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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1. AZERBAIJAN
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A CODA
After the Blogger Bash, I went down to Rodeo Bar, to hook up with my friend Brooke. More beers were consumed, as we perched on bar stools, eating peanuts and tossing the shells onto the floor. At one point, I was talking to her about my love life, my disappointing love life, and I said, emphatically, "I am NO LONGER going to do ANY MORE WORK. I have HAD it. I want someone who is brave enough to just COME UP TO ME and ask me for my phone number ... I am SICK of doing the pursuing!"

Literally 5 minutes later, a man came over to us (I will not say his name)... he engaged us in conversation and within 10 minutes he was whispering to my friend Brooke, "Sheila has such a big heart. She needs somebody to pursue her. She needs somebody to treat her well." Then he told me that I HAD to go out with him on Valentine's Day. "We must be together! I am already planning where I want to take you!" Ha ha ha ha....It was out of the blue, and also too funny because I had just stated, categorically, what I wanted, and Mystery Man strolled up and fulfilled it all.

He's from Iran. I bombarded him with questions. I asked him, "Will Iran be a democracy? Is it gonna happen or what?"

He said, "Yes. Very soon."

"Oh, God, I hope so."

Then I told him I wanted to visit Iran. It is on my top 5 places-I-want-travel list. He said, "Oh, you would love Iran! You would just have to cover your hair."

I thought he said I would have to "color" my hair. "What? I would have to color my hair?"

"No! No! Cover."

"Ohhhhh. Right. Of course."

Anyway, I gave him my phone number ... not because I was swept away by him or anything, he actually came on a little bit TOO strong, but I had to give him the phone number really because of how he appeared, manifesting exactly what I just said I wanted. I don't want to spit too much in the face of fate!

Me to Brooke: "I want somebody to come up and ask me out, and have the courage to take that risk!!"
He appears. "I want to go out with you. As soon as possible."

Ha ha ha....Life is funny sometimes.

Then Brooke and I danced to the music of the Niagaras (Brooke's favorite band) ... thrashing about, and bouncing up and down, losing our minds. It was gloriously fun.

A good night, all in all.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/08/2003 03:57:00 PM


Saturday, February 08, 2003  

 
THE BLOGGER BASH

I got over my crippling shyness and showed up at the bash. A ton of people showed, and everyone had name tags, with their blog ID on them. I felt like we were strange members of an Up-with-People type group. A couple of laughing conversations were had about walking through the rest of the bar proper, with our goof-ball nametags on. But it was amazing how having those damn name-tags eased the social awkwardness.

The first person I met was GI Jane, one of the hosts of the bash. She was lovely, welcoming ... handed me a nametag ... took one look at me and exclaimed: "You're redheaded Sheila!"

Within 2 minutes, Aaron introduced himself. He was talking to somebody else (Mark ... please forgive me, I cannot remember your blog name!). I said, "So, how long have you guys known each other?" They said, in unison, "Oh, we just met 5 minutes ago." It was that kind of night.

Beers were 6 dollars.

Aaron works for National Review Online, which was completely thrilling for me to hear. I bombarded him with ridiculous fan-like questions (as though he said he were Eminem's personal assistant or something). "Do you know Jonah Goldberg? How about Rod Dreher? John Derbyshire is such a homophobic asshole!!" It was very cool, though.

We hooked up with Alex, standing with our backs up against the wall. Crushed in a rather unfortunate location, hovering by the stairwell ... on the edge of the abyss. There was another guy speaking with us ... Jameson is his blog ... but I can't find him since he didn't RSVP ... so again: forgive me for having some names correct and others not ... Everybody was very amusing, very interesting. I liked everyone I met. We drank beers. We laughed. We shared blogging tales. Alex is a veteran (been blogging 2 years). We also all laughed about the possibility of all of us blogging about each other's drunken behavior the next day. "If I tie one on and fall down the stairs, please don't write about it tomorrow," said Alex.

Later in the evening, I had a very fun conversation with Ursula, and she said something which rang so true: "I just love to be in a group of people where you don't have to describe what blogging is!" True, true. We're all in the blogosphere together. We all have that desire to communicate, to express ... and we all have "blogs".

One guy, not a part of our group, stumbled over to me rather drunkenly, held onto my arm a bit inappropriately, and said, (his face a bit too close) "What is this group? Who are you people?"

I said, tentative, "Uh ... we're all bloggers."

He said, "You're loggers?"

I burst into laughter. "Yes. I am a lumberjack." Me with my long red hair and peasant shirt. I am a logger.

So yes, Ursula was correct. It is freeing to say, "Yes, I have a blog" without people saying, "WHAT? You have a WHAT?"

The other thing Ursula said which I loved is that the blog community is so diverse, so wide-spread, and you end up hanging out with people and meeting people whom you never would have discovered without the blog world. We come from all walks of life, we have different kinds of blogs, we are from all over the world ... but we have this one thing in common. It's very cool. It makes the world seem like such a smaller place. The connections between all of us ...

Others met: Erin, the giggle chick, Brian the 646 guy, (one of the hosts as well) ... and a couple of other people whose blog names I do not know . .. therefore I cannot refer to you with any specificity ... Bummer!

This is a post full of name drrrrrrops....

I had a wonderful time. I really did.

Oh, and Asparagirl showed up. She is the reason I have a blog. I love her writing. Aaron was talking with her as I was leaving, and he called me over and said, "This is Sheila ... Sheila's also a conservative." Too funny ... it was like we are ancient Christians, fearing for our lives, drawing signals in the sand to each other, like: "Are you one too?" Asparagirl burst out laughing, and reached out to hug me. Then we all just were laughing boisterously, happy that we were conservatives, happy that we had found each other. I behaved a little bit like a geek, I think, when I realized who she was. "You're famous! You're why I have a blog!"

But that's okay. It was lovely to meet everybody. It was fantastic.

Thank you all for a beautiful bash ... and I look forward to the next one!

  contact Sheila Link: 2/08/2003 03:20:00 PM



 

FOCUS ON: THE CZECH REPUBLIC


The spirit of Prague

I'm not done with Czechoslovakia yet. I'm all worked up. Havel's speech made me well up with tears. I went out to stand in the snow and cry a little bit.

A passerby in 2003 Manhattan would have thought I was insane, if he or she had asked me why the tears.

"Ma'am, are you all right? Why are you crying? Did your boyfriend break up with you?"

"Oh ... uh ... no. I'm crying because of Vaclav Havel's speech to the Czech people in 1990."

Klima on Prague:
The Prague of past eras is gone. No one can bring the murdered back to life, and most of those who were driven out will probably never return to the city. Nevertheless Prague has survived and has, finally, tasted freedom again. Its spirit is intact as well. This manifested itself vividly during the revolution that opened the way to freedom in 1989. Revolutions are usually marked by high-sounding slogans and flags; blood flows, or at least glass is shattered and stones fly.

The November revolution, which earned the epithet "velvet", differed from other revolutions not only in its peacefulness, but also in the main weapon used in the struggle. It was ridicule. Almost every available space in Prague -- the walls of the buildings, the subway stations, the windows of buses and streetcars, shop windows, lampposts, even statues and monuments -- were covered, in the space of a few days, with an unbelievable number of signs and posters. Although the slogans had a single object -- to overthrow the dictatorship -- their tone was light, ironic. The citizens of Prague delivered the coup de grace to their despised rulers not with a sword, but with a joke. Yet at the heart of this original, unemotional style of struggle there dwelt a stunning passion. It was the most recent and perhaps the most remarkable paradox to date in the life of this remarkable city.

Klima on Kafka, yet another extraordinary Czech writer
What you call the dream world was, for Kafka, the real world -- the world in which order reigned, in which people were able to grow fond of each other, make love, raise families, be orderly in all their duties -- but for him, with his obsessive truthfulness, this world was unattainable. His heroes suffered not because they could not realize their dreams, but because they were not strong enough properly to enter the real world, to fulfill their duty.

The reason Kafka was banned under communist regimes is explained in a single sentence by the hero of my novel Love and Garbage: "What matters most about Kafka's personality is his honesty." A regime that is built on deception, that asks people to pretend, that demands external agreement without caring about the inner conviction of those to whom it turns for consent, a regime afraid of anyone who asks about the sense of his actions, cannot allow anyone whose veracity attained such fascinating or even terrifying completeness to speak to the people.

If you ask what Kafka meant to me, we get back to the question we somehow keep circling. On the whole Kafka was an unpolitical writer. I like to quote the entry in his diary for 2 August 1914. "Germany has declared war on Russia. -- Swimming in the afternoon." Here the historic, world-shaking plane and the personal one are exactly level ...

Kafka's metaphors were so powerful that they far exceeded his original intentions. I know that The Trial as well as "In the Penal Colony" have been explained as ingenious prophecies of the terrible fate that befell the Jewish nation during the war, which broke out fifteen years after Kafka's death. But it was no prophecy of genius; these works merely prove that a creator who knows how to reflect his most personal experiences deeply and truthfully also touches the suprapersonal or social spheres. Again I am answering the question about political content in literature. Literature doesn't have to scratch around for political realities, or even worry about systems that come and go; it can transcend them and still answer questions that the system evokes in people.

This is the most important lesson that I extracted for myself from Kafka.

Klima on Havel
Havel's candidacy for president and his later election were, in the first place, an expression of the precipitate, truly revolutionary course of events in this country. When I was returning from a meeting of one of the committees of Civic Forum [the organization Havel formed in November, 1989, to investigate police brutality] one day towards the end of November, my friends and I were saying to each other that the time was near when we should nominate our candidate for the office of president. We agreed then that the only candidate to consider, for he enjoyed the relatively wide support of the public, was Alexander Dubcek. But it became clear a few days later that the revolution had gone beyond the point where any candidate who was connected, if only by his past, with the Communist Party, was acceptable to the younger generation of Czechs.

At that moment the only suitable candidate emerged -- Vaclav Havel.

To a certain sector of the Czech public, Havel was, indeed, more or less unknown, or known as the son of a rich capitalist, even as a convict, but the revolutionary ethos that seized the nation brought about a change of attitude. In a certain atmosphere, in the midst of a crowd, however civil and restrained, an individual suddenly identifies himself with the prevailing mood and state of mind, and captures the crowd's enthusiasm. It's true that the majority of the country shared in the doings of the former system, but it's also true that the majority hated it just because it had made them complicit in its awfulness, and hardly anyone still identified himself with that regime which had so often humiliated, deceived and cheated them.

Within a few days, Havel became the symbol of revolutionary change, the man who would lead society out of its crisis.

Klima on fear and power
If power becomes so total that it can commit any arbitrary act, can falsely accuse anyone, arrest, try and sentence him for imaginary crimes, confiscate his property, his job, his freedom and, on top of it all, publicly dishonor him with insults, then fear can also become so total that almost none of those things need actually be done to maintain it. The powers that be need only occasionally demonstrate that they are willing and able to behave arbitrarily. We live in a world in which the powerful govern by means unlike anything humanity has ever known. They can control and exterminate individuals and entire peoples. As long as these means exist, our world will reamin a world of fear.

The fear that sleeps in the beds of the powerless gives a strong impetus to their dreams and their actions. The powerless person longing to escape his anxiety usually sees only two ways out: to flee beyond the reach of the hostile powers, or to become powerful himself. Fear engenders dreams of power.

...Power is soulless and it is derived from soullessness. It builds on it and draws its strength from it. Soullessness keeps company with fear. People who have given up their souls have only a body, and it is the body they are terrified for ... People who have not given up their souls can overcome fear because they know that in the end, fear comes from within and not from without. The person who has let anxiety from the external world replace his soul can never drive out his fear. Anyone who has defended his soul, his inner integrity, and is prepared to surrender everything, to risk even his freedom of movement and, in extreme need, even his life, cannot be broken by fear and is thus beyond the reach of power. He becomes free, he becomes a partner of power, not as a competitor in the struggle for control of the country, people and things, but as a living reminder of the mendacity and the transcience of everything power defends and represents ...

A person who, out of inner need, consistently stands up to the powerful, risking everything, has a single small hope: that by his actions, he will remind those in power where that power came from, what its origins are and what their responsibility is, and perhaps he will make them a little more human.

Klima on the 1968 invasion
The invasion of my country in August 1968 was a singular act in modern history: it was the only time a foreign country had intervened militarily in the peaceful affairs of a neighbor to which it was allegedly tied with bonds of friendship. The invasion was, of course, traumatic for most citizens ... But the shameful nature of the invasion indelibly tarnished all those whose intention it was to renew the old-style totalitarian power.

As I have said, the appearance of being cultured and civilized is particularly important in Czech lands, where centuries of national and cultural repression have made culture, and especially literature, popular and highly respected. The powers-that-be needed poets to cloak their intentions and actions in verse ... But they needed them pliant, or even broken ... The powers-that-be were usually able to win over a part of the intellectual elite through promises, bribery, concessions and sometimes even by force.

But how could a power that was indelibly tarnished win them over? It could not. It sensed its own isolation and therefore decided to use compulsion. The early 70s were a turning-point for both the powers-that-be and for Czech culture. The regime decided to break those who, in their eyes, represented that culture, even at the cost of destroying the culture altogether. For their part, the members of the intellectual elite decided that they would rather be destroyed than have anything to do with this indelibly tarnished power.

Klima on the 1989 velvet revolution
The authorities frequently used police brutality to break up memorial assemblies to commemorate the country's national holiday or the memory of Jan Palach ... Those who came to pay their respects to a person who symbolized the possibility of individual protest taken to its furthest extreme became the object of a violent attack by special units who used truncheons, water-cannons and tear-gas. People, mostly the young, decided not to give way to violence.

For 5 consecutive days the peaceful assemblies were repeated, and on four occasions the police used violence to break them up. Several people were arrested, Vaclav Havel among them.

During these events, which aroused the emotions of the whole country, the cruel truth about power was publicly revealed for the first time. At this critical juncture, the government could not find a single person with sufficient authority to address the nation. No one was willing to give public support to the regime, but many could be found to protest against police brutality, against imprisoning the innocent. Among the protestors were actors, filmmakers, and writers who, until then, the regime had believed to be on "its side".

In this critical situation, the authorities -- and it is hard to say whether this was out of stupidity or desperation or arrogance, or the awareness that they were indeed indelibly tarnished -- refused all invitations by the cultural opposition to take part in a dialogue. The deep chasm between totalitarian power and all the "shaken", to use Patocka's term, became unbridgeable. It was clear that any further error, any further act of arrogance, might be fatal.

What happened in November 1989 is well known. As an eyewitness and a participant, I wish to emphasize that this revoltuion, which really was the outcome of a clash between culture and power, was the most non-violent revolution imaginable. In the mass meetings attended by up to three-quarters of a million people, no one was hurt, not a window was broken, not a car damaged. Many of the tens of thousands of pamphlets that flooded Prague and other cities and towns urged people to peaceful, tolerant action; not one called for ciolence. For those who still believe in the power of culture, the power of words, of good and of love, and their dominance over violence, who believe that neither the poet nor Archimedes, in their struggle against the man in uniform, are beaten before they begin, the Prague revolution must have been an inspiration

Next country: UZBEKISTAN

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 05:34:00 PM


Friday, February 07, 2003  

 

FOCUS ON: THE CZECH REPUBLIC


Vaclav Havel's speech, 1990

Vaclav Havel made a speech on January 1, 1990, immediately following all of the extraordinary changes which had occurred in his country. This speech (like Reagan's speech about the Challenger explosion) made it into the book I have of "the greatest speeches of the 20th century". Occasionally, I read through the book, just so I can get all riled up and excited. It's that kind of book.

And Havel's speech, broadcast on the radio, set the tone for all that was to follow. It is referred to as "the contaminated moral environment" speech. After decades of double-speak, decades of being lied to by their own government, decades of muffling their true sentiments, Vaclav Havel stood up and told the truth. He had been preparing for this moment since the 1960s.

And that's another thing. We, as human beings, can recognize truth when we hear it. We know when we're being lied to, deceived. Truth is unmistakable, and Havel knew that.

Quotes from his speech:

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nation is not being used sensibly ... We have polluted our soil, our rivers and forests, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adult people in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous ...

The previous regime -- armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology -- reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production ... It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy, and stinking machine, whose real meaning is not clear to anyone ...

When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere ... I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all -- though naturally to differing extremes -- responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators ...

We have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us only, to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty that each of us faces today, namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly ... Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts ...

In the effort to rectify matters ... we have something to lean on. The recent period -- and in particular, the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution -- has shown the enormous human, moral, and spiritual potential and civil culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is not wise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical, and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake from their shoulders in several weeks and in a decent and peaceful way the totalitarian yoke...

There are free elections and an election campaign ahead of us. Let us not allow this struggle to dirty the so far clean face of our gentle revoltuion ... It is not really important now which party, club, or group will prevail in the elections. The important thing is that the winners will be the best of us, in the moral, civil, political and professional sense, regardless of their political affiliations ...

In conclusion, I would like to say that I want to be a president who will speak less and work more. To be a president who will ... always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.

You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just, in short, of a humane republic which serves the individual and which therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social, or political.

People, your government has returned to you!


And lastly: Ivan Klima on the spirit of Prague

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 04:36:00 PM



 

FOCUS ON: THE CZECH REPUBLIC


The 20th century

This is mercilessly long. Just a little heads-up. But it is such a great story.

Post World War I...
World War I ended with the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Czechs, free at last, won recognition as a free and independent state. Actually, the Czech people and the Slovak people decided to join up and unite. They created what became known as Czechoslovakia: a single federal state of two equal republics. Things were moving right along, going well, until the Great Depression came, and they, like everybody else, fell on hard times. The economy plummeted so low that the Slovaks started thinking they should secede (as though the rest of the world wasn't suffering as well, and it was the CZECHS who were holding the Slovaks down!) So there were definitely some problems, some underlying tension in this unification.

World War II
But all of that became meaningless with the outbreak of World War II. Czechoslovakia's location was disastrous for them. I mean, in actuality, their location was strategically fantastic for them in other times. They sat right on one of those most significant land routes in Europe, which was all very good for shipping goods in and out, for their military to move in and out, for trade to travel. But with all of Europe gone to hell, Czechoslovakia was caught right in the middle.

Take a look at this map, take a look at the countries surrounding them (at the time, Slovakia was part of the nation though, of course), and it is obvious how trapped they were. It is like they are trapped in a vise: Germany chomping on them to the West like a big Pacman, Austria resting beneath them like quicksand ... it's a terrible scene.

Czechoslovakia had millions of German-speakers, who got caught up in the nationalistic fever happening in the Pacman-country to the West. They wanted to join their country-men. They NEEDED to join their German countrymen. Hitler agreed. This is the whole "Sudetenland German" problem. The first terrible moment of appeasement.

The Munich Agreement, the betrayal of the Allies
And this is where Czechoslovakia was sold down the damn river in the Munich Agreement in 1938. Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland be returned to him. And then (famous last words): "That will be my last demand! All I want is the Sudetenland!" It was given to him. Czechoslovakia was handed to Germany by the countries of Europe. There was a Czech underground, there were protests, there was some preparation for going head-to-head with Hitler all on their own, since the big leaders of Europe seemed willing to let them be chewed up and spit out. Europe basically said to Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement, "Buh-bye. We are feeding you to the lions. Sorry." Most of the Czech intelligentsia were killed (and, and this is very important to remember: resistance in Czechoslovakia has always been at the hands of the intellectuals ... it is not a country where the blue-collar workers rise up and start screaming). So the Germans, of course, knew this, and all of the intelligentsia were shipped off to concentration camps or just killed outright.

Ivan Klima, a Czechoslovakian writer (I love his stuff), was sent to a concentration camp as a small boy. There is a wonderful collection of his essays called The Spirit of Prague which I'm going to quote from later. He's awesome. He is one of those fantastic writers who can really DESCRIBE totalitarianism. No theory, no abstractions. He can actually describe what the hell goes on in totalitarian societies.

But anyway. Onward.

The Germans leave, the Soviets arrive
In 1945, the Czechs were rising up against the German forces, war breaking out, mini-battles, fighting for their lives. With no help from the Allies, I might add, who had abandoned them in the Munich Agreement. Meanwhile, the Soviets were closing in on them from the east. On May 5, 1045, the Czech resistance in Prague rose up so fiercely against the Germans, that the German troops retreated out of the country. By that point, the German army was a rag-tag bunch of terrified starving soldiers, trying to do their best for the Fuhrer, but losing, losing, losing. They had already lost. This was a big victory for the Czechs, but then, on May 8, 1945, three days later, the Soviets rolled into town.

This is getting a little bit complicated ... let me try to be clear.

Under the Soviet umbrella
Czechoslovakia was established as an independent state in the Soviet sphere. There were large-scale deportations of German and Hungarian populations. The Germans who were deported following World War II, are still, to this day, demanding the return of their property. The country was permitted the freest multiparty democracy in Eastern Europe. This was mostly because there was genuine sympathy for Communists already existing in Czechoslovakia. They did not have to be won over. They already believed it was the right way to go. So in Czechoslovakia you didn't see the kind of harsh enforced Communism the way you saw in Poland or Lithuania or many other places. They didn't fight back because they agreed.

An interesting factoid that I pulled off the CIA website (and I suppose you can take these statistics with a grain of salt): the religious breakdown in the Czech Republic goes like this:

40% atheist
39% Roman Catholic
4% Protestant

That really stood out for me. It got my attention. Atheists are counted as the largest religious group in the country. If this number is true, then it would make sense that the Communists didn't have as tough a time, since Communists promoted atheism. And in other countries, seriously Catholic countries like Poland, forced atheism down the people's throats. The Poles fought back HARD against enforced atheism. The Communists, to punish them, would turn their cathedrals into "Museums of Atheism". This would not have upset the Czechs as much as it did other more religiously faithful countries.

They had elections in 1946 and the Communist candidates won the majority of the popular vote. This was one of the only instances where a country occupied by the Soviet Union willingly chose Communists to run their country. But by 1948, with the economy still suffering, the country going bankrupt, support for Communism was definitely waning. People were starting to get all stirred up again. The Communists could feel that they might be losing their grasp, so in 1948 they organized a coup d'etat, and seized absolute power, through the unions and the police. And Czechoslovakia fell. And fell. And fell.

After 1948
It soon became one of the most repressive regimes in Eastern Europe. People imprisoned, executed, sent off into exile, sent off to prison camps, the gulag ... All dissent was squashed, through fear and terror. Only the intellectuals kept the identity of Czechoslovakia alive. Only the intellectuals tried to keep the Czech language alive. Only the intellectuals tried to maintain the memory of the country. Everybody else was cowed. Beaten.

Then along comes:

The 1960s
Czechoslovakia started waking up. I suppose it must have been the tenor of the times, but there were other factors as well. The 1960s was a fever, spreading all over the world. The Czechs experienced a cultural awakening, they started remembering who they were. But along with the Zeitgeist of the time, a lot of this awakening had to do with who was in charge of the country: Alexander Dubcek. He was a Communist, he was one of the founders of the Czech Communist Party actually. But he had other ideas from Moscow. He began making moves to liberalize the country. He wanted to end censorship. He wanted to open up dialogues again. His motto was: "We will show the world Socialism with a Human Face." Socialism with a Human Face. He wanted to prove to the world that Communism need not be synonymous with Dictatorship. He dismantled any vestige of a personality cult around himself (a necessity for all other Communist leaders). He promised the Czechs "rule of law".

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for the people of Czechoslovakia at that heady time. I can only imagine. Hope rising up, happiness, freedom, being able to SPEAK, being able to feel like they are joining the rest of the world again, after decades of repression, hope, hope, all of this hope coming from their LEADER. Who seemed to hear what they were saying, expressing their own desires.

All of this was going on without the blessing of Moscow. Dubcek, a die-hard old Communist, assumed that the Soviets would not care. He trusted the leaders in Moscow. He underestimated them.

He, maybe even more than the Czech people themselves, was devastated by what happened next.

1968: The Prague Spring
The Prague Spring refers to the cultural awakening coming to a real head through the early months of 1968. There was a sense of possiblity, of hope.

Moscow was alarmed by what was going on in Czechoslovakia. They had no interest in promoting Socialism with a Human Face. Too much freedom. Freedom of the press means that people can criticize us, and if people can criticize us then the cracks in the entire facade will widen ... We must have an unbroken Red Wall of Unity to present to the rest of the world. Nobody can deviate from the party line.

Moscow demanded that all of the Warsaw Pact allies participate in an invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush Socialism with a Human Face, to crush what was also called "the Czech Experiment". (An interesting sidenote: Nicolae Ceausescu, dictator of Romania, refused to join in the invasion ... and because of that, the West LOVED him, and ignored the fact that the man was a villain, a despot, a crackpot. He was wined and dined all over the West for not stepping in line with the rest of the Warsaw Pact, and hailed as a maverick leader. Yeah, he was a maverick all right! So maverick that he starved his own citizens in order to built dams, he turned off heat and electricity in the middle of the winter so he could pay back the country's debt ahead of schedule, he criminalized birth control ... you remember those horror images of starving Romanian orphans strapped to their beds in the late 1980s? That's his doing. Anyway. Onward.)

In early August of 1968, the entire leadership of Czechoslovakia was flown to Moscow, to be scolded by Brezhnev. Actually, he wasn't just scolding them. He was warning them. "Cut this shit OUT." Dubcek (a real hero) refused to cut the shit out. He refused to turn his back on his ideas that Socialism did not have to mean cruelty and tyranny. He would not denounce the Prague Spring. But Dubcek still did not believe that Moscow would invade. He did not believe that Moscow would turn on him. He was brainwashed and indoctrinated as well.

On the night of August 20-21, the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague and took the city back by force. By the next day, 58 people had been killed.

Wenceslas Square, in Prague, was the focal point of the resistance to the Soviet invasion. (See the movie "Unbearable Lightness of Being" for an incredible look at what it must have been like.) Chaos. Horror. Grief. And utter betrayal. The experiment was over.

The world was horrified. But nobody did anything. Nobody stopped it. The Czechs, once again, were thrown to the wolves.

Dark dark days ahead.

The Crackdown
After the invasion, Gustav Husak was responsible for whipping the country back into shape. He himself had been a victim of Stalinist repression and had spent 8 years in prison. That, to me, is one of the most insidious things about such tyranny: the persecuted become the persecutor. Nobody escapes. Husak whirled through this country like a tornado. He did a major purge of the Czech Communist Party, getting rid of anybody who might have sympathized with the idea of Socialism with a Human Face. Anybody who might even be on the FENCE about it was gone. And major Stalinist hard-liners were brought in to replace them.

And once again, nothing changed in Czechoslovakia until 1989 when everything fell apart in two weeks time.

The country was completely closed off from the rest of the world. Prague became a Communist backwater, as opposed to one of Europe's premier cities. Nobody could travel, nobody could leave. Censorship was imposed. All liberalization programs introduced by Dubcek were cut off.

Oh, and what happened to Dubcek?? The father of Czechoslovakian Communism was forced to resign, obviously, in 1969, and then he was kept under house arrest from 1968 until 1987. That's a damn long time. And he wasn't allowed to communicate, or write, or let the Czech people know he was alive, and still around. The Communists, in the words of the Mafia, "disappeared" Dubcek. I am so glad they didn't "disappear" him forever, because ... once the Soviet Union started collapsing, suddenly Dubcek emerged again, and the Czech nation was able to express, openly, to him just how much he meant to them. Just how much they appreciated his sacrifices. How much, basically, that they loved him. Nobody had heard from him in decades. And then ... like a ghost ... he comes out from house arrest, accompanied by Vaclav Havel, and the people of Czechoslovakia, waking up once again, could not believe their eyes. Dubcek! The man who tried to set them free! His emergence made them remember who they were. And then they fought back like hell, and toppled the house of cards. At last.

Incredible. I'm very moved right now.

1968 - 1989
We are talking about a hardline Stalinist regime. Who knows what was going on in the privacy of Czechoslovakian homes, but on the outside: they became a drab backwards silent Communist country. The borders closed up, the trade unions shut down, everything got very reactionary, and extremely rigid.

GLASNOST
Gorbachev's idea of glasnost was a huge threat to Husak. Husak LIVED in the shadow of the 1968 invasion. He never wanted to be the leader when the country rebelled. He did not want the humiliation of Dubcek, being rejected by his former Communist friends. Husak refused to take on glasnost as a concept, even though Gorbachev was encouraging all of his "clients" to do so. Husak held on, and held on tight, to the old way.

And again, it was as though the Czech people were under a cloud. Glasnost did not infect the Czech nation. The 1968 invasion had been so devastating, so painful. The only people protesting, and demanding that Husak start adopting glasnost, were the intellectuals. The writers. Vaclav Havel, most of all. Vaclav Havel had been there the whole time, stirring up shit, creating human rights organizations, writing plays, getting arrested, getting in trouble ... but it was never enough to make the population rise up. It was more like a "cafe" revolution. Tortured intellectuals talking about a better world over cups of coffee, while outside, all the normal people slogged off to work, unaware, uncaring.

As the astonishing changes started sweeping through Eastern Europe, during 1988 and 1989, the Husak regime became more and more alarmed. Their response was to crack down harder and harder, isolate their country even more. How that could be possible, I do not know. But that was their goal.

Oh, and I forgot to tell about one important thing:

Jan Palach ... and what he meant
The year after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1969, Jan Palach, a young student in Prague, burned himself to death in the middle of Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion of his country. Burned himself to death.

By the way, I said something incorrect the other day. January was not the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. No. January 16 is the anniversary of Jan Palach burning himself to death. In 1969.

In the years after that, the decades after that, nobody was ever allowed to memorialize Palach. People would secretly gather together on the day of his death to remember him, but any public sentiment of mourning for Palach was punishable with prison time. This was one of Havel's raison d'etres: every single year he would stage some sort of public memorial service for Palach, and every year he would get arrested. But this never stopped him, this never shut him up. Palach WOULD be remembered.

Again, I have tears in my eyes. I was only one years old at the time of all of this, I had no idea what was going on ... but it moves me very deeply. As though I were there.

Today, the spot of his death is marked with a cross and a plaque. People every year gather around to remember this martyr for the cause of a free Czechoslovakia.

So back to glasnost.

Glasnost
Suddenly ... unbelievably ... during 1988 and 1989, without Moscow's "permission", without Husak's "permission", Czech people started flaunting forbidden things: the Czech flag, photos of Dubcek, photos of Palach. They were, in the words of Havel, "behaving AS IF they were free in an unfree nation". It was a quiet rebellion, though. No demands for change were made, and Husak created an environment that barely let the Czech people breathe on their own.

On November 17, 1989, the Communist youth movement in Prague organized a demonstration, a peaceful demonstration, to memorialize 9 students killed by the Nazis in 1939. A peaceful crowd of 50,000 people gathered. Mostly students and intellectuals. The workers of the country remained slumbering. Rip Van Winkle. The Husak regime brutally crushed this peaceful demonstration. 500 people were beaten by the police. 100 people were arrested.

And this, suddenly, was the spark. The straw. The galvanizing moment when the entire Czech nation woke up, and started screaming right along with Vaclav Havel.

Instead of crushing the rebellion, the regime, through its own actions, exploded it into an inferno.

The Velvet Revolution
Let me try to describe it to you from an uber-perspective, so you can get just how fast this all happened. It gives me chills, even to think about it.

But anyway, here's a little timeline, which stuns me every time I look at it:

In 1988: Czechoslovakia remained a place of repressive calm. The only loudmouth was Vaclav Havel.

In 1989: a movement began, a student movement. The students began calling for a change in government, they began calling for change.

Oct. 1989: 10,000 students demonstrated, calling for change. There was a massive show of force from the government. Heavily armed police put down the demonstrations, and the tyrants stayed in power. (Here's something else: by December, 2 months later, the entire Communist Party in Czechoslovakia had resigned. I mean, this is stunning. But I get head of myself.)

Nov. 17, 1989: The demonstration which was the spark I have spoken of, people arrested, people beaten.

The days following Nov. 17: Instead of shutting up, the students kept demonstrating. Every single day. Every single day the crowds got larger, and larger, and larger. The workers, so long asleep, left their jobs, went on strike, and joined the students. Constant demonstrations. Everyone was talking now! Husak had no more authority. It was OVER.

More in November, 1989, it was a big month: Vaclav Havel, at the forefront, created an organization called the Civic Forum, to investigate charges of police brutality on November 17. He was relentless. And every day, the crowds got bigger. And louder. Vaclav Havel not only was calling for investigations, he was also calling for the entire Communist Party to resign.

And...

on November 24, 1989 They did. The entire Politburo resigned, in one shot.

AND: (it gets better, it gets even more breathtaking)

On December 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel is elected president of the new free Czechoslovakia. And Dubcek, good old Dubcek, had emerged from hiding, and was elected speaker of the national assembly.

A peaceful transition of power. The Communists basically giving up, and walking away. Unbelievable. Takes my breath away.

The days after the November 17 demonstration became known as "the velvet revolution" because there was not one casualty. Which, compared to other countries in Eastern Europe, is phenomenal.

Well, what else can I say, after all of that! But still, the story continues.

In 1993, the nation experienced what they called "a velvet divorce" from the Slovaks. They split into two national components: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Havel is still president of Czechoslovakia. They are now a member of NATO, and are preparing to join the EU. Their economic policies have been working for them, and they have made an amazing economic recovery, after decades of Soviet mismanagement. Tourism is booming. The industrial base (completely decrepit and outdated through the years of Communism) has been updated, and is functioning at a very high level. There are goods to buy, the cities are blossoming, Prague is BACK. They've still got problems, of course. Every country does. They suffer under severe pollution, there's a lot of crime ... but these are the basic problems for every city. The Czech Republic has joined the world again. And it's a beautiful thing.

It's one of my favorite stories of the 20th century. The story of their "velvet revolution".

Next: Vaclav Havel's speech, January, 1990

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 02:30:00 PM



 
CASHEL AND THE COMPOSERS

More on nephew Cashel. For Christmas he was given a little interactive book about famous dead composers. You press on the page, and certain facts are spoken out by a narrator, and you can also hear snippets of the music. Cashel has decided that he wants to be Mozart for Halloween next year. His mother said to me that she feels the dead composers have become the new "Star Wars", in Cashel's mind. One obsession replaced by another.

So he will randomly declare facts about composers to Maria, his mother. "So-and-so could read music by the time he was 3 years old."

He also said to Maria (and I quote): "A man named Holst wrote some music about the planets. The music for Neptune had a soothing harmonic sound, and the music for Mars was a fierce and martial sound." Cashel is 5. He said the words "soothing harmonic" and "fierce martial sound" right to Maria. Oh GOD, I love that.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 02:18:00 PM



 
COLISEUM RETURNS

Coliseum Books, my 2nd favorite book store in Manhattan (after the Strand), is reopening on 42nd Street. I was so disappointed when it closed up shop on Columbus Circle last year. It pissed me off, Barnes & Noble crushing out the terrific independent booksellers in the city. So it's returning, and it's in my neck of the woods now, so I'm thrilled about it.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 12:54:00 PM



 
FOR DAVID WAGNER...

David: read this piece. You'll dig it.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 12:24:00 PM



 
THE RIGHT TO OPPOSE

I completely agree with Eugene Volokh's piece. The same right to free speech which applies to my views about war have to apply to the people who oppose. That's what being an American really means.

The following paragraph made me want to cheer, coming, as I have, fresh off the John Adams biography:

--I firmly support a war against Iraq, but it's vital that the people have a right to oppose it, both as a matter of moral and political principle, and as a matter of medium- and long-term practicality. Today, the war is, I think, wise. But what if it stops being wise? Or what if I'm wrong even now? A democracy needs an opposition, especially in time of war, precisely to keep the government honest, and to point to whatever errors (or possible errors) it finds in the government's actions.

Also:

--Sometimes, though, the government is wrong — and the only way that we Americans can tell whether the government is wrong is by hearing the arguments on both sides, before the war and during the war ... Free speech has persuaded [me] that war is right. But I'm confident in my position precisely because I know that the war's opponents were free to present their best arguments against it.


  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 12:19:00 PM



 
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

I saw Hoffman's most recent film "Love Liza", and was bored and annoyed. I love Philip Seymour Hoffman, I adore him, but the movie frustrated me with its lack of story, and lack of catharsis. Yes, this man is in deep grief for his wife, he is lost, he is hurting, he is in a fog ... but two hours of that doesn't make a compelling movie! No matter how wonderful and actor Hoffman is. I find it so hard to believe that it won best screenplay at Sundance. What??

Roger Ebert just came out with his review of the film, and he actually liked it more than I did; gave it three stars. However, Ebert closes with a couple of paragraphs which I want to share here. Ebert analyzes characters in films ... how so often characters in films only have emotions because the plot requires them to. How most movie characters only live on the celluloid, you do not get the sense that they are living breathing unpredictable humans, who continue to live when they are off-screen. The great movie characters do that. Occasionally I do find myself thinking, "Huh. Wonder what ever became of Travis Bickle." Travis Bickle is not, technically, real. But he LIVES.

Anyway, I loved Ebert's discussion of this issue at the end of his review for "Love Liza":

Most movies do not contain real people; they contain puppets who conform to popular stereotypes and do entertaining things. In the recent and relatively respectable thriller "The Recruit," for example, Colin Farrell doesn't play a three-dimensional human, nor is he required to. He is a place-holder for a role that has been played before and will be endlessly played again--the kid who chooses a mentor in a dangerous spy game. He is pleasant, sexy, wary, angry, baffled, ambitious and relieved, all on cue, but these emotions do not proceed from his personality; they are generated by the requirements of the plot. Leaving the movie, we may have learned something about CIA spycraft (and a lot more about the manufacturers of thrillers), but there is not one single thing we will have learned about being alive.

Al Pacino is the co-star of that movie, defined and motivated as narrowly as Farrell is. In a new movie named "People I Know," he plays a breathing, thinking human being, a New York press agent driven by drugs, drink, duty and a persistent loyalty to his own political idealism. We learn something about life from that performance. Pacino teaches us, as he is always capable of doing in the right role.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a teacher, too. You should see "Love Liza" in anticipation of his new movie "Owning Mahowny," which I saw at Sundance this year ("Love Liza" was at the 2002 festival, where it won the prize for best screenplay). The Mahowny character is at right angles to Wilson, but seems similarly blocked at an early stage of development. Observing how Mahowny, an addicted gambler, relates to his long-suffering fiancee (Minnie Driver), we can guess at the ordeal that Wilson put Liza through. He's not cruel or angry or mean; he's simply not ... there. His eyes seek other horizons.

In an age when depression and Prozac are not unknown, when the popularity of New Age goofiness reflects an urgent need for reassurance, Hoffman may be playing characters much closer to the American norm than an action hero like Farrell. We cannot all outsmart the CIA and win the girl, but many of us know what it feels like to be stuck in doubt and confusion, and cornered by our own evasions.

There is a kind of attentive concern that Hoffman brings to his characters, as if he has been giving them private lessons, and now it is time for their first public recital. Whether or not they are ready, it can be put off no longer, and so here they are, trembling and blinking, wondering why everyone else seems to know the music.


Very well said.


  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 12:00:00 PM



 
IRANIAN TEENAGE GIRL

I found this link on Little Green Footballs ... a link to the blog of an Iranian teenage girl. Here's a snippet of her writings, but go there, and check it out. She is in the thick of things. She is a teenager. She loves going to the cinema, she is proud (and rightly so) of the film industry in Iran. There are many interesting things here.

-- You know, actually these complicated & hard days, this weblog & friends who I’ve found through it seem just like a light in darkness to me. Just thinking about, having a free place to nag about things around & share thoughts, & some people who read my notes, care about my country & try to give me confident & hope for better future, makes me feel better.

-- It seems that the matter of probable war between US & Iraq is getting more serious. Actually like everyone else I don't like any war & don't like any dependence, not for us & not for any other people or groups in the world, but I believe that in today world all countries are for sure related to each other & a destroyer of rights & liberty must be stopped in any cases. So Saddam as a mad & cruel person must be down, I just wish that the future plans of US make no problem for people of Iraq & no bloody war.

-- The holidays are for the celebration of Islamic republic anniversary, at least that damn revolution has an advantage & that is some free days!!! (Teenagers are the same everywhere, huh! I wonder what the mullahs would think of her attitude. The anniversary of the Islamic republic is really just a holiday from school.)

-- Saturday, February 01, 2003 It was a sad & shocking piece of news; seven die in shuttle disaster! I do believe & feel that the day which people in the world specially US people had was a tragic day & the loss of seven brilliant scientists is a real & hard disaster, & the one who are died now are real heroes...As a human so far away, I sympathize with all others, for the loss of the ones who now have peace & happiness for sure...

Suddenly I have tears in my eyes. Humanity shines through, no matter where you are.

Here is her response to Bush's speech.


  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 10:48:00 AM



 
A THOUGHT

Can I tell you how sick I am of hearing about the mythical "Arab street"? The Arab Street, The Arab Street, The Arab Street, The Arab Street, The Arab Street. That's all I ever hear. If we do this, we will hear from the Arab Street. If we do that, the Arab Street will hate us. If we run through the streets naked, the Arab Street will rise up and kill us all.

I want to know if there really is such a thing as The Arab Street. It seems to me that it is one of those meaningless shorthand terms journalists use, when they don't really have facts or statistics to back up what they are trying to say. We worry obsessively about the Arab Street, as though it is a real entity.

I'm sick of hearing about it.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 10:36:00 AM



 
NYC BLOGGERS BASH

Tonight is the bash of the New York City bloggers! I can't wait to meet everybody ... everybody I have been reading, and getting to know through their blogs.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 10:31:00 AM



 
JOE MILLIONAIRE

I also watched a little bit of "Joe Millionaire" last night. I haven't been watching it at all, but clearly I was surfing, and tripping over all sorts of weird programming, and getting sucked in.

I only saw a little bit of it, but it was the section where Joe (the "millionaire") takes this little busty curly-haired girl to Cannes, and she is "dying to make it to the next round", so she basically behaved like a shameless hussy.

She also said, "I wanted to go out and watch the sun set. So we took a bottle of wine down to the beach. And then the sun setted."

The sun SETTED.

That was when I changed the channel.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 10:23:00 AM



 
WHOA

That Michael Jackson documentary last night was so disturbing. It actually upset me ... made me nervous. It is obvious the man is a very damaged individual ... but I loved him so much during high school, and to see him as such a weirdo is awful. What will happen to him now? I feel that we all must just watch him fall, and fall hard. It sucks. But ... his obvious lying about how he has never had plastic surgery, except for two operations on his nose, is so WEIRD. It seems like he really believes himself. And everything bad in his life is everybody else's fault. Nobody understands him, everyone is out to get him, all of his problems stem from the tabloids, not from his own weird arrested development.

Also, he spent 6 million dollars in one day. Holy mother of God.

I watched it by myself last night, and felt almost like I was watching Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist ... some apocalyptically scary movie that you really MUST watch with somebody else, in order to clutch onto the arm of the other, and not have to be so scared all alone. That was what it felt like. I made two calls to friends who I thought also might be watching, because I NEEDED to talk about it. But alas, nobody was home.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/07/2003 10:21:00 AM



 

FOCUS ON: THE CZECH REPUBLIC


History

So I'm going to breeze through this. Hope you can keep up. Czech history moves really quickly. Actually, no: that is not entirely accurate. What seems to happen is: things stay the same in the Czech Republic (or Bohemia, or Czechoslovakia, or whatever other name it is known by), unquestioned, unchanging, for a long long time. Centuries sometimes. And then - suddenly - everything collapses, spectacularly, in a matter of 2 weeks.

It's incredible.

I'm more up-to-speed on what was going on in Czechoslovakia when it was within the sphere of the Soviet Union ... the ancient stuff is not as familiar to me, so I will just tell you what I do know.

And I'll take us up to World War I today ... and tomorrow I will focus on what happened after that war.

Back in the day
Here's what I can gather about the far-past history of this country. Czechoslovakia has never stayed in the same form for too long.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Slavs arrived in this region. This was the beginning. The various tribes adopted Christianity soon after and eventually cohered into an empire. An empire that didn't last very long. It was called the Great Moravian Empire, and had its glory days from 830 to 906. It was a large empire, encompassing areas in Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Silesia and Bohemia. Silesia and Bohemia are now regions in the Czech Republic.

At the end of the 9th century, the Czechs seceded from this empire to form the country of Bohemia. (See? Bohemia. Beautiful! A country named Bohemia clearly would eventually elect Vaclav Havel as president.) But the Czechs still were factioned off into little tribes, squabbling tribes, without any unification. So it was very easy for King Otto I (King of Germany) to stroll into Bohemia in 950 and conquer them. Bohemia was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, but still: King Otto gave the Bohemian prince (Otakar I) at the time the right to some degree of autonomy (again: this is a theme which also comes up again and again in Czech history) and self-rule. The son of the Bohemian prince (Otakar II) was more ambitious than was expected of him: he tried to claim for himself the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and he also tried to proclaim himself King of the Czechs. This all happened during the middle ages ... the 1200s.

Otakar II was doomed for disappointment. The imperial crown instead went to Rudolph Hapsburg, which ushers in a whole new phase in Czech history.

The Hapsburgs were strong rulers. Tyrannical to some, benign to others. It was an empire, after all. The Czech people were subjects in this empire, subjects with a long memory, a memory of a grand past, when they had princes and kings. This past is symbolized (to this day) by Prague Castle, an undeniable reminder of the greatness of this nation once upon a time. It's an incredible thing for me to contemplate the long drab years under Soviet rule, when their borders were closed off, and they were completely cut off from the rest of the world. But there ... in Prague ... was their castle. The memory of the country contained in its walls; the Soviets could not erase that memory, no matter how much they tried.

Under the Hapsburgs, Bohemia flourished. They had strong protection from the empire, and so were able to blossom, and experience a Golden Age, since they didn't have worries about self-defense or keeping enemies at bay. Prague became one of the most important cities in Europe.

Moving along in history...
I know a lot of stuff went down in the 14th and 15th centuries, but it gets confusing, and I am not too sure of my facts, so I will not be vague. I know there were revolutions, I know there was some sort of mass religious reform movement which alarmed the Catholics, and caused a lot of problems. The status quo of Catholicism in Europe was threatened by the reform. And then along comes the Hapsburgs again. The Hapsburgs were, of course, a Catholic empire.

The Czech nation came under their sphere again in the 1500s. The Hapsburgs made promises to the Czechs, and did not follow through on their promises. (This is yet another theme in the story of Czechoslovakia.) They said that they would have religious tolerance for minorities, they promised freedom, and they also promised the Bohemian royal families that they would maintain their royal privileges. None of this occurred. The Bohemian Royal Estates revolted against this, violently. Two Hapsburg officials were pushed out of a window, and plummeted to their deaths. This event sparked the Thirty Years War. Well, no. That is an exaggeration. There was a hell of a lot of religious turmoil swirling all across Europe at that time. And THAT was what sparked the Thirty Years War ... but the Bohemians were so rebellious, and so angry, and actually KILLED some of the Hapsburgs, that the Hapsburgs felt they had no choice but to crack-down, and crack down HARD, on the pesky little Czechs.

But the real issue in Bohemia, is that the Hapsburgs wanted to stomp out Protestantism, squash it like a bug.

Like I said: I am tearing through this story. I am missing a lot. Forgive me!

The Thirty Years War
This war was crushing to the Czechs.

Here's a quote about what happened: The Austrian Habsburgs had failed in their efforts to increase their authority in the Empire and to eradicate Protestantism, but they emerged from the war stronger than before. In Bohemia, they had stamped out Protestantism, broken the power of the old nobility, and declared the crown hereditary in the male line of their family. With Bohemia now firmly in their grasp and with their large group of adjoining territories, they were ready to expand to the east in the Balkans, to the south in Italy, or to interfere once more in the Empire.

So in the end, the Czechs lost everything. Everything. They lost all of their rights. They lost all of their hard-won freedom. They lost their property. They also then were put through forced Catholicization and forced Germanization. The Hapsburgs (again: sometimes benign, sometimes tyrannical) wanted to wipe out the concept of Czech national identity. They wanted to erase the individuality of the Czech experience off the map forever. This was devastating. And it nearly succeeded.

What is so incredible, and hopeful, is that it did NOT succeed. You cannot do that to people. You cannot. They will, no matter what the hell you do to them, remember who they are, and where they came from.

But here's what's even more incredible:

After the Thirty Years War, the Hapsburgs kept Bohemia under such a strong thumb that nothing changed in that country for THREE CENTURIES. I mean, of course, people grew up, got married, died, had fun, cried, built buildings, tore buildings down. But I'm talking about evolution as a nation. That completely stopped. They were beaten. Defeated.

The Hapsburgs won. Hands down.

Until ...

The mid-1800s
Tracy Chapman may think that revolution "sounds like a whisper", but the year of 1848 was a year of shriekingly loud revolutions, which caught on like a brushfire, leaping across borders, igniting in first this country, then that one. Not a hell of a lot of whispering going on.

Bohemia got caught up in it, too. Despite the lead cloak of the Hapsburgs. They began to buck against the authority (the Czechs seem to have a talent for that). They may LOOK like they are being compliant, but underneath it all: they are seething, they are ready to explode and make some demands.

I read a great quote about Vaclav Havel's many years living under Soviet oppression. And of course, he was a big loud-mouth trouble-maker, writing inflammatory plays (none of which were allowed to be performed in his own country), creating human rights organizations, ignoring the ban on public meetings of more than 10 people. Vaclav Havel, at one point, decided to "behave AS IF he were free, in an unfree nation". He was arrested countless times, he was constantly followed, spied upon ... but he behaved AS IF he were free. This seems to me to be a talent of the Czech people.

Anyway. Back to the story.

Slowly, slowly ... the Czech people began to contemplate being a free and independent state. This desire percolated for many years, as the Hapsburg Empire slowly deteriorated.

All of that ended when Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian student, stepped out of the crowd one day in Sarajevo and assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Of course, this was the shot heard round the world. The shot that began World War I.

History was about to speed up again for the Czechs. Only to come to a shrieking halt once more.

Next up: The 20th century


  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 04:10:00 PM


Thursday, February 06, 2003  

 
BRAVE, MCGRORY

A brave op-ed column from Mary McGrory.

My cousin Marianne from Maine just wrote me an email, and said that one of her favorite quotes, unknown author, is: "If you can't change your mind, are you sure you still have one?"

I love that.

I have not always held the views I hold now. My journey to this point has been a long one, and my conclusions have come from what I read, what I have observed, what I put together for myself. Also, my opinions have come from my inner compass which has told me what I feel, in my heart, is right. However, God forbid that I am ever closed to changing my mind. Being able to change our minds about things means we are aware and thinking human beings, which separates us from the beasts.

Anyway, McGrory's column is incredibly honest and incredibly brave. Good for her. I don't feel this way just because she's coming around to "my side", although there is something satisfying in that. No. I feel this way primarily because columns such as hers heighten the level of dialogue in this country, they raise the rhetoric. It takes a lot of courage to write a column like that.

I mean, look what has happened to Christopher Hitchens! He knows full well what can happen to people who deviate from the party line.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 03:26:00 PM



 
OH, AND ONE MORE THING...

This has to do with my rant about the UN. Here's an interview with Philip Gourevitch, author of that book about Rwanda. (In my dreams, he is my future husband. Isn't he adorable?) But clearly, that's not the point. Forgive me.

The interviewer asked him about the concept of "UN Safe Zones", which now, in light of all the events in the past decade or so, needs to be questioned. Harshly.

People in Kosovo were slaughtered WITHIN the UN Safe Zone. The same is true for Rwanda. All of the little blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers stood by in their safe zone, letting the Serbs move in closer and closer until everybody was massacred.

Gourevitch said, "If somebody says, you're a lucky man, you're in a UN safe haven - you are about to get killed. It's the most terrifying thing anybody could tell you. If somebody tells you you're in a UN safe haven, run for your life!"

Other interesting observations he makes:

What happened in Rwanda is here was this UN force, and if you ask Rwandans, "Look, it was obviously getting very, very hairy here in the months before the genocide, why did you stay? You saw it coming didn't you?" Well, nobody saw it coming, they saw things getting very hairy. All of them will say that among other reasons it was because the UN was there.

Now the UN will say, "We never promised to protect them." Well perhaps not, but look at East Timor. What happened in East Timor? We always say, should we intervene? We already intervened. We had the UN in there encouraging people to get involved in a risky political transition, to engage in elections. We were encouraging them to step out on a limb that exposed them to tremendous political danger. We made no provision for their protection, although they seemed to assume it. Look at Srebrenica. That's the story: it's the promise of protection that we don't mean to back up. And it makes us in some way villains in stories where we might be better off saying honestly you'd better fend for yourselves, defend yourselves if you must.


And this as well:

In the following section Gourevitch talks about the naïve humanitarian response to the terrible refugee situation outside of Rwanda following the genocide. What actually happened was this: the genocidal maniacs, thousands and thousands of them (the entire country participated in the genocide), all fled the country in droves, fearing retribution from those they left behind, those they DIDN'T kill, and they all packed into refugee camps where they were cared for as though they were normal refugees and not murderers fleeing from the scene of the crime.

Do you remember the horrific footage on the news at the time? I do. A plague of some sort broke out in this refugee camp, people dying like flies, corpses clogging the rivers, and the international response to this plague was HUGE. Shipping in tons of food, blankets, medical supplies. Meanwhile, the international community had JUST IGNORED a genocide which occurred basically over a one-week period. I must reiterate: the dying people in these refugee camps were not innocent victims of plague and misery. They had just killed 800,000 people BY HAND in two weeks.

Anyway, here is what Gourevitch had to say about that:

Humanitarianism generally has professed neutrality. Neutrality in the face of genocide seems to me to be complicity. It's an absurd position. Why would anybody ... what is appealing about neutrality in the face of a genocide? Zero. Yet this was the position. Objectivity is different than neutrality, and objectivity would allow one to say objectively these are war criminals. But neutrality requires you to say, these are war criminals, have a sandwich, have a blanket. Oh, is that a Kalishnikov, please don't show it to me. Oh, you're going to show it to me, please don't shoot me. Oh you shot me, have a sandwich. It was that pathetic. They were being used like the staff at a Mafia hotel.

So I say to Kofi Annan: I think that your organization's actions in Rwanda were EXTREMELY UNHELPFUL. I think that the way the UN behaved in Srebenica was enormously UNHELPFUL.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 02:27:00 PM



 
AND TO YOUR LEFT...

I finally updated my left nav. Took old stuff out, re-categorized, put in new favorites, etc. Check them out. There's even an "online periodic table" listed, which you definitely should check out. It's so cool. You click on one of the elements in the periodic table, and a little whizzing moving graphic comes up, showing you what the electrons and neutrons are doing in that particular substance. I love it. But there's a lot of other cool stuff over there too. This will be a list in constant evolution.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 01:45:00 PM



 
JUSTICE, PEACE, ACTION

Okay, this post is a bit rambling. Bear with me.

Justice does not come easy. Sometimes you have to fight for justice. Sometimes peace has to be defended, guarded, fought for. You don't get peace by, in the words of Sheryl Crow, "not having enemies". That's an incredibly stupid way to look at the complexity of human conflict. Of human beings, in general. Without the Allies bombarding Germany, the Jews would not have been freed. That is a fact. War set those people free. Violence set those people free. Five years too frigging late, in my opinion. Everybody appeased the Nazi regime for years, while Jews died by the millions.

I prefer to take a more common sense view to human affairs and people. I know that man is capable of the worst horrors. Man has the hugest capacity to SUCK.

I am afraid of utopias. I am suspicious of people who believe in utopias. Any ideology is utopian, and does not take into consideration human nature, which is messy, troubled, power-hungry, corruptible.

The Founding Fathers were brilliant, in this regard. Yes, they had an ideal for their new country. They wanted to be a "city on a hill". But it wasn't just an idea. They put into the constitution all of the myriad checks and balances which keep us in line today. No, it is not perfect. Nothing is perfect. Anyone who dreams of a perfect society is a tyrant in the making. Someone saying, "Follow me ... I know the way to perfection" is the cue for you to run for the hills. Run screaming for your life.

John Adams wanted the new country to be a "rule of laws", not a "rule of men". He said that over and over and over and over again. Men are fallible. Power can corrupt. (Power does not ALWAYS corrupt, like many people shriek, latching onto the cliche as though it is a lifeboat, as though the second you have power you are corrupt ... this is not necessarily true). Power CAN corrupt. The Founding Fathers understood that man is corruptible, by his very nature, so let the LAWS be the rule of the land, not men. There is no such thing as a "president for life" in this country. The Founding Fathers were terrified of even the possibility that that could occur.

You learn in high school English (at least I did ... thank you Mr. Crothers...) the universal plots in literature.

Man Against Himself. Hmm, let's see. Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Although that would probably also be under Man Against Society...

Man Against Society. I would put Portrait of a Lady here. Also The Scarlet Letter. Obviously.

Man Against Nature. Pretty much anything by Jack London. To Build a Fire is probably the greatest example of this type of plot, in my opinion.

Man Against Fate. Sometimes this is categorized as a sub-set of Man Against Nature. Man struggling with something he cannot control. Moby Dick? Captain Ahab, struggling with the loss of his leg, the loss of his control, battling with the fate the universe has in store for him. His date with the whale. Written in the stars. This book, all the great books actually, have elements of all of the plots.

and then, of course:

Man Against Man. This is such a universal plot that it doesn't even need to be described.

There is no room for a utopian view of the world the second you have TWO people in the picture. Fine, you have a vision of a perfect universe ... great for you. Go sit on a mountaintop by yourself and create it, because the moment you have another person beside you, you will have conflict.

"I think we should only eat berries and make our own clothes and play the autoharp every day from 10 to 11 am." "Well ... actually ... I definitely need to have a cup of coffee and I'd like to bring my platform shoes along, because I love them so." "NO. Platform shoes? And autoharps? Those two things DO NOT GO TOGETHER." You get the idea.

Sheryl Crow, preaching to us not to have enemies, doesn't get it. She doesn't get that man against man is one of the most universal things about being human.

This is a struggle. I am not talking about accepting horrible things as inevitable, so why fight them. Not at all. This is not like Anne Morrow Lindbergh's book The Wave of the Future, where her basic message was: "The Nazis are an inevitable part of history. They are the wave of the future. We should succumb, and let them take over ... because eventually they will burn up and burn out ... but we must accept that they are the wave of the future." The woman was rightly criticized for her defeatist views, based on nothing but her "feelings" about it all, her "feelings" of fear about war and violence. (Not to mention her husband's clear anti-Semitism.) Anne Lindbergh did not have the comfort of hindsight, of course, and she paid dearly for that book, but her basic view of Nazism and totalitarianism is that we just have to wait it out, because war, in general, is wrong and violence is NOT GOOD. EVER.

Well, violence wiped out the Nazi scum, and opened up the gates of Auschwitz. The Nazis were not the wave of the future. They were a plague on this planet that needed to be eradicated. By force. No way would they give up and say, "You know what? You guys are right. What the hell have we been doing all these years? We love the Jews! We embrace the Jews! Let them BE FREE."

Anyway, all of this rambling on was spurred for me by this Op-Ed column in the New York Times today, written by a Kurd (the co-prime minister of the Kurdish state) in Northern Iraq. This, to me, is what we are talking about when we talk about justice, and peace. Knowing that, actually, there are some things worth fighting for.

Barham Salih pleads with us to give the Kurds the chance to build a democratic Iraq. The Kurds are ready to go. I read something else yesterday ... they are not a democracy yet, of course not. But the Kurdish state in northern Iraq has something like 20 newspapers, all with competing viewpoints. Just like in a country with free speech, and freedom of the press, and freedom of thought. This is incredible. Contrast that to Iraq proper, with ONE newspaper. All other newspapers banned.

For me, "justice" in this situation, means that we, the West, are willing to fight for these people to have peace, and live lives of dignity. The Kurds are not concerned about "collateral damage", innocent civilians dying because of the West invading ... For them, the collateral damage caused by an invasion of Iraq is PEANUTS compared to the thousands and thousands of people who have perished at the hand of Saddam Hussein. Yes, people will die. Civilians will die. But they are dying ANYWAY, being gassed and murdered and tortured by their own leader. Free these people. Release them.

Well, just read the Op-Ed. It's worth it. He says it better than I can, because he is actually living it.

A couple of quotes to note:

-- Those who doubt the prospects of a liberated Iraq should examine the record of Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991. Under our autonomous regional government, we have used our share of oil revenues to invest not in chemical and biological weapons, but in education and health. We have tripled both the number of schools and doctors since 1991, and we have reduced infant mortality to its lowest level ever in our region. We have a free and diverse news media, with hundreds of newspapers, magazines and television stations. We respect the rights of minorities.

-- Sadly, what we Iraqi democrats are hearing from many in the West is that we should not seek the world's help to be freed from tyranny; that the war is for oil; and that the Arab and Muslim "street" will rise up against those who liberate Iraq. We have watched demonstrators in Washington and other cities chant, "No to war." But the Baathist dictatorship has been waging war for decades. It has inflicted hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. Every day, Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups are tortured in horrible ways.

Peace doesn't come easy. Man is corruptible. What is worth fighting for? Turn away from utopias, reject utopias, and ask: Okay. What do I believe in? And when you can answer that question, you must then ask the next question: What can I DO? What the hell can I do? Because there is ALWAYS something to do.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 12:23:00 PM



 
THE UN

All right, so I got tremendously pissed-off yesterday at Kofi Annan's ridiculous statement that an Israeli presence in space was "unhelpful". Really, my being pissed-off came from a larger issue. A general frustration with the damn UN. If you want to completely lose respect for the UN, read We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, by Philip Gourevitch. An absolutely tremendous book about the genocide in Rwanda. It is, obviously, well-documented how useless the UN "peacekeepers" were in that situation. The same is true for the UN "peacekeepers" in Bosnia, and Kosovo. Basically, it seems like they sit around and watch genocides occur. I know that is an oversimplification, but I have been wondering for a long time: what the hell are you guys FOR then? To oversee meaningless elections in tyrannical countries? To stand back and watch massacres, waiting to "keep the peace" AFTER EVERYONE IS DEAD?

That's why I thought Bush's speech to the UN way back when was so spectacular. He took the UN at their word, he threw their charter back in their face: if your mission is what you SAY it is, then we must move forward in THIS way. It was stunning.

James Lileks has a great piece out right now about the concern of going into Iraq "without UN approval". It's great stuff. A must-read (as his pieces always seem to be).

But here are a couple of good quotes:

-- The United States does not need additional resolutions; 1441 said that "false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq ... and failure to comply with and cooperate fully in the implementation of this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq's obligations." Well, Iraq has been in material breach since it dumped 12,000 pages of obfuscating gobbledegook on everyone's desks. Iraq was in material breach before the inspectors showed up. Every day the inspectors are not driven to a dump and shown the remains of warheads, or empty canisters, or bones of all the lab monkeys who perished in Saddam Hussein's quest to weaponize spoiled potato salad, Iraq is in material breach. It's a breach-o-rama. It's breacherrific. Cue the Madonna song: The U.N. is immaterial now, and this is a material breach.

-- France is demonstrating its habitual reaction to glowering men with small mustaches; German leaders are pandering to their dovish cliques for short-term political gain. Politicians in both countries probably get hummingbird heart rates when they contemplate U.S. officials poring through the records in Baghdad and finding the extent to which our allies have been meeting Saddam at the back door.

-- The United Nations is a dim hive of self-interested parties engaged in endless parliamentary mummery, united by a consensual delusion that all nations are equal. So you have the bitterly risible sight of Libya chairing the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which is akin to giving Kid Rock control over the New York Philharmonic.

This fact alone is enough to turn me off the UN forever: LIBYA CHAIRING THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. I just don't know what to do with such lunacy.


  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 09:51:00 AM



 
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ...

I miss doing my "Country of the Week" feature. My mornings (when I normally have created these pieces) have changed in their character, as of late. But I do need to get back to it, because it gives me pleasure. It also utilizes my vaguely autistic tendencies in regards to the state of the world. (As in: well, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia in 1993 ... the Ukraine was called "the breadbasket of the Soviet Union" ... Bosnia straddles an ancient geopolitical faultline between Rome and Byzantium, between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire ... ) I mean, I could go on. All of this information clogging my brain ... it is good to share it, feel like I am using it.

Also, people seemed to enjoy it.

So I am going to begin the feature again. I will switch my writing time from morning to evening, so that problem is solved.

For the rest of the week (only 2 days, I know), I will focus on the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia. This past month, January, was the 35th anniversary of the tragedy of the Prague Spring. 35 years ago, in 1968, at this time, the hope and the opening-up of the Czechoslovakian nation, underneath the liberal Communist regime, was crushed brutally as the entire world watched. The invasion began in January ... and for the following months, the crack-down continued. Repression reigning, people arrested, people killed, censorship installed, borders closed-up ... a complete trauma.

Anyway, I will get into detail later on. Czechoslovakia is one of my favorite countries on the planet, even though, unbelievably, I have NEVER BEEN THERE.

I love a nation that, after their "velvet revolution" in 1989, ended up with a damn playwright as their president. A literary nation, an intellectual nation, a cultural nation. I will go there someday, I will live in Prague someday. I really must.

Good morning, everybody. I've already had too much coffee, obviously.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/06/2003 09:31:00 AM



 
REDHEADED PSA

Ernie Hilbert, an amazing poet and literary critic, edits a daily "poetry newsletter", which arrives in my mailbox every morning. I just call it "Ernie's List". I have been receiving these emails for about 3 years now, and they are one of the constant sources of joy in my life. So I wanted to open up the opportunity to join "the list" to my readers.

Here is what you get, when you subscribe (free) to "Ernie's List":

-- 2 quotes of the day (one short, one long). These are amazing. The quotes come from all walks of life ... from Herodotus to Dolly Parton. From excerpts from The New Criterion to a quote from Kurt Cobain's journals. These quotes come from his readers (and from Mr. Hilbert himself).

-- a Poem a day. Ernie basically knows everything there is to know about poetry. You get Charles Bukowski, you get a Shakespeare sonnet ... it runs the gamut. Many of my new favorite poems and poets have come to me from "Ernie's list".

-- Top 5 Lists. These are sent in by Ernie's numerous readers (he is pushing 1,000 now). They are hilarious. It could be "Top 5 Ways you Know it is Winter in Minnesota" (which was one of the Top 5s this past week), or they could be "Top 5 quotes from Winston Churchill". Or "Top 5 drinks made with gin." Ernie also runs an ongoing "alphabetical Top 5 list". Top 5 words starting with A, B, C ... We are up to F now, I believe.

-- An Invaluable fact of the day. These are also hilarious. Today's was that there is a record for non-stop hiccuping, and that record is something like 68 years. I also learned, through the "invaluable facts", that if there was a lake large enough to hold it, Saturn would float. You know, completely weird facts that you can pull out of a hat at your next cocktail party and amaze (or annoy) your friends.

-- Unbelievable But Real Film Titles. These are also sent in by Ernie's readers. Today's "unbelievable but real film title" was Priapism Diary, a film from 1982.

And then occasionally, Ernie will point us to articles he finds interesting, web sites he has discovered, etc. etc.

There are people from all over the world on "Ernie's List". My whole family is on it. We discuss it. "Hey, did you see Ernie today?" "Was that your top 5 today on Ernie?" Etc.

If any of you out there are interested in joining "Ernie's List", just shoot me an email and I will have him add your email to the List. It is completely confidential, of course. And you get so much value from it, whatever your interest may be. My father says, "I'm in it for the quotes." So he doesn't read the poems. I read the poems and the top 5s. I participate feverishly in all of it, sending Ernie quotes, top 5s, top 5 words starting with D. It's a lot of fun.

Here is Ernie's stellar biography, if you want to know a bit more about him before you commit:

Ernest Hilbert's poetry and criticism have appeared in The Boston Review, LIT, Pleiades, The American Scholar, Fence, Slope, and David Stack's Posterband, among others. He is the editor of nowCulture.com's biannual print anthology, NC. He is the poetry editor for Random House's online literary magazine Bold Type. He is also the North American liaison for the Parisian literary magazine Upstairs at Duroc. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University, where he earlier completed a Master's Degree and founded the Oxford Quarterly. He has worked as a contributing editor for Long Shot magazine, and he is also a librettist, with operas staged in New York City.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/05/2003 02:48:00 PM


Wednesday, February 05, 2003  

 
STUPID QUOTES FROM STUPID PEOPLE

UN Secretary Kofi Annan said on February 3, 2003, that an Israeli presence in space is "unhelpful" to the cause in the Middle East. This is after the explosion, after the tragedy. Let me reiterate what the secretary of the UNITED NATIONS said about having an Israeli astronaut: it was "unhelpful". Unhelpful. Unhelpful. I am having a hard time even grasping that he actually said this. Why do we even listen to this person?

And then a lovely quote from the Arab League spokesman Abr Souffla: "This is surely but the first step towards complete and outright illegal Zionist occupation of space."

Yawn.

These people are complete and utter wackos.

  contact Sheila Link: 2/05/2003 12:03:00 PM



 
1986 TO NOW

I was a freshman in college when the Challenger exploded. I lived in Merrow, the only all-girl's dorm on campus. I was home, in between classes, when suddenly I heard someone down the hall start screaming. A terrible scream. Unlike anything you ever hear on a normal day (at least here in America ... probably in Beirut or Jerusalem or Khartoum such shrieks of terror become, well, not commonplace ... never commonplace ... but sounds you hear on a daily basis.)

A girl down the hall started screaming, tears in her voice, "OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!" My roommate and I raced down the hall, along with most of the other girls who were around at that time.

We huddled in the dorm room, watching on a tiny little television, the disaster unfolding. Live. Those horrible long trails of smoke, splitting apart, diverging ... in a way which we knew was just not supposed to happen. This was bad. This was worse than bad. This was horrific.

I was crying. Everybody was. We were glued to the television, holding onto each other, crying. Saying things like, "No ... NO!" And the age-old cry, "Oh my God." Which takes on a whole other meaning when said in a true moment of duress. God with a capital G.

It was beyond belief. The lead-up to the Challenger launch, with the Christa McAuliffe coverage, had been overwhelming. A mere 17 years later and I was not even aware on what exact day the Columbia was taking off. Everyone knew about Christa McAuliffe, everyone knew that the Challenger was going up ... it was a big big deal. And to watch it explode, before our very eyes ... we were almost baffled. Hurt by the callousness of the universe. How could this happen? How could this happen?

The shots of the family members who watched it all unfold from the bleechers below have stayed with me always. Two days ago, I saw the footage again, when the Today Show was re-playing it, and I had remembered certain shots exactly. McAuliffe's parents clinging to one another, screaming up into the sky.

Oh. My heart.

And still today, so many years later, with so many other tragedies and horrors in between then and now, I sometimes think, pissed-off, hurt: How could this happen? How could this happen?

My heart goes out to all of the families. I only got to know the parents of David Brown, interviewed by Katie Couric ... but my heart goes out to all of them. I cannot even imagine what they are experiencing.

My heart goes out to the people of Israel. Who had their first astronaut, their FIRST ASTRONAUT, such hope, such belief. Something GOOD was happening ... something which focused on the FUTURE, not overwhelmed and drowned by the past. This must be completely heartbreaking for them.

I do not understand "why" things like this happen. I do not understand why some people experience such tremendous loss, and why others seem to escape.

But I do not believe that God "lets" things like this happen. I do not. I cannot explain my theology, I cannot back up my beliefs with Bible verses ... but I don't believe that God is with some people and not with others. I believe He is there through all of it. With all of us.

God didn't choose to bless the nine saved miners in Pennsylvania, and choose NOT to bless the 3,000 innocent people who died on September 11. (That only comes to mind because of all of the miners' wives saying, "God has blessed us, God has blessed us." I totally can understand, on a human level, why they would say that, but having witnessed with my own eyes the horrors of September 11, it bothered me a bit. Where was God on September 11? Why didn't he bless US? Why not us??)

These are not questions for me to answer.

But all I can say is, my prayers are with all of the courageous lost astronauts, and with the families of those brave souls who were lost on Saturday morning. I promise I will not forget.


  contact Sheila Link: 2/04/2003 05:03:00 PM


Tuesday, February 04, 2003  
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