Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I've been trapped by the cable service again, and find myself watching first the final third and then the first two thirds of "The Rainmaker" on AMC. That's the beauty of cable: 150+ standard channels, most of which show nothing of value, the rest of which show the same thing enough times in a row that it becomes valueless. I won't miss it; in CT we will have internet access but not cable television. I like to think this will mean I'll read more, but internet is even more likely to distract me -- it already does, after all.

"The Rainmaker" is one of a string of 90's Grisham novels-cum-blockbusters about the legal profession. In this one, Matt Damon plays the role of newly-minted Memphis State Law School graduate Rudy Taylor, who stumbles on to the perfect client: a young man dying because he was denied a bone marrow transplant by a corrupt (read: ordinary) health insurance company, said company represented by a stereotypically slimy megafirm personified wonderfully by Jon Voight. (Voight is adept at these types: cerebral, casually corrupt apparatchiks.)

"Rainmaker" refers to two things: the case or client that makes the heavens rain money, and/or the attorney who finds clients like that.

Damon's Rudy wins the case, mainly through overwhelming evidence sustained through a combination of blind luck and a remote assist from a corrupt shyster on the lam. The not-so-subtle lesson is that even unstained righteousness requires ruthless and unprincipled champions to prevail. Christ himself would need more than Clarence Darrow; he'd need some combination of Johnny Cochrane, Don King and Jack Abramoff. Rudy, having won whilst keeping his shoes relatively free of putrescence, departs stage right with willowy domestic battery survivor Claire Danes in tow. Not a bad way to quit the law.

I left in a far less dramatic fashion, jumping ship early in the summer of 2004 after barely 8 months of billables. I was (and am) blessed to have a beauty of my own, who never blinked a lash though her glittering prince fell abruptly from elite-educated attorney-on-the-make to journeyman apprentice carpenter in two swift weeks. But I had no cache to take with me, to buoy me on my travels, nor did I understand quickly (or as it turns out, slowly) where I was headed or what it means to leave the law.

Spiritually, you're ever on the doorstep: never quite going away, yet never to reenter the hall; a beguiling contraption that others puzzle over, like an Archimedes' Trammel without a scribe. "Fascinating," they muse, "but whatever does it do?," while to lawyers you look a gelding.

What I've found myself doing is the title of this post. Most people call it "conservation," though.

In the "Rainmaker" we hear evidence (however fictionalized) of the brokenness of both our legal system and our healthcare system. We are even warned of the spectre of "government controlled" medical care -- a dire evil, ever to be feared. As the movie (and my second glass of wine) came to an end bitterness rose along with indigestion; bitter because in spite of the acrimony and strife of the intervening 13 years we haven't improved either of those systems. Indeed, with every passing year we slide further down the gullet. Since that movie was made, it is harder to win a lawsuit, harder to get a judgment, harder to get healthcare. But still we pay -- taxes, premiums, fees.

In conservation, we've reached a point where we argue the relative merits of development. We no longer argue its essential value. We no longer say "Not here." We are remaindered to "oh, well, here -- ok, but could you maybe move the building a few feet away from the wetland, the vernal pool, the already impossibly fractured habitat? And could you vent your waste in a different direction? Maybe bury it? Or store it next to the aquifer rather than dumping directly into the stream?"

We are witnesses. We may be the last witnesses, but there are millions of us. My friends who are teachers are witness to the end of the dream of equal public education. My friends in government are witness to the end of all manner of regulations and policies that either protect workers or the air or the water or the mom-and-pop saving for retirement. My scientist friends are witness to the end of endeavor for wonder's sake.

I am a witness to the vanished land. But I can't even protest its loss. The moment I raise my voice to say, "this is wrong -- more than wrong, it's suicide" the power is cut, the conversation is over, eyes glaze, doors close.

We have the power to do so much. We could do so much differently, so much better.

"Oh, we were like glory's gate, my darling. We were like that bloody shark of yours. We swam with the, um, uh — Oh, goddamn it. I had it on the plane. What was I gonna say? Ah, well." But I'll write about middle age when it's over, or more fully here.

For now I just want to record my sense of futility.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We are at war; my friends are at war.


2nd Marine Recon Battalion Surgeon Lieutenant my friend John S. Maddox visits with his son, Jack. From Afghanistan to Virginia. A year is a lifetime.
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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Yeah, but can you fry that?

Once again, another bloggist prompts me to Google* a strange new word and eyebrows lift over yet more human singularities.

Did you know people eat little birds called "ortolans?" Naturally, it's mainly the French. Here's how it works:

Catch an little ortolan and put it in a box, with plenty of food and total darkness. The ortolan (a species of bunting) responds to the constant darkness by gorging itself, growing to three or four times its original size. As you might expect from the culture that brought us foie gras, the next step is to kill the bird by literally drowning it in Armagnac. Then roast the fowl in its own fat and dine away.

Muster whatever Gallic sang froid you posses, drape your head in a napkin (either to spare your fellow diners the coming spectacle or to inhale the holy vapor emanating from the dish before you) and bite off the head. Discard. The remaining bird is consumed, les os et tous.

The practice was outlawed in 2007, but as with all things it may still be had for money and, this being France, perhaps also love.

This culinary adventure lies at the far end of the spectrum from the title of the post, which refers to an eponymous game invented by my good friends, brothers Rob and John. One year while Rob was living in Louisiana, John visited him for the winter holidays and came bearing gifts -- one of which was a "FryDaddy." John has ever been the giver of appropriate gifts: Once, upon moving in to a new apartment, I was visited by John who bestowed a jar of pigs feet. "Now if anyone who eats pigs feet comes to visit, you have them." I have them still.

I guess John felt a FryDaddy suited Louisiana. In any case, Rob and John are enthusiastic fellows. Following a day at the convict rodeo and an evening of drinking lots of brown liquor together, the night concluded by trying out the new kitchen tool with several rousing rounds of "Can you fry that?"

The verdict? Graham crackers and oreos, yes. Gummy bears? Not so much.

What would the French say?

*I have an image in my mind of the "Nighthawks" diner populated by a club of obsolescents, where the buggy-whip manufacturer sulks over a cold cup of coffee and commiserates with the former director of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Slow Foote

A bloggist of my acquaintance posted recently on Shelby Foote, the great historian and writer, whose earthly belongings went for sale recently. In that post, he linked to a wonderful CNN interview with the author. On that jump, I found a wonderful trove of interviews with other writers and personalities -- I recommend a visit.

After listening to Foote, I went through Cronkite and then Dean Brown on Ernie Pyle, and Plimpton on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Plimpton's interview was sad -- the kid doing the questioning had all the rhythm of an average attorney doing a dry deposition. I want to like George because of his unabashed elitism, not in spite of it. But in this interview he come off sounding far too impressed with George. Snuggling up to Papa seems to fall for him into the same category as hanging around the Lions or getting in the ring with the champ, when it's really just hero worship.

Not all interviewees were as compelling as Foote, but then not all tackled anything so delicate as an attempt to explain the benefits of Jim Crow to both blacks and whites, while simultaneously conceding that it was all horribly, horribly wrong -- but only in retrospect. I don't know him from the Burns series but read about 2/3 of his Civil War trilogy and one or two others. It seems you would be hard-pressed to find a black person who would say there were good aspects of the race-divided South, as the inverse of Foote's apologia is, "Well, they thought we were animals but that meant they were nice to us most of the time. So it wasn't all bad."

But as Foote would say, in fiction there is truth, but not always fact. He is appropriately complex, and the world misses him -- and many men of that era. We have great need for slow circumspection, even for its own sake and whatever its conclusions. Even if they are wrong, at least we arrive there with plenty of warning and with time to prepare.