The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

End of the Year...

And so we come again to another Anglocat Wrap-That-Year-Up post.

How to do it? In the past, I've done link-heavy roundups which were as exhaustive as they were exhausting. But this year, I really don't feel like it. How about a thematic approach?

1. Novelist:

Who ever would have me pegged for a novelist? And yet, Phineas at Bay is selling--slowly, but steadily, and with more opportunities coming in 2015. And the reviews--well, dig this:
In writing “Phineas at Bay”, John Wirenius has done the Trollope-loving world a great service. Phineas Finn was my first Trollope novel, at age 19 or 20, and ever since I think of him as the most charming character in English fiction. Now we have the chance to renew the acquaintance with Phineas later in life, and all of his world, in a novel Trollope himself would have thoroughly enjoyed: meaty, filled with humor, affection, drama, and above all, character – Trollope’s greatest genius and gift to the reading world. Read it at once, and, like all Trollope, again and again.
Randolph Williams, President, the American Trollope Society
I mean, what more could I ask?

I'll tell you a secret; when I was in college, I dreamed of writing fiction. Tried my hand at it, too--I wrote a not-bad story called "In Extremis" based on the queasy experience of seeing my beloved grandfather develop memory problems, and a pair of others, too--and dried up. I was too facile, had nothing really to say. And for nearly 30 years, all my writing was scholarly. Mostly constitutional law, some legal history and, more recently, law and religion. But to think that that long-held, and long-despaired of, dream could be made real? I never saw it coming.

2. Scholarly Writing

In 2014, I managed to break into the big leagues of American Anglican scholarship: The Anglican Theological Review published my article, Swallowing the Camel: Biblical Fidelity, Same-Sex Marriage, and the Love of Money in its Summer 2014 issue. The abstract:
As the Episcopal Church begins local discernment on the question of whether to bless same-sex relationships, evaluation of the theological strength of the arguments for and against is ongoing. I examine the case against same-sex blessings and marriage made by the Traditionalist component of a task force appointed by the House of Bishops in their report. That case’s weakness, in terms of the asserted scriptural authority and basis in philosophic reason set forth by the Traditionalists themselves, is contrasted with the much stronger case on both grounds in favor of the biblical prohibition of usury, given by the Traditionalist report as an example of a scriptural command that was appropriately discarded by the church. The Traditionalists demonstrate a much greater willingness to put aside scripture, reason, and tradition in the case of usury, which is endemic in the culture at large, while holding fast to the prohibition against same-sex marriage, which is much less strongly rooted in each category. This in turn suggests that defenders of this prohibition may be unwittingly defending obedience to scripture when it imposes a lesser challenge to the culture in which defenders are invested, and imposes costs which they only feel in the abstract.

3. The Diaconate

Only comes third because it's an ongoing journey--a continuing story--and not a new one. This is the third and final training, and, God willing, on May 16, 2015, I will be ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. From Fall 2014 through that time, I am in my field placement at St. John's in the Village, which has received me kindly and with warmth, and has shown me a whole new way of doing liturgy.

4. Politics

I broke up with them. Life's too short, and there are things I'd rather be doing. Don't get me wrong, I stay informed, and on issues where I think I can do more than repeat already stated points of view, I pipe up. But I am striving mightily to shed the obsession. Wish me luck!

5. Sorrow and Joy

We lost a kitty this year, the redoubtable Elvis, our "Comfort Kitty." We miss him to this day.

Our remaining kitties give us much joy, and we are grateful for the animals who share our lives.

All of these and more have made up my year--I am purposefully focusing on the ones I've written up on the blog, but suffice it to say that 2014 has been a year of highs and lows, not all of which are suitable for the blog. A year of transition, too--but that's enough about that for now.

All the best for 2015, and thank you, one and all, for coming on the prowl this year. See you on the other side!

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Ambiguous Legacy of Thomas Becket

On December 29, 1170, in the late afternoon (and thus after the main meal of the day but shortly before vespers), four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral. Impelled, as far as history knows, by the angry words of King Henry II, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,” they had come to confront Archbishop Thomas Becket, and win King Henry’s favor by forcing the long-simmering dispute between Becket and his King to some final resolution. When the Archbishop refused their conflicting demands, and reacted with scorn to their insults, the knights withdrew, only to arm themselves and follow Becket into the Cathedral for vespers. As the traditional account has it:
The bell for vespers began to sound, and the archbishop, with his cross borne in front of him, made his way in as usual into the cathedral. Hardly had he reached the ascent to the choir than the noise of armed men and the shout of the knights announced that the pursuers were at hand. “Where is the archbishop, where is the traitor?” resounded through the hollow aisles, mingling strangely with the recitation of the psalms in the choir. Becket, hearing this, turned back a few steps, and calmly awaited their approach in the corner of the northern transept before the little altar of S Benedict. “Here,” he cried, “is the archbishop—no traitor, but a priest of God.” Awed by his demeanor, and perhaps by the sanctity of the place, no one dared strike. A parley began. They sought to lash their failing courage into action by words. A hasty and insulting epithet gave Fitz Urse the opportunity he wanted. A blow aimed at the archbishop’s head only knocked his skull-cap to the ground, but it was enough to loose the bandogs of hell. A stroke from Tracy cut off the tonsured back of [Becket’s] skull, another from Brito brought him to his knees. In a minute all was over. The archbishop lay prone in his blood before the altar step, his brains scattered savagely on the floor, while his murderers slunk back through the dark and silent aisles with the chill of remorse already at their hearts, like Othello from the couch of Desdemona.
In the more prosaic retelling of modern historians, the story is dramatic enough: Only one witness remained with Becket as the knights tried to forcibly remove him from the Cathedral. As that survivor recounted, Becket resisted. It “was in the ensuing melee that he [Becket] received a blow on the head. As the blood flowed the four knights fell upon him with their swords.” When the knights had finished their “butcher’s job” as W.L. Warren aptly calls it, Becket lay dead on the floor of the Cathedral.

The result of this brutal murder in the most hallowed space in the English Church was almost as dramatic as the deed itself. Becket’s courage in the face of death, as well as the personal asceticism he had adopted upon his appointment as Archbishop fused into an idealized vision of Becket as martyr and saint; as Warren phrases it:
The dramatic transition from magnificent courtier to clerical martyr, heightened and fixed in the mind by the discovery on the corpse of a lice-ridden hairshirt, established him as a copybook examplar of the drama of conversion. His courage and steadfastness unto death marked him out as a martyr in an age uncommonly short of martyrs, and swept him on a wave of popular acclaim to an unusually swift canonization in March 1173.

So strong was the feeling in favor of Thomas Becket that the King, though denying that he had sought Becket’s death, performed a dramatic penance at his tomb:
The king dismounted outside Canterbury and entered the city barefoot, in plain woolen garments. Prostrate and weeping before the tomb of the murdered archbishop, he received physical punishment from the monks and other clerics, then spent the night there in prayer and fasting. In the morning he heard mass and then went on his way to London.

The resulting cultus of St. Thomas has lived in literature, stage and film. Pilgrimages to Canterbury in honor of St. Thomas form the frame of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But glossed over in most hagiography and popular depictions of the Becket story is the nature of the conflict between Becket and Henry—a conflict which prefigures the crisis in moral authority roiling the Roman Catholic Church at the present day. As Batrtlett summarizes in very capsule form, there were, essentially, three areas of dispute between Henry and Becket, “quarrels over the property of the church of Canterbury, the details of royal taxation and the extent that clerks could be treated differently from lay people in the law courts.” Bartlett’s correct but rather overly discreet phrasing may mislead the reader; what he, Warren and Wakeman accept as the most serious dispute between Becket and Henry II was Becket’s attempted creation of a parallel court system, in which individuals who had often only minimal connection to the Church could nonetheless claim exemption from the secular law, and be subject to the milder (and originally minimal) punishments applicable under canon law. Such individuals could be accused of crimes ranging from theft to rape and, frequently, even murder.

Becket’s cause, seeking to regularize a practice that had evolved during the weaker (and rather chaotic) reign of Henry’s predecessor King Stephen, was essentially successful, and canon law for many years ran along a parallel track to the secular law.
Becket’s view of ecclesiastical sovereignty prevailed in another way, too. From his time into the Twentieth Century, the relationship between Church and State changed from a united Christendom, to a divided and Reformed Christian Europe, to what many now call post-Christian Europe. Throughout that time, the Catholic Church defended its own separate canon law courts, and created an ideological-cum-theological justification for such courts being the principal, and, ideally the only, forum to take cognizance of criminal complaints against the clergy. In the sexual abuse scandals from the second half of the Twentieth Century into the present, defenders of the Church routinely take as a given the notion that such matters should be diverted to private adjudication in private, absent the secular authorities’ awareness of the underlying crime.

Throughout the succeeding centuries, even where such parallel courts were forced to give way to secular jurisdiction, the Roman Catholic Church continued to hold out ecclesiastical sovereignty as a model to be preserved, applied and, where limited, restored to the maximum extent possible. Only in the Twentieth Century did the Church grudgingly begin to come to terms with democratic theory; only in the years leading up to, and especially in the wake of, Vatican II did the Church begin to find some value in democratic society. That half-accomplished rapprochement did not extend to acceptance of secular government’s right to protect its citizenry against predation by clergy. Seeking to understand why this is the case, and the costs to the Church of this theological understanding, is critical in determining what steps secular government can take and ought to take, with respect to the crisis.

One salient factor in this continued existence of a parallel jurisdiction, not recognized by the secular government as having cognizance of criminal misconduct, is the tradition of ecclesiastical sovereignty championed by Becket, and justified in the Nineteenth Century by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Becket’s struggle for, and Newman’s defense of ecclesiastical sovereignty echo not just the tactics but the very language employed by the Church’s defenders in the sexual abuse scandal. The newly beatified convert from Anglicanism and the murdered Archbishop have never been more relevant.

More here.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Christmas Greeting

I have spent my first Christmas away from my home parish, among the good people of St. John's in the Village. They have welcomed me as their "seminarian" (Not technically; as a candidate for the vocational diaconate, I don't get to go to seminary. Pity. On the other hand, I do love my other job, and the diaconate, which is my calling, does not pay. Literally.) St John's is a little like a modern version of the parish Trollope's Mr. Harding goes to at the end of The Warden

Now, I love the liturgy at St John's--high church, but unfussy, Incense on every Sunday. Did I mention very Sunday? Good, yeah?

And I--I myself--have served as thurifer. A great experience. But, I'll confess that I am only competent as thurifer; for Christmas Eve, we had an outstanding thurifer (and good friend) who did triumphant figure eights even in the small space of St John's. As crucifer, I followed in his wake, and tried to not get lost. (SPOILER: I managed not to.)

In the wise and touching homily of our retiring rector, in the warmth of the reception after the service, and in the beauty of liturgy, I marked the Christmas with joy. And in the morning, I served in a simple, sweet service before proceeding to Christmas with la Caterina with my family.

The season has begun, but is not yet over--for those who celebrate it, may it be joyful!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Power of the Original

Stop a mo; before I go on, let's acknowledge the quirky brilliance of Keith Moon, making the drums sing at Woodstock, especially from 7:05 on, where he does things I can't even fathom with them; as Robert Traver once wrote, listen to that ma-a-an...

Right, back to business.

That clip above is the portion of Tommy at Woodstock that my old friends Athos and Porthos (at that time new friends) played for me when I was just on the verge of leaving my teens to demonstrate the prowess of the Who. (Athos later gave me a copy of Scoop and sealed the deal; Porthos turned me on to Who's Next and sealed the seal of the deal.

Now, here's the revised version for The Who's Tommy:

Now, this isn't bad as such--Michael Cerveris is quite good,and the notion of using what is in fact the best curtain call music ever written as a curtain call is clever. The onstage action (not available with these performers, alas) depicts Tommy slowly forgiving each of his family members and ends in reconciliation. Not bad.

But the lyrics have the raw, politically incorrect edges sanded off. The orchestration is good, but lacks the sheer verve of the Who--the slower-than-remembered hieratic tempo is just about right; Townshend's music is absolutely being respected--and yet--the force is abated. It's a little too clean. The piano is duplicating some of Moon's flourishes--but that's what made them extraordinary--Moon played the drums like they were a piano. Two drummers and a piano are needed to keep up with Keith Moon.

The adaptation has its pleasures, and I enjoyed it in 1993. But the 1969 original is like nothing on earth.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Annunciation Or, How Do You Solve a problem Like Maria?

(A Sermon on Luke 1:26-38, 4 Advent, Dec. 20, 2014)

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Let’s hear it in the King James:

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.
38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Have you ever been to a Novena? No?

It’s a Roman Catholic thing, and even though I was raised Catholic, I only ever went to one—long after I became an Episcopalian.

The Novena I went to was called a Perpetual Novena in Honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. It’s a series of prayers, some of which are repeated, to the Virgin Mary, who is addressed as “Queen of Angels and of men.” Mary is asked to “not despise our petitions, but in [her] clemency” to “hear and answer” the prayers.

It is very Catholic, and savors of an entirely different world than the world of Rite II Anglicanism. It can feel like a voyage back in time, back to the Middle Ages.

And yet it’s very modern, too. Pope John Paul II, as well as Mother Theresa, could refer to Mary as “co-Redemptrix” with Christ. And some Anglo-Catholic devotional books include the traditional Marian devotions, before we Anglicans get up on our high horses about the Catholics.

What is this phenomenon of Mary, and why on earth do so many Christians feel called upon to have such powerful reverence for Jesus’s mother?

After all, Mary only appears a handful of times in scripture. Here, at the Annunciation, in her visit to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, at Christmas, and finding the young Jesus in the Temple when they feared he was lost. All of these appearances are in Luke’s Gospel, some recur in the synoptic gospels. Mary also appears briefly in Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s sequel, as one of those in the upper room praising God after the apostles return from the Ascension. Oh, and she appears twice in the Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to Jesus’s disciple, John, the son of Zebedee. She appears at the foot of the cross, and she pesters Jesus into starting his ministry ahead of time.

Really; according to John, Mary basically drafts her son into performing his first miracle. He is not, shall we say, thrilled. Here he is, attending a wedding, enjoying himself with his disciples. For once he’s enjoying a nice slice of normality—he’s a guest; his friends are there, his mother—he’s relaxing.

And then along comes Mom: “They have no wine,” she says in full-on Mom-voice. She doesn’t have to add the unspoken: Fix it. He knows. Oh, how he knows.

So his reply isn’t exactly getting put on a Hallmark card any day soon: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”

In one of my own really very annoying teen phases, I once tried using that response to my own mother, when she wanted me to do something for her. Let’s just say it didn’t work any better for me than it did for Jesus.

Mary ignores her son—which was more polite than my mother’s reaction, by the way—and tells the servants “Do whatever he tells you to.”

And so the wedding feast at Cana gets the best wine last, and Jesus’s career as a miracle worker gets a premature start.

And that is, pretty much, it for Mary’s appearances in the scriptures. And yet—co-Redemptrix. Queen of Heaven. Of Angels and of men.

What in Mary’s scriptural appearances could explain the level of devotion she inspires? How, if you’ll forgive me, do we solve a problem like Maria?

I think that a part of the answer is that Mary isn’t the Son of God; she isn’t a hero, she isn’t a prophet, or a sage.

She’s a woman who says yes to God.

She’s a woman, first of all—a young woman, in a time and culture that did not rank women highly. She is not yet married but engaged to be—emerging from the protection of her father, but not yet under that of her husband, in the eyes of society.

She is vulnerable, and what is asked of her is no little thing—she’s asked to be the mother of the Son of God, and in a pretty hard to understand way—the power of the Highest shall overshadow her, and that’s pretty much all she is told.

And to be a mother under these circumstances—as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, Joseph decides to not disgrace her, even before his own angelic visitor tells him to go through the wedding—but Mary had no way of knowing this. She’s agreeing, as far as she knows, to potential disgrace, probable exile from her family and home, and possibly even death.

All of which is to say that Mary’s saying “yes” to God is a bigger deal than we might take it to be nowadays. It’s an act of absolute trust, a leap of faith over a chasm that could, if anything goes wrong, be quite fatal to her.

Imagine if she had said no. What then?

But Mary says simply: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” There’s a courage, a serenity, in her words that we can’t help but envy little bit as we admire it.

But envy is the wrong word, isn’t it? We want to be like her, I think. We see in Mary a model for Christian discipleship, for how we could, if our faith was like hers, respond to God’s call.

After all, we are not living in a time and place as unforgiving as she did. And we are not being asked to risk as much as she did. Finally, we aren’t being asked to lose as much as she lost.

If this poor Jewish girl in an occupied country could love so much, and risk so much, perhaps we can love a little bit more than we do.

As we move into the final days of Advent, we look back on that confident, serene love, that willingness to answer the call without counting the cost. The initial “yes” that was the necessary first step.

The problem, my sisters and my brothers, is not Maria; it’s that we see a problem. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ricki-Ticky-Tickle, Darling

(A Soliloquy for Lady Molly, with apologies to Anthony Powell)

Poor Jeavons! He never did understand, poor lamb, but just accepted the little fellow in his kindly, somnambulistic way.

Ricki just didn’t like Jeavons hanging around me, back then, you see. Didn’t understood what I saw in him, I suppose. That hardly made Ricki unique, of course. Jeavons was, shall we say, not out of the top drawer. He’d had style once, though. And dash—my old friend Mildred Blaides could tell you something about that, if she thought hard about it, and could see the man in front of her. Yes, Jeavons made sense back then. And he still does, damn it! I’m fond of him, and he’s … restful.

But Ricki tried to make trouble when we were first married. No man would do for me but Ruddy, as far as Ricki was concerned. Oh, the time he gave Jeavons, and me come to that. Because, after all, Ruddy had meant a great deal to me, and I was sorry I had to break it off—but there are limits, you know.

Oh, a girl likes a bit of poetry, and a bit of romancing, but enough is as good as a feast, my dear, and Ruddy could, if he got started, bore for England. And India, too, come to that. Still I remember his bristly little moustache and—oh, yes, he had his talents, did my Ruddy.

But too clingy, too needy, too clever by half. He didn’t blub when I gave him his notice, though. Left Ricki behind, and went out again to the Punjab. But I had Ricki to remember him by. Oh, the pranks he would play on Jeavons! Tripping him, pouncing on him in bed, gnawing his ankles—

They do that, you know. Gnaw things, I mean. All very well if he’s in a book, slaying King Cobras—Nag and Nagina, was it? Splendid creature in the subcontinent. But in London? Nothing worse than waking up with a bit of a head early some morning, but unable to lie abed because you can hear it—no matter how you try to not hear it!—again and again:

Rick-tick-TICK TICK!

Well, my dear, you try sleeping through that, if you can.

I ask you.

Ruddy claimed he was the original, the one in the story. That clever Nick Jenkins laughed at that, saying it couldn’t be. That the story had come out in 1894, and that Ricki couldn’t have lived thirty years later.

So Ruddy was a bit naughty, and lied to me, I suppose.

I wouldn’t have paid to have him stuffed if I knew that, of course—Ricki, I mean, not Ruddy. Ruddy wasn’t stuffed. Although he could be very formal.

Still, he could do such lovely things with his moustache—

I’m not sorry I had Ricki stuffed, anyway. He was a sweet little fellow and became much nicer as he got older. Jeavons cried like a child when he died.

That’s why I keep him, I think.

Jeavons, not Ricki, I mean.

I keep Ricki because he was sweet and cute, when he wasn’t biting Jeavons, at least, and Ruddy was a famous man, who fell for me when I was a pretty young thing, and he gave me the very animal he’d made a hero in one of his books. Let’s see Mr. Nicholas Jenkins top that!

But neither of them could top my Jeavons. It takes a special man to weep for a little animal who ate his carpet slippers, and bit his ankles, and was given to his wife by a famous man who was her—friend, long before he came on the scene.

And Jeavons learns, you know. His moustache has made splendid progress in our years together, you know. He’s not quite in Ruddy’s class but—oh, Alymer! How nice of you to drop by! Have you met General Conyers, Isobel?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

It's mid-December, already, and the year is hastening toward oblivion so quickly that I can hardly catch my breath. I sat down to do a piece of writing that very much needed to be done tonight, and, while I got to a good point with it, it is not done.

I was felled, you see, by a bout of nostalgia.

I write to music, and I had a playlist that skipped randomly about tonight. A few songs came up that took me back to the mid-1980s and caught me short.

I don't know about you, but as I go on toward the end of my forties (seriously--that was bloody quick; Basil had a point), I am in a good place; I don't hanker for the past (though I wouldn't mind having my old waistline). But music can catapult me back in time, and into an old frame of mind, and I become two people--the Anglocat of the present, with half my mind and heart, and the much younger version.

And in that doubled perception, part of me feels every emotion as it was at the time, and the rest of me watches, bemused.

It's music that does it to me, generally. In this case, it was an old favorite from my youth, played by the aging piano man himself:

Now, honestly, I fell in love with the song as a teen, long before I had any relationship even remotely resembling one to which it could be applied. (It's the lyrics, the rippling notes of the piano, the rueful, loving tone of the song that got me).

And it still can.

So I embarked on a series of old favorites, each speaking to a different moment in time for me--the old songs that I listened obsessively to, again and again. (This is possibly my most irritating tic, that I will, in this frame of mind, play a song up to a dozen times, like I'm scratching a mosquito bite until it bleeds, and stops itching.)

It's an emotional catharsis, of a kind, and leaves me purged of the delusion that my youth is something to hanker after. That's the argumentum excrementum taurorem. I have never been in a better place than I am now. It's just that I sometimes need to pay a debt to the past, in order to appreciate where I am now. And the old songs are my way of doing that.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Writer on Filming

Here is John le Carré (David Cornwell) discussing the filming of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and praising to the skies the genius of Alec Guiness. It's a great interview, and Cornwell is in full raconteur mode, as well as displaying characteristic insight on the actor's art, what he calls "the controlled schizophrenia of the actor."

He also does a fine impression of Guiness, by the bye.

Here's le Carré on the subject of his breakout book:
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion. Fifty years on, I don't associate the book with anything that ever happened to me, save for one wordless encounter at London airport when a worn-out, middle-aged military kind of man in a stained raincoat slammed a handful of mixed foreign change on to the bar and in gritty Irish accents ordered himself as much Scotch as it would buy. In that moment, Alec Leamas was born. Or so my memory, not always a reliable informant, tells me.

Today I think of the novel as a not-very-well-disguised internal explosion after which my life would never be the same. It was not the first such explosion, or the last. And yes, yes, by the time I wrote it, I had been caught up in secret work off and on for a decade; a decade the more formative because I had the inherited guilt of being too young to fight in the second world war and – more importantly – of being the son of a war-profiteer, another secret I felt I had to keep to myself until he died.

But I was never a mastermind, or a mini-mind, and long before I even entered the secret world, I had an instinct towards fiction that made me a dubious fact-gatherer. I was never at personal risk in my secret work; I was frequently bored stiff by it. Had things been otherwise, my employers would not have allowed me to publish my novel, even if later they kicked themselves for doing so: but that was because they decided it was being taken too seriously by too many people; and because any suggestion that the British Secret Service would betray its own was deemed derogatory to its ethical principles, bad for recruitment, and accordingly Bad for Britain, a charge to which there is no effective answer.
A fascinating, and perceptive man.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wintry Mix

I admit it, I've always loved snow, and winter. It's the reason I'll never move to Florida of my own free will, or any such place. There's something in my soul that responds to the innocence and the darkness both of winter.

The innocence: playing in the snow, my father building a snow dinosaur one year (a proper Tyrannosaurus Rex, thankee, and not a Spielbergian T-Rex) or a bear, based which direction his imagination took that year. Hot cocoa after shoveling, snow forts. The simple, stately beauty of a quotidian world transfigured into something quite--other. And the quiet! The silence as untrodden, fresh snow laps the pathways that once were clear.

And the experience: cold, dark falling early, the frisson of the world transformed into a place where the Norse sagas could take place, where magic seemed real and not always benign. The world evoked by Ghost Story or Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket. Of Lewis's White Witch, come to that.

Winter is come again, and as I walked through snow today, I felt all the child's enthusiasm for it again. I hope I never lose that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Shining City on a Hill

"All I want you to do is imagine if you were witnessing this scene in a movie. The interrogators would be Nazis, wouldn’t they? And now they are us."--Andrew Sullivan

If you can read the Senate Committee Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program without feeling sick, simply sick--well, you've a damned sight stronger stomach than I have, that's all. And I don't think it's anything to take pride in.

The report has provoked a predictable, and well-earned firestorm from Andrew Sullivan (whose persistence and righteous anger on this issue more than make up for his blind spots, occasional self-righteousness, and seeming inability to take a nap). His live-blog is worth a visit, though your skin will crawl as you read the iniquities perpetrated in our names. And if it doesn't--well, as Aaron Sorkin once wrote, then, God, I don't even want to know you.

From The Times:
he long-delayed report, which took five years to produce and is based on more than six million internal agency documents, is a sweeping indictment of the C.I.A.'s operation and oversight of a program carried out by agency officials and contractors in secret prisons around the world in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It also provides a macabre accounting of some of the grisliest techniques that the C.I.A. used to torture and imprison terrorism suspects.

Detainees were deprived of sleep for as long as a week, and were sometimes told that they would be killed while in American custody. With the approval of the C.I.A.'s medical staff, some C.I.A. prisoners were subjected to medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” or “rectal hydration” — a technique that the C.I.A.'s chief of interrogations described as a way to exert “total control over the detainee.” C.I.A. medical staff members described the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, as a “series of near drownings.”

The report also suggests that more prisoners were subjected to waterboarding than the three the C.I.A. has acknowledged in the past. The committee obtained a photograph of a waterboard surrounded by buckets of water at the prison in Afghanistan commonly known as the Salt Pit — a facility where the C.I.A. had claimed that waterboarding was never used. One clandestine officer described the prison as a “dungeon,” and another said that some prisoners there “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.”

Many of the most extreme interrogation methods — including waterboarding — were authorized by Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration. But the report also found evidence that a number of detainees had been subjected to other, unapproved methods while in C.I.A. custody.

The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.

The Senate report quotes a series of August 2002 cables from a C.I.A. facility in Thailand, where the agency’s first prisoner was held. Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.

During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.
Not to mention the breaking of Abu Zubaydah to the point that he would assume the position to be water boarded when his interrogators snapped their fingers, the threatening of one detainee that his mother would be brought in and raped in front of him--and oh, many, many more horrors.

Did I mention that out of 119 detainees, “at least 26 were wrongfully held.” That's over 20%.

All this was perpetrated in our names.

Perpetrated by our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters.

Oh, and all those attacks it prevented? Yeah, not so much. Sorry folks; all a lie; even the CIA can't dispute it. Like the lie that we don't torture. We do.

Perpetrated, it is true, by a Republican administration, and ceased by his Democratic successor--but while Bush and Cheney bear the brunt of the blame (apparently Cheney more than Bush--the report suggest that Bush was misled for some time about the extent of torture), our current president, for whom I voted twice, is not entirely blameless, either. Barack Obama discouraged the release of the report, and tried to delay it; he gave shelter to the guilty. The audacity of hope did not dare to confront this violation of every American ideal. And yet, compromised and tainted though he is in this area, Barack Obama is guilty of basically irresolution, trying to hide the Nation's shame, and retrospective complicity in a crime the enormity of which he did not wish to face.

Perhaps because he feared that we would embrace the torturers, fawning on them, and lick the blood from their gloves:

(Begin at 3:01)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing a Sequel: What It's Like

Over at the Trollope and his Contemporaries reading group, I was asked about my writing process--particularly in terms of characterization. I thought that it was an interesting question, and one worth addressing here, as well.

The precipitating factor was, when my wife and I watched Simon Raven's 1974 adaptation The Pallisers together, we talked about our shared affection for the novels, and I got to complaining about how Phineas Finn seems shorn of his fire in The Prime Minister and The Duke's Children. I suggested that AT wasn't done with him--that the failure of the Prime Minister to sell at his usual level had discouraged and maybe diverted him. She urged me to write it up. I wrote the first three chapters--and dried up. Then my computer crashed. Six years later I found the manuscript, and typed it into my new computer. When I finished retying chapter 3, I knew what should happen in chapter 4.

From the moment I started the book, the ending--I mean the last two lines of dialogue and their context--were known to me. That Emilius and Lizzie would return was, too, and that Lord Chiltern's and Violet's son would fall for Phineas's niece--all this I had from the start. The character of Savrola Vavasour was a later idea, but he fit--his historical antecedent had a mother who was of a higher American social class than Winifred Hurtle, but the idea of putting her in play was irresitible. And George Vavasor was not a bad analog to the historical father.

By and large, the characters ran the show. The book just poured out of me, although I had to do some research, looking up geographic details, reading about mining, and 19th Century criminal procedure in Britain. But the interactions were pretty spontaneous; most of the characters came enough alive at least in my own mind that I felt I knew who they were and what they were about--how they would and wouldn't speak.

In the writing, the identities of characters would resolve--the magistrate became John Toogood after I wrote the opening part of his courtroom scene.

Keeping track of the primary characters was reasonably easy; keeping track of where they lived was not. I had to do a chart with all the locations of the various homes of the London-based residences. The cameos were trickier yet. Somewhere along the line, I decided to have cameos, not just from Trollope, but from other writers in the same era. Some were fleeting appearances (blink, and you miss Zuleika Dobson or Paul Montague. Some will be of considerable importance. I think of them as my "Easter eggs." The more important ones appear in more than one scene; they were brought in to fit the story, but to enrich Trollope Country by visiting--to make my fictional universe a broader place, with its ethos from Trollope, but with some (hopefully successful) visitors interpolating themselves. I liked the idea of bringing not just these other characters but their implications and milieu adding weight to their interactions with the Trollope characters.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Working Up the Nerve

This is the key moment, I think, in Peter Capaldi's first season as the Doctor. Notice how vulnerable he is, eve after the TARDIS traps the "Boneless." He starts off slowly, wistfully, thinking of how it could have been, and then, as he shrugs his jacket angrily into place:
I don't suppose it really matters now. You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine.

(The Doctor steps out of the Tardis. Clara, Risby and Fenton come down the ladder.)

DOCTOR: The man that stops the monsters. I'm sending you back to your own dimension. Who knows? Some of you may even survive the trip. And, if you do, remember this. You are not welcome here. This plane is protected. I am the Doctor.

(He turns, and Clara throws him the sonic screwdriver.)
DOCTOR: And I name you The Boneless.
The last line is a bit duff, but Capaldi sells it. More to the point, he has to work himself up to a classic Tennant or Smith style epic speech of epic-ness. This Doctor doesn't live there as easily as did his predecessors.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Preacher Sermon

One of the tricky things about being both an aspirant to ordination and writing fiction in the tradition of Anthony Trollope is Trollope's writing on the clergy--it is often a little close to the bone:
There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.

With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us! Yes, my too self-confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries, which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation. The bible is good, the prayer-book is good, nay, you yourself would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time-honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted—if one could only avoid it.
Right, see the problem? Having internalized Trollope's critique, what can one do? You can avoid that trap, but then there's the Reno Sweeney problem if you overbalance the other way:

Frankly, I can't get away with that dress, anyway...