40 pages of and not needing to continue after the appointment was over.

The book I chose was Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. My wife had actually given me this book for my birthday a few years ago, but after leafing through it, I thought, "I don't need this, this is for people who want to be writers, not for real writers like me." Lamott is a published author (two memoirs and a number of novels), recipient of a Guggenheim, two-time magazine columnist, and has taught writing at the university level. Surely, I thought, there's nothing she can teach me.

Well, for whatever reason I decided to take this book with me to the bloodletting. And I have to say that once I got past the introduction and the opening chapter ("Getting Started"), which really did cover ground I trod long before, she began to be more interesting to me. The third chapter, for example, is titled "Shitty First Drafts," which is something I can relate to. But it was chapter five that intrigued me. It's called "School Lunches." The idea is to spend half an hour writing about how our mothers nourished us in elementary school, as a means of delving into childhood memories that may on the surface seem banal but on closer inspection possess threads of status, shame, self-consciousness, and even sardines, which I'll get to soon. Anyway, it seemed like an interesting exercise and so I thought I'd try it out here.

Mind you, what follows is just me writing about the subject at hand; I did not jot down any notes or write out a previous draft. What follows is basically a shitty first draft. Ms. Lamott, I hope you're satisfied.

In Praise of Tuna Fish
I entered grade school at age five; in the ensuing 41 years, I've had a lot of lunches. Those that occurred in the Monday through Friday routine of school and later work have generally been eaten in full view of my peers and anyone from my past, classmates and colleagues all, can vouch for this one simple fact about me: I really like tuna fish.

I don't know what it is about tuna, but it works for me. Sure, I've had the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich (now practically a crime to possess one within 50 yards of a school), even bologna, salami, turkey, and that disgustingly marvelous concoction known as egg salad (the only other food I classify as disgustingly marvelous are Circus Peanuts, those orange things that purport to be from the marshmallow family), but tuna fish has always been my number one lunch food. I'm not sure if I demanded it be so or whether my mother just thought it was easiest to make, but however it came to be, I estimate that tuna fish has been part of probably 80% of all the school and work lunches I've had in my life.

Might as well get the preferred recipe out of the way. First, you start with white tuna, which isn't really white. Light tuna, which is darker than white, is cat food. As such, it is not a suitable substitute. Next most important is the binding agent. Only Miracle Whip will do. Though technically a salad dressing and not a mayonnaise, Miracle Whip adds an irresistible sweetness that I demand. I will if need be go with mayo, but Miracle Whip is a very strong preference. Adding a little sweet relish to the mix is a nice touch but not really necessary. Ditto chopped celery, though it adds a nice crunch. Finally, the bread. As a youngster, only snuggly soft white bread would do. These days, any good bread is desirable; in most cases these days, I simply top a green salad with a dollop of tuna for a nice low-carb lunch.

But wait, we're not done. There's a secret ingredient to any classic tuna fish sandwich. You may say I'm disgusting but I'm not the only one. I know other people who have done this as well. If you've never had the pleasure, you must try it. To your sandwich add potato chips. Not on the side. In the sandwich. Atop the tuna. Between the bread. A nice layer of crispy chips. It adds not only the nice crunch I mentioned before, but also an extra helping of carbs, which all kids crave.

OK, so that's the recipe. So why do I like it so much? I have no idea. The best I can think of is that it's everything peanut butter isn't: it's cold and wet. It's a wonderful texture and a tremendous source of protein. The only thing I don't like so much is opening and draining the cans. When my cat was alive I'd pour the water (yes, water, not oil; that stuff's nasty) into a dish for her. Now my wife makes me grind a slice of lemon in the disposer so the sink drain doesn't smell like fish.

As a kid, no one ever commented about my love of tuna. As an adult, my colleagues are sure I'm going to get mercury poisoning. As a parent, I now have to make lunches for my 12-year-old daughter. To my deep disappointment, she hates tuna fish. In fact, she's never had tuna fish. Not once. But she thinks it's gross so she won't try it. Think how much joy it would give me to make a great big bowl of tuna and provide it as a midday repast for both me and my darling daughter. I tell her it's not at all gross. Gross was the sardines that John Collins used to bring in for snack. He'd lean his head back and drop those stinking oily bastards down his throat like he was both sea lion and trainer in one. In contrast, my tuna/Miracle Whip/potato chip/white bread sandwich was refined and gourmet. But she won't have any of it.

Oh well, that's her loss. For me, that little three-ounce tin of delight is what lunch is all about. And I can't wait until my next one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living with Lincoln: How I'll Celebrate

As I begin this post, it's 10:32pm on February 11th. In about an hour and a half, both Abraham Lincoln and I will celebrate our birthdays. Throughout my 46 years (nearly), I can't possibly count how many Lincoln birthday cakes I've been served. And indeed, I'll blow out candles on another one tomorrow. But that's not the main way I celebrate our shared nativities. For many years now, I've marked Lincoln's birthday by reading his Second Inaugural Address. Similarly, I read "Letter From Birmingham Jail" every year on Martin Luther King Day. No matter how many times I read them, the continue to inspire and enlighten in myriad ways.

In addition, I've compiled a mix CD of songs about or related to Lincoln. I will play this as well:

Abraham Lincoln - Cake Like
Abraham Lincoln - Lungfish
Abie Baby/Four Score - Hair Soundtrack
Abraham, Martin and John - Ray Charles
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - The Band
Slave Driver - Taj Mahal
Follow The Drinking Gourd - Richie Havens
Lincoln Town - John Hiatt
Lincoln Park Pirates - Steve Goodman
Hot Rod Lincoln - Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons - Sufjan Stevens
Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother! - Sufjan Stevens
In This Temple, As In The Hearts Of Man For Whom He Saved The Earth - Sufjan Stevens
Emancipation - Gary Willis
With Malice Towards None - Frank Morgan
Lincoln Portrait: I. Lento - Aaron Copland/Henry Fonda/London Symphony Orchestra
Lincoln Portrait: II. Subito Allegro
Lincoln Portrait: III. "Fellow Citizens, We Cannot Escape History..."
Ashokan Farewell - Jay Unger/Molly Mason/Fiddle Fever
Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue - Bob Newhart

Finally, I will engage in a moment of silent meditation, reflecting on Lincoln's humanity, his hard rise to greatness, and the lessons his life and his words have had for me and that will guide me and support me throughout my life.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Living with Lincoln: His words

Some of my favorite Lincoln speeches and passages.

House Divided Speech, June 16, 1858 (introduction)
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention.

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.

We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.

In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.

First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861 (conclusion)
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

I am loath to close. 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 battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, 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.

Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862 (conclusion)
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863 (complete)
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 (complete)
Note: I read this speech every year on Lincoln's birthday.
At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Living with Lincoln: His death

It is has been said that there are only two certainties: death and taxes. In the life of any Lincoln fan, the two go together. For it was on what has come to be known as Tax Day, April 15, that Abraham Lincoln died. He breathed his last at 7:22am, and I constantly find myself looking at clocks at either 7:22am or 7:22pm; I seem to see that time at least once a week, and I always register that it was when Lincoln died.

You see, Lincoln fans experience his death innumerable times: in books, in movies, in plays, in classes, in one's imagination. Lincoln's reputation, his belovedness, began with his death. It's the climax to the war, the culmination of that whole era, the coda to his life. It remains one of the most tragic moments in American history and was certainly the most shocking death of its time.

Political assassination was unknown in America until John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865. Since then, assassinations and assassination attempts have become if not frequent, at least a constant possibility. I was appalled that the night Barack Obama was elected president that he addressed a large outdoor throng that hadn't been frisked before entering the park, and without a bulletproof barrier or visible security on stage.

When I was younger, and reading every book I could find about Lincoln (which is endless; he is believed to be the second-most-written-about person in history, next to Jesus Christ), the assassination was my favorite part. I couldn't wait to get through the book so I could "enjoy" the death scene; in fact, I eventually began to read the end of Lincoln books first, and only at the end go back and read from the beginning. To me, the skill with which the assassination was described was the key marker as to the quality of the book overall.

(Mind you, my oldest daughter is just the opposite. My wife bought her a children's book about Lincoln when she was small, and when she saw a drawing of him getting shot at the end of the book, she had nightmares and wouldn't even allow the book to stay in her room.)

In my life of living through Lincoln's death, there are two times when I was moved to tears by the portrayal. The second time was during Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War. His skill in manipulating still images and accompanying music and sound effects (not to mention silence), coupled with the narration of David McCullough, made for an emotional sequence. Subsequent to the broadcast, I saw an interview with Burns where he talked about putting that sequence together. He recalled being in the sound room where the sound effects would be added to the film. At the moment when he was to push a button to deploy the sound of a gunshot, he paused, missed his cue. He said that he thought about this awesome, though false, power he had to stave off Lincoln's assassination. After composing himself, the film was rewound and the bullet left Booth's gun with relentless and awful inevitability.

The first time, however, is a story I've told before and will tell again because it affected me so much. It was 1983. I was in college at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, sitting in a large lecture hall packed with students in the always oversubscribed class called "The Civil War Era," taught by Stephen B. Oates, author of With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, a book I've read five or six times, once before entering college.

Professor Oates was a slim but powerful Texan, always dressed to the nines, and as immaculately prepared for class as he was attired. As a lecturer, I know no equal. He was dramatic but not overly so. Though you couldn't take your eyes off him, he was not the center of attention. He brought the characters he spoke about to life, brought them on stage to tell their stories. No, he didn't role play or do anything hokey with costumes or theatrical gestures. He simply told his stories powerfully, clearly, and with passion and empathy.

While Oates was a stickler for detail when he graded tests and papers, he was not insistent that notes be strictly kept. "Put down your pencils, you won't forget this," he said on more than one occasion. He knew there's a lot you can miss when you're transcribing instead of listening. I know it to be true because one of the times he said that was when he transformed the lecture hall into Ford's Theatre and brought us into the sorrow and confusion of what Walt Whitman called a "moody, tearful night."

Oates often said that he was glad the lecture hall we were in had no windows, because he didn't want students to be able to look out and see 20th century Amherst. On this day, I almost would have welcomed them because when Oates was done I was a wreck. I felt as though I was there witnessing this calamity first hand. I felt as though the murdered man was an actual loved one and that this event, this unimaginable tragedy, had just occurred. Is that gunpowder I smell? Horse's hooves that I hear? Am I crammed into the tiny room in the Peterson House where Lincoln's lifeless body lies diagonal on the too-small bed, and is that why I am gasping for breath? Is this early morning rain on my cheeks?

All around me, classmates arose, gathered their things, and walked out the door. Oates, as always, stayed to answer questions. I could neither move, nor speak. I just sat there for minutes, until I noticed students starting to arrive for the next class taking place in that hall. Reluctantly, slowly, I stood and walked out. The sunlight burned my eyes, dried my tears. The 20th century slapped my face, and I struggled to resume my day. That night, I opened my notebook. No notes. Had it happened at all? Yes, it was all too real. I had just experienced the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Intellectually, I had experienced it many times. Emotionally, however, it was the first time, and the most moving and lasting. And for that, I am eternally thankful to Stephen B. Oates.