Monday, May 11, 2009

A Homily in the Memory of Frederick Darwin Leach

[This homily was written by Joseph Uemura, and read by Professor Uemura, July 7, 1986, at my father's funeral.]

Scriptural text:

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? ...
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten ..., and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that has made us whole,
and with his stripes, we are healed.

--Isaiah 53: 1,4,5. (RSV)

Artists, scholars, and teachers, such as Frederick Darwin Leach, are those among us of whom it might be said that God has chosen to be stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, bruised, and chastised, in order that we might be forgiven, made whole, and healed. Fred was superbly one of these: A passionately creative artist, meticulous scholar, consummate and caring teacher, fellow Hellenophile, and the only other authentic faculty curmudgeon.

I always knew Fred and I were ontologically and irretrievably connected: Fred passed away on July 3rd. And July 3rd is my birthday. Now, he and I knew, in advance, that he was audacious enough to have planned it that way! And I am audacious enough -- and humble enough -- to know that "upon him was the chastisement that made me whole."

From the very first time I met Fred -- at Paul Smith's home, when he interviewed for our position -- I knew that he was my kind of human being! Inasmuch as sarcasm is one of the ways I have of showing affection, I said, "Come on, my good man, no one has a Ph.D. in Art History from Iowa; so, how could you? There, they only torture them for ten years, and let them go!" Knowing Fred, you can appreciate that he was completely undaunted, and shot back, "And what about Ph.D.'s in Philosophy from Columbia?" Needless to say, I have loved him ever since! -- That quick wit, that great voice, that maker of fine distinctions, precise lines, and shibui colors; that deep, compassionate heart.

What I have always admired about Fred is that he always knew when we were suffering the slings and arrows of academic life. He did not, however, "suffer fools well," or, as my Irish brother-in-law puts it, "he disliked intensely conversing with diseased minds." When we were a "faculty-run" institution, the central cleaning house was the chairman's meeting. I can still hear Fred's baritone voice uttering outrageous things vociferously. At any rate, here, we detected and exposed so many anguis in herba before they became policy that, twelve years ago, such meetings were summarily abandoned in order that the University could operate "as it was clearly intended." We coeurs mechant should have known -- I think Fred knew -- that we had "sung our sweetest swan song." My point is only this: Fred was primus inter pares in recognizing "wormy ideas" when he saw them, and, now, "with his stripes, we are healed."

Betty Pat thought I ought to mention that Fred was no less sanguine about religion as about administrators. As any reasonable being would, Fred could not abide priestcraft, fanaticism, nor vacuous ritual. Rather, he'd love Voltaire's remark that "religion would never die because there would always be people who loved to sing and drink on Saturday night and wished to continue on Sunday morning," preferably in a beautiful place, because their friends were there, because music, dancing, bread and wine are delightful, and doubly so because all these might represent some precious things on which one's whole fate turns!

Another thing Fred knew was that if one really does philosophy well, hemlock is the logical result! So, on his trip to Greece in 1972, he brought back a gift with the following note: "To Joe: A potsherd from the floor of the house of Simon the Shoemaker in the Athenian Agora. Stolen by F. Leach ... expressly for J. Uemura." Fred knew that Socrates began his first irritating questions in the house of Simon, and wanted me to have a concrete reminder that if I kept it up, they'd get me, too, one day! Again, "upon him was the chastisement that made me whole."

Two years ago, Fred gave me another gift -- a framed 8 x 10 photo of a rose he had photographed at the very height of its bloom. Perhaps you have seen other copies he made of it as displayed in his showings a year ago. The latin inscription in Fred's own hand reads: "Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus." My halting translation would read: "The pristine and original rose thrives in its glorious authenticity, but we can only grasp its empty name." It is true about the creative artist, the scholar, and the teacher. It is true about Fred Leach, himself. The pristine, original experience is what is authentic. This experience is what the artist undergoes, this experience is what the teacher must experience, what the scholar must discover. We grasp what we can, we grasp the empty name of the rose, and try to understand the authentic essence of things, the rosa pristina itself! As a great teacher, artist, scholar, and friend, Fred experienced and suffered the wide sweep of artistic expression, he knew intimately many rosae pristinae, and gave us the names of them all for us to see, to grasp, and to understand. And, again, "upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, And with his stripes, we are healed." Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. "The pristine and original rose thrives in its glorious authenticity, but we can only grasp its empty name," for now it is our task to create, as Fred himself has created, the abiding legacy to his memory.

"Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? ...
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes, we are healed."

"Good night, Sweet Prince,
And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." (Hamlet, V)

Joseph N. Uemura
July 7, 1986

Monday, May 4, 2009

Literary Geek quiz

From FaceBook, just because.

1) You own the most books written by what author?
Hassler probably. Decided to read them all after Staggerford. McMurtrey may be close, although I started checking those out of the library.

2) You own the most copies of what book?
No more than two copies of any that I can think of. Why more? Trying to think if there might be three of something, besides the dictionary or Roget's What'sanotherwordforit?

3) Did it bother you that [the original form of] both those questions ended with prepositions?
Ooh. It would have, my response to question 2 notwithstanding.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
Jane Eyre or Agnes (Copperfield). Tess.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life?
The Lord of the Rings, although I still haven't read most of the poetry and the last reading was disappointing.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
The Chip Hilton series. Or Bronc Burnett. Sports.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
I would say, but it might get back to the author. Let's go with Clifford, The Big Red Dog.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?
Love in the Time of Cholera.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
Any PG Wodehouse.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?
No clue. Beyond my pay grade.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
Somebody needs to give War and Peace the Masterpiece treatment. Or have they already?

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
Clifford, The Big Red Dog

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I dreamt Fred MacMurray was God. Does that count? He was wearing a polo shirt. I forget what he told me, which is a serious hole in this story. I'm sure there are better examples, but I'm drawing a blank.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
The Harry Potter series, although, imho, it's not lowbrow. I haven't read too much trash. The book I didn't mention for question 7 would definitely qualify. I did read Bridges of Madison County, come to think of it.

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
Bleak House. Took me ten years. I'm not sure I finished it. The Unconsoled was not an easy read, but it's probably the most difficult book that I've read without too much trouble. It just fit my mood, I guess.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
Nothing too obscure. Maybe Bob, the Dentist from Padua?

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
For what? To read? Russians. Painting? French. Pastries? French.

18) Roth or Updike?
Roth, I guess. I read Portnoy's Complaint for the first time this year. Haven't read any Updike for years. This question is a little vague, no?

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
David Sedaris. Who is Dave Eggers? I should find out, I bet. I like Amy Sedaris, too.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Shakespeare. Doesn't he beat them all?

21) Austen or Eliot?
Austen. For me, no one has a more pleasant tune. George Eliot, I assume? I liked the PBS Middlemarch production a lot.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
I don't really retain anything I read. Too many bonks to the head. Haven't read lots of highbrow stuff. Proust, et al. Why bother if it's not going to stick?

23) What is your favorite novel?
Any Austen, maybe. David Copperfield, once upon a time. Lonesome Dove. I dunno. The question is much too hard to answer.

24) Play?
Waiting for Godot. Stoppard. Hamlet? Midsummer Night's Dream?

25) Poem?
Poetry is beyond me. I always liked Hollis Summers' poem about the guy in other peoples' photographs. I'm sure there's one by Frost or Whitman I could cough up if pounded hard enough. Mike wrote one about silos in Midwest towns I always liked.

26) Essay?
My favorite essay?? You're kidding, right? I sure like what Lewis Lapham's writing these days in Harper's.

27) Short story?
Goodbye to All Cats, by PG.

28) Work of non-fiction?
The Last Place on Earth. I dunno. I've read a lot of great books lately and in my life.

29) Who is your favorite writer?
Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse. I really like Richard Russo, for someone still kicking.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
Ann Coulter.

31) What is your desert island book?
Firestarting for Dummies.

32) And ... what are you reading right now?
House of Cards, William Cohan (also finishing Love in the Time of Cholera).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

#1 Rule in the House

It's always been "Don't Bonk Your Head." You might think there are more important rules which should have the #1 slot, but this is our house and you need to let us set our own priorities, dammit. Do I come over there and tell you how to arrange the socks in your dresser drawers? Well, yes, I do sometimes. Bad example.

Why is this the #1 rule? you might ask. There's a simple answer: I bonked my own poor head way too frequently in the course of my accident prone youth, and I am decidedly the worse for all this melon thumping. If you know me, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't know me, it's probably because you heard stories and decided to keep your distance.

My family -- that is, my mother and siblings -- tell me it all started with a fall from a slide in Athens, Ohio. I don't remember this event, since I was two or three or some such tender age (obviously too young to be climbing up the ladder of some giant slide while my so-called responsible brother and sisters stood around and watched). I also don't remember because I landed on my HEAD. My mother says I was crying when they brought me home, but I seemed "OK". Right.

It was all downhill from that point. There were falls from bikes, blindside tackles in street football, an overthrown baseball in high school (I think I've mentioned that one), bullies -- but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that my brain has been rattled more often than any brain ought to be.

Anyhow, that's why we have the rule. Everyone in the family -- in this case, the wife and daughters -- knows it. That's why there's not much sympathy being ladled out should a member of the household bonk her head. You break the rule, you deal with the pain. No whining.

So what happens today? I'm taking the 3-year-old for a walk in Central Park (in Roseville, not NYC) and I let her have a go at the playground. First thing she does is smack her head going under a bridge in one of those sprawling plastic constructions they call a PlaySystem or an AdventureGround or The Leviathan. I don't see this accident, but I hear the sickening thud. She is dazed, needs a bit of comforting, but carries on. I go back to reading my paper. Next thing I know, she's on her stomach and wailing, over by some large rocks. Boulders, perhaps, is a better description. I rush over to find her forehead bruised and her nose scraped.

"What happened?" I ask, a stupid question to put to a 3-year-old in distress. Getting nothing intelligible from her, I follow up with "What hurts?"

It's her head, of course. She's managed to smack her forehead on one of the rocks, hard enough to start a bruise and for her to lose the gum she was chewing. We leave the gum where it sits, on the offending rock, a testament to her folly.

I do not scold her, but I do remind her of the #1 rule, after the crying dies down a bit. This child treats her noggin as if she has another dozen in her closet. She's constantly banging it on tables, doors, toys -- you name it. She even managed to fall from the couch and come up with a button impaled in her forehead, and has a permanent scar to show for it.

What is the point of rules if no one follows them? Why have I been subjected to a life of misfortune if I cannot steer my loved ones away from the calamities I have endured?

It makes one wonder. Yep, it does. Until one forgets, as one is apt to do these days. What was I talking about?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's new?

Several things, actually. Shall I list them? Why, yes, I shall.

I found my shovel. Or I stole one just like it from the neighbors two doors down. My theory is that some ne'er-do-well transported it from our yard to the neighbors', where it was subsequently covered in accumulating snow until I happened upon it after the first good thaw. That's definitely what I'll tell the cops anyhow, should it come to that.

I drove to Athens, Ohio with my mother, brother and 3-year-old. Two days to get there, five days being there, and two more days coming back from there. Next time it'll probably take a gun to my head. I'm sure they would all need the same motivation. Except for the 3-year-old. She's ready to go now. She liked the swimming pool a lot.

Nothing much happening in the world of unemployment. I'm thinking of turning to a life of crime. The shovel was certainly easy enough to swipe. Why not set my sights slightly higher? Lawnchairs maybe. Garden gnomes. Swingsets.

Still need to decide what I want to do with my life. CPA? Programmer? Lumberjack? I have to remember to add that to the To Do List.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nota bene

Of all the toys you can step on, especially while stumbling around barefoot in a dark living room late at night, I would have to place the model stegosaurus right up there at the top of ones you probably want to avoid.

Just FYI.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Miracle on the Hudson

People are thanking God and calling the survival of the passengers on Flight 1549 a miracle. I don't understand the reasoning. If God was involved, why'd He send those (poor) geese into the engines in the first place? Was He just showing off? Just providing an opportunity for the pilot, the passengers and the rescuers to show their stuff?

All I can tell you is that if I were a goose, I'd be offended. But I'm not, so I'll just stop right here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Our sweet cat Tachikara, seventeen and a half years old, died this afternoon. She was preceded in death by her brother Mizuno. A better pair of cats would be hard to come by.

Tachi has been a part of my wife's and my relationship almost from the start. As a matter of fact, it was the purchase of the siblings that led us to our engagement. It certainly wasn't my charm. She brought them home and I told her we'd have to stay together for the sake of the kitties. A year and a half later we were married.

She -- Tachi that is -- had an adventurous youth, once disappearing for three days in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin. (Or was it longer? It seemed like three weeks.) Mizuno and I had already returned to the Twin Cities but we were duly summoned to help conduct the search. She was not to be found by us, in spite of Mizuno's best tracking efforts and our "Lost Cat" posters, but reappeared, on her own, in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm. I heard a faint "maow" from outside and there she was at the door. She never did tell us where she had been.

She was much more mature as she aged and, over time, we began to trust her again with outdoor privileges. She always came back.

I think she led a good life and was mostly content. She was certainly loved -- by the wife and me, and by each of our three children. The arrival of each of these babies was obviously not something that filled her with enthusiasm, but she grew to tolerate each of them. The one addition she never did accept was our third cat, Spalding. She was too old and he was always much too young, much too rambunctious.

We are going to miss this cat, more than I can express, more than I care to admit to myself right now. It is a sad day. Bye, Tachi-scratchy.