The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Victory is Mine, Victory is Mine!

Great day in the evening, folks…

I'm behind on the blogging, I'm afraid--I want to engage with Evangelii Gaudium, for one thing, but that will have to open December.

I have an excuse: I just finished the first complete draft of Phineas at Bay: 158,592 words. I blew past (in word length, that is, not quality) Watership Down (which was a watershed moment), and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which weigh in at 156,154 and 157,165, respectively.

Why have I been keeping an eye on this? Well, although in modern publishing, most new novels are recommended to be between 80-90,000 words, family sagas can go longer. And to make a proper Victorian pastiche, you want a certain length, especially if you are in the Trollope tradition. Here's a reality check: Phineas Finn is 260,343 words; Phineas Redux is 259,080. So by Trollope's standards, I'm a piker.

A piker, however, who has written his first novel (or two volumes with a cliffhanger?). So I've got that going for me.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Curator and his TARDIS

Not only is this scene heart-warming, funny and tender--and brilliantly acted by both Smith and Baker--it significantly re-sets the old show's course. The Doctor is no longer running from, he is running to--to the discovery and possible rescue of his lost people.

And, judging from the roundels along the wall of the Museum, there is at least one possible source of help in an emergency.

After all, to steal a tag-line from another franchise, the best never rest.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Giving of Thanks

One of the principal spiritual practices at which I am not gifted, is the recognition of the abundance in my life. Not only in health, or in material abundance--I am not wealthy in American terms, but but any reasonable measurement, I have plenty.

But where I am especially blessed, and where I am wealthy in any measurement, is in the love in my life--my remarkable (and tolerant!) family, the extraordinary friends I have found along the way, the incomparable La Caterina, and let us not forget the animals who enrich our lives with unqualified love, too.

Many years ago, I stumbled across a poem that has stayed with me, by Rudyard Kipling, so forgive the archaisms:
0NE man in a thousand, Solomon says.
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

'Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the finding for 'ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.

But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don't matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.

You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the Thousandth Man he's worth 'em all
Because you can show him your feelings.

His wrong's your wrong, and his right's your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men's sight
With that for your only reason!

Nine hundred and ninety-nine can't bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot - and after!
I have been singularly blessed by the presence of more than one, but several "thousandth men" and "thousandth women," too, in my life. You know who you are, and if you don't--shame on me for not letting you know. I may be rubbish at keeping in touch, and forget that even in life's turbulent stream, we need to pull up occasionally, and be grateful for the gift of our fellow wayfarers, as I am tonight, will be tomorrow, and every day thereafter.

Monday, November 25, 2013


So, this weekend, the New York Times "By the Book" interview featured thriller writer and amateur "Ripperologist" Patricia Cornwell. The questions are pretty standard fare, so the author knows what to expect, and yet this exchange took place:
What does your personal book collection look like? Do you organize your books in any particular way?

Mostly we’re talking about what I have electronically, organized by what I’m reading at the time, not only on my iPad but also on my iPhone. My printed books are mostly collectibles such as my own books, including leather-bound editions. There are also treasures like signed books by friends (Tom Clancy, Annie Leibovitz, John Jakes, to name a few) and of course a few precious finds such as signed first editions of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
"Collectibles such as my own books?" That's self-esteem. Even in leather-bound editions.

I haven't read her Kay Scarpetta novels, which have sold enormously well, and have a devoted following, so clearly Ms. Cornwell is doing something right. No, it's just that her Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed, has always struck me as a profoundly odd work, and a rather unnecessarily self-defeating one at that.

In it, Cornwell claims in, as her title suggests, no uncertain terms that painter Walter Sickert committed the crimes, a theory that has been around long enough that it was addressed in Donald Rumbelow's classic (if dated now) account of the crimes.

In forming my own opinion of Cornwell's account, I ran across a description of a lecture Cornwell gave on the subject:
She walked onto the stage like a rock star playing in front of a home town crowd. She was wearing a blue wind breaker with FORENSICS written in bright yellow across the back (the jacket, she later stated, was given to her by the UT School of Forensics). After the applause died down, she opened the lecture by saying "The reason we were able to catch this son of a bitch is one word. . ." With that, she stepped out from behind the podium turned around and dramatically threw her arms into the air, above her head. She then started pumping her arms and fists downward, pointing to the yellow FORENSICS on her back. The crowd once again erupted into a riotous standing ovation, and I found myself waiting for The Rock to come out and lay down some WWF smack on a wimpy Walter "The Painter" Sickert lookalike!
Well, no. there are significant critiques of Cornwell's theory, but for me the most salient point is that she simply overhyped her findings to an extraordinary degree. She has come up with clever and well-reasoned arguments that rebut the classic arguments used to exclude Sickert, and a novelist's insight into character that she brings to construct a picture of Sickert that would be consistent with him being Jack the Ripper. In sum, she makes a plausible enough theory that Sickert could have been the Ripper. And from that, she concludes that she has proven his guilt. Well, no. She has written a lively, if tendentious, account of the case against one possible suspect, and has weakened certain of the arguments that purported to conclusively exclude him. That's not nothing, and had she not ballyhooed her claims so much further, well, I might have even tried a couple of Scarpetta novels.

But it's a long way from "catching this son of a bitch," even if her ultimate conclusions were to be vindicated. Because Walter Sickert died in 1942, aged 82 years. He's beyond catching, now, by Cornwell's efforts, or by anybody else's.

The first draft of this post was funnier--much funnier, I think, leaning more on Cornwell's bombastic moments. But you know something? There is something to admire here, too. As quoted in the NYT, Cornwell admires Harriet Beecher Stowe, because, Cornwell says, she "reinforces the concept that the root of evil is the abuse of power, and it is important for all of us to remember that. It’s why people bully. It’s why they rape, torture and murder." And Cornwell cares for the victims of Jack the Ripper--in her book, she has a palpable need to believe that she has succeeded, that justice has at last been served, and that the deaths of these poor women, whose lives were deeply unhappy and difficult, are remembered only for their victimization.

I think that's admirable in Cornwell, even if she goes over the top in her theorizing, and relishes her own success perhaps a bit more than is discreet, she still cares about the victims of violence, and does her best to deny their killer any kind of mythic status. And she clearly burns with a desire to see justice done.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Man Who Regrets and the Man Who Forgets

After the sad anniversary yesterday, the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who presented a considerably more hopeful note. After watching the charming "Adventure in Time and Space", I was delighted to see the 50th anniversary episode begin with the old titles, and a quick-as-a-flash salute to original companion Ian Chesterton (William Russell, who does not appear).

Now is not the time or place for a review, especially as the second airing (not synchronized with the original UK airing, which I watched) is airing now. But I wanted to say something about it: it is a worthy tribute to the five decades of Doctor Who, and, more to the point, a worthy tying-up of the new series' arc, and setting us out on another journey.

The interplay between the three Doctors--Smith, Tennant, and an excellent, peppery, John Hurt, is natural, funny, dramatic--but it worked best, as Moffatt's writing often does, at creating a coherent story out of what seemed to be disparate aspects of the series' past, and, unlike Moffatt's lesser work, didn't feel contrived.

Hurt, the forgotten Doctor, having waived his right to the title in his own and in his successors' minds, shows how worthy of the title his character his. Tennant, the "man who regrets," acknowledges him; Smith, the "man who forgets" resists. But it is only when the three of them combine that the episode truly takes flight. The one must learn to remember, the other to reap the benefit of his repentance, and Hurt, the forgotten man? He is restored by the end.

All this, plus some first rate comedy--Tennant threatening a bunny with all the same gravitas he brought to the series' most bombastic moments, declaring himself the Oncoming Storm as the rabbit placidly munches away was my single favorite comic moment, a perfect self-parody. And, best of all, the classic Doctors--1 through 9--play their part. (Also, watch for the Curator!)

All this, plus a whole new mission for the new series--no longer to run away from the damage he has done, but to run to--well, watch for yourself.

And spare a quick look at the beginning of the legend--because the voyage has been relaunched:

An Unearthly Child Part1 by misterseta

Friday, November 22, 2013

Two Deaths: November 22, 1963

A dark day, this, 50 years ago. Three years before I was born, so if it was, as my parents have said, the end of a world, I was a baby born into the world that succeeded it.

I have no memory of an era in which assassination was not a realistic threat, a thing that happened to people I knew about--Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and, of course, the martyred President whose murder began the strange fermenting, tumultuous time in which I was born, and had my childhood.

Vietnam, Watergate, the domestic strife and extremes of the 1960s and 70s--they were my matrix. When Ronald Reagan was shot, and it was announced in school, I remember thinking, "not again," not "how can this be?" I didn't like Reagan, but I felt my heart sink anyway.

Fifty years ago today, the New Frontier died.

Despite the manifold flaws of John Kennedy, that was a great loss--it's hard to imagine any politician saying this today:

Also on the same day, in a little village outside Oxford, Clive Staples Lewis died. I have described elsewhere how I met his books in high school, and praised (with some qualification) recent scholarship of those works, but let me reiterate one thing: I love C.S. Lewis: Reader extraordinaire who can make Spenser sound more exciting than any Hollywood blockbuster, creator of Screwtape, and through it all a man who was always seeking to build up in a world that so often seems geared only to tear down.

That's one thing that links the two, I suppose: a passionate desire to leave the world better than they found it.

And in that way, they are both with us still.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thought for the Day

One I had not run across until it was drawn to my attention by a friend:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
--Thomas Merton


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Worthwhile Dance to the Music of Time?

I haven't been able to see the adaptation of Anthony Powell's , but these clips from it are…interesting:


A look at the cast list in promising, too--from Colin Baker as Canon Fenneau,Edward Fox as Uncle Giles, Miranda Richardson as Pamela Flitton, Harriet Walter, and James Callis as Gwinnett, it's a cast that's both starry and talented.

And, for those who loved her as Lizzie Eustace in the Pallisers, Sarah Badel…

This may be a must see for me...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Doctor No More…"

The BBC has posted a prequel to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special, due to air on November 23, 2013, and it's corker.

It's the end of the Eighth Doctor, the birth of the "War Doctor," and a haunting look at what might had been had Paul McGann been given a real chance to show what he could do.

Moffatt is dealing some big cards this year, and I think the stakes are only going higher…

Save the Day!

(hat tip:Nick Kaufmann, who, like me, is speechless with Nerd Glee.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Clueless, Party of One...

WaPo columnist Richard Cohen, November 4, 2013:
I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians. Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.

Steve McQueen’s stunning movie “12 Years a Slave” is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a lie and she never — and this I remember clearly being told — had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death.
I was gonna let this one sail over the plate, because, really, I don't want to be petty, but if you're taking your history from Gone With the Wind, I think that means you are, by statute, legally incompetent to handle your own affairs.

(I mean, come on, did Cohen sleep through Roots? Gimme a break,it ran eight nights, had two sequels and the book was everywhere in the Seventies.)

And certainly Cohen's column today does nothing to disabuse me of this opinion:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
Now, leave aside whether you think Cohen is accurately capturing the Tea Party's attitude, but how is the attitude described in the quote anything but racist? Newsflash: If interracial couples make a person "gag"--Cohen's choice of words, not mine--of course, that is a racist response. I mean what's the benign explanation of that? (Also, the gratuitous sneer at Chirlane McCray? Not cool, and not dispelling the charge of racism.)

And the fact that Cohen attributes this gag reflex to "conventional attitudes," in the course of a paragraph explaining that the people he is describing are not racist clearly implies that he thinks the attitude is not racist, his patently unconvincing denial of the fact notwithstanding.

Dodo birds were famous for being so stupid that they would drown in the rain. They are widely believed to be extinct, except, of course, in the carefully constructed habitat at the WaPo.

Katy No-Tail

This is my favorite picture of Katy, who I nick-named Katy No-tail, when I first met her. She was a feral cat, about five years old, we think, and when I would accompany la Caterina to the Navy Yard Annex cat colony (in a run-to-jungle square of what were once handsome old buildings), four cats would regularly run out to greet us: Chauncey Gardner (who had been in our backyard for several years before we had to move), Black-eyed Susan (so named for a ring of black fur around her right eye), Midnight (one of the few pure black cats in the Annex), and Katy. Chauncey would always greet us as one clubman might greet another--affectionately, amicably, but not effusively. Black-eyed Susan was exuberant, until the food was set down, and then might-might-deign to let us pet her. Midnight? Beautiful, truly, but not terribly affectionate. Friendly, but reserved.

Ah, but Katy.

Katy adopted me quite quickly, and over the three years (hard to believe it's been so long, but there you are) that we have been caring for these cats, has become increasingly affectionate. Oh, she loves the other cat wranglers--Mary, Queen of Cats and she have a thing going, and la C can pick her up. But after she eats, Katy seeks me out for a snuggle. She wreathes her little body around me, if I sit in the grass, and rears up to place her paws on my leg, contemplates being a lap cat, and--no, she's off again, snuggling her way around on another orbit of me, accepting pets until it's all too, too relaxing, and she flops down next to me, and purrs. We can spend a half hour doing this, amongst the beauty of the ruins dotting the Annex.

Katy lost her tail because, before she was in a safe space (the Navy Yard) she was in a warehouse, and her tail got caught, and festered and had to be amputated. She was also quite, quite deaf.

As I'm reading what I just wrote, I see a lot of it is in the present tense. But Katy died yesterday. She had kidney failure, and other complications, and, as la C and I were leaving the DC area, we got a call from Mary, who told us the bad news: Katy had to be put down. And yet, I will leave this post in the present tense. Because, as T.S. Eliot wrote, "Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.

And so somewhere, Katy and I are enjoying a snuggle on the leaf strewn grass, among the ever crumbling, but never-crumbled buildings, and always will be.

Which will not stop me missing her.

Monday, November 11, 2013

In Memoriam

Every year, I have nothing to say about our observance of Veteran's Day, for the simple reason that there is nothing adequate to say. The songs and poems celebrating those who make the ultimate sacrifice--Rupert Brooke's, for example--seem saccharine to me, and those mourning them are so often so grim--think Siegfried Sassoon, or the brilliant Wilfried Owen--as to be, well, disrespectful, in the mouth of one who, like me, fell outside of the time periods of conscription, and did not feel the call to serve. Owen, Sassoon, and Brooke each earned their views; I cannot parrot them.

And so, as before, I fall back on two things: Thanks, to the veterans in my life, especially those who are no longer with us, my beloved grandfather, and beloved step-grandfather. The latter, whom we called "Uncle Fred", served in World War II, and helped liberate a concentration camp. Uncle Fred possessed, or was possessed by, that awesome gentleness that some men attain when they have seen much too much of humanity's dark side. I am grateful that I had them pin my life, as I am for all the veterans who have touched me.

And second? The music of Samuel Barber. A second hand gift, from me, but of the finest quality:

Remember the Fallen.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pat Conroy and the Southern Gothic

In reading Pat Conroy's latest book, The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son, I was struck by two very strong facts. First, Conroy's writing can often be florid, sometimes overblown, and his books can have a certain narrative sprawl to them. Second, I like him, and them. Even Conroy writing below his best (among which I must class South of Broad), I nonetheless find much to enjoy.

I think what I enjoy most about Conroy is his gift for capturing the horrible, but undeniable comedy that can arise out of the most tragic occurrences of life--I remember reading The Prince of Tides on the subway one day, and hit a passage at which the narrator sarcastically sums up all the wild improbabilities of the overall plot to date, and laughing so hard that I was gasping for breath. Literally. On a second read, yet--I had hit that exact moment before, the first time I read it--and it was still just as damn funny the second time around. And without cheapening the tragedies encapsulated in the jibe--the humor and the tragedy played off each other in counterpoint.

There's a through-line in Conroy's writing to the Southern Gothic--the overblown, slightly decadent writing that can become just too much, and tremble on the verge of self-parody. So, in terms of his literary style, what I love most about Conroy is his keen awareness of that line, and how, as he approaches it, he makes the humor fit the events he portrays. It's a real, felt response to the circumstances. And so Conroy often manages to successfully have his cake and eat it too--in an ironic age, he beats us to the laugh, and makes it not ironic, but real. His humor passes the Jillsy Sloper test proposed by John Irving long ago; it works because its true to felt experience.

The Death of Santini is not a novel but memoir, and in it Conroy is trying to finally lay the ghosts that have haunted his fiction, and his life. I don't know if he has succeeded in those ends, of course; only he will know that. But he has written a fine book, one that is both harder and more forgiving than his earlier books, and I am glad to have read it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wither the Fourth Amendment?

This story out of New Mexico, if true, is this year's poster child for why we need a rejuvenation of the Fourth Amendment:
A review of medical records, police reports and a federal lawsuit show deputies with the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office, police officers with the City of Deming and medical professionals at the Gila Regional Medical Center made some questionable decisions.
The incident began January 2, 2013 after David Eckert finished shopping at the Wal-Mart in Deming. According to a federal lawsuit, Eckert didn't make a complete stop at a stop sign coming out of the parking lot and was immediately stopped by law enforcement.
Eckert's attorney, Shannon Kennedy, said in an interview with KOB that after law enforcement asked him to step out of the vehicle, he appeared to be clenching his buttocks. Law enforcement thought that was probable cause to suspect that Eckert was hiding narcotics in his anal cavity. While officers detained Eckert, they secured a search warrant from a judge that allowed for an anal cavity search.
The lawsuit claims that Deming Police tried taking Eckert to an emergency room in Deming, but a doctor there refused to perform the anal cavity search citing it was "unethical."
But physicians at the Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City agreed to perform the procedure and a few hours later, Eckert was admitted.
What Happened
While there, Eckert was subjected to repeated and humiliating forced medical procedures. A review of Eckert's medical records, which he released to KOB, and details in the lawsuit show the following happened:
1. Eckert's abdominal area was x-rayed; no narcotics were found.
2. Doctors then performed an exam of Eckert's anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.
3. Doctors performed a second exam of Eckert's anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.
4. Doctors penetrated Eckert's anus to insert an enema. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
5. Doctors penetrated Eckert's anus to insert an enema a second time. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
6. Doctors penetrated Eckert's anus to insert an enema a third time. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
7. Doctors then x-rayed Eckert again; no narcotics were found.
8. Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert's anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. No narcotics were found.
Throughout this ordeal, Eckert protested and never gave doctors at the Gila Regional Medical Center consent to perform any of these medical procedures.
Seriously? This case is the apotheosis of a phenomenon that dates back to my first year of law school: the decline of the Fourth Amendment began under the Burger Court, continued under Rehnquist, and scholars have postulated the Amendment's irrelevance in the Roberts Court era, a prediction that the cases have borne out.

When the legal culture disparages basic civil liberties, as our federal judiciary has done for nearly three decades, now, their violation becomes routine. And then grotesque episodes like this become possible. And, unless checked, they too can become routine.