Thursday, December 18, 2014

Always a Friend

It's starting to get too close, people I know well, and now someone my age, starting to fall. Word came today that my law school roommate and later the best man at my wedding, Guy Blynn, collapsed of a heart attack and never regained consciousness. We had stayed in touch the way old friends and comrades do, but it had often been a year or so between get-togethers.  Nevertheless, it was like old times when we did see each other.

In recent years, the occasion usually was sitting as judges on a moot court for Guy's son Dan's legal writing class at George Washington Univ. law school, where my wife also continues to teach as an adjunct.  Guy was his old self on this bench, only mildly terrorizing first-year law students during oral argument, for their own good, as it always was broadcast to us from our own law school days.

Guy really was cut out to be a lawyer.  He became interested in trademark law right out of law school, when starting out at a big New York firm. His moving to Winston-Salem and going to work for RJR made seeing him less frequent but he became well-known in the trademark bar. He was a Stephen Colbert before his time, often taking a conservative position on anything for the sake of argument and yes, at the time, he probably even believed some of it.

When I heard of his death, I started googling him and so much more emerged. His enthusiasm for sports I of course knew--going back to his days as sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and wrestling manager at Penn. I'm a sucker for most sports--at least once--and he dragged me to wrestling meets at Harvard and left me with an appreciation for the fine points and those who love the sport, such as author John Irving. He also put up with my mediocrity on the squash court when we meet at prime time--lunch hour--only because he had bothered to give the desk guys a bottle of scotch at Christmas so we got on as Harvard Law professors stood by and wondered how those guys rated.

But now I learned that he had contributed a major collection of Holocaust materials to Forsyth Technical Community College where the Blynn Holocaust Collection resides. He chaired a committee that apparently was formed by the mayor of Winston-Salem to examine the fairness of a criminal proceeding and recommended that the defendant, convicted by a jury, be set free after 15 years in prison despite the local judge's having denied habeas based on untimely filing of the motion.

He was a benefactor of the arts in Winston-Salem and I recall his telling me he had acquired half of a season's ticket to Arsenal, the football club in north London to which I have always been partial. I once told him I'd meet him over there for a match and regret that we never got to do that. His three sons have all turned out fine. 

Many people who knew him or knew me would ask how he could represent tobacco, or as Guy inimitably put it, "I'm the guy (Guy?) who keeps the world safe for Joe Camel." That was part of Guy--and if you accept the view that everyone is entitled to be represented, which I generally do, that was his choice to live with.  Guy used to come up and see us and tell everyone that they hadn't proven that smoking was harmful--but then he had stopped smoking himself.

He had a real zest for life. I think I liked him partly because I could put up with his needling--which was amazingly similar to the same trait practiced by my father.  I met his dad once, and he was the same way. What was even more amazing was that we first met when I was in high school in Mt. Vernon, attending the New York State Key Club convention where Guy was running for the highest office, Governor. He didn't win, despite the efforts of the mighty Long Island bloc, which was overwhelmed by the mightier Upstaters. But as always, he made a lasting impression.

His last e-mail to me was about a month ago, asking the derivation of  Fenno, a humor column in the Harvard Law Record I had inherited from who knows how many predecessors (going back to the ancient days of 1946, I believe). "I'm doing well for someone almost 70 (yikes!!!!)   travelling a bunch since the kids are in good places to visit:  denver, miami and...d.c.," he related. 
Good-bye, Blynner--you were truly one of a kind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Signs of Incipient Curmudgeonly Tendency

We like to think that we don't fall into the trap of thinking and saying how good things used to be and how so much that occurs today is terrible.  Here's a quick rundown of some stuff in our 24/7-oriented media that aroused my ire recently:

1. LeBron James criticized for touching Kate Middleton. Since when do royalty have any right to expect that this country accepts the ridiculous protocols prevailing in their home nation which derive from the days when the royals asserted divine rights? We fought a Revolutionary War against the Brits following our issuance of the Declaration of Independence specifying the many offenses committed by the then-king, George III. It's bad enough that our media and the UK media assume that Americans are enamoured of the British royals and share the regard that some Brits have for them. These people are spongers who deserve very little respect much less deference. They have done nothing to deserve any special treatment.

2. Columbia Law School students demand and receive exam postponement because of the effect on their concentration of the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury results.  This egregious catering to law students ostensibly upset by the failure of grand juries to indict -- it should be noted that the facts of the two cases are very different -- is yet another instance of our academic institutions promulgating policies that accept the idea that students have a right not to be made to feel "uncomfortable"--whatever that means, in the phrase of my recently-retired criminal law professor.  Too often, this ersatz "principle" is used to justify restricting freedom of speech on college campuses. We need more recognition of the precept advanced by both Voltaire ("I may disagree with everything you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.") and Thomas Paine ("He that would make his own liberty secure must guarantee rights even to his enemy, for if he fails to do so, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself.").

3. Universities need to get out of the adjudication business. College panels of amateurs--when it comes to determining matters by any legal standard--have no place today in acting on charges of serious offenses such as rape. The criminal justice system surely is far from perfect, but we have devised a series of procedures that seek to guarantee the rights of both complainant and defendant.

4. Journalism needs to re-emphasize a focus on facts before and separate from opinion.  Rolling Stone discredited itself by only looking for one side of a story at the University of Virginia. Yet our media today are filled with simplistic opinions and refusals to pursue the underlying facts. We should not assume it was better in previous times--the vicious tone of journalism in the 1790s, for example, has not yet been equaled, fortunately. 

5. The recognition of the dangers in football presented by the long-term effects of concussions will have more impact over time in changing the sport and perhaps ending it than the issue of the Redskins' name.  The concussion reports and analysis remind me of the barring of the dangerous "flying wedge" play after President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the major football powers to the White House in 1905 and told them that change was required.  It's almost humorous to recall that Harvard and Yale were those major football powerhouses in those days. Eventually, it may well turn out that the frequency with which players' careers and lives are shortened by head hits will cause the demise of the sport. As for the local gridiron eleven, the appropriate new name might be the Deadskins, based on their now-standard haplessness on the field and off.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rolling Stone Comes a Cropper at UVa

The Rolling Stone fraternity gang rape story at the University of Virginia has exposed many of the faults of the current trends in American popular journalism, garnished with an unhealthy helping of political correctness. First, the journalism part: the writer and the editors failed to follow the most basic rules of the trade, which have long mandated that reporters seek out all sides of a story and never rely on merely one involved party for a full picture.

Now it turns out that the woman may not have been assaulted by multiple men, nor that she was so attacked at the particular fraternity house she told the writer that it was where this all occurred, and that she may not have had the date correct.  Yes, the whole event may well have occurred but her credibility has been damaged severely, largely because the writer failed to check the facts.  That Rolling Stone said that fact-checking had occurred makes its role in this sorry process even less sympathetic.

Now, some will say we are missing the point.  They urge us to focus on sexual assault as a problem on college campuses and forget about the specifics. Not so fast, I would suggest. It has been said that rape is easy to allege and hard to disprove.  All the more reason why such allegations should be tested in a court where the rules of evidence are in full force. And all the more reason for the U.S. Department of Education's sorry campaign to lower the burden of proof should be resisted and ended.

Fraternities remain a malignant influence on American higher education. They inhibit students from associating with fellow students who may not share the same cultural background.  This is also true of ethnic-based living arrangements in Latino, African American, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical, or Muslim-oriented houses, whether these are secret societies, like fraternities, or not. It is also clear that fraternities are generally anti-intellectual and at best, neutral in their attitude toward learning. They encourage irresponsible drinking, which leads to worse behavior.

Nevertheless, the current attitude among bien-pensant types assumes that all fraternity men are guilty of sexual assault until proven otherwise. So writers clearly without experience in adhering to long-established standards of good journalism are encouraged to tell merely one side of a story when it comes to sexual assault. This--as we now have seen from the UVa case--serves neither victims nor defendants nor the institutions themselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New View of Rodgers & The H Men

I've had much more of a liking for Rodgers & Hart than for Rodgers & Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers probably was the finest melodist of all the great Broadway composers. That is a given. Larry Hart was one of the cleverest lyricists, rivalled only by Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg. If you know anything about Larry Hart, an immensely talented man whose personal frustrations led him to drink himself to death, you can never listen to "My Funny Valentine" without thinking of how much of himself he threw into that song.

As for Oscar Hammerstein II, I found him, from my vantage point as a child of the '60s, a total cornball. We cringed at "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific. And it struck me early and often that every good thing in Showboat comes from Jerome Kern's fantastic music rather than the often pedestrian book and lyrics. That show did change what musicals were--something Hammerstein also accomplished 17 years later with Rodgers in Oklahoma!--but I've seen one great production a few years ago on Broadway which brought out the strengths of the show, and one locally which seemed to go on desultorily at best forever.  It really does need a great, imaginative production to work today.

But listening to Robert Wyatt's wonderful presentation at the Smithsonian last week on Rodgers & Hammerstein, I did start to see some qualities in Hammerstein's words that I'd not noticed before. I'll never like "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" but even that doesn't ring as preachily as it used to do when I heard it.  And South Pacific--beyond that one song--has no bad numbers, none. It is a fantastic musical.

This summer I was lucky enough to catch a fine production of Carousel at Glimmerglass. That too is an absolutely superb musical, almost operatic in many ways. It was fun at Wyatt's program to see clips of the original Julie, Jan Clayton (remember her as the original mom in Lassie?) singing "If I Loved You" and "When You Walk Through a Storm".  Seriously, can you beat either of those two marvelous songs?

To me, The Sound of Music, their last show, was as it was parodied in a long-ago Broadway revue I saw starring Hermione Gingold--playing the Mary Martin/Julie Andrews leading role, of course--as she croaked out the lyrics in "The Sound of Schmaltz".  I'll never hear "My Favorite Things" without thinking of her rhapsodizing about "oodles of noodles" and "cute little babies, with runny noses". Yet even that behemoth of what the late Dwight Macdonald would likely have blasted as total kitsch seemed in the clips, especially of Mary Martin, fabulous--both her and the show--even though she was getting on by then. And apparently Hammerstein had thought she was too old for South Pacific--the clips proved to me that she was absolutely perfect.

But in the end, I have to give Hammerstein his due. He wrote a lot more good than bad.  Even The King & I holds up, much to my surprise. And I don't know if very many others enjoy hearing Yul Brynner sing "A Puzzlement"--Wyatt was good enough to play at least part of it.  The capstone of the evening came early when Wyatt was telling the story of both Rodgers and Hammerstein before they were Rodgers & Hammerstein. It was the clip of Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River"--it just doesn't get better than that.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

There's Only One New York

We opted to slip away to New York City for my birthday and it's been a wonderful day. Started out at the New-York Historical Society seeing the sampling of objects from Sam Roberts' A History of New York in 101 Objects, which was both compelling and enjoyable, even if they should have done all 101 of them. Then we took in The Two Faces of January, a new film based on a Patricia Highsmith novel hitherto not known to me and here I thought I'd read all of her deliciously weird tales. Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst were the leads along with Oscar Craig and the locations--all the real ones--in Athens, the Greek islands, and Turkey were well utilized too.  These are mostly antiheros of the Tom Ripley ilk and the picture holds your attention.

High point came with The Country House, a Donald Margolis play put on by Manhattan Theater Club and previewing on Broadway before it opens next week.  Margolis has lots of great lines, much like his Dinner With Friends some years ago. Blythe Danner leads a fine cast of six. The play has much fun with throwaway lines enjoyed by anyone who recalls a tad of theatrical history and the underlying plot holds up through three acts and one intermission. A first for me was four members of the cast coming out on stage after the show to participate in a feedback session run by an assistant director. 

We grabbed dinner at Eataly, a sprawling combination of dining spots, grocery store, and bookstore at 23rd and Fifth, that has you choose to dine in a dining area devoted to fish, vegetables, meat, pasta, or pizza. The idea is good and the place is packed although you can get seated if you arrive early. The fish, which we chose, was good but not great, even if cooked to order.

Then on to the Village where I again returned to hope for a home run from Neil LaBute, who, alas, has come up short ever since reasons to be pretty a few years back, which sadly just missed taking a Tony during its run at the Lyceum. This outing is entitled The Money Shot, about two fading Hollywood stars and their mates as they embark on a foray to get back in the hit column and never really get to discussing whether they will do an all-out sex scene. LaBute seems to have lost his direction because despite a few decent lines, the characters were rarely believable. 

Couldn't quite make it to the Museum of Modern Art for a show of posters and prints by Toulouse-Lautrec, always an enticement for me.  Then I happily recalled that I doubtless saw the same show a while back when it was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's likely been travelling the country ever since then.

Had we had a few more seconds to stop for breath, might have walked in Central Park when we left the Historical Society, but we made up for that by walking from 23rd and Fifth--well, actually we started at 28th & Broadway but that's another story--to the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street. One thing I noticed was that New York still has plenty of non-Starbucks coffee joints and their coffee is just about as good which means it's all right.

It was just a gorgeous day to be in Manhattan and I think we made more than the most of it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Last Prof Retires

It made me realize how much time has gone by since school days when the last professor I had in law school retired quietly this summer. Next year I might make it to my 45th law school reunion--there are a few of my old friends who now are making an effort to turn up at these occasions--but it will be different knowing that no one on the faculty in my day is still teaching.

Lloyd Weinreb, as with so many of his colleagues, became nationally known--at least in the law school world--as a master of teaching and writing in the field of criminal law and procedure, both of which courses, one required, the other not, I took when a student.  He'd only been teaching for a couple of years then but his casebooks in both courses were already written and in use--in loose-leaf form.  By the time I graduated they were in print and probably used all over the country.

Despite the usual law professor wunderkind background--law review, Supreme Court clerkship, and in his case, practical experience consisting of a couple of years in the U.S. Attorney's office for D.C. and, more exotically, as a staff lawyer on the Warren Commission--he seemed to lack the pretentiousness of so many of the law school faculty.  It was clear from the first day that he actually enjoyed teaching criminal law and procedure.  

He challenged everyone's thinking the way good law school professors should.  When someone was unable to come up with a solid reason for prosecuting a putative defendant, he would push them to supply a good basis or else admit that the prosecution rested on the mere assertion: "because he's a bad man."  He would press the class to define accepted terms meaningfully by re-stating the term--reckless endangerment, for example--and then appending "whatever that is."

While he imparted some of the aspects of criminal practice he learned as a line prosecutor, he drew more shrewdly on the traditional limited-span immersion in the world of practice most law professors have. He would refer to particular instances of decision-making that confronted him or to the decisions every prosecutor, including him, had to make every day as to which cases to proceed with and which to resolve summarily by plea agreement.

It was heartening to read that he was even more of a Renaissance man that most of the law professors seemed to be then and now. He apparently spends his mornings learning ancient Greek and has both taught courses outside his central area of criminal law, such as copyright, with the aim of expanding his horizons, and written some major work on legal theory; no, I haven't read it but I'm more likely to look at something like that because he wrote it, and he probably wrote it just because it seemed like something interesting and worthwhile. 

He's really the only law professor whom I still had plenty of regard for after taking two courses with him. Since he's not that old, I do hope he enjoys many more years of making fine use of his amazing and wide open mind.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Real Labor Day

I've come to the only sensible conclusion about how Labor Day should be observed: anyone who casually rails against unions, works for an anti-union organization, or supports elected officials who oppose a fair minimum wage and other benefits provided by just about every other country in the world, including some not-so-free ones, should go to work on Labor Day and stay there until they've put in a full eight hours, right, with the lunch hour not counting.

A perfect example of anti-labor vitriol can be found in the endless disputes about what kind of schools we need. Teachers unions are blamed for the idiotic administration by incompetent and politically-wired local school boards or state boards. Charter schools as a whole have not shown themselves to be any more effective at educating children than public schools, but the great and the not-so-good looking to make some quick bucks urge us to expand them without any proof of real success. They seem to be good only at turning over their complement of teachers almost annually instead of developing skilled, experienced teachers.

All the propaganda put out by corporate America has had an impact: people really feel that the market system is how to run anything. In many places, we once had excellent public schools. I went to them. Then when white people fled the inner city and the inner suburbs, the administrators stopped paying attention to the schools. Some of education's problems were brought upon it by reliance on trying to implement one faddish scheme after another with no time allowed for evaluation and assessment.

But the public as a whole has been conditioned to accept the outrageous pay of CEOs--who take it because they can,whether they are successful or not. We of course have a Congress, both parties, totally in thrall to major donors, who want tax breaks so companies can do better by moving overseas. And despite the excellent analysis of Paul Krugman and a few others, the conventional wisdom purveyers want our policymakers to focus more on inflation than employment. All the  deficit-cutting hawks were proven wrong but they still get treated more than respectfully.

People wonder why the middle class has been hit so hard and that the only people who benefit in our society are the rich. They should consider every time they've disparaged the idea of a union and start thinking about how none of the Wall Street scoundrels who brought us economic disaster have gone to jail, or even paid any significant price for their crimes against our society.