Saturday, June 30, 2007

Michael Moore Asks: Who Are We?

In his new documentary, "Sicko," which opened nationwide last night, Michael Moore asks the question: "Who are we?" It is really the same question he has been asking in all of his provocative and controversial films. Who are we as a nation? What has happened to our soul?

This film pretends to be about only the state of the American health care system. But Moore is far more subversive than that. Everyone knows that the for-profit medical system is broken, kaput. Our life expectancy and infant mortality rates are woefully lower than those of other "civilized" countries. The high number of uninsured poor in this country is a scandal, and innocent children suffer the most. Our private health care system is what it is because politicians are bought and paid for by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. But even those people WITH health insurance are at the mercy of HMO doctors out to deny them service, and thereby serve the corporate bottom line.

Moore knows all this. He tells us up front that "Sicko" is not about the plight of the uninsured, the man who has to sew up his own cut, the carpenter forced by exorbitant costs to repair only one severed finger and not the other. And even though it might look like his target is the for-profit health care industry, and therefore capitalism itself, his critique is more subtle and therefore he puts his hand into a deeper wound.

Why are we so bad off? If capitalism were the problem, then other capitalist countries would also offer their citizens lousy medical care. But that is not the case. Moore spends considerable time looking at health care in Canada, England and France and shows decisively that it is superior to ours in each country. I lived in London during the 1960's where my oldest son was born. Not only was his birth paid for by the National Health Service, but we were provided with free milk and orange juice for a number of weeks to insure his health. Moore interviews British politician Tony Benn who explains that the NHS, started after the war, is a triumph of democracy, equal health care for everyone. The same goes in Canada and France, where a government-paid nanny does laundry and makes soup. While Moore has been accused by his critics of willfully overlooking the flaws of state-run medical systems, his point is that there are alternatives, even within the capitalist economy. Why not try one?

To explain why we ferociously cling to a greedy system that harms and even kills sick people while fattening the bank accounts of CEOs and politicians, Moore shows propaganda films from the 1950s and 1960s warning against the evils of socialized medicine. He includes a sound bite from a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan who claims that state-run medicine is the first step towards Communist domination. These scare tactics are obviously similar to those the government uses today for terrorism. Fear fueled the Red Menace of the Cold War and fear fuels Bush and Cheney's demand for an American empire based on endless warfare.

In America fear has always been manipulated, from fear of the native peoples which justified their extermination, to fear of the wilderness which justified logging, fences, irrigation and large-scale urban development. Americans are certain they are superior to nature: they build houses and cities where rivers periodically flood, and they erect cabins and ski resorts in the forested mountains where frequently fires rage. In California we demonized Asians, put them in concentration camps and took away their homes and businesses. Now 9/11 and Iraq are justifying the dismantling of our civil rights. Although Europe has been racked by wars over the century, they are forced to get along because the countries are small and the borders near. Europe is the home of the Enlightenment when democracy was born out of the demise of monarchy, and Europeans continue to take to the streets to demand liberty, fraternity and equality, the rights of democracy. Here in America we are deadened by our fears and by an entertainment regime that provides fantasies and dreams rather than knowledge and wisdom. In America the streets are full of cars, not people, and we puff with pride at an individualism which values the self over the common good. Not for us the control of Big Brother!

But, Moore asks, in the film's most brilliant moment, don't we already have socialized fire and police services, a socialized public library, and (although it's changing rapidly) socialized schools? Why isn't health for all citizens valued as highly as education, child care, books for all, freedom from fear of fire and crime? What's wrong with socialism, if that means merely public ownership of essential services? We can of course drop the word, for it remains meaningless outside of a highly charged political context. The point is, simple morality dictates that a just society take care of the basic needs of its citizens. The Europeans understand this. They are appalled at what they hear about unequal health care and an overpriced education system in the United States. Even Cuba, one of the last remaining bastions of state socialism in the world today, takes care of its citizens better than we do. In the highly publicized conclusion of "Sicko," Moore takes several people ill from rescue work on 9/11 to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where Al Queda members get better medical treatment than the average American (a stunt inspired by his friend Borat). Turned away by the threat of mines in the harbor, they are taken to a hospital in Havana where they receive a complete checkup and medication (a spray that costs $120 here is sold to one woman for 5 cents).

Admittedly, Michael Moore is a showman and his grandstanding and Utopian overviews may be somewhat simplistic. Other cooler heads are circulating realistic single-payer health care plans for legislative approval at the national and state levels. But Moore takes the argument to its most basic level, and diagnoses the American soul to be sick and in need of healing. At a press conference in Cannes, where "Sicko" was shown for the first time last month, Moore said he was not optimistic that Americans would overthrow their for-profit health care system any time soon. But now at least the corporate and government flacks will find it harder to boast that America has the best health care in the world. Once again, the emperor is shown to have no clothes.

Who we are is sick, sick to our very core, and the only cure is radical treatment. If I were living outside this country (and I will be soon), I might consider quarantine. America could become the leper colony for the 21st century.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Terrorist Grannies Arrested

These dangerous ladies in their colorful outfits were arrested yesterday at a sit-in held at the Army recruiting center in Capitola south of Santa Cruz. They are members of the Raging Grannies, the entertainment wing of the local chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and before they were taken off to the slammer for their crime, they sang songs at a rally on the steps of the small shopping center where the military recruiters do their dirty work. The crowd of about 100 carrying anti-war banners, posters and flags, sang along with them. Here is their version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again":
The Grannies went marching one by one,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
They marched to where recruiting's done,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Their message simply was "No War"
Please send us there, we'll stop the gore,
and we'll all be safe when Grannies run the World!!
Other subversive lyrics were written to the tunes of "Down by the Riverside" ("Won't Take This War No More"), John Denver's "Country Roads" ("Bring 'em Home") and "You'll Never Walk Alone" ("You'll Never Talk Alone" about illegal government wiretaps).

The lady in front (above) with the "Honk for Peace" sign is the tiny but indefatigable Ruth Hunter, 91, who has been in and out of jails and prisons most of her life for peace and social justice protests. Also arrested was Ellie Foster, 81, seen above with her walker as the burly cop took her to the waiting police car. Ellie, who spoke passionately to her supporters before being arrested about her hatred of war, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa when she was younger, She is also a Quaker and a long-time peace activist. In a flier passed out at the rally, the Grannies announced their plan to risk arrest "for exercising our First Amendment rights." They promised to eschew violence and not to destroy any property. Presumably that was reassuring to the Army and Navy recruiters who met with them after the rally, even when they refused to leave the offices and police were called. Arrested along with Ellie and Ruth were Phyllis Greenleaf, 64; Jan Harwood, 75; Stephanie Keenan, 63; Barbara Riverwomon, 69; Judy Geer, 67, and musician/artist Russ Brutsché who had entertained the rally earlier with his songs.

Along with Ruth (photo at right) and her radical comrades, those taken into custody included David Hofvendahl from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He accompanied his 16-year-old son Trevor who had made an appointment with the recruiters to protest the unwanted literature he receives in the mail which attempts to entice him into joining the war machine. ("Play video games with us!", "We will pay your college tuition!") When asked to leave by the recruiters, the building manager (who claimed to also be against the war) and the police, the Raging Grannies responded by reading a list of names of soldiers killed in Iraq. They sang another song with the lyrics "they're our children, stop the killin'." Rally organizer Sherry Conable offered the authorities a bowl full of organic strawberries, and another woman handed out carrots. During the rally before the arrests, one recruiter in Army fatigues could be seen taking pictures of the crowd with his cell phone camera. Protesters were given three warnings that they would be arrested for taking part in an unlawful assembly on private property. When the ten remaining did not leave, they were taken in police cars to the Capitola Police station and then released.

I left the rally with a heavy heart before the arrests took place. Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of America's swaggering hegemony in the world, I have been to countless rallies, marches and vigils for peace, in my home town and also in San Francisco. For nearly six years I have carried candles and held placards and signs, banners and flags, and I have waved the peace sign at both friendly and angry drivers in passing cars. Once I was hit in the leg by a thrown egg. As a driver myself, I have honked like hell for peace. And yet the war goes on and the madness in Washington continues.

The median age at the rally in front of the recruiting offices yesterday was the same as me, which meant that half the crowd were in their 70's and 80's. There seemed to be more photographers and voyeurs with video cameras than participants. The only young people there were the teenage Trevor, undoubtedly influenced by his pacifist father, who got himself arrested, and the young daughter of another protester. School was out for the summer and vacationing students were not doubt at the beach on a sunny and warm Tuesday afternoon. Responsible adults were at work (although the noon time for the rally allowed workers on to come during their lunch breaks). Surely, now that most of the people polled in this country are against the war, there should be a bigger and more representative turnout?

The news could not be worse. The Vice President is claiming that he is immune from any limits put on the Executive Branch of government. The politically motivated Attorney General (an office that should be bipartisan if any should be) refuses to resign. The CIA has been forced to reveal documents going back 30-40 years that detail High Crimes and Misdemeanors around the world (especially illegal when they take place in the U.S.). Powerful Republicans, including the respected Sen. Richard Lugar, are telling Bush that his war strategy and foreign policy is toast. Michael Moore is exposing the unhealthy and corrupt American medical system in his new documentary "Sicko." Besides the continuing slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan, American inaction in Israel has allowed the oppressed Palestinians to undergo even worse suffering from a civil war. And if all that wasn't bad enough, Apple released its new iPhone and Paris was released from jail (her first act was to get her hair done). Now really, people, is this what we want for our world?

It's easy for me to criticize America now because I'm leaving. This is a nation of ostriches, people with their heads stuck firmly in the sand, ignorant of what is going on around them. It's too easy to say that reality TV trumps reality every time. While I appreciate the political theater that was staged by my respected elders yesterday at the recruiting center (hopefully it might produce a sound bite on national TV), it was only a tiny gesture, ignored by Simon on "American Idol" and the Paris chasers on Entertainment Tonight. Are we (I use "we" loosely now that I am leaving the ship) doomed? Is it too late to keep this nation, which once seemed to hold out so much promise to the masses yearning to be free, from self-destructing?

The answer, I think, is no. Just as it is probably too late to prevent the consequences of global warming (we would have to stop usual fossil fuels NOW for that to happen), I doubt that America can be saved without immediate and radical surgery (didn't Jefferson say we needed a revolution every generation to keep healthy?). Global free trade dictates that incomes in this country must go down, down, down (while the CEOs buy yachts and islands with their inflated compensation). Homeland Security means that individual rights will be sacrificed at the whim of corporate lackeys in high government office. As for entertainment, we are already drugged into early senility by bread & circuses.

A correspondent asks me to explain why Americans seem more stressed than Europeans. I think she is looking for a way to describe the terminal anxiety she sees in the Americans she meets. And Americans who travel abroad, a distinct minority, are probably more relaxed than those they left behind at home who are locked into private spaces, fearful of terrorists and muggers and child molesters, to name only a few of their demons. The root of the problem is the insularity of a country hidden behind two oceans to the east and west, behind a tall fence to the south which inefficiently keeps out brown immigrants, and from its inferior cousins to the north. Americans are traditionally isolationist even when they are trying to control the rest of the world with their bloated military police. Unlike citizens of other countries, most Americans cannot speak another language. They think "un-American" is the highest form of insult, when people elsewhere consider it a blessing. George Bush has managed to put an ugly face on a culture that once welcomed the world into its arms. A Thai friend who likes to travel and has been just about everywhere told me that the last place she would visit is the United States.

Enough doom and gloom for today. The fog over Santa Cruz is lifting its dismal head, and the only way I can get away from these dark thoughts is to go outside into the sun.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Fatherhood Revisited

I was a lousy father.

I don't mean now. Now I try to be there for them when my four kids need me, and stay out of their way when they are doing whatever they need to do to grow on their own.

My guilt, my apology, is for what was, for the formative years when I was somewhere else. When my two oldest boys were young, I was caught up in the excitement and glamor of the music business in Hollywood, and I was on the road with rock stars when they were learning to read or ride a bike. With my younger daughter and son, I was away at school myself, exploring the nuances of philosophy and environmental history, or holed up in my study doing research and homework, while they were at home with their mother, learning to cook or play baseball.

My daughter-in-law believes that only a focus on family and close friends gives life meaning, and that if I were more accessible and attentive, even now, then I would not need to fly off to Thailand or India to find out the secrets of life. Possible.

I patterned my methods of fathering after the lessons I learned when I was a boy, waiting for my father to come home from work, waiting to learn from him the secrets of woodworking when he escaped into his workshop in the garage. He did teach me how to swim, by throwing me screaming into a pool at a hotel in Augusta, Georgia, when I was eight (the Sink-or-Swim technique), but he never invited me into his sanctuary of tools. And when he arrived home from work smelling of a visit to a bar, he usually fell asleep in his easy chair in front of the TV which was sitting inside of an unfinished and unpainted cabinet he had created in the garage.

That's unfair. I select memories to justify my own faults, when the picture is more murky and multi-sided. My parents moved across the country when I was in my early twenties and I saw them infrequently over the years. Our main connection was the phone, a device I've always found to be somewhat intrusive. I noticed that they rarely called me, but were grateful when I phoned them to see how they were. I decided that this was my father's way to let me go, to encourage me to be independent and self-sufficient, the prime value for Western parenting, and I accepted his reticence as a form of love. When he died, however, my mother continued the practice of not calling me, even though she clearly liked to talk to me when I phoned.

But today, a generation later, it is usually me that must pick up the phone, or send off an email, if I want to find out how my children are doing. If I waited for them to contact me, I fear that I'd wait forever (I anticipate an argument about this, but it's the way I see it now).

With my first three children I was the Disciplinarian. That's what I learned a father did. My father could be stern and unforgiving when his anger came to a boil. When I was a kid he would cut a switch from a tree and whoop my bottom until it was suitably red. Entering puberty, I decided to peroxide my hair, as all my friends were doing one summer, against his wishes. He no longer hit me, but when he cut off all my hair without saying a word, I felt the sting of his displeasure. So, when my kids were growing up, I was very good at setting rules and dishing out punishment when they were broken. When spanking grew out of favor, I retired my hand and devised new consequences for disobedience (like the denial of privileges, a kind of passive-aggressive punishment). But my daughter, third in line, resisted my disciplinary methods, and we struggled mightily to understand one another. She remembers that I was always angry. Her mother, whose method of parenting was "love them and let them do what they will," ridiculed the techniques I'd learned from my father and, overwhelmed, I gave up. My last son benefited from this capitulation, but now blames us for not teaching him to be disciplined and ambitious. He thinks he's a slacker, but I see him to be as responsible and as driven as my successful oldest son (qualities I'd like to think of as genetic, but I doubt it).

I remember a card I once received from my daughter which mentioned in passing that we did not have a "daddy's little girl" relationship. She was trying to compliment me, to say that I treated her with respect and encouragement, but it hurt to hear that. We were very close until we began butting heads over my disciplinary ways. When she was a baby I used to swing with her in a hammock and sing her songs, delighting in having a daughter after two sons. But children do not remember much about their infancy. My older sons when they were small were my dance partners, and I whirled them around the dinning room of the little house in Pasadena to the music of Biff Rose and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. My eldest son could not see the record player but he always knew when the side ended and would shout "over" to continue the music. He remembers little of the time before I left his mother, the years when I tried to be a responsible father, when I tried to exhibit the qualities I thought children should learn from their fathers. But today what he remembers is that I never took him camping (I did, once, but it was a disaster).

My father was a real man's man. He had been a lifeguard in his youth and he looks strong and handsome in in photos I've seen. His twin brother was gay at a time when it was less accepted than it is now, and the gender dichotomy was extreme. My dad got the XY genes and his brother the XX ones. Growing up, there was a lot of pressure on me to be athletic, but I developed asthma at an early age and was unable to compete in sports. Thus began my slide into forced rebellion, and by the time I was a teenager we were poles apart. He wanted a clean-cut (with a crew cut) son and I became a Juvenile Delinquent, a well-defined role in the 1950s. By the time I was 15 there was nothing I wanted to learn from him, even if he had been willing to teach it.

What he couldn't tell me, and I didn't learn from him, was how to be a man. The traditional masculine role was crumbling, and the women's liberation movement was on its way as the 1950s ended. Because my body wouldn't help out, I learned to escape into my head, and my pose as rebel intellectual enabled me to resist the role of macho patriarch. Until I became a father myself. And then every example my father had given me, however flawed, became my model. He was the strong silent male I tried to emulate. I excelled at discipline and punishment, because what were fathers for, except to be teacher and policeman rolled into one? I didn't know how to be their friend, like my friend Peter who hung out with his three kids more easily (perhaps of the dope he constantly smoked).

During the 1970s, when the short-lived self-examination movement of men's liberation was at its peak, I read books and had discussions about what it meant to be a man and a father. I wrote articles and attended a fathering workshop led by a man who today is a well-known spokesperson for artistic pornography. And I thought of myself as a liberated male, and looked down my nose at the macho brutes caught up in a vicious cycle of sports and beer drinking.

Parenting fashions seem to run in cycles. During the traditional 1950s, everyone had specific roles to perform and growing up meant living according to form. In the 1960s, these forms became restrictive and the great flowering of the hippie movement, fueled by drugs, led to the breaking of all forms and the transgressing of boundaries. We would never be like our parents. Self-absorption became the rule of the "Me Generation." But what of their children? Raised to do their own thing, they now exercise total control over their own children, enrolling them in exclusive day care facilities at birth and demanding that they studying ballet and soccer before ordinary school begins. "Helicopter parenting," my eldest son calls it, hovering over every aspect of a child's life. The product of this form of obsessive, perfectionist parenting will no doubt be a child longing to cast off parental controls and search for perfect freedom. And so it goes.

Nick, Molly, Me, Chris and Sandy

My children are aware of my failings as a father and as a parent, and for the most part they have forgiven me, these "reasonably self-sufficient" (as I once called them here) carriers of my DNA. I wish my father were still here so I could tell him how much I loved to see him mellow late in life when the patriarch became a pussy cat, feeding ice cream to my daughter and cuddling in his easy chair before the TV with my youngest son. Grandfathers, I think, can give up the need to be the disciplinarian, the teacher-cop, and can revel in the joys of watching themselves live on. We never fully die because we live on in our children, grandchildren, and unto the sixth generation.

Perhaps this is what my daughter-in-law means when she calls me on my endless search for the meaning of life, a search that has taken me from books to foreign lands. T.S. Eliot wrote in his "Four Quartets" that
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I think in that place I will be surrounded by my family, and I will know that despite numerous character flaws, poor choices, and dumb decisions, I am still loved by my children.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Don Juan, Casanova & Me

Not that I'm in their league. But I have been thinking about the famed seducers of women since attending a performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" by the San Francisco Opera last weekend. Like many of you, before I started paying attention, I conflated the two, not realizing that the Spanish lothario from Seville is a myth and that the Venetian nobleman was a real person. In the public's mind, they are both womanizers, to be generally admired by men and mostly condemned by women. In a culture that praises monogamy, such serial skirt-chasing is outside the pale. And for the most part, these debauchers and their ilk have been men (although Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel Les liaisons dangereuses featured a female version, and Brigitte Bardot starred in "Don Juan,ou si Don Juan était une femme"). Since the myth of Don Juan first surfaced as a play in the early 17th century, different authors have attempted to spin the myth in different directions. And because I've been called a "butterfly," the Thai slang word for donjuanism, by several internet correspondents, I would like to examine the men, the myths and the practice of faithlessness.

First the opera: My companion and I found our seats in the next to the last row of the "nosebleed section" of the War Memorial Opera House where the usher apologetically assured us the acoustics were excellent even if we could barely see the stage. But as the performance began, two large video screens dropped down from the ceiling of the upper balcony, allowing us to see the singers (and even their tonsils) up close; OperaVision had debuted the week before. The story of Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, literally "The Rake Punish'd, or Don Giovanni," was not easy for me to follow, and because the air conditioning was not working and it was rather warm, I occasionally dozed off. Opera is an acquired taste. After seeing the film "Callas Forever" several years ago, a fictionalized account of the last years of Maria Callas, I collected a number of her arias for my iPod, along with other operatic hits. Last summer I saw a performance of several of Stravinsky's symphonic operas at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and enjoyed it, but this was my first full-length opera in the flesh. So I'm a neophyte, but I'm working on it. With the help of a number of books, a recording of the opera conducted by Sir George Solti, and a viewing of the Joseph Losey film version of "Don Giovanni," I now feel prepared to blog a bit about it, and to try and make some sense of Don Juan and Casanova.

Suffice it to say that in Mozart's version, Don Giovanni (the Italianized Don Juan), having jilted Donna Elvira, attempts to seduce Donna Anna who, already being engaged, objects. So does her father, the Commandatore, who gives chase. Giovanni kills him. Rather than show any remorse, he proceeds to look for new conquests, first the peasant girl Zerlina, on her wedding day yet, and then Donna Elvira's maid. Although Elvira and the fiancés of Anna and Zerlina, Don Ottavio and Masetto, try to bring Don Giovanni to justice, he escapes, and is enjoying a banquet at home when the ghost of Donna Anna's father comes a-calling. The Commandatore demands that the sinner repent, but Giovanni refuses. In the last scene he is dragged down into the fires of hell, and the chorus sings
The wages of sin is death!
And evildoers always die
the death they have deserved.
I found this moralistic ending rather puzzling. I knew from the film "Amadeus" that Mozart was not exactly a prude. His first serious infatuation was for his cousin Maria Anna Thekla, to whom he wrote letters filled with sexual innuendo. Before settling down with Costanze, he had loved the ladies and was fond of crude humor. And he apparently was secretly in love with Constanze's older sister Aloysia. Both Mozart and the author of the librettos for his three major operas, Lorenzo Da Ponte, were nominally Catholics, not Calvanists. Da Ponte's family had converted from Judaism and he had even been ordained a priest as a youth, but had given up the practice to be court poet under Emperor Joseph II. One of Da Ponte's biographers, Anthony Holden, describes how the libretto for "Don Giovanni" was written:
Settling down to his tasks with a bottle of Tokay to his right, an inkstand in the middle, and a box of Seville tobacco to his left, he wsa further distracted by the serving girl, his landlady's daughter, briefed to supply his every need -- including some her mother had not bargained for. In two months, nonetheless, Da Ponte delivered his manuscript to Mozart, who set it to music in time for a triumphant Prague premier on October 29, 1797.
So the author of this moralistic "Don Giovanni" also had his wicked ways. Even more interesting is that Da Ponte was a distant cousin of Giacomo Casanova, the infamous real-life libertine, who, in 1797, was in retirement and working as a librarian in the castle of Dux, Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic). In his autobiography, Historie de ma vie, he mentions 122 women with whom he had sex. Casanova reportedly met with the composer and author and gave them a few pointers about Don Juan as they were completing the opera. A fictionalized account of this meeting is at the center of the novel Imagining Don Giovanni (2001) by Anthony Rudel, son of Julius Rudel, conductor of the New York City Opera for 35 years.

Just a little research turns up a wealth of information. The tale of Don Juan was first recorded in the early 1600's in a play by Tirso de Molino called "El burlador de Sevilla y el convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest)." All of the elements of "Don Giovanni" are there, the attempted seductions, the murder, and the descent of Don Juan into hell at the hand of the murdered man's ghost. But as the myth evolves over the centuries it is seen from different perspectives. Some authors see Don Juan as a womanizer, a cruel seducer out for sex wherever he can get it. But others see him as a man who truly loves every woman he seduces, and who liberates the beauty which exists within every woman. In José Zorillo's play, "Don Juan Tenorios," Don Juan is a true villain who ends up killing both Doña Ines and her father. But when they come back as ghosts for a tug of war over Don Juan's soul, the daughter eventually wins and pulls her lover up into heaven. "Don Juan Tenorio," first performed in 1844, is the longest-running play in Spain and is presented every year. My companion at "Don Giovanni" grew up in Cuba where she said she saw it many times.

Everyone has had a hand in the legend. The hero of Moliére's play, "Dom Juan, ou le Festin de pierre," first performed in 1665, repents and asks for confession before he dies. In the 19th century, Lord Byron wrote a long epic poem, "Don Juan," in which the hero is, satirically, the seduced rather than the seducer, the product of a repressive Catholic upbringing who accidentally falls into love time and time again. Unfinished at his death, it is considered by critics to be his masterpiece. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or considered "Don Giovanni" to be the supreme illustration of the exuberance of aesthetics compared to the dull wisdom of ethics. Never before, he wrote "has sensuousness been a principle," and that conception originates in opera because "the genius of sensuousness is...the absolute subject of music." And Don Juan, as we know, is the king of sensuousness.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote "Don Juan aux enfers" and British playwright George Bernard Shaw included a modern Don Juan in his play "Man and Superman." In The Myth of Sisyphus, Existentialist French philosopher Albert Camus sees Don Juan as an archetypical example of the absurd man. Don Juan was a likable rogue in American movies starring John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and in a more recent film Johnny Depp plays a Don Juan undergoing analysis with Marlon Brando. In Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," Bill Murray portrays a thinly veiled Don Juan fallen on hard times. Songs have been written about Don Juan by the Pet Shop Boys, They Must be Giants, and Joni Mitchell. More recent plays about him have been written by Ingmar Berman (also a film), Suzanne Lilar and José Saramago, and novels have come from Sylvia Towsend Warner, Paul Goodman, Peter Handke and Santa Cruz author Douglas Carlton Abrams who recently published The Lost Diary of Don Juan.

Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, is clearly larger than life, or too large for this life. Like Goethe's Faust, he is a literary figure who stands for transgressing limits. Cultural historian Marina Warner writes that "Mozart's Don Giovanni quickly became a hero of Romanticism precisely because he is so headstrong, seizing what is forbidden -- sex -- at the risk to his own life and soul." Don Giovanni's heroism is "exalted and purified by his damnation." He is the Faust who does not regret his pack with the Devil, the Adam with Eve who refuse to despair after the Fall, "for they prefer mortality to Eden, human experience to perfect bliss." Warner also suggests that it is men rather than women who are "the ultimate targets of his exploits...the men who hold the women in their keeping: fathers, husbands, fiancés." The seducer, "by robbing a man of his women's virtue, grew himself in reputation and stature as surely as if he had seized valuables of a material order." She sees women as prizes at stake in a struggle for power between men.

Another writer suggests that an important theme of "Don Giovanni" is forgiveness, exhibited by Donna Elvira's feelings of pity for Don Juan after he is dragged off to Hell and she chooses to enter a convent for the rest of her life. Certainly the women in Mozart's opera -- Anna, Elvira and Zerlina -- have the central roles and some of the best arias. Don Juan is strangely one-dimensional, all penis and no intellect. His foil, the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, is Leporello, his servant, who makes fun of him throughout the opera. Zerlina and Anna, after a year of mourning for her father, will get married. Is the message of the Don Juan story then that monogamy is the only allowable goal?

What does it mean to be Don Juan now, a "butterfly" in today's world, a lover of women, an appreciator of their beauty, flying from flower to flower, inhaling their scent? The older I get, the more I find women attractive, all ages and all sizes. In Thailand, where age is considered less important than it is in the Brad Pitt and Paris Hilton-obsessed west, I am learning to flirt again, to enjoy the pleasures of embodiment. Seduction in the 21st century can go both ways. Long live Don and Doña Juan(na)!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Gelato, Mala Beads & Joint Lubrication

Good things come in threes, the trinities of hedonism. Like the three subjects of this blog. And like the three themes of Elizabeth Gilbert's captivating memoir, Eat, Pray, Love (which could almost be an alternate title for this blog). Given my druthers, I'd choose love (and sex) as the higher power in this triumverate, but there is nothing shabby about the other choices.

Gilbert subtitles her book (which was recommended by friends who took the recent pilgrimage to India with me), "One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia," three exotic lands that begin with the letter "I." At the start of the book, she is depressed and vaguely suicidal following a divorce and rebound love affair. A successful novelist and freelance writer, Gilbert is able to snag a contract to write about her travels for a year in search of healing and balance. The tale is structured like the traditional japa mala beads, with an episode for each of the 108 beads (108 being an auspicious and mystical number in the East), divided into three groups of 36, one for each country. "I wanted to explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well," she explains. "I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two." The journey and the book finish in Bali where the author's self-imposed vow of celibacy comes to an end. "I was not rescued by a prince," Gilbert claims, despite what she concedes is a "ludicrously fairy-tale ending" to her story, but rather "I was the administrator of my own rescue."

That rescue results from Italian lessons and fabulous food (she gained 23 pounds) in Rome, an extended mediation retreat at a yoga ashram near Bombay, and encounters with two healers in a village on Bali. And a Brazilian gentleman named Felipe. Gilbert's writing about her adventures is entertaining, funny, and deadly serious when she talks about the search for God, a rare combination. On a weekend excursion, she describes Messina, Italy, as "a scary and suspicious Sicilian port town that seems to howl from behind barricaded doors, 'It's not my fault that I'm ugly! I've been earthquaked and carpet-bombed and raped by the Mafia, too!'" In Bali she sees a mother "balancing on her head a three-tiered basket filled with fruit and flowers, and a roasted duck -- a headgear so magnificent and impressive that Carmen Miranda would have bowed down in humility before it."

There is a light-heartedness about her experiences in Italy and Bali that is missing from the center section on India, despite amusing anecdotes about her friend Richard from Texas who nicknames Gilbert "Groceries" after noticing her large appetite. Enlightenment is very serious business. Although Gilbert is secretive about details, it is possible to read between the lines (in the book and on her website) to discover that she is a follower of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the young female successor to Swami Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga, who died in 1982 (her brother was appointed with her by Muktananda but later mysteriously resigned). The ashram Gilbert visited, therefore, is Gurudev Siddha Peeth where Muktananda is buried. There she struggles with mosquitoes, with the daily 182-verse Sanskrit pre-dawn chanting, and with meditation, beautifully describing the "monkey mind" of her thoughts:
I was wondering where I should live once this year of traveling has ended..If I lived somewhere cheaper than New York, maybe I could afford an extra bedroom and then I could have a special meditation room! That'd be nice. I could paint it gold. Or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue...Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought:...How about this, you spastic fool -- how about you try to meditate right here, right now right where you actually are?
Anyone who has tried to sit and calm their thoughts will recognize this scenario.

Now I have a few issues with the late Muktananda. Many former members of Siddha Yoga have described it as being a cult. And the leader was accused in several articles after his death of trading wisdom for sex with his female followers, some of them quite young. I don't know if this is true. But I do know that a number of gurus in America apparently succumbed to the lure of power. I've always appreciated the saying, "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!" (from a book by Sheldon Kopp). Be suspicious of all those who claim to have wisdom.

But during a week-long retreat at Muktananda's ashram on the theme of turiya, the fourth level of consciousness, something happens to Gilbert: "I am suddenly transported through the portal of the universe and taken to the center of God's palm...It was the deepest love I'd ever experienced, beyond anything I could have previously imagined." She wonders, "Why have I been chasing happiness my whole life when bliss was here the whole time?"

Gilbert tells of a friend who warned her not to "go cherry-picking a religion." I appreciate her response which affirms my appreciation for interspirituality, the mixing and matching of practices and disciplines from the Delicatessen of Divinity.
I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's the history of mankind's search for holiness. If humanity never evolved in its exploration of the divine, a lot of us would still be worshipping golden Egyptian statues of cats. And this evolution of religious thinking does involve a fair bit of cherry-picking. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.
Gilbert's experience of bliss in the ashram apparently allows her to love again. And when Wayan, a young woman healer in Bali, examines her infected knee, the doctor deduces that Gilbert has not had sex in a very long time, because "the cartilage. Very dry. Hormones from sex lubricate the joints." Wayan promises to help her find a good man to lubricate her joints.

Which, in fact, happens. This is a book with many happy endings, almost enough to strain credibility. But Gilbert leaves this reader with the feeling that yes, I, too, can have it all, all the Italian gelato I want to eat, an encounter with God in the cave of my heart, and, most blessed of all, lubricated knees.

Coming Soon: What does Don Juan (Mozart's Don Giovanni) have to do with all this?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

"I Don't Want to Die!"

In an emotionally riveting scene from Danish director Susanne Biers' excellent film, "After the Wedding," wealthy capitalist Jørgen reveals to his wife Helene that he has terminal cancer. Jørgen, played by actor Rolf Lassgård, is a large man, in body and deed, and he is used to being in control, of his family as well as his business. But the secret gets out, and he collapses into his wife's arms, screaming "I don't want to die!" (the English subtitle for the Danish groan of despair), over and over. I've never seen acting like this; Lassgård is totally believable. He cries, he blubbers, he snuffles, snot runs out of his nose. And I identified totally.

I don't want to die either. And every day something reminds me that life is terminal, that the only constant in this temporary way station of a universe is change.
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
I've been reading T.S. Eliot's haunting spiritual epic, "Four Quartets," and trying to make sense of it with a group under the tutelage of Ken Kramer who, after thirty-something years, has just published his Ph.d. dissertation, Redeeming Time: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (Cowley Publications, 207). Eliot, who renounced his hometown of St. Louis, MO, to become an Englishman, is considered by many to be the greatest American poet of the 20th century. He wrote the four movements of the Quartets during the early stages of World War II and the poem is saturated with hints and guesses of death and dying: death in the streets of London (he was a volunteer air raid warden during the Blitz) and death of the ego.

Paralleling the ancient classification of the elements by Heraclitus, Eliot points out three kinds of death in "Little Gidding," the fourth quartet: psychological, the "death of hope and despair, This is the death of air"; physical, "the death of the earth"; and spiritual, "the death of water and fire." This is followed by a dialogue with a "compound ghost" who speaks to the poet of the "gifts reserved for age":
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm…
These "gifts" are too much with me these days as the body crumbles and guilt returns again and again to whip me for remembered failings. I think I understand psychological and physical death enough to grapple with them intellectually, but spiritual death is an enigma, a tempting apple just out of reach. For spiritual death is the grail at the end of Eliot's journey where "the fire and the rose are one." But we "shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." The "compound ghost" describes enlightenment/salvation thusly:
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
So death is the final frontier and my ship is fast approaching. Like the weeping Jørgen, I do not want to die. My spiritual search, so lately encountering an insurmountable blockade on the Catholic Christian path, looks now for the "refining fire" that might enable me to dance my way towards union with the abyss of God. In the meantime, I strive mightily to perfect my omelet without distributing uncooked egg all over the stove top. Today I tossed the frying pan fearlessly and the egg flipped over beautiful, a blanket for the cheese. Yes! (theme music from "Rocky").

In the midst of thoughts of death, life raises her beautiful head.

Ken interrupted his interpretation of Eliot's poem one day several weeks ago to tell us that his daughter had given him a CD of the soundtrack for a new film, "Once." While all new songs by unknown performers, it reminded him of the best days of folk music, a period that is dear to me (and memorialized liberally on my iPod). I bought the soundtrack on his recommendation and found the songs and voices of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to be all that he promised. The film opened yesterday and I was enthralled by seeing the musicians perform on screen in a lovely story about love (at at all what you would expect) and creativity. Glen is a street singer in Dublin who moonlights in his father's Hoover repair shop. Markéta is a classically trained pianist from the Czech Republic who cleans houses and sells magazines and flowers on the street to survive. The dialogue between them, in words and music, exemplifies Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's insight that God(love) is born in the moment of true connection between two thou's (rather than objective it's). And I have learned about this from Kramer who is also a Buber scholar as well as someone who understands Eliot's spirituality from the inside. Forget about "Dreamgirls" and "Walk the Line"; this is one of the better musicals of all time. Think "Hard Day's Night" or "Hustle and Flow" rather than "Sound of Music."

But don't take my word about "Once." The reviews it has received point to it as the "Little Miss Sunshine" of 2007, the indie film that wins the hearts of movie fans sick of the big screen summer action/horror/comedy retreds. I've learned that Glen Hansard has been singing in Ireland for twenty years, and even had a bit part in that classic bar band movie, "The Commitments." He formed a group called The Frames in 1990 and the most recent of their nine albums, "The Cost," is playing on my iPod. He met Markéta during a visit to Prague and they recorded a CD together, "The Swell Season," which contains many of the songs that show up in "Once," a film that was written and directed by John Carney who was at one time the bassist for The Frames. I cried through much of the movie and not because it was sad. When Glen and Markéta sit down at a borrowed piano in a Dublin music store and sing "Falling Slowly" together, we are all, audience and actors, restored by that "refining fire" that Eliot predicted would allow us to dance with God.

Eliot writes in the second of the four quartets, "The Dry Salvages," that only the saint can find "the point of intersection of the timeless with time" where the mystical center resides.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
I am satisfied with being here, while the music lasts.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Retreat in Steinbeck Country

To get to Mission San Antonio de Padua, you have to pass through a Homeland Security check point at the entrance to Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. The fort, where soldiers in full battle dress can be seen training for missions in Iraq, surrounds the small mission, built on lands that were the homeland of the Salinan Indian tribe before the Spanish missionary priest Junipero Serra came in 1771 to Christianize the pagans. At its peak in 1805, the mission housed over 1,300 Indians and more than 4,000 had been baptized, but today the current population of Salinans in California is estimated to be around 20. When the Mexican governor put up all the missions for sale in 1845, no one wanted to buy Mission San Antonio, probably because of its remote location two dozen miles east of King City. The Franciscans took over the property in the 1920s and the Hearst family helped to fund extensive renovations. Today the sparsely visited mission includes a retreat center operated by the Diocese of Monterey.

Irony abounds in the valley of the San Antonio River near the small town of Jolon. This is John Steinbeck country; his novel To a God Unknown, which examines what is meant by belief and how it affects different people, takes place here. Despite occasional military activity, like a parade of fire trucks and ambulances on maneuvers, this windswept valley high in the hills of the Santa Lucia Mountains is mostly silent. Large jackrabbits scamper across the dusty landscape when the coyotes are asleep. Hollyhocks planted by the padres grow tall around the mission's inner courtyard. It's a good place to practice what the Buddhists think of as meditation and what the Christians call contemplative prayer.

About two dozen of us gathered last weekend at the mission for a retreat led by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, a musician and teacher, priest and Camaldolese monk. His subject was "The Universal Call to Contemplation: Spirit, Soul and Body," a topic that has obsessed him since his encounter with Bede Griffiths 15 years ago. He wrote his master's thesis on Griffiths' life and writings and has been speaking on this theme for the last three years. Griffiths was a British monk who lived in India for nearly fifty years, mostly at Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, now a Camaldolese ashram. Cyprian has spent considerable time there and his approach to Christianity through the lens of Eastern, primarily Indian, spirituality is similar to that of Griffiths, and also to another Catholic monk in India who took the name Abhishiktananda.

You might wonder what a newly resigned Catholic Christian was doing at a spiritual retreat that featured morning, afternoon and evening prayer services as well as daily mass and frequent periods of contemplative prayer/meditation. The answer is that I find Cyprian's interspiritual perspective nonexclusive and liberating. While carefully toeing an orthodox line, Cyprian opens the windows of dogma and lets the fresh air in. I can commune with the Divine without giving my practice a label.

As I see it (and I've watched his understanding evolve over time), Cyprian is making two major points. Based on his presumption that "all theology is anthropology," he believes that there is a "need for the whole person to be involved" in spirituality: body, soul (which he sees, following Griffiths, as mind), and spirit. "How we are in the body is how we are in the world, and how we are in the world is how we are with God," he says. Cyprian approvingly quotes Sam Keen who says that "the carnality of grace" must compliment "the grace of carnality" in a full-bodied spirituality; Christianity misunderstood the first and secularity the second.

Cyprian's second point is, I think, even more radical. He believes that every human being has the divine spark within and that we are all called to contemplative union with God. He says that the "contemplative mystical core is at the heart of all religious traditions." The Perennial Philosophy, itemized by Aldous Huxley in a book of that name, is common to all spirituality. This means, I think, that religious texts and teachings are merely hints and guesses, fingers pointing at the same divine moon, and that "salvation" is not the prerogative of any one tradition or faith. "It's all poetry, but I find it beautiful," Cyprian said of the scriptures of "authentic traditions" as well as the writings of mystics. Divine Wisdom, the abyss of the Godhead, is accessible to all; even more, she is within us already, a spark ready to flare up in the breeze of contemplation.

Making use of philosopher Karl Jaspers' notion of the Axial Age, Cyprian talked of the revolution in religious thought during the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, of the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Lao Tzu and Taoism in China, and the Greek philosophers in the Mediterranean. According to Jaspers, "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently... And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today." The insights of 2500 years ago, however, have fossilized into the exclusive religious institutions of today. But like Ewert Cousins, author of Christ of the 21st Century, Cyprian believes that we may now be in a second Axial Age, and that a revival and transformation of spirituality may be at hand. I think that this 21st century interspirituality (a term developed by the late monk and thinker Wayne Teasdale) would be embodied and available to all, without the religious barriers that today divide believers from each other, and from the so-called un-believers (who may often be more spirituality than the faithful).

I am not sure where Jesus fits into the typology of the Axial Age, either first or second (perhaps I should read Cousins' book). Bruno Barnhart at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur is among those who believe that Jesus the Christ is the pivot around which all history turns, and that his historical birth marked an unprecedented beginning. This is certainly the position of the writer of the Gospel of John. I can no longer go along with that view. On the way to and from the retreat I listened to lectures from a class given by Thomas Sheehan for the Continuing Studies department at Stanford University, "The Historical Jesus: How did Jesus of Nazareth, who never claimed to be Christ or divine, become the son of God?" The entire 10-week class, given in the fall of 2006, is now available for free from iTunes U in the online iTunes Store, and I put it into my iPod which . Sheehan, who wrote The First Coming (which argues that Jesus never intended to come again), is a faithful debunker, like Spong, Borg and Crossan, of the literal interpretations of the myths about Jesus. He says that the synoptic Gospels only see Jesus as Christ, the very-human anointed one of God, "most favored son," and that only John sees Jesus as equivalent to, the same as, God.

On Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Cyprian gave a broader interpretation of the traditional dogma of the trinity which has often mystified even the faithful. In this less logocentric perspective, the trinity can stand for three types of spirituality. The first person, or Father, is silent, and can only be reached only by the apophatic path, or Via Negativa. This might correspond to the Buddhist idea of shunyata, or emptiness. The second person, or Son, is "more personalist" and can be understood by the katophatic devotionalist spiritualities of Judaism and Islam, as well as through the bhakti yoga of Hinduism. The third person, the Spirit, is immanent, all-pervasive, and comes close to the advaita (non-dualism) of Hinduism. Griffiths believed that the Trinity corresponded to satchitananda, the trinity of the Upanishads: being, consciousness and bliss. "Words," Cyprian told us, "are tiny little attempts to explain the sublime mystery." And he added: "We are just playing with poetry here, aren't we?"

Now that I've returned from the Holy Mountain of Cyprian's retreat, I'm reading a wonderful book by political activist and lesbian mother Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, which she subtitles "the spiritual memoir of a twenty-first-century Christian." Her parents were both the children of missionaries and rejected Christianity before she was born, raising their daughter to be a good atheist. After political work in Central America, Miles came to San Francisco to raise her daughter and found herself drawn to St. Gregory of Nyssa, a progressive Episcopal church on Portrero Hill south of the city.
"Blessed be God the Word," Rick [Fabian, founding priest along with Donald Schell] would chant before services, "who came to his own and his own received him not, for in this way God glorified the stranger. O God, show us your image in all who come here today, that we may welcome them, and you." His prayer expressed the fundamental theology of St. Gregory's, as did the church's practice of open communion. "Jesus welcomes everyone to his table," someone would announce during each service, "and so we offer communion to everyone, and to everyone by name." Hospitality to strangers -- baptized or heathen, pious or unrepentant -- was at the center of St. Gregory's mission; the church believed that because Jesus ate with sinners, breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, offering communion to all without exception was the "one true sign of God."
It was communion, the Eucharist, that pulled Miles into conversion, the breaking of bread for all (how unlike the Romans who require indoctrination before admittance to the table!) She had been a cook before a political activist, and found a way to express her new faith by organizing a food pantry for the multinational poor of the neighborhood, distributed to all from the church's altar.
As I interpreted it, Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up, by the thousands. In the end, he was murdered for eating with the wrong people.
I'm only a third of the way through her book, but I think Sara Miles might become for me the archetype of the 21st century Christian. But I'm not sure we have to preserve the label "Christian." After all, according to Nietzsche, the last Christian died on the cross. Early followers of Jesus called it The Way and I like that, if we need anything to describe our practice of hospitality and love.