Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My man Morgan and the Kennedy Center Honors

I watched the Kennedy Center Honors last night and was pleased to see that Morgan Freeman was among the honorees. As I wrote back in August, I think Morgan Freeman is one of the coolest dudes around and I want to be like him when I grow up.

There were some strange moments in the program: Twyla Tharp looked annoyed to be there, a total sourpuss through the whole thing. And I found it very jarring to have a chorus of uniformed policemen singing "Teenage Wasteland" to honor Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Really, wouldn't it be more appropriate to have the cops dragging the musicians off the stage? (I'm embarrassed to confess, however, that I'd never heard the song "My Generation" before last night. My familiarity with "the Who" comes from CSI.)

But mostly it was incredibly touching, watching these people watching other people perform for them. I don't know if this was what was happening, but it seemed to me looking at their faces, that they were reliving their lives, seeing what they had done in a new way. I was touched watching Barbra Streisand in particular who seemed, without moving, to be reaching over the balcony up to the stage to encourage the performers singing what were her signature songs. And Beyonce: "It's an honor to sing for you, Ms. Streisand"--wow. What a gift, to give someone a song like that, and to give it back.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.

From a study that shows that religious people exhibit more self-control, examined in today's news.

I wear my seat belt. So am I devout or not? Hmmm...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Just turned on the television and saw this ad for "Snuggie! The blanket with sleeves!" A fine and useful thing I'm sure, but it is too humiliating to contemplate.

"Ideal for those drafty dorm rooms" my eye. No college student would be caught dead with one of these. Sporting events? Toasting marshmallows? These people deserve Oscars for donning this thing without looking embarrassed. It's called a SNUGGIE for God's sake!

Incidentally, my apartment is plenty warm, thank you. NO SNUGGIES! Thank God Christmas is over. I think I dodged a warm and well-meaning bullet.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A big day in Obituary Land

The last Sunday of the year is always a good one if you're an obituary watcher. There are always these reviews of who died during the year. The Times today not only has the Notable Deaths of 2008 but also "The Lives They Lived," a great thing in the magazine with kind of special bonus obituaries of people who've already had obituaries. Great stuff.

I noticed something that disturbed me, however. I've noticed it for a while, but it came into sharp relief today with the overview of notable deaths: namely, how few women's deaths are notable. Those that are, are primarily of a performing persuasion.

Here's the breakdown:
Notable deaths of 2008: 43
Men: 36
Women: 7
Of these, those women whose claim to fame was the performing arts: 5
The others were Bettie Page, the famous pin-up model, and Margaret Truman Daniel, "the president's daughter who achieved renown in her own right as a concert singer, radio and television host, and author of best-selling biographies and mysteries."

Remarkably, three of the women were African or African-American singers: Miriam Makeba, Odetta, and Eartha Kitt. Among the men, African-Americans were also represented exclusively by musicians: Bo Diddley and Isaac Hayes. Asians had a far wider range with Dith Pran, the photojournalist who was the subject of the movie "The Killing Fields," Suharto, the former dictator of Indonesia, and Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles' spiritual guru. Hispanics were represented by Robert L. Vesco, fugitive financier.

I will be curious to see as the years go by if these proportions change: if we'll start seeing more notable women politicians, business leaders, and scientists; if African-Americans will be recognized for a greater spectrum of achievements. I expect that we will see this changing before our eyes. I look forward to it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

St. John, post script

Read the first St. John entry below before reading this one.

OK, have you read the other one? Well then.

This editorial captures well the difference between John's gospel and the synoptics. To summarize, it says that most Americans believe religions other than theirs can lead to eternal life. "This threw evangelicals into a tizzy," says Charles Blow. But I think this can be explained in Biblical terms.

Now, referring to the same Wikipedia table that I mentioned earlier, the basis of personal salvation in the synoptics is good works, helping the poor, sick, imprisoned, and needy. It is only in John that salvation depends upon belief in Jesus as the Son of God. What this editorial suggests is that the synoptic view of Jesus is prevailing in American opinion. (And in mine, too.)

Feast of St. John

If you look at the lectionary calendar for December, you will note this dearth of saints right in the middle, there. You get a bunch of folks at the outset (including, of course, Saint Nicholas), and then two weeks with no one. I like that space. It allows for introspection and keeps me, at least, from saying, "Why aren't I more like Saint Bertha?" at a time that's already fraught with the perils of comparison. It allows for a little quiet.

But now Christmas is here and we're jam-packed with major saints and feast days: St. Stephen yesterday, the feast of the Holy Innocents (usually tomorrow, but transferred to Monday, bumping Thomas Becket), and today, St. John, Apostle and Evangelist and the guy who made the story of Jesus more than just this narrative about this great guy.

OK, I know that's unfair to the other gospellers. But still, he's Mr. Antioptic Gospel, Mr. "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" -- that's John's and John's alone. As is the water into wine, the visit of Nicodemus (and being born again), the woman at the well, the man born blind (one of my favorites), the raising of Lazarus, the washing of feet, the farewell's really incredible when you think of it.

It also makes me realize how much language we think of as Christian is actually Johannine. "Born again" being a good example. John 3:16, rather self-referentially, being another. On the link above to the synoptic gospel reference in Wikipedia, I was struck by the table showing the differences with the gospel of John. In particular, this line:

Jesus as Son of God...
Matthew, Mark, Luke
From the time of his birth or baptism
From the time that the universe was created

That's a striking difference. And a seasonal one. The gospel for Christmas eve came from Luke, this humble birth of Jesus with shepherds abiding in the fields. The gospel for Christmas 1 (tomorrow) is "In the beginning was the word...and the Word became flesh and lived among us." Either way, the story boggles the mind, but with John my mind boggles in a totally different way.

I don't know whether to say John took Jesus to a whole new level or John showed us Jesus in a whole different light. Maybe a bit of both. Whichever way it is, John has shaped our language about Jesus and about our faith in more ways than we know.

[Image: the eagle is the symbol of St. John.]

Friday, December 26, 2008

Quote of the Day.

"The Spirit" is mannered to the point of madness. There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material.

From Roger Ebert's review. A good snarky review can be a thing of beauty.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt, rest in peace

You've been an awful good girl, Eartha baby.

NY Times reporting here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This is a brief excerpt from a book I love called "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller which seemed appropriate for the season. He's writing about going to hear a folksinger who tells this story between songs.

The story was about his friend who is a Navy SEAL. He told it like it was true, so I guess it was true, although it could have been a lie.

The folksinger said his friend was performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building in some dark part of the world. His friend's team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room, the folksinger said, was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were Americans. The SEALs asked the hostages to folow them, but the hostages wouldn't. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn't believe their rescuers were really Americans.

The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn't possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs, the folksinger's friend, got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. Will you follow us? he said. The hero stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. The story ends with all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier.

I never liked it when the preachers said we had to follow Jesus. Sometimes they would make Him sound angry. But I liked the story the folksinger told. I liked the idea of Jesus becoming man, so that we would be able to trust Him, and I like that He healed people and loved them and cared deeply about how people were feeling.

May we too join people where they are as we celebrate this feast of God's living among us, the incarnation.

Preface of the Incarnation:
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth because you gave Jesus Christ, your only Son, to be born for us; who by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother; so that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin, and receive power to become your children.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quote of the Day

It would be difficult to rape and pillage with the subtlety of an humanist.

Vivian Charles to Emerson Cod in last week's episode of Pushing Daisies, "The Norwegians," which I only just got around to watching. Kind of difficult to explain the context of this quotation, but it involved Viking ancestry. Oh, I'll miss that show.

Fear not!

Which is the moment when Linus drops his blanket.

That Charles Schultz knew what he was doing.

(hat tip: Molly Darling who doesn't have her own blog, so neener, neener)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Quote of the Day

God said to the Prophet David, "That servant is dearest to Me who does not seek Me from fear of punishment or hope of reward, but to pay the debt due to My Deity." And in the Psalms it is written, "Who is a greater transgressor than he who worships Me from fear of hell or hope of heaven? If I had created neither, should I not then have deserved to be worshipped?"

From "The Alchemy of Happiness" by Al Ghazzali, written in 1097 A.D.

From Chapter VIII: The Love of God. I heard this this morning on a podcast from Spiritual Classics.

You can find the whole text here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Rick Warren Invocation Imbroglio

Oh my my my my my. This topic is everywhere - EVERYWHERE I tell you -- though I suspect many people have moved on by now. I'm just always late on these things. Been thinking about it, though, and in case this is your only source of news, the "it" to which I refer is that Barack Obama invited Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church to offer the invocation at the inauguration.

In offering these thoughts, I do so understanding very well that the wounds of the passage of Proposition 8 are very, very fresh and painful, very personal in a way that gives this selection more punch than it might otherwise. But I also, in trying to find out who gave the inaugural invocation in years past, found this tidbit from the Christian Century of 1993:

A group of antiabortion activists has called on Billy Graham not to participate in the inauguration of Bill Clinton as president. Leaders of the group, many of them associated with Operation Rescue and the Christian Action Council--an organization that Graham helped form in 1975--said they would flood the evangelist's Minneapolis headquarters with letters and phone calls demanding that he refuse to pray for Clinton. They also planned a prayer vigil in front of Graham's headquarters.

In a letter to Graham, Mahoney and Bill Devlin, executive director of the Christian Action Council of Philadelphia, said that the evangelist's praying at the inauguration "will be far worse than indifference and compromise; it will be taken as a positive endorsement of Mr. Clinton's anti-Christian agenda."

I note that it wasn't assumed that in selecting Billy Graham, it was assumed that Bill Clinton endorsed Billy Graham's agenda. Now, there were reasons for that: Billy Graham had been involved in the inaugural proceedings for a long time. But I think the sense is the same: just because you pray or are asked to pray at the inauguration doesn't mean you're on the same page in regards to policy.

Peter Gomes, Dean of the Chapel at Harvard, and a gay, African-American Baptist minister, prayed at the inaugurations of both Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. Now, granted, he didn't come out as a gay man until 1991. But I still find it delightful that a gay, black Baptist minister was called upon to be at the inaugurations of two Republican presidents.

I guess one of the questions I am asking myself is, Why are we giving this selection so much power? One of the commenters on one of the blogs I read said, "This is going to be the only thing I remember about this inauguration because I'm going to refuse to watch it." I find that very sad. And again, I can understand why it hurts so much. It must have come as an incredible shock: the very person you thought was on your side, was going to support and help you, has invited someone who hurt you to the feast.

But isn't that what we aspire to do? Eat with tax collectors and sinners? "If you knew who that was, you wouldn't be eating with him," seems a common Biblical refrain. Also that whole pesky "Praying for those who persecute you" thing. I think there's a feeling that if Barack Obama really, really knew what Rick Warren was like, he wouldn't invite Warren to pray for him. One thing I think I know about Barack Obama is that he's not stupid. I think he knows perfectly well what Warren is like and he's invited him anyway.

Another fear I suspect this raises is that maybe we were deceived in Obama's support of gay and lesbian rights. After Prop 8, after the initiatives in Florida and elsewhere, I'm sure gays and lesbians are (alas, rightfully) fearful that even what they have will be taken away. And I suspect that in selecting Rick Warren, people feel they've had the rug pulled out from under them. It must have been such a shock. But I guess I'm OK with the choice because I don't think I was deceived. I could be wrong, but we shall see.

Meanwhile, I think the way to neutralize the selection is not to say, "Don't invite him!" Instead, it's to say, "Great! Invite him and we'll show him the best crazy liberal hospitality we can offer!" Haven't we learned well enough that exclusion and hatred is not the way to win the hearts of people with whom we disagree? I hope we'll be smart enough to break that pattern.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Quote of the Day

“Seven Pounds” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Swearing. Soulful sex by candlelight. Car accident. Eggplant parmesan.

From A.O. Scott's review in today's NY Times.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Prayers for the week before Christmas

I am very glad to be part of a team that writes for World in Prayer. I think I've told you about this before: every three months or so, I'm assigned to write prayers that get posted on this website and are also emailed to people in many different countries and from many denominations. Andee Z. learned early on that I need reminding when it's my turn and I was very glad to get my reminder this morning. I like writing prayers. Here's what I came up with for today, one week before Christmas.


Through all that competes for our attention, we wait for you, O God. We take these moments to be still in your presence, and to remember those throughout the world who yearn for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

We pray for Gaza where militant Palestinian groups do not plan to renew a six-month ceasefire with Israel that expires on Friday the 19th.

We pray for Uganda where the peace process with the Lord’s Resistance Army was suspended after LRA leader, Joseph Kony, refused to sign a peace agreement.

We pray for the United States where a report has found top U.S. officials introduced and supported the use of torture to interrogate prisoners.

We pray for Greece where protests in Athens originally meant to protest police brutality have become violent.

We pray for peace.

Through all that fills us with anxiety, we wait for you, O God.

We pray for the governments of this and every land, that they may have wisdom to serve their people well.

We pray for those who are losing their homes, their jobs, their life savings in the wake of the world economic crisis.

And we pray for those who live in fear that they too might lose what they have worked hard to achieve.

We pray for peace.

Through all that fills us with sorrow, we wait for you, O God.

We pray for those who suffer from depression or loneliness or who mourn the loss of loved ones.

We pray for those who are estranged from their families or who suffer from abuse or neglect.

We pray for all who feel the separation between public holiday cheer and the private struggles of their lives.

We pray for peace.

We also give you thanks for the blessings of our lives, the blessings we recognize, the blessings that remain invisible to us.

We give thanks for the release of three former Guantanamo detainees sent home this week to Bosnia, and pray for those unjustly imprisoned.

We give thanks for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri which has sent a team to Sudan to visit and work with its companion diocese in Lui.

We give thanks for all those who share generously of themselves and of their resources in this and every season.

We give you thanks for the changing of seasons, for the winter solstice, and for light.

Most especially we thank you for the light of the world, for the Sun of Righteousness, and for the light of your Son, Jesus Christ.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. May we share that light with the world, empowered by Christ’s love to love all we meet.

Prepare us for your coming, O God, that we may be a blessing to the world. Amen.

Thoughts on abuse

I am finally getting around to taking the Diocese of California's online abuse prevention program, Shield the Vulnerable, and I think it's very good. Of course, I automatically approve of programs that allow me to stay home and do things while wearing slobby sweats and drinking copious amounts of tea and/or hot chocolate is OK by me. But even aside from the sloth factor, the information is helpful and well-presented.

Which means I'm a bit of an ingrate to quibble, but I was struck by this one point:

"Children seldom discuss being mistreated because they consider it 'a secret.' Some are trying to protect their parents or family; others are threatened, shamed, or shocked into silence; some are afraid of not being believed or of being punished."

The one thing I would add is that they may also not discuss it because they don't know they're being mistreated. Because for them it's normal. It's the environment and treatment that they know.

One of the reasons I suspect this of being the case is because of the book I recently read (because I do read books from time to time), The Blind Side. Michael Oher, the focus of the book, is brought up in horrible circumstances and yet he and his brothers spend a year avoiding CPS workers so they won't be taken away from their mother and placed in a foster care situation. Partly because the first foster care placement they were in was so awful (the foster mother would sit on them as punishment), and partly because, well, they're kids and what they know is in some ways what is most comfortable.

There's some greater truth in this, about how hard it is to change, about how just because it's uncomfortable doesn't mean it isn't better for us, about how hard it is for us to perceive our own situation, and (again I am drawn back to the thought) how things are not simple.

So that's what I'm thinking about on this Advent morning. And a prayer to go with it.

Most merciful God, whose beloved Son was abused and rejected, we pray for those who suffer abuse from those who should love them, who are vulnerable to those who should protect them, and who are neglected by those who should provide for their needs. Open our eyes to see them, wisdom to perceive their suffering, and strength to support and help them, for the sake of your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen

May I recommend the "Which Jane Austen Character are you?" quiz?

Or perhaps you may wish to celebrate Emma style:

Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in his own way. He liked very much to have his friends come and see him; and from various united causes, from his long residence at Hartfield, and his good nature, from his fortune, his house, and his daughter, he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great measure, as he liked. He had not much intercourse with any families beyond that circle; his horror of late hours, and large dinner-parties, made him unfit for any acquaintance but such as would visit him on his own terms. Fortunately for him, Highbury, including Randalls in the same parish, and Donwell Abbey in the parish adjoining, the seat of Mr. Knightley, comprehended many such. Not unfrequently, through Emma's persuasion, he had some of the chosen and the best to dine with him: but evening parties were what he preferred; and, unless he fancied himself at any time unequal to
company, there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for him.
Upon such occasions poor Mr. Woodhouses feelings were in sad warfare. He loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth, but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see any thing put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.

Such another small basin of thin gruel as his own was all that he could, with thorough self-approbation, recommend; though he might constrain himself, while the ladies were comfortably clearing the nicer things, to say:

"Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by anybody else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see--one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart--a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you."

Emma allowed her father to talk--but supplied her visitors in a much more satisfactory style, and on the present evening had particular pleasure in sending them away happy.

[image from JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America]

Opinions on an opinion

There was a long editorial in the NYTimes today suggesting that creating a trade agreement in East Africa will create peace in the Congo. I think that's a lovely thought, but I'm skeptical. And it's not that I know a lot about the situation, and perhaps a trade agreement will help. But I'm particularly dubious that having the U.S. negotiate such a trade agreement will make any difference.

It seems rather infantilizing, suggesting that Daddy needs to step in and negotiate among the different parties. These are, you know, sovereign countries in their own right and if they want a trade agreement, they can negotiate it amongst themselves. If anything, I would suggest that the new administration say they are ready to help if asked, but will not create plans and programs for East Africa. My two cents.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pledge season illustrated

funny pictures of cats with captions
more animals

Improving the quality of the environment

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh had a convention last weekend to get themselves reorganized after their former Diocesan Bishop decamped to South America (it's complicated). One of the many Anglican blogs I read posted the State of the Diocese Report/sermon, given by the head of their standing committee, the Rev. Dr. James Simons.

The whole thing is lovely and worth a read, but one paragraph in particular has stuck with me:

My undergraduate degree is in stream and lake ecology. My thesis was developing a baseline study establishing the water quality of a large stream in Allegheny County. There is an inherent problem with assessing the water quality of a stream: the water is always moving. If someone is emitting an effluent at intervals, that substance may or not be present when chemical testing is done. What environmentalists have discovered is that the quality of the water can be established by assessing the diversity of the biological life forms found in it. In other words, the better the water quality, the more diverse the community. The healthier the environment, the more diverse the community is. One does not improve the quality of the water by introducing diversity; one increases the diversity of the community by improving the quality of the environment.
[emphasis mine]
I want to think about this some more, but I'm wondering if this is a fairly general principle. Perhaps this relates to the issue of why both foreign aid and military intervention seem to have minimal effect on what we think are intractable issues of poverty and tribal warfare. I know this is just a rough draft of a thought, but I think there's a very important truth in this.

Certainly I feel the U.S. has done more to export democracy to the world by demonstrating a (relatively) free, (relatively) fair democratic election than we have with billions of dollars of military might. I suspect that "improving the quality of the environment," focusing on being healthy churches or communities or families, will create the changes that we so often wish to impose externally.

I dunno. I'll have to think about this one some more.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Delightful details

This is a picture from the Friendship Dairies webpage. I remember buying Friendship Dairies stuff from Wegmans when I lived in upstate New York. Turns out that bird? It's a pigeon. How do I know that? Because of the delicious obituary today for Richard Topus, a WWII pigeoneer.

Here's a tidbit of history:
In all, more than 50,000 pigeons served the United States in the war. Many were shot down. Others were set upon by falcons released by the Nazis to intercept them. (The British countered by releasing their own falcons to pursue German messenger pigeons. But since falcons found Allied and Axis birds equally delicious, their deployment as defensive weapons was soon abandoned by both sides.)

Pigeoneer is a real term, by the way.
Camp Ritchie specialized in intelligence training, and Mr. Topus and his colleagues schooled men and birds in the art of war. They taught the men to feed and care for the birds; to fasten on the tiny capsules containing messages written on lightweight paper; to drop pigeons from airplanes; and to jump out of airplanes themselves, with pigeons tucked against their chests. The Army had the Maidenform Brassiere Company make paratroopers’ vests with special pigeon pockets.

And the lovely link provided by the Times takes you to the American History Archives Center at the Smithsonian "Maidenform Collection" which notes that "Documentation for the development and manufacture of a "pigeon vest" is also included in the collection. The pigeon vest allowed troopers to carry homing pigeons with them as they parachuted behind enemy lines. During World War II, Maidenform manufactured these pigeon vests and silk parachutes for the war effort."

After the war, Mr. Topus eventually became executive vice president for sales and marketing for the Friendship Dairies.

Though the Army phased out pigeons in the late 1950s, Mr. Topus raced them avidly till nearly the end of his life. He left a covert, enduring legacy of his hobby at Friendship, for which he oversaw the design of the highly recognizable company logo, a graceful bird in flight, in the early 1960s.

From that day to this, the bird has adorned cartons of the company’s cottage cheese, sour cream, buttermilk and other products. To legions of unsuspecting consumers, Andrew Topus said last week, the bird looks like a dove. But to anyone who really knew his father, it is a pigeon, plain as day.

Fabulous. I had to share.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

"One of the agnostic's great problems is that we don't have a hell. Oh, it would be so nice to assign all those Hindu and Muslim and Jewish and Christian fundamentalists to a place of eternal torture and suffering. Alas, all we can cling to is the belief that their own venom-spewing hatred will so poison their brains that they will never know real happiness.

"Not that I would ever really think a thought like that."

Jon Carroll in today's Chronicle with another mighty good column. He's amazing. How does he do this five days a week??? I'm starting a new label just for him.

Baseball and the Rule of Law

Two obituaries today, both baseball related, and both about the rules of baseball and (one tangentially) the law.

The first, of William S. Stevens, who wrote a nifty little note for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review on how the Infield Fly rule relates to the development of Common Law. Anonymously, because Law Reviews didn't do that sort of thing. But he broke the mold, and now (apparently) Law Reviews do that sort of thing all the time.

Published as a semi-parodic “aside” in June 1975, “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule” quickly achieved legal fame, in part because nothing like it had ever appeared in a major law review, in part because of its concise, elegant reasoning. It continues to be cited by courts and legal commentators. It is taught in law schools. It is credited with giving birth to the law and baseball movement, a thriving branch of legal studies devoted to the law and its social context. It made lawyers think about the law in a different way.

Mr. Stevens himself had, if I may be so bold, a rather undistinguished career, as he himself said: “My ego is simultaneously flattered and bruised by the notion that something I cranked out more than 25 years ago would prove to be the highlight of my professional and academic careers.” But he lived to see the Phillies win the World Series, so perhaps the timing was right.

Meanwhile, Sal Yvars, a former NY Giants catcher, is also featured among the obits today, mostly for "an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that might have helped propel the Giants to their storied 1951 National League pennant victory." The Times article points out that "Sign-stealing by mechanical means was outlawed by baseball in 1961. As for that episode a decade earlier, 'I didn’t feel guilty about anything,' Yvars told Prager. 'I was just doing my job.'"

Which is, I suppose, the problems with laws: they are, by and large, reactive. They exist because people do them. If people didn't do them, there wouldn't need to be a law against it.

Or maybe it's not the problem with laws; it's just the nature of laws. Which is why laws have their limitations.

The Ethics of Aid

I listened to the interview with Binyavanga Wainaina who talks about the ethics of giving aid to African nations -- the HOW and WHY of giving aid -- and it was extremely illuminating. Not a complete answer by any means, but a worthwhile thing to hear his perspective on it. It's a challenging thing because he will say something like this:

Mr. Wainaina: And so the ethics of those pictures [of dying children] to me, I mean, really, I can't tell you how much they are upsetting, because someone just keeps telling you the urgency of the situation. People in Darfur are dying. I'm like if you have to dehumanize people to that degree, for them to die, if it is that the Western audience is so inattentive to a possible genocide that that is what you have to do, don't do anything. Leave us alone.

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Mr. Wainaina: Yes. Let us just solve our own problem. That should not be a way that human beings deal with each other.

I have an experience I don't think I wrote about on the Uganda blog that I think illustrates this.

One of the borrowers from Life in Africa had gotten a job with another NGO (non-governmental organization, what we call non-profits) that raised money to educate children in Northern Uganda where the civil war was being fought. They sold these hand-made bracelets to support this. But the bracelets were being made in a lovely compound in a fancy part of town. And there was nothing wrong with what these folks were doing to help people. But there was this huge disconnect between the images of horror being shown to the Western donors and the location where this work was being done. The (local) people making these bracelets were glad for a job, but a certain part of the donations, of course, paid for their labor -- and I suspect also paid Western-level salaries for the well-intentioned people supporting this project.

It was a mind-bender because you think, well, how CAN I help these people? And maybe the answer is, recognize the limitations of your donations. This place was promoting its work as "Each $30 donation will send one child to school for X time." Well, maybe. I dunno. I can just say that my time in Uganda left me exceedingly skeptical about aid work.

Wainaina addresses this somewhat, saying, "So the question is not is it good or is it bad; the question is why isn't it presenting itself for the scrutiny? If it is so good, why is it not saying, 'We have come to your country, right, and we are open for you to come and see what we are doing and we want your best minds to come tell us what they think is wrong with it.'"

And that seemed to be the gist of the interview: it's a mistake (and a colonial and missionary mindset) to go to African countries and say, "We can fix you. We know what's wrong with you and we can make it better." Rather, it should be a mutual project.

I was very glad that Wainaina thinks microlending has made a huge difference in Kenya! (The picture is of a group of borrowers in Kampala.)

Speaking of Faith is going to do a series on the Ethics of Aid, just a fantastic gift for all of us who are trying to determine what is the right way to use what we have to help others to the best of our ability. I'll keep you posted on it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Quote of the Day

"If I ran Disney World I’d make all the restaurants fill their hamburgers with glitter so later you’d actually poop glitter and it would be a magical surprise."

From The Bloggess, writing on 'Why DisneyWorld is a Lie.'

The joys of obit watching

There was a great editorial in yesterday's Times called "A Curious Convergence" that pointed out that Jim Morrison, who died 30-some-odd years ago (and who would be 65 now, imagine that!), appeared this week in two different obituaries: that of his father, and of the owner of an L.A. club where the Doors got their break.

It's a wonderful piece, and explains well some of the reasons why I, at any rate, read obituaries. I read them for the light they shed, the illumination, which comes (as this writer points out) in "strobelike flashes." For the taste of other places and times and spheres of influence. And because people are so darned interesting and so varied.

And then this line, which I love: "But life is too elusive for the record." Yes, indeed. It's just a glimpse, these obituaries, but I'm glad to have it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Money and movies

I watched Tony Scott's video review of "It's a Wonderful Life" yesterday. Man, he pulled out all the grimmest bits of the movie. The shots he pulls out made me realize just how desperate George was, just how trapped and unhappy. There's a look on George's face as he's gazing out on one of the streets of Bedford Falls that really conveys that the man is a danger to himself and/or others. (I'm afraid my choices for putting it in this blog were to have it be really, really small or slightly fuzzy; I went for slightly fuzzy.) And so it took just under 5 minutes to get me to cry when you see the end of the movie with the town gathered around helping George out of his dire financial situation.

This film seems pertinent, too, to this day and age because it seems to me that one of the threads throughout "It's a Wonderful Life" is that we are not financially self-sufficient. We need loans, we need money to tide us over, we need help when things go wrong. The money in "It's a Wonderful Life" is a very fluid thing, and the healthy use of money (from the Bailey Savings and Loan) is to help others, while the unhealthy use of money (from Mr. Potter) is entirely focused on helping himself.

There's a podcast I still have to listen to from a Kenyan man who talks about the ethics of aid. I'm curious to hear it. In an introduction to the interview (that I found at The Lead), Krista Tippett, quoting from a book by Paul Theroux, includes this seasonally relevant simile:

Coming back to Uganda, for example, where he had worked for a time in the 1970s, he found everything on the wane despite, as he writes, "the new hospital donated by the Swedes or the Japanese, a new school funded by the Canadians, the Baptist clinic, the flour mill that was signposted 'A Gift of the American People.' These were like inspired Christmas presents, the sort that stop running when the batteries die or that break and aren't fixed. The projects would become wrecks, every one of them, because they carried with them the seeds of their destruction."

Later, "Wainaina [the man interviewed] described the message from the West that aid too often communicates: 'We can save you from yourselves. We can save ourselves from our terrible selves. ... We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this. Evolution, it seems, cannot do this. ... No one can empower you except us.' The power to help, Binyavanga Wainaina insists, can be as dangerous as 'hard power.'"

Returning to the movie, the Bailey Savings and Loan is still a business, in the business of making money. The work of the Savings and Loan is mutually beneficial--not just for the bank; not just for the borrowers. They need each other, and depend upon each other. I suspect that's one of the problems with foreign aid as it is currently practiced, that one side thinks it is helping the other without considering that it might have any actual need of the other. But I'll know more once I listen to this man's insights.

One other reason why "It's a Wonderful Life" is pertinent for our day and age: it's a reminder that it's not banking per se that is evil, but banking used for evil purposes. A couple of the deadly sins come to mind: greed and envy.

Man, I'm thinking about money a lot! I can understand why Jesus spent so much of his time talking about it; it's strange and powerful stuff!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dans les medias

My friend Jean was in town today for our friend Lynne's ordination. My friend Jean hosted me when I went to Paris a year ago and so I asked her what she thought of the great Harry Winston jewel heist. She had not heard of the Harry Winston jewel heist! Can you imagine? It's a good thing I'm here to fill her in on all the important Paris news. But really, how could you miss something with the headline: "Gunmen in drag get millions in Paris diamond heist".

Armed robbers wearing women's wigs and clothing made off with diamond rings, gem-studded bracelets and other jewelry worth $108 million from a Harry Winston boutique in Paris, in one of the world's largest jewel heists.

As Christmas shoppers strolled outside, the gunmen forced store employees to strip rings, necklaces and earrings from window displays and pull more out of safes, Isabelle Montagne, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office, said Friday.

One commentator on sfgate said, "A good drag queen's gotta have the finest accessories, you know."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Advent Conspiracy and Clement

So I joined the "Advent Conspiracy" group on Facebook and was really surprised when I saw a discussion thread entitled, "Nope. I like presents." The first comment under this discussion was "i like getting presents to much to join this cause." And the second was like unto it: "agreed!!! presents are what christmas is all about!!!!" (And these were not kids either.) Then it descended into a discussion of how this group is communist and/or socialist and how Jesus was or was not communist and/or socialist -- I kid you not!

Today is the feast day of Clement of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers, born in 150 or so. Among other things, he wrote a treatise entitled "Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?" -- really, a wonderful piece (natch) that I had read before, but seemed particularly apt as I think about what to do about Christmas. As Clement writes, regarding Jesus' command to the rich young ruler, "He does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life."

Clement then goes on to give hypothetical examples of how one could give up one's possessions and still have the morbid feelings that keep one from life: "For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret."

Likewise, he posits a person who keeps the wealth and isn't bothered by it: "And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do!"

The point in either case is not the money but the mind.

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.

I love this! Thank you, Clement. I have more to ponder, but I hope a way to think about what I do.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Headline news in the Anglican Communion--boring except for church polity geeks

If you woke up this morning and looked at the NY Times headline news, as I did, you might have been surprised, as I was, to see "Episcopal Split as Conservatives Form New Group" right between the Auto Workers and Mumbai. I was surprised because a) it didn't seem like news, or even a big deal; b) the Episcopalians haven't split; c) this doesn't seem like a new group, just the old group(s) by a new name.

I imagine I'm more blase than I ought to be about this thing, but I'm feeling pretty blase, have to say. (The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe is pretty blase, too. That makes me feel better.) Feeling as I do, I have to laugh (wryly) at the hysteria in the first couple of paragraphs. I'll take a look at it a sentence at a time:

WHEATON, Ill. — Conservatives alienated from the Episcopal Church announced on Wednesday that they were founding their own rival denomination, the biggest challenge yet to the authority of the Episcopal Church since it ordained an openly gay bishop five years ago.

Wheaton is the home of Wheaton College, probably the premier Evangelical college in the country. "Rival denomination" is apt. And as such, it is less of a challenge to the authority of the Episcopal Church than it has been as part of the current denomination.

The move threatens the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian body, made up of 38 provinces around the world that trace their roots to the Church of England and its spiritual leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Oh, please. As if this were anything new.

The conservatives intend to seek the approval of leaders in the global Anglican Communion for the province they plan to form. If they should receive broad approval, their effort could lead to new defections from the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism.

This could be the most interesting part of the whole thing, since leaders of this group have openly made disparaging remarks about the Anglican Consultative Council that makes these decisions, as referenced later in this same NY Times article (an American priest consecrated out of Nigeria was quoted as saying, "why do we still need to be operating under the rules of an English charity, which is what the Anglican Consultative Council does. Why is England still considered the center of the universe?” Perhaps not tactful if you want their approval).

Furthermore, there was an announcement today from Canterbury that any process to recognize a new province will take at minimum a year, and they haven't even started the process yet.

Finally, don't you hate news stories that say "if something happens, then something else could happen"? That's not news! That's barely even speculation! Just as easy to say "If they don't receive approval, then the whole thing could fold up and disappear," isn't it?

At any rate, read the NY Times article with a critical eye. I also recommend the following analyses from Mark Harris at Preludium, both here and here, and Andrew Plus, who has a terrific, very interesting take on the whole thing, imo.

But, really, life continues and God is good, all the time. This is hardly a blip in God's kingdom. Keep watching for God wherever you are. It's Advent. That's the important thing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bond silliness

James and the babe leave a party in full fancy dress and hire a commercial airplane. As they fly over rocky, desert terrain, they are chased by a fighter jet and a helicopter, so they jump out with one parachute between them. Opening the parachute 50 feet above the ground, they thud together on the floor of a crevasse. The babe, who kept her heels through all of this though she has taken them off, sits with her back against a rock and pulls her knees up to her chest, shivering. Bond wraps his dinner jacket around her.

I turn to my mother and note, "She didn't even skin her knees." Mom claims there is something on her knees. I say that's just dirt. I say, "I trip over the doorjamb when Keeper pulls me and I skin my knees; she falls from an airplane in a knee-length black cocktail dress and gets dirt on her knees?"

I loved it. It reminded me of the movie "Broken Arrow" in which the only verisilimitude is that the leads jump into a river and come out wet. I mean, really, I'm not looking for profundity, here. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Andrew Sullivan posted this on his blog today. It is perfect. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nobody does it better...

...and in this instance, I'm referring to Lois Maxwell, aka Miss Moneypenny. I'm off to see the new James Bond film tonight (at the new-ish Alameda cineplex) and for some reason wanted to find out what became of Miss Moneypenny.

Fascinating woman, Lois Maxwell: Canadian, and ran away from home at 15 to join the entertainment corps of the army during WWII -- lying about her age, of course -- and went off to England. When she was found out they were going to deport her back home but she talked her way into the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts. One of her classmates was none other than Roger Moore.

She also talked her way into the Moneypenny role because she needed the work after her husband had a major heart attack.

She was in 14 Bond movies but on screen for less than 30 minutes. Still, in that 30 minutes, she managed to make an indelible impression, at least for me. She seemed to be the only person who could actually handle James Bond.

After they replaced her for a younger Moneypenny (boo on Broccoli!), she went back to Canada where she wrote a gossipy society column for the Toronto Sun and owned a company that made crowd barriers. Then she went to live near her son in Australia where she died about a year ago.

Impressive woman, Ms. Maxwell, who certainly seems like someone who could do MI6 work. Her classmate, Roger Moore, said it was a shame they didn't promote her to M. I think that would have been cool.

Incidentally, the other long-term Bond actor, Desmond Llewelyn (aka Q), was a POW for 5 years in France. Interesting people way beyond the Bond movies.

Monday, December 1, 2008

They woulda if they coulda

(h/t Lisa Fox)

At the U.N.

Of all the Obama appointees announced today, I am personally most interested about the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice -- another Rice from Stanford (she got her BA there in 1986).

For one thing, she seems quite a change from John Bolton who simply despised the UN in which he worked (I was appalled by his appointment). What's more, Obama is making UN Ambassador a cabinet position during his administration.

I'm excited about her because her particular specialty seems to be African affairs, and one of her primary goals is to prevent and/or put a stop to genocide. I'm nervous about her because she seems very hawkish.

During her first run at the State Department, Ms. Rice was a point person in responding to Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But her most searing experience was visiting Rwanda after the 1994 genocide when she was still on the N.S.C. staff.

As she later described the scene, the hundreds, if not thousands, of decomposing, hacked up bodies that she saw haunted her and fueled a desire to never let it happen again.

“I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” she told The Atlantic Monthly in 2001. She eventually became a sharp critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the Darfur killings and last year testified before Congress on behalf of an American-led bombing campaign or naval blockade to force a recalcitrant Sudanese government to stop the slaughter.

But I don't know. This could be a very positive thing, especially for African nations. Or it could be a disaster. Here's hoping it's a good thing.

Virtual Advent Calendar

So handy! You just click on the appropriate day and get directed to a meditation or the daily office or an outreach mission. And you can't click ahead either. Enjoy!