Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Off, Again

Sorry, duty calls.  Literally.  Like, on the phone.  We'll be back Friday morning.

Monday, September 25, 2017

This is a Good Story; Please Read It All

The Story Behind Devo’s Iconic Cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”

Some Nice Writing

"The past was filling the room like a tide of whispers."

I'm re-reading Ross MacDonald's The Drowning Pool right now and came across this fine sentence above. It reminded me of how literate "private eye" fiction could be in the hands of people like MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett.

A Communication from a Distant Place

Regular readers may recall that I received a message a couple of months ago from a long-dormant theological listserv, one that was attached to an ancient e-mail account at an Ivy League institution in which I studied and worked nearly twenty years ago.  It urged me, in what seemed to be part of a coordinated effort, to mention certain political talking points in my Sunday sermon.

I haven't heard from it since until this morning.  I am now being urged to mention Puerto Rico in my sermon this week and make "Puerto Rico to Trump what Katrina was to Bush".  I would find this amusing, but I know that some of my colleagues will follow this direction and turn Gospel-based proclamation into just another tedious political lecture.

Oh, look.  The media have gotten it, too, it seems:

Yep. Q.E.D.
Wow, people are catching on. I'm rather honored to have been included among those expected to spread propaganda on behalf of...whom? The e-mail I received was not signed.

More on the Millionaire Slap Fight and It's Repercussions

Players, sportswriters, and maybe even the owners seem to think that fans will find it impossible to give up football on Sundays in the fall. It’s not. A few years ago, I finally stopped buying the season tickets to the Giants that my father had first purchased 50 years ago and rebought every subsequent year. It was painless and a long time coming; I now spend fall weekends largely watching amateur youth sports from the sidelines. It’s an exhilarating experience, free from egotistical victory dances and other forms of inane exhibitionism, including juvenile posturing from adults that masquerades as deep social commentary.

I went on Twitter very early this morning, a medium I have not visited in some time, and found that wealthy athletes and wealthy politicians and wealthy pundits were going at it in some kind of mutually assured destruction.  This seems common in our post-religious age.  Christianity is a much more peaceful way of life, but to each, his own.

It Isn't. It's a "Mark" of Sacramental Commitment.

NYT: How Did Marriage Become a Mark of Privilege?

Now That's American Exceptionalism

You Can Thank America For the Continued Existence of Stick-Shift Porsches

Mate, You Should See the US

Last month I spent a few weeks in remote and regional Australia talking non-stop with Aboriginal people. Meanwhile, a debate raged about statues. How many times do you think anyone mentioned statues to me during my trips? Exactly zero. No one talked to me about constitutional recognition either. Or about local councils who banned Australia Day, supposedly in their name.

In Kununurra, I addressed the Wunan Foundation’s East Kimberley Aboriginal Achievement Awards. I spoke about how the narrative of Australia today being a racist society holds Aboriginal people back. Many Aboriginal people thanked me for my comments, saying they’re sick of hearing racism is the cause of their communities’ problems. They were the only conversations I had about racism.

It's easy to get a collection of ill-educated, pre-diabetic university children over-excited about statues, it's a whole other thing to address real issues.  In neo-Marxism, the abstract always outweighs the actual.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mary Printz

Printz in the foreground
I have a modest goal on Friday mornings, which is to write about interesting people in the belief that readers are interested in anything that is interesting.  The problem, of course, is that I'm the only judge of what is interesting, and my tastes can be both eclectic and eccentric.  This may explain this week's biography, as its subject is certainly esoteric.

Of the people about whom I write, some were of a smaller impact on world affairs and the grand progress of culture, arts, surfing, or popular culture than others.  Some have had books written about them and have figured strongly in history.  Some are people I've known personally who were, like most of us, all but invisible in greater history, but have meant something to me and to those who matter to me.

Then there are some who are not well-known but have had a subterranean influence on our culture.  Those may be as modest as a telephone operator.

Mary Printz was an unlikely muse to a couple of Broadway composers.  In our contemporary world, her specialty has long been made redundant by the oppressive technology of communication that surrounds us.  Before text messaging, e-mail, voice mail, and even answering machines [remember those?], Printz served a valuable role in keeping those in fast-moving businesses in contact with all of their varied concerns.  Unlike much of modern technology, she did so in ways far more physical than a smart phone app.

Printz was born in the Midwest and moved to Virginia in her childhood.  Despite a polio affliction and a failed marriage, she moved to New York City in the 1950's to seek a small portion of adventure.  There, she worked in a variety of jobs related to the entertainment industry, eventually meeting her second husband.  As he was a cocktail pianist and worked almost every evening, Printz took a night job, herself, with an answering service.

For those younger than I, who may be unfamiliar with answering services, they were as indispensable, if not as ubiquitous, as a smart phone is today.  When someone dialed your home phone number, and it was not answered in a certain number of rings, the call would be transferred to the answering service.  There, a human being would pleasantly greet the caller and note whatever message was to be left.  When available or willing, one would call one's service to receive the messages that had been recorded, with pen and paper, by the answering service operator.

As the interim rector of a parish in the 1990's, I inherited an answering service from the retired rector, who found answering machines inelegant and blanched at the notion of carrying a phone on one's person during the course of the day.  I have to say, I found it a rather deluxe experience.  Not only can one escape from the incessant calls received by clergy, usually about matters rather minor, but I would be notified of true emergencies right away.  After a short time, I came to know the operators by name and voice, if not by face, and found them to be invaluable.  In fact, when once lost trying to find a house in a congested part of town, and before the advent of GPS systems, I called my answering service operator [from a pay phone!] to ask if she had any idea where the street might be.  She did, and gave me directions. 

So it was with Mary Printz.  As the service for which she worked held clients who were primarily from the Broadway industry of actors, directors, producers, investors, musicians, and writers [frankly, I can't imagine a more neurotic collection of people], who tended to the dramatic even when not in a theater, Printz discovered her service included not just relaying messages, but becoming a confidant, unofficial assistant, and sometime co-conspirator with a collection of people, both famous and plain.

In addition to her desk-bound duties, Printz would check on apartments left temporarily vacant by actors in road shows, water their plants, pick up their laundry, negotiate repairs with a building's super, and other non-standard services.  In a famous story, one of her clients, the actor and playwright Noel Coward, absolutely had to have a bottle of scotch on a Sunday evening when all of the liquor stores were closed.  Since Printz was married to a musician, and they can find liquor anywhere at any time, she had her husband personally deliver a bottle to Coward's apartment just in the nick of time.  Due to these services, Printz became so in demand that she was able to start her own agency and, at its peak, served over 600 customers.

Her true fame came when Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the husband and wife Broadway writing team, wrote a hit musical with Jules Styne based on Printz.  Debuting in 1956 and running for three years, Bells Are Ringing introduced Judy Holliday, playing the character based on Printz, to stage and screen fame and brought songs such as the title tune, "The Party's Over", and "Just in Time" to the chart of American standards.  The plot concerned an answering service operator who, like Printz, served an eccentric cast of characters in ways beyond her defined duties.  As it's a Broadway production, the operator also finds love with one of her clients.

An interesting coincidence: Holliday's first job in the acting industry was with Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre...as a telephone operator.
Those who counted on Printz included a broad spectrum of performers such as Candice Bergen, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Brooke Shields, Spencer Tracy, Tennessee Williams, and the rock band Kiss.  By the end of her life, when technology had replaced answering services and Printz's company had diminished in its number of employees and clients, Woody Allen still preferred Mary Printz to any of the alternatives.

Printz died in 2009 at the age of 85.  There are clergy I know who wish they could offer a fraction of that kind of service to their parishioners, as she understood how the practices of kindness can maintain and enrich a community.

Friday, September 15, 2017

James Herriot

If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.

The autumn descends upon us now.  I will fill my schedule with more meetings [sigh], I will put away the Hawaiian shirts and the "shorty" wet-suit,  I will pull from the closet my wools and tweeds and, as I do at this time each year, be reminded of my Scottish schooldays.  It's something about that herringbone from the Hebrides that brings it all back, I know.  I recall things like tea and fern cakes, the lilting accent of my Glaswegian cousins, the conviviality of public houses made overly warn by the mass of humanity gathered around the taps and the gas fire, the boisterous games of footer, the mustiness of libraries, and, in particular, the purposeless rambles on cool mornings through woods of misty foliage.

It's in the autumn that I miss my dogs, too.  All of the dogs I've known.  They loved to ramble, as well, this time of year.  While they were of varied breeds and even more varied personalities, they all had rambling in common.  I never felt more British, even in places like Mississippi or the Virgin Islands, than when on a ramble with a dog.

It is also in the autumn that I pull from the shelves a volume or two of James Herriot's.  Not the greatest of writers, as least not in the classic British tradition, a bit too derivative of P.G. Wodehouse, sometimes, but a writer of one, particular talent:  He could make the mundane and routine worthy of celebration. That ability, alone, puts him in the top tier of writers.

That, and he loved dogs, too.  Not just dogs, but all of the creatures, great and small, that filled his world.

James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name of James Herriot, was born in northern England but moved with his parents to Glasgow, Scotland while still an infant.  In a marvelous coincidence, his father worked with my grandfather in the ship construction industry in nearby Clydebank.  Here, the working class formed a strong community with mutual care, plain values, and amusement at life's follies serving as its chief features.  This background would come in handy.

Herriot graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College in the spring of 1939, scant weeks before the outbreak of World War II.  In the summer of the next year, at the beginning of the Battle of Britain, Herriot accepted a position at a humble veterinary practice in Yorkshire, England.  It was here that he would build his life as a veterinarian, husband, father, business partner, and, eventually, celebrated author.
The original practice, now the Herriot museum.
Married in 1941, enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1942, and honorably discharged in 1946, Herriot returned, as did so many, with a deliberation to participate deeply in work and family and allow the rest of world, disrupted and decimated by six years of total war, carry on without him.  The life of a country veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales would prove to be not just a tonic, but a gateway to a greater sense of purpose.

Much of Christianity is taken with the intention of incorporating common life with common faith.  Hence our shared document of faith and practice, The Book of Common Prayer, a volume that contains a multitude of prayers and collects that elevate the common experiences of everyday life.  While our celebrity-aware culture often highlights those of transient glamour, and even more transient "talent", and can frustrate the faithless as they pursue that which can never be caught, and feel an absence of real purpose with thwarted fulfillment,

If one suffers from such, there is liberation in finding small moments worthy of celebration in even the most minor of circumstance.  That which is humble to some often leads to a deeper faith, sense of purpose, and balanced happiness for many more.  Finding joy in one's work and family in those common moments has provided for more spiritual awareness than any collection of over-wrought books on "happiness" or the bilious homilies of clergy.

Upon his return, James Herriot's days were filled with the routine work of a country vet.  He answered calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on farms made remote by the geography.  He polled cattle, castrated pigs, delivered breech-born calves, and euthanized house pets.  He dealt with "playsome" hogs and remarkably feral barn cats.  During lambing season, it was not uncommon for him to work for days on end with very, very little sleep.  So fatigued could he be that on one occasion, while answering a middle-of-the-night emergency call, he attempted to give a gynecological examination to a bull.

Some personalities would find this nothing less than Sisyphean drudgery.  Herriot, instead, found it the source of life, filled with birth, death, disease, healing, and occasions for the demonstration of what Dylan Thomas called, "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower".  For all of the human ills forced upon the world through the latter half of the 20th century, Herriot discoverd the secret of a life well-lived in the sheer power of creation.

[Former and current philosophy students may remember Heidegger's notion of "handiness".  Some things, like a hammer, can be described in their intention and usefulness, but its utility is not realized until it is actually taken in hand and employed to drive a nail through wood.  We can speak of the merger of the eternal and the temporal in our lives, but unless we actually take to hand the routine of our lives, we cannot discover the holy that resides within it.]

A frustrated writer in his youth, Herriot began to keep a journal of his days.  When it was discovered, and admired, by his wife, she encouraged him to seek out a publisher for them.  Publishing in the United Kingdom was once a rather open affair, with all sorts of volumes being produced for the consumption of a highly literate public.  Herriot's early journal, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1969.  It sold modestly, but fulfilled a sense of expression for Herriot and he returned, satisfied in his art, to his work at the practice.

However, a publisher from the United States, traveling through the English countryside, picked up a stray copy at a train station bookstore and, intrigued with the volume's rhythm and subject matter, offered to publish the book in the U.S.A., along with any other journals that Herriot wished to adapt.  In 1972, All Creatures Great and Small was released, making its way quickly to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  It would be followed by subsequent volumes, their titles also taken from verses of the familiar hymn, Royal Oak [Hymn #405 in the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982].

Herriot became a bit of an institution, with even a long-running television show based on his books in Britain, Canada, and the United States. [ I actually saw an episode on late night TV in Australia last year.]  The former location of his veterinary practice is now a museum dedicated to the world he created in his books about his ordinary, yet revelatory, days in Yorkshire.

Through all the fame and fuss, as is typical for even a transplanted Glaswegian, Herriot did not allow his life to be interrupted or altered.  He continued to be the local vet, even as his practice changed with the times, with more house pets than large farm animals as his patients.  If reading the books for the charming animal stories, one also notices his piquant observations about country life and the characters who inhabited the Dales.  As with the poetry of Robert Burns, while what is on the surface is a record of country life, deeper truths about human nature are also revealed.

Herriot's books are still in print and still popular enough that one may find volumes on sale even in the rather desiccated bookstores of the 21st century.  There is even a James Herriot calendar that is produced annually.  If one travels to the town of Thirsk in North York, the real location of the Herriot's fictionalized version, one may see that his stories are responsible for the area's most viable industry.  Namely, that which is generated from tourists eager to see the farms, fields, and livestock that Herriot brought to life.  As mentioned, his practice is now a museum, the tools of Herriot's veterinary trade are on display at yet another museum, and for a time the local pub changed its name from what it was originally to what it is called in the books.

During a physical examination necessitated after being injured on the job, he was rammed by a ram, it was discovered that Herriot had cancer.  He suffered quietly from the disease, under the care of his physician daughter and giving over the more difficult aspects of the job to his veterinarian son until his death in 1995 at the age of 78.

Since then, the local train station has been named in his honor with a statue to him unveiled by the actor who portrayed him in the television adaptation of his books.  The veterinary practice, now in the hands of Herriot's son, is still active and still addressing the needs of a variety of patients, from Yorkshire beasts to herding dogs to house cats to a merchant seaman's chimpanzee.

Of his life, as measured through his kind and gentle stories, Herriot once noted that which powers our relations with our animals and one another,

I went back to my conversation with Siegfried that morning; we had just about decided that the man with a lot of animals couldn't be expected to feel affection for individuals among them. But those buildings back there were full of John Skipton's animals - he must have hundreds. Yet what made him trail down that hillside every day in all weathers? Why had he filled the last years of those two old horses with peace and beauty? Why had he given them a final ease and comfort which he had withheld from himself? It could only be love.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Obituary of Note

J.P. Donleavy has died.  The last of the Irish rakes, even if he was born in Brooklyn.

He was profiled in The Coracle a few years ago.  Someday, when I'm not otherwise engaged, I'll tell you of our first and only meeting.  It was a corker.

The Feast Of The Holy Cross

Today is interesting for two reasons, one archaeological and the other personal. In the first case, during the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, his mother Helena went to Palestine to find places significant to Christians. Having located what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and the Burial, she had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built over them and dedicated on this day in the year 335.

Interestingly, the locations are considered by contemporary archaeologists to be surprisingly accurate.

In the second, personal, instance, this is the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. The parish where that occurred, St. Peter's in Waterford, Pennsylvania, is pictured above.

Back in the Bag

Well, it was inevitable.  I've been "reactivated", as they say, and will once again be wearing an esoteric uniform in service to some portion of the Leviathan.  At least it's for a good cause.

For long-time readers, you may recall that I served as a chaplain mostly to the merchant seaman who populate the commercial ports of the eastern U.S.  You may also recall that, during part of the government shutdown Kabuki theater of about six or seven years ago, we were informed by the Obama administration that we were disallowed during that period to pray in public.  Despite the obvious Constitutional ignorance of that stance, one that was probably presented by some bureaucratic microbe exercising a portion of his or her anti-Christian zeal, the government of the United States was forbidding the free exercise of religion.

So, I called a lawyer or two, arranged for potential bail, and invaded the port out of which I worked with the intention of violating this dull-witted command.  When I explained my intention to the guards at the gate, they laughed and said, "Go ahead, padre.  We don't mind."

Well, so much for the agonizing reappraisal of questioning authority.  I would have made a poor social justice warrior.  I did, however, submit my resignation from active chaplaincy.  I preferred to step back from an institution that would, in a moment of transient ideological confusion, abrogate my rights as an American.

But, I didn't completely walk away, mainly as I recall the whole reason I was involved in this was because of the events of sixteen years ago.  Also, from time to time, I did some good work.  Now that Texas, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are a mess, and commercial merchant shipping is serving the bulk of the non-military relief efforts, I'm needed again.

I've found my dress uniform, or at least parts of it, which is useless to me as no one is wearing dress uniforms in this rotation of duty, but I believe I tossed out my decrepit work uniform, along with the various cloth insignia, so this week will be a bit of a scramble to gather replacements so that I pass muster.  Since I'm being sent south to areas with, at best, spotty wifi, this will also be the last post for a week or so.

However, there will be a Friday biography tomorrow, on the 22nd, and on the 29th, by which time I will have returned.  Please check in on Fridays and please come back once we've returned to daily blogging.

O Eternal Lord God, who alone spreads out the heavens and rules the raging of the seas, receive into your protection all those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business on the great waters. Preserve them both in body and soul, prosper their labors with good success, in all times of danger, be their defense, and bring them to the haven where they would be, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Americans are Puzzled by Their Own Government

Contrary to What Most University Trained Eco-Warriors Think, Wildfires are Actually Good for Habitat

Next spring will bring mushrooms, flowers and woodpeckers to the Chaparral forests.

For the early American Indians [or, in Caucasian, "Native Americans"], wildfires were so important for the propagation of edible species that, in times of potential famine, the tribes would set fires purposely.