Redheaded Ramblings: Sheila A-stray  

"This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am." -- James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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Never forget

The Black Day Memorial


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On my bedside table

I will bear witness, 1942 - 1945 The Diaries of Victor Klemperer


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Hatred and suspicion
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Where is Raed? ... May 7: He's back!...


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nota bene
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I have not yet left my apartment today. I look out my window, I can see the Empire State Building, a stark black silhouette against a low grey sky. It looks cold. I have overhauled my room. I have been organizing, throwing things out ruthlessly, getting my life in order. At the risk of being thought of as an absolute GEEK, I will say that I have been blaring music and singing along with gusto and passion throughout this whole process. The CD on right now is the musical "1776" (the geek level rises). I grew up with this musical. I have been singing gloriously: "SIT DOWN, JOHN...SIT DOWN, JOHN...FOR GOD'S SAKE, JOHN, SIT DOWN." The poor neighbors.

Anyway, I have something else to say about silence. To follow my post below on reading Iraq's daily newspaper. How silence is eerier than noise. Give me chaos, give me yelling voices, but don't give me silence. This is primarily why I just can't get behind hate speech legislation. In my heart, I find a lot of speech abhorrent and offensive, of course. But to have the government tell us how to use language, what words are okay to use, what words are not ... It just does not sit right with me. It's too totalitarian.

I suddenly remembered a long and haunting passage in Ryzsard Kapuscinski's book The Soccer War about silence. In regards to the frightening silence which emanates from certain countries and certain regimes. I'll share it here, for those of you who are inclined to take a second and read on. I love his writing:

"People who write history devote too much attention to so-called events heard round the world, while neglecting the periods of silence. This neglect reveals the absence of that infallible intuition that every mother has when her child falls suddenly silent in its room. A mother knows that this silence signifies something bad. That the silence is hiding something. She runs to intervene because she can feel evil hanging in the air. Silence fulfills the same role in history and in politics. Silence is a signal of unhappiness and, often, of crime. It is the same sort of political instrument as the clatter of weapons or a speech at a rally. Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers, who take pains to have their actions accompanied by quiet. Look at how colonialism has always fostered silence: at how discreetly the Holy Inquisition functioned; at the way Leonidas Trujillo avoided publicity.

What silence emanates from countries wiht overflowing prisons! In Somoza's Nicaragua -- silence; in Duvalier's Haiti -- silence. Each dictator makes a calculated effort to maintain the ideal state of silence, even though somebody is continually trying to violate it! How many victims of silence there are, and at what cost! Silence has its laws and its demands. Silence demands that concentration camps be built in uninhabited areas. Silence demands an enormous police apparatus with an army of informers. Silence demands that its enemies disappear suddenly and without a trace. Silence prefers that no voice -- of complaint or protest or indignation -- disturb its calm. And where such a voice is heard, silence strikes with all its might to restore the status quo ante -- the state of silence...

Today one hears about noise pollution, but silence pollution is worse. Noise pollution affects the nerves; silence pollution is a matter of human lives. No one defends the maker of a loud noise, whereas those who establish silence in their own states are protected by an apparatus of repression. That is why the battle against silence is so difficult.

It would be interesting to research the media systems of the world to see how many service information and how many service silence and quiet. Is there more of what is said or of what is not said? One could calculate the number of people working in the publicity industry. What if you could calculate the number of people working in the silence industry? Which number would be greater?"

  contact Sheila Link: 11/02/2002 04:25:00 PM

Saturday, November 02, 2002  


Every now and then, I check in with the Iraq Daily Newspaper. It is a surreal experience. I read the book reviews, the art reviews, the bizarre section on International News. When you open up the site, over to the right is a smiling cuddly-looking Saddam beaming out at you. But of course, the most frightening section to read is the Home News. Not because of what they say, but because of what they don't say. I mean, who knows, I'm not a mind reader. I don't live in Baghdad. Maybe everything is hunky dory, and he really did get 100% of the vote! (HA) But when I read articles such as this one, what I am aware of is a booming silence screaming in my ears. It's actually kind of terrifying. I bitch and moan about the media in the United States, but I don't feel a silence screaming in my ears when I read the papers. I am sure there are Americans out there who actually DO hear a screaming silence. Perhaps they are the ones who feel harassed by black helicopters at every corner of the street. Who knows. Or maybe they are just people who don't LIKE what they read, so they feel that something must be being covered up somewhere.

A fantastic book to read on the topic of how evil fascistic regimes control the language of its citizens is I Will Bear Witness, the diary of Victor Klemperer telling his experience living in Nazi Germany as a Jew. He was an academic, an intellectual. He lost his job, he lost everything. He was married to a Christian woman, so for a while he had some protection from persecution but he watched the Jews, all of his friends, disappear from around him.

The title of the book says it all. Klemperer obsessively documented every new law, every new pogrom, every radio speech he heard, recording the entire slippery slope. He said, fiercely, "If there is nothing else that I can do, then at least I will bear witness." And he does. To a nearly autistic degree.

He also begins to obsessively compile a "dictionary" of words which the Nazis co-opted. The violence of the Nazis existed in a literal sense, yes, people were vanishing from their houses over night...but the violence also existed in the way they controlled the language. Nobody could talk to anybody anymore. Germans no longer could read the newspaper and find out what was happening. Words like "honor" and "love" and "family" and "father" completely lost their meaning in this through-the-looking-glass world. Nazis deprived ordinary Germans of their ability to effectively communicate with each other.

Klemperer piles up his ammo, writing entry after entry after entry, analyzing what the Nazis are doing to German, the language that he loves, hoping that he will live through this terrible war and live to see his dictionary published. He did live through the war, but the dictionary was not published. Apparently, with the huge success of his journals (both volumes), editors are working on doing his great work for him. I look forward to that dictionary almost as much as I look forward to Eminem's movie coming out next week.

I Will Bear Witness is as astonishing and as chilling to read, in its own way, as Anne Frank's diary.

I read the step-by-step imposition of crazy racial laws on an entire people, the violence and hatred growing in such an obvious way, and become even more convinced that appeasement is not just foolish and wrong. But evil.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/02/2002 02:45:00 PM


Here is the first post, at the moment, on the Middle East Media Research Institute (absolutely essential reading, for the 2% of you out there who have not checked it out). It is more important to know what Arabs are saying to one another, how they describe themselves to each other, than what they say to us when they put on a suit and appear on "Hardball"). Reading MEMRI is extremely disturbing, but I must, because it is reality. I know there are many many rational Muslims out there (we always must preference any criticism these days with such a disclaimer) ... but the rhetoric in their newspapers is completely psychotic. No other word for it.

So yesterday's featured article has the charming title: Based on Koranic Verses, Interpretations, and Traditions, Muslim Clerics State: The Jews Are The Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/02/2002 09:10:00 AM



Hatred and suspicion

The following passage is from the book I keep mentioning: Imperium, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Briefly, it has to do with the hatred and suspicion that exists between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With a couple of choice observations, Kapuscinski shows how hopeless such situations can be, especially when the enemies live in such close cramped quarters. Right on top of each other, basically. Sound familiar?? This book, by the way, was published in 1994. In the Azerbaijan chapters, he describes not only his trip through the Caucasus in the 1950s, but he also tells of his visit to Azerbaijan and Armenia during the years of 1989 through 1991. So this is just as the situation was exploding between the two peoples, simultaneous with the collapse of the entire edifice of Communism, which had, to some degree, muted the ethnic violence in all of the republics. Once that edifice no longer existed, all bets were off. People were free to hate each other all on their own, and on their own terms. My point, too, is that the following quote is from before the ceasefire in 1994.

Azerbaijanis, like Armenians, divide mankind into two opposing camps.

For Armenians, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is a problem. The rest are enemies.

For Azerbaijanis, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is not a problem. The rest are enemies.

The extremity and finality of these positions is remarkable. It isn't merely that among Armenians one cannot say, "I believe that the Azerbaijanis are right," or that among Azerbaijanis one cannot maintain, "I believe that the Armenians are right." No such stance even enters the realm of possibility -- either group would instantly hate you and then kill you! In the wrong place or among the wrong people even to say, "There is a problem," (or, "There is no problem") is enough to put oneself at risk of being strangled, hanged, stoned, burned.

It is also unimaginable to make the following speech in either Baku or Yerevan: Listen. Decades ago (who living among us can even remember those times?), some Turkish pasha and the savage Stalin threw our Caucasian nest this terrible cuckoo's egg, and from that time on, for the entire century, we have been tormenting and killing one another, while they, in their musty graves, are cackling so loudly one can hear them. And we are living in so much poverty, after all, there is so much backwardness and dirt all around, that we should really reconcile our differences and finally set about doing some work!

This person would never make it to the end of his speech, for the moment either side realized what he was driving at, the unfortunate moralist and negotiator would be deprived of his life.

Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.

The first is the plague of nationalism.

The second is the plague of racism.

The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.

All three share one trait, a common denominator -- an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn't want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon. There are no people -- there is only the cause.

A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only -- its enemy. Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist. That is why the enemy is always present, is always with us. When near Yerevan a local guide shows me one of the old Armenian basilicas, he finishes his commentary with a contemptuous rhetorical question: "Could those Azerbaijanis build such a basilica?" When later, in Baku, a local guide draws my attention to a row of ornamental, art nouveau houses, he concludes his explanations with this scornful remark: "Could Armenians construct such apartment buildings?"

And that's it for Azerbaijan. Next up? Turkmenistan.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/02/2002 07:56:00 AM



This quote is sure to piss some people off, probably the same people who I ranted about yesterday (the ones who keep saying on CNBC "We want to at least have a dialogue in this country."). Well, this quote is part of the dialogue, like it or not.
Here's the quote:

The idea is advanced that the spread of Western consumption patterns and popular culture around the world is creating a universal civilization. This argument is neither profound nor relevant. Cultural fads have been transmitted from civilization to civilization throughout history. Innovations in one civilization are regularly taken up by other civilizations. These are, however, either techniques lacking in significant cultural consequences or fads that come and go without altering the underlying culture of the recipient civilization. These imports "take" in the recipient civilization either because they are exotic or because they are imposed. In previous centuries the Western world was periodically swept by enthusiasms for various items of Chinese or Hindu culture. In the nineteenth century cultural imports from the West became popular in China and India because they seemed to reflect Western power. The argument now that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization trivializes Western culture. The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carter, not the Magna Mac. The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former.

--Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations

  contact Sheila Link: 11/02/2002 07:42:00 AM


The only continuity on this blog, apparently, is that I am the one in charge of it. Ah well. I am reading (along with the 10 other books currently stacked around my bed) a book of Seamus Heaney's prose essays. They're phenomenal. My father sent it to me a while back, and I continue to dip in and out of it. Anyway, I was reading one of his essays last night and came across a poem I have never read which suddenly struck me as the saddest poem ever written. That probably says more about my state of mind at this moment, than about the validity of such a claim. I've read a lot of really sad poems, (aren't most poems sad?) but this one, for whatever reason, pierced through my heart like a blade. It's by Stevie Smith. I will list it here, as a cheery end to a very weird week.

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.
What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind.
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/01/2002 05:26:00 PM

Friday, November 01, 2002  


I read James Lileks' bleats in the same way that you see little kids scarfing down a bowl of ice cream. The desire to consume is so huge and so urgent that it is barely possible to enjoy the ice cream as it is going down. Even as the consumption is going on, the soul is screaming out: MORE, MORE.

Also, Lileks is from MINNESOTA. So he is in the middle of the firestorm right now. The 5-day feverish campaign race. Anyway, his bleat today is priceless. As always.

The first paragraph alone made me laugh:
"I want to begin by making myself clear. If the Minnesota Republican Party nominated some Buchananite isolationist for Senate, some nativist throwback who promised to push for a Mandatory Pinafore Act for women and vowed to convert all roads to private ownership, I’d kick him to the curb like a rotten pumpkin." Mandatory Pinafore Act? Hilarious.

Then he deconstructs Mondale's press conference, where Mondale said that he wants to focus on children being ready for school. Lileks immediately skewers this: "Does he want to set national standards for peanut-butter thickness on lunchtime sandwiches? Have a national initiative to encourage parents to put the milk money in childrens’ coat pockets the night before school?"

I appreciate more than words can say a person who maintains such a clear logical mindset, in the middle of such insanity.

But you should definitely read the whole thing.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/01/2002 12:39:00 PM

A friend of mine, Ernie Hilbert, is Poetry Editor at "Bold Type", Random House's online site. Check it out to the left. There's a new review by Ernie on the collection of Sappho's poems.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/01/2002 12:15:00 PM


Okay, so here are the actual lyrics from the Alanis tune (I'll only provide a little bit of it, you get the idea very very quickly...)

We'd gather around all in a room
Fasten our belts, engage in dialogue
We'd all slow down, rest without guilt
Not lie without fear, diagree sans judgment
We would stay and respond and expand and include
And allow and forgive and enjoy and evolve
And discern and inquire and accept and admit
And divulge and open and reach out and speak up
This is utopia, this is my utopia
This is my ideal, my end in sight ...
We'd rise post-obstacle more defined, more grateful
We would heal, be humbled and be unstoppable
We'd hold close and let go and know when to do which
We'd release and disarm and stand up and feel safe

Again, I do not have a problem with forgiveness or healing or discernment or acceptance or any of these things. I just prefer to live in the real world, that's all. It is good that Alanis corrects herself within the song. She states: "This is utopia", and then restates it: "This is my utopia."

Okay, fine. Cause one person's utopia is another person's raging nightmare of boredom.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/01/2002 10:28:00 AM



Azeri culture

Azerbaijan has been marched over by different empires over the millennia, absorbing, assimilating, intermingling, intermarrying. This has created a culture which is rich. A fusion of different elements. It has also led to a confusion (wow. Just noticed that "fusion" is part of the word "confusion"...must look into that) in the populace. Who are we? Are we Shiites? And therefore close to Iran? To ancient Persia? Are we Turks? What does it mean to be "Azeri"? Is there such a thing? The majority of Azeris live in Iran. That's something like 4 million people. Azerbaijan lost almost 20% of its territory in its war with Armenia. It is a scrap of land now. What is it? Who are they? How do they define themselves?

A couple of quotes on this issue:

"In the past Azerbaijan was more of a geographic and cultural concept than a political one. There never really was a centralized state of Azerbaijan, and in this its history differs from that of Georgia and Armenia. It differs in other respects as well. By way of the Black Sea and Anatolia, Georgia and Armenia maintained contact with ancient Europe, and later with Byzantium. They received Christianity from there, which created within their territories a resistance to the spread of Islam. In Azerbaijan the influence of Europe was weak from the onset, at best secondary. Between Europe and Azerbaijan rise the barriers of the Caucasus and the Armenian Highland, whereas in the east Azerbaijan turns into lowlands, is easily accessible open. Azerbaijan is the threshold of Central Asia." -- Ryzsard Kapuscinsky, Imperium

"This culture was deepening, even if nationhood was indistinct. Outwardly, it was becoming as if the Russians had never been here ... Turkish kebab stands were appearing ... Ramiz, Reza's friend, declared a fourth vodka toast to Azerbaijan, the hearthplace of Turkish literature ... But Azeri culture wasn't simply Turkish. Ramiz's very manner, the tender, cloistered expression in his searching eyes, and the fetid dining room full of vodka, rotting cheeses, old photos, and perspiring, very lightly drunken men and women -- as if they were in one evening-long communal hug -- proclaimed an atmosphere similar to what I had experienced in Eastern Europe during communist rule -- places where political life had been so sterile that the vacuum, perforce, had been filled by a personal life, making the latter far richer than people in Western Europe and North America could imagine...There was also much Persian influence." -- Robert Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

And one last thing to cap it all off:

"Azerbaijan was not merely an eastern extension of Turkey, but a grey, shaded area where the Turkish, Russian, and Iranian worlds overlapped. Because of seven decades of totalitarianism, which buried this rich legacy, this cultural eclecticism had become a confusing void." -- Robert Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

Azerbaijan is one of the first countries I ever became curious about. In the way that I am now curious about almost all countries. Azerbaijan ushered me into a new world. So I have a soft spot in my heart for Azerbaijan. Not that anybody cares, but I thought I would share that.

Next: Hatred and suspicion

  contact Sheila Link: 11/01/2002 08:24:00 AM



It had hitherto been considered as a fundamental maxim of the constitution, that the emperor must be always chosen in the senate, and the sovereign power, no longer exercised by the whole body, was always delegated to one of its members. But Macrinus was not a senator. The sudden elevation of the Praetorian praefects betrayed the meanness of their origin; and the equestrian order was still in possession of that great office, which commanded with arbitrary sway the lives and fortunes of the senate. A murmur of indignation was heard, that a man whose obscure extracdtion had never been illustrated by any signal service, should dare to invest himself with the purple, instead of bestowing it on some distinguished senator, equal in birth and dignity to the splendor of the Imperial station.

As soon as the character of Macrinus was surveyed by the sharp eye of discontent, some vices, and many defects, were easily discovered. The choice of his ministers was in many instances justly censured, and the dissatisfied people, with their usual candor, accused at once his indolent tameness and his excessive severity.

His rash ambition had climbed a height where it was difficult to stand with firmness, and impossible to fall without instant destruction.

--Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I've heard it said time and time again (by people such as Victor Davis Hanson and Robert Kaplan) that ancient history is often a better and more accurate guide to current events than the current newspapers and periodicals which we now read. I know that when I was reading The Decline and Fall, and I started it in November of 2001, so it is not difficult to imagine what was going on in my head at that time, I felt, at times, as though I was reading a political analysis Op-Ed column from the previous week. Only 5000 times better written.

There is nothing new under the sun. There is no grand and perfect utopia out there. Everything has been tried. Some things have worked, others have led to complete and utter disaster. There is nothing to "go back" to, no perfect world ANYWHERE. All we can do is stay in the moment and work with what we PRESENTLY have. Sort of like what I was saying yesterday about the love story in Punch Drunk Love. At a certain point in life, bad things happen to you, and bad things leave their mark on you (unless you live in complete and utter denial) . Some people give up. They yearn to go back to when they were 5 and everything was perfect. I can think of a number of politicians, in both parties, who fall in this category. Their eyes are in the rear-view mirror, they are not watching the road.

I got Alanis Morrisette's new CD a while back. Here is my experience of listening to it: The first song is a song called "21 Things", or something like that. It is a hard-rock shrieking GREAT song. I could not ((and still can not) stop listening to it. My room became my own personal music-video set. It's that kind of song. The first couple of bars are, as my friend Mitchell would say, "sheer liquid joy". Fantastic. Makes you want to throw yourself about and bang some heads. The rest of the CD is ... tepid. Pale. Boring. Her counterintuitive syntax and wording finally get on my damn nerves. But why I am bringing up Alanis is that the final song on the CD is called "Utopia". I suppose if it had a hard-edged sound, and some wailing electric guitars, I might overlook the nonsense of the lyrics, but since it is a slow ballad, it is clear that Ms. Morrissette wants it be ABOUT the lyrics.

So let me quote from the song. La-la land philosophy like this drives me crazy.

Oops, just looked for the CD, remembered that it is at work. I listen only to the first song, to get the adrenaline rushing, and my heart pumping, and then I move on. Anyway, cannot list the lyrics right now. But the title says it all. "Utopia".

Alanis, here is a little history lesson. Any leader who comes along promising Utopia if only you follow him (it's always a Him), RUN. RUN FOR THE HILLS. DON'T LOOK BACK. RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.

It's all about (and because it is Alanis, you will know that her lyrics actually often read like this):

I dream of a world where there is no more hatred and where conflict is resolved by sitting down and starting a dialogue
I dream of listening, of sharing, of validating, of honoring
I dream of a world where every single person will feel loved and important and beautiful
I dream of loving, of laughing, of peace
I dream that we all will join hands and there will be no more war, no more hunger, no more anger, no more hatred

Okay, you know what??? I've had enough. I mean, all of these things are great. It's not like I would write a song with lyrics like:

I dream of a world where nobody listens to each other
I dream of anger, of darkness, of pride, of rage
I dream of a world where wars are fought every year, and only the strongest and best organized wins
I dream of a world where the hawks outnumber the doves

You get my point. I am sick to death of people, Alanis included, calling for a "dialogue". I want to know what exactly that word means to people. I am not sure what they are referring to when they keep saying that at least they want to have a dialogue. Do these people read the Op-Ed columns I read? Do these people watch the news? Flipping back and forth between Fox, CNBC, MSNBC, and CNN? No dialogue? Are you crazy?? I wish the dialogue would STOP, quite frankly, and we'd start seeing some action. Some bold moves, some risks taken. Stop talking. Start acting.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/01/2002 07:37:00 AM


A lot of the reviews of the film Punch Drunk Love are almost as fun to read as watching the movie itself. It's fun to witness bedazzled professionals. They've seen every movie ever made, and even they are rendered a bit speechless by the weird beauty of this film.

One guy sums up the essence of Barry Egan perfectly: He's Travis Bickle, without the comfort of a mirror.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/31/2002 12:16:00 PM

Thursday, October 31, 2002  


My Uncle Mike, staring down at my baby sister Jean, long ago, commented, "Look at that squatty body." Jean was very very short and very very wide. It was amazing she could get around at all.

I was just walking down the sunny sidewalk in Hoboken, where I live, and came across a small group of very small children, accompanied by their parents, trick-or-treating up and down Washington Street in the broad daylight. These kids were 3 and 4 years old. So we are talking some very sqatty bodies. There was a little waddling fireman, a little waddling fairy princess, a little waddling Spider Man. They were so cute that you wanted to just eat them up. Their chattery mouse voices filled the air. Many of them, as the soup vendor put candies into their plastic pumpkin baskets, called out, in mousey sing-song, "Thank you!" A couple of kids forgot this very important nod to the social graces, so busy were they oogling their Snickers bars and Sour Patch Kids. Then, inevitably, a grownup voice would remind them: "What do you say?" After a brief pause, the little Weeble fireman called out, "Thank you!"

My heart cracked at the sight of these little beings. This bevy of squatty bodies.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/31/2002 12:13:00 PM


There's a brief moment in the movie The Wedding Singer where it becomes clear what Adam Sandler is really capable of, in terms of serious acting. I don't remember the whole context or the plot, but I remember very well his performance, in this one scene in particular. He is out at a bar with Drew Barrymore. He has an unrequited love thing going on with her. She is with another guy, who is treating her like crap in front of the Sandler character. And then she gets up to go to the bathroom or something, and this other guy says something disparaging about her behind her back. There's more to the scene but what I remember most of all is Sandler's acting. He barely has any lines during this scene. He is just watching. Actually, he is not "just" doing anything. He is watching their interactions like a hawk, taking in all the information. He doesn't say much. But you can feel the anger growing in him. Anger that comes out of his love for the Barrymore character.

It's a very moving moment, and completely memorable. But even that snippet of good leading-man-caliber acting did not prepare me for what Sandler pulls off in Punch Drunk Love. You have GOT to see it. It is extraordinary.

Within the first five minutes of the movie, I was hooked. This was done in the way Anderson makes the sunrise look over the bleak strip-mall landscape of the San Fernando Valley. It was very beautiful, but also with a quality of exquisite and painful loneliness. And there's Barry Egan (Sandler), way over in the corner of the screen, wearing an electric blue suit, hunched over in his chair in this Kafka-esque BLEAK warehouse office. "Office" is being too kind. It's a generic desk with a phone on it, shoved in the corner of this concrete square space. From those first images, I was seduced. That was how the movie worked on me. Like a seduction.

The movie is filled with so many surprises and weird unexplained events...I had no idea what would happen next. And none of this unexpectedness felt random, to me. Or like a movie-director trying to be cryptic and artsy and clever. It actually felt like life. Not everything in life is connected or explained. Things work on us in subconscious nonverbal ways. Some things are meaningful only when we decide to put meaning on them.

A harmonium is randomly and anonymously dropped off outside Barry's warehouse. Anderson doesn't beat us over the head with symbolism, he doesn't tell us what the harmonium "means". But it is apparent, that with the advent of the harmonium, Barry starts to transform. Subtly.

This is a character who is congenitally unable to connect with other people. Social interactions are torturous for Barry. He tries to be normal, but then he excuses himself and beats up the bathroom. However: slowly, mysteriously, Barry forms a connection with this battered harmonium.

Anyway, I don't really want this to be a movie review. That's not what I set out to write. It's really supposed to be an acknowledgement of the accomplishments in this film. Adam Sandler hands over his trust, and his big movie-star ego, to P.T. Anderson and gives a performance I will never forget. I saw the movie three days ago, and it continues to be at the forefront of my mind (when Lizzie Grubman, and Paul Wellstone's death-rally don't get in the way). I am still a bit stunned at how moved I was by Sandler's portrayal of an antisocial deeply hurt guy, with huge rage issues. I don't even know how to describe him as a personality type. But I know that what I saw was real, moving, and original. Nobody but Sandler could have done the job.

One of the other things which I found piercingly ... poignant ... about this movie (but poignant almost to the degree of pain ... the kind of sweetness that HURTS) was about how these two weird shy people come together and connect in a very real way. That is an extremely insipid way to describe the romance between Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, but I don't know how else to do it. She does not pity him. She is clearly more functional than he is, but, without saying a word, you get that she senses his sweetness far beneath all that anger and weirdness. But she does not pity him. He's not a charity case. She has compassion for him. And by strolling into his life (5 minutes after the harmonium shows up), she brings with her an opportunity for healing. Again, none of this is stated. That's one of the greatest things about this movie. How little is said.

Their love story has an overwhelming feeling of purity. It's amazing watching these two weird little souls somehow managing to connect. Their "pillow talk"...whispered at one another, in tones of awe, because they cannot believe how lucky they are to have found one another, is stunning. He whispers, in awe, "I just want to smash your face with a sledgehammer...I just want to smash it, and smash it, it's so pretty." You have got to hear Sandler deliver this line. It is as though he is saying, "Your skin is luminescent like the moon and your eyes sparkle like the stars of love in the heavens..." Only it's sexier, and more emotional. She, in the same tone of awe and desire and love, whispers back, "I want to just scoop out your eyeballs."

I loved that scene.

People cannot avoid being damaged by life. Life breaks us down, and breaks our hearts. Illusions are stripped away, dreams die, and all that is left are pieces of who you used to be. Your ideal of yourself. This movie shows that love is offering up these fragments. Unashamedly. Awkwardly. Here...this is me. I'm all broken up, and I'm upset about some things, and I'm kind of weird...but I love you, so here are these broken pieces ... I wish I was all whole and perfect, and I could offer you that...but I can't ... so here's this ...

Great movie. I left feeling rubbed raw, and also healed.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/31/2002 10:39:00 AM


You know, as an Irish-American person, I have been to a couple of pretty hilarious Irish wakes. The cliche is true. Mourning the loss and celebrating the life of the person now gone is one and the same thing. I remember snorting with laughter at my Uncle Jimmy's wake, listening to one of my cousins tell a story from Jimmy's past. This all makes sense to me. Life is not black and white. You can laugh when you are sad. You can cry from joy. Blah blah blah. Everybody knows this.

That being said, the picture of Clinton and Mondale yukking it up (there is no other word for it) at Wellstone's memorial service turns my stomach. It has nothing to do with my political beliefs, which are somewhat to the right of center. It's more about the propriety of it. Didn't they have a sense of what that would look like? To all of us out here? Or did they not care? The stories are coming in now, of people getting up and walking out of the memorial service. They thought they were there to memorialize Wellstone, and found themselves in the middle of a Democratic Party rally.

Trent Lott was BOOED by the crowd when he walked in. He came to pay his respects to his old colleague, but he happens to be from the "other" Party and he got booed. I don't know, call me crazy, call me old-fashioned, but that seems absolutely disgusting to me. I love politics, I love participating in the grand debates in this country, but s*^% like that infuriates me and makes me hate all politicians, at all times. Suddenly, weirdly, I hate all politicians but Trent Lott (who normally I find Trent? Please stop smiling all the time. You're creeping me out. Thanks). But suddenly, I'm with Trent Lott, and all the other furious right-wing Republican nuts because they got booed by Democrats at a memorial service.

However, I would be saying the same thing if it were two Republicans yukking it up on the front pages of all the newspapers at a man's MEMORIAL SERVICE. Also: and here's where I get even more pissed: 8 people died in that freakin' plane crash. Only one of them was an elected politician. Yes, the rest were campaign workers and family members...but only ONE of those dead people is a politician. It seems disrespectful and downright ugly to all those other dead people and their mourning families (who do not get to have their laughing pictures on the front page of the New York Times to validate their loss) to have this memorial service turned into a platform for campaign speeches.

Shame on all of you. I can only hope that Clinton saw that picture of himself with Mondale, head thrown back in a guffaw of delight, and winced. Just like I winced. Somehow I doubt it, but this is what I hope.

People are DEAD. Calm yourselves down.

I'm disgusted. I really am.

Good morning. It's not even 8 am yet.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/31/2002 07:49:00 AM




In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan was falling apart. It was conducting a war with Armenia, it was newly independent after decades of Moscow rule, the old communist system was cracking up, they had two official currencies, and they were trying to become a democracy. The country had devolved into a criminal enterprise. Chaos, murder, "military" roadblocks on every corner (roadblocks basically set up to extort money and bribes out of the passersby)...all hell breaking loose.

It very quickly became clear that the only people in the country who knew how to do anything (and by that I mean, anything having to do with creating or maintaining a government) were the old Communists. People so long subjected to overbearing rule like the Azeris can't just bounce back into a multiparty democracy in a year's time, although this was basically the expectation all across the former Soviet Union.

Actually, "bounce back" is completely the wrong term since Azerbaijan wasn't exactly known for being a flourishing democracy before Communism. This is even more of a struggle, since the Azeri's memory did not encompass any memory of democracy. They had no idea what to do.

The Azeris attempted to create a democratic government (and in light of the events of the early 21st century, I say "GOOD FOR THEM"), but the new state did not work at all. Criminals and gangsters had the run of the country. The democratically elected president was Ebulfez Elcibey. Poor man, he didn't stand a chance. He eventually fled Baku when militia leaders marched on the capital, demanding change.

Elcibey disappearing left a power vacuum which needed to be filled immediately. And, amazingly, after seven decades of crushing communist rule, the Azeris welcomed back to power the former Soviet party chief Geidar Aliyev. Aliyev was also an ex-KGB man. This all occurred in 1993.

It's an incredible story (and it didn't just happen in Azerbaijan). In many of the countries freed so suddenly from the yoke of the Soviet Union, the first tentative attempts at democracy were disasters. People weren't ready yet. Militias and gangsters and criminals easily ignored the rules, and ran these countries like their own personal fiefdoms. So eventually, people cried out for the return of the Communist leaders. To come and at least help them keep things orderly. They did not want a return of Communism, but they wanted a strong leader. They needed a strong leader. So these ex-Communist guys, ex-Communist Party chiefs, returned to the countries where they had ruled during Communism, and became "democratically" elected Presidents.

Aliyev returned to power in Azerbaijan. He very quickly started ACTING. He was able to get a ton of things done. He arranged a cease fire with Armenia. He dismantled all of the unofficial roadblocks which were terrorizing the populace, and also adding to the criminal atmosphere of the country. He established (of course) a nice personality cult around himself. You kind of cannot stop a diehard communist leader from creating a personality cult. They cannot help themselves.

So he basically snapped everybody into shape, but he didn't create any institutions. He didn't focus on the micro-management level of government. He didn't try to figure out ways to get people back to work, to heat up the economy, to fix all the damn potholes. I suppose he had other more pressing concerns immediately: like all of the homeless wandering war refugees, and the warlords and militia leaders trying to run the country themselves.

Aliyev is still the President of Azerbaijan today.

Next: Azeri culture

  contact Sheila Link: 10/31/2002 07:27:00 AM



A great writer within any culture changes everything. Because the thing is different afterwards and people comprehend themselves differently. If you take Ireland before James Joyce, and Ireland fifty years afterwards, the reality of being part of the collective life is enhanced and changed.

--Seamus Heaney

  contact Sheila Link: 10/31/2002 07:08:00 AM


Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

  contact Sheila Link: 10/30/2002 04:39:00 PM

Wednesday, October 30, 2002  


"What's it all for?"

I had a hard time getting to sleep last night. Thoughts rolling around, bumping into each other. Discordance. Random anxiety. I stumbled across this short essay today, and saw myself in her words. Thought I would pass it on.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/30/2002 04:31:00 PM


I probably should avoid reading anything else about Lizzie because I get so furious. I want to stand in the street and scream about how abhorrent I find this despicable spoiled brat. But it's like a traffic accident, or ripping open a scab. I can't seem to stay away. Here's a little expose of what her life is like in jail. Check out the amusing sidebar, which makes the whole thing worth it: David Letterman's Top 10 List of Lizzie's Woes.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/30/2002 12:04:00 PM


Fantastic column (as always) by Thomas Friedman, on the recent elections in Bahrain coupled with Egypt's plan to run an anti-Zionist TV series during the month of Ramadan (sort of like their version of Ken Burns' jazz or baseball or civil war series...only whaddya know, it's all about the Zionist plot to control the planet). I find the stories Friedman tells of people in different Arab countries coming up to him, buttonholing him, and murmuring to him how much they yearn for democracy intensely moving and hopeful.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/30/2002 08:05:00 AM




Oil is nothing new to this region. Alexander the Great, as he waltzed his way through the region way back in those B.C. years, noticed methane gas, as well as Zoroastrian temples. Zoroastrians were fire worshippers from Persia, mostly. In the 10th century, Arab writers were referring to Baku as the place where oil comes from. Oil would be shipped from this area out to the rest of the known world, using the Silk Route across Asia. In the 17th century, Turks describe the area around Baku as having "burning ground". One of my favorite images is from a Turkish writer who says the ground is so hot from the burning fuel beneath it, that you could put a cauldron of water down directly onto the ground, and it would start to boil within minutes.

In the 1860s, the first oil derricks go up. In 1873, the derricks strike oil big time. Azerbaijan quickly became a Kuwait or a Saudi Arabia of this earlier time. Baku grew into a cosmopolitan city, as opposed to a Turkic backwater, perched on the edge of the Caspian Sea, tipping off into Central Asia. People made massive fortunes in Azerbaijan. In the 1870s and 1880s Baku was one of the world's richest and most populous cities.

In 1920, the city of Baku was overrun by Bolshevik soldiers and history pretty much stopped. They endured seven decades of collectivisation and poverty under Communist rule. Additionally, during this time, Azerbaijan has been completely destroyed by pollution from the careless oil drilling. Oil lies pooled up in the streets. The beach on the Caspian Sea apparently looks like a post-apocalyptic disaster zone.

In 1997, Azerbaijan had another oil boom. There was talk, as well, of building an oil pipeline below the Caspian Sea, in order to transport all the oil from all the "stans" (Kazakhstan, especially) to Baku, and then to be shipped out from Azerbaijan. If this plan was completed, Baku could potentially become one of the most important places on the planet. Azeris were exhilarated, thrilled. (And so begins the devastation of societies brought about by big oil.) Foreign businessmen started coming to their country. They had to install credit card machines in the run down Stalinist hotels in Baku. Nightclubs were built. Baku was trying to modernize itself and clean itself up in a year, where other cities go through such transformations over generations.

The oil boom went bust in 1998, with a drop in oil prices. The hopes for the massive oil fields in the Caspian Sea (the estimates of what people hoped to find were mind-boggling) were dashed. Russia collapsed financially, an event which had worldwide implications. And by 1999, Azerbaijan was back to a Caucausus backwater, with no hopes for the future. Oil would not "save" them from having to develop a working society. This is the insidiousness of oil societies, by the way. The populations make a deal with the Devil. Okay, okay, the regime can do whatever it wants, as long as that oil keeps flowing, and keeps the money coming in, and we don't have to look at what needs to be fixed, what isn't working.

Azerbaijan had hoped (of course, subconsciously) to skip the necessary stages of nation-building: forming a government, setting up a banking system, helping a middle class to flourish...all that having oil spurting out of the Caspian and into their pockets. So far, this has not happened.

Next: Government

  contact Sheila Link: 10/30/2002 07:28:00 AM



More from The Tipping Point: It's rather long (what else is new). I'm putting this in here for my father. I was strolling through A&P, talking with him on my cell phone last night, describing to him the "Paul Revere section" of the book. I'm sure my fellow shoppers were completely confused. As I pick through the grapefruits, saying, "And then the militias up and down the coast started organizing..." Anyway. Here;s the "Paul Revere part" of the book:

Paul Revere's ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. A piece of extraordinary news traveled a long distance in a very short time, mobilizing an entire region to arms ...

At the same time that Revere began his ride north and west of Boston, a fellow revolutionary -- a tanner by the name of William Dawes -- set out on the same urgent errand, working his way to Lexington via the towns west of Boston. He was carrying the identical message, through just as many towns over just as many miles as Paul Revere. But Dawes's ride didn't set the countryside afire. The local militia leaders weren't altered. In fact, so few men from one of the main towns he rode through -- Waltham -- fought the following day that some subsequent historians concluded that it must have been a strongly pro-British community. It wasn't. The people of Waltham just didn't find out the British were coming until it was too late. If it were only the news itself that mattered in a word-of-mouth epidemic, Dawes would now be as famous as Paul Revere. He isn't. So why did Revere succeed where Dawes failed?

The answer is that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. Revere's news tipped and Dawes's didn't because of the differences between the two men.

[Revere] was gregarious and intensely social. He was a fisherman and a hunter, a cardplayer and a theatre-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman. He was active in the local Masonic Lodge and was a member of several select social clubs. He was also a doer, a man blessed -- as David Hackett Fischer recounts in his brilliant book Paul Revere's Ride -- with "an uncanny genius for being at the center of events."

It is not surprising, then, that when the British army began its secret campaign in 1774 to root out and destroy the stores of arms and ammunition held by the fledgling revolutionary movement, Revere became a kind of unofficial clearing house for the anti-British forces. He knew everybody. He was the logical one to go to if you were a stable boy on the afternoon of April 18th, 1775, and overheard two British officers talking about how there would be hell to pay on the following afternoon. Nor is it surprising that when Revere set out for Lexington that night, he would have known just how to spread the news as far and wide as possible. When he saw people on the roads, he was so naturally and irrepressibly social he would have stopped and told them. When he came upon a town, he would have known exactly whose door to knock on, who the local militia leader was, who the key players in town were. He had met most of them before. And they knew and respected him as well.

But William Dawes? Fischer finds it inconceivable that Dawes could have ridden all seventeen miles to Lexington and not spoken to anyone along the way. But he clearly had none of the social gifts of Revere, because there is almost no record of anyone who remembers him that night. "Along Paul Revere's northern route, the town leaders and company captains instantly triggered the alarm," Fischer writes. "On the southerly circuit of William Dawes, this did not happen until later. In at least one town it did not happen at all. Dawes did not awaken the town fathers or militia commanders in the towns of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown or Waltham."

Why? Because Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham were not Boston. And Dawes was in all likelihood a man with a normal social circle, which means that -- like most of us -- once he left his hometown he probably wouldn't have known whose door to knock on. Only one small community along Dawes's ride appeared to get the message, a few farmers in a neighborhood called Waltham Farms. But alerting just those few houses wasn't enough to "tip" the alarm.

Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors. William Dawes was just an ordinary man.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/30/2002 06:56:00 AM


Oh, how soon we forget our own nightmare! Let us just pause and remember how angry and horrified it made us to receive "muted" and not so "muted" criticism from others in the days immediately following the worst terrorist attack in our country's history. The Saudi prince strolling through the smoking wreckage in lower Manhattan, and giving us "muted criticism", when 19 of his citizens were the ones who wrought the destruction. My blood is boiling. I just stumbled across the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler's open letter to Russia. Read it and weep. I know I did.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/29/2002 05:53:00 PM

Tuesday, October 29, 2002  



Today is Mitchell's birthday. Mitchell is one of my best friends. Our connection is so cosmic that we decided at one debauched New Year's Eve party that our souls had traveled vast planetary distances in order to hook up in this realm of the space-time continuum on a college campus in Rhode Island. We referred to one another as "space twin".

I am reading a very interesting book right now called The Tipping Point. Let me quote from the back of the book to give you a clue as to what it is about: "The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminatese the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas."

So...what the hell does The Tipping Point have to do with my friend Mitchell?

Gladwell pinpoints what he calls the three "rules" of the Tipping Point of any "epidemic", whether it be the flu, a crime wave, or the fact that suddenly everyone starts wearing bellbottoms. The only law which applies to Mitchell is the first law, which is called The Law of the Few.

The Law of the Few: Gladwell says "the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts." Gladwell shows that the people who have these "rare set of social gifts" are few and far between, yet any kind of epidemic depends on them.

Gladwell breaks this "law of the few" down into three separate components. For each epidemic to "tip", you need certain kinds of people to make it all happen. He calls them The Connectors, The Mavens, and The Salesmen.

Briefly, Connectors are people who know lots of people, who have many different social circles, who have a gift for bringing people together. The social impulse of Connectors is not cynical or manipulative. They are not "players". They genuinely love people, and genuinely love introducing their friends to each other. They love blending their different social circles. Introducing their church friends to their work friends to their childhood friends. This is not anxiety-provoking to a Connector. To them, such a feeling of connectedness is what the makes the world go round.

I was reading Gladwell's section on Connectors this morning during my commute, and since it is also Mitchell's birthday, I had Mitchell on my mind. I read the following description and my heart and mind flooded with the realization that Mitchell is the Ultimate Connector:

"Suppose that you made a list of the forty people whom you would call your circle of friends (not including family and co-workers) and in each case worked backward until you could identify the person who is ultimately responsible for setting in motion the series of connections that led to that friendship. My oldest friend Bruce, for example, I met in first grade, so I'm the responsible party. That's easy. I met my friend Nigel because he lived down the hall in college from my friend Tom, whom I met because in freshman year he invited me to play touch football. Tom is responsible for Nigel. Once you've made all the connections, the strange thing is that you will find the same names coming up again and again.

I have a friend named Amy, whom I met when her friend Katie brought her to a restaurant where I was having dinner one night. I know Kate because she is the best friend of my friend Larissa, whom I know because I was told to look her up by a mutual friend of both of ours -- Mike A. -- whom I know because he went to school with another friend of mine -- Mike H. -- who used to work at a political weekly with my friend Jacob. No Jacob, no Amy. Similarly, I met my friend Sarah S. at my birthday party a year ago, because she was there with a writer named David who was there at the invitation of his agent, Tina, whom I met through my friend Leslie, whom I know because her sister, Nina, is a friend of my friend Ann's, whom I met through my old roommate Maura, who was my roommate because she worked with a writer named Sarah L., who was a college friend of my friend Jacob's. No Jacob, no Sarah S.

In fact, when I go down my list of forty friends, thirty of them, in one way or another, lead back to Jacob. My social circle is, in reality, not a circle. It is a pyramid. And at the top of the pyramid is a single person -- Jacob -- who is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the relationships that constitute my life. Not only is my social circle not a circle, but it's not 'mine' either. It belongs to Jacob. It's more like a club that he invited me to join.

These people who link us up with the world, who bridge Omaha and Sharon, who introduce us to our social circles -- these people on whom we rely more heavily than we realize -- are Connectors, people with a special gift for bringing the world together."

I was almost laughing out loud to myself, reading this long and complicated friendship family-tree. I could substitute many of the names from my own life, replacing Gladwell's circumstances with my own...and come up with my own pyramid of friends, at the top of which stands Mitchell.

He has a gift. Truly. His consciousness is expansive and inclusive. Mitchell has no sense that it would somehow be threatening to HIM if he introduced his wildly cool high school friend to his other wildly cool friend from his circus company. He is not threatened at all if these two separate people, with only Mitchell as the connection, veer off and form an intense and loving separate bond of their own. In fact, nothing gives him more joy. This, to me, is the meaning of generosity.

Happy birthday, space twin.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/29/2002 01:39:00 PM


One of the dumbest headlines in recent history. An interesting article, but a STUPID headline. I read that, and my response, however inarticlate was: DUH!

  contact Sheila Link: 10/29/2002 10:57:00 AM


I guess I should list my sources, to avoid a Stephen Ambrose (God rest his soul), or Doris Kearns Goodwin situation. I have no idea where I picked up a lot of this, but I know I was introduced to Azerbaijan and the whole Nagorno-Karabakh thing in Ryzsard Kapuscinski's wonderful book Imperium. There is also a brief section on Azerbaijan in Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth. But other than that, a lot of this information comes from random articles which I trip over in, say, Policy Review, or The Atlantic Monthly. And then I scribble stuff down on my "Azerbaijan index card" for safe keeping.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the high hopes Azerbaijan had for its "oil boom".

  contact Sheila Link: 10/29/2002 08:08:00 AM



War with Armenia, 1991

The war Azerbaijan had with Armenia (officially over in 1994, but the tension continues) is one of the many legacies of "Stalin's chessboard". Stalin moved entire populations all over the map, in order to uproot and disorient them, as well as punish them. He created illogical borders. He surrounded certain populations he hated with their sworn enemies. Stalin made sure that he would never die, that his memory would live on. Not just in the history books, but in the confusion and hatred and warfare breaking out all over the Caucausus and Central Asia at almost all times. This is mostly his doing. The thought would have pleased him.

This war between the two countries is over a place called Nagorno-Karabakh. It is officially part of Azerbaijan, yet it is basically an ethnic Armenian enclave. Completely cut off from any access to Armenia proper. The ethnic dispute over this small bit of land hastened the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks conquered the Caucasus, and made Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous region within Turkic Azerbaijan. The population was something like 95% Armenian, so these kinds of "autonomous region" solutions never make any sense, but this is what the Bolsheviks did. Stalin knew damn well that Nagorno was ALWAYS going to be an issue between Turks and Armenians. He wanted to insure that chaos and hatred and darkness would not just exist in the present, but would stretch out into the future. So he did not unite Nagorno with Armenia (which would have made sense ethnically), but left it in the middle of Azerbaijan, under Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) control.

So Nagorno became this teeny island of frightened Christianity surrounded by Turks. Don't forget, either, that just in 1915, the 20th century welcomed its first ethnic genocide. The Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians to "cleanse" the area so Armenians had good reason to fear the Turks. This entire area of Nagorno was surrounded by Azeri militia and Red Army troops, with no way in or out. This situation existed for seven decades. A complete DISASTER created by Stalin.

Then along comes Gorbachev, and glasnost and perestroika. By this time, the Armenian population in Nagorno had shrunk a bit and they were afraid that one day they would be minorities in this enclave. In 1988, Armenians started demonstrating in Yerevan for unification, at the very same time that Azeri authorities began a crackdown on Armenians. Armenians are always being "cracked down" upon. So the Soviet troops are sent to crack down on everybody, but ethnic violence kept breaking out...Azerbaijan blockaded all the Armenian communities in Nagorno, and Armenia is shouting about how Nagorno is and always has been a part of Armenia.

1991 comes. The Soviet Union collapses. Full scale war erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1994 the war ends, with Armenia the clear victor. They drove out all the Azeri forces and annexed other areas, so that Armenia and Karabakh could be joined by a thin corridor. Oh, and by the way, the outside world "recognizes" none of this. And by that I mean, if you look on a map, you will see no evidence of "Nagorno Karabakh" as being anything other than part of Azerbaijan.

Next: Oil in Azerbaijan

  contact Sheila Link: 10/29/2002 08:02:00 AM



China is part of the Asian continent; Pakistan, part of the Asian subcontinent, which also includes India, Bangladesh, and part of Nepal. They are, literally, worlds -- and at one time, an entire ocean -- apart. The triangular continental plate we know as the subcontinent was once part of Antarctica. Some 70 million years ago it had reached what was the southern coast of Asia and began to slide beneath it, pushing it upward. This southern shore, once at sea level, took the full force of the collision and is now the Karakorams, the Black Gravel Range, home to many of the world's highest peaks. The shavings, curling up eastward from the collision, became the Himalayas. The collision never really ended. It is still happening, millimeter by millimeter, every second of every hour. Earthquakes are daily occurrences. Glaciers move the distance of more than six football fields in a twenty-four-hour period and have to be bombed by the Pakistani air force when they threaten roads and villages. The Karakorams -- geologically perhaps the earth's most violent transition zone -- are a lesson in the impermanence of everything and how the only really accurate map is one in constant motion.

--Robert Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth

  contact Sheila Link: 10/29/2002 07:39:00 AM


There's not much I can add to the eulogies being written about Paul Wellstone. All I know is my heart goes out to the two remaining Wellstone children. They've been in my thoughts all weekend. What a nightmare. And I want to link to Peggy Noonan's eulogy, in the Wall Street Journal. I know some feel that Noonan is "a blowhard of the worst sort", (that's an exact quote from one of my readers), but I find her writing to be compassionate, emotional, and clear.

Here's the whole piece. You have to be registered to read the whole thing, so I'll provide a couple of quotes to give you all a taste.

"When conservatives disagree with liberals, and they're certain the liberal they're disagreeing with is merely cynical, merely playing the numbers, merely playing politics, it's a souring experience. When liberals disagree with conservatives and they're sure the conservative they're disagreeing with is motivated by meanness or malice, it's an embittering experience. But when you disagree with someone on politics and you know the person you're disagreeing with isn't cynical or mean but well meaning and ardent and serious -- well, that isn't souring or embittering. That's democracy, the best of democracy, what democracy ought to be about ... Senators aren't sissies. They can be one cold crew. But Wellstone touched them in a way that was special, and that I think had something to do with democracy, and those who grace it."

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 02:09:00 PM

Monday, October 28, 2002  


I have already received a couple of queries re: the title change of this blog. As I see it, At Swim Two Birds is relevant pretty much only to me, and to any other Flann O'Brien-Mad-McSweeney fans out there. And not to disrespect those fans, but I thought it would be better to have a title which better reflected the actual content of this blog. I am moving out of the private realm and into the public.

It's a bit stressful but it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

If I ever dye my hair platinum again, or shave my head again, look for another title change.

A Bald Girl's Blog. A Blonde Woman's Words of Wisdom and Wackiness. Whatever.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 08:35:00 AM


More What's Up, Doc quotes...they keep flooding in.

"I don't understand. They told me they'd be staying in room 1717 at the Hotel Chrystal."
"Zis is the Bristol, madam, not ze Chrystal."
"Then one of us must be in the wrong hotel."

"Since when have you taken bubble baths?"
"It came out of the faucet that way, Eunice."

"Howard why are your rocks in the bathroom?"
"I don't know. I wish I did, but I don't."

"You're just so ... different."
"I know, I know I'm different. But from now on, I'm gonna try to be the same."
"Same as what?"
"Same as people who aren't different."
"Thank you."

"Don't shoot me, I'm part Italian!"

"Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
"You like Emerson?"
"I adore Emerson."
"And I adore anyone who adores Emerson."
"And I adore anyone who adores anyone who adores Emerson. Your turn."

"I'm having a nightmare."

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 08:20:00 AM


Oh, and here's a community service announcement, for my enormous readership: If any of you would like for me to add any fact about Azerbaijan which you may have at your disposal, feel free to send it along (the way the What's Up Doc quotes continue to fly in). I realize that Azerbaijan does not have as wide a pop culture appeal, as a comedic movie, but I just figured I would throw that out there. Someone reading this may know that, for example, fly fishing was invented by the Azeri Turks. (I completely made that up. Please do not spread that as a fact. I am merely using it as a hypothetical example.) Please send on the new fact, and I will post it.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 08:16:00 AM


Here is one of the many criticisms out there of the anti-war movement. This piece I appreciate twofold because it is not a criticism from the outside, but one from the inside. No matter what your politics, I appreciate a clear thinker. And Mr. Gitlin is just that, a clear thinker, with some perspective on HISTORY, for God's sake, which many many people screaming "No blood for oil" do not have.

Gitlin describes and deconstructs the anti-war rally he attended on Septemper 12 of this year. He was one of the keynote speakers at this rally, but as he looked out on the crowds, he found it rather disconcerting.

"Most of the printed placards held by the protesters said 'NO SANCTIONS, NO BOMBING.' The international sanctions against Iraq have been a humanitarian disaster for the country's civilians. But doesn't Saddam Hussein bear some responsibility for that disaster? Must that not be noted? The bombing -- US and UK attacks in the no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq -- are taking place under the auspices of a mission to protect Iraqi Kurds in the north and Iraqi Shiites in the south. Again, the Iraqi leader bears responsibility; Washington and London have made a credible case for the no-fly-zone sorties because and only because Saddam Hussein has trampled these long-suffering people in more ways than there is room to describe in this space.

Those picket signs are emblematic of a refusal to face a grotesque world. They express a near-total unwillingness to rebuke Saddam Hussein, and a rejection of any conceivable rationale for using force. The left-wing sectarians who promote 'NO SANCTIONS, NO BOMBING' don't want the US, or anyone, to lift a finger on behalf of the Kurds -- to whom you might think we have a special responsibility, since our government invited them to rise up in 1991. "

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 08:09:00 AM


This will be a ridiculous segue, but I can't worry too much about continuity. It's a very funny story that I must share. NOW.

Last week my new friend Gerry and I were sitting at the Film Center Cafe, drinking wine, having a cabbages and kings conversation. I had just seen her do some lovely and moving work in a one-act play festival, so there was much to discuss. At one point, due to the theme of one of the plays, we started talking about homosexuality.

Gerry exclaimed, "Look, I don't care if it's a woman with a man, a man with a man, a woman with a woman, or a PIG with an is love, you know what I mean?"

Uhm ... a pig with an elf?


I was completely following the logic there, Gerry, but the pig with the elf thing kind of threw me off ...

I wish I didn't object to such a pairing, but I'm afraid that I do. And I don't know on what grounds, except that I find the whole thing intensely disturbing. And also riotously funny. Gerry and I LOST IT.

Gerry wailed, "I am not a well woman! I'm sick! My MIND!! Where do I come up with these things??"

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 07:33:00 AM



Azerbaijan is a poor Turkic country, sitting on the Caspian Sea. It has borders with Russia, Georgia, Armenia (with which it has been at war), Turkey and Iran. This country (or the land, actually…since the Azeri Turks have never really known unity…They identify with Turkish and Muslim identities rather than any sort of national identity) was conquered by Alexander the Great (but then again, who the hell wasn't?), and has been fought over by Turkey and Persia for centuries. The battle for influence within Azerbaijan between Turkey and Iran goes on until this day.

The Azeris are Shi'ite Muslims. For those of you who do not know, there are 2 main sects of Islam: Sunni Muslim (think Saudi Arabia), and Shi'ite Muslim (think Iran). This is an incredible oversimplification, but suffice it to say that there is an enormous painful split between these two "brands" of Muslims.

However, the Azeris are a mish-mash. They are Turkic (which is, traditionally, Sunni), and yet their religion is Shiite. They also are relatively secular (which is a no-no in both sects). Liquor overflows in Azerbaijan, as does pornography and prostitution.

One other fact, which I find completely fascinating: They have changed their alphabet three times in the 20th century. (This is evidence of the confusion in the country, as they try to congeal into some sort of cohesive nation.) Alphabets and languages have been imposed on these people for centuries. This country has been conquered and reconquered and conquered again countless times.

In the 1920s, Azerbaijan changed its alphabet from Arabic to Latin. In the 1930s they changed from Latin to Cyrillic. And in the 1990s they changed back to Latin from Cyrillic. I read a great article about what massive confusion this has caused. Street signs, newspapers, schoolbooks…all in different languages.

So you can imagine how confused the populace is, with all this shifting about. This is one of the reasons why Armenia was so able to kick their butt in the war over Nagorno Karabakh, in the 1990s, because Armenia has a strong (iron-strong) sense of national identity, and national personality, and the Azeris are still searching for theirs.

I'll talk about that war tomorrow.

Next: War with Armenia, 1991

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 07:23:00 AM


So I am going to start a new feature (because I am a complete and utter dork) called Country of the Week. I will choose a country, at random, to focus on for one week only, and every day I will provide random facts about said country. A lot of my learning about the world is not linear, and not typical. I never took a class in world history. I have picked up my information through many weird sources, and I have a mind like a steel trap. Don't ever tell me ANYTHING if you hope that one day I will forget it. I am also an absolute current events junkie. From ImClone to Sierra Leone, I am always dying to know what the hell is going on.

So basically, dork that I am, I take notes. On index cards. Which now lie in a pile in my room, and stretch almost to the sun. What do I want to DO with these cards? I have no idea. All I know is is that I wanted to somehow organize my thoughts, and also organize the world in my mind.

So if something flares up in, say, Mali, I will be able to immediately look at my little stack of Mali cards, for some well-needed context (something you will not get if you only watch network news, which I have learned, to my chagrin).

I wonder if it is possible to develop autism late in life. Sometimes, as I am feverishly jotting down some random note about Byelorussia, on a card pulled out from the 19,670 other cards, and then re-inserted in exactly the right spot, I feel as though I am developing some sort of nervous disorder.

But at least it is manifesting itself in a relatively harmless way, and not a clock-tower kind of way.

So, dear readers, I present to you: The Country of the Week!

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 07:03:00 AM



[Thomas] Jefferson produced a superb draft [of the Declaration of Independence], for which his 1774 pamphlet was a useful preparation. All kinds of philosophicaland political influences went into it. They were all well-read men and Jefferson, despite his comparative youth, was the best read of all, and he made full use of the countless hours he had spent poring over books of history, political theory and government.

The Declaration is a powerful and wonderfully concise summary of the best Whig thought over several generations. Most of all, it has an electrifying beginning. It is hard to think of any way in which the first two paragraphs can be improved: the first, with its elegiac note of sadness at dissolving the union with Britain and its wish to show "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" by giving its reasons; the second, with its riveting first sentence, the kernel of the whole: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." After that sentence, the reader, any reader -- even George III -- is compelled to read on. The Committee found it necessary to make few changes in Jefferson's draft. [Benjamin] Franklin, the practical man, toned down Jefferson's grandiloquence -- thus truths, from being "sacred and undeniable" became "self-evident," a masterly improvement. But in general the four others were delighted with Jefferson's work, as well they might be.

Congress was a different matter because at the heart of America's claim to liberty there was a black hole. What of the slaves? How could Congress say that "all men are created equal" when there were 600,000 blacks scattered through the colonies, and concentrated some of them in huge numbers, who were by law treated as chattels and enjoyed no rights at all. Jefferson and the other members of the Committee tried to up-end this argument -- rather dishonestly, one is bound to say -- by blaming American slavery on the British and King George. The original draft charged that the King had "waged a cruel war against human nature" by attacking a "distant people" and "captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere". But when the draft went before the full Congress, on June 28, the Southern delegates were not having this. Those from South Carolina, in particular, were not prepared to accept any admission that slavery was wrong and especially the acknowledgement that it violated the "most sacred rights of life and liberty". If the Declaration said that, then the logical consequence was to free all the slaves forthwith.

So the slavery passage was removed, the first of the many compromises over the issue during the next eighty years, until it was finally resolved in an ocean of tears and blood. However, the word "equality" remained in the text, and the fact that it did so was, as it were, a constitutional guarantee that, eventually, the glaring anomaly behind the Declaration would be rectified.

--Paul Johnson, A History of the American People

  contact Sheila Link: 10/28/2002 06:44:00 AM


An old flame of mine, a dearly beloved old flame, is getting married today. I am sitting here, at my kitchen table, in my pajamas, drinking coffee, the low grey sky outside, thinking of him on this important day in his life. I wish him well. I wish him all the happiness and all the joy in the world. Amazing stuff, no, what the human heart can accept and endure? I have no regrets or anything like that. He is the biggest goofball on the planet, and made me laugh like nobody's business. There's only goodness and warmth in my heart when I think of him.

Anyway. Bon voyage, old friend.

  contact Sheila Link: 10/27/2002 12:50:00 PM

Sunday, October 27, 2002  


Okay, so I feel like crap. I have just been informed by Jayne, a good friend from high school and beyond, that I left her off the list of What's Up Doc freaks a couple posts back. How could I have forgotten?? In the words of Mr. Larabie at the end of the film: "Of COURSE! No WONDER it sounds so FAMILIAR!!"

Jayne has sent in a fabulous list of quotes from the film, never before seen on this blog. It was the first email I opened this morning, and I started laughing out loud immediately.

"Put these things in a taxi."
"Yes, Eunice."

"I know how you feel - I hate it when my igneous rocks are even touched!"

"SURE, it's easy for you, eveywhere you go, women, women, women, another heart broken. You call it joking, Eunice and I, we call it lust!"
"Don't you know the meaning of propriety?"
"Propriety? Noun. Conformity to established standards of behavior or manners, suitability, rightness or justice. See etiquette."

"There is no Hans, Mrs. Van Hoskins, there is only me, Fritz."
"Oh, what a shame!"

"...May I suggest that you shut yourself in the bathroom for a few moments while I search your room."
"Well, well, what if it's in there?"
"It won't be, Miss Burns. Snakes, as you know, live in mortal fear"

"You're upside down."

"What tie is that, Eunice?"
"The tie in your hand."

"You are not going to say 'Hi, My name's Howard' - anyone can say that! Anyone!"
"Anyone named Howard."

"Oh, I'm not looking for romance. I'm looking for something stronger. As the years go by romance fades and something else takes its place. Do you know what that is?"
"That's what I meant."

"These are my pre-paleozoic tambula rocks."
"Yes...of course they are."

"I am not a Eunice Burns, I am THE Eunice Burns."

"My natural curiosity was aroused! And so I did a little research on Mr. Bunkister and Miss Burns. I don't know who he is, but she is definitely not herself."

  contact Sheila Link: 10/27/2002 11:20:00 AM



Despite a willingness to redefine the word "socialism", so that it lost much of its meaning, Gorbachev was unwilling to abandon Communist ideology altogether. He prattled on about the irrevocable "socialist choice" that Russia had allegedly made in November 1917. Lenin remained an unassailable authority for him. Yeltsin, on the other hand, was undergoing an ideological conversation that was both painful and public. Spurred on by his conflict with the Communist Party establishment, he had reexamined his most basic political beliefs, and he had come to the conclusion that he was no longer a Communist.

A turning point in Yeltsin's intellectual development occurred during his first visit to the United States in September 1989, more specifically his first visit to an American supermarket, in Houston, Texas. The sight of aisle after aisle of shelves neatly stacked with every conceivable type of foodstuff and household item, each in a dozen varieties, both amazed and depressed him. For Yeltsin, like many other first-time Russian visitors to America, this was infinitely more impressive than tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial. It was impressive precisely because of its ordinariness. A cornucopia of consumer goods beyond the imagination of most Soviets was within the reach of ordinary citizens without standing in line for hours. And it was all so attractively displayed. For someone brought up in the drab conditions of communism, even a member of the relatively privileged elite, a visit to a Western supermarket involved a full-scale assault on the senses.

"What we saw in that supermarket was no less amazing than America itself," recalled Lev Sukhanov, who accompanied Yeltsin on his trip to the United States and shared his sense of shock and dismay at the gap in living standards between the two superpowers. "I think it is quite likely that the last prop of Yeltsin's Bolshevik consciousness finally collapsed after Houston. His decision to leave theparty and join the struggle for supreme power in Russia may have ripened irrevocably at that moment of mental confusion."

On the plane, traveling from Houston to Miami, Yeltsin seemed lost in his thoughts for a long time. He clutched his head in his hands. Eventually he broke his silence. "They had to fool the people," he told Sukhanov. "It is now clear why they made it so difficult for the average Soviet citizen to go abroad. They were afraid that people's eyes would open."

The former party apparatchik understood the yearning of the narod -- the long-suffering Russian people -- for a normal life, its anger at being deceived and humiliated. He, too, had been humiliated. He, too, had been deceived. He would help the narod secure its revenge against the party establishment. The narod's revenge would also be his.

--Michael Dobbs, Down With Big Brothjer: The Fall of the Soviet Empire

  contact Sheila Link: 10/27/2002 10:59:00 AM

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