The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Worn Out?

"For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest."

So Lord Byron wrote, and, apparently, The NYT thinks that Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah has outworn its welcome:
Few people noticed “Hallelujah” when Mr. Cohen released the track — part hymn, part love song — on Side 2 of his 1984 album “Various Positions,” but over the next few years, it caught the attention of artists like Bob Dylan (who played it live) and the former Velvet Underground member John Cale, who attempted his own version on the tribute album “I’m Your Fan.” In 1994, Jeff Buckley included an impassioned version on his LP “Grace,” which has become the cover that is most often imitated.

The song has since become a contemporary standard, performed everywhere from subway stops to synagogues, where its melody is often transposed onto the lyrics of the Sabbath liturgical song “Lecha Dodi.” Bono, Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, Paramore and Celine Dion have all recorded it.

But “Hallelujah” is most familiar from film and TV, where it has soundtracked dozens of deaths and breakups, and been belted in too many singing competitions to count. Because it telegraphs emotion — both mournful and hopeful — and involves some vocal acrobatics, it has become shorthand for Big Emotional Moment and employed by performers looking to stamp themselves with authenticity.
The Times then gives several examples, only one of which I was familiar with:

Now, here's where I got lucky: this was the first time I'd heard "Hallelujah" and the first and last time I saw it used in media. Luckily, I only watch a few TV shows (seriously, I'm just binge-watching Game of Thrones now, though I'd read the novels years ago), and other than The West Wing, none of them used to. So "Hallelujah" has not yet bee worn out for me yet. *Not listening to pop radio means I can still enjoy Hotel California (yeah, yeah, whatevs. Have you heard the motets of Lassus? Don't judge...)

Anyway, "Hallelujah." Cohen's song is complex enough and storied enough that a pretty good book has been written about it. As wrote a few years back, the song morphs from version to version--at least when Cohen performs it; most covers follow the pattern set by John Cale and Jeff Buckley.

But look at the structure: First, we have a verse introducing the story of David, singing before the Lord--but with a bitter edge. Then, the story of David and Bathsheba--"You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you." And, just to complicate matters more, the story blends with that of Samson and Delilah--"she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair". Bathsheba may have a verse herself--"I've seen your flag on the marble arch/but love is not a victory march," sometimes feels like a wry observation from a woman whose preferences were not, shall we say, consulted.

The other verses, in counterpart, speak of the bitterness of betrayal, the seeming meaninglessness life and love itself ("maybe there's a God above/but all I've ever learned from love/is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you"") can present at times, and our own crippling inability to "only connect." And throughout, the narrator refuses to accept the stereotype of an easy festal shout of "Hallellujah!" Life hurts, bucko. You may give that shout--but not easily, not without the experience of desolation that the spiritual life doesn't immunize us from.

The biblical references frame the song--in some versions they follow each other, in others not. They invoke Scripture but not in a simple re-telling--the scriptural story goes back and forth with a narrator who (as the verses quoted above shows, and ) is pretty jaundiced about life, and, as this and other verses show, about love--sacred at times (the "Holy Dove was moving too"and yet so transitory. But then what a finish--in the versions that use it:
I've done my best,
it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel
so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth,
I didn't come here just to fool you
And though it seems it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallellujah
George Herbert has gotta love that. Seriously, beat this as a theological rumination--it's a testament of a soul battered, not broken, hurt by life but choosing to love, and appearing before the Great Mystery with truth and a kind of hell-busted joy.

But what to do if, after decades of overuse, Cohen's most famous song has lost its evocative richness for you? Try his back catalogue. And not just the older masterpieces, like "Everybody Knows," or "Anthem," or the heartbreaking "Alexandra Leaving" (that one tears at me more than any other song he's written; I literally can't listen to it again). Try "Amen"(2012) on for size:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ave, Albee! Ave Antush!

I know, I know--the late Edward Albee would hate my focusing on his 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in writing about him, but I'm afraid I can't help it. You see, when I read the play in my Modern American Drama class at Fordham--

--Half a mo. I'm afraid another grace note has to creep in here. You see, the professor for that class, John V. Antush, died at the end of August, and deserves a look in. He was a gentleman who was also a gentle man, and yet he pushed you in class. (I took both Modern American Drama and Modern European Drama with Dr. Antush, so I know what I'm talking about.) For example, in MAD, when we covered Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, he made the almost entirely white class read lengthy extracts of the play. He assigned me to read the sequence in Act III when the African-American Walter Lee Younger is tempted to take the money offered him not to move to a white neighborhood, and practices doing it, "in profoundly anguished imitation of the slow-witted movie stereotype." It was bloody harrowing for me, and I think, the other members of the class. Which, I strongly suspect, was the bloody point. But Dr. Antush also expanded our horizons in more pleasant ways. He arranged for the MAD class to see Talley & Son in its first NYC production, and to participate in a Q-and-A wit the class. I've never known anyone more in love with the theater's ability to bring empathy and to open new vistas.

--but I digress. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? blew my mind in college, sufficiently so that when I got the chance to do my first show as a director, that's what I picked. The rights fell through, and something else had to be done (a director's workshop, a miscellany of plays with several students directing excerpts from their favorite plays--you know, I'm really much better when helping others to try to realize their ambitions than when playing a lone hand.) But the play held my mind--and my heart (not sentimentally, more in the "did they really do that?" vein. Years later, I saw the Steppenwolf production excerpted up top with good theater buddy Karen Clark, and saw what seems to me almost the platonic idea of Albee's richest (to me) play. Frothy and funny to start, with the laugh lines suddenly becoming cruel, and the jokes no longer funny, and then--Martha and George are wounding each other (and Nick and Honey, as collateral damage) with, to steal a phrase from T.H. White, "words, their cruel bright weapons," which had so lately been funny, now laying waste.

My other Albee highlight was appearing in a student film of The Zoo Story as Peter. It was the last acting I've done, or am likely to do. It was--interesting. Finding Peter, his anxiety and conformity, and being challenged to the character's breaking point--yeah, Albee (and a very gifted student director, and a helluva Jerry) got a good performance out of this uncured (to date) ham.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Job and Jastrow: Love, Dafka

This week in the the Daily Office, we are reading God's response to Job, asking him out of a whirlwind, a series of questions designed to point out the extreme finitude of human power and knowledge (Job 38-39).

Some years ago, when we hit this same text in the lectionary, I linked to the exegesis of this passage in Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance, in which the talmudic scholar-cum-popular historian Aaron Jastrow, imprisoned in the "paradise ghetto" of Theresinstadt, lectures on the Book of Job in contrast to the Iliad, and points out that, in his answer, God concedes Job's main point, that "the missing piece is with him":
In Job, as in most great works of art, the main design is very simple.HiscomfortersmaintainthatsinceoneAlmightyGod rules the universe, itmust make sense. Therefore Job must have sinned. Let him search his deeds, confess and repent. The missing piece is only what his offense was.

And in round after round of soaring argument, Job fights back. The missing piece must be with God, not with him. He is as religious as they are. He knows that the Almighty exists, that the universe must make sense. But he, poor bereft boil-covered
skeleton, knows now thatitdoes not infactalways make sense; that there is no guarantee of good fortune for good behavior; that crazy injustice is part of the visible world, and of this life. His religion demands that he assert his innocence,otherwise he will be profaning God's name! He will be conceding that the Almighty can botch one man's life;and if God can do that, the whole universe is a botch, and He is not an Almighty God. That Job will never concede. He wants an answer.

He gets an answer! Oh, what an answer! An answer that answers nothing. God Himself speaks at last out of a roaring storm."Who are you to call me to account? Can you hope to understand why or how I do anything? Were you there at Creation? Can you comprehend the marvels of the stars, the animals, the infinite wonders of existence? You, a worm that lives a few moments and dies?

My friends, Job has won! Do you understand? God with all His roaring has conceded Job's main point that the missing piece is with Him. God claims only that His reason is beyond Job. That, Job is perfectly willing to admit. With the main point settled, Job humbles himself, is more than satisfied, falls on his face. So the drama ends. God rebukes the comforters for speaking falsely of Him, and praises Job for holding to the truth. He restores Job's wealth. Job has seven more sons and three more daughters. He lives a hundred and forty more years, sees grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and dies old,prosperous, revered.

Satisfied? A happy ending, yes? Much more Jewish than the absurd and tragic Iliad. Are you so sure? My dear Jewish friends, what about the ten children who died? Where was God's justice to them? And what about the father, the mother? Can those scars on Job's heart heal, even in a hundred and forty years? That is not the worst of it. Think! What was the missing piece that was too much for Job to understand? We understand it, and are we so very clever? Satan simply sneered God into ordering the senseless ordeal. No wonder God roars out of a storm to silence Job! Isn't He ashamed of Himself before His own creature? Hasn't Job behaved better than God?
This framing of the fundamental point of the Book of Job startled me when I read it as a teenager. (I think it was 1979, or 1980, s year or two after the book was published.) It resonates for me now, because Wouk concludes by praising the loyalty of God's people to God, even when they do not know the reason for suffering--the "loyalty, dafka" as he might put it. In that loyalty, he finds meaning in human existence, despite persecution, privation and fear.

Here is John Gielgud as Aaron Jastrow from the TV miniseries adaptation.

Second Star to the Right, and Straight on till Morning

So here we are in a September, after nearly two months in which I seriously thought of hanging up the whole thing, blogging away.

It seems that I just can't quit you.

But here's the thing: When I first started this blog, it was one of two that I wrote up. The first focused on law and politics, and this one was my sounding board for all things theological, as I was in the process of discerning my own ordination to the vocational diaconate. I had glimpsed the truth that Susan Howatch has articulated quite well, when she wrote that "When beginning the second journey you reach the crossroads, and you can either turn aside and do something quite new or you can go on but in a very different way."

For a while I went on, but in a very different way. Until I fell back into the old way, and politics began to take root here. I don't think that's the best of me.

Then came the adventure of writing a novel, and, to my surprise, I managed it. Phineas at Bay has sold in small numbers, but the reactions have been gratifying, and, honestly, I'm very pleased with it. I wrote the book I wanted to read. That's a gift I never thought I'd be given, to have produced a full-length work of fiction of which I could say I think it's pretty good.

But now, where do we go from here?

Onward. Wherever that leads. Stories, sermons, theology, whatever. We'll see how it goes.

Thanks for coming on the prowl!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fifteen Years Later

If you're old enough, of course you remember where you were when you found out about the attack on the World Trade Center, 15 years ago tomorrow morning. I'm old enough. I mean, I was 35 at the time, in another existence, so it now seems, from that which I lead now.

Five years ago, in another place, I told my own story. Here it is once more, lightly edited with corrections and changes to reflect my memory as it stands now:

I was working, at that time, at a small Long Island law firm, and we had a office in the WTC. Fortunately, there was a whole-office meeting out in Nassau County, so that nobody reported to our Trade Center offices that day. Everyone was at the Long Island office.

Except me. But I was not at the WTC either; I had just completed a two day meeting with clients in DC, laying the groundwork for a First Amendment case that would preoccupy for nearly 5 years, do some good for free speech, but fall short of the sweeping victory for which I had hoped.

So, I was at the then-relatively-newly renamed Reagan National Airport, about to fly home. Did you know that RNA is quite close to the Pentagon? Neither did I, then.

About to board my flight, I saw the first plane strike the Tower, on a television screen in the airport. I thought it was an accident--an unbelievable accident. I even called home, and left a message asking if I had actually seen that. Then, a woman in an airline uniform ran out from behind the baggage area waving her arms and yelling "GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!"

As far as I could tell, that was the evacuation protocol. Straightforward, at least.

I went to the main concourse. That's when I saw the second plane, and realized this was big. And deliberate. Another guy, about my age now, maybe a few years older, said to me, "Damn. We'd better try to get a train before they get closed down, too." We walked back to the abandoned baggage area, got our bags, and began to head back to the concourse. All of the people in the airport were out on the tarmac, trying to work non-functioning cell phones. A low, dense black smoke rolled toward us--word of mouth had it that the airport had been bombed. And so, with no clear idea where we were headed, we walked across the grass, down a hill, across a highway, and then into the nearest town. My companion was taken ill on the way down-started feeling his chest tighten--so I helped with his bag. And a bunch of Americans streamed into an American town like refugees.

A nearby hotel (a Marriott) let us in, and started handing out water. My companion (forgot his name after all these years) was taken to a doctor, and I was on my own. I hate to admit it, but I immediately flashed on the Flashman Papers, especially Flashy's dicta that if you look like you belong, and carry yourself with a high enough hand, people will assume you do belong. Rather than fold up my best suit for the trip home, I was wearing it. I closed my shirt collar, jacked up my tie, and hid my bag behind a chair. The, walking in a swift but unhurried manner into the manager's office, with a cool nod to the secretary, I closed the door behind me and made calls--I couldn't reach my parents, but I did reach my client's Executive Director, and she and her husband offered me a bed for as long as needed one.

From there, it became simple--a short ride on the Metro--up again after only an hour or so, a walk from the station, and a refuge.

I had it incredibly easy.

My friends didn't all have it so easy. I knew several people, good friends, who had damned close calls that day, and one former work acquaintance who died. My own experience was nothing like that--yet I got a taste of something most Americans haven't--a loss of security at the most basic level. I understand the anger the attacks caused at a visceral level, because I experienced first hand the "this cannot be bloody happening" feeling that underlines it so often. Fifteen years ago, we learned what it was like to be vulnerable. We also learned that there were heroes among us--the passengers of Flight 93, the firefighters who ran in, the police officers who shepherded people to safety, or died trying. The clergy at St. Paul's and Trinity, and St. Peter's, who provided succor and hope. And we saw good in each other--the testy mayor rose to the occasion, and President Bush (not a favorite of mine, shall we say) gave a speech in which he refused the poisonous bait Bin Laden proffered, and rejected the framing of the attack as one done by Islam as a whole against the West, thus denying Bin Laden his dream of a clash of civilizations.


I'd be lying if I said I was sanguine about where we are as a Nation, as a people. But tomorrow, I will participate as a deacon in the liturgy, surrounded by mentors and friends, and by many of the first responders. I will read the Gospel. We will mark the occasion with prayer and music, and the presence of God in the Eucharist. We will celebrate our sacred dead.

And that will be enough.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Star Trek at 50

Right, so I was just a hair under 5 months old when this theme first sounded, when the U.S.S. Enterprise first flashed across the screen. As a result of which, I grew up in a world where Star Trek set my expectations for science fiction storytelling. In law, there is a phrase "a time beyond which the memory of man [sorry!] runneth not." That's Star Trek time for me--I don't remember first viewing it, just that it was always part of my psychic horizon.

And I am grateful.

Was it sometimes hokey, clumsy, condescending in its liberal verities?


But Star Trek's heart was always in the right place. It taught us children that bigots were wrong, that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice. Star Trek could often be laughably sexist, but in its very first iteration presented a woman in command as a given:

Gene Roddenberry successfully disguised his character-driven moral anthology as "Wagon Train to the Stars", owing more to Bradbury than to Asimov.

Of course, it also gave us this:

Well...nobody's perfect...

Monday, September 5, 2016

Flipping the Bird: A Musical Interlude

Yesterday at the annual reunion of my mother's side of the family, we relaxed in my godfather's back years eating good food, comparing notes, and relaxing. A lovely ritual to end the summer. As we listened to oldies, Carly Simon's classic began to play, and I was reminded of why I utterly love the lyrics.

Oh, sure, the "scarf it was apricot" line dates it.

Carly Simon's You're So Vain is that rarity, a clever revenge song. The cleverness, of course, is that unless an ex asks if (or, if you're Warren Beatty actually claims that) the song is about him, the joke doesn't attach itself to him. You have to volunteer for the burn. (Warren Beatty did, you know--and time has shown that he was, in part correct. In part.)

Beatty has embraced the burn--only for Simon to give only one verse:

You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive
Well you said that we made such a pretty pair
And that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved and one of them was me
I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee
Clouds in my coffee, and...

And more than that deponent Simon says not. (Nice one, Carly--you've still got it!)

As modern revenge songs go, I can't think of a wittier one.

But one very old one strikes me as just as good--and so pretty that the listener generally misses the point.

Scarborough Fair appears to be a variant of an older ballad called the "The Elfin Knight", and has been traced to the 17th Century. A lovely, gentle song, right:

(I know; I miss the Canticle, too. But that's Paul Simon, not traditional).

Lovely and gentle? No. Listen to the lyrics:

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without no seams nor needle work
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Tell her to find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea strand
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
Then she'll be a true love of mine.

You try doing any of that. My grandmother contemplated opening a tailor's shop, once upon a time. Not that this fact gives me any expertise, but a shirt, of cambric, without seams or needlework? Good luck.

What's between the strand (a/k/a the beach) and the salt water? Nothing.

Try reaping anything with a sickle of leather. 'T'aint happening.

It's the most delicate, polite flipping of the bird of which I am aware.