The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What is the Soghdian for "Fish"?

Now, I am a fan, and a long-term one of C.P. Snow, especially of his Strangers and Brothers series (the linked blogposts are a series of perceptive reviews, comparing and contrasting them often with Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time).

My favorite volume of the series remans The Light and the Dark (1947). The storyline is simple; the novel focuses on Roy Calvert, an able young researcher into ancient languages trying to translate an extraordinary document, what is believed to be the only surviving written work of the Manichees, hitherto known only by the writings of their enemies, such as St. Augustine. In truth, a handful of fragments and isolated quotations exist as well, but the manuscript Calvert is working on, a psalm-book, provides the best chance of understanding the Manichaean world view as communicated amongst adherents to that faith, with its distinction of the world into--you guessed it--Light and Dark.

The Psalm-book is real enough; it was translated by Charles Allberry, affirmed by Snow's brother Philip to have been the model for Roy Calvert. Like the fictional Calvert, Philip Snow asserts, Allberry suffered from terrible bouts of depression, and moments of manic elation, but was also charismatic, charming and kind, especially to those who were poor, oppressed, or unhappy.

Snow makes Calvert very real, and sympathetic; it doesn't hurt that the character is that rarity, a fictional wit whose dialogue is in fact witty. For much of the book, he tilts quixotically against those in power who have become pompous, and use learning for fame, or to keep others down. His characteristic method is to solemnly interrogate them, tripping them up in logical inconsistencies, or revealing their hypocrisies in deadpan dialectic.

These amusing interludes, as well as some society life, are punctuated by Roy's struggle against his own "oddly mechanical" affliction--depression, destructive elation, relief, alternating in phases only the length of which are unpredictable--leads him to try to lose himself--in God, in women and drink, even flirting with Fascism (the novel is set in the mid-Thirties into World War II).

This last is an interesting, and risky move. It happens quite late in the book, after we have come to like Calvert very much indeed, and is a shock. It's profoundly narratively counterintuitive to have the character drawn to fascism be sympathetic (in Powell's Dance, it's Widmerpool who is a quite unlovely, though interesting figure). Calvert's attraction to fascism causes for the first time a strain in his long friendship with narrator Lewis Eliot, law don and generally reasonable man, himself a firm anti-Fascist, as was Snow, from the get-go. Calvert, no political thinker, is drawn to it as a means of throwing himself away in hopes of escape from the crippling, debilitating depression he suffers--he is a specific instance of Erich Fromm's "Escape From Freedom." Even while he finds himself drawn to it, Calvert is revolted by its bigotry and antisemitism, as well as its disdain for the odd characters Calvert loves--he even risks his life to save a Jewish couple from the Nazi regime. It's a brilliant portrayal of cognitive dissonance.

Ultimately, Roy himself rejects the Reich as "a feeble simulacrum for his search for God", admitting to Eliot that "I was clutching at anything of course," and sadly describing it as "my last grab." (Ch. 33)

So Roy gives in, and tries to live with his affliction, while he serves in the War. First in intelligence, but then, as the depression closes in on him, he chooses to join the RAF, after enquiring of Eliot what is the most dangerous duty to be had. He becomes a bomber pilot, because he wants to die but can't quite kill himself. In his surrender, he marries, and his wife bears a daughter. And Roy becomes, ironically, free of the cycle that has driven him to choose death over life; he finds, at last a certain peace. Now that he no longer wants to die, though, he is stuck; "One can't change one's mind," Roy admits, "It[war] holds one to it." (Ch. 38)

He dies of course. We get one last flash of his diabalerie, though. Spending a day with Eliot in the London Library between flights, he has a shock:
"Lewis," he said, in a clear, audible tone, "I'm losing my grip. I've forgotten the Soghdian for fish." He looked up, and saw a member, fat, stately, in a black hat and fur-lined overcoat, walking out with books under his arm. "I wonder if he knows," said Roy. "I need to ask him."

Roy stepped lightly in front of the fat man and gave him a smart salute.

"Excuse men sir," he said, "but I have forgotten the Soghdian for fish. Can you help me?"

"The what?"


"I'm afraid not."

"One ought to keep one's languages up," said Roy: his gaze was solemn, reproving, understanding. "It's terrible how one forgets them Isn't it?"

Hypnotized, the member agreed that it was. Roy let him go.

On the bus to [Eliot's flat], the word returned to Roy. He professed extreme relief.
(Ch. 38)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Say it Ain't So, Craig!

I will miss Craig Ferguson when he leaves the Late, Late Show at the end of the year.

Here are two examples why.

First, a serious moment:

A lot of laughs in there--but all at his own expense. And a lot of grace, and truth.

Second, a glorious comic celebration of a show he--and I--love:

It is, as Craig Ferguson has demonstrated again and again, it's all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.

We will miss him, and I for one look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Dance Goes On

So, some months ago, I was able to see three of the four episodes of the adaptation of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, but not the other two--Hulu, the only place where I had found any of them did not have the other film.

Today, I stumbled on the missing episode, and have watched Part Two. The missing episode was splendid, with Harriet Walter's marvelous take on Millicent Blaides (who ensnares, inspects, and discards the much younger Widmerpool), and Sarah Badel's lovable Lady Molly (so different from her equally perfect Lizzie Eustace in The Pallisers; the rest is equally well cast, ad well performed by a starry but not showy cast, anchored by a superb Simon Russell Beale.)

It's too ambitious--eight hours for the 12 novels is simply not enough, but, as Spencer Tracy might have said, what there is of it is cherce.

A lazy Saturday, perhaps, but an enjoyable day off….

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Scalia's Eloquent Defense of the Fourth Amendment

In a decision rendered today, Justice Scalia eviscerates the majority upholding on incredibly flimsy grounds a police stop based on an anonymous tip:
Not only, it turns out, did the police have no good reason at first to believe that Lorenzo was driving drunk, they had very good reason at last to know that he was not. The Court concludes that the tip, plus confirmation of the truck’s location, produced reasonable suspicion that the truck not only had been but still was barreling dangerously and drunkenly down Highway 1. Ante, at 8–10. In fact, alas, it was not, and the officers knew it. They followed the truck for five minutes, presumably to see if it was being operated recklessly. And that was good police work. While the anonymous tip was not enough to support a stop for drunken driving under Terry v. Ohio, it was surely enough to counsel observation of the truck to see if it was driven by a drunken driver. But the pesky little detail left out of the Court’s reasonable-suspicion equation is that, for the five minutes that the truck was being followed (five minutes is a long time), Lorenzo’s driving was irreproachable. Had the officers witnessed the petitioners violate a single traffic law, they would have had cause to stop the truck, and this case would not be before us. And not only was the driving irreproachable, but the State offers no evidence to suggest that the petitioners even did anything suspicious, such as suddenly slowing down, pulling off to the side of the road, or turning somewhere to see whether they were being followed. Consequently, the tip’s suggestion of ongoing drunken driving (if it could be deemed to suggest that) not only went uncorroborated; it was affirmatively undermined….


The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.

Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving. I respectfully dissent.
When the man is right, he's on fire. Really, this is a beaut of a dissent, and kudos to Scalia, as well as to Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor for joining him. As to Thomas, Breyer, Roberts, Alito, and Kennedy--bad cess to them.

(Hat-tip: Scott Lemieux at LGM)

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Poison Pill: Amending the First Amendment?

Adam Liptak in the New York Times has an interview with retired Justice John Paul Stevens that raises an interesting question:
The occasion for our talk was Justice Stevens’s new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.” One of those amendments would address Citizens United, which he wrote was “a giant step in the wrong direction.”

The new amendment would override the First Amendment and allow Congress and the states to impose “reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.”

I asked whether the amendment would allow the government to prohibit newspapers from spending money to publish editorials endorsing candidates. He stared at the text of his proposed amendment for a little while. “The ‘reasonable’ would apply there,” he said, “or might well be construed to apply there.”

Or perhaps not. His tentative answer called to mind an exchange at the first Citizens United argument, when a government lawyer told the court that Congress could in theory ban books urging the election of political candidates.

Justice Stevens said he would not go that far.

“Perhaps you could put a limit on the times of publication or something,” he said. “You certainly couldn’t totally prohibit writing a book.”
Justice Stevens's analysis is an example of a cure that is worse than the disease. Do you see what happens here? Trying to end the harm done to the democratic system by the flood of cash into politicians' pockets, Justice Stevens finds himself willing to limit the publication of editorials, books, all in the name of freedom. This is why the Constitution is not about what outcomes we prefer--when you grant yourself a roving commission to reach the "best" outcome from a policy outcome, you can all too easily find yourself abridging freedom in the name of freedom. (Didn't anyone pay attention to the "Sex Wars" of the 1990s?) With great respect to Justice Stevens--and I mean that, he's earned respect--he is, simply wrong.

The problem isn't newspapers, or so-called documentaries like the feeble hatchet job "Hillary" that gave rise to the Court's dreadfully reasoned decision in Citizens United. The problem is money, not speech.

Justice Steven is right to see a continuum between Citizens United and the recent decision in McCutcheon, which, as Justice Stevens summarizes:
Mr. McCutcheon was not trying to participate in electing his own leaders, Justice Stevens said. “The opinion is all about a case where the issue was electing somebody else’s representatives,” he said.

“The opinion has the merit of being faithful to the notion that money is speech and that out-of-district money has the same First Amendment protection as in-district money,” he said. “I think that’s an incorrect view of the law myself, but I do think there’s a consistency between that opinion and what went before.”
Right, so far as Justice Stevens goes, but he then participates in the same analytical error that infect the cases he so correctly denounce--he assumes, as has the Court since Buckley v. Valeo, that the expenditure of money in the form of donations is essentially the same as core speech. (That's a slight oversimplification of Buckley, but quite fair to McCutcheon.) The problem is that underlying assumption.

Look, campaign donations do have some expressive component (at least when publicized)--I back Barack Obama (or Mitt Romney) with my cash, and that, in our society, says something about my level of engagement. So, yeah, campaign contributions are not entirely devoid of constitutional protection. They're actions with an expressive component--a transaction (money flows from my bank account to Obama for America), which in and of itself is not privileged, coupled with the message: my support is not just hot air.

Act + Speech, in other words.

The act can be regulated, as long as the speech part isn't targeted--the message can't be banned, but the harms from the act component--can be targeted in a viewpoint and content neutral way.

That's abstract; let's put some context. Child pornography, even if it does not amount to obscenity, may constitutionally be banned, because of the crimes inherent in its manufacture--the rape and exploitation of a child. But the same narrative, using actors or virtual imagery are constitutionally protected because those crimes are avoided, and only the message is at issue. (I should add that all this doctrinal purity is dancing around the patently unconstitutional exceptions, including the obscenity doctrine, the Court has carved into the First Amendment by raw fiat, but that's another story).

Similarly here, campaign contributions should be regulated in amount, across the board. But not speech. So overrule Buckley and McCutcheon, and if the Court won't do that, the only amendment that is needed should be as follows: "The donation of funds or credit shall be treated as conduct with an expressive component." Period. If that's not enough, we have the answer to Franklin's challenge--a Republic--if you can keep it. No guarantees, after all.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nessie, Come Home!

From the Telegraph:
Since its inception in the sixth century, the legend of the Loch Ness Monster has endured unreliable sightings, doctored photos and faked footprints, but a mysterious satellite image has given fresh hope to believers of the elusive Scottish sea creature.

The image, taken by an Apple map satellite, depicts a shadowy form of around 100 feet in length with something akin to flippers in the water of the Loch Ness.
And The Daily Mail has more, and adds video:

But be careful in approaching Nessie. As the following rare documentary footage shows, she can, on occasion, be dangerous:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Last Things: A Meditation on John 19:26-27

(Photo by Millard Cook; Used by Permission)

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, April 18, 2014; click for audio & official text

Edited to Add: All of the Meditations are available now, and they are all worth a listen/read. I greatly admire all of those I was so fortunate to share the pulpit with.]

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.”

(King James Version)

Mothers and sons. For Mary and Jesus, in Facebook terms, “It’s complicated.”
When Jesus is arrested, the disciples scatter.

We don’t know what most of them do, but we know this—at some point the next day, maybe at Jesus’s trial, his sentence, or at some point in that horrible forced march to Golgatha, one of the disciples steals back, and joins the handful of women close to Jesus at the foot of the Cross.

He is there for the death vigil, helpless, unable to intervene, unable to do anything but watch his teacher, his friend, his hero, slowly die, hoping that his presence provides some comfort to Jesus.

Also there, we are told, is Jesus’s mother.

We don’t often see Mary in the Gospels, after the childhood of Jesus. After the Nativity, we get a glimpse of her when Jesus disappears, and is found in the Temple, and she’s in the background when Jesus returns to Nazareth, only for Jesus to describe as his mother and brothers those who have chosen to gather around him to hear him speak.

In each of these stories, Jesus is not exactly an easy son to have, right? It’s complicated.

And that makes sense, in a way. Jesus is terribly aware that time is short. There is a sense of urgency in him, which makes sense, especially after John the Baptist, his own mentor and cousin is first imprisoned and then executed for confronting the authorities with truths they’d rather not face.

Jesus is doing the same thing. Walking the razor’s edge that so many prophets and teachers had walked before him, only to be sliced up on the cutting edge of reality. Only to be put to death. Jesus is living a dangerous life, one that doesn’t give him a lot of scope to be a good son or brother. And so we only see his mother occasionally.

In the Fourth Gospel, we see her twice.

At the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, she calls him into service at the Wedding at Cana; when the wine runs out, she simply turns to her son, and expects a miracle. Mothers never change, do they?

Nearly two thousand years later, Jesus’s reply is still spontaneous--if anything, a little flustered: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” She ignores him, of course, and he rises to the occasion. (Jn 2:1-5). Mary gets her miracle, one that saves an important social occasion, and launches Jesus a bit prematurely on the world stage, before he felt his hour had come.

Now, in Mary’s second and final appearance in this Gospel, Jesus’s hour has come, and gone; the Hour of Darkness has overtaken him. (Luke 22:53) As she was present for the beginning of his ministry, she is here for the end.

There are many theological interpretations of this moment. Let’s not go there today. They are too easy. This moment asks—no, demands—more of us.

This is a moment when Jesus, his endurance breaking, completes one last task, the most human one of all, in a way.

Remember that he is dying an agonizing death, branded a rebel, a blasphemer, an outcast both from the Roman political order and the community of faith in which he was raised.

Remember too that the families of outcasts and rebels were often shunned in that era—guilt by association is no modern invention.

Add to that the fact that Mary, as a widow--we must assume she is a widow, because no mention of Joseph exists after Jesus reaches adulthood--would likely be dependent on the goodwill of her neighbors and friends of the family—goodwill that dies with Jesus, almost certainly.

So Jesus is, in his last moments, entrusting his mother to the one disciple who, after fleeing with the others, has been drawn to the foot of the Cross.

The disciple known in this Gospel only as the “beloved disciple,” but named by tradition as John, the Son of Zebedee.
And Jesus creates of these two mourners, there to be with him for every moment they can be, a new family. Because he does not just entrust his mother to John. He names her as John’s mother, names him as her son.

A passing on of duty, yes, but more than that, much more than that; from the ashes of his own family and his now-shattered circle of disciples, Jesus has created a family born not of blood-ties, but of love.

The given family and the chosen family—what Armistead Maupin might call the "biological family" and the "logical family"—have merged.

Jesus has given each of them the only form of comfort there can be to assuage the pain of their loss—he has forged a new loving relationship in which Mary can comfort and care for the mourning disciple even as he does the same for the mourning mother.

She remains a mother in the present tense, he becomes not Jesus’s disciple alone, but his brother by adoption. It is an act of spontaneous kindness, by a man in his death-throes. And it is of a piece with his entire ministry—even as his last breath draws near, Jesus acts, within his rapidly shrinking compass, in love.

No miracle, this time; no water into wine. No happy ending.

But something has been salvaged from the wreck, because those who loved him so deeply are given a way to continue in that love, each by caring for the other.

The very next line of the Gospel tells us that “After this,” “Jesus knew that all was now finished.” This is the end of his ministry, and so a little theology creeps in, uninvited, after all.

Because we are all called to do just that—to take our cue from John and Mary, who are not free to focus only on their own private loss, but are called to care for each other.

Because, even as Jesus is about to die, the survivors are being shown a way forward. The sun has not yet even fully set on Good Friday, but the first hints of the Easter sunrise are mixed with the dying of that light.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Go Big or Go Home?

Andrew Sullivan has an ongoing thread about Jo Becker's book Forcing the Thread: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, in which he arraigns her for starting the clock on the movement in 2008, and her assertion that "its Rosa Parks was a man you would be forgiven for knowing nothing about, Chad Griffin." Sullivan is rightly outraged that his own years of advocacy, and the work of many other pioneers including Dan Foley and Evan Wolfson are omitted entirely or, in the case of Wolfson:
ludicrously portrayed by Becker as an obstacle to change, a remnant of a previous generation, a man who had led the marriage movement nowhere. This is where the book becomes truly toxic and morally repellent. I’ve been a part of this movement for twenty-five years, either as an activist speaker/writer or as a close observer on this blog for the last decade and a half. What Becker writes about Evan and the movement is unconscionable, ignorant and profoundly wrong. Evan had the courage to create this movement, and empower it with legal rigor and strategy, when it was far, far less popular than it is now. Without him, quite simply, the movement would not exist for Griffin to now outrageously attempt to claim credit for. Yet this book sweeps Wolfson aside as an actual obstacle to progress because he was concerned that the Prop 8 case was a high-risk high-reward legal strategy that would not be the slam-dunk for national marriage equality that Boies and Olson believed it would be.
Now, that view of Wolfson's qualms about the Supreme Court challenge possibly leading to a rout is only tenable in hindsight--yes, it it worked out. I mean it really worked out. But that doesn't make Wolfson's qualms foolish before the event.

Beside the fact that you had a core of conservatives on the Court who had expressed themselves as hostile to same-sex relationships being accorded constitutional protection, and a swing vote in Justice Kennendy, who had in event years started to swing more to the right than to the left (politically speaking), you had the fact that the Roberts Court has shown itself to be startling in its contempt for precedent and willing to decide cases on issues not reached by the lower courts or raised by the parties. It has been internally inconsistent in its logic, and at times nakedly political. Wolfson cannot really be faulted for fearing an all-or-nothing battle before a bench so unreliable, and so ideologically driven and fractured.

David Boies and Ted Olson pulled it off; they drew to an inside straight, and they deserve a great deal of credit for it. That doesn't mean that those who feared the risk were obstructionist; they were rightly concerned about a Court, a plurality of which was previously hostile to GLBT rights, that has given itself a "roving commission" to do as it sees fit.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Some Further Thoughts About Simon Raven

I have now read 20 volumes of Simon Raven's novels--his ten volume "Alms for Oblivion" series (10 volumes; my copies are a three volume paperback omnibus, alas), the related First Born in Egypt series (7 volumes, obtained in one fell swoop from a kindly book dealer in Ireland who had them all in first edition--and now has them no longer), two books that occur between the two larger series, and include characters from them, The Roses of Picardie and September Castle (patience and abebooks got me both in first edition, quite inexpensively--the same price as a paperback, really). Oh, and Doctors Wear Scarlet, which I have as an ebook on my Kindle.

Now, Raven is an oddity in so many ways that it is hard to say anything about him without being misleading. He is profoundly politically and socially conservative, profoundly cynical, profoundly irresponsible, and profoundly despairing. He is a traditionalist in every way, except for his utter flouting of tradition, rationalist except for his recurrent interest and absorption in the supernatural, funny as hell, except when being tragic--

See what I mean?

My curiosity about his writing stemmed from re-viewing The Pallisers with la Caterina. In this viewing, I noticed all of the changes, some subtle, some obvious, that Raven's script made in Trollope's storyline--the use of Dolly Longestaffe, a minor character in only one of the books, as a viewpoint character who prompts much exposition and comments on the storyline, the darker motives of Phineas Finn in marrying Mary Flood-Jones (in Raven's telling, he's gotten her pregnant, and so much do the decent thing; in Trollope, he feels bound in honor to Mary), etc. I wondered about his novels, and, after downloading and reading Doctors Wear Scarlet, wanted to grapple with his other works.

It's been quite a ride. His oddity as a writer reflects the man:
A pair of novel cycles, Alms For Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt, eventually ran (somewhat loosely) to 17 volumes. They take on a mystical edge, and supernatural occurrences always held a fascination for Raven. He said of his writing, "I arrange words into pleasing patterns to make money", and although he never found a huge readership, he did grow more industrious.

The public became familiar with his TV adaptations of The Pallisers and Edward and Mrs Simpson, and he also wrote dialogue for the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. His memoir, Shadows in the Grass was described as "the filthiest cricket book ever written", and Prion Humour Classics recently published a selection of his non-fiction writings, which include a treatise on recognising rent boys.

A gambler, flâneur, cricketer, controversialist, imbiber and fine host, he revelled in pushing his restaurant bills to astonishing levels. Of gambling, he cheerfully described "the almost sexual satisfaction which comes from an evening of steady and disastrous losses". Passionate yet aloof, dissipated yet energetic, Raven represents the perfect paradox of a certain type of Englishness. After obeying his publisher's restraining order for 34 years, he returned to London and died in an almshouse for the impoverished, regretting nothing. He wrote his own epitaph: "He shared his bottle, and when still young and appetising, his bed."
Raven had an appealing honesty as a writer. His stand-in, Fielding Grey, is no hero--in fact he misses several opportunities to be one, and can be appallingly selfish. Yet he, like his creator, has a certain charm.

Raven was an inspired choice to adapt The Pallisers, departures notwithstanding, because he shared Trollope's interest in depicting characters changing over time--his Captain Detterling, for example, develops, decays, and dies most credibly--his flaws and virtues evolve and devolve over the years depicted. He waxes and then wanes, in just such a way as the real man would likely do. Most of his old standbys do; if and when they die, they die of beign themselves, rather like Trollope's Mrs. Proudie. Raven brings that sensibility to the series, and, as a result, the series feels Trollopian even where it strays.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Glimpse of Tom Lehrer

This article on Tom Lehrer emphasizes the one-time satirist's lack of interest in his own legacy:
“There’s never been anyone like him,” said Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary Broadway producer who created Tom Foolery, a musical revue of Lehrer’s songs, in the ’70s. “Of all famous songwriters, he’s probably the only one that, in the great sense of the word, is an amateur in that he never wanted to be professional. And yet the work he did is of the highest quality of any great songwriter.”
Indeed, Tom Lehrer has done everything possible, short of dying, to vanish from the American cultural scene. Actually, if he were dead, or had gone insane, or had holed up in New Hampshire and burned his later work, his story might carry him more neatly into the canon.
Instead, he’s alive and well at 86. He’s a hard — but not quite impossible — man to reach, and an even harder one to engage in conversation. He’s said he’s glad the Johnny Carson videos were lost, and he gave away the master recordings of his songs to an acquaintance. But he has, over the years, given (and regretted giving) enough interviews, and touched enough lives — from those of his brilliant Harvard peers to his generations of students — to piece together a picture, if not an explanation, of an artist’s strange and indifferent relationship to his own legacy.


And in addition to the lasting fondness his students expressed for their onetime teacher, they also all mentioned in interviews one of the characteristics that continues to make Lehrer such an enigmatic figure among his fans.
“He was one of the most private people I’ve ever met,” said another former student, Jamey Harvey, adding that it was an unspoken rule in Lehrer’s class that you didn’t mention his career as a performer. “It would have felt very intrusive to ask, between the warnings we got from our friends and the body language you got when you asked him about it. My sense was he thought it was embarrassing.”
His personal life, too, has been off limits, even to friends. Asked once by Jeff Morris if he’d been married or had children, he replied: “Not guilty on both counts.”
And rather than accept any admiration those around him might have had for his past successes, Lehrer was content to be proud of the work of his students, and of his colleagues who did theater. “He was a fan of us, the theater people there, which is just remarkably generous and humble of him,” recalled Danny Scheie, a drama professor at Santa Cruz who first met Lehrer in the early ’90s in Santa Cruz’s musical theater crowd.
Yet despite his retreat into a comfortable, bicoastal existence as an instructor on two college campuses, Lehrer has maintained an uncanny popularity, especially for a performer whose career totaled only a few years.
May I just say that I'm not surprised? The article suggests all kinds of motives--the decline of Lehrer's brand of liberalism, egoism, or maybe "the challenge of recontextualizing your politically charged songs for a wider but more radicalized audience is a hard one, and it’s easier to not bother."

All of which, of course, assume that Lehrer owes us something.

Hey, he's not a public charge--a career of teaching on two coasts, leaving a trail of enriched grateful students? Maybe that was his real vocation.

He wrote for fun, as the profile makes clear. Oh, he accepted the plaudits, the record sales, the tours. But then it stopped being

And then he got to work.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Every Knee Should Bow": A Sermon for Palm Sunday

[I am occasionally afforded opportunities to preach; this Holy Week, I begin with a sermon for Palm Sunday's Epistle, and end with a Good Friday meditation. I will post the sermon texts here as delivered, flaws and all.]
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
--Philippians 2: 5-11

Today’s Epistle has been, not unlike Paul himself, all things to all people. Some focus on the last two verses—that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess Him Lord—and create a Christian triumphalism—we’re right and you (pretty much every one else in the world) is wrong, and you’re going to have to admit it, one day, not that it will do you any good, because you’ll be in Hell.

(Seriously, people do believe this, and not just the fundamentalists we all like to be sure we know better than—even Thomas Aquinas held this view, calling it a “forced confession” from those "under the earth," in Hell, that is, where they would remain.)

Others prefer to focus on the obedience of the Son to the Father, on the sacrifice made by the second Person of the Trinity merely by becoming human. As C.S. Lewis once phrased it, in one of his less felicitous moments, “think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”[2]

But I’d like to suggest that we have to read the passage as a whole, not seize upon one thought or another. What is the whole passage saying to us?

Two writers, over 1500 years apart have something to tell us, I think.

Origen who lived from about 185 to 354, found hope for all in the verses Aquinas relied on because, as Aquinas says, “when he heard that every knee should bow, which is a sign of subjection, he believed that at some future time, every rational creature, whether angels or men or devils would be subjected to Christ by the allegiance of charity.”[3] In sum, Origen believed that, God would win every soul not through force but through love. That in the fullness of time, when we all come face to face with God, and truth is fully revealed, we will each of us know fully, and accept the Divine Love, which we now only see, to steal a line from St. Paul, through a glass, darkly. Subjection to Christ, for Origen, is about realizing our true selves, our best selves.

Charles Gore, who lived from 1854 to 1932, taught that Christianity was first and foremost a way of life—he called it, like the early Church, simply “the Way.” He emphasized the importance of loving our neighbor, concretely by assisting those in need, and in seeking a more just social order. Gore used today’s passage to explain the importance of lives of service as an integral part of the Way. Gore taught that Jesus as He lived among us, emptied himself of the attributes and powers ascribed to the divine. He explained:
God can express Himself in true manhood because manhood is truly and originally made in God’s image and, on the other hand, God can limit himself by the conditions of manhood, because the Godhead contains within itself eternally the prototype of human self-sacrifice and self-limitation, for God is love.[4]

If Jesus, who was equal to God the Father, nonetheless was willing to abandon all that that means, to come among us as one who serves, even to the point of giving up His own life, and did not count it loss—surely that tells us something about the nature of the God we pray to, of the Jesus we call Christ? And that, Gore says, surely gives us a pretty broad hint as to how to follow Him—to love one another, and to serve, as He served. This passage is especially for deacons, my sisters and brother, if Gore is right, because we are called to model the life of service in imitation of Christ.

We are now entering Holy Week, when Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem swiftly unravels to become the horror of the Cross, only for that then to be transformed itself into the astonishing triumph of Easter. Astonishing, because there is no conquest, no revenge. No epic battle. Just a quiet reappearance that transforms the pain and loss of Good Friday into an irresistible invitation to walk the Way with Jesus, through service to our sisters and brothers, not because we are forced to, but because in doing so, we will make up our souls on our journey to union with God.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, (Trans. F.R. Larcher, O.P. 1969), at ch. 2, 2-3

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), at 155.

[3] Aquinas, supra note 1.

[4] Charles Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God: Being the Bampton Lectures for the Year 1890 (1891), at 162; see also id. at 159-161; A.M. Ramsey, An Era in Anglican Theology: From Gore to Temple at 30-35. The centrality of the kenotic theory to Gore’s theology is posited and helpfully explored in Chapman, Gore, Kenotic Theory and The Crisis of Power, 3 Journ. Angl. Stud. 197, at 203-205 (2005).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

No Day But Today

One thing about Clinical Pastoral Training--it gives you perspective.

This week, I was called to the bedside of a dying patient. My ministry was really more to the grieving family,
and I had only a few minutes to prepare. Thanks to the BCP, I wasn't completely on my own, and I did my best to stand at the foot of the Cross with them.

More than that would be inappropriate for me to share.

Although I will confess that this curmudgeonly, sardonic middle-aged, lawyer's heart got quite a wrench in the process.

We really only do have today, don't we?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Anglocat in the Pulpit Redux: Preaching It Edition

I have been most kindly invited to offer a meditation at St. Barts's "Seven Last Words From the Cross" Good Friday Service this year.

It is a privilege I have had once before, in 2012, when I had the opportunity to speak on "I Thirst" (Jn. 19:28).

This time I was given a choice, and will meditate on John 19:26-27:
Near the Cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[b] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
This verse is one of the most human, touching moments in the story of the crucifixion.

I am honored to be asked to participate in this beautiful and extraordinary service, which I attend every year, and which is a capstone to my Lent.

Now, of course, I must go.

I have a meditation to write...

Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Echo in Time

Today, I attended the wedding of one of my cousins, and, as at all gatherings of my mother's side of the family, got to spend time with a wide variety of cousins, aunts, uncles, many of whom are more dear to me than they probably know. Blessings on the wedding couple, and many years of happiness to them!

But that is not, surprisingly the subject of this post. The reception was held at the Nassau County Bar Association, with the main event being held in the newer ballroom, but the cocktail hour in the older, medieval inn-style hall making up part of the original building. The rear of the main gathering hall is decorated by several banners, and, as I perambulated around with my plate, I saw that at the left of one, was a plaque:

Ah, me! Farrell Fritz, or,as it was when I knew it, Farrell Fritz Caemmerer Cleary Barnosky Armentano, is a large, prestigious firm in Nassau County, and when I graduated from college in 1987, on the way to Columbia Law School, I was offered a summer job there. I worked primarily with the late John Cleary, doing some grunt-work on tax certiorari cases, and learning one hell of a lot about how a good lawyer performs; John was even-tempered, thorough, methodical. I should also add that he was extremely kind, and while my work for him could be tedious (in those pre-computer records days,most of what I did was summarizing data relating to property values), he made me feel as though I was an integral member of the team. Let's be frank; I'm pretty sure I was a decent intern, as interns go, but I really doubt that I added much value. John Cleary was too kind a man to let me know that, though, wrote a great affidavit urging my admission to the bar, and I honor his memory.(Dolores Fredrich took me under her wing, too, that summer, but I digress.)

Farrell Fritz was a welcoming place for me, but I was especially fond of Sam Tripp. He was, or so he seemed to me, a hale, but even then an old man--his book, A Guide to Motion Practice Litigated Motions in the New York Civil Courts came out in 1946, and that was a good 40 years before I met him. He was interested in talking about the law, studying the law, and, most of all, knowing the law. He had a cabinet filled with index cards, summarizing every decision rendered by a court in New York since the day of his admission to the bar, organized by topic, and added to even when I knew him. Sam used the New York Law Journal, the reporters, and the unpublished decisions which would be sent around lawyer-to-lawyer, and updated his cards regularly in handwriting that I can only call spidery, even though it's a cliche.

I admit it, I loved listening to Sam discourse on law and legal practice, which he viewed as an art--truly, as one of the humanities. He subscribed to the Harvard Law Review, which he extolled to the skies, praising its scholarship, its utility in apprising the bench and bar of the best legal thinking, current trends, and, most of all, the roots of the law. He praised it so emphatically that, at the end of one of his rhapsodies, I remember exclaiming, "Sam, you've sold me! When I graduate I'll subscribe to the Harvard Law Review!"

"You will do no such thing," Sam shot back severely, his mouth pursed in a rare disapproving frown.

"Why not?" I asked, bewildered.

"Loyalty. You're going to be a Columbia man. You will subscribe to The Columbia Law Review."

I grinned, getting his point: the institutions that shape us deserve our affection. Yes, I grinned.

And for about 15 years, I subscribed, too, and read each issue. And now, confronted with that reminder of a man who was good to me for no reason other than he could be, I feel guilty that I haven't of late years, because, after all, the content is largely openly available on the web.

Sam would not, I suspect, approve.

But he might, I think, like that I gave one of my characters in Phineas at Bay his card-catalogue, his life-long project of creating an encyclopedic summary of jurisprudence as a whole. More than that, I gave that character Sam's love of the law, even in all its most seemingly dry manifestations. Because I got it from him.