Four score and a lot of years ago, give or take, the 16th President of the United States was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. (To be historically accurate, he wasn’t president when he was born. That happened later.)
Here in the U.S., we’re about to kick off a three-day weekend honoring Abe and other notable presidents with hearts full of chocolates and red roses and mattress sales. I didn’t get around to baking him a cake or buying him a lousy card or writing something new. I had a fun idea, but I was at work, where they don’t pay me to have fun ideas. Something has to replace my downer from yesterday, so here is a re-run about a quote on happiness frequently misattributed to Lincoln.
(The quote is frequently misattributed to Lincoln. Happiness, not so much.)
Misattributed quotes on the Internet is one of my pet peeves, along with subject-verb ambiguity, so you might imagine how painful this sentence was for me to write. Anyway. I once saw some deep thought about airplanes attributed to Epictetus. Ridiculous.
But it’s not Epictetus’s birthday, despite what Mark Twain might have said that one time. It’s Lincoln’s birthday. To the Archives we go. . .
Several weeks ago I set out to write about my Saturday at the Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”). The theme was to be, “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” a quote I’d heard attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
I wasn’t sure, though. It could have been Winston Churchill or Mark Twain or Maya Angelou. Maybe Confucius or Buddha or Gandhi or Dale Carnegie. All good sources of inspirational quotes. I couldn’t in good conscience cite Lincoln as the speaker, since I didn’t actually hear him myself, so I did what responsible bloggers do: I asked Google. I spent the rest of my Saturday sifting through link after link after link citing Lincoln as the speaker without finding one that I considered authoritative.
In fact, the more that I saw that Lincoln had said it, the less I believed that Lincoln had said it. I became obsessed with proving he didn’t.
I’ll take a break here and tell you a little about that Saturday. Anyone so inclined is welcome to wander out of the room to see if you can find the source of the quote. I’ll give you a hint: it was probably not the 16th President of the United States. When you’re ready, meet us back here on the other side of the italics where I’ll explain how I came to that conclusion.
“I’m an excellent driver.” — Abe Lincoln
Meantime, queue up the harp music and fade to italics while I reminisce about that fine day. . . . .
Harp music / fade to italics
In this day and age, when one can do almost anything electronically, why would anyone need to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, much less on a Saturday? I’ll confess right up front: it was my own fault.
It was time for my driver’s license renewal and they sent me a helpful mail-in form months ago. It seemed straightforward and convenient but I made the mistake of sticking it in my work bag and — you guessed it — I ended up carrying it around for a couple of months until just before my birthday, also expiration day, when I remembered that I needed to mail in the form. That’s when I noticed that there was a BACK of the form, requiring an eye doctor’s certification.
At this point I had a choice:
A. spending Saturday in line at the LensCrafters, hoping someone would fill out my form without charging me for another appointment or
B. taking a chance on the eye exam at the DMV.
I went with B and here’s why:
- LensCrafters is at the mall.
- The mall is the place where parents dump their teenagers on Saturday.
- I still suffer flashbacks due to post-teacher stress syndrome.
- Teenagers at the DMV are usually on their best behavior, hoping that the driving test administrator will go easy on them.
I knew that spending Saturday at the DMV would be about as much fun as, oh, spending Saturday at the DMV. I had no one to blame but myself, so I prepared for the experience. I’ve been wanting to block out some time for reading, so I packed a book.I knew there would be a line of fellow procrastinators, so I did my part to speed things along by filling out the form and having all my documentation ready.
Sure enough, there were about 50 people ahead of me in the triage line, where they ask what you’re in for and give you the appropriate alpha-numerical wait slip according to your vehicular and /or licensing needs. Then you go sit with the other hundred or more people in the next round. My only wish was not to get B-17. I worried that they might not call B-17, at Olivia Newton John’s request.
This is just about the only up side to living so much inside my own head: I can entertain myself in just about any situation, especially public places. People are fascinating and / or amusing.
So there I was, laughing (on the inside) at my own B-17 joke, running my own Muzak through my head (“Please Mister, please. . .”), when THEY arrived.
I didn’t see them coming, but I heard them once they arrived. Before they even came to a dead stop behind me, their fearless leader Andrew Dice Clay started the swear-fest, complaining about how effing long the effing line always is at the gosh-darned effing DMV and how effing incompetent the effing employees were and how much effing time this was going to take out of his effing day. The others joined in, wholeheartedly agreeing with ADC about what a ridiculous effing situation they were in. They’d been there all of thirty seconds.
Gratuitously inserted image to lure in those who skipped the italics.
Shocked and appalled, Olivia Newton John clammed up and ran for cover, clearing my mind to ponder the following question: Who comes to the DMV in a group?
I can understand that perhaps one of them was there for an effing driver’s test and s/he needed another em-effing licensed driver along, but this seemed to be a family outing. Why?
I didn’t have time to form a hypothesis because the triage line moved rather quickly. Before I knew it, the Head Triage Person pleasantly inquired as to my reason for being there. I copped to general incompetence further exacerbated by the onset of age-related feeble-mindedness. She kindly handed me my ticket ( F-43, whew!) and invited me to have a seat while I waited. Off I went in search of a quiet bench to get in a little recreational reading.
I was a page or two into my book when I realized that the man two rows behind me had not stopped talking. When I realize something like that, I find it extremely hard to unrealize.
On and on he went, the topic of choice of course being how horrible the DMV is. How every time he has to come here they mess something up. Story after story of the time when he came without this document or that document and they stubbornly refused to help him. How rude they were when he insisted they use their stupid common sense and give him a break. He reminisced about the time he saw them skip right over someone’s number and call the next one (That one I believe. I just knew B-17 was bad luck).
And then, then he said, I swear to you I am not making this up. It may be paraphrased, but it’s what he said. He said. . .
“It’s one of my favorite things to do. Just come sit here and watch how these idiots mess things up.”
And I believe him.
Thankfully, my reprieve from the Frequent Flyer’s tirade came when F-43 was called and off I went to visit with another pleasant woman who allowed me to take the vision test without my glasses (I passed, which should frighten us all) and allowed me to keep the weight I listed ten years ago, although we both clearly knew it was slightly inaccurate. She even took a halfway decent picture of me. No one takes a half-decent picture of me. I am completely unphotogenic.
I was at the DMV for about an hour and a half that day. Considering all the people they had to take care of, I left pretty darned impressed, with a driver’s license I’d feel comfortable presenting to any officer of the law. The only disappointment was that I didn’t have time to sink into my book.
On the way home, I reviewed the experience and decided that most people are indeed just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
If you go to the DMV expecting it to be a miserable experience, you can make it one. . . for yourself and everyone around you. Or you can block out the profanity and whiners and get in a little reading.
Whatever makes you as happy as you make up your mind to be.
The other side of the italics
That’s where my story would have ended, except for the nagging feeling that I hadn’t confirmed that Lincoln is the one who offered that insight about happiness. Eventually, I started getting hungry and needed to move on with my life, so I decided to let someone else wrestle with this for a while.
I sent a question to the fine folks at the Internet Public Library .
Although I still haven’t learned where the quote originated, the diligent librarian checked with about as reliable a source as one could find (except for Abe, who was unavailable for comment). Here is the answer she received and passed along to me:
Thank you for writing to us; your query has reached my desk.This is one of the 5 or so Hallmark-style inventions, or perhaps it is from Jonathan Livingston Seagull or some other late 20th century advice book, that is regularly hung on Lincoln’s neck. There is no record that he said it, and certainly no chance that he wrote it.
In general, we recommend to people that they never believe the stuff they find on the Internet in the way of ‘famous quotations’ by anyone.
James M. Cornelius, Ph.D.
Curator, Lincoln Collection
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
Thank you, IPL.
Thank you, Dr. Cornelius.
Thank you, nice folks at the DMV.
And a very special thank you, Olivia Newton John.