Do you really think you're stronger now?

There's an expression that's floated around a lot these days: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. The quote is the corruption of a line by Fredrich Nietzsche from his book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. The line from the book is actually, "From life's school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger." To an extent that's true - I get the point of the expression.

Fredrich Nietzsche
I think I would have loved the chance to spend a day with Nietzsche, because I'd certainly have learned a lot. I also know I would have disagreed with almost everything he believed, and especially that little maxim. Nietzsche was plagued with poor health most of his life, and certainly wasn't a poster boy for such a thought. At the very least he was not proof of concept. The reality is that while some people may benefit from a little stress and adversity, too much is usually harmful.

There's a military expression called "The Thousand Yard Stare." It describes a soldier who's had too much of that stress and adversity that Nietzsche thinks would have made him stronger. Thousands of soldiers have come home from war and dealt with the unimaginable. They've used a type of compartmentalization to separate themselves from what they've seen and done, so that they can deal with life moving forward. But they're never the same as they were before.

Marines Call it That 2,000 Yard Stare by Thomas Lea
Last week I was talking with a buddy who was dealing with a lot of personal things in his life, and the duties - for lack of a better word - of Christmas had just overwhelmed him. He had that Thousand Yard Stare, but I don't think he realized it. In fact, as I looked around during the week before Christmas, I saw that emotion - or lack of - in checkout lines, in parking lots, and in the little notes friends were writing on Facebook. More than ever I recognized frustration, despair, and loneliness in people who were trying to do everything, and to be everything. I even saw a couple articles suggesting people abandon social media for a few days, because it's easy to come under the impression that all our friends are living perfect lives - judging from their Facebook posts and Instagram pictures.

Don't put too much pressure on yourself, and don't think you can do it all. The perfect Christmas gift for the kids, that morning run with your buddy, the boss's artificial deadlines, the date for New Year's Eve, the perfectly spotless house for your friends, the Christmas card you needed to send, the call to your mom, that blog with no misspellings or improper use of adverbs. It can be too much, and too many of us suffer, striving for some impossible point of perfection. We're usually our own worst critic.

If it doesn't kill you it will make you stronger? Nope, not true at all. Just do your best, and be satisfied in that.

You should know the true value of time

When I turned 16 my grandmother gave me the pocket watch that had belonged to my grandfather - the man for whom I'm named. It was a gold watch, but didn't have a cover, and wasn't rare or particularly valuable. But it was the most important thing in the world to me, because it had been given to my grandfather by his parents as he turned 21, and he had wanted me to have it. When she gave it to me he was still a distinct memory, having passed just six years earlier. His initials were engraved on the case in the fanciest of scripts - JDH, for James Douglas Holleman - and the quiet but efficient ticking of the gears inside enamored me. I'd never held anything like it.

My grandmother explained that the watch must be kept wound, so that it stayed properly lubricated inside. Yet she also cautioned me on over-winding, and explained to me that the watch was somewhat like life - that there was a fine balance between too much and too little.

About seven years ago I was digging around in my safe, looking for some insurance papers that had disappeared, and was upset and frustrated in general. But in one of the back corners, underneath the kids' birth certificates and my old passport, was that watch. I hadn't wound it in years, but was excited at the opportunity, anticipating that perfect mechanical sound of wheels and gears in motion. Nothing happened. I smacked it gently, and still nothing. I hadn't kept it wound, and though it looked perfect from the outside, it needed help. I took it to a jeweler here in town and they were able to get it lubricated and back in running shape. Then I got that old passport renewed, realizing that I was becoming like that watch - OK on the outside, but lacking on the inside to some things that really mattered.

I count that watch as one of my most prized possessions, along with my first pocketknife and some carvings my grandfather gave me. As I look at it today I'm reminded of the true value of time, and that while time can be measured with a watch, it can also be measured in more important ways. More than ever I feel like that watch, with time ticking, and realizing that time is the most valuable thing I have. There are things in this world that I want to do - and accomplish - and now is the time.

This blog entry will post automatically for me, on a schedule, as they usually do. But this one is a little different. It will post at 1:00 PM on December 22, just as we begin funeral services for one of my favorite uncles. I'm honored to have been asked to serve as a pallbearer for his service, an honor that seems to come too often these days. Johnnie Turner passed yesterday at 90 years of age, and if anyone ever made good use of their years it was him. But I know it went fast for him, as it always seems to for me, and surely does for you. I know that now's the time to do the things I want to, because time is ever-fleeting. If there's anything more valuable to me than my grandfather's pocket watch, these days, it's time. If there's anything important that you're not doing because you "just don't have time", please do your best to find the time for that goal. Don't procrastinate on that trip, that book you're writing, that old friend, that thing that really matters to you. There's an expression that time sneaks up on us, and it's true. Make every minute count, because the true value of time can never be counted. Life is the watch that never stops ticking.

When Santa Claus met General Lee

First appearing in 1867 as part of "Mrs. Louise Clack's Christmas Gift To Her Little Southern Friends", this wartime exchange between General Robert E. Lee and three young girls became a Christmas tradition for Southerners.

Mrs. Clack's children's book contributed quite a bit to the post-war impression of Lee's character, going beyond his already well-known military genius and demeanor. The story was never intended for profit, and all the royalties went to the orphans of the South.

Is it a true story? I believe in Santa Claus and the Christmas Spirit, and I know that it is.

Merry Christmas!

James K. Turner
Franklin, Tennessee

                                                                   General Lee and Santa Claus
                                                                    by Louise Clack

When auntie finished the locomotive song, little Minnie jumped up and said: " Auntie, oh, auntie, I have thought of something we children can do before we give the book to Santa Claus. Let us write to General Lee, and ask him if Santa was our friend; and if he says yes, then we will give him the book, for the little Confederate children. So the auntie sat down and wrote the following funny little letter to General Lee, at the children's dictation:
Dear General Lee:

We think you are the goodest man that ever lived, and our auntie says you will go right straight to heaven when you die; so we want to ask you a question, for we want to know the truth about it, and we know that you always speak the truth.
Please tell us whether Santa Claus loves the little rebel children, for we think he don't; because he did not come to see us for four Christmas Eves. Auntie thinks you would not let him cross the lines, and we don't know how to find out unless we write and ask you. We all love you dearly, and we want to send you something; but we have not any thing nice enough; we lost all our toys in the war. Birdie wants to send you one of our white kittens - the one with black ears; but Auntie thinks maybe you don't like kittens. We say little prayers for you every night, dear General Lee, and ask God to make you ever so happy. Please let us know about Santa Claus as soon as you can; we want to know for something very, very, very particular; but we can't tell even you why until Christmas time, so please to excuse us.

Your little friends,

Lutie, Birdie, and Minnie 

The above letter was sent the following day, and in about a week the answer was received:
My Dear Little Friends:

I was very glad to receive your kind letter, and to know by it that I have the good wishes and prayers of three innocent little girls, named Lutie, Birdie, and Minnie.
I am very glad that you wrote about Santa Claus for I am able to tell you all about him. I can assure you he is one of the best friends that the little Southern girls have. You will understand this when I explain to you the reason of his not coming to see you for four years.
The first Christmas Eve of the war I was walking up and down in the camp ground, when I thought I heard a singular noise above my head; and on looking to find out from whence it came, I saw the queerest, funniest-looking little old fellow riding along in a sleigh through the air. On closer inspection, he proved to be Santa Claus.
Halt! Halt!, I said; but at this the funny fellow laughed, and did not seem inclined to obey, so again I cried Halt!. And he drove down to my side with a sleigh full of toys. I was very sorry for him when I saw the disappointed expression of his face when I told him he could go no further South; and when he exclaimed, Oh, what will my little Southern children do! I felt more sorry, for I love little children to be happy, and especially at Christmas. But of one thing I was certain - I knew my little friends would prefer me to do my duty, rather than have all the toys in the world; so I said: Santa Claus, take every one of the toys you have back as far as Baltimore, sell them, and with the money you get buy medicines, bandages, ointments, and delicacies for our sick and wounded men; do it and do it quickly - it will be all right with the children.
Then Santa Claus sprang into his sleigh, and putting his hand to his hat in true military style, said: I obey orders, General, and away he went. Long before morning he came sweeping down into camp again, with not only every thing I had ordered, but with many other things that our poor soldiers needed. And every Christmas he took the toy money and did the same thing; and the soldiers and I blessed him, for he clothed and fed many a poor soul who otherwise would have been cold and hungry. Now, do you not consider him a good friend. I hold him in high respect, and trust you will always do the same.
I should be pleased to hear from you again, my dear little girls, and I want you ever to consider me,

Your true friend,

General Lee

Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!" cried all the children when their auntie finished the letter; " hurrah! "Santa Claus is a splendid old fellow. And was not General Lee good, to think to do all that for the brave soldiers? Let us call our book 'General Lee and Santa Claus,' and let us say, 'God bless both forever!!'"
                                                                                                                           The End

My subject is War, and the pity of War

War has always brought forth some of the most intriguing works of art, and I would argue that World War I gave us the most significant poetry. In Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey is a memorial to 16 Great War poets with the inscription, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity."

Great War memorial - Ypres, Belgium
That inscription was taken from a poem by Wilfred Owen, probably the finest of the war's poets, and one of its last casualties. Known primarily for Dulce et Decorum est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen was greatly influenced by Siegfried Sassoon, who is probably my favorite writer from this time - as regards his entire body of work. A quick read of How to Die and Counter-Attack evoke strong feelings even today. Both Owen and Sassoon displayed their bravery on the battlefield, but their works reflected a curve toward pacifism as the battles continued on the Western Front.

The famous names continue: Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas, et al. But the most famous Great War poem, at least to the general public, is likely In Flanders Fields. A personal favorite of mine, In Flanders Fields was written by Dr. John McRae, a Canadian physician.

Essex Farm Cemetery
In Flanders Fields was written just behind the lines of battle, a couple miles north of Ypres, Belgium. McRae originally threw the poem away, thinking it lacking. Thankfully it was picked up by a compatriot, and was eventually submitted to Punch magazine. Published on this date in 1915, the poem took hold among the British public, and eventually found fame across the world. Mourning the loss of a friend on the battlefield, McRae wrote of the tendency for poppies to spring up where the ground had been disturbed, and his opening stanza became one of the verses that schoolchildren would memorize for decades.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Battlefield poppies
McRae composed the poem at a spot called Essex Farm Cemetery, and today it's one of the most visited places on the Western Front. It's not uncommon to see double-decker buses lined up at the small cemetery, with school children traipsing down to see the spot where the poem was composed. They also visit the grave of Private Valentine Joe Strudwick, famous for joining the British army at 14 years of age and being killed in action a month before turning 16. So many come to see the grave of the boy their same age that artificial grass has been installed at that part of the cemetery. They pause for a moment, take a few pictures, then climb back on the bus for a quick drive back toward Ypres - perhaps to visit the In Flanders Field museum in the rebuilt cloth hall.

Cloth Hall - Ypres, Belgium
McRae's poem is still significant today, and just as poignant and lovely. But to balance it, lest war seem too glorious, I would suggest the last stanza from the Wilfred Owen classic.

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."

(Translated from Latin - The old Lie: Sweet and honorable it is to die for one's country.)

There is nothing more that I can add. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity.

Control your rage, control your life

I was driving home on Thanksgiving to spend the day with my parents and friends. My kids were with me, and as we exited the highway we pulled into one of those behemoth gas stations to fuel up and let our old Beagle stretch his legs.

I filled my gas tank and pulled over to the edge of the parking lot, where my daughter was finishing up her walk with our dog. On the street just in front of us horns started blaring, and I looked up to see a pickup attempting to exit a parking lot, and an RV – parking illegally on the street – somewhat blocking the truck’s access. The men in the vehicles were gesturing madly at each other, and obviously screaming, though thankfully my kids couldn’t hear what they were saying. After five seconds I realized, even though the RV was in the wrong here, that the pickup actually had plenty of room to go on. But it took him at least another 30 seconds to do so – he had to stare down the other driver.

Winstead Hill - Franklin, TN

As the pickup drove off, the man in the RV took one more opportunity to flail his arms in the air as an insult. My daughter asked me, “What was all that about?” So I used it as a teachable moment, and explained that the RV driver was in the wrong when he parked on the side of that particular road, but that the truck driver should have just gone on. And then, as we were able to leave the parking lot and drive away, we discussed road rage. Those hand gestures seemed to be just a step away from something that could have turned violent.
General Cleburne memorial

It was hard for me to comprehend and explain the rage that I saw in those men, and over something so insignificant. It made no sense. My guess is that they were both traveling for the holiday, and the pressures they were feeling just boiled over. I have several friends who hate Thanksgiving because of all the rushed visiting and cooking and entertaining. It can be overwhelming. Still, that madness baffles me.
Now it's a few days later, and as I write this it's the anniversary of the Battle of Franklin. On that day General John Bell Hood sent forward the Confederate Army of Tennessee into well defended works, and into almost certain annihilation. In an event that still defies explanation, the Union Army had loosed itself from the trap that Hood had set, and somehow made its way through Spring Hill and into Franklin. Hood was furious, and let his rage overwhelm him. His blind decision to deploy and advance cost thousands of casualties.   

Carter House - Franklin, TN
General Hood was a good strategist, and he had seen the results of such advances at Gettysburg and elsewhere. There was no way that his charge into the Union works would carry the day, but he gave the order, regardless. He didn't wait for his artillery to come forward, he didn't heed the advice of his subordinates to attempt a flank attack, and he didn't wait for the next day - choosing to advance just an hour before sundown.
The great military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, "There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, and commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed." Franklin is a prime example of that maxim, and is a lesson that we must be able to control the rage that sometimes hits us all.

McGavock Cemetery - Georgia section
The November 30 date is the one memorialized and remembered, but I think there should be equal attention paid to December 1. That's the day the sun rose on the devastation that had consumed the Army of Tennessee - the day Hood should have realized the true cost of his rage. That's the day that truly teaches us a lesson.