The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Never Be Too Proud to be Present--or Too Proud to Stay Away

I don't really do political blogging anymore, but a friend of mine asked recently whether the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to denounce ongoing negotiations with Iran was a good or bad idea, which led me to put on my long-discarded hat of political science major and think it through. Certainly reaction has been vehement across the political spectrum, even a bit histrionic. This article rounds up examples of some of the political fallout to the speech. While I don't think flamboyance or outrage is justified on either side of this one, the discussion has been full of both.

Let me begin by noting that as to the merits of any deal, assuming a deal is reached, I'm agnostic--the great rule of bargaining is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and applies to the talks, so we're in the dark as to what terms, if any, will be reached. But I think that, whatever eventuates, the speech is ill advised in several ways:

1. It provides Iran with political cover if no deal is reached--it can say that it became clear that no deal could pass the Senate (treaties must be ratified by a 2/3 vote of the Senate, after all, which is in GOP hands). Remember, Obama's fallback strategy in doomed negotiations is to make the other party look like the unreasonable one in negotiations (e.g., the GOP repeatedly turning down budget deals heavily slanted to its priorities rather than raise a dollar in tax revenue). If that was the fallback game plan here, the Congress has blown it.

2. Congress inviting a foreign leader of any nation to sabotage negotiations in which the US is curently engaged is just a bad idea. Foreign policy is primarily in the hands of the Executive. This significantly undercuts that principle.

3. The US is not, by the way, the only counterparty in these talks to Iran--a deal could be reached without us, which would have the effect of loosening other countries' sanctions on Iran, and cutting us out of the oversight. Do we really want to leave the negotiations and implementation of an agreement to the rest of the so-called P5+1--that is, the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany? Myself, I'm a firm believer in C.P. Snow's dictum: Never be too proud to be present.

4. It undermines trust between the Israeli and American administrations even further--Netanyahu's leaking of various proposals made in the negotiations as if they were agreed on (remember, nothing is agreed until evrything is agreed) has already caused the Obama Administration to cease sharing details of the negotiations with him. Also, as the article linked up top suggests, it has the potential to erode the longstanding consensus that support for Israel is a non-partisan issue.

5. If a deal is reached, and it's a stinker, the Senate can simply not ratify it. There. Crisis averted.

I should add that I don't think Netanyahu is primarily at fault here--he seems to be relying on his adviser and ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who is a former GOP operative, and whose familiarity with American politics he is justifiably relying on. I don't doubt that Dermer sincerely feels it is in Israel's best interests to bypass the President under these circumstances, but the appearance of partisanship is worsened by Dermer's background.

On balance, I don't see how it helps--the Obama Administration is scarcely in the mood to listen to the Prime Minister now--and I think it could do harm.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom

The death of Leonard Nimoy, at age 83, is drawing forth many well deserved tributes from sources ranging the worlds of art, poetry and acting.

As well, of course, as from those of us who grew up on him in Star Trek. Really, it's impossible, I think, for those who did not grew up on the original, back when it was the only game in town (pre-Star Wars, before Doctor Who was readily available for viewing in the US, to understand its influence.

And Leonard Nimoy's Spock was a huge part of that influence. The outsider, the nerd. The one who was smart but looked down on at times for it. Who didn't quite fit in, but was a hero.

As a once-upon-a-time introverted, bookish kid who had one layer of skin too few (believe me, I came by my empathy for The Hour's Randall Brown honestly), Spock (like Sherlock Holmes) provided reassurance and a model: Roll with the punches. Keep doing what you do--and respect those who pursue diverse paths. And use dry wit as a weapon.

Nimoy was,of course, far more than the role he played on TV and in the films. A gifted director and artist. As an actor, a surprisingly effective Mustafa Mond in Brave New World (1997). A philanthropist.

But for me, I'm grateful that Spock was around when I needed him.

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Eve of George Herbert's Day

Tomorrow, we celebrate mystic, poet, and priest George Herbert. One of my favorites, and one set beautifully by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is The Call:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.
The element of joy in our response to God's call is, I think, an important one. That our calling should not be dreary, or wearisome, but something that we do in service to others, but in the process achieving out own best, truest selves.

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is the variety of those who make the calendar, poets as well as prophets.

Sometimes, of course, they can be both.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Are You Hep to the Jive?

The last time I saw Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was at BB Kings, where the above video was taken (not, I hasten to add).

They're back on March 12, and I'll be there, along with (I hope) some of the crew who have gone with me before.

A great band, with propulsive sound and irreverent but loving renditions of swing classics and their own compositions.

Sometimes one must enjoy life. Especially in the grip of a cold winter, bring on Mr Heatmiser.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Lost Masterpiece

Imagine a novel sequence, building to a climax after five preceding volumes, reaching what is meant to be its grad conclusion in volume six.

And then imagine that the publisher made the author cut fully one-quarter of that last volume,solely for production costs purposes.

How good mist the author be to make that last volume a classic of English literature anyway, and what must the full uncut version be?

From the Folio Society:
24th April 2015 is the bicentenary of the birth of Anthony Trollope; commemorative events will be taking place throughout the year culminating in a service at Westminster Abbey in December. The Folio Society will mark the anniversary with the first ever publication of The Duke’s Children in its complete, unabridged form.

The final volume of Trollope’s Palliser novels and widely regarded as one of his finest, The Duke’s Children, in its current form, is considerably shorter than the preceding titles in the series. However, as originally written, it was of equal length, containing additional threads of plot and far richer characterisation. Due to economic constraints, Trollope was instructed to reduce the book by one quarter, cutting no less than 65,000 words.

The original manuscript of The Duke’s Children lay neglected in the Beinecke Library of Yale University for many years. Over the last decade several researchers, led by Professor Steven Amarnick, have been patiently working to restore the book to the original form the author intended. The first page of the manuscript, reproduced here, demonstrates not only the extent of the cuts – almost half the page was lost – but the problem of legibility the researchers had to overcome: Trollope’s handwriting is hard to decipher at the best of times, and even more so when struck through.

No knowledge of the earlier books is necessary to enjoy the plot chronicling the vicissitudes of the Palliser family, and the perilous paths of true – and false – love. To accompany the first complete edition of The Duke’s Children The Folio Society has commissioned essays from those closely involved in the restoration project; Professor Steven Amarnick, Robert F. Wiseman, Susan Lowell Humphreys and, chairman of The Trollope Society, Michael G. Williamson. These are printed in a separate commentary volume.

The new edition, made possible through a partnership between The Folio Society and the Trollope Society, also includes an introductio which has, fittingly, been written by Joanna Trollope, 5th generation niece to the author. The books will be half-bound in Indian goatskin with green canvas sides, gold blocking, gilded top edge, hand-marbled endpapers and a limitation page numbered by hand. Some special copies, forming part of the same hand-numbered limitation, will be made available full-bound in Indian goatskin, blocked in 22-carat gold, with hand-marbled edges and endpapers, and presented in a solander box.
It is an extraordinary literary event, and most fortuitously timed to fall in this bicentennial year.

Of course, I own several copies of the truncated edition--one the Copyright edition published by Tauchnitz, another part of a nice leather-bound set of the Barsetshire and Pallisers novels I picked up, and the 1970s OUP hardcover edition.

But those lost 65,000 words--who knows what they will add, in terms of the in depth characterization Trollope specialized in? 65,000 words--that's almost the entire recommended word count for a contemporary novel. Imagine what Anthony Trollope could do with all that?

Or, better yet, read it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Battle, Murder and Sudden Death

(Buster T. Katt [foreground] and Giles T. Katt, in 2010)

Odd that I was writing about the Great Litany just a few minutes ago, because we've had, in the immortal line of the Rite I version, "battle, murder and sudden death" here tonight--for I hasten to add, a mouse.

A mouse. A wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie, the hell he was. We heard some mously piping behind the TV upstairs (that is, in the living room adding our bedroom), and gazed around at our cats. Four more somnolent, disinterested creatures you never saw. Ethan yawned. Betty concurred. Then Giles investigated, and hope bloomed. He then returned to me, and said with his eyes: "Mouse back there. Good luck with that."

Even Elspeth the Mighty Huntress, who once brought down a bat on the wing, did not stir.

I was, it seemed, the last bulwark of defense between this beastie and the bedroom. La Caterina was not thrilled.

I pulled out my trusty rapier (yes, I have one. Don't try this at home. I'm a trained, er, amateur).

As I prepared a lunge into the space (believe me, my heart was bleeding for the poor creature, but what is one to do?), our cat Buster, who has been these past seven months ill and gaunt (though recently reviving a little bit), walked slowly over. Too thin, too frail. Fifteen years old, like all of the others, except Elspeth who's fourteen. What would he--

--oh. He's really in there [piping noise-don'tthink too much about it]. Buster's lithe, if gaunt, frame pushes further in. And out saunters Buster, with a large field mouse (looked him up on Google Image) in his mouth. The mouse struggled, but Buster had this. He took the mouse downstairs, through the kitchen, to the front door, and finished him quickly. (That surprised me a bit.) Then, making sure the mouse was dead. He looked over at me. I disposed of the remains (no blood, thanks, Buster works cleanly), and while sad for the poor mouse--wrong place and time, laddie--rewarded my cat for his work.

Fifteen years old, thin as hell, the fire still burns.

Buster remains a cat among cats.

From the Fury of the Norsemen...

When I was a boy, I read the works of Ruth McKenney, and was particularly caught by her story of reading Dickens's Child's History of England, which taught young Ruth and her sister Eileen little history, but the immortal line of the Great Litany: "From the Fury of the Norsemen--Goo-ood Lord, Deliver us!" (They used it on unwelcome visitors, inter alia).

Some years later, at St Paul's School for Boys, an Episcopalschool, I first heard the Great Litany, and got the joke. I also thought it was one of the most arresting things I had heard in my young life.

This chap is much better than I was, but I had the honor of being the litanist today for the Great Litany.

It was the biggest part I've ever played in any service, as we circumambulated the sanctuary, with me chanting the versicles and the choir (and congregation, but, oh, that choir!) doing the responses.

Jokingly, I had warned the Deacon, that if I got in over my head, she might hear me bellow for help by intoning "From the Fury of the Norsemen---"

But, in fact, I survived. And so did the Great Litany.

Thank you, St. John's in the Village! Thank you, St Pauls. And, yes--thank you Ruth McKenney.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Trollope in the Times: A Jumping Off Point

Asked the question what is the best portrayal of a marriage in literature, Charles McGrath writes:
But there are exceptions to the unhappy marriage rule, the union of Kitty and Levin in “Anna Karenina,” for one, and to me even more satisfying, the marriage of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora in Trollope’s Palliser novels. Not the least of the appeal of this fictional marriage is that it takes place over some 20 years or so in six different novels (seven if you count “The Small House at Allington,” though it’s strictly speaking one of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, not a Palliser book), in which Plantagenet and Glencora are sometimes major characters, sometimes minor ones. The books are like a mini-series (and, indeed, became a famous BBC 26-parter in the early ’70s): We get to watch the characters evolve, grow old and surprise themselves.

Blond, clever, charming, witty, Glencora is easily the most beguiling of Trollope’s heroines. Trollope as much as admitted that he was in love with her himself. But except for his tremendous fortune, there’s nothing lovable about Plantagenet, who actually prides himself on being dull. All he cares for is politics and a mind-numbing scheme for switching British currency to the decimal system. Glencora is bullied into marrying him by her guardians, who fear that she is about to run away with a handsome scapegrace named Burgo Fitzgerald.

Trollope, a much sexier writer than he is given credit for, leaves no doubt that the attraction between Burgo and Glencora is powerful and erotic, or that Glencora’s feelings for her husband never heat up to the same degree. Marriage, both here and in his other books, is not necessarily ecstatic but, rather — when it works — a shifting arrangement of trade-offs. The relationship of Plantagenet and Glencora begins in antagonism and misunderstanding and gradually, over the course of thousands of pages, warms to understanding and to a fond attachment that is erotic in its own, understated way. She thaws him out and he loves her for it.They also quarrel and reconcile a lot. The marriage’s most volatile period comes in the penultimate book of the series, in which Plantagenet, though he is really too thin-skinned and self-righteous for the job, becomes prime minister. Newly energized, Glencora throws herself into advancing his career and becomes a kind of 19th-century Pamela Harriman, meddling in elections, spending her own considerable fortune on parties, dinners, receptions. Plantagenet hates the vulgarity of it all but gets swept up all the same. You feel on both sides (and hers especially) a growing ardor, a new understanding of what they can do for each other.

And then, shockingly, it’s over. Too stiff-backed to compromise, Plantagenet loses an election and the premiership. He and Glencora leave for Europe to lick their wounds, and on the very first page of the next, and last, volume, Glencora is dead. Plantagenet, though in his way just as repressed and socially hidebound as Walter Bridge, finds himself even more in love. “He had at times been inclined to think that in the exuberance of her spirits she had been a trouble rather than a support to him,” Trollope writes. “But now it was as though all outside appliances were taken away from him. There was no one of whom he could ask a question.”
This is a lovely analysis by McGrath, and I am reluctant to cut it, because it so ably sketches the characters' arc. It's quite on point.

We don't see enough of Marie and Phineas Finn to be sure, but the glimpses we have of them in Trollope (in The Prime Minister and in The Duke's Children, we see a very close-knit couple--a love match, yes, but one in which each has a sphere of autonomy--Marie has her business, Phineas his career in the Commons. But they are fiercely mutually protective, and seem attuned to each other in a way that childless couples often can be.

In projecting them out in Phineas at Bay, that is the direction I followed. However, the question remained:

What about the Duke? Where would Planty Pall be, some ten years after Glencora's death?

And, most of all, should I leave him there?

True confession time: I thought of it--just leave him where Trollope did, alone again, building bridges to the next generation without Glencora. Keep him a minor character, a walk on, really. After all, he's not that integral to the two Phineas novels.

But then I remembered a pair of scenes in Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset. When Mrs. Proudie, the domineering virago who has split the diocese and ruled over her husband through five novels, suddenly dies, he is transfixed by profoundly mixsed emotions:
He was free now. Even in his misery,—for he was very miserable,—he could not refrain from telling himself that. No one could now press uncalled-for into his study, contradict him in the presence of those before whom he was bound to be authoritative, and rob him of all his dignity. There was no one else of whom he was afraid. She had at least kept him out of the hands of other tyrants. He was now his own master, and there was a feeling,—I may not call it of relief, for as yet there was more of pain in it than of satisfaction,—a feeling as though he had escaped from an old trouble at a terrible cost of which he could not as yet calculate the amount. He knew that he might now give up all idea of writing to the archbishop.

She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. She had kept his money for him and made things go straight, when they had been poor. His interests had always been her interests. Without her he would never have been a bishop. So, at least, he told himself now, and so told himself probably with truth. She had been very careful of his children. She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
That last brilliant sentence (echoing a description of Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers, at a time when he will, if his father, then the bishop, dies before the Government falls, be appointed to the See) is where a lesser novelist would have left the Bishop forever. But Trollope knows that life goes on. We adapt, we begin to rebuild. So Bishop Proudie, still I'm mourning, appears again, and reaches out to his former foe, the Archdeacon, at the funeral of Mr Harding, the Warden of the first novel:
And in the transept they were joined by another clergyman whom no one had expected to see that day. The bishop was there, looking old and worn,—almost as though he were unconscious of what he was doing. Since his wife's death no one had seen him out of the palace or of the palace grounds till that day. But there he was,—and they made way for him into the procession behind the two ladies,—and the archdeacon, when he saw it, resolved that there should be peace in his heart, if peace might be possible.
What I took from this was that I would be breaking faith with Trollope if I left Planty Pall where I found him. The story must move forward, or not be attempted at all.

What McGrath calls--quite rightly, in my opinion--the best depiction of marriage in literature deserves no less.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

No, You Are Not Atticus/Nor was Meant to Be

They have to be kidding me:
Alabama is not unique among states in strongly opposing same-sex marriage, and it is not alone in bristling under a federal court order that goes against a substantial popular majority.

It is, however, the only state where probate judges who would issue same-sex marriage licenses were instructed not to comply with a federal court order. “In terms of what’s been going on in marriage equality in the past 18 months, this is really the only type of defiance of its kind,” said Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign.

Such brazen and often futile campaigns are practically hard-wired into the state’s character. Long after George Wallace’s stand against integration in the schoolhouse door, to which Chief Justice Moore’s stance has been inevitably compared, the state’s record of taking on the federal government in long-shot battles has continued to set it apart even from its conservative neighbors.


“It’s like our oxygen is defiance and our identity is aggrievement,” said Diane McWhorter, an Alabama native and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about civil rights-era Birmingham, “Carry Me Home.”

While saying that Chief Justice Moore and Wallace were “on the wrong side of history,” Ms. McWhorter also said their losing battles brought to mind one of the icons of Alabama literature, the proto-civil rights lawyer Atticus Finch, who unsuccessfully, and unpopularly, defended a black man in a small-town trial. “What they have in common is their heroism is bound up in the futility of their cause,” she said.
(My italics, her emetics.)

Like Siegfried Farnon, I don't like addressing my readers--or Ms. McWhorter, for that matter--in these terms, but also like him, "I am bound to tell [her] that [she is] talking the most unmitigated balls, bullshit and poppycock."

There is nothing of Atticus Finch in defying a federal court order to keep a historically discriminated against minority from achieving equality. He was firmly in the other camp.

Bob Ewell, maybe. Not Atticus.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Judges Defending Justice

Speaking as an ex-Legal Aid Criminal Appeals Bureau attorney, this is rare, fresh, fruit:

(The fun begins at the 18 minute mark)

The upshot:
Deputy Atty. Gen. Kevin R. Vienna was there to urge three judges on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold murder convictions against Johnny Baca for two 1995 killings in Riverside County. Other courts had already determined that prosecutors had presented false evidence in Baca's trial but upheld the verdicts anyway.

Vienna had barely started his argument when the pummeling began.Judge Alex Kozinski asked Vienna if his boss, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, wanted to defend a conviction "obtained by lying prosecutors." If Harris did not back off the case, Kozinski warned, the court would "name names" in a ruling that would not be "very pretty."

Judge Kim Wardlaw wanted to know why Riverside County prosecutors presented a murder-for-hire case against the killer but did not charge the man they said had arranged the killings.

"It looks terrible," said Judge William Fletcher.

The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined.

The low-profile case probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the video, which attorneys emailed to other attorneys and debated on blogs.

In a series of searing questions, the three judges expressed frustration and anger that California state judges were not cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct. By law, federal judges are supposed to defer to the decisions of state court judges.

A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found.

The case that sparked the court's recent outrage involved the killing of John Adair and his live-in partner, John Mix, two decades ago. Baca, a friend of Adair's adopted son, was working as a houseboy for the couple.

A jailhouse informant testified that Baca had confided the son planned the killing. The two were going to split Adair's inheritance, the informant said. Other witnesses testified that Adair was planning to disinherit his son, who was never charged in the case.

Baca was tried twice and found guilty both times. A state appeals court overturned the first verdict. The second withstood an appeal, even though the state court found the informant and a Riverside County prosecutor had given false testimony.

The informant falsely testified he had asked for and received no favors. The prosecutor falsely corroborated that on the stand, according to court records. Baca was sentenced to 70 years to life

As a result of the panel's grilling, the Attorney General withdrew the appeal. There will be a new trial, this time, we may hope, without state-sanctioned perjury.

It's rare when justice is done so satisfyingly.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Hour You Can’t Afford to Miss: An Acting Masterclass

I recently discovered The Hour, the 1950's-set backstage drama focusing around a pioneering female producer creating and then developing a "60 minutes" stele news program. (Anyone who thinks the notion of the BBC giving a show to a woman in the late 50's is inherently unrealistic should bear in mind that a mere 7 years after the setting of Series 1, Verity Lambert was the creating producer of the new series Doctor Who).

The Hour is well-written, with an appealing group of flawed characters played by--and this is the real draw--stunningly good actors. I mean, seriously, the cast is standout. Romola Garai is excellent as Bel Rowley, the fledgling producer, ably supported by Ben Wishaw as irritant-brilliant-young-journalist/love interest Freddie Lyon. The love triangle (quadrilateral, really) is completed by Dominic West as presenter Hector Madden, originally promoted through family connections, but who struggles to prove himself, and Oona Chaplin as his wife Marnie. Rounding out the core cast is the incomparable Anna Chancellor as veteran newswoman Lix Storm, who makes the quadrilateral into a pentagon with a naturally louche air.

Series 1 is good (if a tad incestuous), but the show catches fire in season 2.

I want to talk about one plot thread--really, one scene--in series 2, because it is, to me, a masterclass in fine acting, but I can't do so without revealing key plot twists. So be aware….

The scene in question involves Anna Chancellor's Lix Storm and a new character added for series 2, Randall Brown, portrayed by the inimitable Peter Capaldi. Brown, a sober alcoholic with what appears to be OCD, has accepted the position of Head of News at the BBC. He's firm but fair, diagnoses Hector's problem drinking with the knowledge of experience, and challenges but ultimately supports the team. And he spars with Lix, with whom he clearly has deep history--she "steals" and returns his books to which he reacts by simply thanking her, mocks his "fiddling" to his face, but defends him to a shocked Bel.

We later find that Randall took the post to reestablish contact with Lix, and trace the daughter who resulted from their affair in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. This plot thread doesn't spring out at us all at once. It's foreshadowed in series 1 where Lix describes her own past:
Lix: Ah, Bel. Is Freddie in? He just asked me to do something for him.
Bel: What?
Lix: Oh, nothing; it can wait.

Bel: But what did he ask you to do for him?
Lix: Oh, he wanted some information on Peter Darrell. It’s nothing, darling. His heart is still with you.
Bel: We’re just friends.
Lix: Of course. I had a friend once. Treated him like a dog. Adorable man; absolutely useless at seduction. Then he married someone else and I realized it wasn’t him that was absolutely useless. It was me.
(Of course, Randall, we find out, is unmarried.)

Randall weaves himself into the show before the daughter motif is raised, and by the time it comes, we are invested in him. So when, after a false positive, Randall hands a folder to Lix revealing their daughter's death in a 1940 air raid, Chancellor and Capaldi show just how good they are:

Now break down the scene into its component parts, one with dialogue, and two without.

The dialogue (Identification of speakers, and characterization of tone by me):
Randall: Would you forgive me if I asked you to go?

Lix: [clearly gutted, voice roughened and a bit ragged] I-I can't move.

Randall: [pause, softly] Please.

Randall: [fiddling, with papers on desk, still softly, but clearly anxious; almost begging her] Please, I need you to.

Lix: [looks up, firmly] No.

Lix: [resuming her normal posture, more firmly--almost angrily] No, Randall, I won't go. [Pause]
I won't. [Almost dismissively] You just just do what you need to do.
Now, as I read this part of the sequence, Lix is both pulling herself together, but feeling that Randall is pushing her away, and trivializing their loss into just another crisis to be tidied away. She's feeling him try to reassemble his walls after he tore down hers, which she is trying hastily to reassemble.

The first portion without dialogue is even more impressive. It's a tableaux--Randall's breakdown as Lix watches. It's easy to focus only on Capaldi's bravura performance of a man living Yeats's line "the center cannot hold." The moment when he's no longer tidying, or adjusting, but flinging, destroying, happens so gradually that it's easy to miss. And then when he drops to the chair (so fast the camera loses him) with a single sob--Capaldi completely incarnates Randall's despair.

[The score, by the way, is very good here--unobtrusive, but subtly getting louder and a tad more dissonant as Randall spirals out of control.]

But you lose fully half the value of the scene if you only focus on Capaldi. Because Chancellor is every bit as good, and as pivotal, here. Lix watches, at first judgmentally, coolly appraising her onetime lover's weakness, which she doesn't understand. As Randall's control begins to shred, and the anger and despair take over, her face grows heavier, empathy dawns in her eyes. She sees this isn't mere anxiety-soothing eccentricity, but something far more. As Randall begins to create mess and then to throw things, her newly reassembled walls break down, and a tear for him trails down her face. She grows alarmed (for Randall--she's not afraid of him, but for him). The full measure of the tragedy for Randall as well as for herself is heavy in the room. When he collapses, she squeezes the tears from her eyes.

The third movement is much, much shorter, but still brilliantly performed. Lix hurries to Randall, and throws her arms around him--

--only for him to flail away, startled, frightened, terrified, by the intimacy. He has one layer of skin too few, and cannot bear to be touched. Lix pulls back, but doesn't completely break contact, hurt but now understanding. Gently, she pushes his head back down to the blotter, and puts her arms around him, much more tentatively, but, when he doesn't flail away from her, more firmly, resting her cheek against his head. This time, he accepts her embrace, and returns it, placing his hand over hers.

It's an extraordinary sequence, brilliantly performed. The characters' respective psyches are illuminated as by a bolt of lightning, and, heart-rending though it is, the last moment is somehow--hopeful.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vale, Sully!

After a long and storied career in blogging, Andrew Sullivan is calling it quits. For all the times he has made me grind my teeth in frustration, I will miss the Daily Dish--indeed, since Sully went independent, I have been a paying customer, and at more than the minimum price.

That's for two reasons:

First, I admire Sullivan's willingness to correct himself when he is convinced he is wrong (he teaks some convincing, mind--but who doesn't?). All of us who blog, or write in any medium, hate to eat our words, and Sullivan hasn't done it in every case where I think it warranted--he still defends the arrant folly of giving The Bell Curve a platform, not to mention his half-assed apologia for publishing Betsy McCaughey's false hit-piece on the Clinton health plan. But still, Sullivan fully, painfully, and in real time, recanted his single greatest error, his support for the Iraq War, and (albeit grudgingly) to those who were right. That could not have been easy.

Second, as a liberal, I believe we need intelligent, open-minded conservatism to criticize our ideas, to prevent us from falling into groupthink and complacency. I do not find much of that on the modern American right. I had a list of examples here--but what would be the point?

We need better conservatives. I mean it. Conservatives who do not blanketly assume that the policies of the Reagan Era automatically provide all the answers we need a full generation later. Newsflash: I was 22 when Reagan left office; that's 26 years ago. I'm by any calculation a middle aged man, and I have lived more of my life since Reagan's term ended than I did up until that moment. The playbook is a period piece, whatever one thought of it in situ. (I was against it. Still think I was mostly right.)

Sullivan's book The Conservative Soul presented the best vision of a philosophical conservatism that I have read since my college days. It's not a philosophy I embrace, mind you--but it is a measured, thought out response to the challenges of the Twenty-first Century. Among American conservative thinkers, Sullivan stands virtually alone in his willingness to engage civilly, and examining his own ideas as well as those of others on the level of first principles. Sullivan generally passes the fundamental criterion necessary for serious debate, one which I have quoted before:
If I enter into discussion on any topic, intellectual, moral, practical, or whatever combination you like, it matters very little what I feel for my opponent, or what he feels for me. But I am entitled to require--or if I am not so entitled then I have to beg to be excused--that he and I will observe some basic and simple rules. If he refers to words that I have said or written, he will quote them accurately. He will not attribute to me attitudes and opinions which I do not hold, and if he makes any such attributions, he will check them against the documentary evidence. He will be careful when referring to incidents in my biography, and he will be scrupulous about getting his facts right. Naturally, I have a duty to obey the same rules in return. Nothing could be much more prosaic or straightforward; but without these ground-rules, any kind of serious human exchange becomes impossible.
--C.P. Snow, "The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case," in Snow, Public Affairs (1971) at 81.
Frequently, he does better; he tries to engage his opponents at their best, not caricaturing him. He learns from mistakes, and tries to be more open to opponents than once he was.

I don't mean to gild him too much--some of those early mistakes are horrendous, and he can fall into glibness all too easily. (As, no doubt, can I). But at his best, he has enriched American political discussion, and I hope he will continue to do so, in new ways.

The Dish will be missed.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Academic Rigor Mortis?

When I attended college, I earned some money as a tutor to some of the basketball team. My best student was a young man who knew he didn't have the talent to go pro, but was fiercely determined to get an education financed through his sports scholarship. He wanted to make more of himself. He did, by dint of hard work.

From the Times:
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has long clung to the idea that college athletes are essentially engaged in extracurricular activities, but evidence to the contrary is mounting.

Football players might devote as many as 60 hours a week to their sport, with little time for studies. Graduation rates for Division I football and men’s basketball players hover around 50 percent, according to federal statistics. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has found that over the last two decades, some 3,000 students, about half of them athletes, took courses that sometimes did not meet or require any work. Two former players, Rashanda McCants and Devon Ramsay, filed a lawsuit in January claiming the university and N.C.A.A. failed to fulfill their stated missions of educating them.

Most college officials have focused reforms on sustaining academic standards and limiting sports participation. But to acknowledge reality — or what some consider the charade of college sports — others propose the opposite: more sports, as in offering varsity athletes academic credit, and perhaps a whole curriculum built around their sport, under the tutelage of learned coaches.
Oh, aye, that's a plan.

Frankly, I'm with Ripper on this one:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Beginning of Wisdom

[A Sermon for 4 Epiphany
Delivered February 1, 2015
at St. John's in the Village]

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”
---Psalm 11:10

We all have our vices.

Don’t worry; I’ll only be talking about mine today. Well, one of them, that is.

And I’m only doing that because it comes up in all three of the readings, and in the Psalm.

When that happens, it’s pretty hard to ignore it.

So, I’m going to talk about a secret vice of mine. Or maybe a not-so-secret vice.

That’s knowledge. Seriously, I love it. I love knowing things. I love it enough to tell you that Goethe made knowledge the ultimate temptation for Faust, so there. That’ll show you.

I also love using that knowledge to get things done.

It’s all the more fun if I know it—whatever it is—and you don’t.

You will not be surprised to hear that I am a lawyer in my day job.

Now, that love of knowledge isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love teaching, which is about sharing, and even sharing a favorite book or tv show with a friend can make me ridiculously happy. These are good things.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s that feeling I just mentioned—the wanting to know more than anyone else, the love of the power that knowledge can bring.

In psalm 111 we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Now, as Episcopalians we probably all have some sense that this doesn’t mean God is so terrifying that wisdom means being afraid of the terrible vengeance God will take on us, in punishing us for our sins. That tradition exists in Christianity, but it isn’t ours.

The fear of the Lord meant in the psalm is not that God hates us, or that God will be cruel to us. It means that wisdom begins with an experience. And that experience is the recognition of God in our lives. And coming face to face with that ultimate reality is so much more than we can imagine, that a glimpse of God strikes us with awe.

We don’t do awe well in our generation. We toss around the word “awesome” as a synonym for “excellent” or “good.” But that’s not awe.

Awe can be frightening. And I’m not going to conjure up all the standard nature metaphors—beautiful but terrifying lightning storms, or incredible mountain vistas.

Because good though those metaphors are, we’re talking about God, and you can’t have a relationship with Niagara Falls, or a mountain. A mountain or the Falls can change who we are, but all the movement is on our part. It can’t know us, the way Paul describes God as knowing us today in First Corinthians “…but anyone who loves God is known by him.”.

No, let’s stick closer to home for this. Think back to the first moment you realized were in love. Not infatuation. Not desire. The real thing. Now, I can’t speak for anybody but me, but mixed in with that unbelievable joy, that thrill that only the presence of that one special person can bring, is a kind of fear. The fear of being vulnerable. Will she love me back? What happens when he gets to know how insecure I am? Will I get hurt?

That’s awe. Recognizing that to be in relationship with God is to make ourselves vulnerable, and to do it anyway, that is the beginning of wisdom.

The beginning of wisdom is to let ourselves be guided by love.

Paul tells us straight out in First Corinthians: Knowledge puffs but love builds up.

Knowledge on its own can make us full of ourselves—puff us up with self-importance. But love will use everything that we have, everything that we are, and build up. Build up what? Those around us, the Church, the world. And knowledge in the service of love has its proper part to play in that building up.

Love outranks knowledge. If we love God, Paul tells us, we will use our knowledge to help those around us, and not to celebrate how much better we are than other people.

The example Paul gives is one that relates to customs in the ancient world, but it’s worth taking a look at it.

The Church in Corinth had a problem; the meat made available at pubic feasts, or even in the marketplace, had often been sanctified to the pagan gods. Now, meat served up at a general feast, could be the only meat poor people might have the chance to eat for months. Also, the feasts were an important part of community life. So what to do?

Paul makes two key points: The pagan gods don’t exist, so meaningless rituals to fictional characters can’t make a good dinner sinful. So what if the meat was cooked in front of an idol? The whole thing is nonsense, Paul says, so you might as well dig in and have a good meal.

On the other hand, some converts were a little skittish. They’re new, and while they may hear the message that there is only one God, actually taking it onboard emotionally is a different thing. Seeing their new brothers and sisters eating among the pagans might undermine their surety in the faith.

So, what does Paul advise? Basically, this: Don’t show off. Care more about how your action will affect your new brothers and sisters than on proving to them that you are right. You know perfectly well that the food and drink are harmless, Paul says, but why make it harder for those who don’t know as much as you do? Because it isn’t always about us.

It’s more important to act in a loving way and to consider others then to win a debate over something trivial.

And, even when the debate isn’t trivial, it’s even more important to act lovingly.

There’s a clue here as to what Paul means about loving God and being known by God. After all, we’re all known by God, so what can he be getting at?

I wonder if he’s saying that if we love God enough to not insist on getting our own way, even when that way is right, we have entered into a different kind of relationship with God.

And that new kind of relationship is one in which we are willing to not be seen as knowing more, as being right, if it helps others to feel secure enough to make themselves vulnerable to God. To feel that thrill of awe.

Wisdom begins when knowledge is put to use for the benefit of others, and not to gain status. After all, the scribes taught the same scriptures as Jesus, the Law and the Prophets. Half the time they try to trip him up, it’s on whether he knows them as well as they do. But he taught with authority, today’s gospel tells us, and that’s what made him different, as different as the true prophets in Deuteronomy are from the false. And what was that authority? Superior knowledge? Did he beat them at Bible trivia?

No; he brought his teaching into life. In his letters from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus “the man for others.” He lived his life in service to those who needed him. He lived lovingly. He healed those who were hurting. Because he brought those who were alienated from God, and as a result, had lost their own true selves, back into relationship. That’s how Jesus, and not the scribes, taught with authority.

And what did he teach those people he helped?

He taught them awe.

He did it by seeing them, recognizing them, and calling them to wholeness.

What can we do?

We can try to follow Jesus’s example, and see those we meet along the way as they are. We can see our sisters and brothers in their insecurities imperfections, and anxieties—and act lovingly toward them anyway. We can avoid rehashing old quarrels, stop trying to prove a point, and just let it be.

We can open ourselves to friendship, and risk being rejected.

That doesn’t sound like very much, but I know that when it’s not about me, and my opinions, and I manage to get my ego out of the way the room it takes up? That space gets filled with the Holy Spirit.

And that really is awesome.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.