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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GROVERS CORNERS ON BROADWAY
Ben Brantley writes an absolutely beautiful review of the latest revival of Our Town, the long-awaited production starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. Why I think this review is so gorgeous is not just that it is glowing and positive. Not at all. Brantley has some criticisms, which were also fascinating to read, because they were so well-thought-out. He doesn't just tell you that things don't work, he analyzes WHY. To my taste, this is what all theatrical reviews should be like: a sensitive and knowledgeable deconstruction of what worked, what did not work, and why it might not have worked.

Additionally, as an actress myself, I find that way too many reviews short-shift the contributions of the actors. The performances get a paragraph at the end, with brief adjectives attached to each name. "So-and-so makes a sprightly Miss Daisy." "So-and-so adds some nice humor with his portrayal of Falstaff". Whatever. BORING.

To talk about acting in any intelligent way is extremely challenging, but when someone hits the nail on the head, and expresses exactly what it is an actor may be doing that makes the performance memorable or abysmal, it's exhilarating to read.

Brantley's discussion of what Paul Newman appears to be doing as The Stage Manager is just what I am talking about. Of course, I want to see the production, but Brantley makes me feel like I had been there (almost). First of all, he describes the performance as: "the most modest performance ever by a major American star on a Broadway stage." If you know anything at all about acting, then you know that this is a massive compliment. Almost the greatest compliment an actor could receive, especially one with such mega-stardom as Paul Newman.

Brantley goes on:

Wearing his period costume of vest, shirt and trousers as if he had just thrown them on in a hurry, Mr. Newman emanates little of the just-folks, pipe-smoking heartiness associated with the part and even less of the grim Jovean irony that Spalding Gray brought to the role in the 1988 revival. Mr. Newman has instead the aura of someone figuring out things as he goes along, almost seeming to invent his lines on the spot and then to marvel when they sound deep.

In other words, he plays the Stage Manager less as a stand-in for God than as yet another bewildered member of the ensemble called the human race. In his early film performances Mr. Newman seemed consciously to avoid the sheen of movie-star glamour; his extraordinary natural good looks needed no extra polish. In like manner he now knows that his living-legend stature requires no special enhancement, and he's all the more resonant for not working at it.


Gorgeous. Makes me want to cry. And then this, discussing Jayne Atkinson's work as George's mother as well as Newman:

There is nothing flashy about her Mrs. Gibbs. But whether she's feeding an imaginary flock of chickens or savoring the smell of heliotrope, she inhabits every scene with a sharpness, simplicity and immediacy that, like the play itself, fully values the small and fleeting moments in life.

So, in his more subdued way, does Mr. Newman, who waits until the second act to turn on the oratorical charisma that is the Stage Manager's right. Even then, he dispenses it sparingly and to maximum effect. "You make a few decisions and then, wham, you're 70," he says at one point, with a vigor and incredulity that startle.


Reading a review like this makes me fully aware of how much intelligent learned criticism has declined in this country. I am a relatively young woman, so I don't remember the golden age of criticism in America, but I have read all of Harold Clurman's theatrical reviews and there is NOBODY writing about theatre like that today. Actually, if any readers out there can think of exceptions to this, please, by all means, let me know.

Brantley's criticism of where the tone is off in this production stunned me. It's so damn SPECIFIC.

Wilder specified "no scenery" in his stage directions, yet this production features a set by Tony Walton that suggests a Disneyland version of an empty stage. There are exposed trompe l'oeil radiators painted on the back wall and a whole galaxy of sandbag weights on ropes overhead. The effect is to put the play's deliberate plainness into quotation marks. And once you start to gild the austere lily that is "Our Town," you've upset an essential balance. Although the play was revolutionary in its fluid movement through time and its direct addresses to the audience, Wilder surely never meant it to be cute in its self-consciousness.

"Putting the play's plainness into quotation marks". Beautiful work, Mr. Brantley. I get what you mean COMPLETELY.

Writing this way about critics (especially the part about critics short-shifting the acting, because nobody really knows how to talk about it ... they only know whether it moves them or not, they cannot explain WHY) reminds me of another randomly amazing review which made such an impression on me that I printed it out to keep. This was written by Stephanie Zacharek, a reviewer for Salon.com. (In general, they have incredible movie reviews on Salon.) She reviewed the Dennis Quaid film The Rookie. I had no desire to see the film. It was rated G. Why would I go to a rated G movie?? Her review made me go out and rent it immediately, and I now own the damn thing. THAT is an effective review.

But anyway, what really struck me about Zacharek's review was her analysis of Dennis Quaid's acting. And not just his acting, but his cumulative career as an actor. What she perceived as his arc, how she interpreted his life affecting his art. It's beautiful. A total testament to the power of acting, and also to the fact that acting is a calling. An important profession. I sent it to David, one of my best friends, who is an actor in his 30s. It has something to say to all of us, as artists, but also to those of us who are getting a little bit older, trying to find our way in this youth-oriented career.

Here's what she says about Quaid. Notice how she delves into his challenges in the film, what he had to work against, and how he triumphs. The quote is a tad long, but it is worth it. Tears welled up in my eyes just now, as I re-read it.

But Hancock [the director], working off a script by Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester"), knows in his heart that it's his duty to make an uplifting, inspirational picture, which is probably why most of the movie has such an unflattering, shiny-penny tone.

But then, just as an athlete stretches a muscle by subjecting it to resistance, that tone gives Quaid something to work against -- sometimes that's how you get fine performances in so-so movies, even if it's not an actor's intention to subvert the material. Here, Quaid doesn't make the best of the movie's baloney; he presents it to us as a believable truth.

Quaid, who has dropped out of the movie scene for patches that have sometimes stretched far too long, is aging beautifully, although that may not be the same thing as well. He has none of the beaming, wholesome goodness of, say, Kevin Costner; his bad-boy impishness hasn't disappeared, but now it comes across as a weatherbeaten glow that's survived against all odds, not as an actor's trick to ensure that he remains an eternal heartthrob.

But if there's a new roughness to Quaid's face, there's a new openness as well, as if the irresistible gunslinging arrogance of his Gordo Cooper in "The Right Stuff" had rubbed up against more than its share of doubts and insecurities over the years. Quaid reveals layers of feeling that he might not have been able to show us 15 years ago ...

Quaid's job here is to play a man who is happy enough raising a family in a small town but who nonetheless harbors a dream. The idea is sentimental, but Quaid dries all the sappiness out of it. There's something in his face that suggests both contentment and restlessness, but even more important, the sense that it's perfectly natural (and understandable) for the two to coexist in all of us. That's what makes his moments of joy -- the swollen music on the soundtrack notwithstanding -- seem pure and wholly believable. When his wife (played with perfunctory can-do spunkiness by Rachel Griffiths) shows up at his first Major League game and reaches down from the stands to greet him, he stretches up eagerly to reach her. He's been away for three months, toiling in the minors, and the look on his face is a mixture of relief and joy at seeing her. But more significantly, he shows sudden amazement at how far he's come -- as if it hadn't occurred to him until precisely that moment he saw her face. If you want to see how an actor plays a married man, it's Quaid in that moment. Any serviceable actor can look at a woman and show devotion and loyalty. It takes a terrific one to show a sense of surprise at who he has become.


HOO-YAH



  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 04:27:00 PM


Friday, December 06, 2002  

 
LILEKS REVIEWS "UNCLE SADDAM"
So James Lileks reviews what he saw in the documentary "Uncle Saddam". Lileks' sense of LOGIC is impeccable. If there are any inconsistencies, anything which appears even slightly ludicrous or illogical, Lileks shines a light on it, and then mocks the inconsistency in such a merciless way that I must laugh.

Lileks describes Saddam's family:
As an overview of Saddam's family politics, it's invaluable; we meet his wife, who was a Tami-Feh-Baquer-type, a squat overdone glam queen until Saddam publicly stepped out on her. Then she took up the veil and the frown, and slumps around exuding dowdy bile. We meet the charming sons, Uday and Qusay, described in glowing terms by a grinning little toady who will be played by Steve Buscemi in the movie version. We hear the tale of the defector who fled to Jordon, denounced Saddam - then grew homesick for the smell of the Tigris, accepted Saddam's promise of amnesty, and took his family back to Iraq. (They' re dead.)

James: Tami-Feh-Baquer???

  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 02:44:00 PM



 
THE ONION REPORTS...
that most Presidents have "lied about key matters of national import". A shocking expose.

  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 02:38:00 PM



 
OH, THE THINGS YOU LEARN IN A CAB...
This piece by Asparagirl, describing a cab ride she took yesterday through the snowy streets of New York City, is classic. Check it out.




  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 01:45:00 PM



 
THE REVOLUTION IN IRAN
Since I referenced in my Hungary entry this morning the student revolution going on in Iran, I thought I would link to some thrilling pieces about what is happening. They are both in the The New York Times, which has been oddly silent about the upheaval in Iran. The first piece is by Salman Rushdie. It actually was published last week, a terrible week in terms of the Muslim world, and in terms of the people out there who continue to doggedly insist that "Islam is a religion of peace." Salman's piece is beautiful, calling for an end to fundamentalism and violence. Calling for Muslims to condemn what is being done in the name of their religion. Read it: No More Fanaticism as Usual.

The second piece made me want to cheer. It's the latest Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman. Thank God.

And then in comes Michael Ledeen, of course, responding to Friedman's piece. Ledeen adds some distinctions to the conversation, shades in the picture a bit clearer. My father has warned me about ONLY reading opinion pieces, and this is very good advice. But it just kind of happened that way today.

Ledeen points out something which Friedman misses: the divide between what Hashem Aghajari (the professor sentenced to death which sparked this whole thing) wants and what the students want. "The students rallied around Aghajari because he is the most-visible target of the regime, but the demonstrators' demands go far beyond anything that Aghajari has said. He wants to reform Islam; they want a total separation between mosque and state. He wants an Islamic Reformation, as Friedman says, but the demonstrators are interested in the creation of a secular civil society. He is a reformer, but they are revolutionaries."

The mullahs hijacked the revolution in 1979. People started out in that revolution screaming: "The Shah must go! The Shah must go!" The beginning talks of revolution had to do with democracy, human rights, no more SAVAK (the Shah's secret police), freedom of the press. Khomeini and the mullahs insinuated themselves into the conversation, and Islamicized what had been a democratic revolution. All slogans carrying the word "democracy" disappeared, being replaced by slogans about Islam.

There's an enormous demonstration scheduled for tomorrow. Should be an interesting weekend. Look for news of what goes down.

  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 01:38:00 PM



 
SNOW IS GENERAL ALL OVER MANHATTAN

Peggy Noonan's column today made me cry. I am still in tears. Sometimes she leaves me cold, sometimes she's too preachy, sometimes I think: "You know what, Peggy? Ronald Reagan DID HAVE SOME FAULTS AND I WANT YOU TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT!!", but other times she cuts right to the core. I like it when she writes about humanity, about what it is like to be a human being. She describes perfectly in her column today what it was like for New Yorkers during the huge snowstorm yesterday. And I love her even more because she references James Joyce continuously. Thank you, Peggy. This column is a keeper.


  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 12:27:00 PM



 
Just to be clear:
I don't think Blanche Dubois is "stupid and prissy" at all. She is a great tragic heroine. But the audiences of the original production clearly swayed their sympathies over to Stanley's side, because of the charismatic power of Brando's performance. How could you NOT be on his side?

  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 12:20:00 PM



 
I'M BUSTED ...
My friend Beth sent me the following email this morning in regards to my prologue to the Elia Kazan quote:

"the audience would completely side with Stanley and not have any sympathy for stupid, prissy Blanche at all" Hmm... not sounding very sympathetic to Ms. Blanche, there, O'Malley.

I love my friends. They keep me honest.


  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 09:42:00 AM



 

FOCUS ON: HUNGARY


1956

In 1956, Hungarians rose up in revolt against Communist and Soviet power. They were led by a man named Imre Nagy who was the prime minister at the time. Nagy was hanged for his actions and tossed into a prison grave. Finally, in June 1989 (what a year!), he was given a solemn funeral in the largest square in Budapest, and a hero's burial. Over 100,000 people showed up for the ceremony. The memory of what happened in 1956 still fresh.

That revolt cost an estimated 30,000 lives.

The Soviet Army tried to control the protests, the demonstrations. They cracked down on the journalists, the academics, the students ... all to no avail. The revolt kept escalating, gathering speed and momentum. (Like what is going on in Iran now. Who knows how it will end.) There would be no good end to this. The year was 1956. The Cold War was in full bloom. The Communists were not going to give an inch. So the Soviet Army feigned a withdrawal from all the hotspots in Hungary. People noticed the troops were gone, they were no longer being watched and persecuted. So they relaxed. The dissidents and loud-mouthed intellectuals and journalists came out of hiding. And on November 4, 1956, the Soviet Army launched a surprise attack and completely crushed the uprising. The tanks rolled through Hungary, harassing and terrorizing the population. There were crazy Stalinist show trials, tons of people were hanged and tossed in unmarked graves. People forced to rat each other out, torture, murder, executions, reprisals. The spirit of Hungary was crushed, along with the revolution. It's like the country went into a deep depression after that, a clinical depression which still lingers to this day.

Moscow then secretly put Janos Kadar in full charge of the country. He had actually been freed from prison by Mr. Nagy. Kadar dominated Hungary from 1956 until 1988, when he was deposed. UNBELIEVABLE. It sounds to me like he was a Soviet puppet, but I'm just guessing.

The funeral for Nagy in 1989 was one of the sparks which lit the match which ignited the entire world of Europe to throw off their Communist dominators. You cannot obliterate a people's memory. You cannot tell them who to care about. You cannot say, "No no no no, Nagy really wasn't for YOU ... he was a pawn of the Communists ... Love KADAR...LOVE KADAR." People are NOT that stupid. I am thinking of Iran again. The Shah (the last Shah, anyway) could not make the Iranian people love him and get behind his plans for their country. No matter how hard he tried, he had not captured the hearts and minds of his people. You cannot fake the kind of devotion and mania the Iranians had when Khomeini returned to Iran. This sort of devotion can be dysfunctional, and terrifying, like all of the Aryan youths marching around screaming "Heil, Hitler!", or it can take on a more benign form.

Imre Nagy, the prime minister of Hungary, a Communist himself!, did not want the country to be crushed and dominated by Communism. He did not want the citizens of Hungary to be dogged by secret police wherever they went. He stood up for them, he spoke up for them. He paid for this with his life. The Hungarians love him. He is their hero. Their voice.

The outpouring of love over 30 years later at Nagy's funeral was baffling to the Communist Party, which continued to try to control things in Hungary. But they were increasingly losing it. They refused to rehabilitate Nagy's memory. And wipe the slate clean.

But here is the New York Times article (or an excerpt from it), describing what happened at this memorial service in June, 1989.

Thirty-one years after he was hanged and his body thrown into a prison grave, Imre Nagy, who led the 1956 uprising against Soviet domination, was given a solemn funeral today ... The ceremonies were organized by the opposition, which worships the former Prime Minister as a national hero, but four leading members of the ruling Communist Party came to pay tribute ... The four top party officials ...left before a succession of eulogies to Imre Nagy that were unsparing in their condemnation of the Communist Party and its ally, the Soviet Union.

Many in the crowd looked up in shock and seemed to be holding their breath to hear at so public a ceremony, in so sumptuous a setting, words of such astonishing candor ...

Victor Orban, a spokesman for the Federation of Young Democrats, paid tribute to Mr. Nagy as a man who, although a Communist, "identified himself with the wishes of the Hungarian nation to put an end to the Communist taboos, blind obedience to the Russian empire and the dictatorship of a single party." ...

Sandor Racz, who led the Budapest Workers' Council during the uprising and spent seven years in prison, condemned the Soviet Army and the Communist Party as "obstacles for Hungarian society". ... He said the party was "clinging fearfully to power," although it was clear that "what it failed to achieve in the last 44 years cannot be remedied now." He continued, "They are responsible for the past. They are responsible for the damaged lives of Hungarians."

Budapest experienced a day full of anomalies and contradictions. No state funeral could have been more solemnly and publicly marked or held in a more prestigious settling, but for the Hungarian Governemtn and the ruling party, Mr. Nagy and the four companions who were sentenced to death and now reburied with him remain traitors and counterrrevolutionaries...As recently as earlier this year, Mr. Grosz still ruled out Mr. Nagy's rehabilitation. On the 30th anniversary of the hangings last year, the police broke up with considerable violence a small tribute organized by dissidents on a Budapest square.

It was an anomaly also that the Soviet Union and Hungary's other Communist friends sent diplomats, but not their ambassadors, to attend the ceremony, although it had no official character that would have obliged them to be there. But other Communist countries -- China, North Korea, Romania, and Albania -- stayed away.

The Heroes Square ceremony was staged, in one more irony, by the son of another executed Communist, Laszlo Rajk, who was Interior and Foreign Minister. Mr. Rajk, a loyal Communist, was hanged after a show trial in 1949 at the height of the Stalinist period. The younger Laszlo Rajk, an architect and movie set deisgner, draped the neoclassical facade of the art museum and a tall column in the center of the square's vast expanse fully in black and white, traditional mourning colors among the Hungarians of Transylvania, annexed by Romania. He devised strikingly modern wood and metal structures as a setting on which to display the five coffins, as well as a sixth, empty one commemorating the more than 300 victims of judicial retributions after the uprising. Tall, flaming torches stood between the coffins, and a permanent rotation of honorary pallbearers -- including widows, children, and other relatives of the five victims being buried -- flanked them ...

Today, after the wreath-laying and eulogies, a procession of hearses, followed by cars and buses, set out for the huge public ceremony next to the prison where the hangings took place ... Beyond them, in an adjoining field full of mainly unmarked graves, a tomb had been dug for Mr. Nagy. His daughter had requested that he be laid to rest amid the bulk of those who paid with their lives for following his lead.

Two actors read in alphabetical order the names of the 260 victims, who were executed from 1956 to 1961, their occupations and their ages. At each name, a torchbearer stepped forward, held high the flame and replied, "He has lived in us; he has not gone."

When the name of one of the five was called, surname first, in the Hungarian fashion, like "Nagy Imre, Prime Minister, 62 years," his coffin was carried to the grave and a friend delivered a eulogy. Then, supporting one another, his nearest relatives stepped to the grave to put down flowers and stand, with bowed heads, allowed for the first time to mourn in public, together with those who share their grief.


The images in this article give me chills. After that, the power of the Communist Party continued to erode throughout the summer. The party leadership elected a four-man presidency, and then it stripped one of the four (who had succeeded Kadar as party leader) of all authority. The party liberals were rising, and suddenly: other parties outside the political system started sprouting up. Parties of dissidents, cultural activists, ecologists, cultural nationalists. These parties all started shouting for pluralistic free elctions. They shouted for them to occur in 1990. No more "some day", no more "we're working on it." It was 1989. They wanted the elections in 1990. And indeed, elections were scheduled by 1990, and secretly the Communist Party members in Hungary began talking amongst themselves about how to liquidate the party's assets, and change its name (so they could participate in the free elections as well).

Incredible. And that's it for Hungary.

Next up: The Ukraine

  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 07:48:00 AM



 
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Recently I read Elia Kazan's autobiography, a sprawling chaotic piece of work which nevertheless has tons of amazing anecdotes about pretty much every great actor/actress in his lengthy lifetime. Actually, he's still alive, but receded completely into the shadows. I was flipping through it this morning looking for a quote to use. I came across a passage I had marked with exclamation points. It is a passage describing one of Kazan's concerns about the actual production of and audience response to the stage version of Streetcar Named Desire, with Jessica Tandy as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley. But I need to set the passage up a bit. It's hard to pull it out of context. The true juice of the passage is in the final paragraph, when Tennessee gives Kazan some advice, but the rest of the story is pretty fascinating theatrical history as well.

Jessica Tandy was already a celebrated actress. Marlon Brando was practically unknown. Kazan noticed which way the wind was blowing during rehearsals, and it concerned him on many levels. Basically what was happening was that Marlon Brando was acting Jessica Tandy off the stage. EASILY. When the two of them were on stage, you only looked at one of them, and it wasn't Tandy you were loooking at. Without breaking a sweat, Brando stole the show right out from under her. Jessica Tandy fought to keep her ground (which, actually, is perfect for the theme of the show), but Kazan's main concern was that Blanche would turn into a laughable character. That the audience, because of Brando's undeniable stage presence, and the electricity of his acting, would completely side with Stanley, and not have any sympathy for stupid prissy Blanche at all.

Anyway, there's the setup. Here's what Kazan has to say about it. And also Tennessee Williams comes by to drop in his two cents:

From Elia Kazan's A Life:
But what had been intimated in our final rehearsals in New York was happening. The audiences adored Brando. When he derided Blanche, they responded with approving laughter. Was the play becoming the Marlon Brando Show? I didn't bring up the problem, because I didn't know the solution. I especially didn't want the actors to know that I was concerned. What could I say to Brando? Be less good? Or to Jessie? Get better? ...

Louis B. Mayer sought me out to congratulate me and assure me that we'd all make a fortune ... He urged me to make the author do one critically important bit of rewriting to make sure that once that "awful woman" who'd come to break up that "fine young couple's happy home" was packed off to an institution, the audience would believe that the young couple would live happily ever after. It never occurred to him that Tennessee's primary sympathy was with Blanche, nor did I enlighten him ... His misguided reaction added to my concern. I had to ask myself: Was I satisfied to have the performance belong to Marlon Brando? Was that what I'd intended? What did I intend? I looked to the author. He seemed satisfied. Only I -- and perhaps Hume [Cronyn, Tandy's husband] -- knew that something was going wrong ...

What astonished me was that the author wasn't concerned about the audience's favoring Marlon. That puzzled me because Tennessee was my final authority, the person I had to please. I still hadn't brought up the problem, I was waiting for him to do it. I got my answer ... because of something that happened in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, across the hall from my suite, where Tennessee and Pancho [Tennessee's companion at the time] were staying. One night I heard a fearsome commotion from across the hall, curses in Spanish, threats to kill, the sound of breaking china ... and a crash ... As I rushed out into the corridor, Tennessee burst through his door, looking terrified, and dashed into my room. Pancho followed, but when I blocked my door, he turned to the elevator still cursing, and was gone. Tennessee slept on the twin bed in my room that night. The next morning, Pancho had not returned.

I noticed that Wiilliams wasn't angry at Pancho, not even disapproving -- in fact, when he spoke about the incident, he admired Pancho for his outburst. At breakfast, I brought up my worry about Jessie and Marlon. "She'll get better," Tennessee said, and then we had our only discussion about the direction of his play. "Blanche is not an angel without a flaw," he said, "and Stanley's not evil. I know you're used to clearly stated themes, but this play should not be loaded one way or the other. Don't try to simplify things." Then he added, "I was making fun of Pancho, and he blew up." He laughed. I remembered the letter he'd written me before we started rehearsals, remembered how, in that letter, he'd cautioned me against tipping the moral scales against Stanley, that in the interests of fidelity I must not present Stanley as a "black-dyed villain". "What should I do?" I asked. "Nothing," he said. "Don't take sides or try to present a moral. When you begin to arrange the action to make a thematic point, the fidelity to life will suffer. Go on working as you are. Marlon is a genius, but she's a worker and she will get better. And better."


  contact Sheila Link: 12/06/2002 07:12:00 AM



 
HUNGARY AND QUANTUM MECHANICS
My dear friend Ted wrote the following response to my recent blog entries. It's such a terrific email that I asked if I could share it here. So here it is:

"re Hungary - you've got to wonder, though, whether he said this thing about the humanitarian solution at the time or in retrospect. There's nothing like twenty-twenty hindsight. It seems to me despite the fact that he was motivated by just causes that there must have been some strong feeling that the response would not be the same as in Prague in '68 - that there were indications of this too as motivating factors.

re physics - Interesting how the subject/object phenomenon or the observer/actor phenomenon is true not only in physics (which, I guess, describes the whole world, so physics is not JUST physics) but in journalism, in politics. Everything effects everything - that's for sure - we just don't know what the result will be! Isn't that great! Predictable and yet not. All the observers who thought they were standing aside are actually acting anyway. And it's not only numbers that effect the whole - but time too. Why weather patterns can be seen over centuries but not over years.

It's why calculus functions as a system to describe the beauty of the universe, because if absolute determinism = perfection = 0, calculus is all about the fact that you can eternally approach 0 but never reach it. It why a poem can describe life better than an "accurate" description - it doesn't try to stab zero in the bullseye - it comes around from the side - it curves, it approaches a thing knowing all along it won't exactly get there."

  contact Sheila Link: 12/05/2002 11:26:00 AM


Thursday, December 05, 2002  

 

FOCUS ON: HUNGARY


Budapest

Okay, so today is going to be a bit of a mish-mash. The snow is falling outside, my kitchen is lit by candles, I had a fabulous writing group last night, I am happy. I have been going through my materials on Hungary, trying to figure out what I want to focus on for today. I ended up getting sucked into the first chapter of Robert Kaplan's Eastward to Tartary. In the first chapter of the book, he hangs out in Budapest with a Hungarian named Rudolf Fischer. They drink plum brandy in Fischer's study full of books, and Fischer basically prepares Kaplan mentally for his upcoming journey through the Balkans. Fischer goes completely beneath the surface and is able to let Kaplan know what is REALLY going on.

These are the sorts of encounters which make Kaplan's books so special. It's the people you meet.

Anyway, so I got sucked into the chapter, and read the whole thing, trying to figure out how to boil it all down into my own language, blah blah. Then I figured that Kaplan and Fischer describe it much better than me, so I will excerpt snippets from their conversation. These are snapshots.

-- Fischer unfurled his set of late-nineteenth-century Austrian army staff maps and a somewhat earlier German one. "These are the maps you must use at the start of your journey," he told me. "They are better than Cold War era maps. The maps before 1989 are, of course, useless. The Iron Curtain is still a social and cultural border. Do you know the real service provided by McDonald's in Hungary and the other formerly socialist countries? They are the only place where people -- women, especially -- can find a clean public lavatory."

-- Kaplan on the still reverberating echo of the Roman empire: Very simply put, the split running through the Balkans between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires to which Fischer referred reflects a much earlier division. In the fourth century A.D., the Roman empire divided into western and eastern halves. Rome remained the capital of the western empire, while Constantinople became the capital of the eastern one. Rome's western empire eventually gave way to Charlemagne's kingdom and to the Vatican: Western Europe, in other words. The eastern empire -- Byzantium -- was populated mainly by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and later by Moslems, when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. The border between the eastern and western empires ran through the middle of what after World War I became the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia. When that state broke apart violently in 1991, at least initially it echoed the division of Rome sixteen centuries earlier: The Slovenes and Croats were Roman Catholics, heirs to a tradition that went back from Austria-Hungary to Rome in the West; the Serbs, however, were Eastern Orthodox and heirs to the Ottoman-Byzantine legacy of Rome in the East.

--Kaplan on the Carpathian Mountains: The Carpathians, which run northeast of the former Yugoslavia and divide Romania into two parts, reinforced this boundary between Rome and Byzantium and, later, between the Habsburg emperors in Vienna and the Turkish sultans in Constantinople. Rudolf Fischer told me that the Carpathians, which were not easily traversed, halted the eastward spread of European culture, marked by Romanesque and Gothic architecture and by the Renaissance and Reformation.

--Fischer on the Carpathian Mountains and the divide between West and East: "Romania -- because of the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation in the northwest of the country -- had been more developed than Greece before World War II! It was only the Truman Doctrine -- $10 billion in American aid, in 1940s dollars no less -- that created today's westernized Greece. Let me go on in the same vein. The differences between the Hungarian Stalinist leader Matyas Rakosi and the Romanian Stalinist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, and even more so between their successors, Janos Kadar and Nicolae Ceausescu, were the differences -- don't you see! -- between Habsburg Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. Rakosi and Kadar may have been perverse Central Europeans, but as Hungarians, they were Central Europeans nonetheless. But Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu were Oriental despots, from a part of Europe influenced more by Ottoman Turkey than by Habsburg Austria. That's why communism did less damage to Hungary than to Romania."

-- Fischer on how Hungary cannot escape its communist past: "Our whores in Budapest are Russian and Ukrainian; our money -- though it floats freely -- is still worthless in the West; our oil and gas are from Russia; and we have mafia murders and corruption just like in the countries to the south and east. Mafia shootings and the drug trade put pressure on the Hungarian government to make [entrance] visas compulsory for Romanians, Serbs, and Ukrainians, who are thought to be the culprits, but that will never happen, because it will separate us from the ethnic Hungarians just over the [Romanian] border. We are tied to the ex-Communist East, whether we like it or not."

-- Kaplan on the lingering effects of Communism in the Hungarian urban landscape: ...the hallway in his building was dark and untidy, like many that I had seen throughout the former Communist world, where decades of state ownership had given people no incentive to maintain property, an attitude that was changing slowly. There was, too, the building itself, and all the others in Fischer's neighborhood, whose unfinished look and poor construction -- plate glass and mustard-colored cinder blocks -- were more typical of buildings in formerly Communist Central Asia than those in Austria, just a two-hour ride away by train. The Berlin Wall may have fallen in November 1989, but for a traveler almost a decade later, its ghost was still present.

-- A conversation between Kaplan and Fischer about Hungary, NATO, and the EU:
Kaplan: "What about NATO? Will its new eastern frontier -- following the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary-- mark the border of the Near East?"
Fischer: "NATO doesn't matter. Only the EU is real. The EU is about currency, border controls, passports, trade, interest rates, environmental and dietary regulations -- the details of daily life -- which will change Hungary. For decades Austria was not part of NATO, but did you ever think of Austria as part of Eastern Europe or the Near East? Of course not."

-- Kaplan expanding on the new Near East: Therefore, it appeared likely -- at least if the EU expanded into Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland but took a decade to grant full membership to Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Turkey, and Russia -- that the Western alliance would be an eerie variation of the Holy Roman Empire at its zenith in the 11th century, and the split between Western and Eastern Christianity would be institutionalized once more, as it had been during the divisions between Rome and Byzantium and the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The Near East would then begin on the border of Hungary and Romania. Completing the reemergence of this older map, Russia was now returning to the dimensions of 16th century Muscovy: a vibrant city-state within a chaotic hinterland.

-- A conversation between Fischer and Kaplan about the borders of Hungary:
Fischer: "Hungarians want to spiritualize the frontiers -- that is the word that they use here."
Kaplan: "You mean they want the borders to be filters: to protect, but not to divide."
Fischer: "Perhaps. What the Hungarians really want is to let ethnic Hungarians from the east into Hungary, but nobody else."

Editorial comment from Sheila about the above: Uh-oh.

-- Fischer on modern-day Europe: Fischer then railed against the "modern age" in Europe, in which democratic stirrings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries strengthened ethnic nationalism, while industrialization strengthened the power of states. The result was the collapse of multiethnic empires like Habsburg Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey and the rise of uniethnic powers like Germany and of nasty tribal principalities in the post-World War I Balkans, though they were in some cases called parliamentary democracies. Even the 1848 democratic revolutions in Central Europe, it seemed, were not so pure; they were based on ethnicity as much as on liberal ideals, and in Hungarian (Magyar) areas, at least, were opposed by the minority Croats, Serbs, and Romanians. For Fischer, with his background, the modern age had meant "Magyarization campaigns" and other forms of "ethnic cleansing", crucial to the establishment of petty states tyrannized by ethnic majorities.

-- A personal story from Fischer's past which illuminates the problems with Hungarian nationalism. It is the story of what happened to him on his 21st birthday, September 17, 1944: "Because my father and I had fled Romania when World War II broke out and managed to get visas to Australia, I was in the Australian army on my 21st birthday. My commanding officer had given me a short leave. Thus, I spent my birthday alone, walking in the Australian countryside and thinking about who among my family and friends back in Transylvania were alive or dead. What had happened to them? Soon after the war, I learned that on that very day, Hungarian soldiers shot the entire Jewish population of Sarmas, a village east of Kolozsvar, in Transylvania. Those poor people. They had thought of themselves as Hungarian. They spoke Hungarian. They had managed to survive five years of fascism without being deported to concentration camps. It was as if they had been miraculously forgotten while every kind of horror reigned around them. Then their own Hungarian soldiers appears in Sarmas, and what did they do? They herded all the Jews into pigsties for several days and then took them to a hill and massacred them. Within the Holocaust, there were many little pogroms. This is why I remember so vividly walking alone in Australia on my 21st birthday. Because the memory of it was preserved by what I later found out had occurred on that same day in Sarmasu. You see, Robert, Hungarian nationalism, Romanian nationalism -- they're all bad. The boundary formed by the Carpathians was benign compared to these modern nationalistic boundaries, because the Carpathians divided empires within which peoples and religions mixed. I am a cosmopolitan. That is what every civilized person must now try to be!"

-- Fischer says to Kaplan: "We are going for a walk. I have something to show you which you must see before you start on your journey.":
Near Orczy Square, in the far-off southeast corner of Budapest, we came to an immense hodgepodge of metal-framed stalls and greasy canteens set up in abandoned Russian railway cars. I saw Chinese-manufactured high-top running shoes on sale for the equivalent of ten dollars, sweaters for four dollars, socks, clocks, jackets, cell phones, shampoo, toys, and just about any other necessity -- all cheap and made in either Asia or formerly Communist Europe. Many of the goods were Russian. The food at the canteens was Turkish. The merchants were Chinese, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and other Central Asian nationalities, but mostly Chinese. i noticed bus stops for destinations in Romania and other points east, but never west. Hungarian policemen were ubiquitous, for there had been several murders here recently. Nobody was well dressed.

"People in Budapest call this place the Chinese market," Fischer told me. "It grew in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and China loosened travel restrictions on its own citizens. It is a real caravansary." Chinese families dominated a vast underground trading network that provided cheap goods for the overwhelming majority of people in Eastern Europe, who could not afford the new Western-style shops. Here, any language worked. Commerce was the great equalizer. "Yes, it is a bit violent, with gangland killings," Fischer said. "But is it any different from the backstreets of Odessa one or two hundred years ago, where my Jewish ancestors and yours were carrying on much as these people do now?"

"This is all I have to show you, Robert," Fischer concluded. "Remember that the Iron Curtain still forms a community. Just look at this market. Over four decades of the most comprehensive repression cannot be wished away in a few years." Fischer guided me onto a tram and rode with me for a few stops. "It is good that you will be passing through Transylvania. Ah, so much to see there," he said, his voice full of longing. Then he stepped off the tram and waved good-bye by lifting his walking stick.

Next: The events of 1956

  contact Sheila Link: 12/05/2002 08:06:00 AM



 
QUOTE OF THE DAY
(Note from Sheila: if scientific jargon bums or stresses you out, then skip the quote. By all means. Quantum theory is just one of my pet passions.)

The scientist today is no longer an impartial observer who stands outside the universe and watches its various events. In John Wheeler's words, the term "spectator" must be struck from the record and the new word "participator" must replace it. By virtue of the quantum theory, it is clear that any observation or attempt to determine initial conditions, has an irreducible effect on the rest of the universe. Physics and physicist are no longer separable but are one indivisible whole.

Will an appeal to the quantum theory therefore provide a loophole for escaping from the dilemma of absolute causality? For example, while a particular isotope decays with a well-defined half-life, there is no way of predicting which one of its atoms will disintegrate next. One atom may decay in less than a minute; another will last for a week, or several months. Quantum theory will not allow the individual event to be pinned down in any exact way. Moreover, the theory asserts that this breakdown in predictability has nothing to do with an ignorance about the fine details of the system, which could be filled in with some more detailed theory (as is the case with life insurance which is averaged over a large population of different individuals); rather it is a fundamental and absolute indeterminism. With such indeterminism lying at the most basic level of nature, it appears that the entire Newtonian appeal to absolute causality and determinism is now invalid and a loophole has been discovered for synchronicity. This is indeed true, in one sense, but it is still not possible to get off the hook so easily, for most of the fluctuating, unpredictalbe effects of atomic indeterminism vanish in the face of what has been called the law of large numbers.

The law of large numbers argues that it in any very large ensemble of probabilistic events, things will always average out to the point where individual deviations and happenings can be ignored. Suppose, for example, that a large number of quarters are tossed and all the heads are put in one sack, and the tails in the other. After thousands and tens of thousands of tossings, the two sacks will weigh the same. True enough, any one event is indeterministic, and on the fine scale, there will be occasional runs on heads or on tails, but in the long term the law of large numbers acts to hide the effects of individual fluctutations within the overall average. Now what is true for a few thousand coins is even more the case for the atoms comprised in an everyday object, say a pool ball. The number of atoms involved in this case are very large indeed, around 10 to the 23rd power, about the same as the number of stars in the universe. In such a large ensemble the individual quantum deviations will be well averaged away by the time things reach the human scale. Therefore, while indeterminism rules the microworld, as far as most phenomena are concerned its effects are lost when averaged out over the law of large numbers that applies in the everyday world. Newtonian determinism still appears to rule and it has closed doors to synchronicity and firmly locked them with the chain of cause and effect.

--F. David Peat, Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind Really great book, by the way, should you be so inclined.

  contact Sheila Link: 12/05/2002 07:43:00 AM



 
A HEARTBREAKING (SORT OF) WORK OF STAGGERING (SORT OF) GENIUS

Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was an exhilarating read. I was captivated from Page One. The comparisons to James Joyce are not unfounded or ludicrous.

My friend Mitchell basically had informed me, "Our friendship cannot continue until you read this book." I had come home to his apartment in Chicago one night during a visit to find him in tears on the couch, huddled over Eggers' book. "What is it?" I asked. Mitchell sobbed, "He loves his brother so much!!" The book IS genius. Pure and simple.

I have not yet read his first novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. The reviews are ambivalent. The beauty of AHWOSG was the memoir aspect. Yes, it was hugely tongue-in-cheek with many fanciful sections, but the meat of it, the genius of it, was in his telling of his family's story.

There's a great review of You Shall Know Our Velocity in The New Criterion. I love his analysis of what makes Dave Eggers important, annoying, and fascinating. It's more a review of Eggers himself than of his latest book.

AHWOSG made enough of an impression on me that I will read anything the man writes. Unfortunately, You Shall Know Our Velocity is very hard to come by. At least in book stores. I'll have to order it online.




  contact Sheila Link: 12/04/2002 01:56:00 PM


Wednesday, December 04, 2002  

 
???
I was riding in the elevator up to my office today and noticed a sign had been taped up. The building is hosting a toy drive for the holiday season. So far so good. The memo let the building know where the drop-off would be, the times you could drop stuff off, etc. There was one sentence which had bold text:

Please drop off your new, unwrapped, and culturally sensitive toys by such-and-such a date ..."

Excuse me? And then they don't define what they mean. Is it: no violent toys? No guns? No GI Joes? But they didn't say "violent", they said "culturally sensitive".

I guess that means that my Pol Pot action figure wouldn't be appropriate for the toy drive. My slave plantation Lego set is out. My "women should be housewives" coloring book will be left at home.

I could go on.

I'm being facetious (slightly), but I would love to hear the definition of what a culturally sensitive toy is. Culturally sensitive to who? I know I'm playing dumb a little bit. I realize that. But it is good to have people explain themselves at times. To re-visit what, exactly, they are actually talking about.

  contact Sheila Link: 12/04/2002 01:05:00 PM



 
MERCURY MUST BE RETROGRADING...

because it took me TWO HOURS to get to work today. Normally it takes twenty minutes. Bus after bus after bus passed us by ... either the wrong bus, or the right bus, only filled to standing room capacity. The last time there was such bus chaos was on the morning of September 11th. Before we knew what had happened across the Hudson on that terrible day, we knew that SOMETHING had gone down, because you never ever wait longer than 5 minutes for a bus.

I feel frazzled, pissed off, and like I want to punch a wall.

Also, my computer desk did not arrive. After sitting around all the damn day, waiting for it to come.

This morning, as the 78th bus sailed by the bus stop (which got more and more crowded by the second), I had to breathe myself through the rage within.

It reminded me of that hilarious scene in Young Frankenstein when Gene Wilder is faced with a devastating moment of defeat.

He clearly is freaking OUT, his eyes are insane, and he says, in a shaky lunatic voice, "We will overcome this. We will overcome this. I will handle this situation with quiet dignity and grace." Two seconds pass, and then he snaps and leaps onto the unresponsive monster, pounding on his chest, screaming like a madman: "HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME??" Gene Wilder is led away, thrashing about, weeping.

Igor glances directly at the camera and says wryly, "Quiet dignity and grace..."

I tried to handle my setbacks this morning with quiet dignity and grace. I actually succeeded but I feel like I have developed an ulcer.

  contact Sheila Link: 12/04/2002 11:04:00 AM



 

FOCUS ON: HUNGARY


1989

So now, wrenchingly, I skip ahead to 1989. I'll go back to fill in the blanks over the next couple of days. We are now in the absolutely tumultuous and astonishing autumn of 1989. Unbelievable ... the stuff that went down in a matter of 3 or 4 months. Truly incredible.

The Berlin Wall came down in November. But that mind-blowing development was created by a crisis in Hungary. A crisis for the Communist Party and for the Soviet Union in general. Basically, the edifice had been crumbling for years, and suddenly, in a matter of a year, there was no mask left. Nobody cared, nobody listened to them anymore. There was no belief in the power of the Communist Party. It was a paper dragon. The slaughter in Beijing, under the eyes of the visiting Gorbachev, had something to do with it, but it also was a fever which spread across the world, in all places at once. Lech Walesa and Solidarity, the massacre of demonstrators in Tbilisi ... every single country started exploding. The Communist Party was completely ineffective in dealing with all of these crises. Mainly because nobody was listening to them anymore.

And here is what the Hungarians did: Let me go slowly, to make sure I get this straight:

For decades, Hungary was a popular vacation spot for people from behind the Iron Curtain. It was a summer "resort" spot, with lakes and cabins (as opposed to a wintry Alp-type atmosphere.) Knowing the holiday season in Hungary is important because it was when everyone started returning home for their vacations in late August, early September, that everything started changing, cracking, accelerating.

East Germans and West Germans would use Hungary (a relatively open and relaxed Communist country ... as opposed to the more Stalinist Romania, or the wacky militant Bulgars) as a meeting spot in the summer months. Families would be reunited, would have vacations together on a yearly basis, and then return to their respective homes, on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

For forty years, the Hungarian border guards were fierce about making sure that the East Germans returned to East Germany. The border with Austria was one of the toughest and most "harassing" in the world, because it was the place where you could escape. Austria was Europe. Hungary was Communist. The poor East Germans didn't have a chance to escape. Everybody had their eye on them. First of all, they were hated Germans. Part of the country that started two World Wars. Second of all, they were from a divided country ... they still had enormous family connections on the other side of the wall. Of COURSE they wanted the wall to be taken down, so that they could be with their relatives again, see their families again. This was just the sort of tight family bond that the Communist Party frowned upon. And the situation in Germany was extremely volatile because of this. The Berlin Wall did not make things easier for the Communists. It made things worse.

So anyway. Back to Hungary.

Hungary had a treaty agreement with East Germany, signed in 1968, saying that they would not permit East German citizens to travel to the West via Hungary.

And then suddenly, in the early autumn of 1989, the foreign minister of Hungary (Gyula Horn) decided to ignore his treaty obligations. Without any permission from Moscow, without any discussion with the politburo. This is just incredible. Actual autonomy!!

But here's what led up to that autonomous decision which changed everything. What is so incredible to me is how quickly the massive Communist structure toppled. The rot within was so extensive. The East Germany refugee crisis was in September, the Berlin Wall came down in November, and it all was over by summer of 1991.
Phenomenal.

Hungary decided to let some of these East German refugees pass through to the West with their families. The border guards turned a blind eye. At first. But what began as a small trickle of people exploded into a massive refugee crisis. Once people heard that you could get to the West easily through Hungary, they all basically packed their bags and poured into the country. This was an incredibly embarrassing situation for the Communists in Moscow. And for the politburo in Hungary. What should they do? There were thousands and thousands of people suddenly crushing up against the border with Austria. We are talking about tens of thousands of refugees. These people were not poverty-struck, they were not fleeing from political persecution. These people were young, and supposedly the future of the Communist Party.

Here's a quote from Michael Dobbs' great book Down with Big Brother:

Unbeknownst to either man, the foreign minister of Hungary made a decision, in the privacy of his Budapest home, that led inexorably to the fall of the Berlin Wall less than three months later. Gyula Horn was grappling with the kind of excruciating moral and political dilemma familiar to many Communist reformers that summer. Over the past few months Hungary had been transformed into a holding pen for tens of thousands of East German refugees. Very few were political dissidents. For the most part they were young people, fed up with the austerity of life under communism and the never-ending snooping of the secret police. They had given up on their dogmatic Communist leaders, who seemed allergic to the very idea of reform, and were voting with their feet. From Hungary they wanted nothing more than safe passage to the bright lights of capitalism in West Germany. "There is no future for us in the East" was a common refrain. The foreign minister had to decide whether to let them go or keep them penned up in the Communist East.

Now this is amazing: Yes, Hungary had this treaty with East Germany. Hungary did fear that the hard-liners in Berlin, in Moscow, would come down on them fiercely if they broke this treaty and let the refugees go through. Czechloslovakia's "Prague Spring" in 1968 had been a warning to all Communist countries everywhere of what could happen if you started ignoring Moscow. HOWEVER: a few months before Hungary filled up with East German refugees it had also signed an international agreement pledging freedom of travel, and also "humane treatment" of refugees.

So this was Horn's dilemma. He knew the whole world was watching his country's behavior. Once you sign an international agreement, stating your commitment to human rights, you have to be very careful. Hungary was a Communist state. Was it possible for a Communist country to protect the human rights of its citizens, as well as people "visiting" their country? Beijing was an obvious debacle in this regard. The world was still shocked, stunned, and devastated (one more descriptive term, Sheila??) by the massacre in Tienamen Square. There had been hope that the Chinese government was changing: allowing the students to speak out, allowing forums on democracy, etc. But once they were confronted by an actual revolution, they crushed it like a bug.

Would Hungary go the same way? Would Hungary reveal itself to be as hypocritical and as afraid as China?

Horn (a hero in my book) decided, on his own, to stand by the international human-rights agreement, and NOT the agreement with East Germany.

Another quote from Dobbs:

After a sleepless night, pacing up and down his sitting room, the 57 year old foreign minister made up his mind. He decided to abrogate the treaty with East Berlin and let the refugees go. Hungarian leaders had earlier taken the precaution of informally testing the waters with Moscow. The Soviets appeared to have no objection.

"There was no other way," Horn recalled later. "We had to look for the humanist solution, no matter what sort of conflict might arise. It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events."


And he was certainly correct. East Germans fled their own country in droves. They piled into Hungary, poured out through Austria, and then poured into West Germany to be reunited joyously with their families. This directly led to the Berlin Wall coming down a couple of months later.

"We had to look for the humanist solution, no matter what sort of conflict might arise" said Horn. God bless him.

Next: Budapest


  contact Sheila Link: 12/04/2002 07:57:00 AM



 
QUOTE OF THE DAY

The Brando performance [in The Godfather] is justly famous and often imitated. We know all about his puffy cheeks, and his use of props like the kitten in the opening scene. Those are actor's devices. Brando uses them but does not depend on them: He embodies the character so convincingly that at the end, when he warns his son two or three times that "the man who comes to you to set up a meeting -- that's the traitor," we are not thinking of acting at all. We are thinking that the Don is growing old and repeating himself, but we are also thinking that he is probably absolutely right.

Pacino plays Michael close to his vest; he has learned from his father never to talk in front of outsiders, never to trust anyone unnecessarily, to take advice but keep his own counsel. All of the other roles are so successfully filled that a strange thing happened as I watched this restored 1997 version: Familiar as I am with Robert Duvall, when he first appeared on the screen I found myself thinking, "There's Tom Hagen."

--Roger Ebert


  contact Sheila Link: 12/04/2002 07:50:00 AM



 
HOLIDAY SNIPPETS
I sit here, at my kitchen table, wrapped up in flannel, wearing a ski cap (it is FREEZING, despite the heat blasting throughout my apartment), waiting for my computer desk to be delivered. Blog publishing is temporarily down, but I figured I would pass the time by giving some bullet points about my long luscious holiday at home.

-- My parents took me out to dinner for my birthday on Tuesday night, after my arrival. We went to a restaurant in Jamestown, right on the water, looking directly out at the lit-up fantastical Newport Bridge. We sat on the glassed-in porch, candlelit, had some wine, ate some fresh seafood (I said to the water: "So what you're saying is, is that basically my entree was swimming out in Narragansett Bay as of this morning.) and talked up a storm. It is a complete joy: my relationship with my parents. They are terrific. Not only is there love between us, but there is also LIKE between us. As in: I feel like my parents actually LIKE me, and I like them. It's very cool.

--Wednesday morning, my birthday, began early. I opened my eyes, peeked at the window, and saw a world of white. The snow was still falling. Our backyard looked like Narnia.

--All the New Yorkers were arriving that evening. 10:30, 11:30 p.m. I spent a long quiet day with myself. I drove down to Narragansett Beach, the car being buffeted about by the wind. The beach's sand was packed hard and frozen, with a layer of snow on it, reaching right up to the water. Crashing ice-green waves pounded the shore. The wind was fierce. If I had to choose only one sound to listen to all the rest of my days, it would be the sound of surf. I found some beach glass. Which is a symbol for me. --- (undisclosed name) and I both collected beach glass. It was a "thing" between us. After it all ended, and I moved to New York, occasionally I would get a tiny envelope in the mail, open it up and a teensy piece of beach glass would fall out. There would be no note, nothing. But I didn't need a note. So every time I go to the beach, every time, I have a beach-glass search. And so far, with all of my hundreds of trips to the beach, I have never ever come away empty-handed. It's amazing. And once I find the piece of beach glass, it is as though it has been waiting for me all along. "Ahhh, there you are..." I think, as I bend over and scoop it up.

-- Picked my brother, Melody, and Cashel up at the train station that night. I was expecting to see my brother get off the train, carrying a passed-out small child in his arms, but this was not the case. I got out of the car to wave them my way, and from across the parking lot I could hear the nonstop Cashel chatter going on. It is all about Star Wars. All Star Wars, all the time.

-- Thanksgiving images: A full house. The smell of turkey from the kitchen. Snow-packed fir trees outside. Siobhan playing the piano. The living room floor cluttered with Fisher Price. A LOT of laughter. Brendan made Bloody Marys for the group. My father and Hunter talked extensively about painting, about the painter Jack Yeats. The entire time a small Jedi Knight bounded nonstop in and out of our space. Racing down the hallway, with his imaginary light saber. The whole morning, also, we were waiting for Jean to show up. It was like Waiting for Godot. Jean did arrive and immediately put on an apron and went to work. Hunter and Cheryl sat down at the kitchen table and began to make placecards for everybody at the table. It was adorable: our two guests with construction paper, scissors and magic markers. Hunter feverishly wrote RHYMES for everyone at the table. He literally did this in 10 minutes, as the food was being set out.

Rhymes I remember:

Siobhan: Siobhan is a bartender, she serves drinks
She goes home early and about songs she thinks

Jean: Jean lives in Rhode Island, she drives a jeep
Out of her brain education seeps

Mine: Sheila lives in another state
She dreams of Sharon Tate

Hysterical. Out of her brain education seeps??? WHAT?

We feasted. We talked. My mom outdid herself. It got dark outside, and our dining room was lit by candles. The snowy night outside. Brendan has written three chapters of a book as Umero Nuno, a bizarre parody of Umberto Eco's nonsense. It is SO STUPID and SO FUNNY. He read it aloud to us at the table, in the accent of Umberto Eco. I was crying.

-- A bunch of us headed down to The Ocean Mist that night. We were meeting up with Rachel, another Rhode Islander. Her birthday was on Thanksgiving. Jean drove us all there, taking the back way. Dark country roads, lined with snow-covered fir trees, with random mailboxes perched at the end of the dark driveways. We blasted The Eminem Show during our journey, much to Hunter's chagrin. However, when we got out of the jeep, Hunter had to admit, "I hate what Eminem stands for, but I have to say I liked all of what I just heard."

The Mist was pretty dead. Rachel was there, in her red kimono jacket, with her sister, playing pool. There were a group of guys playing darts, and a couple of drunken fishermen sitting at the bar. And then US. 6 dressed-up girlie girls, and one gay man. We had a blast. We pumped the jukebox full of money. Hunter said, "I really need to gay this place up..." so he picked out a bunch of dance tunes. Each of the girls had gone up separately to the jukebox, and each one of us separately chose "Without Me" by Eminem. One observation: the first time "Without Me" began ... Eminem's loud bratty voice screaming like a punk: "TWO TRAILER PARK GIRLS GO ROUND THE OUTSIDE, ROUND THE OUTSIDE, ROUND THE OUTSIDE..." the atmosphere in the place changed. People started moving. Dancing. You could feel the excitement level rise, and no way can you stand still when that song comes on. There was a guy we referred to as "Daddy Warbucks", who was doing some rather alarming dance moves. We cowered in fear.

We were a table of girls, shrieking along to Eminem, dancing on our stools. The bartender, who was highly amused by us, randomly turned on a colored disco ball which was right above our table.

-- One thing about the Mist, which I don't know how to describe (I wish I had had a camera, or that David Lynch were there to film it for me): The Mist is a huge shack which sits directly on the beach. There is a deck, where you can stand outside in the summer, and drink Bloody Marys, watching the ocean roll in below. The deck is on stilts, and on really stormy days, the grey waves crash directly under The Mist. It's spectacular. The "front" of the bar sits right on the road, and actually has the look of that bar in The Accused. The "back" of the bar is lined with windows, looking right out onto the ocean. The bar teeters so close to the shore, that you can only see water out those windows, no sand.

Okay, so there's the set up. Now you can picture what I am about to attempt to describe.

We stroll into the shack that is the Mist. It was nighttime, so of course all of the windows facing the ocean were pitchblack. There are floodlights on the Mist deck, however, and they were on, shining out into the blackness that we knew was the ocean. And I got a glimpse of something very bizarre, wasn't sure if my eyes were seeing correctly ... Then I realized what it was and I felt the surge of excitement in my soul that I get when I am confronted with something out of nature which (that??) is truly phenomenal. Bobbing on the black surface were, no lie, 150 seagulls. Blindingly white, like paper cut-outs of birds on a black background. They were just hanging out in the spill of floodlights, which, apparently, they like to do. But I have never seen anything like it. I stood at the window, with my beer, gaping out at them. I could tell that the ocean was heaving only because these white paper-cut-out seagulls were bobbing up and down. They did not move. Or swim. Or fly. They all just sat there, on top of the frigid black waves. I wish I had a picture of it. It is something that has to be seen to be believed. It looked unreal. Like it couldn't be something merely created by Mother Nature. It was a picture, a poem, an image that spoke to my soul. So BEAUTIFUL.

-- Saturday night I hooked up with Betsy, a friend since we were 10 years old. She was Nancy to my Artful Dodger, once upon a time. We wrote a book together at the age of 11 called What Lies Below the Well. Oh, if I could find that manuscript now! It, to me, is like one of the precious pieces of papyrus lost forever when the library at Alexandria (or was it Ramses II's library?) burned down. We were so obsessed with Oliver at the time that we made our heroine in the book have "gruel" for breakfast. Also, when the main characters peeked into the well, and saw that a staircase was inside, one of them exclaimed, "It's a long thin winding stairway without any bannister!" We went to the Mews (another local watering-hole), had a drink, and then drove over to Mere's house to hang out with her. A beautiful South County evening. We sat on Mere's porch, drinking wine, with the Christmas lights strung up around us, talking, catching up. My friends from high school are essential

-- Sunday morning, 7:30 am. FREEZING COLD. My friend Beth and Mere pull into the driveway. We have a date. To go get Bess Eaton coffees and take a walk on the beach. It is devastatingly early in the morning. We are bundled up like Eskimos. We are giddy with laughter. We are together for three hours, and literally do not stop talking EVER. There is not more than 10 seconds of silence in that entire time. The beach is so freezing that we feel like complete lunatics. It is low tide. We walk with the wind to our backs half the time. I love my friends. They are my heart. We turn around to head back to the car, and are immediately confronted with hurricane force gales. For a while, we walk backwards, pushing into the wind. Laughing at how ridiculous we are.

Without even looking or concentrating on it, I find another piece of beach glass. And think to myself: "Of course. There you are..." as I put it in my pocket.

We sit on the ocean wall, watching the waves rolling in. Beth regales us with a tale of how she accidentally tossed her keys into the ocean, while her two kids were sitting in the car, on Good Friday. An entire crowd gathers, trying to figure out how to get the keys back. Everyone has suggestions, two cents tossed in left and right. The keys can be seen in a gap in the rocks below, but the surf keeps crashing in, freezingly, and it is very dangerous. Two businessmen approach, and get completely involved in how to help this mother out. With two crying kids in the car. One of them begins knotting bungee cords together, and his friend teases him: "Who do you think you are? F***ing MacGyver?" Finally, a man walks along in a wet suit, who looks like Santa Claus, and calmly, rationally, steps out on the slippery rocks, scoops up the keys and hands them back to Beth. Beth's daughter Ceileidh breathed in awe: "Santa helped us!" Beth's kids refer to that as "the day Mom threw her keys into the ocean." Beth tries to explain to them that it was an accident, of course she didn't MEAN to whip her keys out into the waves ... We also laughed at the thought of Santa making a benevolent appearance on Good Friday.

Our butts were completely frozen and numb after twenty minutes of sitting on that wall.

The ocean was incredible. Clouds racing overhead, turbulence in the sky. So the water was sometimes dark blue, sometimes a blazing green, other times a blinding sky-blue. And at times, looking out at the bay, the ocean was all of this at once.

-- Jean drove me over to the school where she teaches to show me her classroom. This was on Friday. First of all: it was so strange and not altogether pleasant to be in a high school again. The long rows of green lockers, the cafeteria ... Stressful memories. But Jean's room made me want to cry. She explained everything to me: what the kids are working on, and why ... She showed me some of their little essays which she had tacked up on a bulletin board. I had tears in my eyes reading some of them. These little 13 year olds, reading Rudyard Kipling, and talking about it in their papers. The room had a terrific vibe. I told Jean that it really feels like a team atmosphere in there. Like: we are here to ACCOMPLISH something, so let's DO IT.

I'm very proud of Jean.

-- Then we drove up to the Showcase Cinema, through yet another snowstorm, to see 8 Mile. AGAIN. This, too, shall pass. It's an Eminem virus, taking over my blood.

-- Cashel and I had a coloring fest one morning. He sat on my lap, in his pajamas, and we colored at the kitchen table. He drew (surprise surprise) Darth Vader fighting Luke Skywalker. Cashel purposefully drew Luke to have frowning eyebrows, to show how serious the battle was. He continuously informed me, lest I should forget: "You can't be too mad at Darth Vader because he does go back to the light. He starts out light, then he goes to the dark side, but then he goes back to the light." Yes. He goes back to the light. Eventually. So I won't be too mad at Darth Vader, because, after all, he does find redemption, eventually, and that is what matters.

Cashel's got a sensitive heart. A good heart.

  contact Sheila Link: 12/03/2002 08:49:00 AM


Tuesday, December 03, 2002  

 

FOCUS ON: HUNGARY


Culture

There is a huge blank in my knowledge, as far as Hungary is concerned. My notes start in the 800 ADs, and then they skip to World War I. So my apologies for that. One of the many cool things about doing this whole "Country of the Week" thing is that I get to see what I don't know, and the obvious gaps. I have no idea what Hungary was like in between the 10th century and the 20th century, and that's a pretty huge freakin' gap.

Here are a couple of general points about Hungary:

It has always been more European than Eastern. This has to do partly with topography (as I discussed yesterday); the western side of Hungary is completely open to Europe, and has borders with Austria, a definite gateway to the West. Compare this with a country like Romania, or Bulgaria ... completely blocked into the Balkans, with borders with Russia or Turkey, and you will see what a huge difference geography has made.

Hungary had always been way more influenced by Habsburg Austria than by Ottoman Turkey.

Hungary has a large Calvinist population, mostly in the eastern part of the country. Hungary also has a large Catholic population. Robert Kaplan describes the interesting (and potentially volatile) relationship between these two faiths, and also how these faiths have manifested themselves in Hungary in areas like economic development:

"In the mid-sixteenth century Debrecen [a city in eastern Hungary] was a hotbed of the Reformation, and Catholics were forbidden to settle. Here, a Calvinist college was established and local Calvinists made a pact with the ruling Moslem Turks to provide for the town's security. But the so-called Prussian work ethic did not invigorate the Calvinists of Debrecen. 'In eastern Hungary, Calvinism has been mere conservatism and fatalism, yet another element of ethnicity surrounded by religious walls, proscribing innovation,' Laszlo Csaba, a Hungarian economist and social critic, had told me in Budapest. It has always been the Catholic areas of Hungary that displayed economic dynamism. (Csaba had added that the 'Prussian work ethic,' based partly on Protestantism, was also misunderstood. 'The Prussian work ethic was not entrepreneurial, but fitted to bureaucracy and mass industrialization. It functioned only if somebody else supplied the jobs and told people what to do. In a postindustrial entrepreneurial age,' he continued, 'don't expect the formerly Prussian parts of Germany to be economically impressive. Budapest and the rest of Hungary are closer to Catholic Munich than to Prussian-Protestant Berlin, and in a new Europe of region-states, the region oriented toward Munich may be stronger.')"

Now, this is just me personally, but a paragraph like that completely turns me on. I can read it 10 times in a row, and I have, and still feel like I have only scratched the surface of what is going on. I have my eye jammed up against a tiny hole in the wall, trying to see the whole world beyond. And I have only that paragraph to go on. It's thrilling.

Tomorrow I'll talk about Hungary's role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the Berlin Wall ever came down, Hungarians were already dismantling the empire in their own country. In a very sneaky and entrepreneurial way. Very cool.

Next: The events of 1989

  contact Sheila Link: 12/03/2002 07:27:00 AM



 
QUOTE OF THE DAY

"Don't make me any more movies where the people write with feathers." -- Jack Warner to his producers

  contact Sheila Link: 12/03/2002 07:22:00 AM



 
I AM CRYING WITH LAUGHTER

Here is Dave Barry's latest: . . . And to all a good fa la la. It has completely hit my funny bone. I am crying and guffawing with laughter at my desk. I can't really pull any quotes out, because the humor lies in the accumulation of details and observations. Trust me. Just read it. Still laughing over here ...

  contact Sheila Link: 12/02/2002 02:36:00 PM


Monday, December 02, 2002  

 
CORRECTIONS

I have received an email from my father, with some corrections to my earlier post about the Malcolm X quote debacle.

Correction #1 I erroneously said that the word for "healing place of the soul" was in Latin over the library door. This is incorrect. It actually is in Greek letters.

Correction #2 The original "healing place of the soul" lettering was not at the library at Alexandria, as I so blithely stated. It was over the door of the library of Ramses II in Egypt. (There is a question though: are these two, in actuality, the same library?)

  contact Sheila Link: 12/02/2002 10:18:00 AM



 

FOCUS ON: HUNGARY


I have received my first request for this feature. I have been asked to "do" Hungary, which I will gladly take on.

Geography as destiny

There is an enormous panoramic field on the eastern side of Hungary which is called "The Great Plain". "Field" is a ridiculous way to describe this plain, but if you can imagine a field which takes up an entire half of a country, then you will know what I am talking about. Like the western plains in America. An unbroken field, stretching for hundreds of miles. As has been described in this blog before, only in regards to other places, this plain was a crossing-ground, a land-bridge, a connector of peoples way back into antiquity.

This is a long way of saying geography is destiny.

It makes a lot of sense if you check it out on a map. I actually just spent 15 minutes searching the Web for a good topographical map of the area, and came up lacking. Frustrating. If you have access to a globe, just look at Hungary, and look at the inverted "C" of the Carpathians, cutting a swath through Romania. See how those mountains block Romania off from surrounding areas, and also see how the Great Plain on the eastern side of Hungary runs right up to the Carpathians, spreading upwards into the foothills of the mountain range, leaving the plain open to the north.

Such a simple thing, but crucial to the development of nations. A huge open plain, surrounded by a curving mountain range, with foothills to the north, providing easy access to the nomadic tribes and wandering people in the Middle Ages and before. This is how Hungary was born.

In 896 A.D. (how in the world do people come up with such specific dates??) seven "Magyar tribes" entered what is now modern-day Hungary, through the Great Plain, after being on the move for more than a thousand years. The Magyars are the ancestors of Hungarians. Who were they? Well, how the hell should I know? Here is all I know, and this is basically regurgitated from one of my books: In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Magyars, along with the Finns, were the first Ural-Altaic peoples in Europe. (Those are two regions in Siberia, by the way.) They were horsemen of the Asian steppe, distantly related to the fantastic Uighur Turks. I have an endless fascination with these ancient little-known equestrian tribes.

The Magyars spent a thousand years migrating from the western edge of Siberia. Who knows why. They passed through the Caucasus, where they encountered Bulgars and Turks before coming in to Hungary.

Here is one of the things I have picked up about the Magyars. They had a genius for assimilation. Their culture was enormously flexible and expansive. Well, perhaps "culture" is not the correct word for a tribe who basically lived on their horses. With no country to call their own. But this assimilative talent is very important to keep in mind, if you want to understand Hungary and present-day Hungarians. It seems that the open intelligence of the Magyars, their willingness to transform, add words to their language taken from the Bulgars and the Turks, is one of the keys to the character of Hungary today.

I just love that. The thought that an ancient tribe's personality can course through the blood of the generations to follow, 600 years later. It seems to me that this view may not be a very politically correct one, but it also seems to me to be true. Why else would my heart rise up out of my chest when I hear bagpipes? Why else would the sound of stamping riverdancing feet make me feel like I am remembering something? I personally did not grow up in Ireland, I was not part of a Celtic tribe, I cannot speak Gaelic ... but there is something familiar about the entire thing. I go to Ireland and it feels like home. Is this just a trick of the mind? As in: I know that my ancestors are Irish and so I relate to the Irish experience? Maybe. But I think that that is just part of what is going on. Perhaps it's a Jungian view of the world. A collective unconscious. In my case, I tap into the collective Irish unconscious, in a way which does not feel intellectual, or analytical, or understood in any normal way. It is like a memory. Only these memories are not my own, personally. They are of "my people".

Tangent over.

Anyway, what is known of the Magyars is that they had a genius for evolution. They came to Europe from Siberia, they were primitive people who lived on their horses, who were buried with their horses, and within a century, a CENTURY, had completely adopted European manners, and a European mindset. This is extraordinary. A century is a blip on the radar screen of history. But the Magyars accomplished this. They must have been an amazing people.

Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, with many words of Turkish. A truly bizarre mix, and it is one of the legacies of the nomadic Magyars.

The Great Plain of Hungary had been important long before the arrival of the Magyars. Way earlier, it had been the northeasternmost frontier region of Rome, and like all frontier regions, it was filled with chaos and conflict. The order provided by the Roman empire dissolved a bit the further away you got from the center, and the Great Plain was filled with tribes, fighting for supremacy.

The Magyars were not the first tribes to pass through this area. For centuries, nomadic tribes with fascinating ancient names (Scythians, Huns, Avars, Tartars, Kumyks) migrated here. But they did not have the staying power of the Magyars, who arrived, settled in, and prospered. These other Central Asian tribes came, left a genetic imprint of one kind or another, and then disappeared off the face of the earth.

I love the idea that ancient history is a better guide to current events than the major newspapers of our day. To understand a country fully, you must go way back. Apparently, in Hungary now, Inner Asian studies has become enormously popular, because the country (after decades of crushing communism) is now interested in understanding its ethnic roots.

The other thing I have mentioned here which continues to be important in Hungary today, is the topography of the country. It is a small and very flat country. Budapest is in the center. Because there are no physical barriers (like the Carpathian mountains in Romania) it makes it very easy for ideas, movements, influences to move out from Budapest into the rest of the country. Things like Western investment (now a big big deal in Budapest) is fanning outwards, and the entire country is benefiting.

Take a look at Romania. It is filled with enormous mountains, cutting one side of the country off from the other, and the rest of it is thick forests. It must be incredibly beautiful, but it makes it very difficult for Romania to cohere. Eastern and Western Romania may as well be two different countries.

Hungary remains open, assimilative, flexible, expansive. That ancient Magyar blood coursing in the collective unconscious of the country to this day.

Next: Hungarian culture

  contact Sheila Link: 12/02/2002 06:19:00 AM



 
QUOTE OF THE DAY

Actually, it's not just a quote, it's a full poem. By one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver.

Whelks
Here are the perfect
fans of the scallops,
quahogs, and weedy mussels
still holding their orange fruit --
and here are the whelks --
whirlwinds,
each the size of a fist,
but always cracked and broken --
clearly they have been traveling
under the sky-blue waves
for a long time.
All my life
I have been restless --
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss --
than wholeness --
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.
But every morning on the wide shore
I pass what is perfect and shining
to look for the whelks, whose edges
have rubbed so long against the world
they have snapped and crumbled --
they have almost vanished,
with the last relinquishing
of their unrepeatable energy,
back into everything else.
When I find one
I hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shaking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there's a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be
that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.


  contact Sheila Link: 12/02/2002 06:17:00 AM


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