Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In my mind, definitely, I cannot picture him sitting.  I picture him standing.  Of course, there is the picture, and he looks fairly relaxed in it, of him sitting in his famous rocking chair, and in it, he looks literary, shrewd, and adversarial, and circumspect, and of course, Irish.  And by the way, if you're tired and in pain, and your back and your lower back hurts and your pelvis is tightening, all the muscles that wrap around your lower spine seizing up, from all the movements of life and interacting with people and turning this way and that, a rocking chair really is quite soothing;  it allows the muscles to massage themselves, that back and forth, and honestly it makes a difference, if you can get into one.  So it is, one of those poignant pictures, when his chair, still with the cushions, is upside down and on a mover's cart, being cleared out of his office.

But one can remember him, well, as he showed up, so young, so tall, so thin, boney, with that very straight back and that beautiful hair, his shoulder blades, back stiff, but his body eased with that magnificent smile, a kind of glow of attention and that real care, that real rapport with people, and a voice that somehow matched, very early on when he was running for congress in Watertown, or Somerville.  There's a famous reporter's line, maybe Mary McGrory, capturing the excitement of seeing this guy walk past, an excited man shouting out something like 'look at him!  he's a purebred,' or maybe 'a thoroughbred,' probably referring the magnificent Irishness, the cleanliness of the man.  And this was back when he was new at it, a relative amateur, but he was so good, this amateur, his amateur made no difference, he just had it.

And that, fortunately, or rightly, is the image we have of him, punching the cold air with his breath and his new ideas, ask not what your country can do for you.  He's standing in his press conferences, hand raised, smiling as he wraps up one thing and asks for the next question, pointing.  There are all the speeches, really, the 'we choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard,' or, 'in the final analysis, we breath the same air… (I misquote),' or the 'Mr. Nixon and I are not… (rivers frozen in time)," etc.

Some of us aren't meant to sit down, the way our bodies were made.  We're made to stand up right.  And this, I suppose, if you let that kind of a stance unleash itself, it naturally turns you into a teacher, a pedagogue.  Think of great speeches.  They weren't made sitting down, except for maybe Roosevelt, because he had little choice, and even stood too, on his iron braces, supported by crutches and the like.  Lincoln was this awkward towering figure, but when you read him, or his speeches, you feel him standing.  And, like that urban myth, of secretaries with corresponding names, and the same number of letters in their assassin's names and other stuff like that, don't go to the theater, don't go to Dallas, there's this vulnerability that comes when sitting down, really an awful vulnerability come to think of it.  Picture them as bemused as they sit, or eating, or joking with a good friend, or speaking with their wives.

Of course, he was sitting, like the duck.  In that position, he could smile, brush his hair along the way it was parted, wave sort of stiffly, his neck bunched down.  He couldn't talk, couldn't quip or joke in a way anyone could hear, and come to think of it, as far as I know, the very last words he ever spoke, or might have spoken, more or less, even, are not recorded in such a way as to be left to history.

But the power they brought, as they brought it, they delivered it all standing up, tall, straight, unbowed, their voices rising over audiences and minds.

Maybe none of us are meant to sit too long in chairs, upright.  Lincoln reclined on a sofa reading the Book of Job.  Kennedy read in the bathtub, getting his books wet, but the hot water a necessity to keep him limber.

It's not so hard to gather the constant pain he was in, that difficulty of breath weighted down by a serious thing no one else can feel, as here in this picture with the good doctor Calvin Plimpton, President of Amherst College next to him, who was concerned and checked Kennedy's hands for a clue on the Addison's Disease.  Is the knuckle swollen some, indicating an arthritic condition, on top of what had been down with spine, putting plates in, taking them out.

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