Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Life Gives You Cancer, You Make Cancerade:" A Tribute to Cathy Seipp (Edited 3/22/2007 9:10)

Photo by Jim Lowney

Any eulogy is as much about the author of the eulogy as the subject, but it is important to keep in mind that the most important component of a good eulogy is to provide a picture of the person being eulogized.

My wife and I love Cathy Seipp, she is one of the people who made Los Angeles feel like home to us. That's not an easy job considering how intimidating this very large city was for a young couple from Reno, Nevada. We weren't quite doe eyed, but we were very much intimidated by the vastness and potential coldness of the big city. Cathy Seipp made Los Angeles feel like a small town where all things were possible. Cathy is the reason my wife has her current job and her declining health is the reason I feel so sad right now.

Before I write too much about how I got to know Cathy and what she means to me, I think it is only fair if I let Cathy tell you a little bit about herself. Since eulogies are the best time to wax poetic, and since my words are likely to fall far short of what she deserves, I would like to open with Cathy's self-described favorite poem.

On September 24, 2004 in an online interview with Norman Geras, Cathy was asked if she has a favorite poem. Her response was, "One that often echoes in my head is 'Pied Beauty' by Gerard Manley Hopkins. She also blogged about her love of this poem in a post about a conversation she had with the manager of The Stand. Just picturing her at the gourmet hot dog venue where the shift manager has a Ph.D. in English Literature provides the perfect image of the Los Angeles I have come to love thanks to Cathy. It is a place where one finds beauty in the oddest places, like Ph.D. hotdog boutique managers. The Hopkins poem she described is as follows:

GLORY be to God for dappled things --
For skies of couple-colour as the brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Cathy is a wonderful woman who somehow manages a balancing act that allows her to be an utter snob, while simultaneously being able to discuss her love of Donald Duck in Mathemagicland and Joss Whedon's Firefly (and the Buffyverse for that matter). It is no wonder that I fell in love with her writing so rapidly. Her writing is funny, smart, sophisticated, and disarmingly pop-culture savvy. In other words, she is exactly what I think a modern critic should be. I only wish I had discovered her writing sooner, so that I could claim to have been a fan since her days at Buzz. I also wish, very selfishly, that I could have known her better and for longer.

Like many other people, I came to know her first as a commenter on her blog Cathy's World. Which isn't exactly true, I first read her at National Review Online. My job at a non-profit devoted to youth civic engagement has me constantly looking for potential speakers and reading multiple political magazines. After reading heavy handed reactionary pieces about how our culture is going to Hell in a hand-basket, Cathy's columns were a breath of fresh air. She was an ideal candidate for a "cross-expectational" conservative speaker at discussion forums.

"If only there was some way, I could get to know her so that I could ask her to speak at one of our events without being presumptuous," I said to myself. Lo and behold, I looked on the bottom of the NRO webpage and saw a link to her blog.

During her over four years of blogging, Cathy Seipp gathered and interesting group of commenters. For a large part of those four years, I was one of them. I wasn't a commenter on her first blog entry, but then again no one else was there yet. No one commented her interesting post about whether dog barks are free speech either. She didn't even have Haloscan which allowed non-journalspace commenters until her 107th post. Nor was I a commenter on her last blog entry, there were so many that I would easily have been lost in the haystack.

Near as I can tell, my first comment was in response to her 353rd blog post where she discussed marketing to children. I wrote the following:
Wish I was a member, my comments could be longer.
One, the market assumes rational actors, i.e. people acting in their own self interest. Enlightened self-interest if you will.
Two, kids don't have enlightened self interest, but unfocused greed.
Three, parents do have enlightened self interest.
Four, government has tried to replace the parent in far too many ways.
Five, even Adam Smith considered the government a part of the Marketplace.
There is more, but I am sure I won't have room to type it or even elaborate.

Not exactly the best first paragraph to write or say to someone to begin a friendship. Could you imagine a guy walking up to you at a bar in the middle of a conversation and saying the above? My second response wasn't much better. In an effort to not seem so "geeky," I made a feeble attempt at a funny comment on her 354th post where she asked if anyone knew how to "take care" of her "raccoon problem." I wittily responded with a link to a video game ad and wrote, "Personally, I say if you can't beat them join them. Make sure you click on the safe to finish the flash animation."

Somehow, even after such an ignoble beginning, I managed to become a friend of Cathy's, or rather came to consider her as a friend. She was a reliable and willing participant in a number of my program's events. She even introduced me to her amazing group of friends, a group of smart people with widely differing political views who could only be found around a woman as amazing as Cathy. When Cathy spoke at my events, she was usually the panelist that the students most remembered. They were taken by her unique sense of style, metropolitan bohemian conservative, and her forceful personality. She was never one to back down from a disagreement in any of the discussions in which she participated.

Though none of the disagreements on Arsalyn panels could compare to the confrontation she had with Lawrence O'Donnell on the Dennis Miller Show. The look she gave Lawrence O'Donnell after he exclaimed "Every single teacher my daughter has had has been a GREAT teacher" was priceless. And her response, "You're delusional," was classic Cathy. It was a strong, direct, and unapologetic response to what she thought was a ridiculous statement. I think it was her ability to be strong, direct, and unapologetic was what made her such a surprise to the students at my events. I don't think that many young people expect a conservative female columnist to be as independent as Cathy and it isn't an act with Cathy. She means what she says.

Contrary to the image of "the scowling critic" that the O'Donnell story might raise in your mind, most of my memories of Cathy are of her smiling or laughing. She had a wonderful smile, and whenever I was in her company I would try to make her smile. Sometimes my attempts were feeble and I would be rewarded with judgmental eyes behind a light smile. Other times, I could tell I really tickled her funny bone. I think maybe my best attempt at making her laugh was a piece I wrote in March 2005 in response to a feud she had been having with Susan Estrich. It also included a couple, okay quite a few, inside jokes. I was also making fun of a particular "Troll Dolls" character, who has been up to some recent wickedness from what I hear. Both Cathy and Maia seemed to really enjoy the piece, Maia even posted it on her Facebook (please read it, she found it very funny). I think it captures her as well as anything else I could write.

I guess it is her sense of humor which inspired her to have a living wake where many of her friends roasted her while also demonstrating how much they love her. I very much liked Rob Long's table setting roast and have included it below, but I should mention that everybody who presented did a bang up job and you can find video of the event at You Tube. Just type Cathy Seipp Roast and you should be directed to the right webpage.

I can't say how much Cathy has done for me and for Jody, but I never would have met her if her daughter Maia hadn't forced her to create a blog. Though my own mom died when I was an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, I am not so bold as to say that I understand how Maia will feel. Our circumstances are very different. But I would like to share some of my thoughts with her, if she is reading this (or this far down). I have recently been imagining meeting Cathy after I pass this mortal coil. In my imagination, I find her sitting next a warm fire talking with C.S. Lewis and comparing notes with my mom. He was one of her favorite writers and, not surprisingly, he wrote a book about loss and grief. I found great solace in Lewis's observations after my mom died. What struck me most was an observation he made about emotional suffering. Lewis wrote:

Aren't all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won't accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain. It doesn't really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist's chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.

And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. it gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down.

I found solace in the fact that others had felt as hopeless and empty as I had. I also found solace in the Chaos chapter of The Education of Henry Adams. It, too, captured some sense of how I felt.

One had heard and read a great deal about death, and even seen a little of it, and knew by heart the thousand commonplaces of religion and poetry which seemed to deaden one's senses and veil the horror. Society being immortal, could put on immortality at will. Adams being mortal, felt only the mortality. Death took features altogether new to him, in these rich and sensuous surroundings. Nature enjoyed it, played with it, the horror added to her charm, she liked the torture, and smothered her victim with caresses. Never had one seen her so winning. The hot Italian summer brooded outside, over the market-place and the picturesque peasants, and, in the singular color of the Tuscan atmosphere, the hills and vineyards of the Apennines seemed bursting with mid-summer blood. The sick-room itself glowed with the Italian joy of life; friends filled it; no harsh northern lights pierced the soft shadows; even the dying women shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft, velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fullness of Nature and man. She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle. For many thousands of years, on these hills and plains, Nature had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual pleasure.

Cathy once told me that one of her favorite films was The Lady Vanishes. It is one of my favorites too. Cathy affected enough lives that I don't believe she, or her influence, will ever vanish.

Some have said that in a just world someone like Cathy wouldn't die so soon, but I don't think that is right. In an unjust world, I would never have met Cathy, her friends, or her lovely daughter.