Friday, December 20, 2013

The Cafe At Two Rocks

The cafe at Two Rocks
When Lisa worshiped with us for the first time a few weeks ago, I placed my accustomed phone call to suggest that we meet for coffee so I could learn about her journeys of life and faith and tell her more about St. John’s. Hearing people’s stories is one of the greatest joys of ministry, so I always wait eagerly for a reply.

Lisa wrote quickly to say that she’d gotten my voice mail message. She suggested we meet the next morning, a Friday, “at Stbx. in the Lowe’s Center.”

John sent back a friendly message saying Lisa’s proposed time wouldn’t work because he conducted a church service each Friday morning. He mentioned other possible times and added, “Sorry! I don’t know where the Lowe’s center is or what Stbx stands for. It’s my age!!...God bless. John.”

Lisa had undoubtedly heard that some pastors were out of touch, but what was with me? Granted, the Lowe’s reference was a little obscure, at least if I wasn’t into home improvement. (I’m not. Just ask Kathy.) But even a non-stockholder ought to know what Stbx means. Lisa was beginning to think that I lived in a monastery or maybe a cave under the St. John’s altar. Even at this point in the correspondence, a person would be excused if she went looking for another church. But Lisa’s kindness and patience held fast. She wrote, “Stbx is short for Starbucks and it’s the one in the Lowe’s shopping center in RSM.”

One more aspect of the reply bugged her. She had heard me make a big deal about our new weekly fellowship ministry, but I didn’t even know where it met. It was obvious I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on in my own church. She wrote, ”I think it’s where St. John’s has Happy Hour on Fridays.”

She asked if I was free the following Wednesday. The next reply she received fell into the category of one step forward, one step back. Her befuddled prospective pastor said that he’d be free anytime after noon. That was progress. But then he added, “So it would just be getting wherever RSM is? Let me know what time and the where and we will be on to meet. It will just be how long it takes to get there from Yanchep. Blessings. John.”

“Yanchep” might have been a hint that Pastor John really was living on another planet, or at least another continent. Lisa’s reply is my favorite in the whole thread: “RSM is Rancho Santa Margarita. I think Wednesday at 12:30 wld be great. If I’m late it’s because I’m coming from Yanchep to the Lowe’s Stbx.”

John was the first to punt to Google. “I think we have got each other confused with different people,” he wrote. “I am in Yanchep Western Australia and Rancho Santa Margarita is in America. If not and you’re in the same Yanchep why not meet at the Lagoon or the café at Two Rocks?”

My address is Lisa had written to and reached, it was now obvious, a different Pastor John. When she shared the e-mail thread with me, Lisa suggested that the title of my next sermon – or Vaya article, I hope she’ll allow -- might be “the Misfortune of Misunderstanding.” Because it entailed waiting for understanding and connection, it’s a great Advent story. Lisa’s gifts of patience and good humor despite Pastor John’s moments of cluelessness and John’s own unstinting, cheerful hospitality are all essential virtues for dealing with those we love at Christmas. So good on them both!  

This post first appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fun Is Good

John, Susan, Mary, and Michael
We were 28 deacons and priests, aged 55 and up. It was a brisk, exquisitely clear night amid the ponderosa pines of Prescott, Arizona. We’d already spent many hours in plenary meetings on big subjects such as vocation (the Church’s word for where and how we serve and work in Christ’s vineyard), personal health and finance, and spirituality.

According to our schedules, this was a “a night of creativity.” But nobody had asked Fr. James, chaplain of St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, or me to bring our guitars. Instead, as we stood in the lobby awaiting instructions, we could hear Wilson Pickett singing “In The Midnight Hour.”

Through the glass doors, we could see that our CREDO team had replaced the U-shaped conference table with two dozen smaller ones covered in yellow and red butcher paper. There were stacks of magazines, baskets of colored feathers, and an abundance of Elmer’s Glue-All, two-sided tape, and colored pipe cleaners. I shot a glance at Eric, a vocational deacon from New Jersey who runs a social justice ministry for young adults in the Diocese of Newark. With a nod, he confirmed what I’d feared. “Arts and crafts project,” he said tersely.

To borrow the circumspect language we try to use on the diocesan Commission on Ministry, arts projects are not my gifting.

And yet within minutes I was cutting letters and images from magazines and gathering supplies while singing along with my sisters and brothers to Stax Volt, Motown, and the Doobie Brothers. The CREDO faculty didn’t tell us what to make. Our conference director, LA’s own the Rev. Hartshorn Murphy, said, “Let the materials choose you.” Entering the festive space, I had suddenly thought about afternoons and evenings in Yorba Linda when everyone’s over for dinner. One might say that the Holy Spirit, right on cue, had sung me a song of abundant joy. So I fashioned a household god for our big mixed family, including ten feathers in ten colors and earrings that say “life is good” and “best day ever.”

Local diety
Knowing exactly what I was supposed to do during our evening of creativity was the fruit of discernment. Discernment usually doesn’t mean choosing between right and wrong. It’s the tool we use when, as one of our faculty members said, “there are many right answers.” The purpose of our mid-October conference and retreat was to help us use the gift of non-anxious discernment in aspects of our lives and ministries that really matter, even ones that entail risk, hardship, and loss.

The Episcopal Church’s periodic CREDO conferences are organized by the Church Pension Group to help clergy get and stay healthy. St. John’s paid $500 for me to attend. CPG paid $5000, which shows how seriously the Church takes the well being of its pastors. Some of us received insights about how to plan for retirement, others about whether to open their ears to calls to new positions. CPG gave us practical advice about taxes and investments. We worshiped, prayed, meditated, went on dawn walks and did dawn yoga, and encountered God in many other ways, including small-group fellowship, where I made new friends in Mary (Utah), Michael (Monterey), and Susan (New Hampshire).

And yet all week I was thinking, “I wish Kathy could come; I wish everyone could come,” because most core CREDO teachings belong to all God’s people. One example was faculty member Priscilla Condon’s prophetic ministry about eating to honor the fleshy temples we have the privilege of occupying (also the theme of seminarian Robyn Henk’s early-2012 class at St. John’s). We left resolving to exercise more, drink more water, cut out the margarine and artificial sweeteners, and above all remember, as Priscilla taught us and Dr. Oz confirms, that Trader Joe’s coconut oil and raw honey are good for what ails you.

"Credo," incidentally, means “I believe.” We each left Prescott with a three-part CREDO plan and many CREDO resolves. One of mine is to continue to live into a teaching we were also offered in Latin by another faculty member, the Rev. Canon Matthew Stockard: Felicitas es bonam, which means “Fun is good.” Amen!

This post original appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The View From Jackson Place

It's exciting to see the view counter near 250,000. Thanks to those who are still checking in at the rate of about 120 a day. I'm not posting much, but I'm writing like mad off-line, three pages a day until Christmas or bust. As for what continues to drive readership here, the Episconixonian proudly retains its status as the universal authority if you need an accurate transcript of Clark Griswold's interfaith prayer for his wife's aunt from the movie "National Lampoon's Vacation." If you don't believe me, Google or Bingle "Aunt Edna's Prayer." This post, about a Nixon/Alger Hiss-themed episode of "The West Wing," gets about a hundred readers a month.

The photo shows Jackson Place, the townhouse in Lafayette Square across from the White House, which the Nixon administration first set aside for the use of former presidents. In March 1994, after former President Nixon's last trip to Russia, my wife and Nixon's last and best chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor, were there when he gave a bravura off-the-record presentation to a high-ranking audience of sitting and former national security officials. It was the last time I saw him alive. More to come.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Calling On Angels

Al Kaline at Briggs Stadium, 1957
I left my heart in two places (outside of home) in my hometown. The Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Woodward Ave., where I was baptized and confirmed in The Episcopal Church, remains. The other, gone since 2009, was old Briggs Stadium, ancestral turf of the Detroit Tigers, who baptized me into baseball.

Though my mother and godfather usually took me on weekends, my first game was on a weeknight. I was about six. Along with millions of boys and girls, I have an inner YouTube video of that first walk along a darkened passage toward a light-soaked space -- the long white lines, the emerald grass, the clay-red diamond after it had been raked and hosed down, just before determined figures in brilliant raiment would surge from the home dugout, scattering the dirt with their cleats.

Starring in my field of dreams were sluggers Al Kaline and Willie Horton, now in their 70s and still active in the front office. After my mother and I moved to Phoenix in 1967, when I was 12, I kept my Tigers by the tail by clipping box scores and taping them in a scrapbook. When they beat St. Louis in the 1968 World Series, my godfather, who worked at the Detroit Free Press, mailed me the cardboard mat the pressmen had used to make a plate for the front page the next morning. The headline shouted “WE WIN!” to a town that was already experiencing harbingers of last month’s bankruptcy.

In the late 1960s in Arizona, the diamondbacks’ only prey was mice, rabbits, and gophers. While in college, experiencing vocational foreshadowing, I rooted for the Padres. I never cottoned to Yankees or Mets during ten years in New York. But I was in old Yankee Stadium (brilliantly portrayed by old Briggs in the 2001 movie “61”) with Richard Nixon and his son-in-law David Eisenhower on July 4, 1983 when lefthander Dave Righetti pitched a no-hitter against Boston.

Many years later, Kathy and I took Eisenhower to the Big A. He looked around the house that Disney
John and Andy at the Big A, 2013
renovated and said, “I envy you living so close to a major league ballpark.” But I was a utility fan at best until something flipped a switch a few weeks before the end of the Angels’ unremarkable 2012 season. I couldn’t wait for opening day. I’ve already been to the ballpark eight times this year. Kathy graciously watches more games than she would prefer. I use an iPhone app to listen to play-by-play from all over the country.

I’ve resisted using my phone to research whether a sudden spike in childlike enthusiasm says something I should but don’t want to know about my aging brain. While I’ve also resisted Googling “Jesus and baseball,” I wonder about the theology behind all the things we love with innocent abandon – from sports and music and painting to bridge and quilting and fishing and reading and all the hobbies and avocations in between. In March David Ferguson wrote in The Onion, “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life.” I suspect most of us indulge our non-remunerative passions not to escape reality but to reveal our true selves to others and even to ourselves.

As people of faith, do our greatest passions also signify something about our conceptions of the sacred? Think about Angels fans wearing Holy Spirit red while celebrating and (so far this season) mourning as one. Children have more fun at baseball than at football and basketball games, and that’s also a holy thing. Others have written more eloquently than I possibly can about the game’s intricacy, its sights and strangely comforting sounds, its history, symmetry, and beautiful displays of athleticism. I enjoy the fellowship in the stands and the comradeship among the players, their youthful quirks and superstitions. I love winning and having faith that we’ll eventually stop losing. Baseball is tidier than everyday life and doesn’t matter anywhere near as much – until it does, when it’s almost like heaven.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Nixon's No-Hitter

Dave Righetti strikes out Wade Boggs
Richard Nixon was heading to Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1983, and it was going to be a great day. The Yanks were playing their arch rivals from Boston. His son-in-law and fellow baseball obsessive David Eisenhower was along. It was the 47th anniversary of Nixon's first major league game (Yankees v. Senators) and the 44th of ALS-stricken Lou Gehrig saying that he was "the luckiest guy in the world" as he bade farewell to Yankees fans in their hallowed cathedral in the Bronx.

Nixon had hinted he would have big news for his writing bench, Marin Strmecki and me, and that was exciting, too.

It was also a special day because Nixon said no one had to wear a coat and tie. He wore them almost everywhere, and when we were along, so did we. We would be in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's box, where an under-dressed Nixon usually wouldn't have been caught dead. The photo below shows him and me at a game the prior September, also in Steinbrenner's box and dressed as though we were attending a funeral. But since it was going to be about 90 degrees in the Bronx that July afternoon, he didn't want us to be uncomfortable, and he especially didn't want to look less formal than his son-in-law and aides.

Not as much fun as the no-hitter
But I said it was a great day, and if you're a baseball fan, you know why: Yankee left-hander Dave Righetti's no-hitter, the first that  megafans Nixon and Eisenhower had seen live.

The seats were great, too, but they would have rather been in the stands. Two years later, Nixon gave up his Secret Service protection, one reason being that the bodyguards on his payroll instead of the Treasury department's were less resistant when he said he wanted to sit among the hoi polloi. In the owner's box, Yankees executives, former players, and journalists had a tendency to drop by to say hello, and while Nixon was gracious, he just wanted to watch the game.

When we reached the seventh inning without a Boston hit, Nixon told us to make sure he was left alone. Baseball people are even more superstitious than politicians, so everybody understood. He spent the time whispering to Eisenhower, who later recalled a boisterous top of the ninth because of some concerns about manager Billy Martin's defensive moves. Marin and I were sitting right behind Nixon, and I remember him being absolutely still during all three outs, as though any wrong move would jinx it. When Righetti struck out Wade Boggs ("with a high inside fastball," Nixon remembered when writing about it seven years later; Righetti says it was a slider away), he jumped to his feet, cheered, and gave us all high fives (a presidential first and last for me).

His sweaty face glowed with perfect joy as he turned to leave. But then it was back to business. Taking Marin and me aside, he handed us a yellow legal pad with a handwritten outline he'd completed the day before. We would spend the rest of the summer turning it into prose. Nixon self-published it that fall as Real Peace, a diplomatically worded but unmistakeable repudiation of Ronald Reagan's ideologically inflexible policy toward the Soviet Union and on arms control. Soon after that project, Marin went to work for Jimmy Carter's NSC chief, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and then with the mujaheddin. During the second Bush's administration, Donald Rumsfeld asked Marin to reassess and realign the Pentagon's Afghanistan tactics and strategy.

Arthur and Honey
My gifts being humbler, I remained on the fan-in-chief's squad many more years, as did his last chief of staff and my future wife and co-author, Kathy O'Connor. Our brushes with baseball greatness continued. Kathy became friends with Steinbrenner's affable associate, former sportswriter Arthur Richman ("Do you need any money, honey? Can I send you some money?"). They're shown in Anaheim in 1997, when the Yankees were visiting for one of their periodic drubbings by the Angels. A few years later, Richman invited Kathy and me to dinner, when he told us about being on the road with the Mets' Darryl Strawberry as he battled addiction.

Back in 1983, just a few weeks after Righetti's no-hitter, Billy Martin accused Kansas City Royals slugger George Brett of having too much pine tar on the handle of his bat. No, we weren't there for that one. But when umpires sided with Martin and gave the Yankees the game, Nixon sent Brett a letter bucking him up. Notoriety gave Nixon deep reserves of empathy for the notorious, and in this case, his instincts were sound. The AL brass sided with Brett.

Nixon wrote hundreds of letters to athletes. He didn't mind that they often didn't write back. What young man constantly on the road without a social secretary actually knew how to? A couple of months after the pine tar incident, I answered the phone while working late in Nixon's Manhattan office. "President Nixon sent George a nice letter, and I don't think he replied," said Ethel Brett, his mother. "Would you please tell him thank you?"

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Yorba Linda Plumbers

Co-author on the beach near Provincetown
On vacation last month in Cape Cod, I had the opportunity for extensive meetings with Richard Nixon's last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor, to discuss a book project we've been mulling for a while. You can probably guess the subject. O'Connor babysat Nixon's grandchildren, traveled with him to Russia and China, nursed him through a variety of crises and a couple of epic missteps, and held his hand when he died in 1994. I'll offer insights about 37 beginning at our first meeting in San Clemente in the spring of 1979 and ending when I oversaw his Yorba Linda funeral 15 years later. I also withstood his angry family and wrangled with the the feds over his tapes and other materials as Nixon library director and co-executor of his estate until 2009, two years after O'Connor and I had brought Nixon's wilderness-wandering black sheep of a private library into the federal system.

We have a lot to figure out when it comes to process and timing, focus and theme, what to include and leave out. What would even tempt us post-presidential Nixonites to combine our nearly 60 years of Nixonalia in one Nixo-narrative? We're married, for one thing, though that doesn't means it's wise to write a book together. I'll undoubtedly gain insights about gracious collaboration that will be useful in upcoming counseling sessions with couples being married at St. John's Episcopal Church.

All kidding aside, since we've been working together since the day after Labor Day in 1980, when she first buzzed me into Nixon's Foley Square offices under the eye of his Secret Services agents, I anticipate a joyful process of research and writing. We also look forward to reconnecting with the Nixon we knew and respected for his achievements and in spite of his massive failings. We spent tens of thousands of hours with him during the last 15 years of his life, when he had mellowed considerably without losing his keen interest in moderate GOP politics (which are now inoperative) and his desire to influence U.S. foreign policy, especially in China and Russia. There's no denying Watergate, the vulgar White House tapes, and his penchant for dirty tricks. But from the man who traveled the world without portfolio -- and after 1985, without Secret Service agents -- serving as an honest broker between his successors and their counterparts abroad, we gained a deep appreciation for the statesman who had left the world safer than he found it when he resigned in August 1974.

Nixon and Kissinger
Besides, Kathy and I have been doing the Nixon two-step for years, in speeches, at parties, and with friends. "Please," said a clergy buddy just last weekend over pasta in New York after our party of five had seen Tom Hanks and Courtney B. Vance in "Lucky Guy" (which beautifully evoked the 1980s New York we remember so well). "Please tell Nixon's last joke." Aw, shucks, I said. Demurring just for a moment can inspire the petitioner to order another bottle of wine, and so it was Saturday night. Many years ago, just a few months before Nixon died, he had taken Kathy, her assistant, and me to dinner at his hotel in Dana Point, California, where he'd encamped to finish what would be his last book. It was rewrite time, and Nixon and O'Connor had summoned me with my laptop. After a long day's work, he leaned forward in the booth in the disarmingly informal manner he assumed when out to dinner with friends and aides. "Bebe told me a new joke," he whispered. "Wanna hear it?" Did we ever.
Unindicted co-authors

But as for the joke, I''ll have to tell you later. Just to tantalize you, telling it properly required Nixon to speak in falsetto. It was naughty in the relatively innocent way of Depression-era elites. Men of his and Bebe Rebozo's generation called it bathroom humor, meaning that it was scatological but also that gentlemen did their best to keep it among themselves in their manly enclaves, whether the locker room or the Bohemian Grove. One of Kathy's stories is about waiting for Nixon outside the men's room at a hotel where he and Henry Kissinger were attending an event together. She could hear them joking in their growly baritones and teasing each other like little leaguers.

A little boy or girl resides in most of us, whether presidents or priests. Nixon was a wide-eyed naif when it came to sexuality, matters of the heart, and their mysterious nexus. History has yet to appreciate how much he enjoyed and craved the attention of intelligent, capable women, chiefly, of course, his beloved Patricia Ryan. Yet women flummoxed him. As for Pat, while he always loved and respected her, his profound introversion and selfish decision-making kept their relationship out of balance. Too many instructions to several generations of aides began with the words, "Call Mrs. Nixon and tell her that...." If his temperament and deepest desires were barriers to the fearful intimacy of mutual vulnerability, so too with millions of his overachieving mid-century cohort, for whom dirty jokes were a way of whistling past the bedroom door.

There was even some bathroom humor in our day at the Nixon library. Pace Rick Perlstein and Jeb Magruder, 37 probably never gave direct orders to the White House Plumbers, authors of Watergate and co-destroyers of his presidency. But he was embroiled with library plumbers not once but twice -- and I'm not even talking about the acolytes of disgraced chief of staff Bob Haldeman who now control Nixon's private foundation in Yorba Linda. After 2009's Haldeman renaissance, triggered by his fellow operatives' hatred of John Dean, Kathy's 29 years of dedicated service to Nixon and his family were repaid with acts of such savagery and sadism that she lost interest in her mentor for a while. I give thanks that her ambivalence has dissipated to the point where she can separate her feelings about Nixon from all his Woodward and Bernstein-celebrated men and their enablers.

Nixon and Kathy in China, 1993
If Nixon had wanted his mid-level White House and campaign operatives in charge of his library, legacy, and estate, they would have been. When Kathy and I were working together in Nixon's offices in New York and New Jersey, we oversaw the original private library from architecture to museum cases. Precise historicity was not our ethic. Amid vaunting presentations about Nixon's peacemaking initiatives, we installed a polemical defense of his Watergate actions written by a young devotee of Julie Eisenhower and a video on the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates in which the eloquent Democrat never actually spoke. While I included the the most damning portions of the famous “smoking gun” cover-up tape from June 23, 1972, I wrote a script for the exhibit in which I did my best to exonerate Nixon of criminal motives. With a commercial filmmaker, I co-wrote a 30-minute museum orientation film, “In the Arena,” that presented Nixon in heroic hues and at least until recently was still being shown at the federal library. I brought in a camera crew one morning and peppered him with 70 questions. His businesslike answers ended up, along with earlier footage, in an interactive “Presidential Forum” feature.

Nixon dutifully reviewed the exhibit text and made some changes. He didn't care as much about the library as we did. He reminded me repeatedly that, for better or worse, his legacy belonged to historians, not factotums writing paeans in exhibits paid for by his rich friends. The artifact that really mattered to him was his birthplace, where a school caretaker and his family were living as we got started on the library. We returned it to its 1913 appearance with the help of some restoration specialists I knew in National City, California, where I’d been a reporter ten years before. Thanks to their good work and Nixon’s late sister-in-law Clara Jane Nixon, who for years had preserved a houseful of his parents Frank and Hannah’s own furnishings, house wares, and knickknacks, library visitors can enjoy an authentic glimpse of a turn-of-the-century southern California farmhouse, a three-dimensional snapshot of the working class, goat milk-drinking upbringing of which Nixon was so proud.

Over our many Mimi's lunches during the next 19 years, Clara Jane told me absorbing stories about the Nixon family and gently defended her husband, Donald, whose financial imbroglios had embarrassed his brother (and had continued into the 1980s, when I'd fielded Don's calls in Nixon's New York City office). As if to remind me that her husband wasn't the only Nixon brother who was subject to judgment, she missed few opportunities to say how offended she'd been by the bathroom language Nixon and his aides had used on the White House tapes.

2 BR, 1/2 bath
The first Yorba Linda bathroom emergency was our proposal to keep the toilet in his birthplace. The architects were convinced there’d been one in the house as Frank Nixon had built it in 1912, but Nixon disagreed strenuously. He told me that the family had used an outhouse at first, though he conceded indoor plumbing might have been installed by the time they moved to Whittier in the early 1920s, when he was nine.

He finally approved the john but not another of my and the architects’ schemes. Since the front of his family house faced away from the main library building, they wanted to pick it up and turn it around. The idea made sense to me but not the man whose father had built the sturdy bungalow 75 years before. It had survived multiple owners, suburban sprawl, brush fires, heavy metal teenagers, and the existential burden of being the spawning ground of the most controversial American politician of the 20th century. During Vietnam, vandals had torched Pat Nixon’s girlhood home in nearby Artesia. When I pitched the architects’ idea, he didn’t say a word; he just stared at me. “On the other hand, Mr. President,” I said, “we can leave it right where it is. I just wanted to let you to know what these guys were up to.”

There was a second latter-day Nixon plumber caper. Years before, when we showed him drawings the National Archives had prepared for a federal Nixon library in San Clemente, he was outraged to find that the employee restrooms were bigger than the public’s. He wrote to the Nixon foundation’s volunteer executive director, John Whitaker, a former advance man and White House domestic affairs adviser, and ordered a massive escalation in toilets and urinals in the public restrooms and a corresponding reduction in bowls for bureaucrats.

Even after the San Clemente plans fell through, over the years Nixon’s memo took on the authority of sacred canon. Our architects plumbed all its nuances. As a result, visitors to the Nixon museum never had to wait in line for its ample facilities, with their recessed lighting, marble counter tops, and terrazzo floors. In the basement, the tiny staff restrooms were done up in battleship grey tile and linoleum, with one stall each plus a urinal for the men that was set about eight inches from the floor for accessibility's sake. The appointments included lockers for the security guards.

On the library's opening day in July 1990, I was especially nervous about whether Nixon would feel we got his birthplace right. He said we had, although he suggested we rearrange some of the furniture, including the old piano he'd first learned to play by ear. We were flush with pride until he made a pit stop in the downstairs men's room in the brand-new library building. He emerged looking preoccupied and started slowly down the hall, stopped and looked over his shoulder, started walking again, and then put a hand on my arm so I’d turn to face him.

President George H. W. Bush, former Presidents Reagan and Ford, and their first ladies, along with a crowd later optimistically estimated by library marketers at 50,000, waited above in the burning sun for the dedication ceremony, but first Nixon had a burning question. “As I recall, at one point I may have made something of an issue about the restrooms,” he said. “But for God’s sake please tell me that’s not the only urinal in the goddamn place.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Notes On A President's Notes

By Kathy O'Connor

Tomorrow is the 19th anniversary of the death of Richard Nixon, whom I served for 14 years as his personal secretary and last chief of staff. I can hardly believe it has been almost two decades since I held his hand and kissed him on the forehead while saying goodbye in a small, dark room in the ICU at New York Hospital. Those private moments remain fresh in my mind because of the sacred separation of his spirit from his body that I felt as his heart monitor went flat.

Because of the passions of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate, and especially the secret White House tapes, history’s assessment of him will always be complicated. Some of his worst moments and those of felonious assistants such as Bob Haldeman are on display in tonight’s documentary on the Discovery Channel. But there was another side of our former president that I was privileged to see as he traveled the world, wrote many books and articles, and advised all of his successor presidents.

The days before his devastating stroke were full and joyful. He worked on his final book, Beyond Peace. Two days before he was stricken, he was among friends and family at the wedding of a family friend in Westchester County. The day before, his younger daughter Julie Eisenhower spent the day at his home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, which had felt empty indeed since Mrs. Nixon’s death in June 1993.

On Monday, April 18, he decided to work at home weighing book promotion options and answering correspondence. We were on the phone all day. He had his stroke just before dinnertime, about an hour after our last conversation. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died on April 22.

I’ve thought of him each day since. To focus his own thoughts, President Nixon wrote notes to himself constantly, including daily Kathy-dos. Here are the two from April 18. When we’d covered a matter, he crossed it off the list. On the shorter list are a couple of items he never had a chance to ask me about. Maybe later, Mr. President!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Flyin' Shoes

In their book On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler make an observation that is easy to accept in principle: “God gives us a life cycle that includes death.” But when our beloved dies, Kübler-Ross and Kessler write, “We can’t believe what has happened, because we actually can’t believe what has happened.” Denial, which Kübler-Ross made famous, is our psyche’s way of obscuring an unfathomable horror until we recover enough for her next stages: Bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance.

No one chooses to experience such loss – except us Christians, who revisit the birth, life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ every year between Christmas and Easter.

Most of the time, of course, we’re retelling familiar Bible stories that aren’t especially traumatic, even when they’re sad. Otherwise people wouldn’t read sad novels or go to the movies. In worship, the stories can be so familiar or stylized that they lose their punch. The prayers in our Holy Eucharist liturgy encompass the whole history of God’s people, from creation through our alienation from God to reconciliation through Jesus Christ and his betrayal and Resurrection. The story is swirling, actually cinematic, and yet we’ve heard it in church so often that our attention is sometimes won by our worries and troubles and even grumbling stomachs (been to the new In-N-Out yet?).

Lent is supposed to bring the great epic back into frame and focus. We repent, fast, and prepare. We work harder at reconnecting with God and each other, trying to make more time for reflection and prayer. And we remember that soon we’ll pass from daylight into the gloaming and on to the midnight of Holy Week and humanity’s greatest loss.

When comparing terrible losses, a person mourning a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend is likely to feel that Christ has some competition. A comforting aspect of Christian doctrine is that Jesus Christ experienced suffering and death to give meaning to ours, to demonstrate that God had endured and transcended the worst life could offer. Might suffering even be our duty? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). The secular mind replies, “Since I don’t want to be your follower, I’d rather not take up my cross.” The secular mind would say that faith is denial – humanity’s way of obscuring the uncomfortable truth that life is loss and pain.

But the mature Christian doesn’t deny loss and pain but meets them head on, accepting humanity’s complicity in Christ’s death and the inevitability of our own. During our Sunday morning Grief and Grieving discussions this Lent, St. John’s members shared moving personal stories of loss and recovery – in Christian terms, death and resurrection. We may be so conscious of Christ’s divinity that we feel reluctant to appropriate his experience, afraid to compare our suffering to his or accept that we have the right and capacity to enjoy resurrection after the searing trauma of loss. But the very purpose of the Incarnation is to bring God close enough to touch, envelop, and comfort us. God indeed gives us a life cycle that includes death, and life’s seasons as well. Among many other things, Lent and Easter are seasons when we practice – literally practice, as in “get ready for and used to” -- both grief and hope.

This Lent, I watched a poignant documentary about a brilliant Texas songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 at the age of 52. He suffered from alcoholism and bipolar disorder. His story made me think about my father, a talented writer and musician who died too young because of his drinking. It made me think about being in late middle age. It made me think of the imminence of loss and preciousness of life, especially in the St. John’s community. The life of our church and especially the implacable church calendar are great blessings, because I do sometimes deny the swiftly passing seasons. But as Townes wrote and sang:

Days full of rain
Sky’s comin’ down again
I get so tired
Of these same old blues
Same old song
Baby, it won’t be long
‘fore I be tyin’ on
My flyin’ shoes 

This post was first published in the Lent 2013 issue of the parish newsletter of St. John's Church, the Vaya Con Dios. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Justice And Blood

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx portrays a slave named Django (“The D is silent,” he tells another character) who frees his wife from a sadistic plantation owner. (Spoiler alert!)  In the process he kills every white person on the farm, including the owner’s unarmed sister. Among Django’s victims is Tarantino himself, appearing as a minor character so debased and irredeemably stupid that I’m sure even the Pope would say he deserved to die.

I can’t account for everyone’s reaction to the half-hour of airborne intestines at the end of “Django Unchained.” Priest of God and follower of the Prince of Peace, I was rooting for Django all the way. You know the feeling when the bad guys are getting what they deserve. If filmmakers have done their jobs, few in the audience are hoping the suspects will be read their Miranda rights and given the opportunity to reflect on their poor decisions. Something deep in us aches for instant justice. We want to see righteous vengeance in the flash of steel and gunpowder. We want blood.

If you really want to see a bloody mess, ask screenwriter and director Tarantino to justify Django’s mayhem in the context of the Newtown massacre. In one TV interview in early January, he refused to answer. But a few weeks before, on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he made a useful distinction. The worst moments in “Django Unchained” are depictions of savagery against slaves. They’re not stylized, and Tarantino doesn’t dwell on them. It’s this documentary violence, the vicious reality of slavery, which provokes Django and his friend, played by Christoph Waltz, into an orgy of what Tarantino called “the fun violence.”

Fun violence is the concept I’ve been wrestling with since seeing Tarantino’s entertaining movie (not suitable, in my perhaps too conservative view, for most under 15 or 16). Some think that his movies could inspire real-life attacks by sick people. Others just believe they’re in poor taste. But most critics miss the point, which is that the blood lust is in us already, an integral aspect of our nature. Tarantino is showing us exactly what we’ve come to see, which is also what we came to see when Bruce Willis battled terrorists in "Die Hard" and Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Fictional violence against the unquestionably evil gives our animal instincts a chance to bubble deliciously to the surface under carefully controlled conditions.

Owning our instincts, including our taste for violence, is vital to our formation as Christians. Especially as we prepare for Lent and Good Friday, it helps us understand how we might have been persuaded to add our voices to those who shouted “Crucify him!” Jesus’s antagonists concocted a narrative about his blasphemy and pretensions to kingship that triggered the audience’s craving for a spectacle of torture and death. During the long era of public executions in the U.S., people also gave themselves permission to enjoy watching someone die.

It’s up to the experts to say what came first, our hunger for righteous payback or for sheer blood, and how they’re intrinsically bound. But understanding how deeply we want vengeance can help us make better decisions about dilemmas in the world and our lives. Do we ever catch ourselves rushing to judgment, deciding too quickly who’s right and wrong so some sentence can be speedily pronounced? We leave behind the vivid colors and moral clarity of a Tarantino movie and rediscover gray areas and stubborn facts. In a complicated world, give me “Django Discerning” on the judicial bench and in corridors of power, hungry for justice but with a lust for due process.

Movie violence can also deepen our understanding of biblical violence – the massacre of the priests of Baal by God’s prophet Elijah on Mt. Carmel as depicted in 1 Kings or, as described in Exodus, God’s killing of the Egyptian firstborn to free his people from slavery. In their time, these events were portrayed not as fun but as good violence, leading to righteous worship in 1 Kings and freedom in Exodus. God’s role in bloody biblical acts is a question for another time. But God does say this much to his violence-prone people: “Promote justice. Strive to walk in peace. Vengeance is mine, and never yours.”

This post was first published in the parish newsletter of St. John's Church, the Vaya Con Dios.