Archive for September, 2010


Monday, September 27, 2010

When we bought those two acres out in the country twelve years ago, we dreamed of planting a vineyard.  There is something romantic about grapes.

My home state of California has a certifiable obsession with the vines.  If you doubt it, take a drive on any one of our north-south Interstates and tell me what you see.  If those doubts remain, look up the statistics on your favorite Internet search engine and check out the spectacular growth in volumes of California grapes the past couple of decades.  Some say our obsession contributed to a “global glut,” which in our supply/demand economy simply means lower price.  Enter Charles Shaw.

The romanticism of vineyard life captured in the 1995 romantic drama, Walk in the Clouds was enough to spark our own vineyard dreams.  Our neighbors and close friends set the pace out there in the country just over the ridge.  Back then, we gave some light assist to the planting and then the harvest one October after a allowing those Sangioveses couple of seasons to mature.  And what a party it was.  We’ll never forget when Pam showed up for the festivities dressed as Lucy Ricardo.  We picked and stomped in the bright afternoon sun, just like Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves) and Victoria Aragon (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon).

But our vines never made it out of the ground.  College tuition and weddings pretty much consumed our vineyard budget.  But the dream still lives.

I’ve been riding my bicycle out in the country in California’s central valley since February, and along with my octogenarian riding partner.  From my saddle (with new eyes now that the cataracts have been removed and the new lenses sharpen the image), I’ve watched the vines and the almond trees progress through the season as we peddle our way down those long country roads.  The yield is plentiful this year, both fruits and nuts.  This miracle partnership between highly skilled and intentional farmers and the God of nature confirms a cycle of abundance once more.  The only real danger out there is when those eighteen wheel trucks pass by.   We cyclists roll straight on that narrow shoulder in single file.  That tractor-trailer, diesel pulling hard, blows black smoke skyward trough barely muffled pipes.  The hitched up wagons bear a heavy load.  They are heading off to processing and then to market.  It adds to one’s sense of focus as they roll by just a couple of feet away sweeping you up in a draft that increases your ground speed by five miles per hour or thereabouts.

So when I learned that our teaching pastor would offer a “Blessing of the Wines” at one of our Southern California wine-country’s fine wineries to kick off the 2010 harvest and celebrate with a wine stomp, I was first in line to get my ticket.  We were there for the blue-grass music and the barbecue and the tasting and the stomp.  There were several Lucy Ricardos in the crowd.  But mainly competitors.  The owner, who attends our church, set up a series of vats filled with dark burgundy grapes and at the starter’s signal, a barefoot stomper in each vat would crush grapes as fast as he or she could until a bottle filled up with the juice; the drain pipe and bottle eagerly worked by the stomper’s partner.  The winner, an unlikely young woman with stained purple feet, strutted like a champion as the crowd cheered.  She took home her prize: a case of Cabernet.

As the sun set over the mountains off in the distance and cast a golden glow over the deep green leaves on the parallel trellises and the vintner’s tower and the country villa rooflines silhouetted against the cerulean sky and the first bright planet appeared (Venus, I think) on the horizon, we rode a staked wagon in the evening breeze pulled by a growling John Deere around the vast property; row after row of prolific vines.

I put my arm around Carolyn.  We smiled over dreams come and gone.  And for a few moments we were there again, among the vines that belonged to us.

Like a walk in the clouds.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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The Iconoclastic Controversy

Monday, September 20, 2010

The church’s annual Greek Food Festival would feed eight thousand on this September weekend.  No small feat for a local church.  The primary draw for the diverse crowd is, of course, the Greek cuisine.  But then there are the dancing, the traditional costumes and the music.  All of this will inevitably trigger the proclamation of an involuntary “Opa!” from the regulars, which, according to the urban dictionary is “a word that Greek people use for no apparent reason at all.”

I’ll take issue with the urban dictionary.  I heard it (Opa!) countless times on Saturday night, and while my Greek is marginal I believe I got the idea.  I might say, “Bravo!”  Or “terrific!”  Or “cool!”  Or “well done!”  Or “good job!”  Or “sweet!”  Or “I’ll drink to that!”  But on this night, folks who wished to shout their approval over there at the Greek Orthodox Church (of the Annunciation) cried, “Opa!” with enthusiasm and a smile.  Generally accompanied by applause.

The pastries lived up to their billing: the Baklava flakey and crunchy, drenched in honey, crunched almonds and walnuts and the essence of orange.  Then the light bread, tsoureki.  But I’m getting ahead of my story.

The band featured a mandolin and a vocalist who resembled Aphrodite.  Swaying with graceful hands that moved with the flow of her melodies, she convinced us that love had appeared on stage.  She opened for the dancers, who in synch with the singer’s ancestral refrains and cadence held hands and twirled and kicked and stomped with elegance and glee in costumes straight from the Old Country.  Inspired by Zorba, they entertained as we clapped, first a group of young adults, followed by several other troops each younger than the last until the kindergarten class stole the show.  By then, “Opa!” came from all over the big house; men and women, old and young, Greek and non-Greek, including me.

After the big finish and an invitation to shop for pastries and gifts and books, we were invited to tour the grand worship center.  This was not accidental.  It is a church on the move; proud of her heritage and eager to invite us to be a part.

I have visited Athens and Sparta and Corinth and the little coastal villages of the Peloponnese.  We have toured Orthodox Churches in Istanbul, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and St. Catherine’s in the Sinai.  We studied the icons; including a priceless collection of the oldest in the world at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  We’ve been told about those first thousand years of church history when most Christians were illiterate.  There was no ready access to the written word.  Believers may hear the Scriptures read, often in a language they did not speak.  But most relied on the stories as they were passed from generation to generation in verse and poetry and the art of imagery.  The Orthodox captured those scenes in sacred art.  Icons.  The church would tell the story on the walls; in a space that reflected the architect’s best effort to represent the world to come.  Enter and you will gasp.  Wonder and awe.  A taste of heaven on earth.

That was the surprise for us as we entered the sanctuary, surrounded by art in bright gold and blues and reds and yellows and purple.  It felt sacred.  We took our place in the center of the room and our docent introduced us to the recorded voice of the local priest.  He would guide us through as she pointed to each appropriate scene with a green laser light.

Reverend Father Jon Magoulias led us then on a tour of church history, taking us from this place of worship all the way back to Rome, even Jerusalem, and the first Apostles.  This is the True Church, he affirmed, and what we experience in this room today goes back to the start, the Day of Pentecost when the disciples were energized as promised, by the Holy Spirit.  A thousand years after inauguration day, Rome clearly became a little too creative with doctrines like Purgatory, the nature of the Eucharist and the primacy of the Pope (in Rome), Father Jon told us.   Rome had a problem, too: with the Icons of the East.  (They called it idolatry.)  Hence, the Great Schism of 1054 CE.  That year, Rome’s Bishop (The Pope) excommunicated Constantinople’s Bishop who simultaneously returned the favor.  East and West would be forever alien.  But, Father Jon assured us: the East had the upper hand in the debate and lays legitimate claim to the moniker – True Church.  The timeline documents this.

A visual walk though the intricate scenes surrounding the sanctuary resembled a Walk Through the Bible course, with emphasis on the Gospels and the life of Jesus.  A kid like me, who has grown accustomed to church in the industrial sections of town, with multi-purpose rooms as worship center, sat wide-eyed in the Byzantine presence of such intentionality and irrepressible reverence.

Father Jon identified the Seven Sacraments recognized throughout the two thousand year history of the Orthodox Church.  It seemed like a big number, seeing as the church I grew up in recognized only Two, and did not really like to use the term “Sacrament.”  We preferred the term “Ordinance” knowing that people just might confuse our doctrine with that of the High Church.  Of the Seven, the one that got my attention was the Sacrament of “Confession.”  Outside, we had a little discussion.  Did this mean that the Orthodox confess their sins to the Priest like Roman Catholics?  I was assigned to go back inside and ask.

A very nice lady, a Docent type, seemed pleased to entertain a substantive question from an uninitiated.  She led me back towards the Altar and explained that yes, at least twice per year, she made her confession.  She said it with such hardiness, that I got the impression that this meant a great deal to her.  But they do not confess to the Priest.  She showed me where she stands, at the front of the church, before the Icon of Jesus.  “I confess to Jesus,” she said.  “The Priest stands here.”  She pointed to the spot adjacent to her.  He listens.  And observes.  “And when it is over, he confers the forgiveness of Christ.”  She almost seemed relieved in the telling.  Like maybe it made a difference in her life.

As I reflected on the Icons and the history and the concept of True Church and reverence and holiness and the wonder of God reaching out to us poor sinners, I mused over what I would to in the company of a godly Priest in a robe before an Icon of Jesus confessing my own sin.

What would I say?

It didn’t take long for a contemptible list to form.  I speculated.  Would I edit?  Would I hedge?  Would I weep?  Would I shudder?  How forthright would I be?

And if I did all that, and the Priest, in the name of Jesus, conferred that grace of forgiveness out loud right there in the sanctuary, would it help?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Monday, September 13, 2010

I remember the first time I listened to the entire sixty minutes of The Mercury Theater radio production of The War of the Worlds. First broadcast in October of 1938 as the world edged hopelessly toward world war,within a year or two, Hollywood would produce some of its most outrageous spectacles to date (Wizard of Oz, Snow White and Gone With The Wind). As the American people emerged from a devastating depression and embraced the terms of the New Deal, the dramatic account of a hostile Martian invasion from outer space captured the nation’s imagination as families gathered around their radios for the evening’s news and entertainment. For many, the two were indistinguishable. Entertainment became the news.

The following day, The New York Times declared in an italicized headline above the fold, page one, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” Reports nationwide told of people fleeing their homes, that some caught the scent of poison gas fouling the air and on the horizon during the night, confirmed the flashes of distant explosions. Orson Welles, the brash Wisconsin twenty-three year old who wrote, produced and starred in the radio drama, was quickly called to the dock for this brazen post-adolescent prank beamed to the entire nation on the newly connected electronic world stage. While he feigned a public apology in his compelling baritone voice, the young theatrical entrepreneur quickly grasped the Hollywood adage: “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

The radio drama remains a classic. More than seven decades later, we sophisticated listeners get the joke. But would we then? The prankster fascinated me. So I did my homework. I learned that Orson Welles was born to a wealthy family in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The table talk from childhood included the classics; his mother a fine musician, a concert pianist, with strong connections to the Chicago Art Institute. Orson’s father managed to garner a fortune as an inventor – he created a bicycle light that caught on. But tragedy struck early. Four days after Orson’s ninth birthday, his mother succumbed to the jaundice. His father died six years later. Young Orson lived with different relatives, but mostly a Chicago physician who cared for him while he attended a prestigious school for boys in that city.

He was a voracious reader. His mother, Beatrice, introduced him to the classics. He excelled in language arts. He grew tall and stout. His voice deepened. He became an avid conversationalist. He preferred adults, especially those who could match his wit and bring to the dialogue an acquaintance with the masters. He studied and mimicked proper, crisp diction. He mastered the art of the complete sentence. He performed in plays. His capacity for recall was nearly photographic. The scripts lived in his memory; he breathed life into his lines. He was impatient with the timid, the mediocre. His temper, quick. His expectations, impossible. His energy, boundless. His focus, laser sharp.

And he was still in high school.

In the spring of 1933, he traveled to Europe aboard a massive steamer. It occurred to him that America remained pitifully unaware of the power of the English language. He set out to make The Bard accessible. He was barely eighteen. He began work on a series of books called Everybody’s Shakespeare. His original introductions to the oceanic works caught the attention of a publisher. Those books remain popular to this day.

The year before War of the Worlds stunned the nation, the twenty-two year old aspiring playwright wrote and produced an edgy interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Welles managed to secure an old, neglected theater – The Mercury. His plan was to revive it and make it a serious Broadway venue. He needed a success. He needed reviews. He recruited some of the finest actors in New York. He prodded. He borrowed. He missed meetings. He spared no expense. He created an atmosphere of focused chaos. He didn’t sleep. He expected his cast and crew to live up to a standard they did not even know existed.

And on opening night, when the lights faded and the final scene concluded, Orson Welles’ Caesar brought down the house. The young actor, director, writer, producer became overnight, the toast of Broadway. They called him a genius.

Robert Kaplow teaches English at Summit High School in New York. In many respects, he shared Orson Welles’ convictions about language and literature and what Samuel Coleridge called Shakespeare’s “oceanic mind.” For years, he introduced his students to the wonders of The Bard. Then he wrote a novel; an attempt to engage students, inviting them to personally encounter the greatness that made The Mercury Theater shine.

Director Richard Linklater found the novel in a New York bookstore. Immediately, he purchased the movie rights.  He captured the spirit of the novel in his movie (2008).  Me and Orson Welles will be ranked as one of my personal favorite films. It is great entertainment. Smart. Contentious. Brilliant. Intelligent story telling.

Orson Welles became one of the hottest young post-war talents to be recruited to Hollywood. His classic, Citizen Kane, to this day, is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. (The battle between Welles and William Randolph Hearst is legendary.) But shortly afterwards, Welles, the genius, stumbled. The boy from Wisconsin never quite lived up to his inflated billing. He could not finish what he started. The focus blurred. He burned through marriages (including five years with Rita Hayworth). He ballooned to over four hundred pounds. Finally, late in his career, he pitched cabernet (“we will sell no wine before its time”).

Orson Welles’ ending saddens me. But Richard, the young actor (played in Linklater’s film by Zac Efron) who has a fictional brush with Welles in the 1938 production of Caesar as the lute-playing character, Lucius, has a life-changing encounter with greatness. He shares in that luminous moment of glory.

And he will never be the same.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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