Pope on the Ropes

Adieu Benedict XVI!

Adieu Benedict XVI!

In a way, I liked Benedict XVI (whom Martine persists in calling Ratzo after his last name, Ratzinger); but I think the job was beyond the abilities of a conservative theologian. What with the Catholic Church being against gays in theory and, in effect, for same-sex molestation of the under-aged, there is too much of a disconnect. The world does not want theology at this juncture. In fact, many Catholics are fleeing the church because they feel it is either devious or too unemotional. Their destination? The various evangelical sects, which can be even more devious and certainly insincere in their emotionalism.

I shouldn’t be surprised if Benedict’s departure will open the doors to new revelations about perfidy by members of the clergy. What is that thing about the Pope’s butler? Shades of Godfather III! And now Britain’s only Cardinal has resigned for molesting priests!? (What I want to know is, why don’t the poor nuns ever get molested? Even Martin Luther did it.)

Catholicism is a religion which its adherents must cherry-pick if they wish to remain sane. You can like the great traditions, the Latin Mass, the saints, the miracles—while, at the same time, abhorring the stance on contraception, abortion, and the punishment of wayward pederast priests. For me, the things I love about the Church are the works of Thomas Merton and G. K. Chesterton (both converts) and the great saints, stretching back to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

I hope that Benedict is not too torn up by the Augean Stables that the Church has become. He was basically a good man in an impossible position.


Are We Wearing Blinders When We Look at European History?

Are We Wearing Blinders When We Look at European History?

Our understanding of history is based on what happened in England and France, with an occasional detour to Spain, Germany, or Italy. We think of the First World War as having begun in 1914 and ended in 1918, and the Second World War as having begun in 1939 and ended in 1945. That those were merely the dates in which Western Europe and the United States were involved somehow doesn’t make it into our textbooks, let alone our consciousness.

We are so inundated with books and films about the Second World War that we forget that the whole Western European involvement was only a sideshow. Once Hitler had begun Operation Barbarossa and invaded Russia in June 1941, it was the beginning of the end for his dreams of a Thousand Year Reich. Things looked up for a while for the Panzer invaders, but soon they were dying by the millions—after having caused millions of civilian and military casualties in the Ukraine and Belarus.

Also, long before 1939, the Japanese had invaded Manchuria and Southern China, and the Germans had marched into Austria and Czechoslovakia. That wasn’t war?

Perhaps because I am increasingly conscious of my Hungarian roots, I prefer to not concentrate on the usual Western sequence of Hundred Years War, Crusades, Magna Carta, Renaissance, Reformation, Thirty Years War, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Napoleon, Metternich, and so on. There was also history occurring when Hungary was conquered by Suleiman the Magnificent and his Janissaries at the battle of Mohacs in 1526, when Poland was partitioned three times in the eighteenth century, when two Balkan Wars were fought in 1912-1913 leading up to the “main event” after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, when Greece invaded Turkey in the early 1920s and was soundly defeated by Kemal Ataturk, resulting in thousands of Greek refugees being forced out of Smyrna and the rest of Ionia.

There is ever so much more: the war between the Reds and the Whites after the October Revolution of 1917, Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the brave Polish resistance to Communist rule under the leadership of men like Adam Michnik and Lech Walesa, and Tito’s repudiation of Stalin.

The next time you are tempted to read a history book, remember that there are probably large lacunae in your knowledge. Instead of another book on the cockamamie British royalty, read Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts or Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad or The Fall of Berlin. Read poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, Russian novels like Vasili Grossman’s Life and Fate, or the journalism of the Hungarian Gyula Krúdy in Krúdy’s Chronicles.

But mostly, recognize that there is a whole world out there with which you may not be acquainted, but which will influence the course of history to come for generations to come.


Rilke on Women

Taken by Surprise and Vanquished?

Taken by Surprise and Vanquished?

Women, in whom life abides and dwells more immediately, fruitfully and confidently, must indeed have become in essence more mature human beings, more human humans than men, who being light and lacking the weight of bodily fruit pulling him down below life’s surface, undervalues in his arrogance and rashness what he claims to love. Carried to term in pain and humiliation, this humanity of women will—once she has shed the conventions of the solely feminine through these changes in her external status—become evident, and those men who cannot feel this coming today will end up being taken by surprise and vanquished.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet



Endless Election Canvassing

Endless Election Canvassing

I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but Southern California seems to have gone into an endless election mode. Every day, I have to yell over the phone at political volunteers and people conducting so-called “surveys,” and I have to throw out almost half a pound of elaborate four-color mailers such as the one above.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully intend to vote. It is just that I consider myself impervious to advertisements, robocalls, and even person-to-person calls.

As the election approaches, I will check the recommendations of the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, and the websites of several organizations whose endorsements I trust (I will not name them). It’s rather amusing that candidates for political office spend millions of dollars using the most obnoxious means to get my attention; and when I plan my voting, I check only sources that cost the candidate nothing. By so doing, in my own way, I nullify the effect of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling: Corporations and multimillionaires just can’t get me to listen to them.

On the morning of March 5, I will go to Stoner Playground in West L.A. to cast my vote, knowing that I have done my citizen’s duty.

One unfortunate aspect of all this is that I may stop answering my phone for the next week or so. There are two or three political calls for every social call. I’m getting very tired of slamming the phone down on these unwanted solicitations.


The Monolith

Flag of Saudi Arabia

Flag of Saudi Arabia

What with all the turbulence wrought by the so-called Arab Spring, what is the likelihood that Saudi Arabia will be affected? So far, there have been no large-scale demonstrations, though the monarchy has jailed a fairly large number of people of opposite political stripes.

If Saudi Arabia were to follow the example of Syria, it would have the effect of destabilizing anew the whole Muslim world. Why? Because it is the obligation for every able-bodied Muslim to perform the hajj at least once in a lifetime by visiting the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. The thought of this pilgrimage being curtailed in any way would be enough to cause widespread panic from Morocco to Indonesia, from the Muslim inhabitants of Europe to the Sahel in Africa. Just to see how international this movement is, click on the website of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj.

Islam cannot easily change its doctrines the way that Christianity, both Western and Eastern, could. There is no unified figure or body that decides what Muslims are to believe. Ever since Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, Islam has been substantially without a head. Although the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia would like to think they are in charge, that extends mainly to maintaining order during the massive influx of pilgrims (three million in 2011) during the annual  week of the Hajj, which changes from year to year because it is based on the lunar calendar.

I can only conclude that any major changes in Saudi Arabia will be cataclysmic on a global scale. As of 2010, there were an estimated 1.62 billion Muslims, comprising some 23% of earth’s total population. Both the United States and Britain have over 2.5 million adherents each. To see how the Islamic population is distributed across the nations of the earth, click here.

We tend to believe that tomorrow’s crises are basically the same as today’s, except possibly more so. A global Muslim dust-up would be qualitatively different.





Piedras Antiguas

The Ruins of Monte Alban Near Oaxaca

The Ruins of Monte Alban Near Oaxaca

Tonight, as Martine and I had dinner at the Monte Alban Restaurant in West L.A., I flashed back briefly to one of the best vacations I ever had, when my brother and I went to Mexico together in 1979. We started in Villahermosa (I’ll have to tell you about that particular experience in a later post), then went on to Palenque and San Cristóbal de las Casas and Oaxaca, ending up in Mexico City for the flight home.

Although the Monte Alban Restaurant serves Oaxacan specialties, particularly meats with mole sauce, I went for the non-mole dishes. Dining at one of the zócalo cafés in Oaxaca, I picked up a bug which I will forever refer to as the Oaxaca Caca. For about a day and a half, I hugged the porcelain while producing a cacophony of rectal groans from the underworld. I heard my brother laughing in the other room at my discomfort, and begged him to go to the market and pick up some bananas for me.

When I got better, we took a bus up to see the ancient Zapotec ruins on top of a hill near the city. While Dan and I were wandering around, we were accosted by a local who whispered to us, “Pssst, Señor … piedras antiguas.” With great drama, he opened up a piece of cloth that looked like dark blue velvet which contained several small carved stones meant to resemble ancient Zapotec carvings.

Well, they were piedras (stones) for sure … but antiguas (ancient)? We didn’t think so. If they were genuine, we’d be in danger of being arrested at the airport for illegally exporting a pre-Columbian artifact. And if they weren’t, we could certainly get a better price for them in the city. So we thanked the gentleman for sharing such a treasure with us, and went on to other parts of the ruin, where—surprise!—we met up with the original salesman’s brothers-in-law selling more piedras antiguas.

Yerba Mate

Mate and Bombilla

Mate and Bombilla

This has been an unusually cold winter for Southern California, so I have been drinking more hot tea for my own comfort. In the mornings, I drink only Indian black teas, such as Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Assam—but at night, I have switched over to yerba mate (in Argentinian Spanish, pronounced SHARE-pah mah-TAY).

This is a direct result of my two trips to Argentina, where drinking yerba mate is an obsession. In fact, throughout both Argentina and Uruguay, people travel with the “fixings” for a serving of the tea, which they share with friends and fellow travelers. These fixings consist of the dry tea itself, a thermos filled with hot water, a mate gourd (mine, shown above, was purchased in Colonia Sacramento, Uruguay), and a bombilla, or metal straw, for sucking in the tea without getting a mouthful of the leaves. Shown below is a vending machine at the Buenos Aires Zoo for refilling thermoses:

Vending Machine at the Buenos Aires Zoo for Refilling Thermos Bottles

Vending Machine at the Buenos Aires Zoo for Refilling Thermos Bottles

Many people do not like the taste of yerba mate. Martine, for example, has tasted it but doesn’t care for it. I liked it from the start. Every day while in South America, I had a version of it called mate cocido at breakfast time: This is nothing more than yerba mate in tea bags.

At night, I switch between mate cocido and the loose yerba mate served in my Uruguayan gourd.

There are many health claims made for yerba mate, but I drink it because I like the flavor and because it makes me feel good, especially on a cold night.

In case you’re wondering about the specks on my mate gourd in the photo above, they are nothing more than small bits of yerba mate that bubble over when I fill the mate gourd with hot (but not boiling) water. They dry almost instantly and are most visible on the metal rim of the gourd.