The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Thrill of Fear

Now, I'll be the first to admit that Sandy has sucked the life out Hallowe'en this year, but that doesn't mean we should just abandon the whole exercise. The title of this post comes from the last published work of my thesis adviser at Fordham, Walter Kendrick. Dr. Kendrick's interest in Gothic and horror fiction was known to his students long before he published Thrill, and I think he added much to appreciation of the development of the genre, especially in sussing out its increasing sophistication and self-awareness over the years. He did this, by the way, in a fluid, racy style of writing that distinguished him from most academic writers, and which I cannot hope to match, alas.

But I digress, if only in memory of a Good Influence--one of many I have been blessed to know.

I've always revisited Dracula at Hallowe'en, ever since I first discovered Stoker's novel at age 11. I saw it at a grammar school book sale, and bought it, only to come home to a family tragedy. In the days afterward, as my parents had to deal with the aftereffects of my grandmother's death, I read the novel, somehow finding the serious high-octane terror Stoker created cathartic. I had not seen any adaptation or variant other than Bela Lugosi in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Excellent example though that movie is of the "spooky house comedy" genre, it by no means prepared me for the experience of Jonathan Harker in Dracula's Castle:
I sank back in my seat, having just had time to resume my book before the Count, holding still another letter in his hand, entered the room. He took up the letters on the table and stamped them carefully, and then turning to me, said,

"I trust you will forgive me, but I have much work to do in private this evening. You will, I hope, find all things as you wish." At the door he turned, and after a moment's pause said, "Let me advise you, my dear young friend. Nay, let me warn you with all seriousness, that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely. Be warned! Should sleep now or ever overcome you, or be like to do, then haste to your own chamber or to these rooms, for your rest will then be safe. But if you be not careful in this respect, then," He finished his speech in a gruesome way, for he motioned with his hands as if he were washing them. I quite understood. My only doubt was as to whether any dream could be more terrible than the unnatural, horrible net of gloom and mystery which seemed closing around me.


The Count's mysterious warning frightened me at the time. It frightens me more now when I think of it, for in the future he has a fearful hold upon me. I shall fear to doubt what he may say!

When I had written in my diary and had fortunately replaced the book and pen in my pocket I felt sleepy. The Count's warning came into my mind, but I took pleasure in disobeying it. The sense of sleep was upon me, and with it the obstinacy which sleep brings as outrider. The soft moonlight soothed, and the wide expanse without gave a sense of freedom which refreshed me. I determined not to return tonight to the gloom-haunted rooms, but to sleep here, where, of old, ladies had sat and sung and lived sweet lives whilst their gentle breasts were sad for their menfolk away in the midst of remorseless wars. I drew a great couch out of its place near the corner, so that as I lay, I could look at the lovely view to east and south, and unthinking of and uncaring for the dust, composed myself for sleep. I suppose I must have fallen asleep. I hope so, but I fear, for all that followed was startlingly real, so real that now sitting here in the broad, full sunlight of the morning, I cannot in the least believe that it was all sleep.

I was not alone. The room was the same, unchanged in any way since I came into it. I could see along the floor, in the brilliant moonlight, my own footsteps marked where I had disturbed the long accumulation of dust. In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, they threw no shadow on the floor. They came close to me, and looked at me for some time, and then whispered together. Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at the moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina's eyes and cause her pain, but it is the truth. They whispered together, and then they all three laughed, such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of waterglasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on.

One said, "Go on! You are first, and we shall follow. Yours' is the right to begin."

The other added, "He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all."

I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.

I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.

But at that instant, another sensation swept through me as quick as lightning. I was conscious of the presence of the Count, and of his being as if lapped in a storm of fury. As my eyes opened involuntarily I saw his strong hand grasp the slender neck of the fair woman and with giant's power draw it back, the blue eyes transformed with fury, the white teeth champing with rage, and the fair cheeks blazing red with passion. But the Count! Never did I imagine such wrath and fury, even to the demons of the pit. His eyes were positively blazing. The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell fire blazed behind them. His face was deathly pale, and the lines of it were hard like drawn wires. The thick eyebrows that met over the nose now seemed like a heaving bar of white-hot metal. With a fierce sweep of his arm, he hurled the woman from him, and then motioned to the others, as though he were beating them back. It was the same imperious gesture that I had seen used to the wolves. In a voice which, though low and almost in a whisper seemed to cut through the air and then ring in the room he said,

"How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me! Beware how you meddle with him, or you'll have to deal with me."

The fair girl, with a laugh of ribald coquetry, turned to answer him. "You yourself never loved. You never love!" On this the other women joined, and such a mirthless,hard, soulless laughter rang through the room that it almost made me faint to hear. It seemed like the pleasure of fiends.

Then the Count turned, after looking at my face attentively, and said in a soft whisper, "Yes, I too can love. You yourselves can tell it from the past. Is it not so? Well, now I promise you that when I am done with him you shall kiss him at your will. Now go! Go! I must awaken him, for there is work to be done."

"Are we to have nothing tonight?"said one of them, with a low laugh, as she pointed to the bag which he had thrown upon the floor, and which moved as though there were some living thing within it. For answer he nodded his head. One of the women jumped forward and opened it. If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half smothered child. The women closed round, whilst I was aghast with horror. But as I looked, they disappeared, and with them the dreadful bag. There was no door near them, and they could not have passed me without my noticing. They simply seemed to fade into the rays of the moonlight and pass out through the window, for I could see outside the dim, shadowy forms for a moment before they entirely faded away.

Then the horror overcame me, and I sank down unconscious.
That was a helluva lot for an 11 year old to run across, and no adaptation has done the sequence anything remotely like justice. The 1931 Lugosi version more alludes to it than anything else:

I have a soft spot for Lugosi, though; his version is interesting, with the first portion, in Transylvania, atmospheric (barring a few oddball moments like the freakin' armadillo) and intriguing before it segues into the stagy melodrama of the London scenes. But Lugosi definitely has something, sardonic, jaded, almost wistful at stray moments. Eight decades since its release, and not just a curio.

Of course, one can say the same of the grand-daddy of all Stoker adaptations (ignore the use of Stoker's names in the subtitles, here; Nosferatu was a direct steal from Stoker's novel, released 90 years ago, now--and in rampant violation of copyright law. Still, the film packs a punch, even now, especially when you realize it's nearly a century old.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

In Sandy's Wake

The good news is that we at the Dutch Kills Orchard and Cattery (Brooklyn Branch) are warm and safe, have electrical power (for now!), and are watching gob-smacked as lower Manhattan is taking on water, with cars floating on Wall Street, and a record water level at the Battery. Red Hook, where my Fairway is located, is besieged, with the water lapping at the very doors of the store.

On Long Island, the rest of the Anglocat family (my side) are all at das Schwester's, without power, but with cell phones to confirm that they're all ok. (My nephew, with a precocious interest in meteorology is chafing at not being able to get detailed climate modeling.)

Me and mine are, so far, weathering the storm.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey today has thanked Barack Obama:
for ensuring federal government resources are available to New Jersey, which is expected to bear the brunt of rain, wind and flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

“I thank the president for his telephone call and inquiring about how things are going here and I assured him that things were going well so far. He advised me to call him at any time that things were not going well,” he said at a fire house backed with emergency personnel, residents and press.
Not to make everything, political, but times like this make me glad we don't have a Chief Executive who thinks FEMA is "immoral." Of course, in a week, that might change:

I hope you all are well, and that the storm keeps far away from you.

Pray for all those in danger from the elements, and all those who will be working through the night to save lives, return power, limit damage.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

So How's By You?

So, I've been away for a day and a half, at the 2012 Deacon's Conference, and I have to say it was a great opportunity to get to know my fellow postulants a little better, but even more so to get to know the deacons within the Diocese. The variety of professions (after all, deacons are non-stipendiary!), backgrounds, and stories was inspiring to me, especially as every one of the deacons I met or got to know better was someone I could identify with.

Every one of the deacons I met displayed a profound desire to reach out to those on the margins--the poor, the sick, prisoners, the deaf (learned a lot about the Episcopal Church's tradition of outreach and service to the deaf this weekend!).

And a desire to do it in love, as a manifestation of the love of God from which we ourselves have benefitted from.

They're an impressive crew, the members of this Order to which I aspire. Funny, pragmatic, warm. It felt like being welcomed home, I'm glad to say.

I'm profoundly honored to be associated with these good people.

Meanwhile, my author's copies of Command and Coercion have arrived, including the full issue. It's been a long time coming, and the final version is much better than the working paper; I've never had better editing in an article, and the questions pressed me to clarify my thoughts and to refine my arguments. I am very pleased to have it out in the world.

All in all, a pretty good weekend.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Horses and Bayonets

..together make a unicorn.

Seriously, this is the moment when, if the American people vote for the guy who's plugged into reality, Romney lost the election:

It's already become a meme (and it's both funnier and fairer than "binders full of women).

Obama effectively sank his battleship.

Romney's seeming old and tired. By the end he looked like James Brolin in the classic West Wing debate. I half-expected him to whisper to Obama, "It's over," Sorkin-style.

It isn't over, of course, and Romney could still win.

But this debate won't help him.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How Not to Secede... and Transaction Costs

I've stayed mum for a few days regarding the charges against Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina, and the resulting purported secession from the Episcopal Church of the Diocese of South Carolina. That's because I don't want to go off half-cocked, with an overly harsh response.

I'll leave the questions of canon law to others, who are better able to address whether Bishop Lawrence is guilty of "abandonment" or other charges.

Where he and the members of the steering committee seems to me to be in grave danger, however, is civil liability based on the granting of the quitclaim deeds to each parish within the Diocese in late 2011, and this effort to reconstitute as an independent diocesean entity. And, frankly, I don't see how they aren't on the hook for breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent conveyance, conversion, and similar causes of action. (Civil fraud is possible, as well, but on reflection seems to me to be more of a leap--Lawrence's statements regarding his intentions as prospective bishop do not seem to me to sufficiently unambiguous, or closely enough related to his acts, to make out, absent more, a claim of fraud.)

According to the linked article above, the bishop and steering committee are relying on the All Saints decision by the South Carolina Supreme CourtNow, the South Carolina Supreme Court found in All Saints Parish, Waccamaw v. Protestant Episcopal Church, Dio. of S. Carolina (2009), that the enactment of the Dennis Canon in 1979 did not act to create a trust interest in that parish's property in the Diocese or in the national Episcopal Church ("TEC"). It found so, however, on the very unusual fact pattern before it, in which All Saints had been given, in 1903, a quitclaim deed, "transferring any interest the Diocese may have had in the congregation’s property to All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc. The Diocese did not retain any interest in the property, reversionary or otherwise." The Diocese did not adopt the Dennis Canon until 1987. Thus, the South Carolina Supreme Court reasoned, "is an axiomatic principle of law that a person or entity must hold title to property in order to declare that it is held in trust for the benefit of another or transfer legal title to one person for the benefit of another. The Diocese did not, at the time it recorded the 2000 Notice, have any interest in the congregation’s property. Therefore, the recordation of the 2000 Notice could not have created a trust over the property."

In other words, the Diocese had ceded its interest in the All Saints property and disavowed it 84 years before it affirmatively adopted the Dennis Canon. Bishop Lawrence, by contrast, issued his quitclaim deeds almost a quarter of a century after the Diocese affirmatively enacted the Dennis Canon, and more than 30 years after the national church did so. Where the Diocese had no interest in All Saints to create a trust in, in view of the 1903 quitclaim deed, Bishop Lawrence took office with such a trust already in place. Therefore, All Saints does not to my mind provide any basis for immunizing the issuance of quitclaim deeds as a means of invalidating the trust held pursuant to the Dennis Canon.

I suppose one could argue that the Dennis Canon did not suffice to create a trust, in that TEC should have undergone formal proceedings in each state to create one. That would, however, seem to me to conflict with Jones v. Wolf, which described the obligation of a hierarchical trust to create a trust in the denomination fulfilled either by such processes, or, "[a]lternatively, the constitution of the general church can be made to recite an express trust in favor of the denominational church. The burden involved in taking such steps will be minimal." (My emphasis). TEC chose the latter course, following the guidance of a majority of the Supreme Court. It would be surprising, and reek of favoritism, were that deemed to be insufficient.

In addition to exposing the bishop and the Standing Committee to civil inability, the quitclaim deeds would, if deemed a fraudulent conveyance, be void. TEC has three years from discovery of the fraudulent conveyance claim in which to sue, and the same time frame under a fraudulent transfer theory, and so can file as late as 2014.

I don't mean through this rather dry analysis to underplay the sadness that I and many feel that such a state of affairs has been reached. And, I must confess, I am not impressed with those who claim that Bishop Lawrence's theological views justify these property dealings, which strike me as abusing the trust which Lawrence asked for on his second election as bishop, and dishonorable in the extreme, even if legal liability ends up being avoided. But there's another cost, too.

We gain much strength as a church from our willingness to meet around the altar with those whom we do not agree with. The Via Media holds Protestants and Catholics, liberals and conservatives, modernists and traditionalists together, and we often learn from each other and benefit from the insights of the others. After Mark Lawrence's deeply-laid, premeditated scheme to take the Diocese, property and all, away from TEC, much of the trust necessary to foster that balance is gone.

How on earth can we who are loyal to TEC and to that Via Media trust again?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Virtues of the Other Side

So, here's a thing: I recently discovered (yesterday, as a matter of fact) that a long-standing professional acquaintance, who has over the ten years I have known her become a real friend, is a--gasp! political conservative. And I mean the real thing--thinks Romney is a sincere, truth-telling politician, that Obama is a far-left liberal who lies almost as easily as he breathes, and has never tried to work with the other side.

Now, normally, when my conservative friends have been known to me as such for as long as I have known them or just about that long (you know who you are!), we've already made allowances for each other, and accepted each other dafka. But discovering this ten years into a relationship which has come to be based on mutual respect for each other's intellect, acumen, and integrity--well, it pulls you short, no?

My friend told me that her son has criticized both parties as perceiving the other in caricature--for seeing each other i a way that is fundamentally unfair. Se said that I sounded to her as if I was giving liberal talking points, and that she suspected that she sounded like Fox News talking points to her (she was right).

I replied that in out busy lives, and in casual conversation, we couldn't bring the level of complexity to casual debate that we brought to more extended, professional discussions, with a resultant loss of depth. We sound like talking points, I suggested, because that's all we had time to express to each other.

And less than a month before an important and heated election? Our blood is up; seeing each other in the round gets harder.

And we do this all the time, with people we don't have the helpful background of mutual respect and affection for that my friend and I have--and perhaps we never get past the caricatures and the talking points.

Look, I hope the election goes the way I strongly and sincerely think it should, and that Obama wins, and that the Democrats at least retain the Senate. I believe it's critically important.

But I am going to try harder to prise my mind open a few more inches, and to remember that if the many good, acute, and intelligent friends I have who feel just as strongly as I do but quite differently, perhaps the issues aren't as clear as I think I see them.

And as to my friend, who prompted this train of thought?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Your Plastic Planty Pal Who's Fun to be With

You would think that the combination of Doctor Who and the Plantagenets would be a thing of beauty--a good old-fashioned historical, with the Doctor sagely commenting on a key turning point in British history. Imagine William Hartnell, for example, flirting with an aged but still spritely Eleanor of Aquitane.

No, really, he could, dammit; here he is in The Aztecs, striking up a relationship:

Or Troughton, debating Henry II on a fine point of canon law, having been mistaken for Thomas Becket?

No; we get the Fifth Doctor and a suspiciously Monty Python-esque knight duelling for the amusement of a saturnine King John:

Admittedly this bit of dialogue is pretty nifty:

Sir Ranulf Fitzwilliam: "He is said to be the best swordsman in France."
Doctor: "Well, fortunately we are in England."

However, all is not lost; the King (in fact a shape-shifting robot, playing at being a Plantagenet) has a mean way with a lute about him, leading to this little earworm:

(Oh, did I mention that the Doctor--Hartnell again--did meet Richard I in The Crusade? Well, he did, but not as amusing as Gerald Flood singing. Sorry.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Democracy is Coming...on Economic Justice

So, in less than a month, we are going to have the Presidential election. We are entering the last four weeks of what has been an interminable campaign, with all the bile and nastiness of which modern American politics is capable.

After the 2010 election, which handed the House of Representatives to the Republicans, I commented that I did not "respect" the voters who made that choice, based on the kind of campaign that was run, the vacuity of the promises made, and the fact that the Bush era was seemingly forgotten less than two years after it ended. A conservative friend of mine chided me on this front, saying--with some justification--that not respecting the legitimacy of an outcome against my "team" is pretty much what I've been ragging on the Birthers and other Republicans who have been guilty of "othering" President Obama.

A fair point; what I had been trying to communicate is that democracy doesn't guarantee good outcomes, just that we all have a right to be heard in deciding the outcome. Which can be, as witness the results of Elections 2000 and 2004, just awful. That doesn't make the bad outcome illegitimate; it just makes it bad.

The race as it stands at the time of my writing this post is nearly a dead heat in the popular vote, and a smaller but still strong showing for Obama in the Electoral College. (Having been on the losing end of a tie in 2000, I'll take that kind of narrow win, if that's as good as it gets.)

It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

In a story this week that got too little play amid the horserace news, we see that Bain Capital (through one of its many funds), in which Mitt Romney remains an investor, owns Sensata Technologies, which is closing a factory in Illinois two days before the election, and shipping the jobs, plant and equipment to China. The trustee of Romney's "blind trust", according to the NYT, "has said that "he will endeavor to make the investments in the blind trust conform to Governor Romney’s positions, and whenever it comes to his attention that there is something inconsistent, he ends the investment." Meanwhile, Romney blames Obama for employers off-shoring jobs to China. And misleadingly dodged Obama's correct statement that the US tax code wrongly rewards companies which offshore jobs by relying on the fact that the deduction applies to companies which move plants within the U.S. as well as without. Obama, of course, wants to limit the tax break to apply to domestic moves only.

Famously, of course, Obama bailed out U.S. automakers, as well as promoting their interests via-a-vis foreign competitors; Romney called for the Government to do nothing, and let bankruptcy law take its course.
It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
Despite his claim at the first debate with President Obama that he "will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans," his website (visited today) explicitly calls for "permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates." It's highlighted in blue. "Across the board" traditionally means for everyone, including the wealthy. He also calls for (same page) lowering corporate tax rates by 10%. (Not to defend President Obama's listless debate performance, but the protean nature of Romney's tax plan is pretty awesome; as a moving target, the only thing you can be sure of is that it's better for the rich than the rest; how it accomplishes that goal, however, is subject to radical revision without notice.)

This is important not as a game of "gotcha!," but because the middle class has been under significant pressure for over a decade. Even before the "Great Unpleasantness" of 2008, Jared Bernstein noted that "[t]he economy expanded over the 2000s, and working families were highly productive, as output per hour rose 18% from 2000 to 2007. But despite their contributions to the economy’s growth, middle-income, working-age households—those headed by someone less than 65—lost ground over these years. Their median income, after adjusting for inflation, fell $2,000 between 2000 and 2007, from about $58,500 to $56,500 (2007 dollars)."

[Click to embiggen, as we say online.]

Since then, the situation has only worsened, affecting attitudes and tempering hopes for the next generation--I know parents who are contemplating advising their children to pursue technical or trade education, instead of college, simply because they believe the situation for the next generation will be worse than for them.

Income inequality has skyrocketed since 2000, with the richest Americans claiming an ever-increasing slice of the pie. Romney has dismissedsuch concerns as "envy." President Obama has sought to restore progressivity to the tax code. He has also successfully championed legislation reforming America's health insurance system (which Romney would repeal, while lying about the extent to which he would do so). Obama also championed Dodd-Frank, which Romney would repeal and replace with--we don't know. He won't tell us.

But he has told us what he thinks of the 47% of Americans who get government benefits:

Romney now says that these comments "were completely wrong," and do not reflect his true views.

As the brothers at my Catholic high school used to say, he's not sorry; he just got caught. As I've suggested previously,both Romney and Ryan share a view that is at best paternalistic and more likely contemptuous toward the "takers" they find everyone who isn't a "job creator." I expect these priorities to be reflected in a Romney-Ryan Administration, if they are elected. You should too.
Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.
Next Saturday: Social Issues

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Look at Leo

Leo McKern, best known for playing Horace Rumpole, was the author of a memoir, Just Resting (1983). I'd long wanted to read it, as I am a fan not just of McKern's portrayal of Rumpole, but his work in A Man for All Seasons, The Prisoner, and his superb Gloucester in Laurence Olivier's Lear. In all his acting, I sensed a nuanced intelligence, and an emotional depth held in check, that hinted something about the private man that I found intriguing. And, to be frank, I was curious about the backstage view, especially, but not only, of the Rumpole teleplays.

Recently, I found a copy of McKern's memoir, and it's a fascinating read, though not what I expected. McKern was not that interested in backstage gossip, and considered Rumpole to be a piece, and not the largest, of his career (he was known as a distinguished interpreter of Ibsen's plays, and valued that reputation). What I did find, though, was a writer of surprising sensitivity, with an enjoyably literary style, and with a wry sense of humor.

I'm only partway through the memoir, but two passages struck me. The first is a sonnet McKern wrote, which he uses as the book's epigraph:
Actor's Birthday

Another onion-skin, another year
Is Gynt-like thinly stripped and drops behind;
The cues for laughter difficult to hear
And reasons for excitement hard to find.

The thicker make-up in the mirror's heart
Hides deeper now the frantic youth within
Who impotently watches every part
Grow duller, greyer, weaker, paler, thin.

Bitter, that while time perfects the skill,
Supplies at last all motives and intents,
The gifts of age that complement the will
Sharpen the craft, but dull the instruments.

A juvenile; his rusting, certain cage
An old fat actor exiting downstage.

L. McK.
I have to say, I rather like that.

I also rather like McKern's sense of justice; he tells a story that illuminates, better than I have ever been able to explain, why I have never been able to enjoy gambling, eve when I win:
I remember a poker game with some of the all-male cast of a war film, one of a continuous series of games that took place during the inevitable waiting periods between set-ups. The star of the film was a winner, which I am not, and though this is a possible shortcoming in me, I think it depends on where you want to go. He would use the weight of his money in these otherwise friendly games to block out players who may have had better hands, but not the riskable money to bank them. During this particular game, I was dealt, and sat on, the 7, 8 10, and Jack of Clubs, discarding and buying one card. I would have been very lucky to have drawn another club, but for the first time in my life, I drew the 9 to make a routine flush. Bidding began and rose until only the "winner" and I were left. He had bought two cards, and a good hand was indicated by the possibility of three of a kind. He drew in fact a pair of Queens, and had a full hand, aces high, and with this ammunition pushed hard at the bidding to make the biggest killing he could.

The pot reached about L 90.

I knew that my hand was unbeatable. I knew that high bidding would not win him this hand. He simply could not win. And that was unfair.

So I called. And that, I suppose, makes me a loser.
Not to me. I get it.

Here's Leo McKern, as Rumpole, reciting William Wordsworth:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Biden for the Win.

I don't have a lot to say about the debate, other than to agree with Andrew Sullivan:
I have to say that Biden did to Ryan what Cheney did to Edwards in style and demeanor and authoritah. Ryan was hampered by an insurmountable problem on the impossible mathematics of the Romney budget. I think his inability to answer that question - how do you pay for it? - has to be the driving question now. The only way to afford it is to cut middle class deductions and middle class entitlements much more than Obama-Biden would. I'd love radical tax reform - but I'm not crazy enough to believe you can actually tackle the debt by cutting taxes and increasing defense spending and leaving Medicare basically alone (no ACA-style cost-controls) and only removing deductions for the very rich. It doesn't add up. They know it. And when challenged - even by Fox News - he cannot provide the details.

Also, this is seriously good:

Ryan came off like a neophyte, spouting abstractions, while Biden brought the attack home. Good job, Joey the B.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Grumping from Beyond the Grave

You have almost certainly never heard of Mark Pattison (1813-1884), and who can blame you? Hardly a household name, frankly. He was, possibly, a model for Paul Jago in The Masters, not in his character or personal life, but in having been thwarted in a seemingly sure election as Master of his College. Pattison is also thought to have been the original for Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch, an identification which has been disputed as unfair to Pattison. (Not improbable, though; Pattison was thought of as dour, liberal, dull and principled, married a much younger wife, herself a talented writer, and he wrote a biography of--wait for it--Isaac Casaubon.)

I ran across a copy of Pattison's Memoirs (1885), and picked it up. I'm glad to report that Pattison is extremely interesting in several ways. An academic with a genuine reverence for teaching, an Anglican clergyman who lost his faith in God and the Church, but never in learning, he is almost Soames Forsyte-like in his self-consciousness and inability to express emotion in person. I have never read a more vivid depiction of youthful gaucherie than Pattison's portrait of himself at 18--I winced with identification, although 150 years separated my youth from his. His first hand observations of the Tractarians--whom he didn't like much, but toward whom he is pretty fair--are worth the price of admission alone.

As to his depiction of University and Church politics--Susan Howatch's description of the "cut-and-thrust battles"and "sheer Machiavellian skulduggery" of the Church of England has nothing on Pattison.

A surprisingly lively, tender, sometimes bitter, work, lit throughout by the love of learning. Pattison has nothing as eloquent as T.H. White's Merlyn on learning, but I think he would endorse, if not applaud it:
"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops"

Many years ago, when the world was young, and I was in college, I became the third president of a (revived) experimental theater group, and found myself in the remarkable position of having a small budget and the opportunity to direct a play of my choosing. I picked Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I thought then was one of the best American plays. Period. I still do.

On Friday, October 5, I got to see the Steppenwolf production, scheduled to open on October 13.

The play is beautiful--a tough-minded, production which pulls no punches, with the caustic humor, casual cruelty, and rising tension that I experienced when I first read the script in Modern American Drama, as taught by John V. Antush.

Amy Morton does the near-impossible with Martha--she brays, she's loud, abrasive, bullying, yes, but the vulnerability, the hurt, the self loathing and love for her husband buried so deeply within her are as real, and as believable, as is the over-the-top virago. It's an extraordinary performance of a character that can come off all too easily as cliche (it never was, but has been imitated enough to be perceived as such) or as too written. Morton lives the character.

George as portrayed by Tracy Letts has reserves of strengths buried deep behind the exhaustion, the self-pity and the anger without an outlet. He's just great. (In an interesting choice, his final words to Nick do not contain the softening, the hint of forgiveness, I've seen in other performances. This George is tougher and harder at the core than others. It brings into relief the depth of his commitment to Martha, and her own perceptiveness in noting the self-hatred which they share, and which holds him to her as much as any other emotion.)

Even Nick and Honey, who often fade into the background, are given stunning, pulsing life by Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon. Ms. Coon turns Honey, often one of the most thankless roles in theater into a (minor) games-player herself, someone who is not entirely unaware of the power she wields over Nick--not in his league as a manipulator, and more innocent than his pilot fish, let alone the two senior sharks in the water with her, but not as helpless as all that.

It's an extraordinary night of theater, well worth your time.

Here are two appetizers:


(My production? Oh, never opened, I'm afraid. The rights fell through, and the whole thing had to be scrapped. But, oh, what a pleasure it was to work with the fine young actors who were willing to go there with me, and how very good they were. We found another project to do that year, and, despite the disappointment, the still-nascent group survived my failure to pull off the show. Now go see the real thing, willya?)

Debate Talk, Reel to Real

Now, I've been holding my peace about the first presidential debate, largely because I didn't want to be having a Sully-style meltdown in real time. So undignified.

Many Obama supporters are trying to deny that the debate was as strong a showing for Romney as it in fact was. That dog won't hunt, I'm afraid. Romney was smooth, seemingly human (did someone install an emotion chip?) and aggressive. He flouted the rules, didn't answer the questions and steam-rollered the moderator. All of which is, of course, wrong. It's also winning television. Obama by contrast looked like he wanted to take a good nap. He may have been startled by Romney's willingness to lie about his own proposals, as well as everything else under the sun. But frankly, that's no excuse. This is Romney we're talking about, after all.

Result: a not insignificant swing in favor of Romney that might not yet have bottomed out. Not panic time for us supporters of the President, but not good news, by any stretch.

But this is not, as the West Wing was often for me in the Bush years, analgesic. Bartlet re-prepping Obama makes for good reading, but points out also how the President can within his own personal style, rebuke the more aggressive Romney. For example:
BARTLET “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.”

OBAMA The $716 billion I’ve cut is from the providers, not the beneficiaries. I think that’s a better idea than cutting the exact same $716 billion and replacing it with a gift certificate, which is what’s contained in the plan that’s named for your running mate.

BARTLET “Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.”

OBAMA Not unless you’ve come up with a new plan since this afternoon.

BARTLET “You doubled the deficit.”

OBAMA When I took office in 2009, the deficit was 1.4 trillion. According to the C.B.O., the deficit for 2012 will be 1.1 trillion. Either you have the mathematics aptitude of a Shetland pony or, much more likely, you’re lying.

BARTLET “All of the increase in natural gas has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.”

OBAMA Maybe your difficulty is with the words “half” and “double.” Oil production on federal land is higher, not lower. And the oil and gas industry are currently sitting on 7,000 approved permits to drill on government land that they’ve not yet begun developing.

BARTLET “I think about half the green firms you’ve invested in have gone out of business.”

OBAMA Yeah, your problem’s definitely with the word “half.” As of this moment there have been 26 recipients of loan guarantees — 23 of which are very much in business. What was Bain’s bankruptcy record again?

BARTLET And finally?

OBAMA Governor, if your ideas are the right ideas for our country, if you have a plan and it’s the best plan for our future, if your vision is the best vision for all of us and not 53 percent of us, why aren’t you able to make that case in the same ZIP code as the truth?

It's damn good advice for the President, as well as good fun for the reader. President Obama needs to show that he has the fire to take on Romney, and he needs to, as his fictional predecessor points out, not let Romney get away with his lies about the effect of Romney's policies.

I don't think it's panic time yet, folks. As the reel-life president counsels the real-life President:
BARTLET You picked a bad night to have a bad night, that’s all. You’ve got two more chances to change the scoreboard, and Joe unplugged should be pretty good television too. Make Romney your cabana boy in New York.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"One Day I Shall Come Back..."

If you want a good look at the earliest years of Doctor Who, I really must recommend volume 1 of Phillip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum, the book form of his blog, with new essays,and revised throughout.

I'm enjoying Sandifer's analysis, particularly his notion that Ian and Barbara (particularly Barbara) teach the Doctor to become the Doctor--a hero. I also like how he strips away the accretions of the years to try to bring us face to face with the show that aired in 1963-1966, and not to view it down the distorting lens of its history.

Great fun, and well thought out.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Romney-Ryan-Rand 2012

Remember Mitt Romney's now infamous characterization of 47% of Americans "who believe that they are victims"?

Well, his view is a little broader than, but essentially shared by, his running mate, as witness this speech, given on November 1, 2011:


Ryan's expressed fear that "[b]efore too long, we could become a society where the net majority of Americans are takers, not makers" is interesting, though, and redolent of his doyenne, Ayn Rand, although she preferred to use the terms "producers" in contrast to "moochers and looters."

Despite his recent efforts to downplay his devotion to Rand's thought, Ryan has said that "[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand;" he also told the Weekly Standard in 2003 that he gives out copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents.

All of this has been pawed over by the press, of course. But I think it bears emphasis, as both Romney and Ryan have been caught on tape, within the past year, adopting Rand's basic Manichaean world view, and doing so in contexts when they are comfortable and among allies--Romney, especially, is far less stiff than usual in the 47% speech. And, frankly, Rand's philosophy is one that I can only decry as fundamentally evil. Her exaltation of radical individualism and, especially, of what she called The Virtue of Selfishness led her to valorize serial killer and kidnapper William Edward Hickman. (Prescott at the link gives a useful summary, but more well known Rand scholars cover the matter too. )

I do not mean to equate the views of Ryan or Romney with this darkest aspect of Rand's thought. But the appeal of her writing is just that which they have, quite possibly unknowingly, bought into: An inversion of the ethical standards that have formed Western Civilization--casting the common good, shared sacrifice, and exalting instead selfishness, cruelty and greed. She makes it sound so reasonable that sons of privilege--like Ryan and Romney--can believe their suzerainty to be for the best, without realizing the cruelty underneath the philosophy justifying it. Because Rand is good at erecting an argument to justify these basest human drives, claiming that indulging them will make for the best society, one in which the producers--sorry, "job creators" should rule, while the moochers and looters--whether 47%, 30% or another unknown percentage can work as directed by their heroic betters, or be, as Rand put it, treated as "mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?" (We the Living (First Ed.), quoted in The Ideas of Ayn Rand, at 38).