Monday, January 30, 2006

the Protestant Holy Land

The hard work and bloody battles of the Protestant Reformation took place in sixteenth century Continental Europe. It's principle hero was Martin Luther, and the origins of modern Protestantism can be traced to Lutheran protesters at the second Diet of Speyer in 1529. The Catholic church reneged on a pledge to tolerate the minority, upon which all hell broke loose. Thus to be Protestant is to be willing to challenge the status quo, and to have the courage to buck a system steeped in its own bullshit.

The struggle of Martin Luther and the Lutherans really can be compared to that of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the twentieth century. In both cases a poorly treated minority stood up to a very large, very corrupt institution; in both cases the minority held the moral high ground; and in both cases the struggling minority won.

Luther opened the door to religious reform in Germany, at the time loose collection of principalities. The movement spread through the continent as other reformers -- Zwingli in Switzerland, Calvin and D'Etaples in France, and many others --laid the groundwork for the new churches. Since the Scandinavians were geographically removed from the front lines of the struggle, it was easier for them to recreate themselves as nominally Protestant, independent states.

Britain is a unique case, since its break with Catholicism was grounded more in politics than theology. The Anglican church occupied a middle ground between Luther and the Vatican. Of course, many Britons wanted full reform on the continental model, which led to decades of political turmoil, civil war, and the exodus to America.

Besides being an expression of raw imperialism, America was intended to be a sort of Protestant Holy Land. And for most of its history, it was exactly that. Remember, the original generation of reformers fought bitterly against the Catholics, and as often than not paid with their blood. America was the place where Protestants of all denominations could live and prosper in peace. In fact, the country was open and welcoming to anybody not intending to ram a Holy Roman agenda down anyone's throat.

I think if the founding fathers could see twenty-first century America, they would be struck by the rampant Catholicism of our times -- the preponderance of Catholic schools, Catholic institutions, Catholic judges, Catholic lawmakers. In keeping with a basic Protestant precept, the founders intended the United States to be inclusive and tolerant. But I think they would be disturbed that their Protestant Holy Land should be usurped by the very thing the nation was built in opposition to.

In the centuries following the Reformation, the intellectual refinement of Protestantism continued to develop in Continental Europe. Some of the most rigorous and independent thinkers in the western world were Protestant theologians: Hegel, Weber, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Jung. It would appear that Europe has benefitted from such a wealth of heavyweight thinkers. One can only wonder how America, the Protestant Holy Land, became so disconnected from its theological roots. Where are the great Protestant scholars? Billy Graham? Too churchy. Pat Robertson? Give me a break. The best ones we have are Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter, and even they are not universally recognized as such.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

our hijacked heritage

The late pope was a great man. He was a champion of human rights, and he opposed the war in Iraq. He was a proponent of European unity, and openly admitted the wrongs of western civilization, past and present. Not being Catholic, I must admit that his legacy of good work meets or exceeds my expectations from the pope, from any pope.

That being said, there are some funny things going on with religion in the United States that have already fully subverted the intentions of the founding fathers. Part of the problem lies in the self-imploding nature of Protestantism, and another part has to do with the exploding populations of groups that don't embrace birth control. What we are left with are the worst parts of Protestantism (short-sighted greed, arrogance, inflexibility and the 40-hour work week) and the worst parts of Catholicism (unreflective conformity, misogynistic paternalism, deviant sexuality and reproductive irresponsibility).

Today in America, hordes of Evangelical Christians, Mormons and Catholics share a misplaced pseudo-righteousness that goes against the original charter of the nation, and has effectively destroyed it.

The vast majority of the original American colonies, with the exception of Maryland, were Protestant safe-havens, refuges from the abusive excesses of the Catholic and state churches in Europe. Colonies such as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island advocated tolerance of all faiths, and it should be noted that this kind of tolerance is a hallmark of Protestantism, not Catholicism. It's true that the Puritans of Massachusetts were every bit as aberrant, autocratic and closed-minded as the papists they so opposed. Puritanism is the evil downfall of the larger Protestant movement, and is actually the reinvention of Catholicism. The same must be said of the Mormons. It is up to the more clear-headed branches of Protestantism -- Lutherans, Methodists, Unitarians, Episcopaleans, Quakers, and so forth -- to keep the deviant strains in line.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Speaking of Africa...

Speaking of Africa, last night we watched "The Constant Gardener" which was mostly filmed in Kenya. On the one hand the film was a long, ponderous adaptation of a no doubt long and ponderous John Le Carre novel. I worried that it would test Lisa's patience, but it didn't. She had been laughing out loud at Robin Williams, who was the guest on "Inside the Actor's Studio" and had slipped into his comedy routine at the moment I slipped the DVD into the player. Suddenly we were watching this humorless, semi-foriegn film and I felt bad like I was James Lipton sucking the life out of the room.

All of that aside, it was an extraordinary film. The footage of east Africa alone made it worthwhile. There were great shots of Lake Turkana and the desert outpost of Loyangalani, as well as Nairobi's Kibera district. There was also some good acting from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and a nice assortment of African and expatriot British characters that one might expect to encounter in Kenya.

The film also delved into the evil shenanigans of the multinational pharmaceutical industry, the limited success of humainitarian aid efforts in the region, and the generally tragic condition of Africa. I was left with the same helpless and stupid feeling I got from watching "Hotel Rwanda".

All in all an amazing film, directed by the Brazilian who made "City of God", and supplemented with talent of every kind. I will go so far to say that as impressive as this film is to watch, it was probably more fulfilling to be involved in the production of it, to have spent time in Kenya interacting with the culture there while at the same time having accomplished some meaningful and semi-lucrative work.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

the powerhouse from Benin

The other day I listened to Angelique Kidjo's "Oremi" album -- my "beST" choice for music in 2003 -- and I am still blown away at what a great album it is. She is the powerhouse from Benin who sings in English, French, and "Fon". This is some of the best African or Afro-European music I know of. Yes, I know, the album is now eight years old -- but it's aged well, which is to say not at all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Burgundy vs. California

The last best new wine I had that I can recommend is Camelot Zinfandel. I thought it had rich berry flavors and Lisa thought it was peppery... Whatever the case is was close in taste some of the better Blackstone reds. Someone might come along and say, "but all these wines taste the same!" To which I would say I don't mind, because it's an agreeable taste.

All the same the old winemaker from Burgundy featured in the "Mondovino" documentary would probably call these wines "tricksters", industrialized wines for a mass market. I found his comments fascinating. He somehow indicated that these wines are horizontal while the traditional Burgundies are vertical. Strange as that sounds, it made sense when I recently tried the Gachot-Monot Beaujolais Paul bought us for Christmas. It was a strong wine that hit you in the side of the head with a two-by-four.

With all due respect to my Burgundian forbears, I think one's pallette for wine is no different than one's taste in say, books -- meaning that it all depends on where you're at in your life journey. There's no right or wrong apart from what's right or wrong for you.

The old Burgundian winemaker makes me think of the Zen masters who slap you in the face for the sake of enlightenment. The California wines just taste good on their own terms.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

the craggy peaks of SLO

The craggy peaks of San Luis Obispo are a series of volcanic plugs, or some such geological marvel. What I didn't know until quite recently is how available some of them are for hiking. A fabulous resource in this regard is www.slotrails.com

Today I took an insanely rigorous hike around Cerro San Luis Obispo. That is the mountain with the big "M" on it. You get great views of the city, the ocean, Laguna Lake, the Madonna Inn, and Bishop Peak.

A week ago I hiked to the top of Bishop Peak. I would say that of the two, this is the better trail, although in many respects they are similar. The north side of each mountain is wooded and rocky, while the south sides not surprisingly consist of dry chaparral. The Bishop Peak trail starts on the north side, wraps around the east side, and then becomes a wonderfully punishing series of switchbacks on the south side that lead to the peak. This is great winter hiking as most of it is on the warm, sunny side with little wind and great views. It's also evidently very popular as the place was crawling with rock climbers, dog walkers, and generally very healthy looking people.

Cerro SLO was more rugged and seemed more geared toward mountain bikers. At the top is some kind of stage, where I think they have some kind of annual Easter event on the Mount Rubidoux model. There were some other weird parallels with Riverside: both mountain parks are adjacent to recreational lakes, both are in college towns. Both cities have an impressive downtown and a slightly removed section of town near the college. But perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Riverside doesn't have a mission.

The air is better up here. My legs are killing me. Time to get some rest.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

beST films of 2005

OK, without further ado, here are my top ten:

1. Hotel Rwanda ('04)
2. The Battle of Algiers ('65)
3. The Motorcycle Diaries ('04)
4. Maria Full of Grace ('04)
5. Ray ('04)
6. Born into Brothels ('04)
7. Lucia Lucia ('03)
8. Mondovino ('05)
9. Napolean Dynomite ('04)
10. I Heart Huckabees ('04)

At the other end of the spectrum is a category I call "Bad and Painful on Multiple Levels". Three films earned a spot on this list:

1. Mr. and Mrs. Smith ('05)
2. Alfie ('04)
3. Life Aquatic ('04)

There were a bunch of films in between.

Friday, January 06, 2006

beST music of 2005

The best album I stumbled across in 2005 was John Cale's "Hobo Sapiens". I found it in the discount section at Boo Boo records (San Luis Obispo) and I wondered why I hadn't seen it before. I'm a huge fan of his 1995 release "Walking On Locusts", which is one of those records I can play over and over again and never get tired of. "Walking On Locusts" would have been a fabulous way for Cale to end a long and glorious career. So it was an unexpected pleasure to find that "Hobo" is also a great album, in a very different way. "Locusts" is for the most part smooth and even; "Hobo" is an eclectic set of tracks brimming with noise and complexity. A least half the dozen or so tracks are memorable, the best being "Look Horizon", "Magritte", "Bicycle" and "Over Her Head". Compared to Eno's recent collection of Christmas caroles and Hawaian folk songs, this album packs a wallop. (Interestingly "Bicycle" includes clips of Eno's daughters laughing).

Sunday, January 01, 2006

beST book of 2005

My best book of 2005 was written in 1788. "Paul and Virginia" by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is an old classic out of France that I wish I had known about earlier. Set on the tropical island of Mauritius when it was a French colony, the book abounds with geographic and botanical descriptions, and provides us with a snapshot of the culture and human side of those faraway times. On another level the book is very philosophical. The author was a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and shared his view that a return nature was the best cure for a deeply corrupted European civilization. The story illustrates these simple principles beautifully through its sympathetic cast of characters. There is deep sadness and tragedy on these pages but also a redeeming message: happiness is close at hand. Don't let society and manmade entanglements separate you from it.

I was worried that a book so old might seem archaic and disconnected from our contemporary predicament. On the contrary, I read it in both French and English and in both languages the words flowed like honey. It is very close in form and spirit to Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea", with the difference of France instead of England and the East Indies instead of the Caribbean. The books share a similar message: choose nature over Europe.

that Crate & Barrel feeling

Xmas in NY part 3. Walking around the Americana shopping center in Manhasset I took note of how New York's demographics contrast with California. California has several distinct strata -- Hispanic, Anglo, Asian, and a sprinkling of everything else. New York is characterized by "everything else", but if I had to be more specific I'd say European and Asian, as broad as that sounds. In Manhasset I got the feeling that the entire staff of the UN and their families had spilled out for some holiday shopping. In Tiffany's it seemed like Latin America's best families had flown in to exchange a few items, while outside Brooks Brothers Asian men smoked in the freezing cold. I've always liked Manhasset, and this shopping center and I go way back. It wasn't always the emporium of high-end fashion that it is today. It used to be more practical and populist, with a Newberry's and a movie theatre and a bookstore. I liked it then and I like it now, although now there's not so much I would actually buy. I don't need or want that many clothes, and I don't wear jewelry. The whole place stinks of "bourgeois globalism", if I'm allowed to coin such a term.

The high point for me was Crate & Barrel. First of all, they sell useful things that are also aesthetically pleasing. It's a large store at the western end of the promenade; it's been there forever and therefore takes me back to the earlier decades of my life. As I've said, Manhasset exudes this vaguely intoxicating, uplifting feeling of comfort that is a synthesis of multiculturalism and bourgeois security. On a spiritual level it's very powerful, because it's tantamount to the hopes and dreams that all people have of a better life. Crate & Barrel possesses this spirit in a very pure form. I definitely felt it when I saw a well dressed Indian man looking at napkin rings. The sense was, "you've made it, now you can treat yourself to napkin rings".

Tom Seaver, winemaker

Xmas in NY part 2. Shortly before having to leave for the airport a piece of the New York Times caught my attention. Apparently Tom Seaver, the one-time star pitcher of the Mets, now owns a vineyard and makes wine in Napa County. I know, it's become a cliche for celebrities to take up winemaking, but after reading the article I really sensed some sincerity in the case of Tom Seaver. I didn't know it but he grew up in Fresno where his Dad grew raisins -- what better prelude to winemaking? Years ago as a kid I met the man when he was shooting some commercial in Old Westbury. I sensed a sincerity in the man that, upon reflection is very un-New York. It's funny the way sports teams will recruit players from far away places and thereby fabricate a civic image so flatteringly unlike the city they represent. I think this careful image-manipulation was part of what made the Mets, the only sports team I ever gave a rat's ass about, appealing to me. I was young and bought the product and the myth. The myth was a better New York than the one that later emerged; the New York of the 1964 World's Fair and the UN; an optimistic, genteel, colorful place with blue skies and green trees. I'm not sure where that New York went, or if it ever actually existed outside a handful of psyches and technicolor postcards.

The Manchurian Candidate

Last night we caught most of the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" on TV. I must say that it was well-photographed, making good use of such familiar New York locations as Old Westbury Gardens and Penn Station, and well-acted by a great cast: Denzel Washington, Merril Streep, John Voigt, Liev Schreiber. The story itself was disturbing but intelligent and engaging enough to hold my attention. I'm not familiar with the original film but clearly director Jonathon Demme re-adapted the story to the present. Perhaps the strangest thing was the cameo by singer Robyn Hitchcock. Apparently he's acting now although the director gave him a highly peripheral role -- not as a singer, but as a someone connected to shadowy experiments on US soldiers in Iraq by a somewhat deranged CIA-protected South African scientist.