Friday, April 29, 2016

Replacing China in North Carolina

The Page-Frederiksen Family
(of North Carolina)
My friend Sandy asked me if I knew about this organization called Replacements, Ltd.  Raved about it. 

They found and replaced pieces from a dishware set I purchased in 1996. If they don't have what you're looking for, they keep your request on hold; and lo and behold! a year and a half later, when you've given up hope you get an email communication saying they managed to track down one of what you were looking for. And they're not expensive. If the item is used or returned, you get it for less than the original price and it arrives in perfect shape.

Not speaking my language, I says to myself.  Fine China and me, we ain’t friends.  My spousal unit and I outdo each other washing wine glasses by hand because we are afraid they will break in the dishwasher – and then we break them.  Without a constant cheap supply from IKEA we’d be drinking our wine out of jam jars.

But then I scrolled down and saw this couple surrounded by three teen-age boys.  Two born in Vietnam they've raised since they were little ones, one from Nigeria who joined the family last year.  A gay couple who have been together for twenty-seven years.  That’s six years longer than my husband and I have been together.   We got married two and a half years ago; they got married last year.  I feel a strong sense of connection.  They don’t have our two dogs to call daughters, but those three boys look happy and well cared for.  Looks like family to me.

Then I read that they run their business from North Carolina.  And I thought, oh shit, people are going to be boycotting them.

Hope people will learn to distinguish between happy families running a good family business and a few bigoted politicians like North Carolina State Senator Buck Newton who is stomping around the state urging his supporters to help “keep the state straight.”

His original problem was with transgendered men (have I got it wrong - don't they tend to look like men more than they look like women most of the time?) trying to use the men’s room when they still have a vagina.  Apparently he hadn’t thought this through and they were going to have to station a cop outside the rest room to check for wee-wees before they let you in.  

But that silliness aside, passing laws against the T people in LGBT is apparently not enough.  He wants a law saying there will be no protections from discrimination for the LGBs as well.  No doubt he channels the higher powers on this issue, and they tell us their rules should be everybody’s rules.  I know the old story.  What a pack of cards.

Keep North Carolina straight.  Now there’s a concept.

Hope old Buck never needs a piece of his wedding China replaced.

photo credits

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cambodia to Carolina – a film review

Sy accompanied by Philip Glass
When the money of the superwealthy is used to help individuals living in poverty, something very strange happens.  Some people get all teary-eyed and fill their heads and their Face Book pages with sentimental commentary about how things maybe aren’t so bad after all, maybe it’s not such a cold cruel world, maybe we should stop filling the papers with accidents and political shenanigans and tell more good news stories instead.

At the other extreme are those who sneer at the do-gooders and accuse them of stroking their own egos.  Michael Jackson used to fly kids in to his Neverland to make a dream come true here and there, and you realized a hundred kids could eat for a week on the cost of the helicopter fuel alone.  TV programs organize around a dying kid’s last wish.  All lovely stuff, as long as you focus on the lucky winner and ignore the fact that in the United States alone 15 million kids live in what we delicately refer to as “food-insecure” homes.

An interesting moral dilemma.  The glass half full side is somebody’s lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  Glass half empty is it looks for all the world like it’s not about the kids but about cutting off a couple days from some rich bastard’s time in purgatory.  It’s all in where you stand on the issue.

This endless dilemma of whether to lift an individual here and there or spread the benefits more generally came up in Dancing Across Borders,  a film I watched last night about a New York patron of the arts – ballet, chiefly – who came across a kid dancing in rural Cambodia and saw his potential.  Next thing you know, she’s bringing him to New York, getting him lessons with Olga Kostritzky, and making him a star.

Watch the film and leave all the baggage behind I just laid out, if you can.  It’ll bring a tear or two to your eye.  The kid in question is Sokvannara Sar, known as “Sy” (pronounced “see”).  He’s a beautiful person.  Warm smile, dancer’s hands and feet, talent for days.  And the filmmaker and philanthropist in question is a woman named Anne Bass.  Get the Netflix DVD and watch the extras.  The interviews with Ms. Bass tell an inspiring story.  She happened to have tons of film of Sy from his earliest days, all through his training.  It wasn’t long before friends persuaded her she had a great documentary film, a great story to tell.  The trailer is available here.
Sy at 14

It is a great story.  Poor kid from the country learns to dance so he can make a dollar here and there to help feed his dirt-poor family.  Gets a full scholarship to study ballet without knowing the first thing about the art form.  Says yes – who in his position would turn down an all-expenses paid trip to America?

He’s not particularly crazy about dancing ballet.  It’s an alien art form.  Khmer dance is like Indian dance; it’s all about feet on the ground, stamp stamp.  Tambourines, bang bang.   Ballet is all about throwing yourself through the air and landing without breaking your ankles and toes.
Before Cambodians dance, they thank their ancestors for allowing them to live and celebrate the spiritual nature of what they are engaged in.  Ballet, like opera, is all about entertaining people who wear gowns and tuxedos and drive up in limousines.  Technically, both are dance forms, but in some ways they seem to have originated on different planets.

Those who know the world of ballet will probably tell you that while Sy’s story is inspiring, and he’s unquestionably a joy to watch, there is no shortage of good ballet dancers in the world.   What the fuss would seem to be about is the fact this guy is from Cambodia.  Isn’t that special.  But what should not be missed in this defense of the poor against imperialist elitists running roughshod over the Third World is the fact that Sy accomplished in half the time what it takes most students of ballet.  He is an extraordinarily fast learner.  Peter Boal, onetime principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and director of the Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet Company who took Sy on and fostered his journey in becoming a world-class dancer, speaks of him as “one in a thousand,” the kind of dancer ballet teachers dream of.

Some have complained about the sheer repetitiveness of the dance scenes.  It seems like hours of practice, practice, practice.  I suppose if you’re not a lover of ballet this will not work for you, but I never tired of watching.  Not for a minute.  And I appreciated that the repetitions, all the shots of landings that didn’t quite work, all the focus on detail, conveyed how much endurance it took this young man to get to the break-through point.

Some kids complain about being “tied to the piano bench.”  We don’t do that to kids anymore, mostly.  Others tell you they are eternally grateful for hard-driving parents and teachers and recognize that without external discipline one simply does not become a world-class artist.  All the more powerful is this story of a kid from a fisher-folk family whose father wishes to this day he had become a lawyer instead and who had to find his own discipline deep from within.  Lonely teenage years spent with harshly demanding instructors, people who tell you bloodying your feet is just part of the job. The film leaves out the fact that Sy has a crisis at some point and drops out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and decides he’s had enough, that he’s been dancing for others all his life and it’s time for him to start living for himself.

But that’s not the end of the story, either.  He realized at some point ballet had become too much a part of his life to abandon.  He now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and dances for the Carolina Ballet.  

I realize I’ve wandered beyond the film documentary here in writing this review.  But I do that without apology.  Part of what makes a film, or any other art form, worth while is its ability to take you outside itself and make you want to know more.  When it was done, I sat and watched all the extras.  Twice.

I’ll admit I gave some serious thought to the notion this was about a rich white lady with a vanity project.  In the end, though, it was the beauty of the art of the ballet that captured my attention. What music does for the ears and painting does for the eyes, dance, in my view, when it is done right, reaches the gut.  Its raw material is the human body.  Not all of us have it in us to express the concepts of grace and dignity and passion and majesty with our hands and our feet and our hips and our shoulders and the tilt of our head.  When we come upon those who do, it’s only appropriate, in my view, to give them our full attention and our gratitude.

photo credit: from Netflix page: credited elsewhere to

The film actually came out in 2010 and has been extensively reviewed:
I am grateful it has finally been released on Netflix.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan

Jan Böhmermann, Angela Merkel, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
The Comedian Harmonists were a Weimar Republic era male vocalist group which was very successful until it had to disband because three of its members were Jewish.  One of their many well-known numbers was a song called “Irgendwo auf der Welt” (“Somewhere in the world”) a romantic song of longing for a place to be happy.  Here’s the original.

Max Raabe, who with his Palast Orchester has revived many of the songs of the Comedian Harmonists, sings it regularly as part of his standard repertoir.  The songs runs, “Somewhere in the world there’s joy, somewhere in the world there’s happiness, somewhere in the world my path will lead to heaven…” The final words are “Irgendwo, irgendwie, irgendwann” (somewhere, somehow, sometime).

There’s also a popular rock version by the singers Nina and Kim Wilde, with the botched English translation, “Anyplace Anywhere Anytime.”  (sic – no commas).  It’s sung partly in English, but ends with the phrase “irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann.”

So the phrase is clearly in the German pop consciousness.  And it clearly inspired the satirist Jan Böhmermann to write a song about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan.  (Erdoğan is pronounced Er-do-wan – English w).   The song pissed Erdoğan off, Erdoğan complained, and Merkel came to the satirist's defense.  That gave Böhmermann the idea he could have some fun pushing the limits of the law a bit more.  So he decided to call him a goat-fucker.  

I thought the play on the song title was clever.  Unfortunately, the more you learn about Böhmermann the less you see a satirist and the more you see why Germans are often seen as totally lacking in subtlety.  Böhmermann is just crude.  Not funny.  Awful, in fact.

But that’s neither here nor there.  The attack on Erdoğan strikes a chord with many Germans who are pissed off at Angela Merkel for cozying up to Erdoğan in order to take the wind out of the sails of her critics for allowing an uncontrolled flood of asylum seekers into the country this last year.  Never mind that what she was doing was not only legal but required by EU law, to say nothing of decent and caring.  Unfortunately, the problems associated with it caused no end of trouble in the country and touched off a right-wing backlash.  To fix the problem, she worked out a deal with Erdoğan.  Turkey would take the refugees back that had spilled over into Greece on the way to the German promised land, and she would pay him a load of money for the favor.  A compromise that many argued would be a case of curing the disease and killing the patient with the side effects of the medicine.

But I don’t want to debate the refugee policy.  I want to focus on this Böhmermann guy and the fuss he has raised.  Here's the original song, Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğanwhich has been taken out of distribution in Germany, but so far is still accessible on YouTube, with English subtitles.

As you can see, it is not what most people would call satire.  It's a direct political attack on Erdoğan's brutally repressive policies.  But that's only the beginning of the story.  The real trouble came when Böhmermann decided to push the limits of the law with a poem which has everybody debating the line between satire and "Schmähkritik" (abusive criticism), a legal distinction in Germany which, if I understand it correctly, means you are not protected by the law if your criticism goes beyond common decency and what can be demonstrated to be true.  Given the assumption that Erdoğan didn't actually fuck goats, or children (not while bombing the Kurds, in any case, as the poem declares) one may assume Böhmermann is in trouble here. Erdoğan may be a nasty piece of work, but he is unfortunately a foreign leader, and this Paragraph 103 would seem to be working in Erdoğan's favor, particularly since Böhmermann announced just before reading his poem that he was using the word Schmähkritik as the poem's title! Here's the poem in question, with English subtitles.

And that puts Merkel between a rock and a hard place. First she defends this oaf, Böhmermann. Then he tells his audience that he is deliberately trying to see how far the law will go, and calls Erdoğan not only a goat-fucker and pedophile, but a "homo," presumably because this is one of the best ways to provoke a macho homophobe.

Where do you stand?  I’m naturally in favor of free expression and figure a bully like Erdoğan – who has very dirty hands indeed – ought to simply shut up and allow the democracies of the European Union which he wants so desperately to join, to do their thing.  Nobody in a democracy has the right, alas, to shut down bad taste.  If Muslims have to put up with satire of the prophet Mohammed, Erdoğan can learn to laugh off being called a pederast and a goat fucker.  It bears repeating that the freedoms we claim for ourselves in a democracy are always best tested when the limits are pushed. The expression comes to mind: "I disagree with what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

Things get more interesting here because I suddenly have to ask myself whether I could put my money where my mouth is and die to defend this asshole who taunted the Turkish president with the word "homo."  If my point isn't clear here, imagine him taunting him with the word "dirty Jew," instead. You don't "taunt" with words traditionally used as put-downs without raising all sorts of questions about your own racism or homophobia or whatever.

Germany is acutely conscious of having suffered two back-to-back tyrannies, first Hitler, then communist East Germany, where free-expression was a great way to get yourself killed.  You can't blame Germany for wanting to defend free speech at all costs - with the single notable exception that you are not allowed to speak out against Jews or for Hitler and the Nazi ideology.

That's what makes this case such a big deal.  Germany is being tested.  Paragraph 103 of the Penal Code reads:

Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.

I'm not sure about how this applies to Erdoğan when he is not physically present in Germany, but I assume calling him a goat-fucker is probably covered.  (There's another Paragraph for insulting ordinary people, which can cost you only one year in jail, but that's another matter.)

Merkel is chief executive of a state founded on the rule of law.  Her best bet, I should think, would be to disengage herself entirely, tell her Turkish friends privately that she is disgusted by the bad taste, but she has to let the courts take over.  And insist that they should not be surprised if the German courts follow the rule in dubio pro libertate - when in doubt err on the side of freedom - and let Böhmermann off the hook.  They could just as easily, of course, decide there is nothing in dubio here, and nail his ass.

Prosecutors in Mainz have opened an investigation into the legality of Böhmermann's insults. Böhmermann, meanwhile, lives in Cologne under police protection.  He has cancelled his show and all public appearances and one has to wonder if he is having second thoughts.

This is a story worth following, I think.

photo credit