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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Last summer, Oprah was planning a show on creating your own women's group. Janine, one of the members of my Girl Group, had read about it on Oprah's website. Oprah was looking for testimonials from people who had started up their own women's group, in order to choose one group in particular to have on her show. Janine became fired up with the idea of all of us on Oprah, so she asked the group to write an essay about our experience, and to send it in to the Winfrey website. We all obeyed (Janine is a high school teacher, so we were definitely afraid of the schoolmarm wrath). Needless to say, Oprah did not choose us, but one of our Girl Group meetings was devoted to each one of us reading aloud our essays. Oh, the TEARS! It was an incredible evening.How the tears flowed!

Because Redheaded Ramblings is my own arena, I would like to share my own essay about Girl Group.

The idea of gathering together with a group of women to share, discuss, debate, validate, question, support has always intrigued me. I have been involved in quite a few -- but for the most part, the group would meet a couple of times and then, for scheduling reasons, or because of waning commitment, the group would fizzle out. It is definitely a challenge to set up a structure for the group that works for everybody.

The group I am involved in now, though, has been different. There are nine of us. We have managed to stick with it, meeting every single month, come rain or come shine. It is a little miracle; perhaps a big one. We all have busy lives -- with husbands, careers, kids, dogs, condos -- and yet one Friday, every single month, we convent, rotating apartments.

The more I grow and learn, the more I realize that life, a full life, is about creating community. We choose our communities. And this group of women is one of the most necessary and essential communities in my life.

We talk about everything. Through them I learn commitment, humor, forbearance, communication. I also learn about their sonograms, their sexual fantasies, their mortgages, their first kisses, their favorite recipes, their hopes and dreams. One night we all brought our prom pictures (those of us that had them) and told our long-age stories. The laughter! Tears of laughter streaming down our faces. There have been times when our conversations stay in the realm of the surface of things, the external details of our experiences (no less important): planning a wedding, buying a house. And then there are times when real struggles or difficulties have befallen one of us, and the group swoops in to support. One of the members in our group lost both her parents in a tragic and sudden accident last year. The marrieds in our group share their problems with their respective spouses. And then, of course, there was September 11th. This affected all of us deeply, living, as we do, in the New York area.

It doesn't even matter the content of our conversations. What matters is the bond that has been formed. I always come away from each one of our evenings a deeper and more connected woman.

Our group reminds me, at times, of the beautiful story told to me when I was a child. A man dies and goes to heaven. He looks back down on his life, which appears to him as a beach, the sands stretching out forever. There are two tracks of footprints in the sand. God says to the man, "See, my son? I was walking beside you the whole time." But the man notices something troubling. "God, I don't understand. I see that during the most difficult times of my life -- the darkest days -- there is only one track of footprints. Why would you abandon me at my lowest moment and make me walk alone?" And God smiles gently and says, "Oh, my son, don't you see? During those lonely hard times, I carried you."

The women in the Jersey City Women's Group, for me, are an invisible force for good in my life, hovering over my path, and bearing me up on their shoulders when I need them the most.

On September 14th, 2001, we met, as scheduled, despite the disaster in our city. We stood on the dock in Jersey City, looking across the Hudson River at Ground Zero, which was still burning. President Bush visited Manhattan that day, and the air was filled with the roar of fighter jets, swooping over us fiercely, protecting him, protecting us. We held candles, with other Jersey City dwellers, struggling to keep the flames lit. No easy feat, with the wind. We were all so happy to be together, after such a devastating week, that there was almost a giddiness in our behavior, as we stood together, huddling over our trembling frail candle flames. Being together was an affirmation of life, in the middle of all that death.

How important it was, to each of us, to not let those candles go out.

The world is such a dark and frightening place right now. The chaos and death on this planet has entered my own mind, making it hard for me to sleep, to even get through the day, on occasion.

But --- In my opinion, the darkness cannot triumph completely, as long as there are nine women, standing together, holding up their teeny beams of light.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/16/2002 09:33:00 AM

Saturday, November 16, 2002  

For over a year now, I have been part of a "women's group", comprising a bunch of absolutely terrific women, some of whom I have known since college, and others I have met more recently. We call it "girl group". We meet once a month, we have wine (last night we had martinis), we eat, and we talk. It is not chit-chat, it is not small is also important to us not to splinter off into 5 different conversations. It's not a party. We go around the circle and share what has been going on with us for the past month. My girl group is one of the things I thank God for. Literally.

I had Girl Group last night. We met at Maria's. We had beef stew. Martinis. We talked. We roared with laughter. Liz, my marathon-running friend, is part of the Girl Group...and secretly, we ordered a piece of Tiffany glass, in the shape of an apple, with the words "New York Marathon" on it, which we are going to have engraved with Liz's name and her running time (5 hours, 2 minutes, and 10 seconds.) It was Jill's idea. Liz was in the middle of regaling us with her marathon tale, when Maria and I glanced at one another, nodded curtly, and then Maria got up, left the table, and came back with the blue Tiffany box for Liz. Liz was completely taken by surprise...She hadn't even opened it yet, before the tears started coming. I have tears in my eyes right now. It was such a beautiful and moving moment: of love, and acknowledgement, and friendship. She had accomplished something extraordinary. We, as the Girl Group in her life, had been with her throughout her grueling training process. She completely broke down...her head in her hands...weeping. "Oh my God, you guys....WHY? Why?"

We all were weeping and applauding. When she opened it, more tears came, for all of us. Liz was joking about wearing the heavy thing around her neck, as a necklace, on a daily basis.

I'm still high from last night. The Girl Group is exhilarating. We all have such different lives, yet our conversations end up being (of course) universal. It's the beauty of humanity. It does not matter what separates us. Our love for one another is above all of that. acknowledge these women are the names of the Girl Group goddesses: Liz, Wendy, Kerry, Janine, Jill, Brooke, Diane, Maria.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/16/2002 09:20:00 AM



20th century wars

The First Balkan War: 1912. Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria teamed up to fight the Turks and liberate Macedonia. This war ended with Turkey's influence dissolving. Serbian troops occupied Skopje (the capital of Macedonia, which, to this day, apparently, has a very Turkish feel to it: mosques, minarets, bazaars). The Greek army occupied their precious Salonika. And suddenly, Bulgaria found itself locked out of the region and couldn't collect the spoils of war. Bulgaria completely believed that "Macedonia" was a fabrication. It belongs to Bulgaria. But Serbia and Greece ganged up on Bulgaria, and shut them out. In the aftermath of the First Balkan War, they attempted to wipe out all Bulgarian influence in Macedonia. Macedonia filled up with Greek or Serb publicists, who began bombarding the population with a propaganda war. "You are REALLY Serbs..." "No, you are REALLY Greeks..."

Not only was this a war of words, but it was also coercive and violent. The Serbs gave the Macedonians 24 hours to renounce their nationality and proclaim themselves Serbian. The Greeks did the same. People were murdered who refused to choose. The Bulgarian population in the country was terrorized. Bulgarian priests were given the choice: convert or die. Colonists from Serbia and Greece poured into the country. People in Macedonia pretty much spoke Bulgarian; however now the Serbs and the Greeks quickly started printing their own newspapers in their own languages, insisting that people bury their Bulgar tongue. Not even admitting that it could be a problem. To Greece, Macedonia was made-up. It was actually REALLY part of Greece, so the fact that everybody spoke Bulgarian in the country was something to be ignored and covered up.

Meanwhile, of course, Bulgaria, right next door, was enraged. They did not negotiate, they did not say "We are going to declare war on all of you", they did not give any warning. On June 13, 1913, Bulgaria invaded Macedonia. This was the start of the Second Balkan War.

The Second Balkan War: 1913. This war did not last long. The Serbs and the Greeks helped each other out, reinforcing each other's troops against the Bulgarians. The Romanians joined the war, on the side of the Serb-Greek alliance, and invaded Bulgaria from the north. The battle was over very quickly, with Bulgaria the clear loser. There was a peace conference a couple of months later, in which Bulgaria lost everything it had gained in the First Balkan War. It had gained an outlet to the Aegean, it had gained lands in Thrace, it had enveloped all of Macedonia. All of this was taken back. It was a humiliating defeat which would end up having global consequences.

World War I: Bulgaria enters the war on the side of Germnay and Austria-Hungary in 1915. Its main goal was (surprise, surprise) to gain back all of Macedonia from Serbia. (Okay, Bulgaria, I think it's time to just let it go...) Serbia had allied itself with Russia, Great Britain, and France. The Habsburg army advanced through Serbia from the north while the Bulgarian army marched through Macedonia in the east. The Serbian army was trapped, with no backup supplies, no ammo, no vehicles. It was winter, too. The Serbs retreated into the freezing Albanian mountains. Robert Kaplan has this to say about that retreat: "It was one of history's most harrowing winter retreats, ranking with those of Napoleon's soldiers from Russia the century before and of Xenophon's Greek troops from Mesopotamia in 401 B.C. into the mountains of Anatolia."

The remnants of the Serb army had retreated to Albania's coast on the Adriatic, where they were rescued and transported away to Corfu by French and Italian ships. We are talking about over 125,000 Serbians. This was a devastating defeat for them, humiliating, all of them fleeing for their lives from the Habsburgs and the Bulgarians.

So from then on, throughout the rest of World War I, trench warfare raged up and down Macedonia, with the French/Greek/Serb alliance, along with the British, warring against the Habsburgs and the Bulgarians. This trench warfare went on for over two more years. Then the war ended, with basically nothing changed for the Bulgarians: They lost all of Macedonia to the Serbs and the Greeks. All of these wars were like the movie "Groundhog Day" for Bulgaria. They kept starting wars to regain Macedonia, and they kept losing these wars, no better off than when they began.

World War II: This war, of course, was a reply to World War I. Nothing had been resolved, no one was at peace with the outcome, everyone was dying to just start the whole thing up again. And so they did. Bulgaria (whaddya know) joined up with the Germans so that they could crush the Serbs and take back Macedonia. So this time, the Germans occupied Serbia from the north, and the Bulgarians occupied Macedonia from the east. And, in typical "Groundhog Day" fashion, the Serb and Greek alliance (with the help of Britain) fought the hated Bulgarians, and drove them back to the "hated borders" established at the end of the Second Balkan War.

But before the Bulgarians were driven out of Macedonia, and before the Russians swooped in, making all of this irrelevant, the Bulgarians and their occupation troops in Macedonia, began a brutal process of "Bulgarization" of the Macedonian population. Now, one more voice was added to the clamor, trying to tell the Macedonians who they are: "You are Serbs..." "You are Greeks...don't listen to them!!" "You are Bulgarians!" The Bulgarians were particularly savage in this arena. First of all, they gladly rounded up the Jewish population for the Germans and shipped them off. In all of the other wars, while all of these wackos were arguing over Macedonia, like kids playing tug-of-war on the playground, the Jews remained protected. There was no question. With World War II, the gloves came off.

Now this is interesting: Because of how the Serbs and the Greeks had behaved during the First Balkan War, there had always been a pro-Bulgaria sway to the Macedonian population. With World War II that tide turned. However, Macedonia did not sway back to the Serb or Greek side of the argument. They suddenly discovered their "Macedonian-ness". They began to feel like Macedonians, rather than people separated from whatever homeland they related to. Now, this is a debatable matter. Bulgarians, Greeks, and Serbs all scorn this "Macedonian-ness". It is made up, according to them. There IS no indigenous Macedonian culture or identity. It is all Bulgarian, or Serbian, or Greek. But this fierce "Macedonian-ness" continues to this day.

With the madness of World War II, the Macedonians finally had HAD it with their country being invaded, chopped up, argued over. They went on the offensive, for the glory of "Macedonia", and they demanded territory back from Bulgaria and Greece.

Skip ahead to 1989, and the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation: Macedonia feels cheated. Macedonia is pissed. There are huge populations of Macedonians who live outside their borders, in Bulgaria, or Greece. They want to liberate their countrymen. They want to be united with their kind. This is the dangerous powder keg sitting here in the Balkans. It is just a matter of time before it ignites. These people are used to hating. They have long long memories, and they NEVER forgive.

And it seems, too, that the Macedonians are slipping off into fantasy-land a bit. They have rediscovered a Macedonian language, which is, basically, a version of Bulgarian, but they can't call it that, because then they would have to admit that their ethnicity is a mix. This is unacceptable. They believe that Istanbul was once a part of Macedonia, etc. All these other fantasies about that beautiful and perfect time in the past when Macedonia was not a victim of all of these greater forces, but the victimizer.

And I'll close with a quote from Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, my primary source for all of this.

And on the walls near the Greek Consulate in Skopje [capital of Macedonia], I noticed the grafitti: 'Solun is ours!'

Solun is the Macedonian word for Salonika, Greece's second largest city. Such demonstrations of irredentism were to unleash a wave of hostility in Greece -- so much so that, even when the new Macedonian state that declared its independence from Yugoslavia officially renounced all claims to Greek territory, it still wasn't enough for the Greeks, who feared that the very word Macedonia on the lips of these Slavs was a sign of future irredentism against Greece. When Greece demanded that Macedonia change its name in order to receive official recognition from Greece, the rest of the world laughed. The heart of the Greek argument, however, was better explained in the articles written by the scholar Kofos than it ever was by the Greek government through the media. Kofos writes that Macedonianism was an invention of Tito to serve as a cultural buttress against Bulgaria, which coveted the area. According to Kofos, this part of former Yugoslavia is actually southern Serbia. True, perhaps; but rightly or wrongly, these Slavs now consider themselves Macedonians, not Serbs, and both the Greeks and the Serbs must come to terms with that fact.

The upshot of this mess is that the Balkans have, in the 1990s, reverted to the same system of alliances that existed in 1913, at the time of the Second Balkan War: Greece, Serbia, and Romania versus Bulgaria and the Slavs of Macedonia.

The boomerang of history.

Next country: GEORGIA

  contact Sheila Link: 11/16/2002 08:05:00 AM

Life was mysterious and impressive to Beethoven, and like a true artist, he was gratified when it showed its face to him. The caprice of fortune he understood very well, the uncertainties of life were always with him. This is clearly in all of his music.

What is the romantic temperament? It is amazed, impressed, delighted, and enraged by the caprice of life. It is impulsive, swaggering, remonstrating, scolding, pleading, straining, sulking, appealing, denouncing the unfairness of life. It is the romantic who cries out that he is out of harmony with life -- by which he means that life is not in harmony with his vision of it, the way he saw it as a youth with moral and idealistic hunger to mix his hands in it and live it fully and deeply. The classic art is to accept life, the romantic to reject it as it is and attempt to make it over as he wants it to be. The classic accepts the forms and conventions of life around it. The romantic breaks them down, rejects, and rebels against them -- they do not fit him -- they were made for the dead and let the dead clutch them in their graves! Yes, with the romantic it is all self-discovery and self-exploration. The injustice and coldness of life is constantly throwing him back on himself, and it is from this center of the expanding demanding growing ego that the romantic functions. The romantic's nature inwardly is one of chaos; this is because there are no accepted or standard of values for him -- he will not and does not accept a code made by others. Everything must be tested and measured by his own experience -- anything else is rejected.

It is typical that Beethoven scorned the teachings of Haydn and only when much older was able to return to those lesson books and say that he should have paid attention in his youth to the lessons. But to have paid attention would have implied not a Beethoven but a Haydn! The roar of pain which comes from the romantic is real pain, albeit often a pain self-made. Beethoven roars, Chopin complains, Brahms is resigned and sad. But in each case their pain comes from this real meeting: their ideal vision of life met the reality of life, and they are left with this utterance, "What, is that all it is? Is this all? Nothing else? Down with it!" True, there is something vastly self-destructive in the essential nature of the romantic, but when he is a good artist he builds a form to gird him in, to prevent the scattering of his life -- his art teaches him a way of life and he lives it! Simply that he insisted till the moment he died that his ideal vision of life, of the conduct of men and their interrelationships, was the correct and most valid way to live -- his world was better, and he was willing to fight and die for this belief: he did!

The romantic of the Stendahl type is rare. He understands what has happened to him and his aspirations -- HE DOES NOT ASPIRE IN HIS WORK -- and this detached sense of what has happened later forms the basis of his work, writing, in this case. But this is possible only when the man waits for a good ripe age before setting to work. Stendahl, if we chose, we could call a "romantic iconoclast," the romantic turned ironist, psychologist who looks underneath to reveal with contempt the pitifully paltry forms of life and convention around him.

--Clifford Odets, The Time is Ripe

  contact Sheila Link: 11/16/2002 07:47:00 AM



The Young Turks

I knew that choosing Macedonia to focus on for one week would be rather confronting. The fascination Macedonia holds for me so far does not equal a ton of knowledge (as opposed to, say, my fascination with Uzbekistan, which has led to me owning an entire small bookshelf of material on the republic). But that's all right, I suppose. Now I know that I need to learn more about Macedonia. I can feel the gaps in my mind, questions arising, wanting to flesh out the scenario a bit more for myself.

I spent some time today looking through my books and notes, trying to find my "way in" for today.

There is a whole connection between Macedonia and Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (the creator of modern Turkey) which I was unaware of until just now. Again, from what I have read, things that happen in Macedonia send out shock waves with global consequences. This has been true since Alexander the Great launched his ships of conquest from Salonika. Macedonia was the place from which world events sprung. So here's how I understand the connection between Ataturk (who basically equals Turkey) and Macedonia:

In 1903, IMRO began a violent uprising against the Turks and the entire Ottoman Empire. IMRO took over some villages at the top of a mountain in Macedonia and proclaimed it an independent republic called the "Krushovo Republic". This republic lasted 10 days, and then 2000 Turkish troops marched in and completely massacred everybody. One of the stories told is that forty of the guerrillas, instead of surrendering, kissed one another goodbye, and shot themselves in the mouth. Another story is that the Turks, as they took back the area, raped 150 women and small girls. There are other horror stories. Of the Turks complete inhumanity and cruelty.

There was a worldwide protest against the Turkish Sultanate for this behavior, led by Great Britain and the West. The British prime minister, the Russian czar and the Habsburg Emperor (Franz Joseph) all put tremendous pressure on the Ottomans to call off the dogs, so to speak, and to calm the hell down about Macedonia. Just CALM DOWN. The pressure became so great, the outrage so pronounced, that an international peacekeeping force marched into Macedonia in 1904, to keep an eye on the situation. (Of course, history has proven how useless peacekeeping forces are, in places as volatile and violent as Macedonia. I read a wonderful interview with Philip Gourevitch, the author of a book about the genocide in Rwanda, and he said in the interview, "One of the things I have learned is that if you find yourself living in a UN 'safe zone', just know that your life is in danger. It is the most dangerous place on the planet to a UN Safe Zone. Run for your life.")

And now for Turkey/Ataturk:

Mustapha Kemal Ataturk was born in Macedonia. (Of COURSE.) Additionally, the "Young Turk Revolution", which ended up toppling the Ottoman Empire (which had lasted for 400 years or something like that) originated in Macedonia. The Young Turk revolution originally demanded "liberty, equality, fraternity, justice". They wanted to force the Sultan to draw up (or accept from them) a liberal constitution. They wanted to preserve the empire, but they wanted to loosen up the iron-fist a bit. (A precursor to Gorbachev....) However (as with so many revolutions), the Young Turks didn't really have a plan. They didn't know how to go about creating a government, or re-creating Turkey into your basic normal country, which also happens to be a massive empire. They also were coming from a place of ethnicity, nationalism, and racial hatred. A terrible mix. CLEARLY.

The problem, as always in the Balkans, was the confusing ethnic mix of peoples. Orthodox Christians were enraged at the thought of a Muslim-run confederation, where perhaps they had constitutional safeguards as protected minorities. Remember that Turkey was a dreaded and brutal nation for 400 years. Nobody trusted them, nobody believed them when they said "No, we promise to take care of you." Everyone in the Balkans knew, firsthand, what horrors the Turks were capable of.

The Young Turk Revolution, just like Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, accelerated the shattering of the Ottoman Empire. That was not their intent at all. They wanted the empire to open up to change, to stop resisting transformation. But by introducing minor changes, by discussing modern-day ideas like constitutions, and protections of minorities, etc., all hell broke loose. The door was cracked open a teeny bit by the Young Turks, then the entire population of the Balkans, sick to death of the Ottoman tyranny, pushed open the door the rest of the way. Violently.

1908 was a big year: (Turkey clearly losing control)
--Bulgaria declared its complete independence from Turkey.
--The island of Crete (which was part of Turkey at the time) voted for union with Greece.
--The Habsburgs annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina (which they had been administering since The Treaty of Berlin)

That last bit there, with the Habsburgs, is the cause of World War I. Puts a chill up your spine, no?

Came across the following passage about all of this mess in (where else) Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, which breaks it all down:

Put another way, Bulgarian-financed guerrillas in Macedonia had triggered a revolution among young Turkish officers stationed there, which then fanned throughout the Ottoman Empire; this development, in turn, encouraged Astria-Hungary to annex Bosnia, inflicting on its Serbian population a tyranny so great that a Bosnian Serb would later assassinate the Habsburg Archduke and ignite World War I.

But before all of this: Turkish Muslims were enraged by the Ottoman Empire's disintegration. Everyone in Turkey began revolting: army units, theological students, clerics. They began demonstrating for "sharia" (Islamic law, of course, which the Taliban perfected). As always, with Muslim fanatics, they wanted to go backwards. They wanted the Ottomans to crack down on all these uppity minorities, crack down HARD, and go back to the perfect time when the Turks ruled the world.

The Young Turks crushed this counterrevolution. They forced the Sultan into exile in, where else, Macedonia. That would be like forcing Hitler into exile in a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. The Sultan had to hide, terrified for his life, in this land of people who hated him and wanted him to pay for what his empire had done.

Then, the Young Turks fell off the deep end. Maybe they had some good ideas, maybe originally their nationalism was benign, but then they screwed it all up and perpetrated the century's first genocide against the Armenians in 1915. It was a mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians, orchestrated by the government. The Armenians threatened the Turks demographically and religiously. They were Christians, there were large numbers of them, and they were right in the middle of the Turkish homeland. In order for Turkey to be great and unified again, then the Armenians had to disappear.

This genocide occurred on the world stage. Nobody protested. Nobody did anything. There is a story about Hitler, planning Germany's genocide thirty years later, and answering the feeble protests ("What will people say? Won't they notice and try to stop it?") of the people around him: Hitler's response was: "Who remembers Armenia?"

Okay, so this is now becoming way too long, and I have strayed far from Macedonia....However, it is all connected. The Young Turks becoming so terrifying and so brutal forced the Balkans to do something which had never happened before, and which has never happened since: they united. They buried the hatchet in the face of such a clear enemy, and formed an alliance. After all, none of the Great Powers out there were intervening in any of this. They realized that no great warrior from the West was going to lead a cavalry charge and save them, so Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria joined up together, and fought for themselves. Incredible. These historic enemies...people who literally are still in a rage about what happened in 612 AD, or whatever.

In 1912, this alliance declared war on the Ottoman Empire. (A very very ballsy thing to do.) Their principal goal was to liberate poor forgotten important Macedonia.

I think that's enough for today. Maybe I'll talk about the two Balkan Wars tomorrow ... since Macedonia is, as always, the key to both of them.

Next: 20th century wars

  contact Sheila Link: 11/15/2002 02:02:00 PM

Friday, November 15, 2002  

The fame of Fermat's Last Theorem comes solely from the sheer difficulty of proving it. An extra sparkle is added by the fact that the Prince of Amateurs said that he could prove this theorem that has since baffled generations of professional mathematicians. Fermat's offhand comments in the margin of his copy of the Arithmetica were read as a challenge to the world. He had proved the Last Theorem; the question was, could any mathematician match his brilliance?

Fermat's Last Theorem is a problem of immense difficulty, and yet it can be stated in a form that a schoolchild can understand. There can be no problem in physics, chemistry, or biology that can be so simply and unambiguously stated and that has remained unsolved for so long. In The Last Problem, E.T. Bell wrote that civilization would probably come to an end before Fermat's Last Theorem could be solved. Proving Fermat's Last Theorem has become the most valuable prize in number theory, and not surprisingly it has led to some of the most exciting episodes in the history of mathematics.

The riddle's status has gone beyond the closed world of mathematics. In 1958 it even made its way into a Faustian tale. An anthology entitled Deals with the Devil contains a short story written by Arthur Porges. In "The Devil and Simon Flagg" the Devil asks Simon Flagg to set him a question. If the Devil succeeds in answering it within twenty-four hours then he takes Simon's soul, but if he fails then he must give Simon $100,000. Simon poses the question: "Is Fermat's Last Theorem correct?" The Devil disappears and whizzes around the world to absorb every piece of mathematics that has ever been created in order to prove the Last Theorem. The following day he returns and admits defeat:

"You win, Simon," he said, almost in a whisper, eyeing him with ungrudging respect. "Not even I can learn enough mathematics in such a short time for so difficult a problem. The more I got into it the worse it became. Non-unique factoring, ideals -- Bah! Do you know," the Devil confided, "not even the best mathematicians on other planets -- all far ahead of yours -- have solved it? Why, there's a chap on Saturn -- he looks something like a mushroom on stilts -- who solves partial differential equations mentally; and even he's given up."

--Simon Singh, Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem

  contact Sheila Link: 11/15/2002 01:48:00 PM



Competing claims

I have two passages on Macedonia (and the wider world of the Balkans) to share from Roberrt Kaplan's influential book Balkan Ghosts. As I said yesterday, my understanding of the Macedonian situation is tenuous, at best, and I have to review my materials before sitting down at my computer to explain it all, in writing. I was rifling through the Macedonian chapter in Kaplan's book, feeling the light dawning once again, understanding it again, and these two explanatory historical notes popped out at me.

I am typing this by candlelight. Drinking coffee. I love the early morning.

Here is quote #1. This describes perfectly the essence of the Balkan chaos:

Macedonia, the inspiration for the French word for 'mixed salad' (macedoine), defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion. Because Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, had established a great kingdom in Macedonia in the fourth century BC, the Greeks believed Macedonia to be theirs. Because the Bulgarians at the end of the tenth century under King Samuel and again in the thirteenth century under King Ivan Assen II had extended the frontiers of Bulgaria all the way west to the Adriatic Sea, the Bulgarians believed Macedonia to be theirs. Because King Stefan Duhan had overrun Macedonia in the fourteenth century and had made Skopje, in Dame Rebecca [West's] words, 'a great city, and there he had been crowned one Easter Sunday Emperor and Autocrat of the Serbs and Byzantines, the Bulgars and the Albanians,' the Serbs believed Macedonia to be theirs. In the Balkans, history is not viewed as tracing a chronological progression as it is in the West. Instead, history jumps around and moves in circles; and where history is perceived in such a way, myths take root. Evangelos Kofos, Greece's preeminent scholar on Macedonia, has observed that these 'historical legacies ... sustained nations in their uphill drive toward state-building, national unification and, possibly, the reincarnation of long extinct empires.'

And here is quote #2. This reiterates what I described yesterday, only going into a bit more detail about what went down between the two World Wars.

After starting and losing two wars over Macedonia, Bulgaria's King Ferdinant abdicated in 1919. For the next twenty years, until the outbreak of World War II, his son, King Boris III, presided over a political system in Sofia that was riven by coup attempts and other violent conspiracies connected to the loss of what Bulgarians considered their historic homeland. IMRO, radicalized by the defeats of 1913 and 1918, became a terrorist state within a state, and, helped by its skull-and-crossbones insignia, became synonymous in the outside world with hate and violent nihilism. Opium profits financed the purchase of IMRO's weaponry. The standard fee for an IMRO assassination was twenty dollars, so Bulgarian politicians walked around with trains of bodyguards...

The terrorists, aided by Orthodox clergy, came from the Macedonian refugee population of Sofia's slums. By the 1930s, Macedonian terrorists were hiring themselves to radical groups throughout Europe -- in particular, to the Croatian Ustashe, whose chief paymaster was the fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini. A Bulgarian Macedonian nicknamed 'Vlado the Chauffeur' assassinated King Alexander of Yugoslavia -- the crime that initiated Dame Rebecca's passion for that country.

World War II provided another sickening reply of World War I and the Second Balkan War. Again, as in World War I, Bulgaria joined a German-led alliance against a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in order to regain Macedonia. Again, while forces of a German-speaking power occupied Serbia from the north, Bulgarian troops invaded and occupied Macedonia from the east. And again, Serb and Greek resistance forces, aided by the British, drove the Bulgarians back to the hated borders established in August 1913 at the conclusion of the Second Balkan War. At that point, Communist totalitarianism stopped history until the century's final decade. Nothing of all this has yet been resolved.

Next: The Young Turks

  contact Sheila Link: 11/14/2002 07:13:00 AM

Thursday, November 14, 2002  


"In order to find his equal, an Irishman is forced to talk to God." -- the Irish mercenary in Braveheart

  contact Sheila Link: 11/14/2002 06:58:00 AM

I was clearing out my AOL Filing Cabinet today (long story), and came across an email I sent to a dear friend this summer. I read it, uneasy, with an odd feeling of nostalgia. It was only two months ago. Why this yearning sensation? I had forgotten, almost, the Joycean obsession which fired up my June and July. So much has happened in the intervening months, so much personal and world-events darkness, that the innocent burbly ramblings in this email seem as though they were written by another woman.

Here it is:

James Joyce has ruined other writers for me. I am reading Ulysses for the first time aided by my dad and 2 literary guidebooks -- without which the damn thing would be impenetrable But once I cracked Joyce's code just a little bit, the book would suddenly, oddly, open up to me. Showing me only glimpses of the genius, but glimpses nonetheless.

It's like those moments I used to have in math class, where I would be completely confused, all the numbers blending together on the board, having no idea what was going on, what I was supposed to be doing, how to do it...and then, in a flash, out of nowhere, the concepts made sudden breathtaking sense, and I could "see" exactly how I was supposed to get the right answer. That's what reading Ulysses has been like for me: slogging through seemingly meaningless stream-of-consciousness prose, when suddenly...light breaks in and I realize that NOTHING is random in the book. There are connections and inter-connections EVERYWHERE.

It is, hands down, the most exciting reading experience I have ever had.

And it is KICKING MY ASS. It is hard hard stuff. (James Joyce said to a friend who complained to him about how difficult the book was: "Well, it took me 7 years to write it. It should take you 7 years to read it.")

Reading it has brought me and my dad even closer together. I call him up and read him one sentence, asking for clarification. One sentence out of a 900 page book and he will automatically say, "Ah yes. That's from the Cyclops episode. Joyce is referring to the editor of the Irish Times at the time." My dad is a lunatic, and I couldn't get thru Ulysses without him.

I'm becoming a lunatic myself. I am living more and more completely in my mind.

A stranger on the street saw Ulysses under my arm and stopped me to have a conversation about it. "So are you reading it unaided, or are you following the guidebooks?" So funny. It was like we were 2 members of some weird cult. Huddled away in a thatched hut, drinking Guinness, reading Joyce. Thinking to ourselves, "Jesus, what the hell is Joyce going on and on about?"

And on the flip side, in the physical side of my life which I pretty much willfully ignore: I went out with Jen last night to a club in the village, to hear an absolutely phenomenal cover band of all things, and danced like a complete and utter maniac until 4 in the morning. 4 in the morning??

They did a cover of "Lithium", my favorite Nirvana song, and I basically felt as though Kurt Cobain were ACTUALLY there. We all did. Everyone was screaming and thrashing like complete banshees, losing their friggin minds. I haven't slamdanced in 10 years. There was an exhilaratingly cosmic element to the group-dance-fest. For one bright moment, we felt that Cobain had not died. He LIVED in that song. I lost myself in it. Everybody did.

Today I am exhausted. Hence this long bizarre monologue.

James Joyce and Kurt Cobain. The two poles of my life.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/13/2002 06:53:00 PM

Wednesday, November 13, 2002  



IMRO, terrorist group

Macedonia is the birthplace of terrorism in the 20th century. After the Second Balkan War in 1913, parts of Macedonia were stolen from Bulgaria by Serbia and Greece. Very shortly following the end of the war, a group of assassins who called themselves IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) emerged, and set out to undermine those "stolen" parts of Macedonia. The terrorist tactics they used (fanatical, violent, surprise attacks) are ones we are all too familiar with today. Present-day terrorists are inspired, to some degree, by IMRO.

The country is poor, ethnically divided, filled with hatred, and with historically weak government institutions. The ground was fertile for terrorism.

IMRO disappeared once Macedonia was sucked into the Yugoslav Federation post World War II. A lot of things (ethnic warfare, guerrilla tactics, raging hatred) disappeared from view under Tito, but these things did not vanish or dissolve or resolve themselves. They merely subsided into silence, underneath the water, waiting for the time when it would be right to emerge again. And "emerge" they did. More like explode. Once Yugoslavia fell apart, all of these undercurrents exploded to the surface again, as though the 40 years of silence meant nothing.

IMRO surfaced again after the collapse of Yugoslavia, only this time it took on the character of a fairly moderate political party. The extremists have been pushed to the side. Most moved to Bulgaria, where everybody is nationalistic, extremist, intense (at least when it comes to the Macedonian Problem).

There is, I am sure, more to learn about IMRO, but at the moment, this is what I know.

Next: Competing claims for Macedonian territory

  contact Sheila Link: 11/13/2002 08:57:00 AM


The Central United States is divided into two geographical zones: the Great Plains in the west and the prairie in the east. Though both are more or less flat, the Great Plains -- extending south from eastern Montana and western North Dakota to eastern New Mexico and western Texas -- are the drier of the two regions and are distinguished by short grasses, while the more populous prairie to the east (surrounding Omaha, St. Louis, and Fort Leavenworth) is tall-grass country. The Great Plains are the "West"; the prairie the "Midwest."

Like the sea, the Great Plains are exposed to the strongest, steadiest winds in America. Also like the sea, the Great Plains are subjct to moods, depending on the time of year and the degree of cloud cover ... In winter, under a leaden sky, this sea of wilted buffalo grass evokes the desolation of a lifeless planet; yet in the summer sunshine the brilliant yellow-green iridescence of the cereal fields seems almost manically happy.

...The Great Plains are not truly flat. Flatness, here, becomes relative. After driving for several days in western Oklahoma, for example, I began to notice choppy seas composed of the tiniest of hills, as well as slight rises and declivities in the landscape, like the movements of the wind on a lake. The very extent of these plains made the world beyond seem remote. For two decades I have been a foreign correspondent, yet in the Great Plains I lost interest in the foreign news I could hear on the BBC shortwave service. Such was the effect of this landscape: a veritable dry-land ocean in midcontinent where even the East and West Coasts of the United States, to say nothing of Europe or Asia, seem far away even as they grow closer.

Isolationism is not an American character failing; it is an adaptation to terrain.

--Robert Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness

  contact Sheila Link: 11/13/2002 08:39:00 AM


I was describing to Mitchell an amusing and satisfying encounter I had with a guy last week, in which I regaled said guy with funny stories, and where I truly felt I had a captive audience.

But the way I expressed this to Mitchell was: "I was being pro-actively amusing, and he was really getting that."

There was a long pause, and then Mitchell said, "What??"

From that moment on, "pro-actively amusing" was the catchphrase of the weekend.
"Oh don't mind me, I'm just being pro-actively amusing."
"Was that supposed to be a joke?" "Yes, I was attempting to be pro-actively amusing."

Speaking of postmodern claptrap, why couldn't I just say: "The man laughed at every single one of my jokes. We have the same sense of humor."

No, no, no. That doesn't quite describe it at all ...

  contact Sheila Link: 11/12/2002 01:48:00 PM

Tuesday, November 12, 2002  

I have not read the book Postmodern Pooh yet, but the following article has put it on my Must-Read list. Oh, please Lord, let the waves of postmodernism be ebbing! The most chilling observation Frederick Crews, author of Postmodern Pooh makes is that good writers, or "brilliant writers", come out of PhD programs writing "incomprehensible crap".

Other blasphemous quotes from Crews:
"'People are always looking for the master key to interpretation. If you believe in a theory that applies to all of literature, you've essentially tied your hands."

"So-called disciplines are losing their disciplinarity. They're losing the sense that there are any grounds on which we can criticise one another, except the grounds of membership, of factionalism. For me, this is the end."

"The point is, are intellectuals saying things that the public can genuinely learn from? When they're only talking the jargon of their own field, the public is learning nothing. There has to be an effort to take the serious disciplines of knowledge and communicate them to the public in a way which is not debased."

Camille Paglia has been screaming about this very issue for years!!

  contact Sheila Link: 11/12/2002 01:40:00 PM




I will focus on Macedonia for a couple of days. I think I am ready for the challenge. To me, Macedonia reminds me of those very very difficult math problems we had to work on in high school. I would hunch over my notebook, squinting down at the confusion, working it out, feeling frustration and despair, erasing, adding, throwing the whole thing out, starting afresh ... and then, suddenly, there would be a very brief "A-ha!!" moment, light breaking in on my brain ... and in one beautiful moment, I could "see" the answer. Clear as day. When 2 seconds before, I had NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL I WAS DOING.

I have read multiple books about the Balkans. Macedonia is really the key to the whole area. Always has been, always will be. But could I explain to you WHY? Occasionally I will have a bright-white "A-ha!!" moment, in terms of getting what is going on with Macedonia, but then the cloud cover comes down again. Sometimes I get the sense, too, that Macedonia is like one of those sub-sub-sub atomic particles in the world of quantum physics, where the only way you can tell that they exist, is by the effect these teeny particles have on OTHER particles. This is not to say that Macedonia does not exist. (Although, I suppose if you spoke with a nationalistic Bulgarian that is exactly what they would say: "Macedonia?? There IS no Macedonia! It is ALL BULGARIA!") It is just that you can really only "get" Macedonia in relation to all the other countries in the Balkans.

Let's begin.


Macedonia is the Balkans in miniature. It is an old country, with memories of glory centuries ago. Alexander the Great, after all, was a Macedonian, and set out from Macedonia to conquer the world. Macedonia is filled with a mix of races and languages and religions and cultures, and nobody mixes with each other. They never have mixed and they don't mix now.

But before I talk about generalities, let me try to describe what is known as "the Macedonian problem", because it is the key. This problem has not disappeared and will definitely appear again one day to the forefront of world events.

Historic Macedonia overlaps Bulgaria and also Greece. Claims on this soil are legion. It's like Armenia. There is a centuries-old question surrounding the issue: Is Macedonia a real country? What are its borders? It has been cut up and carved up and divided so many times that nobody seems to know, although everybody has a fierce opinion about it. And, at this point, everything is so mixed up and ethnically divided that no matter how you divided Macedonia, each state would be left with unruly pissed-off minorities.

So here's a bit of history. The whole Balkan area was part of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began to show the first signs of a crack-up. Greeks, Serbs, and Montenegrins won a struggle for self-rule. In 1877, Russian troops arrived to liberate Bulgaria from Turkey. The Turks were defeated, and the Russians moved into the Bulgarian capital as an occupying force.

In March, 1878, the Russians dictated the Treaty of San Stefano to the Turks. The Treaty of San Stefano has been called "the first fuse of the Balkan powder keg". It is one of those devilish things from the past which cannot be undone. It seemed like a good idea at the time to the Russians who dictated it, but here we are, over a century later, and people are still bemoaning the Treaty of San Stefano, and how it fucked them over, etc.

The Treaty awarded Macedonia to Bulgaria. The purpose of the Treaty was to recreate Bulgaria, along the lines of the medieval Bulgarian kingdom's borders. So the treaty enlarged Bulgaria, creating a "Greater Bulgaria" which encompassed present-day Bulgaria, all of Macedonia, parts of Albania, and a huge chunk of Greek land surrounding the northern city of Salonika.

So what the Russians basically did with this treaty, was create a powerful pro-Russian state in the Balkans. It swept away the needs or desires of Macedonia and Greece. All that mattered was Bulgaria, and the population of Bulgars. The other big powers at the time (Britain, Germany, the Habsburg Empire) could not accept the Treaty, as written, and demanded that it be amended. Germany and England made it clear to Russia that creating a "Greater Bulgaria" would mean war with Great Britain. So here we are seeing the roots of World War I. Russia capitulated.

So basically, Greater Bulgaria was dismembered before it even had a chance to exist. A second treaty was drawn up. The Treaty of Berlin. The northern half of Greater Bulgaria became free (Bulgaria), and the southern half became a Turkish province in the Ottoman Empire (Macedonia). Macedonia was completely abandoned to the brutal Turks, as though the Treaty of San Stefano had never existed. It's like what the Allies let happen to Czechloslovakia in WWII. They tossed the country to the dogs. No hope for them, nobody would invade and save them. They were on their own.

The Treaty of Berlin basically passed around Balkan chunks of land as though nobody actually lived there, it was merely territory. But it created such confusion and such anger that we are still living in the aftermath of that treaty today. Here's the puzzle pieces of the treaty:

--Bismarck gave Russia lands in Bessarabia and Northeast Anatolia, to compensate them for the loss of Macedonia
--Serbs were given full independence
--Bismarck transferred Bosnia from Ottoman rule to Habsburg rule (this is the immediate cause of WWI). Bismarck did this to compensate the Habsburgs for the loss of Macedonia.
--Great Britain received Cyprus from the Turks.

Can you see how misguided all of this is? How crazy? How it solves nothing, and just plants the seeds of insanity for generations to come? Also: see how Macedonia is the key? This Treaty sparked an orgy of violence in Macedonia. The Turks brutally suppressed the uprisings. Macedonia is, historically, an Eastern Orthodox nation. So refugees (ethnic Turks, Muslim Bosnians) flooded into Macedonia to terrorize the Christian population. In 1878 there was a guerrilla uprising against the Turks. That uprising led to a century-long guerilla war. Macedonia is the birthplace of modern-day terrorism. They invented many of the tactics which we see so often now. Their rage at being tossed to the Turks and losing everything continues to this day.

The 1890s brought spreading terrorism and violence, no central government, no concept of nationhood. And the outside powers just used this country to play out their rivalries. The mountains were filled with gangs of mercenaries and murderers, waging 15 different terrorist wars.

Then (I'm skipping way ahead here), Macedonia was incorporated into the Yugoslav Federation which, although awful to some degree, also helped tamp down a lot of the ethnic hatred and violence. But the question continues: Who, actually, does Macedonia belong to? Bulgaria is convinced that there IS no Macedonia. That Macedonia is, and always has been, part of Bulgaria. Greece feels the same way about southern Macedonia, which used to be part of Greece. Greece has never ever given up their claims on that area.

In the books I have read, people lose their minds when they start to talk about Macedonia. Screaming, tearing their hair out, everybody convinced they are right. It's a mess. It's one of the most intense "flashpoints" on this planet. There are certain areas which seem destined, somehow, to make people go nuts. Jerusalem, Armenia, Poland (how many times can Poland be invaded??), the land bridge into Turkey where Istanbul/Constantinople stands ... These are places which, geographically, nobody can be neutral about. If you even just look at their placements on a map, it is obvious why.

The Macedonian Problem will rise again. I'm sure of it.

I hope I explained that okay. It's all very confusing. But interesting, no?

Next: IMRO (terrorist group)

  contact Sheila Link: 11/12/2002 10:37:00 AM

"We measure heroes as we do ships, by their displacement. Colonel [Charles] Lindbergh has displaced everything."

--Charles Evans Hughes, former Secretary of State, at the banquet in NYC celebrating Lindbergh's return to America after his flight

  contact Sheila Link: 11/12/2002 07:22:00 AM

Conversation this weekend with dear old friend Mitchell. We talked about everything under the sun, and at one point we discussed making new friends. How challenging it can be sometimes ... how life is too short, when you get to be our age, to put up with friends you don't click with, or friends who consistently annoy you or let you down. Mitchell blurted out to me the following monologue, pretty much off the cuff, and exactly as written below. He finished speaking and I said, taking out my pen, "Okay, say that again...Go slow...I have to write this down."

"I have room for new people in my life but only the extraordinary need apply. Extraordinary is defined as:
a. Has seen Harold and Maude
b. Must know OF Joni Mitchell, and preferably owns "Blue"
c. Has read J.D. Salinger (if they prefer Franny and Zooey to Catcher in the Rye, even better.)
Substitutions are accepted on a case by case basis."

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

Monday, November 11, 2002  
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