Not Forgetful, But Efficiently Brainy

In A Study In Scarlet, Doctor Watson was astonished to learn that Sherlock Holmes did not profess to know whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun. Holmes, unembarrassed by his unfamiliarity with basic astronomy, responded to Watson with a famous analogy:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I thought about Holmes’ notion when I ran across this article about the relationship of intelligence and forgetfulness. It reports on a study that concludes that forgetfulness is important to “intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments.” As one of the researchers explained, the study demonstrates that “[t]he real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”

Intelligent brains therefore are quick to jettison memory of irrelevant or unnecessary information–which might be things like the names of people you haven’t seen in months, the details of a conversation that happened some time ago, or whether the sun revolves around the earth–to ensure there is space for relevant information that will actually be needed in your daily decision-making. And here’s some good news for those of us who have been around for a while: the study indicates that older brains forget accumulated older information in order to make room for newer information. So those “senior moments” aren’t a sign of approaching mental feebleness, they are just your brain efficiently sifting through the pile of debris and trying to get the limited space in your mental attic in order.

So Sherlock Holmes was right, and the study confirms the ultimate accuracy of his analysis of the human brain as like an attic with limited storage space. Of course, being Holmes, he probably wouldn’t read about the study in the first place.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.

Project Hail Mary

Over the weekend I finished reading Project Hail Mary, the latest book by author Andy Weir. Actually, saying I read the book really doesn’t capture the process; you might say instead that I devoured it. Weir also wrote The Martian, and if you enjoyed that book (or even just the enjoyable Matt Damon movie version of that story, although I thought the book was better), I’m pretty sure that you’ll also enjoy Project Hail Mary.

The plot of the book grabs your attention from the very first page. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up from an enforced multi-year coma that has left him mentally sluggish and forgetful about pretty much everything. As he slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he is on a spacecraft and was part of a three-person crew that has been sent to a faraway star system. Unfortunately, his two crewmates didn’t survive the prolonged coma, and he is alone except for his robot caretaker. As his memories gradually return, he not only realizes things about himself, he also recalls that the purpose of the mission was to try to save the Earth by figuring out a way to eliminate the threat of astrophages–tiny organisms that are consuming the Sun’s energy and threatening to convert the Earth into a frozen waste that humans and other creatures cannot survive. His crew was sent on a one-way suicide mission to the Tau Ceti system because that star–alone among the stars in our solar system’s neighborhood–isn’t showing signs of its output being affected by astrophages.

I won’t spoil the book for those who might wish to read it; obviously, I thought it was well worth the read. I do want to say two general things about the book, however. First, the book–like The Martian–makes me wish I had paid more attention to science and math courses in high school, and actually taken some more math and science classes in college. In both books, Weir’s characters routinely use their scientific knowledge, and their deftness with math, to solve imponderable problems and develop practical solutions to fend off one potential disaster after another. If school boards are looking to incentivize kids to take more math and science courses, assigning the kids to read The Martian and Project Hail Mary would be a good first step.

Second, and despite the fact that the plot of the book has the Earth and the human species teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the astrophages ravaging the Sun, the book presents a fundamentally optimistic view. The nations of Earth manage to come together to address the astrophage blight, and Ryland Grace, like Mark Watney in The Martian, also takes a positive, cheerful approach to his impossible situation and the immense challenges he encounters. As he remembers more and more about how he got to where he is, works to overcome every challenge thrown his way, and maintains his sense of humor in the face of unimaginable circumstances, it’s hard not to come to like the guy.

It was a pleasure to read a book that projected such optimism about the future, and human beings. It was a special treat to read the book right now, when positive news and cause for optimism can sometimes be hard to find.

Lessons From Churchill

I’ve just finished Andrew Roberts’ titanic Churchill: Walking With Destiny, about one of the leading historical figures of the 20th century. The 1,000-page volume, published in 2018, draws upon recently released historical documents to trace Winston Churchill’s life in exacting detail, from his early childhood and painful desire to be loved and respected by his father–something that never happened, sadly–through years of turmoil, disaster, and triumph. It’s a fascinating tale of a colossal figure who first came to prominence in the high Victorian era, at the apex of the British Empire, saw Great Britain and its empire fight two world wars, witnessed the dissolution of that empire, lived into the era of the Beatles, and was celebrated with one of the largest state funerals ever given to a non-royal Brit.

Roberts’ book is a compelling read about a fascinating individual. Churchill was a well-rounded figure, with many virtues, and a lot of flaws, too. He was a glory hound in his early days, and his love for the British Empire brought with it a benighted attitude about race and people in the Empire, as well as a belief in the superiority of the British approach that caused him to accept risks that shouldn’t have been accepted. On the other hand, he was extraordinarily hard-working, brilliant, a gifted writer, a great wit, a compelling speaker who turned many a memorable phrase, and the unyielding leader whose fight and pluck and rhetoric stiffened Great Britain’s resolve and kept it in the war when it faced the German war machine, alone, during the dark days of World War II.

One of the book’s themes is that, for all of his brilliance and self-confidence, Churchill was someone who could learn from his many mistakes, rise above them, and–crucially–identify and assimilate changes to his world view that allowed him to avoid repeating them. Churchill’s advocacy of the bloody, ill-fated and ultimately disastrous Dardanelles expedition in World War I could have sent a lesser person slinking off to a life of obscurity, and it haunted Churchill, and was repeatedly mentioned by his adversaries, even when Churchill began serving as Prime Minister in 1940 after the fall of France. But Churchill didn’t let that colossal failure forever cripple his career; he learned from it and other errors and ultimately profited from the very hard lessons it taught. Churchill’s approach to his stout-hearted service during World War II was strongly informed by those lessons and his prior experiences–good and bad.

I’ve been reflecting on Churchill and that important element of his personality these days, when we have seen the United States take a huge black eye with its inept, disastrous, and humiliating failure in Afghanistan. Obviously, many mistakes were made, and there is plenty of blame to go around for all of the four Presidents, and their administrations, who contributed to the Afghan debacle. But the key point now is how to react to those obvious mistakes. Those of us who lived through Vietnam feel like we’ve seen this show before, and now wonder whether our country will ever learn. Will we finally focus our attention–and treasure, and finite resources–on the matters that are truly essential to our national security? Will we resist future temptations to try to build mini-Americas in faraway countries with radically different cultures and perspectives? Will we be able to recognize and avoid “mission creep,” identify the policies and institutional processes that produced the Afghan fiasco and change them, and actually hold accountable the incompetent people who failed to do their job and, in the process, put thousands of people at risk and cost us billions of dollars in equipment and money and a considerable part of our national reputation?

What has happened in Afghanistan is an embarrassment and an epic failure that featured countless mistakes and misjudgments. Having read Roberts’ biography, I’m convinced Churchill would have learned from those errors and recognized how to avoid them in the future. Can our country do the same?

Children’s Books And Lasting Lessons

At the southeast corner of Schiller Park, a pedestrian can take two routes. One can use the access driveways in and out of the parking lot to cut the corner and save a few steps. Or, one can go through the driveways to the actual corner beyond before turning the corner and continuing the walk. I always walk through to the corner beyond the driveway before turning, and when I do I think “neat and square.”

“Neat and square” is a line from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book I read as a kid. It’s just one of the things that has stuck with me from that book Mom first read to me so long ago.

You may know the story. Mike Mulligan has a steam shovel named Mary Anne. Mike was proud of her and the work they could do together, and boasted of Mary Anne’s capabilities. And Mike and Mary Anne did the job right, always finishing the corners of what they dug “neat and square.” But it was hard for an old-fashioned steam shovel to compete with newfangled diesel-powered digging machines. In one troubling scene in the book, Mike and Mary Anne view a junk heap of other sad, discarded steam shovels that have been abandoned by their owners. But Mike is loyal to Mary Anne and would never dream of doing that.

Mike goes out to a small town that is digging a cellar for a new town hall and gets the job on the condition that he and Mary Anne can dig the basement in just one day. When the day comes, Mike and Mary Anne continue to do the job right, and finish the corners neat and square, even though the clock is against them. A crowd gathers, which causes Mike and Mary Anne to work faster than ever before—and just as the sun is setting they finish the job. But there’s a problem: in their frenzied rush to complete the digging in just one day, Mike and Mary Anne have forgotten to leave a ramp for Mary Anne to exit the cellar, and she is trapped. Fortunately, a boy in the crowd suggests that Mary Anne use her steam to become the new furnace, the town builds the town hall around her, and the story happily ends with Mary Anne heating the hall and Mike serving as its janitor.

It’s a good book, with some powerful messages that resonated with me. Do the job right, and be proud of your work. Be loyal to those you work with. And recognize that sometimes difficult problems can be solved with creative thinking.

Those lessons have stuck with me for decades. It just shows that reading to your children can really have a lifelong impact.

The Wright Brothers

Recently I finished David McCullough’s 2015 book The Wright Brothers — coincidentally completing it when I was 20,000 feet up in the air, flying from Austin to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and thereby owing a debt to Wilbur and Orville, the two brothers who solved the age-old puzzle of whether humans could fly.

As a native Ohioan, I’m ashamed to admit that while I knew that the Wright brothers were recognized as the inventors of the airplane, I actually knew very little about these two men from Dayton, or how they came to invent their “Flyer” that dazzled kings, prime ministers, Presidents, and ordinary people. McCullough’s book is a fascinating read that adroitly tells that story, focusing on the period when the brothers made their discoveries and inventions that changed the course of history. The book introduces us to these two brothers from an extraordinarily close-knit family who worked together for years, designed their own “safety bicycle,” which they called the “Van Cleve,” developed a successful bicycle business–and then became obsessed with solving the mystery of flight.

The context of their story is important, because the Wright brothers lived during an era when inventions were fundamentally transforming their world in countless ways–inventions like the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light, among many others. It was an era of great technological progress, when almost anything seemed possible. But human flight seemed to be the one step that could not be taken. In fact, some reputable publications flatly declared that human flight was impossible. The Wright brothers didn’t agree, and they put their noses to the grindstone and came up with the solution that now allows us to climb onto planes and cross hundreds of miles up in the air without giving it a second thought.

One theme of McCullough’s book is that the story of the Wright brothers is a story of the value of hard work, dedication, resolve, and focus. The brothers worked hard–six days a week, taking only Sunday off–and painstakingly addressed each problem presented and carefully overcame every obstacle. They talked for hours about the best way to design the wings, the rudder, and other parts of the plane, helping to spur their many innovations. They repeatedly put their lives on the line to test their invention. And each aspect of the Wright brothers’ Flyer–the wings and their design, the steering mechanism, the propellers, and the motor–had to be created and developed out of whole cloth. The Wright brothers’ story is the classic Horatio Alger tale in which the heroes achieve success through pluck, perseverance, and industriousness.

It was only a few short years between the Wright brothers’ first flight of their flyer, skimming above the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina–shown in the photograph above–and the development of a practical airplane that, as shown below, could soar above the harbor waves and circle the Statue of Liberty, astonishing the jaded citizenry of New York City. And once the Wright brothers solved the riddle, and not incidentally received patents for their inventions, everyone started building flying machines, and the modern air age began.

Wilbur Wright died young, succumbing to typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45, but Orville Wright lived until 1948–long enough to see the airplane he helped invent used in two world wars, drop the atomic bomb, become a practical method of everyday transportation, and be upgraded with the development of jet engines and supersonic flight.

It’s quite a story, really, and well worth the read.

The Newest Little Library

I’m a big fan of the “little libraries” that have sprung up in German Village, in Stonington, and in many other communities. Books—especially paperbacks—shouldn’t sit on shelves gathering dust; once they have been read they should be shared with others. The little libraries are a great way to do that, and they also help to keep a house decluttered. We’ve contributed books to the little libraries in German Village and up here as well.

This new little library popped up in our neighborhood within the last week. I appreciate the nautical theme and the craftsmanship, too.

Cane Fighting

For some reason–probably having to do with my birth date–I received a notice on Google, or Facebook, or some other on-line source about this book on Amazon: Cane Fighting: The Authoritative Guide to Using a Cane or Walking Stick for Self-Defense. I imagine that there is no surer sign of advancing age than being prompted to buy a book that schools you on how to ward off attackers with the cane that you are assumed to be using.

In Victorian times, using a cane for self-defense wasn’t limited to the elderly. Many British gents carried walking sticks as part of their regular high-class ensemble, and if you’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories you’ll recall Holmes and Watson intentionally taking their “sticks” along on their adventures, so they could lay into any ruffians that might accost them as they rambled along on London’s foggy streets in search of clues. Alas, social affectations have changed, and healthy adults now typically don’t walk around with canes or walking sticks, ready to start thrashing away at any attackers.

Instead, these days canes and walking sticks seem to be limited to two categories of people: hikers who are out on a hike, and the elderly and infirm. You wouldn’t think that hikers in the wilderness would need to use Cane Fighting techniques against others they might encounter on the trails, although these days, I guess, you never know. Instead, the notion of using canes for self-defense seems to be reserved for people who actually need canes to help them stay upright as they are out and about. And the book I got the prompt about isn’t alone in this area–there is lots of information on the web about cane fighting. As the step-by-step illustration above about the “defensive two-handed jab” to an assailant’s chest indicates, there is even a “Cane Masters International Association” that has identified and catalogued specific cane fighting moves.

The problem with the idea of cane fighting is that it basically presupposes two things: the person using the cane probably didn’t need it in the first place, and therefore isn’t going to topple over while they employ the “defensive two-handed jab” or another quick-moving maneuver, and the assailant will be standing still while the tottering grandpa makes his big move. I’m not sure how valid those assumptions actually are. And why worry about a specific move if you can just start whaling away at any attacker and clouting them about the head and shoulders until they go away or are disabled by laughter at your feeble efforts?

We’ve actually got a cane or two that we’ve inherited, and keep them in an umbrella stand in our front hallway. Maybe it’s time to get them out, buy this book, and work on a little cane fu, just in case.

The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid

Writers whose prose can reliably make me laugh out loud—really, audibly laugh, and not just smile and think “LOL”—are rarer than hen’s teeth. David Sedaris is one. Bill Bryson is definitely another.

I picked up Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid from the Stonington Public Library and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s hysterical. Bryson, who is the “Thunderbolt Kid” of the title, recounts his life growing up in Iowa during the ‘50s, and no detail is too small to mine for laughs. His Mom’s failed cooking and absent-mindedness, his Dad’s cheapness, the throngs of kids in the neighborhood, his weird relatives, what he ate, what he watched on TV, and disturbing incidents from his youth—like the time his Mom made him wear his sister’s Capri pants to school—all are recalled in hilarious fashion.

And Bryson also artfully weaves in humorous, and interesting, information about the America of the ‘50s, with its passion for cars, television, major appliances, atomic bombs, new products good and bad, and producing more babies to feed that Baby Boom. It was a time when Americans routinely accepted risks without a second glance, doctors advertised cigarettes, every town had its own stores, restaurants, and ways of doing things, and many of the devices and practices that we now take for granted didn’t exist. It’s fascinating stuff about an innocent America that is gone forever and will resonate with people, like me, who really grew up in the ‘60s.

If you think about it, many of us had childhoods that featured failed meals, oddball relatives, strange TV shows, and other topics that could be recounted in a funny way—if we only had the talents of Bill Bryson. Until that happens, I recommend reading this book and enjoying some hearty laughter.

Capturing COVID On The Cusp

Over the weekend I finished Michael Connelly’s The Law Of Innocence. It’s the latest in his series of books about Mickey Haller, the “Lincoln Lawyer” who represents all manner of criminal defendants and manages his law practice from the back seat of his Lincoln automobile.

It’s a good read. I like Connelly’s spare, reportorial writing style and plotting and could probably be entertained reading a grocery list so long as he wrote it. But what’s really interesting about this book, which is set in late 2019 and early 2020 and was published at the end of 2020, is how Connelly skillfully, and realistically, weaves in references to the looming COVID crisis. The reader, and the book’s characters, catch occasional glimpses of the coming pandemic in the far background of the main story, which involves Haller defending himself against a phony murder rap. Every once in a while there will be a reference to what was happening with sick people in China, or Seattle–and the reader remembers their own initial, occasional awareness of the COVID virus during that pre-lockdown period, and knows in the pit of their stomach what is coming, even if Mickey Haller and the book’s other characters don’t.

I don’t know how many other works of fiction have been published where the COVID pandemic plays a role; I suspect that with The Law Of Innocence Michael Connelly, who writes produces books regularly to the delight of his grateful fans, has published one of the first ones. I’m confident it won’t be the last. Fiction is shaped by what’s going on in the world, and the COVID pandemic is bound to produce a lot of books. Who knows? Perhaps one day literature professors will be debating which book should be viewed as the great COVID pandemic novel.

Larry McMurtry

I was very saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Larry McMurtry, the prolific Texan who wrote many great books, as well as screenplays. His works were a favorite of Hollywood and were turned into a number of great films, like Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment.

In my view, McMurtry’s greatest work was Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. I think Lonesome Dove is one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, ever. It is a huge, sprawling novel that was later made into the masterpiece television TV mini-series of the same name, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The book follows those two legendary former Texas Rangers who lead their band of ranch hands and a herd of stolen cattle on a long drive up to Montana and encounter adventure, death, and a host of memorable and often terrifying characters along the way. Every character in that book, from Call to McCrae to Newt, Deets, Lorena, Pea Eye, Jake Spoon, Clara, Blue Duck, and many others, was so finely drawn that you felt as if their personalities were etched into the pages of the novel.

I remember reading Lonesome Dove on a beach vacation shortly after it was published in paperback. Reading that book defined the vacation, because I could not put it down and, when I did, I looked forward to picking it up again and reading on to find out what happened next. As I continued with my reading, I remember feeling horribly conflicted, I desperately wanted to know what happened to all of these extraordinary people moving through this extraordinary landscape, but I also didn’t want the book to end, ever. Of course, it did, and the ending had an enormous impact. I’ve reread it at least once since then, and also have read many of the McMurtry books that looked at the Lonesome Dove characters at different times in their lives.

Reading Lonesome Dove made me chase down the meaning of the motto Gus McCrae adopted for the Hat Creek Cattle Company: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” It was pretty clear in the book that Gus didn’t know precisely what it meant, but he liked the classy association of their dusty Texas ranch with Latin. Finding out the meaning of a Latin phrase was a challenge back in those days, before the internet allowed us to discover stuff like that with a few taps of the keyboard. It turned out that the phrase is bastardized Latin–which seems about right for old Gus–and it means something like “a grape changes color and ripens when it is around another grape.”

In other words, we affect the lives of those around us. That seems like a pretty good epitaph for Larry McMurtry, who managed to affect the lives of grapes like me that he didn’t even know.

Comic Relief

In the midst of a cold, dreary winter and a continuing pandemic and quasi-lockdown, I really enjoy a good laugh now and then. So lately I’ve been trying to use Facebook to join groups where the posts are likely to give me a smile.

My two favorite comic strips, ever, are The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. That opinion apparently is shared by many people out there in social media land, because there are lots of Facebook groups just for fans of those classics from days gone by, where the participants can post favorite selections from those legendary strips. By joining the groups, I now get a regular feed of Gary Larson’s takes on cows and dogs and insects and scientists, and Bill Watterson’s treatment of Calvin’s Mom and Dad and disgusted friend Suzy again. And a recent post made me remember how much I enjoyed the Calvin snowmen strips like the one above — which seems apt, right now, with those of us in Columbus being in the middle of a frigid, snowy period.

Social media obviously has some pluses, and just as obviously has a lot of minuses, too. I figure it makes sense to reorient and exert some personal control and direction over the whole Facebook experience, mix some humor in with the politics and the ads, and try to put the social media world to better use.

The Power Of Positive Thinking (II)

Tonight the Ohio State University Buckeyes play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. If you paid attention to the pundits, or the Las Vegas oddsmakers, you would conclude that Ohio State has no realistic chance in this game. In fact, some of the talking heads are saying that Alabama is so unstoppable, so overwhelming, and so unbeatable that the Buckeyes will have to play a perfect game just to avoid getting humiliatingly blown off the field.

Medieval historians might say that the game tonight is as much of an apparent mismatch as the Battle of Agincourt. Fought in 1415, during the 100 Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt pitted a tiny English army against a much larger host of French knights in a battle fought on the French army’s home turf. If ESPN had existed in those days, the commentators would all have predicted that the Franch would overwhelm the outmanned English. But King Henry V had a weapon on his side: a positive attitude. As Shakespeare envisioned it, rather than despairing in the face of the overwhelming Franch force on the eve of battle, Henry told his gallant group of men that they should feel lucky to be at that spot in that moment. Henry’s stirring speech famously concludes with this passage:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and TalbotSalisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry was right. Against all odds, the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, using the power of positive thinking — and, not incidentally, a new weapon, the English longbow — to crush the haughty, overconfident French and rout their army.

If the English could do it, so can the Buckeyes. No foe is unbeatable, and no ESPN commentator is infallible.

What do you say, Buckeye Nation? Let’s stay positive and root like crazy for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama and win this game!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

The Power Of Positive Thinking

In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called The Power of Positive Thinking. The book used anecdotes to argue that maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude actually helps people to achieve their goals and feel better about themselves. One of the core messages of the book was that if you are pessimistic about what you can do, you’re heading for defeat before the contest has even started. Critics were dubious of the notion that a simple change in mental attitude could have a big impact on anyone’s life, but the book was a hit and resonated with people who thought there was a lot of common sense in what Dr. Peale was saying. I remember seeing it on Grandma and Grandpa Neal’s bookshelf.

It’s a huge step from believing that your own attitude can affect what happens in your own life to believing that your attitude can influence what other people are doing. Of course, that’s exactly what many committed sports fans do believe — deep down in their hearts, even if they wouldn’t admit it to others. They may not be sitting in the stadium or arena cheering on their team, but they believe that what they wear, what they eat, where they sit, and what they say and do on Game Day can have a crucial, outcome-determinative impact. The Dr. Pepper Fansville commercials definitely nail that aspect of the whole sports fan experience.

Can fans sitting in their living rooms watching on TV affect a game played far away? Can their thoughts and actions create eddies in the prevailing karma that can ripple out to the players and coaches and give them extra energy and mental focus and make a difference in their performance? Given life’s many mysteries, we’ll never know for sure — but we all believe it does, in some mysterious way, so why not be positive about it?t

Today, once again, I’m going to be positive about the prospects for the Cleveland Browns, and I’m hoping to enlist other fans in my positive thinking crusade. The Browns will be going on the road to Pittsburgh to play in their first playoff game in 18 years. They’re lacking a number of their coaches, including their head coach and ultimate play-caller, and some of their best players thanks to the coronavirus. For that same reason, they only got to practice once before their most important game in two decades. These aren’t the things you want to have happen when you’re the underdog in the first place.

Clearly, the odds are powerfully stacked against the outmanned Cleveland squad. They need all the help they can get. Who knows? Positive thinking by the legions of Browns Backers could well tip the balance in some inexplicable yet meaningful way.

Whatever happens tonight, I’m going to stay positive about this team and its chances for an astonishing victory, and concentrate on sending positive, optimistic vibes through the cosmic ether to the Browns’ players and coaches. Will you join me?

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?