Lincoln

On the non-existence of time

TimeTravelMy husband and I got to arguing about whether changing a single event could change — even derail — the course of history.

I think it’s possible. A small change at the just the right time could alter the outcome of something much bigger. If Queen Victoria had ordered her staff to clean up the drains of Windsor Castle — long-known as a breeding ground for typhoid — Albert would not have died when he did … and Victoria would have been a different woman and queen. And possibly, British imperialism might have followed a different course. How much would have changed? Not everything … but not nothing, either.

If Lincoln had not been assassinated, maybe some of the worst of the post Civil War divisions and hatred might have been averted. If King George had said “Fine. They can vote as British citizens. As long as they pay their taxes.” If the captain of the Titanic had slowed down and spotted the iceberg before hitting it.

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In our personal lives we see where had we chosen differently, many things down the line would be changed. In world history too, there are intersections. Moments when events collide, paths cross, times when history could march left, right or reverse direction.

Garry doesn’t agree. He thinks whatever happened was inevitable. With or without Prince Albert, the world was marching towards disaster. Had Lincoln lived, served his second term, he thinks the racial divisions and hatred in this country would have been unchanged. Maybe delayed by a few years, but no more than that.

TIME_MACHINEASSY_1We could have argued until dawn but other than sheer speculation, there’s no way to know. For this kind of speculation, we have science fiction and its peculiar sub-genre — alternate history. Unless, of course, we find a wormhole in time and step through.

I’m fascinated by time travel. I believe the history of everything would be completely changed had cell phones been invented earlier. If I were a time traveler, I’d give the world mobile communications technology around the time when the Greek city states were getting organized. Then I’d go back to my now and watch history unravel.

Time doesn’t exist. It’s a concept, not a thing. Which is why we can’t travel back to it. It isn’t a place. Time is a construct. It’s how we keep track of events, personally and globally. You can’t go back to a time and place in the past because it isn’t there. The future isn’t there either. Only the present exists and it’s a moving target.

delorean time machineWhich brings me back to our argument. Garry was right. By definition what happened is what had to happen The proof? It can never be changed. Everything that has ever happened was the only thing that could have happened. I can argue the other side, too. Arguments in which no one can possibly win are my favorites.

And that’s why I love time travel. Because it’s impossible.

An Oscar Weekend in Connecticut

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It was a visit worthy of Jane Austin. We were fed and fed again. Entertained, charmed, chatted and entertained some more. I took pictures of the house, the land, the snow, the stream.

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We watched the Oscars, and we saw almost all the movies that had been nominated (except the ones we didn’t want to see and Les Mis, which we didn’t get to).

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We had already seen Lincoln in the movies. We watched Argo, Skyfall, The Hobbit, Flight, Ted (not nominated, but after Flight, we needed a comedy) and Life of Pi. A veritable movie banquet.

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And OH the food. Such good food. Our host and hostess cooked up a storm. It was movie maven and gourmet heaven, not to mention a great house and land perfect for photography.

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Good friends, good food, great movies, beautiful scenery … It was an award-winning weekend.

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“Lincoln” is amazing on so many levels.

Lincoln movieIt’s exactly what you hope for in a historical movie … and so very rarely get. Spielberg not only made this wonderful movie well, he made it smart. Instead of trying to cover the entire Lincoln saga or perhaps myth, he focuses on the President’s last months on earth, the period following his reelection during which he pushed through the 13th amendment that finally eliminated slavery in the United States, and ended the war. You will see more about the man Lincoln than in any previous movie or documentary about Lincoln.

The performances are universally brilliant, as you would expect. This is the Hollywood A Team where the magic comes together. Everyone is in this movie — some not even credited but you will recognize them — even if only for a tiny cameo, as if being part of this movie was an honor.

And perhaps so.  I suspect actors volunteered for the privilege of being included. The script is intelligent, elegant, somehow managing to convey both the greatness of the man and his pained humanity. There is no reason for me to go into the details of the cast, writing, history, and so on. The  review published in the New Yorker covers those bases well and you can read it here or on its original site.

“Lincoln,” was written by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg, and derived in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”

Daniel Day-Lewis has gotten the role of a lifetime and gave a performance that will probably define his career. Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and so many others … literally too many to name … are all brilliant. There are not many big roles for women in this story, but I’d like to make a special mention of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Her performance as First Lady gives this suffering woman the first real depth and three-dimensional portrayal I’ve ever seen. Mrs. Lincoln has in cinema and history been given short shrift, labeled a crazy lady, then dismissed.

That she was not quite “right” after the loss of her son is well-documented and disseminated, but she was more than a mere wacko. She was politically savvy and highly intelligent, albeit emotionally unstable and in great pain. Perhaps a more stable, supportive mate would have been able to provide some rays of light in the dark world of President Lincoln … but given the dreadful times through which they lived and were destined to play major and tragic roles, this couple was probably doomed to misery, even had Mary Todd been the incarnation of Pollyanna.

Cover of "Team of Rivals: The Political G...

Cover via Amazon

The enormity of their personal tragedies combined with the responsibility of being the nation’s leader at this particularly desperate historical turning point would have crushed anyone. Lincoln was a giant, but also a man with a wife, children and more than his share of family drama.

The movie is mesmerizing. The way it’s shot, moving from panorama to private moments keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, you live through the battles on the floor of the House of Representatives and in the back rooms where agonizing bargains are struck as if you’ve never seen it before. It’s a painfully accurate and timely look at the real process of getting legislation passed, the viciousness, ruthlessness, chicanery and all else that goes into a process that hasn’t significantly changed over the past 150 years or more. Great cinema and a Real Politik civics lesson for young and old.

Most of the reviews I’ve read have emphasized the historical importance but failed to mention that this is a really compelling movie that makes you feel you have traveled back in time. It’s great drama with more than a dollop of wit and humor. Watch and chew your nails while Lincoln and his carefully picked team somehow push through an amendment to the constitution against staggering odds while simultaneously ending the deadliest war in American history.  It feels like you’ve never heard or seen it before. Spielberg manages to inject a level of tension and excitement that should be impossible. There are surprises, some of them very funny.

Given the subject matter, it’s amazing how often film will make you laugh. There are wonderful scenes, small and intimate, revealing of magic and myth. There are the mandatory “big scenes,” of  battlefields heaped with corpses, but most of the story takes places in small places, in sheds and basements, back rooms, parlors and hidden corners where the light is always dim. Everyone always looks cold … in the most literal sense. It’s winter without central heating and while no one mentions it (why would they? that was the way their world was), men and women alike constantly wrap themselves in blankets and shawls to fend off the chill. It makes you grateful for electricity and radiators, not to mention thermal underwear.

abraham-lincoln-tadLincoln is too tall for the world in which he lives. It can barely contain him or the sorrow he carries. He stoops, bent under the weight of impossible choices and ducks through doorways never high enough.

Go see this movie. Take your kids. Take the grandchildren. Then buy it on DVD and watch it again. Let it remind you of how painful it is to have a free nation and how heavy is the price we pay for the privilege.

This is grand entertainment, history, civics and drama wrapped in a story so insane it could only be true. To quote a familiar phrase, “you can’t make this stuff up.” You rarely get to see movies this good. It’s a treasure that will be even more appreciated in years to come.

Regardless of how many Oscars it wins … or doesn’t win … this is destined to be a classic. It can’t help it. It’s just got classic written all over it.

One more interesting note. When the movie ended and the credits started to roll, no one got up and left. No one at all. Every single person in the theater sat there and watched the credits until the screen went dark. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that happen before.

♦ See more on www.newyorker.com

Our house is divided … what next?

U.S. Presidential flag, 1960-present (not usua...

I got more than a thousand hits the other day, more than half for a reblog of Presidential Election: “Sad and Tragic Day for Our Nation” ? The article resonated, so I picked it up as soon as I read it. I couldn’t have said it better and thus didn’t try. Apparently millions of other people felt the same way and the post went viral, which is good but not enough.

I feel obliged to point out to those who have failed to notice: THE ELECTION IS OVER.

Barack Obama won. Mitt Romney lost. The winner gets 4 years (or in this case, 4 more years) as President of the United States. The loser makes a gracious concession speech then retires, hopefully to serve his country in some other way and perhaps make another run for office down the road. For now, it’s over. The nation returns to normal.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But this time? Apparently not.

There’s a level of hysteria, anger, and raw racism I’ve never seen before. I’ve voted for candidates who won and voted for candidates who lost. I was upset and angry when G.W. Bush stole an election, but I got past it. I ground my teeth, survived 8 years of what I thought was a terrible presidency. When national elections came around, I voted for Barack Obama. That’s democracy.

The losing team this year can’t cope with defeat. They are having a temper tantrum, except their pique at losing seriously and negatively impacts the entire country. If a team was behaving like this because they lost the World Series or the Super Bowl, we’d be mortified at their lack of sportsmanship. They be sanctioned. The sports channels would be all over them and fans would be up in arms. Yet we put up with it from a major political party? Why? If this kind of behavior is unacceptable in a baseball team, how can it be okay for a political party?

Why the frenzy and desperation? Surely everyone who runs for office knows losing is a possibility. In politics and horse-racing, there’s no sure thing. Why the hysteria? Why not let the wounds heal and let everyone settle down and go back to living?  NOTE: There are more than a few on the Liberal side of this shouting match who need to shut up too. Let it go. Even if I agree with you, I’ve had enough. We don’t need to raise temperatures any higher. You won. Stop crowing and beating the drums. Go home. Relax. Let us all take a break from the insanity.

If you look at a map of red versus blue states, the underlying reason is apparent. If anyone doubts for a minute that this election was about race, look at the map. Compare the map of the “red states” to the old lines of the confederacy. With minor changes, it’s the same old, same old. Just when you think you’ve gotten that piano out the door, it comes right back in through the window. 620,000 Americans died fighting the Civil War, more than all the losses we’ve taken in all the other wars we’ve ever fought, from the Revolution through Vietnam. Are we are still fighting it?

Notice a certain consistency? Thought you might.

I hereby declare that not only is the election over, but the Civil War is over. It has been over for a long time and if there is a merciful God, we will never have another. The fundamental changes in our demographics have decided the issue for good and all. This nation will never be “white.” It never really was. The government was dominated by white people, but that’s finished. It will not return. Diehards may continue to try resurrecting it. They can keep disrupting the functioning of the government to the detriment of all, but it won’t restore the status quo they so dearly loved.

I’m grateful and if you examine the election results, so are most people. Splintering of the U.S. into groups who can’t even talk to each other just makes this an ugly place to live and undermines our credibility with other nations. Surely no one really wants that.

The United States of America is built on the premise that unity is strength. The motto “E pluribus unum” means “Out of many, one.” It is the phrase on the Seal of the United States and was adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782. “E pluribus unum” appears on the front of the Seal. Its image is used as the national emblem of the United States. It appears on official documents such as passports. It is on the seal of the President, as well as the seals of the Vice President, Congress, House of Representatives, United States Senate, and U.S. Supreme Court. It’s part of our national identity.

Is it obsolete? Are we ready to trash unity? And with what shall we replace it?

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” is taken from Mark 3:25 “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” When Lincoln said it, he was referring to the division of the country between slave and free states. The “house divided” phrase has a long history in this country.

Lincoln used it in another context in 1843, most famously during the Senate debate on the Compromise of 1850.  Sam Houston used it too, proclaiming: “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.”  Thomas Paine, in his famous 1776 , in  Common Sense said, “this hath all the distinctions of a house divided against itself . . .”

It’s hardly a new concept dating as it does back at least 2000 years. It is as true now as it was then. Those among us who continue to sow dissension are not patriots and are not working for the common good. They are stuck in the past. They cannot accept a changed world and try to play on the prejudices, fears, and passions of anyone willing to listen until they pull the house down around us.

The Conservative wing of the GOP led their constituents down a road that turned out to be a dead-end. They believed that they could rouse enough ire to bring down the house, but they were wrong. They lost. Despite their wailing, it isn’t the end of the world. It’s a defeat, certainly, but a tragedy only if they make it so. It’s time for them to show a little class, accept their loss, take responsibility. Regroup. Rethink positions. Become a more inclusive party. Come up with some fresh ideas that appeal to a wider population. If they do that, maybe they won’t lose next time. That’s how it’s done in a Democracy. It’s the definition of a democracy. Republican cry babies, man up, repair your party and move on.

Hate and blame are easy. It’s harder to give up your personal agenda and seek common ground. Working with people who have different ideas will always be necessary because we will never have a consensus. No country has a consensus. Tyranny can force the appearance of consensus, but no one and nothing can make everyone agree. To govern in a nation founded on diversity requires intelligence and creativity, qualities that seem to be in short supply. For every voice calling for reconciliation and coöperation, there is another strident one trying to drown it out. It’s stupid. Time for solutions that include all kinds of people, not just grumpy white folks who feel threatened by the growing population of non-white citizens who expect their fair share of America.

That is the promise we make: everyone gets a piece of the American pie, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. If we aren’t that country, what are we?

We’ve got a good thing going here.  We used to have a common sense of purpose. We need to find it again, to discover what unites us rather than eternally focusing on issues that divide us. There have always been and always will be differences and disagreements. It’s up to us to get past them, to unite and be Americans.

In immortal words of Pogo (Walt Kelly): “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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