The Sommelier

The sommelier was a light-black hispanic man in his mid-twenties, perfectly mannered and composed, quick to react to my teasing wit, while at the same time leaving no trace of composition in his smile, displaying an honest exuberance. The sommelier had been held up in the wine cellar while we picked our courses from the menu and had inquired for his advice on the wine pairing. He stood lightly stooped over our table, one hand behind his back and pointed with his hand, extended in a straight angle from his shoulder, at the wine choice, an Austrian Grüner Veltliner by Hirsch from 2013, that paired well with the Spanish octopus and the Japanese hamachi.
“You got locked up in the wine cellar by your co-workers, it seemed?”
“They tend to do that, yes,” he answered with a genuine and gentle smile.
“The Château de Pressac, Grand Cru Classé, from Saint-Émilion is a French wine with a very dark hue and berry that pairs excellent with the Wagyu Beef.”
“Excellent, I trust you.”
As the sommelier walked off, one of the middle-aged Indian backwaiters walked over, holding a dark wood woven breadbasket in front of his pelvis and a silver bread tongs in his right hand hovering above the whole grain, mini bread rolls and elongated berry bread sticks, ready to grasp a single roll with his tongs and transfer it to our plates.
“No, thank you.”
We had gracefully declined already at least 3 times prior.
Immediately following the bread runner, sensing another window of opportunity to prove his value, came the water runner holding a thin, chrome water dispenser, and carrying a white napkin folded over his wrist. I could hear the ice cubes dancing in the can, clinging against the metal sides of the dispenser, creating a wild, loud motion inside. Barely without pause, his arm stretched in one flow with his walk, as his legs came to a stop the dispenser moved steadily forward, being stretched out without delay to the rim of the glass. The glass was not even half empty yet, but water poured down like an avalanche or waterfall in one wholesome fall, everything passing so quickly it could not be helped. Drops of water splashed all over the table, the glass now refilled to the rim in a wild splatter of an instant, the base of the glass soaked in condensed water rolling down the bowl along the stem of the glass and being absorbed by the saturated table cloth. Seeing the refilled bowl of water, the Hispanic runner’s smile was equally full with satisfied content of a job well done.

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Nikolay Gogol, The Government Inspector (1863)

Nikolay Gogol, The Government Inspector (1863) p213-306

I am not a big fan of comedy, and certainly not of farce. Humor is too often no more than a coquette compulsion to please, it is by definition a social function, even if we might have evolved to laugh uncontrollably. Yet, watching the adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, I found myself to laugh without self awareness. The book however, is especially clever in the first part, but toward the end it slowly evens out into a cleverly written play without depth or wit.

The Government Inspector
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
From The Government Inspector by Nikolay Gogol

The Duke Theater
a New 42nd Street project
229 West 42nd Street (between 7th & 8th)​

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An Old Oak Tree Grows There

Only grow
like an old oak tree
that is firm
and will agree
reed does fold
roots do hold

Only hurry
like a steady water
as my heart
a trough of fodder
seed to nourish
love to flourish

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Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004)

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004) 390p.

I have read ‘The Devil in the White City’ as a trilogy, together with ‘Nature’s Metropolis‘ and ‘The Jungle’, and the overlap and synergies between the three works is so insightful to understand the roots of modern America, which sprouted in the Gilded Age of Chicago. Americans in general have perhaps a short memory and a shallow desire to understand their history or present, as they are so energetically working to build their future, but as they strive thus forward, they fail to see the straight trail they leave behind. The history of Chicago is interestingly also transcending the contemporary spleen of American culture. ‘Nature’s Metropolis’ more than any other work perhaps, gives a more comprehensive insight into the shared destiny of the northern East Coast and the Great West and South. The history of Chicago is the stitching between the common descent, by opening the gap between the White City and the Black City, between the amazing wonders and creative forces of the American Dream on one hand and the devastating destruction and humiliation of the American Psyche on the other, by describing a meticulous history of the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ of 1893 and a portrait of America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Looking forward to the feature movie with Leonardo diCaprio by Martin Scorsese.

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Yu Hua, To Live (1993)

Yu Hua, To Live (1993), 250p.

Yu Hua “once heard an American folk song entitled ‘Old Black Joe,’ a song about an elderly black slave who experienced a life’s worth of hardships, including the passing of his entire family, yet he still looked upon the world with eyes of kindness, offering not the slightest complaint.” Hearing the folk song ‘Old Black Joe’ became the inspiration for ‘To Live’, in which an elderly Chinese man, Fugui, has passed a life of hardship including losing his entire family. Central to the story is also a wisdom by the grandfather of Fugui: the chicken becomes a goose, the goose becomes a lamb, the lamb grows up to become a sheep, the sheep becomes an ox. After the ox, there is communism.

It is really hard to read the book and determine if it is about the indestructible hope of man or if it is about the inevitable suffering of man. One certainty exists, life is beckoning death. “As the black night descended from the heavens, I knew that in the blink of an eye I would witness the death of the sunset. I saw the exposed and firm chest of the vast earth; its pose was one of calling, of beckoning. And just as a mother beckons her children, so the earth beckoned the coming of night.” One of the saddest books ever written, and yet anyone will find a moment of happiness. “In the end, it turned out all for the best.”

To Live (1994) by Zhang Yimou.

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A Critique on Judeo-Christian Populism and Islam

Too often, I hear the claim by populists that Islam is a Trojan Horse in Western society, that the Islam is an enemy to Western values. The theory of a fundamental clash of cultures between Judeo-Christianity and Islam is the very pillar of Islamophobic popularism today. This co-called Strauss–Howe generational theory comes from amateur historians and populist authors William Strauss and Neil Howe from the US, who both see a war between Islam and the West as the ‘fourth turning.’ I studied history and am an amateur historian myself, but I believe in facts rather than ‘alternative facts’, in truths rather than convictions.

The true foundation of Modernist Western ethics and current social values however is not religion but happiness. As a humanist, I believe that the pursuit of happiness is what drives man. Man advances through learning. Happiness, Epicurus says, is the absence of physical and mental suffering. Happiness is ensured in Freedom and Democracy, which are the legal form of this pursuit. This pursuit of happiness requires, according to Lucretius, the seeking of truth. It is science, not religion, that is the foundation of the pursuit of happiness, and therefor the true foundation of Western modernist culture.

With the rise of populism claiming to be the true defenders of our Western values, it seems that we Western humanists of the 21st century do not know whom to fight. The left is easily cornered by the right to be defenders of Islam, and out of instinct too easily accepts this role. But humanists should understand that the anti-Islamic populists are not worse but equal enemies as is Islam. The left has become complacent and overconfident in its fight against religion.

When I grew up however, it was not Judaism or Christianity that shaped my thinking and my values, but a series of Western thinkers whose works radically opposed Judeo-Christian culture. Western modernist culture instead of being Judeo-Christian or welcome to Islam, is instead radically anti-religious. Continue reading

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Of Queen and Peasant

For majesty a throne
She stands in grace alone
Her smile equally dosed
Decisively composed

The peasant has his land
He stands to serve her end
His honor is to bow
and serve he is endowed

The moon is to the sun
Not his own that is done
But in the bigger light
He shines a little bright

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William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (1991)

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (1991), 385p.

Without a doubt, one of the best books you can read to understand America in general, and Chicago and the Great West specifically. For a little more comprehensive review see the post about ‘The Devil in the White City‘.

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Philip Roth, Indignation (2008)

philip_roth_indignation_2008Philip Roth, Indignation (2008), 231p

“of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”

Marcus Messner is the son of Jewish parents, a kosher butcher and his wife, in Newark, New Jersey. Messner is phonetically close to the German word for knife: ‘Messer’. The knife and cutting is a returning and central symbol in Indignation, Marcus dies by the bayonet, his father’s livelihood depends on his knife skills, Olivia Hutton has cut her wrist in an attempted suicide.

Another thread in the story is the indignation Marcus feels about having to attend mass 40 times as a requirement at Winesburg college. At Dean Caudwell’s office, he recites two full pages from Bertrand Russel’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” This theme is closed at the end of the book, with the White Panty Raid. The ‘Panty Raid‘ was a historic phenomenon that started in 1949 and lasted through the 1950s at American colleges. In 1971, a student uprising at Winesburg college resulted in the abolishment of the mass attendance requirement. Marcus Messner’s final doom is caused by this requirement and Ziegler’s proxying for him at the chapel.

‘Indignation’ is associated to ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘I married a Communist’ and has been called the ‘American Trilogy’ by Roth.

Indignation (2016)

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Uncanny Love

Through this dark night
Your heart is bright
Like a fair moonlight
My soul you guide

Into your loving bed
To suckle your breast
And clamp your chest
Into your womb my head

So you sooth
me like a boy
To be a man

Thus looted
By a woman coy
love uncanny

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