The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Hero's Welcome

US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan - 1976 official portrait.jpg
By Robert S. Oakes - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. DIGITAL ID: <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="">cph 3b07877</a>, Public Domain, Link

Aye, the hour grows late, and we've time fair nay mair tales...what's that? I promised one? Aye, so I did. The year was 1987, and Uncle John was a law student, at Columbia Law School, a lowly first year student at the time. The Law School was convening a celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and then-Chief Justice Rehnquist was there, but he was not the focus of the event. No, CLS had decided to honor the contribution to constitutional law of Associate Justice, William J. Brennan. The event was divided, like Gallia, into three parts. First, a relatively brief gathering, open to all, where Dean Black, Rehnquist (and, if I remember aright, Justice Thurgood Marshall) spoke about Brennan, and his jurisprudence. Brennan himself said a few words, and the event recessed. The second part was a formal dinner, the tickets for which were prohibitively expensive. When I told my then-significant other, Holly, about it, she was fiercely determined we should attend. She insisted on buying the tickets (she was working, I was not; at the time CLS discouraged first years from working during term.) When we bought the tickets, the woman behind the counter raised an eyebrow that we should be attending. It was a very generous gift on her part, and we went in our best. True fact: As far as I could tell, I was the only student there except for one 2L I recognized who was working the event as a waiter. Another True Fact (tm): Other than my professors, most of whom were socializing with each other, the judges and scholars from other places who were gathered,I didn't know any of the people there. I was seated--as happened several times in my first year--next to Visiting Professor Arthur Chaskalson, an anti-apartheid lawyer from South Africa, (praise to Jack Greenberg for inviting him!) who was one of the bravest people I've ever met, and was courtly and gracious as always (he had to be sick of me turning u at all these dinners, and invariably being his companion, but he never showed it.) As Arthur (what? He told me to call him Arthur. He was a mensch, ok?) was caught up in the social whirl. Holly and I were pretty much deserted, until my Torts professor, Kendall Thomas, came over to keep us company a bit. Always one to look after the underdog, and for this one night I was that, Professor Thomas visited with us a bit, made Holly laugh, and went on his way. Dinner ensued, and then--well, this: The desserts and liqueurs were wheeled out, and the large cluster of academics, judges and Illustrious Alumni and Visitors swooped down on them with a remorseless efficiency. Justice Brennan stood all alone, for just a moment. Holly, God bless her, pushed me in the lower back, and hissed "Go SAY something to him." So I did. I have no idea what undergraduate gabble I spewed, but he took my hand, and as I was about to stagger off, having failed to communicate to this great man in my chosen profession, he wouldn't let me go. He insisted on talking to me, and asked me questions about what I hoped to do and be. Somehow he closed the gap of age and eminence, and I relaxed, and it was a lovely conversation. He caught eye of Holly, who was a very pretty woman, and beckoned her over. And he charmed us both. Not with facile charm, but by being interested in us as people. He teased us--"you're headed to Legal Aid," he said to me (and years later Vivian Bergerwould make that happen), and he praised Holly's acting ambitions, and brilliance was in the air. We left, awed, but warmed and excited about the potential in our young lives. After graduation, when I published my first law review article, on the First Amendment, the subject on which the now-retired Justice was the greatest living expert, I sent him an offprint, thanking him for his kindness that night. To my shock, I received a reply--Justice Brennan thanked me for the article, saying he was sure he would read it "with pleasure and profit" and thanking me for thinking of him. His signature was spidery but clear. I framed that letter, and it hangs in my office to this day. One is not often blessed by one's heroes.

Monday, August 10, 2020

What They Did in the Shadows: Dark Shadows, The Beginning: Episodes 1-5

By Uploaded by TheCustomOfLife; from World of Soap Themes (Webmaster: Brian Puckett)., Fair use, Link

Before the pandemic, I had a minor surgery, but one that laid me up for a month, to my astonishment. Confined to laying on my side, I couldn't easily read and so I was stick with the pleasures of streaming video, which led me to the old Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. I watched it throughout my recovery, and, outsode of work hours, followed it through the next few months. Then, I was lured by Amazon into buying the complete series on DVD. Yes, the infamous "Coffin Set." Now, this may seem daft, but that's just because it is. But when the series came, I fired up the first episode, to see the new introduction by Alexandra Moltke, and to test the quality of my purchase. In doing so, I found that the quality was very high, and found myself drawn into theses first episodes all over again. So a few thoughts. First, the series uses its paltry budget extremely well; the main Collinwood sets are handsome and convincing, and the stratgic use of location filming at Seaview Terrace in these first epsiodes really cements Collinwood in the viewer's mind--it's as much a presence as is Shirley Jackson's Hill House. It also looks lived in, a place that has been inhabited for centuries in a way that the locales for the 1991 revival and the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows don't measure up to, beautiful as they are. The first episode introduces Victoria Winters, a foundling seeking her identity, traveling to Collinsport Maine to take a job with the Collins family as a companion/governess. A fellow traveler on the train from New York, Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan who gives her a ride in his chauffered car to the hotel where she can get a taxi. We also meet Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the tough-talking hardboiled blonde, Eve Arden-type waitress at the coffee shop. She's kind to Victoria, still waiting for her taxi,but urges her to get back to NY. The episode ends with Victoria's arrival at Collinwood, and Elizabeth letting her in. In the second episode, we meet Elizabeth's daughter, Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) who humiliates her nice guy boyfriend Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers) to dance with the local skels (to use NYC-talk). Carolyn is presented as seeking distraction, recklessly dancing with anyone, until Joe throws a punch, and Devlin orders him to take her home. Devlin tries to use their spat as a chance to bribe Joe to spy on the Collins family for him. Joe demurs. Episodes 3 and 4 focus on the rest of this night, especially Roger's increasingly edgy efforts to pump Victoria for information regarding Burke Devlin. He's hiding his terror of the man well, but it's costing him. He vacillates between charm and panicked frustration. Edmonds is awfully good. As is Bennett, quietly playing the piano in the gloomy sitting room, her head quietly drooping as the notes fade. When we first see Victoria and Elizabeth togther, the similarity is striking--Victoria's hunt for her identity, and the fact that the checks that paid the Foundling Home in which she was raised are postmarked from only 50 miles away from Collinsport raises the thought that they are mother and daughter. (We so often think of Victoria as a governess that we forget that her time with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a regal Joan Bennett) is as much a part of her job as educating the appalling brat David. (Roger Collins has his issues, but his snide exhortations to Victoria to "give him a good kick" have considerable justification (albeit not good child-rearing even in 1966). Despite David's nasty efforts to scare her off (much smaller, and thus more credible, than the Grand Guignol he attempts in the revival or HODS) Roger's apology, Carolyn's friendship, and Elizabeth's quiet need, plus her own desire to know, impel her to stay. The show is an extraordinary achievement thus far, and in this slowly unfolding plot the actors have a chance to make their marks. The core cast is extremely good--Bennett brings all her years of film acting to the small scree, Edmonds is a superb general utility player, finding character notes and comic moments in the blandest lines, and Barrett makes a strong impression. Moltke is more gentle, more tentative--with a strong backbone when challenged.

Coming Home

It has been a long fallow period in the world, and on this blog. Not so in life--work continues, co-writing with a good friend a project regarding Anthony Trollpe (more to come!), and other events have made the plague time pass. But yesterday, fter six months away (one and a half due to healing from an operation, the rest due to the Coronavirus), I returned home to St. Bartholomew's Church, whre I have been a regular attendee since 2007 (occasional attendee even earler--mid 1990s), where I became an acolyte, from where my wife and I were married, where I discerned a call to the vocational diaconate, and where I returned as deacon in 2014, and have served since. In the video above, the Church is mostly empty. The Rev. Susan Anderson-Smith and teh Rev. Deborah Lee preside and preach respectively, and I have the honor, forthe first time since early in this bizarre, calmitous year, of reading the lessons, leading the psalm, proclaining the Gospel, and dismissing the people. Fittingly enough, the prescribed dismissal was that used by J.D. Clarke, my beloved predecessor and mentor as St. Barts's deacon: "Let go into the World, rejoicing in the Power of the Spirit!" After a long adventitious exile, I had come home. And tonight, I remember the beautiful words of Be Jonson's "A Farewell to the World": But what we're born for, we must bear: Our frail condition it is such That what to all may happen here, If 't chance to me, I must not grutch. Else I my state should much mistake To harbour a divided thought From all my kind—that, for my sake, There should a miracle be wrought. No, I do know that I was born To age, misfortune, sickness, grief: But I will bear these with that scorn As shall not need thy false relief. Nor for my peace will I go far, As wanderers do, that still do roam; But make my strengths, such as they are, Here in my bosom, and at home.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Where’s The Override?

The classic moment In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where Khan, flustered as his commandeered ship’s shields are dropping, looks helplessly around the unfamiliar console asking “Where’s the override? The override?!”is a meme at Anglocat Central. Where la Caterina is very keyed in to physical reality, a crowded field of vision bewilders me, and I can (or should I say “Khan”) unconsciously reproduce that sequence in real time while the object I seek is literally right in front of me.

This came to my mind this morning when I was seeking the smaller baking sheet to heat up a frozen breakfast. It took me 10 minutes to see the bloody thing, and it’s a weird experience when I finally can lock on to it.

I dont know if this is just some weird fluke of my own mind, or if others can, in this one aspect at least spare a drop of sympathy for the beleaguered Khan Noonien Singh (C’mon, I grew up on Trek. Of course I know his full name.)

But I can.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Thoughts from the Plague Year: A Good Friday Meditation on Mark 15:33-37

[Delivered in Video Format at St. Bartholomew’s Church, April 10, 2020]

Author’s Note: The video at the link and text below were created as part the annual Seven Last Words service at St. Bartholomew’s Church. Because of the need for social distancing in what Daniel Defoe would call this “Plague Year”, the service was streamed and recorded on video at the link. I commend the words, prayers and music created by my friends and colleagues at my beloved St. Barts to your attention. This little reflection is only a small piece of a mosaic created by the people of the parish in what very well may prove to be our Finest Hour—separated physically, but united in love and prayer for the people of God and the World.


The last time I drove from our apartment in Brooklyn back to Albany was only a few weeks ago. I couldn’t help notice how empty the City’s streets were. The BQE, which is always choked with traffic was wide open. No traffic in Queens of the Bronx. The silence, the lack of people in every neighborhood I drove through, were eerie.
It was an arrest of life, to steal a phrase from C.P. Snow’s 1970 novel Last Things.
Our Diocese, like many others, of all denominations, has eliminated in-person group worship services, livestreaming services to feed the spiritual needs of the people of God in a time of famine. Our bishops have announced that, as long as the people of God cannot receive the Eucharist, they will fast from it, in solidarity with us.
After months of false optimism, the White House has accepted the necessity of social distancing, school closure, and staying at home. Even with those measures, the coronavirus task force “predict[s] a best case scenario of 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities in the United States.”
That’s their best case scenario, though there is some dispute about the numbers.
The emptiness of the streets, the closing of theaters, restaurants and bars, the lack of human contact are the markers of that arrest of life. A life on pause, waiting to see what happens next.
In my lifetime, our nation has been brash, sure of itself, and increasingly hubristic. Since the end of the war in Viet Nam, the fall of then-President Richard Nixon, and the end of the “malaise” described by then-President Jimmy Carter, we have seen American exceptionalism become an article of faith, one nobody could question. The last superpower.
Today, like every other nation on this small blue globe circling an indifferent Sun, we wait. We wait for the “all clear” sign, or for the descent into something worse. We wait for symptoms to manifest in ourselves, or in those we love. We watch and we wait.
For the first time in my life, America is afraid.
We weren’t after 9-11. We were angry, we were hurt, but our City was NOT afraid after the Towers fell, and the Nation as a whole didn’t quail.
But in this time of fear, those of us who have no active role can be tempted to despair—to glibly invoke Stephen King’s pandemic novel The Stand, or The Walking Dead, and to think of this virus as a\the scourge of an angry, Jonathan Edwards version of God punishing His people.
We are hard-wired to feel fear; it can be, as Steven Moffat has written, a “superpower”—as Moffat wrote, “So much blood and oxygen pumping though your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you can run faster and you can fight harder, you can jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time.”
But that superpower is a liability when there is nothing tangible to grapple with. We are trapped with our fear, and it can lead to despair.
Jesus said to his disciples, over and over, Be. Not. Afraid.
And He knew despair.
As death came for Him, he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What a desolating fall from the spontaneous pomp and pageantry of Palm Sunday.
Of course, Jesus had warned the disciples that he would be put to death, but this cry of abandonment, of despair, coming from Jesus after His courage throughout His long ordeal is especially heart wrenching.
There are some who try to take some of the harsh edge off this moment. Professor Michael Guinan, of the Fransiscan School of Theology in Berkeley points these words come from Psalm 22—they are the very first words of the psalm, and, although the psalm may begin with a cry of despair, it ends with praise and thanksgiving. The psalm is, ultimately, “the prayer of a just one who suffers innocently, of one who is surrounded by enemies and mocked precisely because of his fidelity to God. When God hears []his cry and delivers [him] , the just one offers praise and thanksgiving.” For Guinan, “these are not words of despair but an expression of faith.”
But the knowledge that he would put to death wouldn’t necessarily protect Jesus from the horror of actually going through the ordeal that culminated in his death. Betrayed, by his own disciples, arrested on false charges, denounced by his own people and handed over to the Roman occupiers.
Crucifixion was a protracted death, one that was meant to break the spirit of the condemned and terrify the rest of the populace into submission to the unquestioned might of Rome. It’s a lower class version of the Roman practice of the damnatio memoriae, which eliminates every trace of the discredited victim’s accomplishments and life.
All of the humiliations inflicted on Jesus at each step of the way are meant to deprive him of his dignity, reduce him from the charismatic teacher and prophet who rode into Jerusalem a scant five days before to a pariah. An outcast. By destroying the condemned man’s honor, the degradation ritual which ends with his death as a public spectacle doesn’t just destroy the body of the man—it is intended to erase Him as ever having been a member of the community, and to erase His impact on the lives of all who saw Him.
And through it all, Jesus maintained a stoical front. His words are laced with the comfort he provided to those he loved—his mother, and St. John, the beloved disciple who becomes her son. Even the repentant thief, a complete stranger, finds comfort in Jesus’s promise that they would be together in Paradise that very day.
That Jesus, like any person, would shrink from the physical horror of death we all fear doesn’t make this cry an act of despair. But his quoting Psalm 22 isn’t serene. It isn’t a final scoring of an academic point on a debate. Jesus is, as Guinan says, making a statement, but not an academic one.
Herman Wouk in his novel War and Remembrance explains the Yiddish word “dafka” as meaning “perversely, ironically, despite everything.” It carries a wry bit of humor whenever it is used. And that’s how it seems to me Jesus is invoking Psalm 22. He cries out the opening line, articulating the agony of abandonment, implying the rest of the psalm—the Lord’s rescue of the just man, the reinstatement of all that has been lost, and, ultimately, the reconciliation of a fractured sin-stained world.
Jesus believes, dafka,that all this will happen, that he will be restored, despite all the evidence of his senses. Far from being the obliterated, His name will live on, and His legacy will be a movement that stands against the brutal strength of Rome, and for the reconciliation of all humanity. The reign of love—God’s love—will prevail, and the gates of hell itself will not prevail against it.
We believe, dafka, that all this is true, more true than the news on television that can be so wearying and depressing. You all believe it, or you wouldn’t be spending three hours with us today, mourning the death of an itinerant Jewish preacher two thousand years ago, and, even in our mourning celebrating dafka the transforming power of love to convert our hearts, and the hearts of those who we hate, and who hate us.
Albert Einstein said that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. Here in our fractured nation, can we really continue viewing our fellow Americans, our sisters and brothers who are as weighted down by this crisis as we are, as enemies? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his daily press conferences on March 31, 2020, rejected the idea, saying “There are no red states, there are no blue states. The virus doesn’t attack and kill red Americans or blue Americans, it kills all Americans,” and added “Keep that in mind.”
Keep that in mind. We are all equally vulnerable, all fearfully looking to our loved ones, hoping that they will not get sick, or if they do, that they will be part of the 80% who recover. The “Other” we dislike or even hate—well, they’re in the same boat with us. And so our belief in love, the only engine of survival, is no longer a belief we cling to, dafka, but a necessity. We need the Other; the Other needs us. Because at the end of things, we are the squabbling, annoying family of humanity, not different tribes. And in this moment, when we are all winded and bruising and vulnerable, we can see in the weary humanity of those whom we have struggled maybe too fiercely, too sure of our own righteousness, we can see not a stranger, but a brother. A sister, a mother, a father, an aunt, an uncle.
And come together, as all families do, in times of trouble, and learn to love one another all over again.
In the Name of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Faint-Hearted Universalist’s View

I recently received a splendid comment from a reader, who asked me a very knotty question indeed. So of course your Anglocat, merrily rushing in where angels fear to tread, finds himself treading some fairly deep theological waters. Here is the essence of the question: Describing (fairly) my views on the afterlife as “universalist”, how do I reconcile these views with the fact that the majority of church teaching has not held to this position.

I know, bit of a yorker, right?

I am a universalist, but in (to steal a phrase from constitutional law), a faint-hearted one. That is to say, my belief in the Grace and mercy of God outweighs my knowledge of the sinfulness not just of the world, but of myself. I believe in the forgiveness of God because I need God’s mercy, and because the nature of God offers love and deep compassion. That is not to say that I don’t believe that sin harms us; it clearly does, and it hurts the soul. I just don’t believe that God ever gives up on us.

So here’s my response, lightly edited, as Lent slowly draws toward a close, and Holy Week approaches:

Before I give my own thoughts, let me refer you to two of my favorite theologians: C.S. Lewis, and specifically his book The Great Divorce, which addresses this very topic (as does his more famous The Screwtape Letters, hinting that God bends the rules for us). Lewis's point boils down to the contention that we can reject God’s love, and refuse to enter into joy; God will not force us into relationship with Him. (The book suggests that the door from Hell to Heaven is always ajar, but it is well worth a read.)

It occurs to me that Christopher Marlowe in his The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is heading in the same direction when he has Mephistopheles, on Earth, say that: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” In other words, Hell is a state of mind, not a place.

The second is Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, describing Grace: “God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word ... it's that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit. Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - like saying, ‘Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It's God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’” For Bolz-Weber, we are all sinners and all saints, and both at the same time.

So now my own thoughts, understanding that I fully agree with Lewis and Bolz-Weber. The first response I’d make is to refer you to the Gospels: Matthew 7:11 (“If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”). See Luke 11:13 for the parallel passage. Also, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

These passages are a reminder to me of two things: First, that God’s mercy is far greater than that of humanity. Second, that God loves everything He has created, and longs to put things right between sinful humanity and Himself. The first point, the mercy of God excelling ours, is important because in every criminal justice system, there is a concept of proportionality, that means that, for any crime, however horrific, there comes a point where the punishment outweighs the crime, and becomes itself unjust. God’s Justice is not that—think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the early morning workers are paid the same as those who only work an hour. That’s mercy to the latecomers, but not injustice to the earlier arrived workers. (Matt. 20: 1-16).

If Hell is in fact a state of mind, and not a place, it is self-inflicted by our inability to accept Grace. Lewis’s suggestion that the opportunity to accept Grace doesn’t end with death is hopeful, but not, of course, verifiable. But I cannot accept that the God who calls us ever hardens His heart against us.

As to traditional readings of Hell and damnation, I think we, as did our ancestors, sometimes look for what lawyers call “bright lines,” rules that are clear and unbending, guaranteeing clarity of outcomes. Life isn’t that way, in my 54 years on this planet, and I suspect that Jesus Christ wasn’t laying down inflexible rules, but speaking fortissimo to His followers to help them reevaluate their own lives and beliefs.

I hope you find this helpful and really do read Lewis and Bolz-Weber, who are each far more eloquent and learned than am I.

Peace and welcome.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Context is Everything: A Lesson from “Dark Shadows”

I have been out of work for two weeks after a minor surgery (still recovering, but on the mend), and have been forced for most of that time to lie on my side. So I’ve been binge-watching the old Gothic oater “Dark Shadows” from the beginning (thanks, Amazon Prime!)

Here’s the lesson: Context is everything.

When I was a kid, and watched it in reruns after school, they started with Willie Loomis’s discovery of the vampire Barnabas Collins, who pretty savagely turns him into his Renfield. From that beginning, you kind of pity Loomis.

Watching it with all the episodes leading up to the discovery, in which we see Loomis as a violent thug, who tries to sexually assault (in order) Maggie Evans, Victoria Winters (twice), and Carolyn Stoddard (three times), well, not so much.

After watching those episodes, when Willie opens the vault, I can only say, sucks to be you, vamp chow.