The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, November 30, 2012

Counting the Cost

It's an extraordinary thing how easy it is for us human beings to inflict pain and degradation on others in the name of principle. That sounds harsh, but I can't think of a kinder way to phrase it. Let me stipulate that I don't mean that the dominant group necessarily takes pleasure in the infliction of pain on the subjugated, nor even that they act with malign intent.

Think for a minute of what Bernard Shaw said in the Preface to Saint Joan:
Joan was burnt more than five hundred years ago. More than three hundred years later: that is, only about a hundred years before I was born, a woman was burnt on Stephen's Green in my native city of Dublin for coining, which was held to be treason. In my preface to the recent volume on English Prisons under Local Government, by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, I have mentioned that when I was already a grown man I saw Richard Wagner conduct two concerts, and that when Richard Wagner was a young man he saw and avoided a crowd of people hastening to see a soldier broken on the wheel by the more cruel of the two ways of carrying out that hideous method of execution. Also that the penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering, unmentionable in its details, was abolished so recently that there are men living who have been sentenced to it. We are still flogging criminals, and clamoring for more flogging. Not even the most sensationally frightful of these atrocities inflicted on its victim the misery, degradation, and conscious waste and loss of life suffered in our modern prisons, especially the model ones, without, as far as I can see, rousing any more compunction than the burning of heretics did in the Middle Ages. We have not even the excuse of getting some fun out of our prisons as the Middle Ages did out of their stakes and wheels and gibbets. Joan herself judged this matter when she had to choose between imprisonment and the stake, and chose the stake. And thereby she deprived The Church of the plea that it was guiltless of her death, which was the work of the secular arm. The Church should have confined itself to excommunicating her. There it was within its rights: she had refused to accept its authority or comply with its conditions; and it could say with truth 'You are not one of us: go forth and find the religion that suits you, or found one for yourself.' It had no right to say 'You may return to us now that you have recanted; but you shall stay in a dungeon all the rest of your life.' Unfortunately, The Church did not believe that there was any genuine soul saving religion outside itself; and it was deeply corrupted, as all the Churches were and still are, by primitive Calibanism (in Browning's sense), or the propitiation of a dreaded deity by suffering and sacrifice. Its method was not cruelty for cruelty's sake, but cruelty for the salvation of Joan's soul. Joan, however, believed that the saving of her soul was her own business, and not that of les gens d'église.
(My emphasis.)

We see some of this in the treatment of gays and lesbians by some--not all--who believe that the Church has an obligation to uphold the traditional proscription of homosexuality; the defense of tradition becomes a license for pecksniffery, and even cruelty. Don't take it from me, take it from Peter Ould, a traditionalist who nonetheless holds his own side to account:
here is huge frustration amongst revisionists that many parts of the conservative elements of the church simply haven’t bothered to engage with listening, even five years after the ACC in Nottingham and ten years after Lambeth 1998. When they hear statements such as "We do not have homosexuality in our country", what they hear is a refusal to even engage with the issue at hand. It is blatantly clear to all those with just a smidgeon of anthropological and sociological understanding that homosexualities exist in every single part of the world. The refusal to admit as much is not to take a clear moral stand on the issue, but rather is a pastoral failure of the highest order, because it is evidence of an unwillingness to engage with people where they are at.

(As an aside, often when I speak on this issue I get people to listen to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy. If you don’t know the song, click on the link now and spend five minutes listening to Jimmy Sommerville articulate what it is like growing up knowing you are gay, in a society that looks down upon homosexuality. Put aside your moral judgements for a few seconds and just hear what he says and how he says it, the emotion involved in articulating not just the rejection he experiences but also his perceived inability to talk to his nearest and dearest about this most intimate part of his life.)

Listening though is more about just hearing stories. It is also to do with, once having listened, building and affirming relationships. What is so often disappointing in the past few years is the failure of those who have had the opportunity to influence, who have had the public ear, to use that privilege to affirm the humanity and dignity of those they disagree with theologically. We all know the websites that refer to "polysexual sodomites", but it is not just the cruder forms of language in this discourse that are a sign of no real intent to listen and build relationships. Despite the fact that there exist texts like Goddard and Walker’s "True Union in the Body" which attempt to engage with the best arguments in favour of monogamous gay unions, some conservatives insist on producing writing that condemns not the best examples of gay life, but the worse. Do we need chapters of books denigrating the promiscuous lifestyle of some, when our opponents are actually those who believe very strongly in "Permanent, Stable, Faithful"? Do we need to concentrate on the way that some in our western society want a "plasticisation" of sexuality and cross-generational affection, when the leadership of Integrity and the like are joined with us in condemning paedophilic and ebophilic relationships of any form, consensual or otherwise?
Ould here makes a point that I find critical--it is one thing to hold principles, and to believe that the Church is required to hold fast to them. I can respect that position, while arguing the merits of most issues. It is quite another to hold those principles and to be absolutely blind to the human cost inflicted by them. It is especially noxious, in my mind, for an advocate to do so while insisting that someone other than the advocate pays the cost. So, for example, when straight men claim that God's only plan for gay men is lifelong deprivation and loneliness, and do so without any empathy for those who would be so deprived, I feel my flesh creep. (I imagine that if I, a straight man have such a response, my gay brothers must feel it even more viscerally.) I can respect Peter Ould, and do, while disagreeing with him. It is much harder to respect those compeers of his whom he describes, or those Andrew Goddard chides in similar terms.

These thoughts came to me in reading this poignant post by the Rev. Jody Stowell, expressing in a very irenic way, the emotional response of women priests to the debate and vote on women bishops in General Synod:
For those of us who were at Synod, listening to the speeches, we were under no illusion that the discussion was really a time-shift back to 1992. Arguing again the case against women being priests. And the case against women being priests is, in itself, really about the particular humanity of women - is the particular humanity of women sufficient to represent authoritatively the humanity of Christ? If the answer to this is 'no', then the reality is that a woman's humanity is fundamentally different to a man's humanity and when there is a difference like that, then it follows that one type of humanity *must* be the most authentic representation of humanity that there is. In this case the male is the most human human and women are....well not.

So yes, we are upset.

For those of us who are priests, we recognise that our orders have been called into question yet again. Called into question because of a voice which speaks of us as the 'not-quite authentically human' human and expects us to be okay with that. And when that voice speaks with the authority of the institution (regardless of the fact we know that most within the institution did not want this...), it causes a disintegration between the inner and outer person of the woman priest.

Emotionally, I am supposed to show resilience - so as not to disturb the church with my tears, and if I do cry it will be because I am a woman and show me lacking in strength.

Do not underestimate the strength and resilience it took for many women priests to get up on Wednesday morning and do their job, without this dissonance causing a fatal crack in their psyche.
I am not an opponent of the consecration of women as bishops, and I doubt that any will listen to me. But if any do read this, I would urge them, with all my heart, to remember that the cost of principles can be real, and that we have no right to, in asking others to bear the cost of our principles, be indifferent to those costs, or to take them lightly. They are not at all light to those who are made to pay those costs.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Crowning the Occasion

Now, when La Caterina and I were invited to an inauguration party on January 20, 2009, she decided preparations had to be made. She decided to create a special Inaugural Tiara to wear to the party. Being a Southerner, she did not do it by halves:


And another view of it:

The Inaugural Tiara was La Caterina's version of the triumphal blog post I put up the night before, so when she announced today that the time had come to retire the (admittedly well worn and used) Inaugural Tiara, last donned on Election Day 2012, I wondered what that betided. She answered, "a NEW Inaugural Tiara!"

Second term, second Tiara.

(Point of personal privilege: Although I didn't take this video, I was there for this very concert. Sound quality's less than ideal, but the band killed, as the video shows...)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kittens in the Mist

My wife, known popularly as la Caterina, is a particpant in the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, a program which " is committed to solving NYC's feral cat overpopulation crisis through the humane, non-lethal method of Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR for short." TNR is just what it says--you trap the feral cats, get them neutered, vaccinated, and checked out, return them to a sustainable habitat. You slow the breeding, stabilize the local population, and the cats take care of most rodent problems. The program provides low-cost veterinary services, as well as straw (for shelters), sometimes food, and advice. Sometimes cats prove to be friendly enough to place in homes (we have found several homes that way, including our long-term boarder, now resident, Ninja Kitteh, pictured below).

We also helped find a home for one particularly sweet cat, Sanders, who had lost an eye, but not his sunny disposition. The blog Balloon Juice featured Sanders, and we placed him thanks to them.

Not to mention this little chap, who la C found in our backyard:

Now, La Caterina's colony started as a small one in our LIC backyard (we called it the "Dutch Kills Orchard and Cattery", since we had fruit bearing trees as well). Now, though, she is co-proprietor and Chief Cat Wrangler of a colony that takes up the undeveloped portions of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and is also welcomed by some of the businesses situated there. So, she and her fellow cat-wranglers share the duty with the occasional drafted husband/significant other.

Where is, of course, where I come in.

I'm a sucker for animals. Always have been. I wouldn't have chosen this as a long term project, but I'm found of the little devils now, and go more often than not with her on the weekends. They greet us and the friendliest let us pet them, we dish out food, check their water, clean their water, etc.

Winter's the hardest, and we're gearing up for what looks like a cold one. In the wake of Sandy, though, the Ballon Juice folks raised money for la Caterina and her colleagues (I'm just the help) to restock supplies and do clean up. We did, and are now in pretty good shape for the winter.

Anyway, here are a few shots of our Navy Yard friends (click too embiggen, as they say):

Here's JJ, who's very affectionate. (His eyes water, and you can see that if you look closely, but not to worry, he's being treated.)

Here are several of the gang--the gentle-faced, slightly cross-eyed tuxedo cat on the right is Chauncey Gardiner, who is especially good natured--after feeding time today he came over to me just for affection:

Same group, the handsome chap on the right here is G. Bernard Pshaw, better known as "Bernie":

Finally, here's Buddy, eating where he can keep an eye on us:

Sometimes the work gets a bit dirty, but it's hard not to enjoy the company of these little guys.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Paradigm Case

The Church of England's General Synod, this past Tuesday (November 20, that is), rejected draft legislation that would have allowed the consecration of women as bishops, and thereby precipitated a crisis. The rejection was by a razor thin margin; the legislation secured the necessary two-thirds majority in two of the three synodical Houses, passing in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, only to fail by six voted in the House of Laity. In the days since, the depths of the crisis has become increasingly clear. The day after the vote, Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the Church's failure in withering terms, saying:
The Church has its own processes and elections. They might be hard for some of us to understand, but we must respect individual institutions and the decisions they make. That does not mean we should hold back in saying what we think. I am very clear that the time is right for women bishops—it was right many years ago. The Church needs to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme, but we must respect individual institutions and how they work, while giving them a sharp prod
Prime Minister Cameron's evident reluctance to force an outcome aside, his evident impatience with the result, and his willingness to administer a "sharp prod" were only the beginning for the C of E.

On Thursday (November 22), an Urgent Question posed to Second Church Estates Commissioner Sir Tony Baldry (the other Church Estates Commissioner being the PM) led to a debate on the outcome in which members of all parties--Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour, and SNP--roundly condemned the Synod vote, and intimated a Parliamentary response--whether disestablishment, deprivation of the bishops's 26 seats in the House of Lords, passing the measure themselves, reforming the procedures by which members of General Synod are elected or reinstating more active Parliamentary review of episcopal appointments, taking back the quantum of independence ceded the C of E in 1987, or removing the C of E's immunity to anti-discrimination law. The debate is especially interesting in that the most pro-Church speakers oppose forcible intervention and/or clipping the Church's wings, while denouncing the vote. No speaker defended the result on the merits. Moreover, Sir Tony, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, was involved in an exchange in which he suggested that the C of E had lost influence with Parliament itself as well as the nation:
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman share my sadness and that of many other people that the Church has made itself appear so out of touch and anachronistic in its decision making? The head of the Church of England is a woman, but in the 21st century we cannot have women bishops.

Sir Tony Baldry: I agree. It is a great sadness. I suspect that every right hon. and hon. Member has recently had representations from Church members on same-sex marriage. If the Church of England thinks that Parliament will listen to it with considerable attention on moral issues such as same-sex marriage and so on when the Church of England seems to be so out of step on other issues of concern to Parliament, it is simply deluding itself.
That's the Church's advocate in Parliament talking.

Also on Thursday, Labour member Frank Field introduced a bill "to to amend the Equality Act 2010 to remove discrimination against women in relation to consecration of bishops in the Church of England" by subjecting the C of E to the Act. The bill is not a Labour-only exercise, however; it has six supporters who represent all three major parties. It is unlikely to pass--it's a private bill, without official support from either the Government or the Opposition--but is one hell of a shot across the bow.

This raises, in the starkest possible terms, the questions of establishment and its legitimacy; as well, it raises the related question of whether the influence can be all one way (Church on State) without State pushing back. Some of the proposed reforms do not directly deprive the Church of self-governance or of autonomy. For example, taking from the Church the perks of establishment (such as 26 seats in the House of Lords, not a very large group, and one which seldom swings a vote, but it does happen, and their influence is more decisive than their votes) does not deprive it of liberty, only of political advantage, which may be historically adventitious but itself indefensible. The Field Bill could create a precedent for more general regulation that could effect other denominations as well, and be dangerous to religious freedom.

I'm unequivocally a supporter of women's ordination and of the necessary (theologically and just logically) corollary consecration of women as bishops. I think General Synod got it humiliatingly wrong in the vote. I believe the uproar should occasion self-reflection within Synod, and should give rise to a self-correction. But the scholar in me--I'm working on a series of articles on separation of church and state, and was researching the experience of the established C of E--is still digging, with more urgency now that this test of the operating paradigm of church-state relations has arisen. I'm not ready to opine yet as to what steps beyond condemnation and shaming, if any Parliament should take in this matter. The UK's informal, unwritten constitution is fragile, and an overreaction could badly damage the balance key interests of equality and liberty, here drawn into a needless conflict by General Synod's failure. I'll report back soon.

What I can say now if that the Commons are absolutely free to disregard the advise of the C of E, as Sir Tony suggests they well may, on civil marriages (not sacred). Actions have consequences, and persuading Parliament that the Church lacks wisdom can only lead to a loss of moral suasion and political influence. No sympathy on that score at all.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Wardrobes, Not All That Different

Today is, as well as being Thanksgiving, the 49th anniversary of C.S. Lewis's death. It's a good day to pause for a moment and think about him.

Lewis's greatest work, for me, is his later, less tendentious, Christian writing, and his literary scholarship, in which his lightly-worn learning genuinely illuminates the writing he loves. The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century genuinely opened the door to a new understanding of Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton for me, and if I had never read another word of Lewis's, I would be profoundly in his debt for that.

But my favorite Lewis--the Lewis of The Great Divorce, of The Screwtape Letters, and of A Grief Observed--changed my life. Even the earlier apologetics, while not as resonant for me, have their moments, and flashes of Lewisian genius. But it's the mature Lewis who speaks most clearly to me.

What of Narnia? The books are a hodge-podge, aren't they? Borrowings and jottings, figures from legend, myth and children's books--moments of cultural imperialism, moments of transcendence. (For a troubled, yet affectionate critique of the works, see Laura Miller). For me, I found the books too late--I was amused, and fitfully grabbed by them, but they were not really my meat. Still, two moments lived with me. The first is Lucy initially pushing her way through the wardrobe into the magical land. The other is Puddleglum's response to the Witch's lie that Aslan and the world of Narnia is only a dream:
"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."
It's a wonderful affirmation of faith, dafka, and (in A.N. Wilson's telling, marks his ultimate answer to the philosophical inadequacies in his work on Miracles pointed out by Elizabeth Anscombe in their famous 1948 debate. (Victor Reppert, while admitting that CSL wrote no more overtly apologetic works after the debate, denies that it was cause and effect, noting that Lewis rewrote the chapter in Miracles under debate. (Notably, John Dolan points out that Anscombe herself respected Lewis's intellectual honesty in re-writing the chapter.) I think Reppert and Dolan over-read Wilson's point, in part because of the easy gibe Wilson allows himself; Lewis did not give up writing about his faith, and wrote many of his best Christian works after the debate. But he wrote in a different style--less like the police-court solicitor his father was, and more like the poet and critic he was at heart. Lewis himself later wrote that she "obliterated me as an apologist," though not as a Christian writer. The debate with Anscombe helped him, in my opinion, to find his own truest and best voice.

Interestingly, tomorrow is the 49th anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who. That means that, had he lived another day, CSL might very well have seen An Unearthly Child, in which the famous dimensionally transcendental police box takes its first (recorded) flight. One wonders what he would have made of it?

I think Lewis might have liked the show, to be honest. The pervasive air of mystery, which is not dispelled until the end of the Second Doctor's tenure, the fact that the Doctor has to learn how to be a hero, from the ordinary schoolteacher forcibly traveling with him), and the mythopoetic style of the early years of the program (yes, I think Sandifer has it dead right). All these would have appealed to Lewis enormously, I think. As would the Master watching the Clangers:

But I think Lewis would especially have loved the very beginning, in which a wardrobe different from his own creation in form but not so very different in function takes off:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bishop Dietsche's Address to Convention

On Saturday, I wrote about Bishop Andrew Dietsche's address to the Diocesan Convention. No video has been posted, but you can read the text here. I'd just like to highlight a few passages.

As a postulant for Holy Orders myself, I can't help but love the first substantive section:
One of the pleasures of my first months in this ministry has been getting to know those in the process for ordination to the diaconate or priesthood. It would be hard to find a more impressive or inspiring group of people, and as I anticipate their coming service in the leadership of the church it fills me with confidence for our future. And in light of the significant investment which we have in these postulants and candidates for holy orders, and the care with which we raise them up for ordained ministry, and the love we have for them, I ask you help me keep them in the Diocese of New York as they transition into their ministries. However much you may love your field education seminarian from Tampa or Seattle or the Aleutian Islands, I ask you in the strongest possible terms that when you look to hire new clergy you look first before others at our own. Within the next few weeks you will all receive a letter from me introducing and commending to you our new class of ordinands. I know you will be as impressed with them as I am.
What's telling there is he goes beyond a mere shout-out; as a prospective deacon, non-stipendiary in our diocese, I'll find work. But my brothers and sisters who are aspiring to priestly ordination have reason for fret, and their bishop wants to help. Practically, not just by words.

But here's the real meat, for me, of the address:
Bonhoeffer wrote:

"Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things; prayer and righteous action among [people]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action."

The Episcopal Church began its long slow slide into numerical decline in the mid 1970s. From 1950 to 1975 our church doubled in size. From then to the end of the century we lost all of those gains, and the decline continues. In such a context, we have been consumed with questions of church growth in one way or another for thirty years. But we have talked about that in ways which have not only had no measurable effect at all but which have encouraged a nagging sense of failure. “The Decade of Evangelism.” “20/20.” Great endeavors quickly invented and just as quickly set aside. We have treated growth as a project, and so have developed the same strategies to grow the church that we see in other institutions, talking in the same language and according to the same principles -- forgetting that growth in the church whenever it happens is a movement of the Holy Spirit, and growth when it comes is always a grace and a gift.

In 2008 when the economy fell off a cliff, the underlying fears that drove that single-minded growth-consciousness were revealed in full. Even the minority of our churches which are increasing in numbers and those which are structurally and financially sound shared the fears. Even the backdrop to our current transition is the humming of a great anxiety.. . .

It is so easy to give up on the church. Lost, lost, lost! But it has always been a bad bet. There is a truth which we preach and proclaim but which is hard to remember when things aren’t going very well. In any case it seems to be a truth by which we are often afraid to live or afraid to trust, and that is that within the church, even in decline, there is a great power which is not of us but of another and which is continually arcing toward resurrection.

I believe that. And because I do believe that I want to ask that we excise a too-often-heard four-word expression from our vocabulary. Four words that seem brave and bold and realistic and smart when we say them but in fact with every utterance chain us more inextricably and hopelessly to our fears and to our lowest expectations of ourselves and our God. The words are: the church is dying.

We are not dying. Rather, it is our hour.

I want the Kingdom of Heaven. Tell him what you want. I want to see our churches be places in the common life our our cities and communities where all may see the seeds of equality and justice and righteousness that is the heart and mind of God. I want to see justice and righteousness roll down like mighty rivers from the doors of our churches. I want to see all the people of the world stand together in our churches -- of every race, gay and straight, male and female, young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor, and in the harmony of many languages -- living together in brotherhood and sisterhood before the God of history and one another. (I think I want to buy the world a Coke.) I want the peace which passeth understanding in our own day in the place where we are. I want to see my life and yours transformed by the love of God, and the weak made strong and the burdened given hope, and I want to see the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven adorned as a bride for her bridegroom. Tell him what you want. Should we not have these things? Have we not heard the promises of God? Are we not the risen ones, the heirs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Should we not be the ones to hear the waters of New York Harbor clap their hands and see the Catskill Mountains skip like young rams?

I want the Kingdom of Heaven. And if I can’t have the Kingdom of Heaven I don’t want anything else. I want the Kingdom of God, but if they aren’t giving out the Kingdom of God today what in the world else would I ask for? Another dollar for the budget? Or a million dollars or a hundred dollars?

When you tell Jesus what you want, you need to think about what you ask for. It has to be important. So dear friends, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Want these things.
Read it all, because I think the Diocese of New York is in for a great new era, and this is the beginning.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Meeting the Sixth and Seventh for the First Time

Long term readers will know of my affection for Doctor Who, which I watched through high school, thanks to my good friend from that time to the present, Vinnie Bartilucci, who introduced me to the show. However, on going off to college in 1984, where I had no TV, I stopped. So I missed the last episode of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, and missed the entire reigns of the last two Doctors, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.

Now, as I am following along--and indeed have pulled ahead of--Adventures with the Wife in Space, I have recently completed the Colin Baker years, and have seen the first two episodes of Sylvester McCoy's era.

First, how I would have loved Davison's send-off when it first aired! As it was, I still rate it among the all time best of the classic series. (Note, I have not yet seen all of Hartnell and Troughton, so this just means the recognized classics from those eras, and all of Pertwee-through Colin Baker for now. I'll double back. I promise.)

Caves of Androzani is simply excellent. The only weakness I can identify is the monster, and Nicola Bryant's occasionally roaming American accent. (Her acting, though, is quite good.) Davison plays the part with a reckless abandon he didn't often have, and the "nice guy" incarnation is quite ruthless here. He dies a hero, without setting out to be one.

As to Colin Baker, I can only echo the comments of Philip Sandifer on the episode in his blog Tardis Eruditorum:
OK, if you’re going to use one story to form the impression of your new Doctor then you at the very least have to actually show what your new Doctor is like. You can’t spend episodes mucking around with post-regenerative trauma when you’re trying to cement your new lead in the audience’s mind such that they’re excited to come back next season. In this regard, at least, The Twin Dilemma deserves some credit, in that Baker settles into his default mode reasonably quickly. But any points it gains are more than undone by the fact that they not only decide to introduce the Doctor in regenerative crisis, they do so by having him try to strangle Peri. In the best of circumstances this would be an unwise way to introduce a new lead character. In these circumstances it is difficult to understand how the idea even got approved.

More broadly, if giving yourself one shot to introduce your new Doctor is unwise, to do so when your concept for the new Doctor is that he’s an unlikable character who the audience slowly grows to trust and like is simply farcical. The two ideas are completely incompatible. Even if we grant that one of them is good - and I don’t really think “make your lead character unlikable” was ever going to be a winning strategy - “make your character unlikable and then put yourself in a situation where the first impression matters more than ever to the success of your show” is an idea that almost weaponizes stupidity.
Yeah, I know. But that's what they did. I mean I'm all for gritty but this?

That's frakkin' insane.

Worse, it sets the tone for the Doctor's relationship with Peri through just about half of Season 22; he's just dirt mean to her until Mark of the Rani, and only really warms to her in the first installments of Trial of a Time Lord, after which we watch when she promptly has her head shaved, is possessed by a giant slug (I'll explain later), and snuffs it--although we are told later that she is left behind by the Time Lords when they seize the Doctor, leaving her no option but to become a warrior queen to Brian Blessed, not every young woman's dream.

Here's what we see, though:

There are flashes of inspiration in season 22; Vengeance on Varos has a good premise, though the execution is only fair. The Two Doctors has a tremendous start, but becomes awful, with Troughton reduced to playing one of a pair of comic ghouls for an extended period of time. The Mark of the Rani--well, it's got some pretty funny moments, at least, including the lamest cliff hanger ever:

Trial of a Time Lord is, overall, a failure--some great moments, some interesting concepts and mostly well acted. But, ultimately, incoherent, and just not compelling. If I have to say one thing about the Colin Baker years, it's this: Baker doesn't deserve the animosity his portrayal has attracted over the years. he does a very good job--sometimes an excellent job--of playing what he's given to do. The onus is, in my opinion, squarely on the conception of the Sixth Doctor and on the scripts.

Doctor No. 7, Sylvester McCoy, opens inauspiciously with Time and the Rani--a hasty, weak regeneration, a Rani-plot that's more like the Ainley Master on a bad day, and more running around in a quarry. Also Bonnie Langford screams. A lot, and quite loudly. We're talking Chekov in Star Trek II, Fay Wray, only miked. Scream, Bonnie, scream.

I quite like McCoy's clowning as he finds his feet, especially his spoon-playing. And Kate O'Mara wins the good sport of the year award, doing an extended impression of a woman a quarter of a century her junior, as the Rani dupes the Doctor into thinking she is his companion Mel.

But then we move onto Paradise Towers--a failure, but an interesting failure. The world of the story is quite lived in--the Kangs, with their special argot, and color codes, remind me of the juvenile gangs of "cubs" in Logan's Run with a touch of Alex in Clockwork Orange; the fascist, rule-bound Caretakers mask their fear with their slavish adherence to a book of rules; and the cannibalistic grannies? Pretty damn funny. As is the all-too-aptly named Pex, deflated by cries of "Scardeycat!" until almost the very end (although the joke is used too often).

The misuse of poor old Richard Briers, though, who starts off well enough but becomes a gurning zombie when possessed by the Great Architect (why didn't that happen to the Master when occupying Tremas's body?) is shameful, as is the complete incoherence of the villain's plan.

Still, Paradise Towers fails daringly; it tries. Classic Doctor Who may be entering its last seasons, but it seems to have found its courage again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Life

Alas, the Diocese of New York has not yet posted a video of our Bishop Coadjutor Andrew M.L. Dietsche's barn-burner of an address. I hope it will, and will share it here if and when it does. The Bishop, who will be installed as our Diocesan in February 2013, gave a stirring call to abandon fear, institutional thinking and obsession with growth for the sake of growth. He urged us to think less self-consciously on the health of the Church, and to focus on mission--modeling and preaching the Gospel Way. He urged us to think big, not small--declaring that if he can't ask God for the Kingdom of Heaven, what was there worth asking for?

We will continue to be be in good hands, I think, when Bishop Dietsche is installed.

Here's a taste of his style--his humor, his thought for others, and his commitment to the God and our Diocese:

Bishop Coadjutor-Elect the Rev. Canon Andrew Dietsche addresses convention delegates from Episcopal Diocese of New York on Vimeo.

Today we also celebrated Bishop Mark Sisk, who deserves our thanks and applause for his steady, pastoral hand at the tiller. He will be be remembered as a bishop who was confronted with crises that called for real leadership, and who rose to the task. A measure of the affection and respect felt for Bishop Sisk can be seen in the video tribute to him prepared by the Cathedral Staff.

Bishop Sisk impressed me with his sincere and passionate engagement with the problems of the poor and underprivileged, and also with the issues of food production and water availability, and the harm caused by the commodification of both. His gentle good humor is notable. He will be missed. But I firmly believe that Bishop Dietsche is the right bishop to succeed him, and is ready to lead us into the next chapter of the Diocese's already storied history.

Friday, November 16, 2012

All Things Bright and Beautiful

You know, in the political season of acrimony, recriminations, and fallout, we can forget that life is a lot more than politics.

Have an antidote--catching up with old friends.

I watched these unspool as the BBC/Channel 13 aired them, and grew up on the books.

Nice to see them again.

In Defeat, Dummkopfery

It's a pity that Mitt Romney (who gave a surprisingly classy concession speech) hasn't learned the fundamental lesson yet of assuming that, if you're a political figure, your words will get out. And, frankly, don't try to rationalize a loss--hard that one, but still: Keep your powder dry and your mouth shut is good advice when your trying to get over a crushing loss.

Alas, Romney did not follow either piece of advice:

Now, beyond being an insult to the majority of the people, it's ultimately unconvincing--the Democratic responses range from "Oh, doing stuff that makes people's lives better is bad, gotcha!" to "You're the guy who offered massive amounts of money to the rich, and you're talking about 'gifts'?"--that rarity,a justified tu quoque.

Republicans like Bobby Jindal, Gov. Susannah Martinez, and Kelly Ayotte are quite properly calling Romney on this useless, divisive and slanderous post-mortem nonsense. As Jindal correctly says, "If you want voters to like you, the first thing you’ve got to do is to like them first. And it’s certainly not helpful to tell voters that you think their votes were bought.”

Meanwhile, in Maine, the state GOP Chair is defending his prior statements that he would launch a private investigation of voter fraud based on anecdotal accounts of black people voting, saying "I think we’re the whitest state in the country. So if you go to the polls and see people who are black, it’s unusual. And when you see a lot of people who are black, like six or eight or ten people, you think, ‘Wow, where do they live?’ That was my point.”

Yeah. There are two good reasons the GOP lost. Let's see if Jindal, Martinez ad Ayotte help move their party off the "Get off my lawn!" platform.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Flash Harry and the Horrors of heroism

Today I stumbled on an interesting lit-crit blog by David G. Myers, in which I read his take on one of my old favorites, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels. From Myers's perceptive analysis, in which he rejects the notion of Flashman as debunking Victorian concepts of heroism:
While Flashman himself may seem to derive a certain pleasure from debunking finer reputations, Fraser is playing an altogether different game. He hopes to rebuild those reputations.

In the Flashman Papers, Fraser seeks to rehabilitate the heroic mode in English fiction, but he knows that he cannot do so unironically, because moderns prefer debunking heroes to building them up. His ingenious strategy is to reestablish it by inversion and misdirection, proving some men and women to be the opposite of an “antihero,” contrasting their heroism to the scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, and coward who thinks only of tearing them down. By puncturing their smug self-righteousness and their pretense to impossibly high standards, Flashman shows them as genuinely great men and women, not the panegyrical statuary of Victorian literature—and he shows them as such by describing their response to him.
Well, yes and no. I mean, I agree with this analysis insofar as it goes, but it shears off some of the levels of complexity that Flashy gained over the four decades (1969-2008) Fraser penned his adventures. So in the sixth volume, Flashman's Lady, we see the arch-cad and coward genuinely torn between his love for his wife and his funk that both options--risking death to try to rescue her and losing her--seem equally bad to him. He has an affection for certain heroes, even those who cause him trouble (Abraham Lincoln, for one). And he spoils his grandchildren rotten, while being intensely protective of them. (He even steals out, in advanced age, to kill a very dangerous, much younger man to protect his favorite.) So Flashy becomes more human from book-to-book; his truly unforgivable acts occur with long stretches between them--two if the first volume, and then one in volume 7, as I recall. Interestingly, he pays rather heavily for two of the three.

It's true that the Flashman novels often implicitly endorse heroism, while Flashy himself critiques heroism directly; but in certain passages, Flashy's critique is at least tacitly adopted by Fraser in the storytelling. So, for example, when an elderly Flashman at his club allows himself to be drawn into a debate with an academic about the America West, where he had some choice experiences, Flashy erupts, most unusually for him:
"As to Custer, he's receipted and filed for the idiot he was, and for Chivington, he was a murderous maniac, and what's worse, an amateur. But if you think they were a whit more guilty than your darling redskins, than you're an even bigger fool than you look. What bleating breast-beaters like you ca't comprehend," I went on at the top of my voice, while the toadies pawed at me and yapped for the porters, "is that when selfish, frightened men--in other words, any men, red or white, civilized or savage--come face to face in the middle of a wilderness that both of 'em want, the Lord alone knows why, then war breaks out, and the weaker goes under. Policies don't matter a spent piss--it's the men in fear and rage and uncertainty watching the woods and skyline, d'you see, you purblind bookworm, you!"
(Flashman and the Redskins (1982) at 19, emphasis in original)

Fraser casually uses the Victorian racist and imperialist terms and framing, but generally subverts them by having Flashman view both Englishman and the "Other" with an equally jaundiced eye, or even having the Other prove morally superior, if only to Flashy. But if you can get past that, there's a serious critique of both the sentimentalization of imperialism and of its victims in favor of an effort at objectivity, a looking at war as something which the uninitiated can't fully understand, but which is often done in a worthless cause.

The Flashman critique/defense of heroism thing is more complex and more explicit in Fraser's non-series novel Mr. America, in which the hero, "reformed badman" Mark J. Franklin, comes from the Wild West to Edwardian England, has several appearances from the old veteran himself. Flashy's appearances in Mr. American are brief but important to the plot, and he and Franklin strike up a rapport. In the book's coda, as World War I is about to break out, Franklin, unclear whether he should stay in his adoptive country or go back to the States--which, the novel has made fear, holds nothing but memories for him--and accepts Flashman's invitation to dinner. Franklin asks about the war situation
"Contemptible--but of course it always is. We should stay out, and to hell with Belgium. After all, it's stretching things to say we're committed to 'em, and we'd be doing 'em a favor--and the Frogs, too."

"By not protecting them, you mean? I don't quite see that."

"You wouldn't--because like most idiots you think of war as being between states--colored blobs on the map. You think if we can keep Belgium green, or whatever color it is, instead of Prussian blue, than hurrah for everyone. But war ain't between colored blobs, it's between people. You know what people are, I suppose?"


"By that reckoning," said Mr. Franklin, nobody would stand up to a brute or a bully."

"'Course they would--when it was worthwhile. ...we should simply tell the Kaiser that if his fleet puts its nose out of the Baltic, we'll send it to the bottom--that satisfies the Frogs, up to a point, since it guarantees their northern coast, it satisfies teh Kaiser, who'll swallow his pride for the sake of keeping is out of the war, and it saves his pretty little ships as well. And five years from now, Liege will be doing rather well--whether it's got a German provost marshal still or not. And that won't matter a damn, to people whose main business is eating, drinking, fornicating, making money and seeing their children grow up safe and sound."

[After dinner, they go to watch the crowd cheering in front of the palace]

A sudden, odd thought struck Mr. Franklin, and it seemed doubly odd that it had only just occurred to him.

"D'you think England will win the war?"

"Ask them," said the General, jerking his thumb at window, grinning. Then he considered, the eyes narrowing in the flushed, ancient face. "Probably--yes, on balance, we ought to win. Germany can lick Russia, but not England and France together. But they'll take a lot of beating , if it's a fight to the finish. Yes, I'd say we were odds on to win--not that it matters all that much."

Mr. Franklin stared at him in astonishment. "You can't mean that--it doesn't make sense."

Sir Harry turned to look at him, and then glanced out of the window again.

"It isn't important whether you win or lose," he said, "so long as you survive. So long as your people survive. And that's the only good reason for fighting than anyone ever invented. The survival of your people and race and kind. That's the only victory that matters."
(Mr. American at 505, 510-511)

Flashman goes unanswered. In fact, he is driven in a carriage into the Palace grounds in a parodic replay of his triumphant entrance with the Duke of Wellington in 1842, to receive the first of his many medals, in Flashman. (Now, "sporting his tin" he bluffs his way in to use the facilities, cheered by the crowd, and with Franklin, "a little touched" at the sight.)

So while I agree with Myers that the Flashman series celebrates heroes and heroism, it does so discretely--it celebrates heroes with judgment, who know when to fight, and when not to. Flashman's views of his superiors and colleagues ranges the gamut. Lord Cardigan's courage in the Charge at the Light Brigade is mocked as stupidity, with no authorial defense from the narrative (he's a butt in all of his appearances in the series after Flashman); Lincoln is unambiguously embraced by Flashman, as is Lord Elgin; others, like James Brooke are not celebrated, but admired with some mystification concerning their idealism.

In this one way, Flashman reminds me a bit of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.--the judge, not his father, the poet--who valued the "jobbists"--the professionals dedicated to their craft, and prized applied competence over passion and fervor. Holmes, of course, like Faser, was a soldier in a brutal, yet so-called "good war," the Civil War for Holmes, World War II for Fraser. No simplistic view on war or heroism fit their experiences.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Necessary Rebuke

This is unequivocally good news for the United States--and, in my opinion, for Christianity, too:
Christian conservatives, for more than two decades a pivotal force in American politics, are grappling with Election Day results that repudiated their influence and suggested that the cultural tide — especially on gay issues — has shifted against them.

They are reeling not only from the loss of the presidency, but from what many of them see as a rejection of their agenda. They lost fights against same-sex marriage in all four states where it was on the ballot, and saw anti-abortion-rights Senate candidates defeated and two states vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

It is not as though they did not put up a fight; they went all out as never before: The Rev. Billy Graham dropped any pretense of nonpartisanship and all but endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Roman Catholic bishops denounced President Obama’s policies as a threat to life, religious liberty and the traditional nuclear family. Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition distributed more voter guides in churches and contacted more homes by mail and phone than ever before.

“Millions of American evangelicals are absolutely shocked by not just the presidential election, but by the entire avalanche of results that came in,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Ky., said in an interview. “It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out.

“It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed,” he said. “An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”
Long quote, and I'm sorry for that; but this development is I think critically important, and needs to be looked at in the round. Let me explain why I think it's good for both our pluralistic society and for Christianity as a whole.

First, for the country. Where the law governing the whole of the citizenry can only be justified by the religious tenets of some of the citizens, sectarian strife is inevitable. If religious conformity can be imposed by the State, then politics becomes a zero-sum game, with the very survival of those who do not agree with the politically dominant forces at stake. There can, quite simply, be no peace beyond the temporary cessation of hostilities caused by stalemate.

Next, political failure is in fact good for the churches.

Many Christians have taught themselves to believe that their theocratic vision will be uniquely blessed by God, and thus will be uniquely successful. No, really, this view exists. In Washington. The profusion of links might seem to imply that I believe that the United States in in danger of a dominionist takeover; I certainly do not. It is an extreme example of a problem, that in a much less toxic form, occurs when even mainstream groups seeking for their vision of God's law to be secularly enforced. So, for example, when the Mormon Church effectively tipped the vote against same sex marriage in California, they had nobody but themselves to blame when those who support equal civil marriage view them as oppressors. By unilaterally demanding a non-reciprocal toleration, while gaming the political system to impose their will on theological grounds, religious bodies invite blowback. As in fact resulted in the wake of Prop 8, leaving the Mormon Church feeling attacked.

That's another problem: When you take up the cudgels, convinced that you have God on your side, you don't expect those you attack to fight back--and you blame them for trying. And, of course, as the original article that started this reverie points out, sometimes you lose politically while also eroding your own rapport with not only those outside your own faith, but those within:
The election outcome was also sobering news for Catholic bishops, who this year spoke out on politics more forcefully and more explicitly than ever before, some experts said. The bishops and Catholic conservative groups helped lead the fight against same-sex marriage in the four states where that issue was on the ballot. Nationwide, they undertook a campaign that accused Mr. Obama of undermining religious liberty, redoubling their efforts when a provision in the health care overhaul required most employers to provide coverage for contraception.

Despite this, Mr. Obama retained the Catholic vote, 50 to 48 percent, according to exit polls, although his support slipped from four years ago. Also, solid majorities of Catholics supported same-sex marriage, said Dr. Jones, the pollster.
The bishops, by expanding the universe of those subject to their strictures beyond Catholicism, have diminished their authority within.

But these worldly reasons are subsidiary, really. Here's the real reason why the coercive power of the State and Christian teaching are a poor match: Christianity is not about law. It's about love. Law doesn't do love well, or grace either. It can't forgive seventy times seven times, it can't pay the late-arriving workers the same as those who put in the full day. Law can't make the last first, or the first last, without wreaking injustice. Because, ultimately, law is a way of maximizing justice between people who are not bound together by love, but by lesser ties--commercial in contract law, physical propinquity in property law, happenstance, in tort and criminal law. But not by love.

And so, as I wrote over four years ago:
What I mean by that last part of this is that the fundamental concept of mirroring the law (civil) to the law (divine) is in error. As a lawyer, I know that law is a blunt instrument. It seeks finality, and a determination of right or wrong that can be reduced to a brief order. Law and Grace are inherently in tension. Not contradictory, but in tension. Where each can be afforded their rightful sway, this tension can be creative and dynamic, as I think St. Paul makes clear in Romans. It's not that Grace obliterates Law; it transmutes it from something externally imposed to the harmony of created with Creator.

In civil society, the role of Grace is severely circumscribed. Not entirely obliterated, mind you; the pardon power allows the Executive to forgive the offenses of convicted criminals, and in New York law a court may, under especially compelling circumstances, dismiss a criminal indictment in the interest of justice. But a civil court cannot forgive seventy times seven times. The decision to forgive belongs to the wronged person, not the neutral arbiter assessing guilt and, where required by the law, punishment. And Law is expressly seen as the application of force, socially authorized violence, to put it bluntly, to secure compliance with society's rules. So those who seek to pour Christian concepts into the civil law are in fact cutting them off from their source of spiritual power. Even if they were to succeed, they would uncouple Law from Grace, and end up with a harsh caricature of Christianity--as did the Puritans, and for much the same reason.
Perhaps this electoral defeat will cause some Christians to re-think their relationship on power, and to seek conversion of the heart. To preach the gospel, in short--using words when necessary.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"You Could be a Gloater"

I know, I know. As a long-time fan of Blackadder, I am well aware that nobody likes a gloater.

And, frankly Mitt Romney's concession speech was pretty classy, and sounded sincere, and the crowd, as I noted on Election Night, didn't do the all-too-common mass booing of the victorious candidate. So props to him and them for that.

No, I'm not going to gloat over Mitt Romney, who has had a dream, 6 years in the making, smashed. (Although I have a slight "WTF" response to his campaign's cutting off the staff's credit cards on the very night of the election, forcing them to pay personally for their cab rides home, right after seeing their own dreams crash.) It's only fair to say of Romney that nothing in his political life became him like the leaving it.

However, I am going to enjoy a little inappropriate glee at the expense of Karl Rove. Rove, whose great goal has long been to create a permanent Republican majority by any means, fair or foul, has previously shown himself to be arrogant and overweening--remember the spectacularly wrong, as well as blustering, "I'm entitled to the math" moment? But this year, he did even better, or, rather, worse. He had an epic fit of denialism on Fox News, which led the normally docile network to first "interrogate" (in Megyn Kelly's words) its own analysts in deference to the artist formerly known as Turd Blossom, and, ultimately, gently mock Rove.

Jove, I thank thee; I will smile.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mr. Anglocat's Neighborhood

I live in a beautiful brownstone section of Bed-Stuy, in which a core, predominantly African-American community held out despite the ravages of crack, the Drug War, and the travails of "Do or Die Bed-Stuy". Well, all that was long before I moved in.

It's not (yet) a wealthy area, although it may become so one day. I hope not; I hope that the good neighbors I have who faced down gangs, held onto homes in dark times, continue to enjoy them for years to come. For now, it's a community. At Ms. Dahlia's Cafe, they know me and La Caterina, and they know better than I do how she likes her lattes. At Peaches Hothouse, they know what I like to drink, and chat about literature or theology with me.

One neighbor--second generation in the area, a veteran of Viet Nam--explained to me his art exhibit, which dates back to the bad old days, and pressed me to read Robert Caro's The Power Broker, to understand the City in which I have lived since I was 18.

We were married, of course, across the street from our home, in a beautiful Victorian mansion, run by a lady who bought the place when it was being misused as an SRO. She brought it back to its former splendor, when the area was still thought of as radically unstable. Now, it serves as a wonderful event space, a bed and breakfast, and a gathering place for our active Block Association. With typical generosity, Ms. Claudia, as the owner is known in the neighborhood, donated the space to the EFM group I lead for our fall retreat. The music was provided by our next door neighbor and his friend since childhood, a native of our block.

I mention all this today because at the polling place this morning--a public school, where the principal stands at the front door when school opens, to shake the hand of every pupil at the start of the day--the community was out in full force. Old, middle aged, and young. White, Black, Asian, Hispanic--all there, voting together. The lines were long, though not unbearably so. The poll workers were mostly (not entirely) the elderly women who held this community together decades ago. Though they had a rooting interest, if you knew them outside of the room, they were studiously, scrupulously neutral. A gentleman walked around helping voters with difficulties. Chairs were found for the disabled, and a spirit of bonhomie prevailed. These folks were here to exercise the franchise, and they felt fine.

La Caterina (who understandably, did not take my rumbled-dumbledy name, but kept hers, in which her degrees and law license were issued) was sent to a different, slower moving line than I was. As my line snaked around the back of the room, I passed several women, including one near neighbor, who smiled at me and wished me a good morning. Near her was a striking looking woman in a purple dress, with a matching round hat. As I passed her by, she smiled too.

"Grace and peace to you," she said.

"And to you," I replied, not sure of how to respond.

"God bless you." she said. Apparently, my reply was acceptable.

Grace and peace. I have found that, in this neighborhood so often thought of as singularly lacking in those attributes. Sure, there's the occasional player-of-loud-music, or noisy party. But every morning, I walk to the subway past beautiful brownstones down leafy streets. I chat with friendly familiar faces, and I see the grace and peace of my community.

May you find both in yours.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Democracy is Coming Tomorrow

And so here we are, after months of blog posts, debates, live-blogging, tweets, fundraising, old-school ground game. The election is, at long last, upon us.

I have friends in both camps, although I am an ardent supporter of the President and of the Democratic Party. Especially in this climate, where the Republicans offer up a chameleon who has shifted from "Moderate Mitt" to a "severe conservative" back to the middle--a man who has, as far as I can see, no core convictions at all, except that it is his Right to Rule, and that his taxes, his beliefs, his policy agenda, are none of our business.

In the primary season, I actually felt for conservatives, with a choice between the bizarre (Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann), the orgulously egregious (NEWT!) and the unflappable con-man, Romney. Sane? No doubt, but what underlies this confidence man's masquerade?

I've seen liberal purists carp at the president, but have seen no plausible option fro a progressive voter that makes any sense. (The left-leaning argument for a third party has been eviscerated many places, but here's a good start.)

I've seen the church in which I was raised definitively align itself with one party, and do so based in part on a blatantly distorted vision of what religious liberty has meant in the United States.

I've seen the Party of Lincoln embrace vote suppression as a tactic.

The President has not been, by any means, perfect. But he has been unflappable, reasonable and reasoned, and has consistently appealed to the better angels of our natures. He has striven to govern.

And it may even be enough.

We'll see soon, because tomorrow we vote.

Democracy is, once again, coming:
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Appointment in Samarra

I don't often share about personal matters on this blog, but I've found out tonight that the daughter of a very good friend--one of those rarities, someone who one meets after youth who becomes as close as the friends of youth--died last night, of an overdose.

Her father, my dear friend, and his wife--also a very close friend, but one I've known longer (she sold me many of my favorite books, decades ago, when she ran a lovely used book shop near my law school, where I blew an unconscionable amount of what money I had--are both members of a twelve step program, survivors of addiction.

That's where, after many years of not seeing my old friend, I met her again. And her then fiancé, who completes a circle with my beloved wife--one of those quartets who grow together, spend time and sometimes make what Kurt Vonnegut called a karass.

We are all of us sober, one day at a time.

My karass has suffered a grievous loss, a young lady who was funny, brash and warm. Her father and(non-evil) stepmother are--I nearly wrote "gutted", and that would be true, but in another sense, it isn't. They want to share her story in the hope that it might help another suffering alcoholic or addict. That someone might become ready through hearing this story.

Which makes me reflect a little about my own sobriety. We really are reprieved, one day at a time, never fully cured.

You know the story of the appointment in Samarra? It goes like this, as told by W. Somerset Maugham:
The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
All of us have that appointment; addicts rush toward it.

Sobriety gives us a daily postponement.

It's only an adjournment, of course; we all must eventually keep our appointment. But the miracle is that daily we get to heed the admonition of Oliver Wendell Holmes (translating Vergil): "Death plucks my ear and says: Live - I am coming." We get to live until we die. We win the sweepstakes.