What’s Better Than The Best Wine?

      Some time before he passed away, I took a wine tasting class from former Navy pilot and beloved Santa Barbara resident Cork Millner (no joke, his name was Cork.) Cork was a respected wine aficionado and a writer who loved words as much as I do. From Cork I learned my name Brandy is derived from an old Dutch word brandewijn meaning “burned wine.” (Not a bad name but I prefer the Italian version Brandi which is derived from a Venice region surname meaning “sword” or “fiery beacon”—way more cool.) Cork definitely made me understand and appreciate wine in a way I never did before, but I’m not much of a wine drinker (my body chemistry doesn’t agree with alcohol which keeps me out of trouble), although on occasion, I will do a tasting if it is of exceptional quality or the opportunity falls into my lap. This year, I was blessed with the unusual coincidence of multiple opportunities to absorb top wine culture, which set me thinking about wine more than I normally do, both as a writer and as a Christian.
Richard Sanford at Sly’s in Carpinteria
      In late spring, a restaurant very near where I live featured a multi-course meal with all locally sourced seafood, meat, and produce and every course was paired with a wine from Alma Rosa winery. And Richard Sanford, founder of Sanford and Alma Rosa wineries in Santa Barbara county, was there in person to explain the wines. The price was much lower than I expected so I leaped at the opportunity. Sanford is the pioneer of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County and also the first vintner to be certified organic in the county. Sanford’s love affair with Pinot Noir began while serving as a Naval officer during the Vietnam war. A shipmate of his named Scott Wine (no joke) introduced him to a Pinot Noir from Volnay in Burgundy, France. He was completely captivated. Upon the completion of his Naval service and return to the U.S. in 1968 at the height of anti-war sentiment, Sanford was treated very poorly. Bewildered by the hostility directed towards him after serving his country, he decided to immerse himself in what was an unusual endeavor at the time—growing Pinot Noir grapes on the Central Coast of California. He was the first to plant Pinot in the western Santa Ynez valley—considered impossible at the time—and his pioneering footsteps helped pave the way for Santa Barbara to become a world-class winemaking region. At the time, Santa Barbara was considered a wine-making backwater compared to Napa and Sonoma. Sanford currently crafts wine at his Alma Rosa label. (The Sanford label was bought out in 2005 due to an unfortunate business partnership.) In spite of his accomplishments, Sanford is a very humble man. He shook hands and personally introduced himself to each person at the event and told everyone to ask him any question about wine or wine-making no matter how seemingly ignorant. In his presence, you sense his soulful integrity and his kind, down-to-earth friendliness made me think of my WWII veteran friend Julian Moody. It was such a blessing to meet Sanford and as if this wasn’t good enough, I also won a free pass to the Santa Barbara Vintners Festival. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six people to sign up for the Sanford event won this pass. At the vintner’s festival, all the top wineries in the county were there and being a Santa Barbara event, it was very laid-back with the heads of wineries present and many of them serving the wine themselves. Like Sanford, they were easily approachable and happy to answer any question. And over the summer, I visited a friend in Sonoma county, the birthplace of the commercial wine industry in California, and soaked in the beautiful rolling hills of vineyards. All of this immersion in wine culture very enjoyable and educational…
Vineyard, Sonoma County
      Wine has been with humans since the beginning—the history of wine is inseparable from human history. One of the earliest cultures to cultivate wine, the Phoenicians and the Greeks, passed on viticulture and wine-making to the Romans who planted vineyards all over Europe. When the Roman Empire became Christian through the conversion of Constantine, wine was made part of the sacrament and many of the vineyards the Romans planted became the domain of monasteries. The monks, in a structured life of contemplation and no commercial pressure, improved in the craft, art, and science of wine-making, Dom PĂ©rignon being one famous example of a monk who helped develop wine-making to sophisticated levels.* Meanwhile, wine and wine-making spread across Europe and to the new world, Africa, and Australia via conquistadors, missionaries, and colonists. (*For an amusing look at some of the craziness of high end wine culture, check out the the documentary Somm which played at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2013. Somm features Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback who opened Les Marchands on Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara and Dustin Wilson who with Brian McClintic started the Vallim wine label in Santa Barbara.)
      As someone who appreciates story and myth, I am also aware of the symbolism of wine. In ancient times, wine was a means of purifying water so early on viewed as life-giving. In Greek myth, wine was a gift to man from the god Dionysos, a gift meant to impart happiness and relaxation, as well as peace and freedom—most especially the peace and freedom that comes from loss of self-consciousness and freeing from the strain of social identity and position. (Some interesting similarities exist between Dionysos and Jesus Christ which I discuss here.) And as a Christian I am very familiar with the many references to wine in the Bible, wine in its full spectrum of beneficial use and abuse: as a blessing from God that gladdens the heart and aids in celebration, to a medicinal aid, to an intoxicant that can deceive and inflame tempers, to a metaphor for the maddening effect of idolatry. And references to wine abound in the gospels. Turning water into wine at a wedding is the first miracle Jesus performs. And wine is used by Christ at the Last Supper as he spells out the new covenant. In Matthew 26, Jesus takes the cup and says to the disciples, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, His sacrifice and the gospel of salvation and the complete rest and freedom we have in that—complete freedom in Christ—the good news of that. In communion, we take the bread and wine—we remember the sacrifice of Christ and what His blood represents. The taking of bread and wine reminds us we have intimate communion with Him. He is in us. The kingdom of God is within.
      And finally in Revelation—wine and the winepress represent the wrath of God and the execution of His justice. A common misunderstanding of people who don’t know the Bible very well is that the God of the Bible is a very angry, vengeful God. Anyone who has spent significant time sincerely studying the Bible knows that the God of the Bible is merciful, slow to anger, full of compassion and kindness. The anger expressed is not simplistic moral retribution but a disappointed response towards the refusal of the love and grace that is so freely available and a continued persistence in darkness, idolatry, and sin. And this disappointed response is after much patient endurance, correction, and repeated chances and opportunities of redemption. The people who refuse to receive this love and grace, refuse to repent and change, have to face the tough love consequences of that choice. Maybe all of this is an irrelevant distinction in the minds of some (especially to those who refuse to believe in God), but really a huge difference that means all the difference in the world—a difference between life and death.
      There’s always a choice—the choice between light or darkness. One can choose to abide in Him or not. Jesus used the analogy of the grape vine to show what life or abiding in Him looks like, as well as His abiding in us in John 15. “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”
      The grape vine in its natural state, as I learned from Cork, is unruly, wild, prolific in its growth, easily spreading and growing to over a hundred feet in length, and it will climb anything in its path. It’s no coincidence that the informal communications network through which gossip and juicy news of scandal travels quickly is called the grapevine. In cultivating grapes, the vine needs to be trained on a trellis and the vine needs to be pruned. And as I learned from Sanford and other winemakers, pruning results in much higher quality grapes and a stronger root stock. The quality of wine is dependent on the quality of fruit and the quality of fruit is proportional to suffering. The most sought after wines in the world are made by Frenchman Henri Jayer—a single bottle of his wine can cost as much as a car or a house. Jayer explained, “To produce great wines, the vine has to suffer and dig deep for resources…”
      To truly walk as a Christian is not an easy thing—following His commands is essentially dying to self everyday. Dying to self and selfishness, crucifying the ego, can be excruciating, especially in an “it’s all about me” culture that worships comfort and convenience, and in which narcissism and toxic striving almost passes for normal. I get that some people thrive on achievement, “being the best of the best,” and competition, but any compulsive attempts for self-created worth contain the seeds of their own destruction which is evidenced in the self-destructive lives of many “successful” people, whose best efforts ultimately end up being branches burned up in the fire, so to speak. If not abiding in the true vine, then they’re probably drinking the wine of Babylon. Following Christ is not easy, but fruitfulness comes from fully abiding in His love. And when abiding in His love, then we have something authentic to give to others (and not a performance) in the form of the fruit of the spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
      I heard or read somewhere that alcoholics are ultimately seeking in the physical consumption of wine or any other “spirit” is the spirit— what they long for or lack in the spiritual—the feeling of being at ease, at peace, freedom from anxiety and worry, and in some cases, an attempt to blot out shame and guilt. Addiction often starts off innocently or casually as an attitude of: “Drink and be merry because time is short,” or some heathen variation of “There is really no meaning in life, no morality at least for the duration of the drunken revelry, so why not completely lose yourself and give yourself full license to this experience?” But then the hangover and nasty, icky feeling follows, and for the alcoholic the degrading compulsion and downward spiral of an addiction. Which begs the question, is it possible to have all the positives without any of the negatives?
      It is, if only one fully accepts it. (And for the alcoholic or addict, if one makes the full and determined commitment to healing.) Dying to self is no fun, but the walk with Christ is intimacy with Christ. Dying to self, suffering, as with the grape vine, forces us to dig deep for resources, dig deep into God, and this abiding will allow for a deep abiding in the love of Christ, to be rooted and established in His love as Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:16-19: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
      The fullness of God—the love, rest, peace, joy and freedom we have in Christ—amazingly all of this is freely available. All one has to do is partake, fully receive it, accept it, and believe it. And it’s sad that something so freely available can be completely ignored. Which reminds me of when Jesus was staying with Martha and Mary in Luke 10. Jesus noted, “Mary has chosen the better.” Mary sat basking at His feet, enjoying His presence. Meanwhile, anxiety-ridden Martha fretted about everything that needed to be done, completely oblivious to the divinity in her presence. Which goes to show you how two people in the same company and in the same situation can choose to have completely different experiences. Martha failed to appreciate that Jesus Himself was in her midst, while Mary truly “got it” and sat soaking in, abiding in, and enjoying His presence. Which brings to my mind John at the Last Supper. John reclined on “Jesus' bosom” (as the King James and NASB versions word it.) And this disciple is also described in the same line of scripture as the one “whom Jesus loved.” I had read that passage many times and without thinking about it too much, just assumed he was allowed to rest on Jesus’ chest because he was the “one loved.” It never occurred to me until I was writing this that maybe he was the “one loved,” a favorite, because he chose to rest on Jesus’ bosom, chose to rest in Him. Like John “got it” like Mary “got it” and his reposing on the bosom of Jesus is a simple picture of how we are supposed to fully rest in and enjoy that love. To repose on the bosom of Jesus—I imagine that must have felt so wonderful—so sweet, warm, and comforting (even knowing his earthly ministry was coming to a close or maybe more so because of it.) And so blissful and peaceful, like the blissful, peaceful, relaxed feeling you associate with drinking the best of the best spirits, only way better, with of course, none of the negatives. To fully abide in and enjoy the fullness of God—most especially the rest and peace we have in Christ—and to be rooted and established in love, the true vine, is better than the best wine and more.

Gatsby, My Lost City, and The Crack-Up: The American Dream, An Illusion Part IV

      My friend Don Jenner off and on would suggest I read The Great Gatsby, or at least see the movie. The novel is set in a part of Long Island where he grew up and I attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. While attending the academy, I had heard people mention the area was the setting for The Great Gatsby, but even then I had no desire to read it. In my mind, The Great Gatsby was an overrated literary romance novel they shove down your throat in a high school English class which I somehow happily managed to escape. But this year, I finally caved and read it along with some other writings of Fitzgerald’s. I visited the academy in the fall for a reunion along with New York City and my friend Don. NYC and the location of the academy is intimately familiar to me and close to my heart and Don had mentioned the book again, so I thought what the heck, why not read a novel set in the area and learn more about Fitzgerald?
Wiley Hall
      “East Egg” and “West Egg”, along with Manhattan, figure prominently in the novel. East Egg is a fictional name given to the northern promontory of Long Island comprising of Sands Point and Port Washington (where Don grew up for part of his childhood. He later lived in Manhattan for over forty years.) Across a bay to the west is West Egg comprising of the village of Kings Point (location of USMMA) a short distance outside of NYC, with the skyline of Manhattan visible across the sound. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in Great Neck, adjacent to Kings Point, for part of his career and was very familiar with this north shore section of Long Island known as the Gold Coast and went to Gatsby-type parties in the area. East Egg is the more established of the two, home to estates of New York “old” money such as the Vanderbilts and Guggenheims, and West Egg the enclave of newer money. A number of the buildings that comprise the academy were once private homes of wealthy West Egg residents. Wiley Hall, the main administrative building of the academy, was once the summer estate of Walter P. Chrysler. The academy grounds is not far from where Gatsby stood to look at the green light across the bay on East Egg.
      The Great Gatsby was not what I expected, definitely not a romance novel but a haunting, melancholy rumination on the American Dream and one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a long time even though the story concerns a successful millionaire. For my last post, I read about the Auschwitz concentration camp which was depressing but the predominant emotions I felt were more along the lines of horror, shock, and indignant anger. The Great Gatsby is a very short book, a novella more than a novel, but I found it very hard to get through. A minor reason—Fitzgerald’s writing style is not my cup of tea. The main reason—the book is very dense. Not much seems to be happening as far as plot, but the book feels very heavy and thick with the melancholy I mentioned. The main character Jay Gatsby epitomized romantic ideas of American success in the post World War I era, but also cut a pathetic figure who wistfully stared at a green light on a dock across the bay on East Egg where Daisy lived. Daisy was of course the unattainable object of his love and everything elusive she represented. Gatsby had countless superficial “friends” that clamored to attend his parties at his West Egg estate, but none of them showed up at his funeral. Written in 1925, The Great Gatsby gives a faithful depiction of the roaring twenties, which Fitzgerald memorably termed the Jazz Age, with its undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding. The book also, in a way, portends Fitzgerald’s own doomed life. (I know many have read the book so don’t want to repeat too many details of the story or spoil it for the people who want to read it. I can’t recommend the movie adaptations—I felt they didn’t quite capture the poignancy of the book.)
      Fitzgerald grew up in Buffalo, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota. His family was not wealthy, just reasonably well-off but, in St. Paul, lived in the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. Being in proximity to wealth but not part of it, he highly romanticized wealth and felt becoming wealthy to be the answer to many things, most especially alleviating his sense of not belonging. This was compounded by his falling in love with Zelda Sayre, a spoiled southern belle from a respectable Alabama family. After moving to NYC, Fitzgerald had a fairly successful career in advertising and also as a writer of stories for magazines, but Zelda didn’t believe he made enough money so broke off their engagement. Undeterred, he poured all of his efforts into his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was picked up by a respected New York publisher and soon became a bestseller. Huge success came quickly for him (which in a way was his greatest misfortune and undoing) and solved the objective of getting Zelda. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his now wife Zelda became the glitterati of New York and were the precursors to the modern celebrity who live large and are continually chronicled—they were the most photographed celebrities of that era—their partying and exploits, such as drunken car rides on NYC streets and expulsions from Manhattan hotels, covered ad nauseum in newspaper and magazine gossip columns. Their frenzied lifestyle mirrored the reckless abandon and self-indulgence of the 1920s. And just as the unrestrained decade eventually crashed with the stock market in 1929, the Fitzgeralds’ lives hit rock bottom along with it. Fitzgerald wrote of the times in his essay “My Lost City”: “…many of our friends had grown wealthy. But the restlessness of New York in 1927 approached hysteria. The parties were bigger…the buildings were higher, the morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early—they were hard and languid at twenty-one…Many people who were not naturally alcoholics were lit up four days out of seven, and frayed nerves were strewn everywhere; groups were held together by a generic nervousness and the hangover became a part of the day… Most of my friends drank too much—the more they were in tune with the times the more they drank. And as effort per se had no dignity against the mere bounty of those days in New York, a depreciatory word was found for it: a successful program became a “racket”—I was in the “literary racket.””
      Works he completed after This Side of Paradise never matched the bestseller’s sales, and due to the Fitzgeralds’ extravagant lifestyle, they always had financial difficulty. This increased pressure to produce another hit on the scale of his first book which he was never able to do in spite of working very hard and as he described his efforts, “a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man overdrawing at his bank.” The Great Gatsby was not a commercial success, its sales a huge disappointment to Fitzgerald. As the twenties came to a close and the country sank into the Great Depression, Fitzgerald slid into his own personal combination of burn-out and depression. His wife suffered a nervous breakdown. Fitzgerald, like many of his friends, drank heavily. Observations of him during this time described him as given to alcoholic binges, sometimes drunk 24/7 for stretches and his friends described his behavior as increasingly erratic. And his writing in "The Crack-Up"—a series of essays he wrote for Esquire sometime during this period—reflects this. The essays were coolly received and criticized, and understandably so—the writing is muddled, barely coherent in stretches—but maybe readers also resented Fitzgerald exposing a darker, more honest side especially since much of what he wrote for magazines in the past were light, romantic stories about New York society. "The Crack-Up" is a frank revelation of failure, disappointment, and hitting bottom. He also writes eloquently on the flip side of the American Dream and the thin line he walked between the pursuit of happiness and self-delusion. “My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books—and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural—unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.”
      Fitzgerald’s essays, as well as the melancholy that permeates The Great Gatsby, made me think of a psychiatrist’s observation I read somewhere on the epidemic of depression in modern times. He practiced in the New York area and while he didn’t dispute there can be biological causes of depression, in his practice he didn’t immediately jump to prescribing medications like some doctors do, but took some time getting to know the patients and the circumstances surrounding the depression. In his many years of practice, he noted that quite a number of his patients each had their own version of: “I will work very hard and jump through this hoop and that hoop and then this _______(fill in the blank) will come true.”  This “fill in the blank” was some dream, and the dreams varied, but all the dreams had one underlying thing in common—a belief, either conscious or unconscious, that once the dream was achieved, they would get the approval and/or security that they longed for or felt entitled to. When this “fill in the blank” never arrived, didn’t come true or didn’t bring the expected results, especially after many years of this pursuit, instead of experiencing disappointment (which can be recovered from with time), these patients sank into a deep depression. What was so crushing to them was the realization that all these years they had been living under an illusion. And they also found themselves completely depleted. They had believed, in one way or the other, as Fitzgerald described in "The Crack-Up", “Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both.” and as Fitzgerald noted in his own efforts just before his “crack-up” and depression, “my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” The doctor asked one patient why he had wasted so much time and energy on his particular pursuit since it seemed obvious to him that it wasn’t going to bear fruit like he imagined, to which the patient replied that he didn’t have any choice—life was essentially meaningless and meaning only came through how hard one worked. And much to his shock as a secular, medically-trained doctor of no religious background, he found himself spontaneously saying to his patient, “You need to have more faith.” This shocked me as much as it did him. Even as a Christian, I found it kind of harsh and inappropriate for a doctor to say that to his patient. As a Christian, if another Christian had said that to me while I was feeling depressed, it would have felt like an insulting slap in the face. But at the same time, something about this doctor’s observations rang of something true and stuck with me and I recalled it as I read Fitzgerald’s writings.
       To the doctor’s depressed patients, the “fill in the blank” was each patient’s own version of the green light and Daisy on the other shore. To Gatsby, Daisy represented everything that seemed promised by wealth—social approval, a reaching of some place of security, a protection from the harsh realities and difficulties of life. But these materialistic hopes and assumptions, as Gatsby and the depressed patients learned, so often don’t bring the expected results but instead turn to “ashes in one’s mouth” a common expression of biblical origin. “He feeds on ashes; a deceived heart has turned him aside. And he cannot deliver himself, nor say, "Is there not a lie in my right hand?”” (Isaiah 44:20) When I think of “a lie in my right hand,” I think of a “Sodom apple” or “Dead Sea fruit” which at one time were popular idioms meaning, “Fair to the eye, but nauseous to the taste; full of promise, but without reality.” According to medieval legend, Sodom apples turned to smoke and ash when picked. For Fitzgerald, his “fill in the blank” or Sodom apple was “fantastic success and eternal youth” which he believed he could achieve through sheer force of will in the Big Apple, but in Fitzgerald’s words, “One by one my great dreams of New York became tainted.” And ironically, the quest for fantastic success and eternal youth merely resulted in premature death—the combination of overwork, stress, and abuse of his body with alcohol killed him. Fitzgerald was dead at the age of 44 from a heart-attack. So in the end, it was about limits—from seemingly limitless dreams to the humility and humiliation of limits. As Fitzgerald wrote in "My Lost City" in the midst of the Great Depression five years before his untimely death:
Looking downtown from Empire State Building
“From the ruins rose the Empire State Building, lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx, and, just as it had been a tradition of mind to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as the eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood—everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed her and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground… Thus I take leave of my lost city. Seen from the ferry boat in the early morning it no longer whispers of fantastic success and eternal youth… For the moment I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage…”
      My experience of NYC was completely different than Fitzgerald’s. It was definitely mundane and even-keeled compared to Fitzgerald’s dramatic highs and lows (fortunately.) I never had “great dreams of New York” or put any hope in it. NYC just felt like home to me. Because of the kindness and hospitality of my New Yorker friends Don and Sue Jenner and Scott Rodolitz, NYC felt homey and cozy in a way the academy didn’t. Tragically, Fitzgerald had no real friends in NYC so it was a lonely place. But while our experience of the city was completely different, our disenchantment with displays of wealth on Long Island was definitely similar.
Barstow House, Interior
      My senior year at the academy I worked at the American Merchant Marine Museum which is on the northeastern end of the academy grounds just a couple miles from where Gatsby stared across the bay to the green light on East Egg. The museum is in a mansion once owned by William Slocum Barstow, a peer and friend of Thomas Edison and a major player in electric utilities (the Barstow House was the first private residence in the U.S. to have an electric elevator and also has a movie theater in the basement which is now used for storage.) When first working there, I relished the grandeur and spectacle of the house, then over time I became used to it and indifferent to it, then progressively the mansion started to feel more and more cavernous, lonely, and depressing. Especially on cold, overcast winter days I would walk around the many large rooms that could never be heated fully or comfortably, look at the gray sound with a forlorn-looking Throgs Neck Bridge and Manhattan skyline beyond it, and wonder how rich people could stand to live in such enormous, mostly empty houses. According to the old gentleman who ran the museum at the time there was a ghost living there. Whether this was true or not I have no idea. All I know is that once in a while I would have to go down to the basement to the movie theater to get something from storage and I would bolt in and bolt out completely creeped out, the tragedy and comedy masks on the proscenium arch staring down at me. Before working there, I would have never guessed such a lavish setting could come to feel so hopelessly eerie and sad (and maybe this reversal of feeling is what everyone experiences with anything worldly.) And Fitzgerald certainly was tuned into this downward progression of mood and sentiment since he captures it so keenly in The Great Gatsby.
      The Great Gatsby was a commercial failure in Fitzgerald’s time but is now considered by many to be the greatest American novel of the modern era. It sells more copies each year than sold in Fitzgerald’s entire lifetime, even though it has a completely unAmerican, unHollywood, unhappy ending. Why this appeal? Many would attribute it to its faithful depiction of the roaring twenties which is probably true. Others would note the appeal of the character Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is mythical yet true-to-life, he’s a self-made man in the most American sense of the expression—he rose from abject poverty to riches, although his fortune is made of easy money. This overnight millionaire has mysterious, shadowy New York connections lurking in the background—he’s mixed up in organized crime of some kind. Even though his wealth obviously smacks of something dishonest—a racket—you can’t help but like him. Maybe Gatsby, for his time, was a sneak preview of the American enthrallment with New York gangsters—even though they’re technically scumbags, people have an affectionate fascination with them and find them oddly endearing. So Gatsby as a main character intrigues. But there’s something bigger—something about the novel’s truthful depiction of the American Dream resonates.
      The American Dream is never mentioned by name in the novel but its expansive optimism is lovingly expressed by the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway, "I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
      Unlike other American colonies started by Protestants fleeing religious persecution and looking to express God’s Kingdom on earth, New York began as New Amsterdam a Dutch colony started by traders who had no such motives. Eventually taken over by the equally enterprising British bent on the creation of their Empire, New York was all business from day one, lit up not by spiritual fervor but more the enterprising gleam-in-the eye of the likes of merchants, bankers, and the criminal element that inevitably came alongside it. New York became a glittering and hypnotic city, a source of massive wealth, but with an inevitable flip and shadow side for many, as expressed in the lives of Gatsby and Fitzgerald, their highs and lows an eerie reflection of the boom-bust highs and lows of the American and world economy which has its heartbeat in NYC.
      Gatsby seems to have gotten his big piece of the American Dream, seems so close to getting Daisy, but in a strange and unfortunate set of circumstances loses his life. Getting everything you dream of or trying to get everything you dream of can become your own undoing and even death. As Americans, we love the positive aspect of the American Dream and don’t like to admit this truth, but deep down we know it’s the truth. The American Dream—simultaneously so full of hope and optimism (of the worldly kind) and so full of disappointment and disillusionment—both contradictory aspects are achingly expressed in The Great Gatsby like no other American novel.
      Gatsby is a pathetic figure, but every American can identify with him in some way. Every American can understand and relate to him, can admire his dreaming and hopefulness. Just about every American probably has their own version of the green light or Daisy, always on the other shore, just out of reach, so close and yet so far away—if only this or if only that, then I will have “arrived” and it will all be ok. Even Christians, who like to believe they are above idolatry, are often deceived by this siren song and mirage, this elusive, capricious, empty god that promises and withholds so much, and like the depressed patients who “need to have more faith” can painfully discover one day that for all these years they had been living under an illusion.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

      Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day, as it is observed in Israel, this year begins in the evening of May 4th and ends in the evening of May 5th. I’m not Jewish, but I am choosing to commemorate it on my site this year because it’s always good to be reminded of history and how easy it is to flirt with darkness and get drawn in, especially considering the troubling public infatuation with Trump as a presidential candidate and the mob mentality at his rallies. For me, World War II is not a remote history lesson, something I learned sitting in school or watching the History channel, but a gritty, visceral reality—I spent countless hours with Julian Moody, a real World War II veteran, as he shared his experiences and showed me the many photographs he took during his service. I could see that Julian was deeply affected by the war and it was still with him after many decades. The word he used often to describe it was “epic” and I definitely had the sense of huge forces of world history playing themselves out on a grand scale, and his participation in this was not something to take lightly. No, we may never have a literal Holocaust of the type in World War II in America, but the root of evil can take many forms—the hatred, fear, and intolerance that lurks beneath the veneer of any civilization along with any sociopathic tendencies in a leader can quickly metastasize into senseless chaos and destruction that is hard to stop once it is fed by public hysteria and gains momentum, as was painfully learned in World War II.
      I have been blessed to come across two striking first person, nonfiction accounts of that era: Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck and The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz: A True Story of World War II by Denis Avey. I would recommend the books to anyone interested in learning more about that dark period in our history. I read the books last year since 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and even though that was many months ago, I thought back to the books often. The quality of writing in both books is especially notable, and the insights gleaned also serve as a warning on the current political climate.
      Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck is an unusual document, unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. Reck was a non-Jewish German man who moved in higher social circles and could have belonged to the Nazi party but was repelled by it. His Diary is not a literal diary of dated daily entries, but rather thoughts, reflections, and observations written in the years 1936 to 1944 as he watched his country fall into the abyss. His writing was very critical of Germany and the Nazi regime so he wrote at tremendous risk to himself. In spite of warnings by friends (an acquaintance of theirs was raided by the Gestapo) he persisted in his writing, hiding the pages in a tin box which he buried in the woods on his extensive property. Only in the final weeks of the war, were the pages removed from their hiding place. They were first published in Germany in 1947 by a publisher who soon went out of business, but reprinted in 1964 and 1966, with an excellent English translation in 1970 by Paul Rubens. At the time Diary was first published it received little attention and Reck was (and still is) misunderstood and dismissed by some as an annoying aristocrat whining endlessly about the cow-like stupidity of “mass-man,” which is unfortunate. Diary is full of keen insights, along with unique, close-up observations of Hitler since they ran in the same social circles. Reck’s description of his first close up encounters with Hitler who was not yet a major political figure runs as follows:

Terror or Love: It Takes a Community to End Terrorism

      “…for myself, it was only the fear of love from which one flees into absolute violence,” wrote Michael Baumann a.k.a. Bommi Baumann in his 1975 book Terror or Love? (originally titled Wie Alles Anfing in German.) Baumann was part of a now barely-remembered domestic terrorist organization in Germany with ties to terrorists in the Middle East. Inspired by the student unrest of the 1960s, this “militant kernel of Berlin’s counter-culture” began as a group called the “Central Committee of the Roaming Hash Rebels.” Becoming increasingly violent, they eventually sent members to Jordon to receive training from Palestinians on terrorist tactics such as use of arms and bomb-making. Nicknamed the Hash Brothers (which eventually became the June 2nd Movement), they went on a rampage of bombs and violence in the neighborhoods of Berlin which made headlines in its day. In my random browsing, I came across Baumann's obscure book chronicling his misadventures as a terrorist and his eventual abandonment of the movement and his provocative comment stuck with me. In spite of large differences in context and seemingly far removed from current events and radical Islam—Baumann was a far left, dope-smoking hippie who happened to prefer bombs to peace—I felt there was a commonality and insight to be learned. (Bear with me, this is going to be a long thread.)
      Record numbers of young westerners are choosing to join radical extremist groups such as ISIS and people are scratching their heads over why. There is no single profile. Former recruiters and recruits reveal a range of reasons that include but are not limited to: dissatisfaction with their lives; lack of healthy family; racism; a sense of injustice; a desire for belonging; disenchantment with the typical lifestyle of a westerner; a desire for meaning and purpose; a desire to belong to a cause; outrage over the hypocrisy of the west; a belief that the west is against Islam. When ISIS began to make headlines, Defense Secretary Hagel and General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the need for military action of some kind is without question, but that there is no military-alone solution to ISIS, that radical Islam is ultimately something that won’t or can’t be eradicated by military force because it is an ideology and mindset.
      So where did the roots of this ideology and mindset originate? The mind of the man considered to be godfather of modern Jihadism, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was a literary critic, author, and educator turned Islamic theologian most known for his notorious Islamist tract Milestones. Qutb’s work was cited as a primary source of influence on bin Laden by the 9/11 Commission Report, and although now ISIS and al Qaeda are at odds, ISIS, in their own propaganda, traces its origins to bin Laden.
      Qutb spent two years in the United States, from 1948 to 1950, on a scholarship to study the educational system. He visited major cities such as New York and Washington D.C. and also spent extended time in Greeley, Colorado. He recorded his observations in a small book titled, The America I Have Seen. Depending on what mood you are in when reading it, this strange document can seem annoying, insightful, sophomoric, or hilarious. He displays a cultural snobbery (e.g. his mocking complaints over the unfamiliar use of salt and sugar and haircuts lacking “elegance”) and there are some amusing factual errors (he claims the first immigrants to North America were adventure seekers and British prisoners.) And while Greeley in the late 1940s would be considered very conservative by today’s standards, based on Qutb’s description of a church dance while there along with his impression of the American female, you would have thought that he visited a disco and a strip club. He obviously exaggerates, seizing on the most negative and presents a picture of America in the ugliest, most unflattering angle and light possible, but some of his observations admittedly are astute, incisive, and cut to the core of a spiritual and moral bankruptcy that exists in America, a country that gives God a lot of lip service but frankly in daily practice seems to put more faith in applied science. When grasping for reasons as to why radical Islamists hate the west so much, we often state, “They hate our freedom and democracy,” as if it were just a petty matter of envy and resentment. But unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. What we Americans (and westerners in general) smugly and complacently see as progress, Qutb viewed as a regression into a more primitive state and that our fixation with technology is actually barbaric akin to a caveman eyeing his tools with vulgar fascination over what more powers he could wield if he could only dream up more tools. In Qutb’s words:

Wall Street: Face Reality and Work Honestly

Wall Street facing Trinity in the 1920s
      Off and on, in the past year or so, I’ve been reading about Wall Street and a couple times came across images of the gothic cathedral at the head of Wall Street on Broadway, a half a block from the New York Stock Exchange. The captions read, “Trinity Wall Street” and I thought, “That’s a beautiful church—I wonder if it’s connected in any way to the Trinity I went to with Don and Sue on a regular basis when I was attending the academy? Maybe they’re part of the same diocese?” I attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York from 1987 to 1991. I had no family in the immediate area, so I often visited Don and Sue Jenner (a friend of my mom’s when Sue lived in Erie, Pennsylvania) who were like a kindly uncle and aunt. I didn’t care much for being at the academy—I managed to escape to various places on the east coast with the sailing team on some weekends, but my favorite time was in New York with the Jenners. It was about a half hour train ride from Kings Point to Penn Station and from there a brief subway ride downtown to Tribeca where they lived.
More recently (NYSE on right)
      In the new year, when chatting with Don on the phone, I mentioned the photographs of Trinity and asked, “Was that Trinity connected to the church we went to?” Don then informed me, incredulously, “That is the church we went to.” Then it was explained—we never approached it from Wall Street or entered from Broadway. We walked down Greenwich Street, cut across to Trinity Place and entered from a rear entrance, so I never saw it from the angle that it is most often photographed. And those photographs tend to cut off large portions of adjoining areas and buildings that I associate with Trinity, so from my viewpoint, it looked completely different. I do have a dim memory of standing outside the church once and looking up and seeing a street sign that read “Wall Street” and thinking, “We’re on Wall Street?” but I’m sure that thought was soon replaced by a vision of dim sum. It was not unusual for us to eat in Chinatown after church which I always looked forward to when zoning out during the service. I was not a Christian at the time so hardly considered my time there real church attendance. I was basically a jellyfish floating along in the current of Don and Sue’s Sunday routine. I did enjoy my time in church—or rather I enjoyed the theater of it—the choir, pipe organ, candles, stained glass, clouds of incense blown about by people in robes waving censers—your basic Anglican high church experience which in my mind, was more relaxing than being at the academy.
Me in the Jenner's apartment (about 1992)
      I very much appreciated the time we had together in New York. It was always a pleasure to spend time with Don and Sue and in hindsight, I am especially grateful to Don for giving me my first real introduction to Christianity. On our frequent outings in lower Manhattan, we walked everywhere or took the subway. (Like most people who live in New York, they didn’t own a car—Don taught management and marketing among other things at CUNY-Borough of Manhattan Community College which was just footsteps away from their apartment.) Wherever we went, if we passed a homeless person who asked for something, Don gave that person something, even if all he had was some change.

Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard

      2014 was full of big news items (Isis, Ebola, Ferguson, etc.) that received a lot of coverage for obvious reasons, but the suicides of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard stand out in my mind as reflective of issues that perhaps aren’t examined as much as they should be.
      Like many, I liked Robin Williams. I grew up with Mork and Mindy and thought he was a good actor and comedian. And I knew someone who had met and spent some time with Robin (through Robin’s lifelong friend Jonathan Winters who frequented the Coffee Grinder, a coffee shop that existed for years in Carpinteria, California where I live.) And this person observed that it was impossible to truly connect with Robin in an authentic way, not due to any conceit or snobbery on Robin’s part, but because Robin seemed to have a compulsive need to be always “on” and performing. When he told me this, I remembered an interview with Robin I had read. The interviewer had asked about his earliest memories of performing and Robin explained that his mother was the unhappy wife of an auto company executive and as her only child, he constantly entertained her to try to make her happy (and presumably get her attention and love.) Those two pieces of information always stuck with me over the years. So when I learned of his suicide, which occurred on August 11, 2014, I was very saddened, but it also came as no surprise to me.

Atlas Struck Out

      As a Christian, I often wonder about the popularity of Ayn Rand with people claiming to be conservative. Her best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged, regarded by some conservatives as a bible on capitalism and often quoted by members of the Tea Party, is notorious for popularizing a philosophy that insists selfishness is a virtue. Rand is not Christian (in fact, she attacks Christianity in her novel) and unapologetically atheist, proof that many “conservative” Randians don’t bother to seriously examine or perhaps even bother to read the novel which runs over a thousand pages.
      Fortunately for people who don’t like to read, the three part novel was turned into three movies by a Randian producer. (Part I was released in 2011, Part II in 2012, and Part III just recently on September 12, 2014.) Strangely, considering Randians espouse excellent achievement, the productions resemble a made-for-tv movie series for a second rate cable channel. If you don’t believe me, try to watch them. (Note: none of the principal actors in Parts I, II, and III remain the same which might confuse you.) The movies were a flop with critics and most audiences, but the hype and controversy surrounding their releases has helped fuel more sales of the novel, which has been selling well since its publication in 1957 and was voted the second most influential book in America after the Bible in 1991. 
      This disturbing fact begs the question—why is Rand regarded as an authority on business and capitalism? Apart from one unfortunate incident in her childhood of the Bolsheviks appropriating her father’s business, she has little to no practical experience in the area of business. I was blessed to be friends with Julian Moody, a veteran who fought and risked his life in World War II to defeat just the sort of tyranny that Rand, from a safe distance, pompously railed against. This kind, humble, selfless man was also an executive coach and management consultant for over fifty years and worked with many companies both large and small throughout the United States. He also volunteered countless hours as a mentor and coach for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses in Santa Barbara where he lived since 1965. I was fortunate to spend many hours talking with Julian who patiently answered my many questions about his work. His experience in business was completely contrary to what Rand professes in her work and philosophy.