The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, December 30, 2013

Year's End

Tomorrow night will, of course, be New Year's Eve, and I will, for once, be celebrating with some very dear friends. (La C and I tend to avoid the craziness on the roads and the general lunacy.) So this is, quite likely to be my last post for the year 2013.

Last year, I ended the year with a tour d'horizon of the blog's themes for 2012.

This year, though, has had a stochastic feeling about it. It started with our retiring bishop unfolding a fable, and with a tribute to England as my land of lost content.

And then, a truly productive exchange with a reader on the other side of the Anglican divide provided an opportunity to get past party feeling, and remember that those with whom we strongly disagree are often, just like us, striving to do their best. I think these two posts--not because of my writing, but because of the open dialogue my reader's patience and willingness to engage allowed--may have been the high points of the year, at least in the Anglican blogging.

But then, the first of a series of shocks--personal and community--descended. The murder of my classmate, Theresa Gorski, followed swiftly by the beautiful example of restorative justice set by the Grosmaire and McBride families, among others, taught me that the diaconate involves engagement with people at their very worst and very best--and that the emotional toll of trying to achieve forgiveness is incalculable, while necessary to allow for growth and redemption. It's a big ministry, and not to be undertaken lightly. That's been a theme this whole year, and continues to be.

As has our rampant and continuing lunacy on guns. We love 'em. Really.

I kept up on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal--which even included some good news for a change, and on our increasingly lawless Supreme Court, which capped its year by eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, and, in so doing, arrogated to itself power as the only branch of government entitled to deference. And sometimes even did a little justice.

We had sad catblogging and happy catblogging.

We looked at the othering of the poor and the imp of the perverse; the increasing lunacy of our politics, leading me to take a step back, and look to deeper, more important themes of life.

And Who-age; lots of Who-age; did you know there was an anniversary for Who, and that I quite liked it?

Perhaps the biggest news on a personal front was my foray into creative writing, which has been moving swiftly ahead, and enjoyably ahead. And that I think it may be ready to go in the New Year.

And theater reviews. That one got me retweeted by Julius Caesar herself:

(And how cool is that, I ask you?)

And we had book chats and book gloats, and--well, the usual. Including for once the unusual--thanks for all the Thousdandth men and women in my life. You honor me with your friendship.

Thanks all who have read and commented this year. I hope you stick around, as 2014 promises to be another year of, well, the stuff you've been kind enough to put up with this far. As the old review says, if you like this kind of stuff, you will like this stuff…I hope...

Happy New Year, one and all.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Amen, I say. Amen

As regular readers may have noticed, I have used, throughout the year, different recordings of the Leonard Cohen song Amen to counterpoint various posts, from my post on the Boston Marathon Massacre, to, most recently my write up of Evangelii Gaudium. For this year, the song has haunted me.

And there's a reason. So let me share it with you.

2013 has been a year of joy, in many ways, and in which I have received many gifts--gifts of friendship, of the continued formation process toward the diaconate, and, least expected of all, a blossoming in creative expression I had though lost forever. Whatever the worth of that last when it is published in 2014, the mere fact of having been able to do the very thing I have most wanted to do since childhood, after having thought that dream lost forever, has been and will remain a joy nothing can efface.

And yet it has been a year in which one long-held passion curdled on me, and I have been forced to take a step back. I allude, of course, to politics. My whole life, I have been a political junkie, advocating often for losing candidates, and opposed to the spirit of the age in which I lived at times, but still---fascinated, engaged with the day-to-day story of American politics.

Not this year. Maybe never again.

When an old classmate of mine was murdered last year, it stripped many of my illusions away. I saw that the news remains news only when it happens to strangers. As old friends struggled with challenges exacerbated by our increasingly nihilistic political culture--I'll say no more; their stories are for them to tell, if they so choose--another Cohen line ran through my head incessantly: "I can run no more with that lawless crowd/while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud."

2013 was the year when politics ceased to be a combination of idealism and the Great Game, and became the expression how we treat each other wholesale. The game was over for me, and I lost my tolerance. I remain on sabbatical from political commentary, always a large part of my blogging, and will continue so until I have rediscovered that tolerance.

I am convinced that our answers lie elsewhere--in the selfless acts of service, kindness and nurture that people offer each other, politics be damned. In the stories we tell, and which form our selves, and the selves of our children. As I have been formed by the writers, the visionaries, the poets and novelists, storytellers and singers who have shaped my moral landscape. And not just the high art--"Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in" is every bit as much a part of my moral landscape as Shakespeare or Herbert. And music--the sheer beauty that we can make when we aren't too busy killing each other. And so that's what I am shifting to in this phase of the dance to the music of time--serving where I am called, and making what I can. Let others judge the merit of the work. The trick is, I believe, to just keep doing.

And, of course, all of these answers point higher still, to the ultimate answer. I am presently reading Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and & Saint, and I identify so much with this woman whose journey from such different beginnings as mine, and whose life is in so many external ways radically different from my own. I identify with her, despite my three piece suit, watch chain and affinity for Victorian high church theologians.

Because, under it all, we are looking for wholeness--both sinners and saints, and both at the same time, recipients of the Grace that calls us to try to pass it on by living into our truest selves. And the cracks in our imperfect offerings do let the light come in.

Being and becoming. Not an easy task, in a world as beautiful and cruel as that which we inhabit. But, really, the only option on the table worth picking up, as far as I can judge. And so, one last Cohen song for the night:

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Raggedy Man…Good Night"…The Fall of the Eleventh

And so it all came back, Trenzalore, the cracks in the Universe, even, through the heart of the TARDIS, Amy Pond.

For those who thought that The Name of the Doctor did not live up to the prophecies of Dorium Maldovar, well…they were right. The Siege of Trenzalore was yet to come, though in the far past.

We saw the Doctor forced to stand his ground, for centuries--trapped in a stalemate between re-igniting the Time War, and abandoning his own people.

We saw the rule of twelve regenerations respected, accounted for, and re-set, by an act of grace.

I'll leave the reviewing and recapping to old friend and Who guru Vinnie Bartilucci

For me, the final sequence says it all--beginning with the now-aged (Hartnell-esque) Doctor, going to the tower to die, and, in so doing claim one last victory over the Daleks,by giving Clara the chance to scarper in the TARDIS--each life saved, he has learned, is a little victory.

And after the weaponization of artron energy (not sure how I feel about that, but in-story, it worked for me), the Doctor got to break our hearts one last time, especially--though not exclusively, in his parting speech:
CLARA: You, you are the Doctor.
ELEVEN: Yep. And I always will be. But times change and so must I…We all change when you think about it, we’re all different people, all through our lives, and that’s okay, that’s good you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.
And so will we all.

And now to Capaldi!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

“Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.”

Tonight, as the Eleventh Doctor leaves us, I am reminded of a conversationI had with my mother, who was poking fun of my continuing affection for the show. I found myself comparing Doctor Who to the cesspool of reality TV, and quoting the above "Doctor's Promise," which actually originated as a guide to writing the character, I believe in the Virgin New Adventures era, if I'm not mistaken.

Craig Ferguson captures the goofiness, inspired lunacy, and the ethos that is the bedrock of the show in his tribute when Matt Smith visited his program

I've enjoyed Matt Smith, as I did David Tennant, Christopher Eccleston, Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison, Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell.

And as, I am sure, I will enjoy Peter Capaldi.

A Christmas (Eve) Story

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, la Caterina and I had a jam-packed day. We woke in the morning, and dressed swiftly, ran to local fave Ms. Dahlia's Cafe, and grabbed eggs, turkey bacon and cheese on fresh-baked biscuits. Then in the car to Kings Supreme Court, Clerk's office.

Yeah, you heard that part right.

We go to Supreme Court on Christmas Eve. Well, she had papers to file in foreclosure cases, papers that would stave off homelessness for several families, and that could even lead to settlements that allow them to stay in their homes permanently. As she filed the papers, she smiled at me, and said "Every time a foreclosure answer is filed, an angel gets her wings."

Then out to Long Island for a family Christmas Eve luncheon, a long-standing family tradition. Now, I was serving in the 7:00 and 11:00pm services at St. Barts, so we had to leave at 4:30 in case of traffic. By the time we made our farewells, it was 4:45. As we approached the car, a young, cheerful,but also slightly disheveled, young man carrying a big knapsack approached me and asked for directions to Tulip Avenue--he had travelled, he explained, from New Mexico, and was hoping to see friends of his who owned a pizzeria in Floral Park.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. I, the deacon-in-formation, just provide what was asked--directions to Tulip Avenue. I honestly didn't take in that he was as tired as he was, and assumed he had just wandered from the nearby train station, only a few blocks away.

Ah, but la Caterina! She took in the situation at a glance, and perceived what I merely saw. She suggested, "Why don't we drive you there?" Well, why not indeed? We all piled into the car, and took the young man to Tulip Avenue, and the pizzeria. As he got out, he said, "Until we meet again, may you walk in harmony and balance. I love you." And he exited our lives, at least for this stage of the dance.

We hauled off to Manhattan and St. Barts. We got there in plenty of time, and had a wonderful two services (the second lovingly drenched in incense, courtesy of our dynamic head verger, who loves the stuff almost as much as I do).

The trick, it seems, is to marry someone far better than yourself. Then, as Mark Twain might say, she can drag you up to her level….

Merry Christmas, all!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Stray in a Manger

(Photo by Anglocat; click to embiggen)

OK, two strays in a manger. On our way home from shopping tonight, La Caterina and I drove by the Red Hook nativity scene that has been taken over by feral cats. As you can see, the ox and lamb may keep time, but the kitties in fact are keeping the crib warm for the Christ child.

Of course, if last year is any precedent, they will unceremoniously turf him out, as straw is pretty ideal bedding:
The Amendolas have been building this festive tableau for the community every Christmas for last ten years. But, in the past few years, a pack of mewling, begrimed feral cats have disturbed the peace, claiming the manger as their own, ousting the baby Jesus from his bed, turning Mary into a scratching post, and gobbling up all the free food the kindly sisters set out.

Annette tells DNAinfo the felines leave no room for the scene's guest of honor: "When the figurine of baby Jesus does finally appear on the hay bale, the cats usually push him right off to take their rightful spot, on the warm bale." The kittehs then proceed to turn the idyllic setting into a house of sin, where they drink and gamble until the dark night turns into a pale early morning blue with Old Sal over on the old honky-tonk piano never letting up once, not even for a minute.
I can only say they were very well-behaved during our visit; the particularly handsome Siamese even coming out and allowing La Caterina to pet him.

The Christmas Season has officially begun….

Friday, December 20, 2013

"The Mariner hath his will…"

Tonight at BAM I saw Fiona Shaw perform The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with dancer Daniel Hay Gordon supporting her.

It's an extraordinary interpretation of an extraordinary poem, from the first moments, with Shaw roaming around the audience, to the last, which fully conveys the phantasmagorical nature of Coleridge's poem. Shaw's own performance is kinetic, lively, stark and dramatic at moments, and with little grace notes of comic relief where they would not do violence to the text.

Here's a taste of Ms. Shaw's interpretation, after the shooting of the albatross:

The lost ship, crew baking in the heat briefly thinking rescue has come in the form of another ship, only to find:
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
`The game is done! I've won! I've won!'
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
To be diced for between the Nightmare Life-in-Death and Death himself?

And the Mariner alone survives, his ship piloted by the dead, "a ghastly crew" at times, but the Mariner saved by the beauty of living creatures which frees him to pray, leading him to sleep, and then to wake up to life-saving rain. Only for the ship to be stopped, and jerked back and forth while two voices debate:
How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

`Is it he?' quoth one, `Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, `The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'
As indeed he does, before the tale is complete. So strange a poem ends with a moral lesson, interestingly enough:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."
Really, just go see it. It's that simple.

(Photo by Karen Clark)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The People Beneath the Partisans

So, there's been a lot of discussion online about the documentary "Mitt" (above), and especially the footage showing Romney and his family finally realizing that the election was lost. Some of those on the left of the political spectrum--no names, no penal drill--have been a little bit exultant in their Schadenfreude. A couple that I have seen have even described themselves as enjoying the visible pain on Romney's, his wife's and his children's faces and in their efforts to ride out the growing knowledge that the race is lost.

I find that disturbing. And very, very wrong.

Look, I'm glad that Mitt Romney lost, because I don't think he would have been a good President. I supported Barack Obama, who I think has been, for all his own very real flaws, a good President. But, newsflash, Romney's a human being. And so is his wife, who no doubt loves him, and his children, who in their own way were trying to console him. Families work differently, and how my family deals with stress may be very different from how yours does, and gallows humor like that in the trailer is a well-known coping device. So, no, I'm not laughing at Mitt's pain, or Ann's, or, I most sincerely hope, anyone else's.

The fact is, while I disagree with his policies and with his worldview, I'm sure Romney and his family thought he would be a good President. I mean no one wants the job in order to be the screw up in the history books. And watching a dream die is agony--trust me, I've been there. Oh, not a political candidacy, but a lawsuit that would have been, had it been successful, a major victory for free speech. It was an uphill battle (just like the polls told Romney his candidacy was in the last weeks of the campaign), but when you are fighting the battle, you cannot, cannot, let that play apart in your thinking. You fight for victory, dammit, and believe in your cause for all you're worth. It's the only way for the long shot to happen. You must believe, or you have already lost. When I got the faxed decision, and the first parts were going my way, for a moment, I exulted--only to come crashing to earth when the latter parts of the opinion made clear I had lost. The long shot did not come off. And in litigation, as in politics, there is a clear winner and a clear loser. I had lost, and though we made a little good law along the way, it still was just bloody awful.

That, I think, is way the trailer shows, the moment when, after all the fighting is done, the result becomes clear. And it hurts like hell.

So God bless Mitt, and Ann, and the whole Romney family. Because, after getting hit with that freight train, he managed to give this very gracious concession speech:

That had to be hard, and he did it well.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shadow of the Gun

This article in Salon riles me a little, I must admit:
The debate over open carry is the new front line in the battle over gun rights and public safety in American culture. In Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, gun rights activists have been staging protests, demanding broader liberty to display their guns in public rather than keep them concealed under clothing. Major candidates in statewide elections have voiced support for open carry, asserting that the conspicuous display of firepower will deter crime.


Psychologists have theorized that the threat superiority effect is a product of evolution — we have adapted the ability to immediately identify threats like snakes and spiders so we can avoid them. Blanchette’s research shows that people have a similarly quick reaction to seeing a weapon: We’ll immediately spot a gun among several other distracting objects.

When you see the threat, your body will respond before you even think about it. “The most instantaneous thing that happens is that your pupils will dilate,” Blanchette says. “You can have other physiological reactions that are associated with fear. There are changes in your body, such as in your heart rate and respiration rate.”

Last month, “Liz” (a pseudonym) experienced some of those reactions when she noticed a group of men with guns gathering just outside Blue Mesa Grill in Arlington, Texas. Liz had organized a lunch meeting for fellow members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and open carry activists decided to protest outside the restaurant with AK-47 and AR-15 rifles. “The only reaction I had was ‘I’m not going out there at all,’” Liz says. “They were all carrying rifles. There was a lot of firepower, and a lot of potential for carnage out in that parking lot. Absolutely I was scared.”

That sort of fear is what open carry activists say they want to eliminate over time. In an online list of goals, the open carry activists at Come and Take It America say they want “to condition Americans to feel safe around those of us that carry [guns].” The same goal is listed on the Open Carry Texas website. Open carry activists are aware that their marches scare people; they’re used to encounters with police who are responding to 9-1-1 calls. But Grisham says his group tries to maintain good relationships with local authorities, “in case they do get phone calls from concerned citizens, they can explain that, ‘no, these guys are just exercising their rights.’” He believes people will overcome their fears once they grow accustomed to seeing guns in public. “Our philosophy at Open Carry Texas is, if we can get people used to seeing AK-47s and AR-15s and deer rifles and shotguns and .22s and things of that nature, when we finally get open carry of pistols passed it won’t be such a big deal.”
I'll leave the psychology to the psychologists, but the reason I point this article out is that for the guns rights movement, it is not enough for them to have the right to own, possess and use weapons; it is not enough for them to have the right to hunt, or have them for home defense. No, all civic space must be armed space.

And here is the problem--I do not want to lived in an armed encampment, in which everyone is packing. I like the notion of civilized spaces where not everyone can deal death with a couple of quick hand-movements. "Open carry" is not guaranteed by the Second Amendment, and I resent people trying to force their gun culture on me. As I wrote last year:
We need a cultural shift, and this is not something the law can do, and that politics can only help a little bit. We need to stop glamorizing guns, and gun culture. We have to not accept that guns are cool, and that killing is manly, or strong, or sexy, or whatever the hell it is that explains our long-term love affair with guns.

We have to cut it right out.

Let me tell you something; I don't hate guns, per se. I played with toy guns as a child; my Uncle Bill taught me to shoot a pistol one summer up in Rhinebeck. It was fun; I enjoyed it. I understand that implements of death can be domesticated.

I fence. Fencing is an athletic discipline that takes what used to be a perversely beautiful, skill-intensive way to kill somebody, and reimagines it as a fun competition. It has not brought back the sword as a major weapon of mayhem. Gun owners, you want to sever that link between your hobby and death. Step up. Draw lines of what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Don't be afraid of bucking the NRA, and keep guns out of places where they don't belong--schools, churches, etc. Shame people who think it's ok to bring guns where they don't belong, and those among you who feel that the omnipresence of guns is the only way to be sure your rights won't be taken away.

As to those who say guns don't kill people, people kill people? Cut it out. Do you have any idea how inane that is? Guns make the difference between working hard to kill one person, or two, and being able to, without discernible skill, talent, or physical or mental stamina, indiscriminately slaughter. It's the difference between retail and wholesale murder, and if you don't know the difference--why, I just don't want to know you.
So far, I see no signs of gun owners stepping up; instead, these guns rights groups are stepping up the demand that the gun be welcome everywhere. They want everyone's rights to yield to their vision of their own. Rights without responsibility--and if you don't like it, stay at home, locked in your house.

And, by the way, with contemporary guns, just about any nimrod can shoot them and wreak havoc. Whoopee. Proper use of a rapier? That takes skill--and courage, too, especially if you go the classical route.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Memoriam, Peter O'Toole

I have just heard that Peter O'Toole has died, at 81. Beyond the entirely flukey fact that we had a mutual friend in Tim Wallace-Murphy, I only met O'Toole once, on an occasion I described on reading of his retirement last year:
You didn't know that Peter O'Toole played Henry Higgins? Well he did. On Broadway. And I saw him, in my college graduation year of 1987, along with two of my best friends, two fellow theater junkies who had acted with me in several shows in college, as well as our dates, on the night of the class formal. We'll call them Porthos and D'Artagnan, and I ask their pardon if they ever read this, reminding them that I loved them as brothers, and still do, but we definitely had an Athos, and although I was a damn poor Aramis, I did have the scholarly yearnings.

We blew that off in favor of catching Peter O'Toole, Amanda Plummer, Lionel Jeffries and Sir John Mills, after drinks at Trader Vic's, dinner at Cafe des Artistes (now long gone alas), and a carriage ride in Central Park. (Of course, we ended the evening with what Porthos earnestly promised was the best corned beef hash in New York at Cosmos Diner, but that's a different part of the story. And the hash was pretty damn good.)

But Pygmalion. For the end of college celebration, we saw a show much better than the review above linked suggests. Sir John Mills brought a level of thuggishness to Alfred P. Doolittle normally omitted, but supported by the text--think of Alfie's threats of physical punishment of Eliza, and her fear of him--and Amanda Plummer credibly dreaded him. And when, in his first big scene at Wimpole Street, Doolittle threatens Eliza, in this production bulky John Mills (none o' that "Sir John" gammon, hear, d'ye see) raised his hand to belt her, only for O'Toole, like an angry bantam, got between them, and you would swear they were going to strike each other.

It was electric. And also when Higgins, in this telling first saw Eliza and not a teaching project.

After the show, we decided to wait for them at the Stage Door. There was a large crowd, too. Amanda Plummer shot out of the Stage Door like a soul released from Purgatory and fled the fans, disappearing into the night.

Sir John and Lionel Jeffries (an excellent Pickering, by the way) came out and the crowd, avidly awaiting PETER BLEEDIN' O'TOOLE, barely noticed. My friends and I did, though, and they were gracious, friendly and kind, signing our programs, chaffing each other gently, and disappearing off to the pub 'round the corner, with a final "Now, don't miss Peter!" from Lionel Jeffries.

When the Man Himself appeared, he was visibly tired--swaying slightly in the approved Alan Swann manner, rakishly smiling and signing autographs. We waited til the crowd thinned out a bit. When that happened, we moved up. Athos and I were impressed--this was Hollywood Royalty, and an actor we had all admired, and, in my case, stolen from (I took a moment from POT in Becket and used it in an Agatha Christie play, breaking up D'Artagnan in performance. Not acting, but we enjoyed it even if the audience may not have). We each complimented the performance, got our program signed and gave way. But D'Artagnan was awestruck. He wanted to say something non-jejune, to connect. (I'd face a similar moment a year later when I met William J. Brennan during my first year of law school.) As he struggled, O'Toole smiled devilishly--pure Eli Cross. "I won't bite," he said, in that dry, slightly swooping way of his, and D'Artagnan mutely handed him his program.

"Do you have a pen?" O'Toole asked, with a slight Plantagenet bite.

D'Artagnan handed him his silver Cross pen, of which he was rather fond.

"Thank you," O'Toole said, and signed the program with a flourish.

Seconds later, Peter O'Toole vanished into the limo.

As did, if I recall correctly, a silver Cross pen.

D'Artagnan never complained.
How I wish I could encapsulate what the man and his movies meant to me--there's a line in Phineas at Bay that is an O'Toole homage, using the cadences of O'Toole's delivery of a line from a classic bit in one of his films. I loved so many of his films--from the famous to the obscure,but his two portrayals of Henry II, in Becket and in The Lion in Winter kindled my youthful interest in that most protean of monarchs and that early reading led me to perceive the historical roots of the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis in the Becket-Henry II conflict.

How strange that a man whose entire acquaintance with me was a handshake, a program signing, a kind word and a smile, should have given me so very much.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Hearing Secret Harmonies

I spent a part of the day at the Anthony Powell Birthday Luncheon hosted at the Grolier Club by the Anthony Powell Society. This was, I was told, the 13th year the Society has given such a luncheon, and, as someone pointed out, it was Friday the 13th in the year 2013.

Now, as I was a first-timer to this event, I kept my mouth firmly closed, but I was tempted to wonder what Mrs. Erdleigh, the rather charming, but somewhat dubious psychic, fortune teller, and seer who ends up with narrator Nick Jenkins's Uncle Giles (also sometimes rather charming, but somewhat dubious) would have made of that.

Discretion prevailed, however, and I contented myself with enjoying an excellent lunch, and, far more, the company of my fellow Powell enthusiasts.

In discussing the character of Isabel Jenkins (née Tolland) with one of the other attendees, I was struck by a thought that true Powellians may find heretical: For all his sending up of John Galsworthy, Powell seems to me to have borrowed a literary stratagem from him. In the Preface to the Forsyte Saga, Galsworthy writes that "[t]he figure of Irene, never, as the reader may possibly have observed, present, except through the senses of other characters, is a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world." We get an "inside look" at almost every other character in the Saga--I'm leaving out the "extras"--but not of Irene.

So too Isabel.

She is elusive because she is closed off from us; our first-person narrator manages to let us know the internal workings of so many of the characters of the Dance, but not of the one he knows best. Not for Galsworthy's rather programmatic reasons, of making Irene a totemic figure, but nonetheless, both narratives have, as one of their pivots, a woman who keeps her own counsel, and cannot be known to the reader.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mark Twain Tonight!

The chance to see Hal Holbrook perform in Mark Twain Tonight, a recreation of a platform performance by Twain, using materials fro Twain's actual lectures, books, the Autobiography, and his notebooks. So deep was Holbrook's research for the show which he created, and which varies from night to night, that he interviewed the controversial Isabel Lyon, of whom Holbrook "has previously said it was from Lyon that he got a better feel for Mark Twain than from any other person he ever met who had known the great author." He also met with Clara Clemens, the last surviving daughter. He modeled his walk onstage from the one film extant of Twain walking about his last home, and from the experience of sailing on a steamboat.

In the program, Holbrook urges gifts to the Mark Twain Papers. As a lifelong Twainiac, how can I not admire him for that, and for his decades of using his skill to re-create America's greatest writer, in a forum very like that which his readers often could experience. Holbrook is not resting on his laurels; he picked selections that were topical, reading the audience's mood, and (I suspect) changing his mind about how to shape the first act to reflect the political follies we have been living through this past year.

Or was it Mark Twain onstage who made that decision? He was famous for the long, stretched out pause, making you wonder what was coming, and then bringing it home. The topical material worked, and then the more philosophical second act, with a reading from Huckleberry Finn, and a memoir of his wife and daughter, and a wonderful, perfect conclusion.

Here's a little taste:

You can, by the way, buy a record of a complete performance.

So, you may ask, did Holbrook measure up? Yes, and for some of the reasons Ben Brantley gave nearly a decade ago:
Mr. Holbrook has tailored his Mark Twain handbook of quotable quotes and set pieces to focus particularly on the corruption and fabrications of politicians and journalists, subjects that alas seem excruciatingly relevant just now.

Even more chilling are Twain's reflections on the divisiveness of religion. "When a disciple from the wildcat religious asylum comes marching forth, get under the bed," he says. "It doesn't matter whether he's a Christian, Hindu, Jew or Muslim."

Now such observations could reek of pulpit pounding. But Mr. Holbrook ensures that they do not with a performance that is perhaps most remarkable for the energy it derives from a studied languor. Mr. Holbrook's Twain is a master of theatrical passive aggression, of a vanity so assured that it doesn't need to sell itself. Unusual if not unique in the theater of celebrity impersonation is his refusal to pander, to turn idiosyncrasy into show-stopping cuteness.

His style of delivery is rambling, skirting the edges of senility and then zeroing into sharp focus with punch lines that grab you from behind. Having landed a good quip, this Twain lets his eyes crinkle (but not, thank heavens, twinkle) in self-satisfaction beneath his thundercloud eyebrows, and his lips twitch into the merest whisper of a smile.

Mr. Holbrook's timing, though honed over decades, never feels mechanical. Seemingly wayward repetitiveness (and surely a few of the politician-baiting lines could be jettisoned for different material) only adds to the uncanny aura of naturalness. And while he may come close to canonizing Twain as an oracle for the ages, Mr. Holbrook also hints at an old poser's insatiable hunger for admiration.

He does beautifully by a reading from "Huckleberry Finn," in which he summons an artist happily summoning characters into being.
Yeah. I left the theater feeling closer to Mark Twain than at any time since I completely immersed myself in everything then available about the Autobiography, in writing a thesis on its composition and suppression. Clemens may not be here to see it being brought, at last into the light of day, but, thanks to Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain can, in a very real way, be said to be.

Convention to Elect A Bishop Suffragan

One of the traditional duties of a postulant for ordination is to assist at diocesan conventions, so I was among the ballot-takers and supernumeraries at the convention to elect a bishop suffragan:
At 2.40 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, at the special election convention held at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the Rev. Allen K. Shin was declared the bishop suffragan-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. The new bishop suffragan will work alongside and under the direction of the 16th Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche.
Shin, who is currently rector of St. John’s Church, Huntington, LI, NY was elected on the 4th round of balloting by a majority of the active clergy and of delegates from all of its congregations. The information and answers to questions given by the bishop suffragan-elect during the nomination process is available here; a short video is here.
Shin was one of five candidates nominated in early October by the Committee to Elect a Bishop, which began work following the call for the election of a suffragan by Bishop Dietsche’s predecessor as diocesan, Bishop Mark S. Sisk, at the diocese’s annual convention in November 2012. Bishop Sisk retired, and Bishop Dietsche was installed as XVI Bishop of New York, on February 2, 2013.
The bishop suffragan-elect must now receive the consent of a majority both of the other diocesan bishops of the Episcopal Church and of the standing committees of the Church’s dioceses, before being consecrated in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Saturday, May 17, 2014
The candidates were all remarkable, and meeting with, and speaking with my friends and mentors among the clergy and laity during the few breaks was, as always, inspiring. I never interact with my colleagues in the process, my two class-mates especially, without feeling confirmed and honored by the call.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

In Memoriam, Nelson Mandela

The passing of Nelson Mandela is dominating the news today, and it deserves to. Others are writing of his deeds, his words, his legacy, and the obituaries are long and full of detail. From the NYT:
Mr. Mandela’s quest for freedom took him from the court of tribal royalty to the liberation underground to a prison rock quarry to the presidential suite of Africa’s richest country. And then, when his first term of office was up, unlike so many of the successful revolutionaries he regarded as kindred spirits, he declined a second term and cheerfully handed over power to an elected successor, the country still gnawed by crime, poverty, corruption and disease but a democracy, respected in the world and remarkably at peace.

The question most often asked about Mr. Mandela was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite.

The government he formed when he finally won the chance was an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors. When he became president, he invited one of his white wardens to the inauguration. Mr. Mandela overcame a personal mistrust bordering on loathing to share both power and a Nobel Peace Prize with the white president who preceded him, F. W. de Klerk.

And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites with fears of vengeance.

The explanation for his absence of rancor, at least in part, is that Mr. Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.

When the question was put to Mr. Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.
Leaders cannot afford to hate.

There's wisdom there.

Apartheid was a contentious issue, believe it or not, in the US when I was a high school, college and law student. Not that anyone I knew was for it, mind you, but to what extent we had a moral obligation to disassociate from the South African government, corporations that invested in South Africa under the Botha regime--and what to make of Mandela, the man at the core of the resistance movement. Some viewed him with disdain--Ronald Reagan, and Dick Cheney come to mind. Others idolized him, also an error; he was a great man, but a man whose road to greatness was a long and arduous one, forged in the fire of systemic injustice and imprisonment. Not every moment shone; how could it?

But he lived long enough to see the judgment of history on him. History has, and will continue to, vindicate him. Not very moment, not every decision. But a giant passed today. We are the richer for his life, the poorer for his departure.

(Edited because my use of an archaic meaning of the word "fulsome" created the impression that I thought the obituaries were fawning. I blame writing a Victorian novel for this. Thanks to a diligent reader for the catch.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium: A Liberal Anglo-Catholic View

Pope Francis's first "Apostolic Exhortation," Evangelii Gaudium is daunting in its length (you can find a jot-by-jot précis here), but well worth the time it takes to read it.

There are those on the left who are selectively embracing the Pope's words and those on the right who are smoothing them, largely, over. (To be fair, Douthat does not entirely persuade even himself on this point, so I think this is an honest effort, but ultimately a failure.)

So, that's why the Exhortation is worth reading in its own right; there are things here that are hard for those all over the theological and political spectrum to hear, and the Pope is neither a political liberal nor a conservative.

Before getting to cases, let me praise his own his ideal of a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets;” it put me mind of the great Leonard Cohen song "AMEN":

Now to cases. Pope Francis is, first and foremost, a Christian--specifically, a Roman Catholic, but some aspects of his thought go beyond the Roman Catholic context while others (his views on women's ministry, for example), will not travel as well outside that context. But even there, Pope Francis is striving to find a way to articulate a specifically Roman Catholic conception of the equality of women:
103. The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace” and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.

104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness”.[73] The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”.[74] Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops.
Now, let me be clear; I find this entirely unpersuasive, and view the gender of the Twelve Apostles to be reflection of the culture of the Age of Christ and not of the inherent roles of women and men. And, as I wrote almost a year ago, the complementarian viewpoint to my mind especially errs in that it assigns roles based on gender, without the traditionally non-dominant gender being heard. For all of Pope Francis's obvious goodness and decency, this is a man, following a line of men, defining for women what womanhood means, spiritually, and telling women for whom his characterization does not ring true that their felt experience is false. But my point is not to disagree for the sake of being disagreeable, by emphasizing my own Liberal Anglo-Catholic views; just to note that this is a deeply Roman Catholic document.

However, for those who admire (as I do) the Roman Catholic Church's social teaching regarding money, the poor, and the economy, there is a lot here that I think transcends sectarian boundaries. Let me acknowledge with Douthat here that much of what Francis writes is well embedded in the Catholic tradition--you need only review the 1985 Compendium Justice in the Marketplace, and many of the same themes in the context of labor rights were sounded in I was reminded of the best essays delivered at the 2011 conference I spoke at, The Theology of Work and Dignity of Labor, published in the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

All that said, I think the Pope goes considerably further; his emphasis on these themes is worthy of a close examination:
No to an economy of exclusion

53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

No to the new idolatry of money

55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

No to a financial system which rules rather than serves

57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.[55]

58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
The Pope's emphasis and forceful reassertion of the centrality of the Catholic teaching regarding justice and the marketplace may begin a reckoning with a problem I noticed four years ago in American Catholicism, after reading a NYT Magazine profile of Robert P.George:
He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.
George, in short, and his followers, strove to relegate the Church's social teachings to mere bromides, feel good statements that could be made without effect.

The Pope's rejection of this and his scorn for laissez-faire economics reminds me of the great rejection of theology constructed in its defense by Charles Gore:
It must have been expressed originally in sublime unconsciousness that the whole industrial system, then in its glory, had been built upon a basis of profound revolt against the central law of Christian morality, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” There are few things in history more astonishing than the silent acquiescence of the Christian world in the radical betrayal of its ethical foundation
The Pope is less pithy, but on the same page, I think.

[Edited to remove typos]