1. A wonderful bird is the pelican
    His bill can hold more than his belly can
    He can take in his beak
    Enough food for a week
    But I’m damned if I know how the hell he can.
    I remember the sense of connection I had with my friend Ed from Missouri the first time I came up with "A wonderful bird is the pelican..."  and he finished the limerick.   I had grown up in New England, he in Southeast Missouri, but this 100-year-old bit of delightful doggerel was part of our shared American culture.

    The other night at a friend’s house for dinner we began talking about Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and ended up waxing nostalgic about recitations by the old folks of our youth.  (The fact that we were celebrating my 76th birthday may have had something to do with the inclination to reminisce.)

    My friend Cathy brought up Abdul Al Bulbul Amir and remembered how her father used to entertain the kids with a recitation of it whenever he got the chance.  Not to be left out, I remembered a great-uncle, who, back in the days before radio and television (and even electricity and running water), used to entertain the kids with recitations.  In his case, what I remember above all others was The Cremation of Sam McGee.

    I felt the guilty urge to make the point that there’s a world of difference between "Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening..." and the clashing swords of Abdul Abulbul Amir, but nobody was interested.  We all got a lot of mileage from the popular poetry that helped make family and community – at least in our imaginings of the good old days.  It didn't seem to need defending. Nonetheless, in poking around for more information on these two pieces, Abdul Albulbul Amir and Sam McGee, I found several people who needed to label them as doggerel.  I'll get to that issue in a minute.

    Thanks to the internet, I now know that the pelican limerick was not written by Ogden Nash, as I had always thought, but by a Tennessee newspaper editor named Dixon Lanier Merritt.  
    William Percy French

    And Abdul Abulbul Amir was written during the Russo-Turkish war in 1877 by an Anglo-Irish songwriter named William Percy French (1854-1920) for a “smoking concert,” those Victorian era gatherings for men only where new music was introduced and political views were aired.  It was stolen and sold off for £5.   The thieves passed it on as their own creation, so French never made any money off of it.  History has given him the last word, fortunately, and his creative genius is still celebrated every year at a festival at Castlecoote House, County Roscommon.

    Robert W. Service
    The Cremation of Sam McGee is a Canadian piece, written a generation later by a sourdough (a resident of the Yukon Territory) and published in 1907.  His name was Robert W. Service.  Service was born in England but after finding his way to British Columbia, he eventually got caught up in the rush to Klondike Country, and became known as the “bard of the Yukon.”

    OK, so now for the doggerel bit.  The class distinction between classical music, generally written and performed by people of exceptional musical talent and the popular music of the masses of ordinary folk is mirrored somewhat in this alleged distinction between poetry and doggerel.  I say “alleged” as a way of admitting I don’t like being thought of as the kind of person who judges people by who lives in the “nicer part of town” and who lives in the “low-rent district.”  I do, of course.  I just don’t like to be caught at it.

    Doggerel is a lofty sounding word for a concept that is anything but lofty.  In fact, it's generally associated with the burlesque.  Nobody knows the origin of the word, although it was probably coined by somebody who wasn't much of a dog-lover.  It is defined as “comic verse composed in irregular rhythm,” or “verse that is badly (i.e. crudely) written. When the word is used, it is commonly preceded by such words and phrases as "mere," "pure" and “deteriorates into.”   It is nonetheless "effective because of its simple mnemonic rhyme and loping metre, if the Britannica is your guide.  Goethe and Schiller both wrote what in German is called Knüttelvers, or "cudgel verse," and in English even Samuel Butler and Jonathan Swift dabbled in it.  Which raises the question of whether this is "bad" poetry or merely another genre of creative language by people with imagination. Are what Ogden Nash and Calvin Trillin wrote doggerel?

    "Fleas" (Nash)

    Adam had'em.

    and if you're one of those who insist it wasn't Ogden Nash who wrote that but Shel Silverstein, here's another one that was written by Nash:

    Is gharsley.

    "On the Assumption that Al Gore Will Slim Down if He's intending to Run for President" (Trillin)

    Last week, I told my desk that Gore might run,
    Though he appeared to be at least full-size:
    A waiter at a Georgetown place revealed
    Gore's order had included 'hold the fries.'

    Whether a particular poem lifts and inspires one above and beyond the ordinary or “deteriorates into doggerel” is a subjective evaluation, like all critical evaluations of art and poetry and music.  One man’s doggerel is another man’s witty verse, of course, and truth be known, given the choice between pheasant under glass and spaghetti and meat balls, I’m hardly alone in preferring the spaghetti.  Much as I appreciate “stopping by woods on a snowy evening” and “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…”  (and I do love Frost and Dickinson.   And Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Keats, and Pablo Neruda…), there’s always room for the pelican…belly can…hell he can on the bench next to me.

    I’ve been thinking a lot in recent times about the old folks I knew as a kid.  Like the ones my father looked up to.  It was fascinating going to Nova Scotia every summer where his roots were and watching this man I thought knew everything there was to know actually looking up to people he himself as a kid thought knew everything there was to know.  The uncles.  Clarence and Cliff and Harold and Austin and Rollie, not to mention some who had "gone on to their reward."  The women too, with names like Cordelia and Annie and Mabel and Lillian and Lola, were no less important, but it was one uncle especially who had a way with words.  And for whom space was always made for yet another story or recitation of poetry.

    In 1938, when my mother and father married, they were the children of immigrants and had few resources to count on to get their lives started.  My father’s mother’s father had built the house in the woods he and his wife and their nine kids all lived in just after the time of the U.S. Civil War, in Canada and in territory never before inhabited.  Electricity and running water were unknowns.  And when my father bought the house I grew up in, it too lacked running water for the first year, even in Connecticut, until he got around to digging a well and putting in a septic tank so we didn’t need to use the outhouse any more. 

    He had not acquired the city ways my mother and my sister and I would soon take for granted, and he seemed to be less put out by the fact we lived with a water pump outside and an outhouse for a time. No "cultural estrangement" apparently. There was always a gap between my father and me, but when we began spending the summers with my grandmother's siblings in Nova Scotia, when I was about seven, I began to learn something essential about him, things about his roots that made little sense outside that environment.  The hunter, the fisherman, the man who wouldn’t let me get my driver’s license until I could take apart a carburetor. The culture that had nurtured him consisted of self-motivated farmers and woodsmen who, in the days before social welfare, either worked or starved. He was of the next generation, born in Boston, but his heart was always among the woods and lakes of Nova Scotia and when he died we scattered his ashes there.   

    It took me some time to learn the full extent of that culture he always yearned for.  Curiously, at least to me at the time, these people sat around in large family circles and listened to those who had ways with words.  There was the radio, I suppose, although I have no memory of anybody listening to it.  In time, I was able to make a connection between that world of self-sufficiency and the world of story-telling, where one respected the old folks for their knowledge of how to build things and sustain them.  And how to tell the same stories and recite the same poems over and over again until the rest of us began to pick them up and join in.

    When I looked up Robert W. Service I had a flash of instant recognition.  Service made his living writing poetry eventually.  My Great Uncle Harold never reached the heights Service did - Service made it professionally and left quite a proud legacy – but he was part of what went into my love of the rhythm-and-stress patterns of the English language, the cadences and the dry wit behind the turns of phrase.  Service’s world in the Yukon was not that far from my uncles’ world in the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland.  Rough as timber in their youth, apparently, and soft as a rhyming couplet, as the years went by.

    I’ve always envied those who could recite poetry at the drop of a hat, always marveled at the notion of oral traditions and at the thought that once there were people who could recite Homer’s Odyssey.  And that, even in this day and age, there are people, I understand (I’ve never met any face to face), who can recite the entire Qur’an.

    To go from Homer's Odyssey to Abdul Abulbul Amir in the same sentence is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, quite literally, although I'm not on firm ground here with the allegedly sublime.  From the heroic to the silly, maybe I should say.  But to a seven-year old first learning an appreciation of language and story-telling, the distinction is trivial.

    Both of these pieces, Abdul Abulbul Amir and The Cremation of Sam McGee, have been musicalized.  Abdul Abulbul Amir was set to music by a vaudeville singer and composer named Frank Crumit.  And The Cremation of Sam McGee was popularized not long ago by Johnny Cash.

    I'm posting the words and the links below, if you’d like to hear them spoken/sung.  And you tell me.  Is this doggerel?  Or simply the rap music of an age gone by?  Have they become outdated, the way I think Seventy-Six Trombones has lost its appeal?  Are they “too silly for words” as I think Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang has become and probably always was?  Probably “whose woods these are I think I know” deserves a longer life than “the first time I’ve been warm.”  But that’s OK.  For now, there’s room at the table for both.

    Have a listen to these two pieces.  And you have to hear them, sung or spoken.  Reading the verse doesn’t capture the spirit.  Many people have other associations with these two poems than mine, of course.  They learned Sam McGee in school, perhaps, along with the Gettysburg Address.  Or associate it with their father and long car trips.  But see if you can’t find a way, if only in the imagination, to go back to a time when one sat around and listened to the old folks telling their tales and reaching for a way to entertain each other.  Back before the internet.  Before television.  Before radio. Before electricity.

    Here are some of the versions of these two poems, the former set to music, on YouTube.

    Frank Crumit
    There’s the wonderfully politically incorrect version done by MGM.  We forget that the original confuses Turks and Persians as many do today, and in the heat of war and the breakdown of the three-cousin monarchies, King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, which led ultimately to World War I, it was not a time of sensitivity toward cultural differences.  But that aside, here’s the cartoon version

    And here’s a version by Brendan O’Dowda.  He’s actually the guy who popularized the songs of Percy French, but if you listen to him doing it after watching the cartoon version, it’s almost comical in how straight-laced it comes across.  Helps you understand how context is everything.

    Here’s a nice 1927 recording by Frank Crumit, who set it to music originally. 

    And another sung version by Frank Ifield, with a lovely Irish tenor voice: 

    And here’s a spoken version by Tom O’Bedlam. 

    The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
    And quite unaccustomed to fear,
    But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
    Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    If you wanted a man to encourage the van,
    Or harass the foe from the rear,
    Storm fort or redoubt, you had only to shout
    For Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
    In the troops that were led by the Czar,
    And the bravest of these was a man by the name
    Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
    And donned his most truculent sneer,
    Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    Young man, quoth Abdul, has life grown so dull
    That you wish to end your career?
    Vile infidel, know, you have trod on the toe
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
    And send your regrets to the Czar
    For by this I imply, you are going to die,
    Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
    Singing, "Allah! Il Allah! Al-lah!"
    And with murderous intent he ferociously went
    For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    They parried and thrust, they side-stepped and cussed,
    Of blood they spilled a great part;
    The philologist blokes, who seldom crack jokes,
    Say that hash was first made on the spot.

    They fought all that night neath the pale yellow moon;
    The din, it was heard from afar,
    And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
    Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

    As Abdul's long knife was extracting the life,
    In fact he was shouting, "Huzzah!"
    He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
    Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
    Expecting the victor to cheer,
    But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

    There's a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
    And graved there in characters clear,
    Is, "Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
    Of Abdul Abulbul Amir."

    A splash in the Black Sea one dark moonless night
    Caused ripples to spread wide and far,
    It was made by a sack fitting close to the back,
    Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
    'Neath the light of the cold northern star,
    And the name that she murmurs in vain as she weeps,
    Is Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

    Johnny Cash
    As for The Cremation of Sam McGee, YouTube has several versions.  I don’t like any of them, probably because they are not the version I remember as a child.  Too stagy.  Too puffed up.  There’s this one by Hal Jeayes.  And there’s even a film version directed by somebody named Johnny A. which fails miserably for me because the visuals are too distracting.  It’s the voice that should carry you.  And your own imagination that should do the work.  The Johnny Cash version works, at least: 

    The Cremation Of Sam McGee

    There are strange things done in the midnight sun
    By the men who moil for gold;
    The Arctic trails have their secret tales
    That would make your blood run cold;
    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
    But the queerest they ever did see
    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
    I cremated Sam McGee.

    Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
    Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
    He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
    Though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd "sooner live in hell".

    On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
    Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
    If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
    It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

    And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
    And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
    He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
    And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

    Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
    "It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
    Yet 'tain't being dead -- it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
    So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

    A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
    And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
    He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
    And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

    There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
    With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
    It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
    "You may tax your brawn and brains,
    But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

    Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
    In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
    In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
    Howled out their woes to the homeless snows -- O God! how I loathed the thing.

    And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
    And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
    The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
    And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

    Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
    It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May".
    And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
    Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

    Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
    Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
    The flames just soared, and the furnace roared -- such a blaze you seldom see;
    And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

    Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
    And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
    It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
    And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

    I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
    But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
    I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
    I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; . . . then the door I opened wide.

    And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
    And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
    It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm --
    Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

    There are strange things done in the midnight sun
    By the men who moil for gold;
    The Arctic trails have their secret tales
    That would make your blood run cold;
    The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
    But the queerest they ever did see
    Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
    I cremated Sam McGee.

    photo credits:

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  2. In explaining my decision to enter the world of the absurd the past couple of weeks, my escape into the history of the Hohenzollerns and their connection to other royals, I’ve said it’s because I can’t stand the endless chatter about Trump and Cruz, Hillary and Sanders.  I came out as a Bernie Sanders fan a long time ago, and, while I remain willing to argue with all my Hillary-supporting friends, I really find the horse race game the media play pretty unbearable.  At least with royals there are characters like Rasputin.  And Prince Philip’s mother, Alice, who was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic and forcibly institutionalized.  And Freud suggesting x-raying her ovaries to kill off her libido.  All before she became a Greek Orthodox nun and a member of the “righteous among the nations,” a Jewish “really really good guy, maybe saint, even,” and being buried in Jerusalem.  So much more fun than listening to Trump call Mexicans rapists over and over again in the lefty press.

    But in the past couple of weeks or so I've begun to feel disheartened that my friends are settling for second best, and I just want to say so.  I think there’s something terribly wrong with the big picture.

    Here’s how I see the big picture.

    Without going on about how badly broken the system is, I see three choices: one good, one not so good, and one really really bad.

    Good is Bernie Sanders.  The only one of the three candidates seriously engaging with the question of how to whittle away at the kleptocracy that America has become.  Then comes Hillary, who is the person to vote for if you don’t think the status quo is all that bad.  The third choice, Trump, is not a choice.

    Here’s what my Hillary-supporting friends are saying about the choice between Bernie and Hillary. 

    1. Bernie is not used to playing with the big boys.  They will eat him alive.  Which is baloney.  First off, there’s a good chance that the voters who would come out for Bernie are the kind of voters who would also throw the obstructionist Republican bums out and give Bernie a democratic congress to work with.  And even if they don’t, there would be such a sigh of relief that there finally is a radically different type of person in the Oval Office, that I’m sure he would not be left high and dry.  We might even get Nancy Pelosi back.  Look how effective she was in her day.  Have you noticed she still has not come down off the fence, by the way?  A woman still not ready to endorse Hillary?

    2. Bernie has no international experience.  Hillary did a bang-up job as Secretary of State.  You got me there.  But Obama should get some credit for putting a good Secretary of State in office.  Why couldn’t Bernie Sanders do the same?

    3. The biggest argument I keep hearing against Bernie is that he is a spoiler.  Ralph Nader revisited.  He couldn’t get out the vote and all he is doing is splitting the democratic party. This argument, with all due respect to my dear friends putting it forward, is just plain wrong.  And it's based on the cynical notion that the system is rigged and we have to choose an insider or lose the game.  It's surrendering before the game has started.  Besides, all Nader could do was syphon votes off the bottom of the pile of democrats.  Bernie is drawing major support - he's far more of an equal - if the polls comparing Bernie to Hillary are taken seriously.  I know polls have been proven unreliable lately, but then what’s the argument for ignoring the polls?

    Here’s the results of the latest NBC News/SurveyMonkey Tracking Poll, conducted online between May 2 and May 8:

    Bernie vs. Trump: 53 to 40%
    Hillary vs. Trump:  49 to 44%

    The problem seems to be Hillary’s unpopularity.

    According to HuffPost, a look at ten different polls (with one exception, CNN) shows Hillary’s unpopularity rating is roughly between 10 and 20% points ahead of her popularity rating: 

    See also HuffPost’s reasoning behind its endorsement of Bernie here.

    By contrast, Bernie’s ratings are the mirror image – between 10 and 20%, for the most part, favorable ahead of unfavorable.  CNN is once more an outlier here.  It has Bernie’s favorable ratings 28 points ahead of his unfavorable ratings.  (Nice to hear, but note to self: continue ignoring CNN as a source of information.)

    Then there is the Quinnipiac poll showing Hillary beating Trump in Florida by only one point, while Bernie is beating him by 2.  In Ohio she is four points behind Trump, while Bernie leads there as well, by 2.  And in Pennsylvania,  she’s ahead of Trump by only one point, Bernie by 6. The argument that she’s a better candidate than Bernie does not seem to be holding water lately.  (And while you’re checking out that page, note that after giving figures showing Bernie a stronger candidate, the entire rest of the article compares only Hillary to Trump.  Same media slighting of Bernie as we've seen all along.)

    Common Dreams has this to say:  “a new national poll out Tuesday shows that the most surefire way to derail the GOP frontrunner: Put Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ticket.”

    Another way of looking at the election is shown in the opening lines of an editorial in today’s Chicago Tribune: “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can be glad that ‘none of the above’ won't be on the ballot in November. If it were, they'd probably both lose.

    So much for the beatability argument.  If you’re going to go for Hillary over Bernie, the burden is on you, it seems to me, to make the case.  You're going to have to begin with “Even though Bernie is a safer choice at keeping Trump out of the White House, you should still vote for Hillary.  It’s riskier, but she’s the one to vote for because…”

    To get behind Hillary, it seems to me, is to turn a blind eye to just how inequitable a place the United States has become, how we’ve thrown away our focus on education (just look at the history of California in the last fifty years, dropping from arguably best in the world to 49th in the nation, for example ) how we’ve turned our backs on voting rights, stopped rewarding productivity and rewarded financial shenanigans instead.  And totally surrendered to corporate greed.  Read Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire for a good treatment of that story, or Les Leopold’s Runaway Inequality, or check out Noam Chomsky’s latest, the Requiem for the American Dream, and then consider Hillary’s half-hearted attempt to change the fact that for every house and average American worker might afford to buy any more his or her CEO boss could buy 844 houses.

    If Hillary wins the nomination, I will get behind her and hope everybody else does likewise – allowing a man to become president who wants to bar Muslims from entering the country would be a cataclysmic disaster for the country (and the rest of the world).

    But it's not over yet.  I know it's a big uphill climb, and it's the two political parties, not the American people, who determine who gets to the top.  But California, Oregon and New Jersey have not had their primaries yet, and the struggle is still engaged.

    It's been a long time since we've had much hope things could be turned around.  Why abandon so quickly the only voice in the game seriously addressing America's inequities?  What will it hurt to wait a while longer before throwing in the towel and settling for second best?


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  3. While trying to keep track of all the Hohenzollern boys, I’m struck with the paucity of names the family came up with.  There’s an occasional Heinrich, Ludwig and Ferdinand here and there, but mostly they went with Frederick (Friedrich), combining it often with William (Wilhelm).  There’s a similar lack of imagination in the female line.  An amazing pile of Sophies and Charlottes.  (I’m writing in English, so I'm using Frederick and Sophie and William, but you know I mean Friedrich and Sophia and Wilhelm).

    I have learned and forgotten a dozen times which one of the Sophie Charlottes Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) is named after and which of the Freddies or Williams or Freddy Williams she was attached to.  It has always seemed way beyond storage capacity to try to remember the entire line, but unless you at least give it a brief study, there’s no way to tell the players apart.   And in the end, you need an anchor or you just drift, so I decided to use Frederick the Great.  The answer to my question, by the way, is Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, wife of Frederick I, Frederick the Great's paternal grandmother.

    So here goes, with birth years to keep them apart: The Sophies and their Freddies, moving backwards and forwards from Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great.

    First, there is his mother,  Sophia Dorothea (1687) of Hanover.  And his mother's mother, Sophia Dorothea (1666) of Celle.  And his mother’s father’s mother: Sophia of the Palatinate (1630), also known as Sophia of Hanover. And finally, there is his father's mother, Sophia Charlotte (1688) of Hanover, who is also the daughter of his mother’s father’s mother, Sophia of the Palatinate (1630), also known as Sophia of Hanover.  The reason for this convolution it that his mother's father's mother is his father's mother's mother - Sophia of the Palatinate, also known as Sophia of Hanover.

    There are so many more.  There’s Sophia Dorothea of Prussia (1719) (German: Sophia Dorothea Marie von Preußen), for example, the ninth child and fifth daughter of Frederick William I and Sophia Dorothea (1687) of Hanover.  She married a man named Frederick William, same name as her father.

    The Sophies and the Charlottes don’t let a little thing like the English channel get in their way.  There is Sophia Matilda (1777) of the UK, daughter of George III, who became King of Hanover as well, which became a part of England until Victoria became queen and they took it away again because they didn’t want a woman to inherit it - and his wife, Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

    Nor do they stop in the 17th and 18th centuries; they just go on and on.

    There is Sophia Dorothea (Ulrike Alice) of Prussia (1870), for example, daughter of Kaiser Friedrich III, the Kaiser who ascended the throne in March 1888 and died 99 days later, leaving the throne to his younger brother, Wilhelm II.  She was thus the daughter of Wilhelm I and the sister of Wilhelm II as well as of Charlotte and Victoria of Prussia, and the granddaughter of Victoria and Albert.  She married King Constantine of Greece, which required her converting to the Greek Orthodox faith.  Which so pissed off her sister-in-law, Dona, the wife of Kaiser Wilhelm II, that she, Dona, convinced Sophia Queen of the Hellenes was going to hell, gave birth three weeks prematurely, which led Wilhelm, ever the horse’s ass, to write to his mother that if the baby had died, Sophia would have murdered it.

    Then, a few years later, there was Sophia Charlotte (1879) of Oldenburg, who was married (1906) for twenty years (divorced in 1926) to Prince Eitel (which is the German word for "vain") Friedrich, the second son of Kaiser Wilhelm II (and therefore Frederick the Great’s nephew’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandson.)   She is apparently named after Sophie Charlotte of Hannover.  Lived in Bellevue Palace, where the German president now lives, after her marriage began falling apart.

    And let’s not forget the current head of the Hohenzollern household, and heir presumptive to the German throne, Georg (wait for it,) Friedrich.  His wife’s name?  Sophie, of course.  And what did they name their first-born, the heir presumptive’s heir presumptive?  First name: Carl.  Second name: Friedrich.

    And, once more across the channel, what are the Brits up to?  Heir presumptive to the throne, Wilhelm William married Kate and had a little boy Georg George.  And then they had a daughter.  Whom they named – you’d never guess ­– Charlotte.

    Freddy von Kamakura
    Sophia von Mexiko
    My closest friends in Japan, Don and Alice, had a dog, a beautiful Chocolate Lab of blessed memory, named after Frederica von Stade.  Called her Freddie, for short.  Don and Alice live in Kamakura, where my friends Dan and Kanti used to live, also.  Until they moved to Mexico.  They have a dog named Sophia.


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  4. Victoria Regina, universal grandmother
    A quick look at Queen Victoria’s family tree and you can see why she’s called the grandmother of everybody.  Everybody royal, I mean.  Not just any everybody.

    Her first daughter Victoria married Frederick III, King of Prussia and became the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Her oldest boy, Edward VII, married the daughter of Christian IX of Denmark and their daughter, Maud, married Charles of Denmark who then morphed into Haakon of Norway, whereupon he became a heroic resister against the Nazi invaders.  Victoria and Albert's second daughter, Alice, married Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, and gave birth to Alix (i.e., an actual real granddaughter, not a metaphorical one), who married Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia.  Alix passed on hemophilia to her children, alas, which wasn’t really her fault.  But then became a friend to Rasputin, which kind of was.  All was forgiven, however, when she was slaughtered by the Bolsheviks with her entire family and became Saint Alexandra the Passion Bearer.  Alix's sister, Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine married Louis of Battenberg, and gave birth to Alice of Battenberg, Prince Philip's mother, and Louis, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and last viceroy of India.

    Then came a couple more children of lesser note, Helena and Louise, who married the guy whose family they named the socks after, John, 9th Duke of Argyll.*  Then another son, Arthur, who also married into the Prussian line via Louisa Margaret, the daughter of Frederick Charles of Prussia. And finally, the baby of the family, Beatrice, who married Henry of Battenberg (whose name got translated into Mountbatten before it got replaced entirely by Windsor), who gave birth to Victoria Eugenia who married Alfonso XIII, King of Spain.  Not bad for a woman about whom the legend arose that she opposed laws against lesbians “because women would not do things like that.”  Not true, it turns out.  Alas.  Always loved that story.

    Prince Philip and his mum,
    Alice of Battenberg
    The more you poke around in Victoria and Albert’s family background, the more some wonderful geography pops up.  When Queen Elizabeth's hubby, Prince Philip came on the scene, he was the son of Alice, also a Battenberg, remember.  She went a little batty, probably schizophrenic (for good reason, apparently - she was badly abused by her family), and eventually became a Greek Orthodox nun, and a woman Israel has declared to be one of the "righteous among the nations."  For the whole story, link here. It seems as though the family Philip married into want to keep her out of family photos, at least when she's in nun drag. I could be wrong about that. 

    Albert’s father, Ernst I, the first duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was the older brother of Leopold, King of Belgium, whose daughter married Maximilian I of Mexico and became Princess Carlota of Mexico and his father was also Victoria's grandfather via her mother. Ernst’s younger brother by one year, Ferdinand, became the father of Ferdinand II of Portugal, whose daughter Infanta Antonia married Leopold, a Hohenzollern prince, and gave birth to Ferdinand I of Romania.  And Ferdinand II’s younger brother, August, became the father of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, who was the father of Boris III, who was the father of present-day (still living) Simeon Borisov Sakskoburggotski.  No longer monarch.  Just an ordinary Bulgarian politician.  Except that, unlike the Hohenzollern boys, he has never signed any abdication papers.

    Cry uncle any time.  I've barely scratched the surface.  Victoria and Albert had 22 grandsons and 22 granddaughters.  

    The Johnston House, birthplace of Clarence, Cliff, Mabel,
    Carrie, Lola, Austin, Harold, Rollings and Everett
    Meanwhile, in the town of North Ogden, Nova Scotia, is a house which might be called “The Johnston House,” where my paternal grandmother, Mabel McCornick, née Johnston, was born, along with her older siblings, Clarence and Cliff, and her younger siblings, Carrie, Lola, Austin, Harold, Rollings and Everett.  Knowledge of the McCornick line goes only to my Scotland-born grandfather, Mabel’s husband, but the Johnston line goes back two more generations to Mabel’s father, Thomas, and her grandfather, Robert.  There is knowledge of the descendants down the line of Robert and his wife Margaret, which sometimes feels to me to include half the population of Nova Scotia, where I spent summers as a kid, sleeping in a room with Queen Victoria's picture hanging on the wall.  I remember old folks talking about a Johnston, though, perhaps Robert’s father, who had left (Enniskillin?) Ireland and was heading for Ontario but was shipwrecked in Nova Scotia and didn’t have the resources to continue the journey.  He landed in Canso, I believe, and migrated thirty miles to Guysborough, where he settled.  But these days, except for my father's cousin Betty née Johnston and me, nobody has the slightest interest in origins anymore.

    Sophie Dorothea of Celle,
    aka Princess of Ahlden after her
    husband threw her in jail in Ahlden
    Meanwhile, over in Germany, in a lovely little town called Celle, just down the road from Hannover, there once lived a woman known as Sophia Dorothea of Celle.  Like most nobility, she is known chiefly for the children she produced. Sophia Dorothea of Celle was the only child of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, which probably rings no bells for most people, but my mother, who was born in Celle and lived in Braunschweig (that’s German for Brunswick) a short while before coming to America, had a childhood illness, which I’m told was cured by a shepherd tending sheep in the Lüneburg Heath.  So there.  Don’t say I don’t have connections.

    Sophia Dorothea of Celle’s mother was her father’s longterm mistress, a probably very nice Huguenot lady, whom he eventually married morganatically (i.e., you can have my name, but keep your hands off the family silver).   Sophia Dorothea was supposed to marry the future king of Denmark, but Sophia of Hannover decided she should marry her son instead.  Sophia Dorothea shouted, “I will not marry that pig snout” and fainted into her mother’s arms. She did marry the pig snout, however, who was her cousin George Louis, by the way, and they positively hated each other for the rest of their lives.  That didn’t prevent them from producing two children, George Augustus, who became George II of Great Britain, and Sophia Dorothea (yes, same name), who became "Queen in Prussia" when she married the perfect shit that was Frederick William I of Prussia, and gave birth to Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great.  George Louis got away with his affairs, of course, being male, but Sophia Dorothea suffered for hers.  George put her in prison in Celle for thirty-some years and never allowed her to see her children again. After leaving her covered with purple bruises and tearing her hair out. Before she died she wrote a letter to him to serve as a curse from beyond the grave.  George would not permit mourning in London or in Hanover and stuck her body in the cellar.  It was eventually moved into the Stadtkirche, the “City Church” of Celle, where it remains today.  According to Wikipedia, “George I died four weeks later, presumably shortly after receiving his deceased wife's final letter.”**

    The reason for George’s scorn was that Sophia Dorothea had taken up with Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, played by Stewart Granger in the 1948 film about the affair, Saraband for Dead Lovers.  The lovers are brought down by a woman named Clara, Countess Clara Platen, played by Flora Robson.  Granger wanted Marlene Dietrich to play the part instead of Flora Robson, because Flora Robson was not beautiful and it was difficult, Granger said, to be cruel to a plain woman, and he needed to be cruel.

    Sometime before my mother, Clara, was born (we do not have the wedding certificate) my grandmother, Bertha Luisa, married Karl Schultheis of Berlin.  We do, at least, have their names as legitimate parents of my mother, i.e., a married couple, on her birth certificate from the Midwifery Clinic in Celle in 1915.

    But these were war years, and Karl went on to greener pastures, apparently divorcing my grandmother and abandoning my mother, and marrying again.  Karl and his second wife produced two boys, Kurt and Willi.  Kurt was killed in the Second World War, but Willi went on to become a famous horseman, known for training Olympic dressage champions and founding a stud farm, which one of his daughters still runs today.  Another of his daughters, Daniela, contacted me a few years ago and we have a lovely relationship.  My grandmother had somehow kept in touch with the Schultheis family and knew of Willi, so I was able to meet him when I first went to Germany in 1960.  Daniela, it turns out, was asleep in the crib in the next room, although if I knew about her then, the information didn’t register in my twenty-year-old mind.  Karl never told his second family about his first, turns out, but we decided, Daniela and I, that we could brush that aside.  I figure given all this bad blood between Sophia Dorothea of Celle and her pig snout husband, the King of England, the least I could do, as son of Clara Bertha Luisa of Celle, would be to set an example and let bygones be bygones.

    *That’s of course an anachronism, but otherwise not so far-fetched.  Argyle (spelling was changed) socks go back to 1935.  Some claim (a real stretch!) they were named after the tartan of the Campbell clan.  The head of the Campbell clan today is His Grace, the 13th Duke of Argyll.

    ** The misery doesn't end there.  Pig snout George I and Sophie Dorothea's hatred for each other was mirrored in their two children.  George II hated his sister, Sophie Dorothea of Hannover, and apparently the feeling was mutual.  Then Sophie Dorothea married Frederick William of Prussia, who was known for beating his children, and forbidding them, including his heir, Frederick the Great, to see her unless he was present.  Freddie loathed his father and found ways to get around this order.  He loved his mother, from all reports, and greatly mourned her passing.  When his father died, he then became the man his father would have wanted, the king who expanded Prussia into a world-class state and went down in history as one of Europe's greatest generals.  (Depending on who you ask, of course.)

    photo credits:


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  5. Die Mädels/Musumesantachi/"Da Goils"
    My friend Ed sends dozens of doggie things from the internet my way, knowing that Taku and I have built our lives around Miki and Bounce these last five and a half years, and that that has turned us into fanatic dog lovers.  I display my obsessiveness for all to see.  Without shame.  Without apology.  I always hoped I might find a life companion, and was blessed when Taku came into my life and was willing to marry me, after we had already spent over two decades together.

    And then, out of the blue, came these two other little critters whose only purpose in life would seem to me to be to draw every ounce of love and affection I ever stored away in the farthest corners of my being.  And, incidentally, did pretty much the same for Taku.  It’s a love we share.  I had no idea I was capable of this much affection.  I’ve always said the way you know you’ve found a good friend is not when you find somebody to do you favors or to be there with you.  It’s when you find somebody who makes you a better person than you would be otherwise.  I feel, when I’m with Miki and Bounce, I’m as loving and as caring as I can get.

    Bounce, aka Bu-chan, Bu-ko, Boobie
    Ed’s latest sloppy sentimental piece (of many!) this morning was a thing somebody wrote using the voice of a dog.  It struck me as a pretty good representation of what a dog might well say to you if he or she could speak.  And could reason the way you do.  OK, so it bothers a lot of people when we “anthropomorphize” animals, making them imaginary friends.  The thing is, I’m having trouble thinking this is anthropomorphizing.  I am persuaded this is the consciousness of a dog speaking to me.

    So I’ve decided to talk back.  I am using the singular, but what I say applies equally to both my little girls.

    1. My life is likely to last ten to fifteen years.  Any separation from you will be painful: remember that before you get me.

    I will remember that.  I didn’t want to think of that when we got you.  You were just a four-week-old puppy and we wanted the illusion that you would live forever.  But now that five years have gone by in a flash, I realize suddenly that we may have to face the end of your life in as little as another five years.  I pray that it will be much longer.

    2. Give me time to understand what you want of me.

    Will do.

    3. Place your trust in me – it is crucial to my wellbeing.

    You got it.

    4. Do not be angry at me for long, and do not lock me up as punishment.

    I don’t need to be told that.  It comes naturally for me to not stay angry with you.  And I have put you in a cage at times only to protect you, and never to punish you.

    5. Your have your work, your entertainment, and your friends.  I have only you.

    You do recognize that you have others, as well.  Bill has flown across the country to sit with you while Taku and I went on vacation.  Every time Amy comes home you go wild when you see her, so I know she too is part of your life.  And don't forget Jason, who brought you your favorite doggie toy to date, that tuna roll from poochalicious.ca

    6. Talk to me sometimes.  Even if I don’t understand your words, I understand your voice.

    We talk every single day.  And I don't mean only, “Come on girls, time for pipipupu.”

    7.  Be aware that however you treat me, I will never forget.

    I am aware.

    8. Remember before you hit me that I have sharp teeth that could easily hurt you, but I choose not to bite you because I love you.

    Hit you?  Hit you?  How on earth could I ever hit you???  My Lord, what a horrible idea.

    But I appreciate your explanation of why you don’t bite.

    9. Before you scold me for being uncooperative, obstinate, or lazy, ask yourself if something might be bothering me.  Perhaps I might not be getting the right food, or I have been out too long, or my heart is getting too old and weak.

    Miki, aka Mi-chan, Mi-ko, Mikele-Pikele
    We notice you tend to eat things that upset your stomach a lot.  I hope you realize when you sit at the table and beg that one of the reasons we don’t feed you is that we want to keep those unpleasant moments to an absolute minimum!  When you don’t eat, we worry.  It’s hard not to rush you off to the vet at the slightest provocation. 

    10. Take care of me when I get old.  You too will grow old.  Accompany me on difficult journeys.  Never say: “I cannot bear to watch” or “Let it happen in my absence.”  Everything is easier for me if you are there – even my death.

    We’ll be here.  That’s a promise.  We’ll be here.

    Remember that I love you.


    I’ll remember.


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  6. Hohenzollern Castle
    When my friend Bill asked me what I was up to the other day, I told him I was “playing with the Hohenzollern boys.”  He had no clue.  “You know, the princes of the German royal family.”

    “German royal family?  I thought Germany was a republic.”

    “Well, it is.  But they still have royals.”   a. D. (ausser Dienst – out of service), I might have added.

    “When did they ever have a royal family?”

    “You know, Kaiser Wilhelm I and II, remember?” 

    Never heard of them.

    Bill said he was a bit embarrassed to admit he knows nothing of the Kaisers, but he needn’t be.  I doubt most people these days could identify these guys.  They stepped down from the Prussian throne 98 years ago, after all.  They show up for royal weddings (they are related to virtually everybody and most of them claim Queen Victoria as a first, second, or third-degree grandmother), but otherwise they live relatively quiet lives.  Just for the record, the current head of the House of Hohenzollern, Georg Friedrich, whom we'll get to shortly,  is Queen Elizabeth's second cousin twice removed.

    The Hohenzollerns became the royal family because the Prussians were in the right place at the right time with the unification of the many German states into a single empire in 1871.  They were by no means the only royals.  Most famous, probably, is the House of Habsburg, associated primarily with Austria, but which produced emperors and kings for at least a dozen other places, Bohemia, France, Hungary, Russia, Ireland, Portugal, and on and on.  But sticking strictly to Germany, there are the Wittelsbachs in Bavaria, the Guelphs (Welfen) in Hannover (who currently inhabit the British throne),  and the Wettins in Saxony (whose Saxe-Coburg and Gotha branch produced Prince Albert, and got changed to Windsor when being German became a no-no).   But it was the Prussian House of Hohenzollern who produced the Kaisers - and the rest is (German) history.

    Now Bill is a dear friend, so I thought I’d throw together a mini-lecture on the royals of the Prussian line, so he need never be embarrassed again.

     *          *          *

    Outside of Germany nobody takes Prussians seriously.  How do you take a man seriously when he’s wearing a spiked helmet?  Or when he prances around, as Kaiser Wilhelm II used to, with a skull face on your hat?  Then there’s the issue of whether or not the tradition of militarism which the Prussians are responsible for starting is responsible for the rise of Hitler.  Many, including prominent Germans like the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt have made a point of tying them together.  And finally, one doesn’t argue over the fact that the Prussian state is no more; they argue only over when it ended. 

    Germany in 1871
    Some claim it actually ended in 1871 when Bismarck created the German Second Empire (the first goes back to Otto I in 962), putting an end to the Kingdom of Prussia.  However, it was the Prussian king Wilhelm I who was put in charge.  Purists in the Prussian camp claimed they couldn’t be Prussian anymore if they had to represent all those other German people.  Bavarians, for example.  Or Saxons.  Any number of other not good enough to be called Prussian types.  Lots of people have trouble shedding their tribal identities and tribal loyalties for larger political goals.  Prussians were no exception.

    Or did Prussia end when the Prussian monarchy ended, in 1918, when the kaisers were forced to abdicate in favor of the Weimar Republic?  

    Or did it continue somehow until formally abolished by the Allied Victors in World War II on February 25,  1947?  In any case, it’s dead and gone.

    Or is it, as Mark Twain put it about himself, that "the reports of my death have been grossly exaggerated."

    You see, Prussia may have died out, but the House of Hohenzollern, the royal house of the German kaisers, is still alive, and from all reports, actually thriving.

    Germany did not do what the Russians did to their tsar's family, murder them all, men, women and children in cold blood.  Instead, when they kicked the kaiser out, they sent him to a comfortable exile in Holland with thirty-six train loads of his furniture from the New Palace in Potsdam.  And when members of the Hohenzollern family who had been disinherited for marrying commoners took their grand nephew, the heir to court, the court allowed they should continue to be able to feed from the Hohenzollern trough, which remains considerable, but that the title of head of the house of Hohenzollern appropriately belonged to the current heir, Georg Friedrich, as the family had determined.

    Georg Friedrich, Prinz von Preußen, and his wife Sophie
    The current head of the Hohenzollern family, the family of the Kaisers, the guy they’d put on the throne if the Bundesrepublik were suddenly to have a collective desire to restore the monarchy and establish what would be called a Fourth Reich, is Georg Friedrich Prince of Prussia.  He appears to be a gentle kindly soul.  Don’t know him personally, so I can’t say for sure, but if you look at pictures of him and his wife Sophie and their three kids, what’s not to love?  They appear to have all the “noblesse” of blue-blooded folk with “class” and little or none of the upper-class twit features of Georg’s great-great-grandfather Wilhelm II, the pompous bag of wind who changed his uniforms five or six times a day and pranced around on a horse on parade grounds when he was not posing for yet another official photo.  And twirling his moustache heavenwards.

    Georg lost his father when he was just a year old.  Father, Louis Ferdinand Oskar Christian of Prussia, Jr. - “Lulu” to his friends – had joined the Bundeswehr, the modern German army, and was crushed between two vehicles while on maneuvres.  He lost his leg and died, apparently of the trauma, a few weeks later.  Lulu left not only his little boy behind, but a wife who was six months pregnant.  That was in July, 1977.  And the baby, Georg’s sister, Cornelie-Cécile, was born developmentally disabled.  Georg’s mother picked up the pieces a few years later and married a man her husband’s sister had divorced.  Georg’s mother had one of those great names that make being blue-blooded worth while.  She was known as the Countess Donata of Castell-Rüdenhausen.  She died last September.

    Amidst all this tragedy and tribulation, Georg had a paternal (i.e., Hohenzollern) grandfather, Louis Ferdinand Sr., (full name: Louis Ferdinand Victor Edward Albert Michael Hubert) who outlived his son, Georg’s father, Louis Ferdinand, Jr. by seventeen years.  The two, Louis Sr. and Georg became close and Georg managed to get a royal education.  Georg got from LFVEAMH a whole lot more than grandfatherly companionship,  though.  LFVEAMH had done his part to keep the bloodline blue, when he married the Grand Duchess Kira Kirilovna of Russia.  He then got real pissed when his first two sons, FW39 and Michael,  insisted on marrying commoners for love.  So he cut them off from the title and it went to Louis Ferdinand Jr., and ultimately Georg was designated “sole heir.”

    What a family reunion photo looks like
    if your name is Hohenzollern
    Not without a fight.  FW39 (first-born Friedrich Wilhelm 1939 – there are so many Friedrich Wilhelms that I am adding his birth year for easy identification) – and second-born Michael sued for inheritance.  They had never worked a day in their lives, but they claimed that in the new modern Germany, where everybody is equal, the law requiring blue-blood marriage must certainly be unconstitutional.  They wanted their renunciation of the Hohenzollern title to be dismissed, and they wanted their allowances to be commensurate with their blue blood status – which, unless I'm missing something, is what is called an argument that goes around in circles.  But I guess they didn't care if Georg got the title, as long as they got their allowances.  

    They got their wish.   The German Supreme Court decided the boys should have their chunk of change, but the title had passed to Georg and that would be the end of it.  They would henceforth be entitled to ride in the Hohenzollern limousine.  They could just never expect to drive it.

    And this raises the interesting question of just exactly how much money is left in the coffers.  A good chunk went when the second kaiser abdicated and this wonderful German word Vermögensauseinandersetzung was on everybody's lips.  (OK, maybe not everybody's.) I believe the English is "apportionment of assets and liabilities."  Go to the official preussen.de website and you see this word featured in the "Prussian lexicon."  No wonder.  It was the takeover of the family fortune by the state.  They still kept what most people would consider a fortune – the crown jewels, for example – but then lost big once more when the communists took over in the East, where most of Prussia was.  97,000 hectares of land, for example - now you see it, now you don't.

    Beau Sancy diamond
    Georg Friedrich had to sell the "Beau Sancy" diamond, a couple years ago, once worn by Marie de Medici and Mary Stuart.  34.98 carats.  Was hoping to get between half a million and 3 million euros, I understand.  Actually went for $9.7 million.  Should cover the heating bill for a while.

    More recently, Georg sued the AfD, the newly formed right-wing party, for using images of the Hohenzollern Castle he calls home on their campaign posters, as a way of stressing they hold to the good old (Prussian) values.  Georg lost that one.  The castle is too public, the Stuttgart court decided.  He can’t claim exclusive use of it.  So royalty may not be running the country anymore, but neither are they out of the picture entirely.

    But I’m digressing now…

    Back to grand papa.

    Louis Ferdinand Sr. (aka LFVEAMH ) would appear to be somewhat of a snob.  Or maybe he simply didn’t care much for his lazy-ass sons FW39 and Michael.  Who knows what went on in his head when he used the blue-blood excuse to disinherit them and make his grandson sole heir.  It may well have been due to the fact that he himself inherited the title because his own older brother had married a commoner and lost the right of succession. That older brother, Wilhelm06 (full name: Wilhelm Friedrich Franz Josef Christian Olaf) died while invading France in 1940, and so many people showed up at his funeral so big that it made Hitler uncomfortable.  Hitler then decreed that there would be no more royals fighting at the front, thus assuring that blue-bloods would be kept safe to make more blue-bloods.  Grandpa not only failed to show gratitude, but began hanging out with too many anti-Nazi types.  They never proved his participation in attempts to do the Führer in, but Grandpa nonetheless ended up in Dachau for a while. 

    But let's get back to the latest generation of Hohenzollerns, Georg and his wife Sophie and their twin boys Carl Friedrich and and Louis Ferdinand (2013).  And their baby sister, Emma Marie, who celebrated her first birthday a couple weeks ago on April 2nd.  Pictures are hard, if not impossible to find.  At least I have not been able to find one.  Their parents are doing their damnedest to keep them out of the limelight so they can grow up like normal kids.  The Prinz von Preußen family are five of the 3195 residents of the village of Fischerhude, just outside Bremen.  When they’re not in Berlin, that is, where Georg works for a company specialising in helping universities bring their innovations to market.  Additionally, he administers the Princess Kira of Prussia-Foundation, founded by his grandmother in 1952.  (For an idea of the kind of things the foundation does, here’s a video of Georg and Sophie at Hohenzollern Castle dealing with a program to put Israeli and Palestinian kids together to create a musical project. 

    *          *          *

    Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
    in the heart of West Berlin,
    left standing as a reminder of the war,
    alongside the new church and tower
    Royal families are not among my primary interests, but these days the gay liberation arguments are sort of shooting fish in a barrel, (i.e., big yawn for the most part), and the Trump/Hillary race makes me fall asleep on my feet, so I’ve been entertaining myself reading Prussian history.  Because I fell in love with Berlin back in my young years and wanted to know more about this Sophie Charlotte person that Charlottenburg Castle and the Charlottenburg neighborhood were named after (she was the wife of Frederick I: first in the chart at the end, Frederick the Great's grandfather).  And the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church meant asking questions about the Kaisers.

    Then there was that time I found myself at the young age of twenty carried away in Munich by the Fasching (Mardi Gras) crowds singing songs like “Wir wollen unseren alten Kaiser Wilhelm wieder haben (We want our old Kaiser William back again!).  (The song goes on – “you know, the guy with the beard.”  Makes fun of militarism and the old folk’s fascination with the good old days.    

    Wasn’t long before I went off on a Freddie the Great Kick.

    Let me tell you about Freddie, who came to be known eventually as “der alte Fritz” (old Fritz), since he’s where the Hohenzollerns get involved with modern times and the Enlightenment, in particular.

    Fritz – he seems to be among the few, if not the only one of these guys, to have just one name.  He was Friedrich II, plain and simple.  Born in 1712 to a real shit of a father, Friedrich Wilhelm I (and the first of many Friedrich Wilhelms) (1688) and FWI’s cousin Sophia Dorothea, younger sister of King George II of England, who couldn’t stand the sight of her.  FWI didn’t like her much either, allegedly because she liked to have fun.  FWI preferred to play soldier and beat the shit out of little Freddie/Fritz.  Now young Freddie/Fritz) was what we might call a sissie.  He was tutored in French by Huguenot governesses and preferred the language and the literature of France to his supposedly native German (which I am told he spoke with a French accent) all his life.  He also liked to play the flute and loved his dogs so much he wanted to be buried with them.  He also loved his mother.  Who had thirteen other kids besides Fritz to worry about.

    Bullied so badly by his father. Fritz made a desperate plan to run away to England with his friend, Hans Hermann von Katte.  Their escape plan was leaked and since they were technically soldiers, they were sentenced to death for treason.  FWI forced his son to watch the beheading of his friend, an experience which so traumatized him he was in shock for days.  But he eventually submitted.  His father was simply too much for him.  Not that he had a whole lot of choice.  His father actually imprisoned him in a fortress in a place called Küstrin for many years.

    Then comes a remarkable twist in the plot of the young flute-music composer.  No sooner had his father died in 1740 than Fritz took over and began turning into the soldier-king his father had always wanted him to be.  He launched an audacious and risky war on neighboring Silesia, a province that belonged to Maria Theresa of Austria, and won.  Some time later, he moved into neighboring Saxony, and Prussia was on its way to becoming a major European power.

    Sans Souci Palace
    Potsdam is just outside Berlin and you can get there in twenty minutes from Charlottenburg.  I used to go all the time.  I went for the first time with my friend Craig, after the wall came down and things were still opening up.  The government of the DDR had refused to spend any money fixing up Sans Souci, which Fritz built for himself, and the neighboring palace, which the Kaisers spent a lot of time in.  (When the revolution came in 1918 and the Hohenzollerns were ousted, the furniture was all shipped to Holland in 34 trainloads for Wilhelm II.  (I guess his father, Wilhelm I, a much plainer-living man, settled for less.)  In the early days, post fall of the wall, the rococo had a decayed and decadent feel to it.  The gardens were kept up and in magnificent condition, and the combination made the place magical.  Now that the tourists have come in and everything has been Disneylanded up, those days are gone.

    I used to fantasize about Fritz walking among the six foot hedges with Voltaire, whom he brought to
    The "New Palace, now part of the Sans Souci gardens"
    in Potsdam
    Sans Souci several times for extended stays (when he was not feuding with him and throwing him in jail), and sitting in the theater in the new palace.  He saw no reason to build a royal box.  He preferred the third row.

    Lots of people have speculated about Fritz’s alleged homosexuality.  Could be a rumor spread by Voltaire after their falling out.  Voltaire, I'm told, had a penchant for gossip as well as for wit.  It’s true Fritz shunned his wife from the beginning and spent years living with his soldiers, without female companionship.  Used to see her once a year.  One one of those occasions, his only comment was, "You've gotten fat."

    So gay people like to claim him as one of their own.  But there is another possible explanation.  One theory of his woman-shunning is that he might have caught a terrible STD  (in Saxony - you know those Saxon girls - or from one of the village girls around Neuruppin - pick your rumor), and had it operated on.  The operation, according to this tale, was a disaster, rendering his genitals useless. I find that argument specious.  First off, who says you can't monkey around with others whose parts are still in order?   Then again, it would come as no surprise to discover that this is a theory generated by homophobic German nationalists who simply could not bear the notion that their Big Daddy and heroic Prussian King might swing the wrong way.  If I ever get to the dozen* still unread biographies of Frederick the Great, (in addition to the five or six I have actually read, that is)  I might come down off the fence with an opinion of my own in this regard.  Especially Tim Blanning's, which makes an open-and-shut case that Frederick was a lover of men.  Then, of course, there is Nancy Mitford's version, which makes the opposite claims.

    *Tim Blanning, Robert B. Asprey, Nancy Mitford, Sir David Fraser, Dennis Showalter, Giles McDonogh, C.B. Brackenbury, Herbert J. Redman, G. A. Henry, Thomas Carlyle, Theodor Schieder, Albert Seaton, Luisa Mühlbach, John Lord, Ludwig Reiners, F. W. Longman, Pierre Gaxotte,  and G. P. Gooch.

    And those are biographies written in English.  In German, Fritz's biographers include:

    Johannes Unger, Johannes Kunisch, Kerstin Friedrich u. Fredmund Malik, Michael Schaper, Tillmann Bendikowski, Wolfgang Stürner, Günther Bentele u. Alexander v. Knorre, Franz Kugler, Jürgen Overhoff,  Rudolf G. Scharmann, Regina Ebert, Josef Schmid, Sabine Henze-Döhring, Michael Imhoff, Louise Mühlbach, Albert Ritter, Norbert Leithold, Christian Graf v. Krockow, Hans-Jürgen Bömelburg u. Matthias Barelkowski, Erich van Heiss u. Ulrike Stolz, Dieter Alfter u. Engel, Bernd Ingmar Gutberlet, Willi Kollo, Sven Externbrink, Iselin Gundermann, Michael von Preußen, Christopher Duffy, Georg Piltz, Charlotte Pangels, W. Mielke, Silke Kiesant, Frank Göse,  - and that's only eight of 75 pages on the German Amazon page under "biographies of Frederick the Great."  I'll stop here. 

    *          *           *

    Frederick the Great
    portrait by Anton Graff, 1781
    Frederick II, known as " Frederick the Great," has come down in history as the best example of an enlightened absolutist.  He modernized the state, the bureaucracy and the civil service.  He implemented freedom of religion – a radical departure in Europe.  He spoke of himself as a "servant of the state,"  also a new political notion.  He reformed the legal system and made it possible for commoners to become judges, encouraged immigration – although notably not for Jews.  And he implemented policies of virtual freedom of artistic expression, the press and literature.  He built the Berlin Opera and founded the Berlin porcelain factory.  Lord Acton (you know, the man known for the phrase “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) called him “the most consummate practical genius that ever inherited a modern throne.”  (p. 648, Europe, a History, by Norman Davies)  The Nazis glommed onto him, not only for his anti-semitism, but also for his image as a Prussian warrior.

    Can’t say he’s any kind of hero. Not any more.  I once fantasized about him as I walked with friend Craig in the gardens at Sans Souci - alone - just after the wall went down and before the tourists came - walking and sharing great ideas with his friend Voltaire, someone who is kind of a hero to me.  Imagine my disillusionment as I read that Voltaire told friends he was bored with Frederick and his sophomoric poetry (he may have used another adjective), which he expected Voltaire to correct for him.   Acquiring territory for Prussia, losing your testicles to an STD, becoming a woman-hater and an anti-Semite – how could I turn this man into a hero.

    I guess I can always be selective.  And turn him back into the fantasy figure I created years ago when I fell in love with the notion of a head of the German state as a lover of music and poetry, fosterer of freedom of religion, and a man who wanted to be buried with his dogs.

    Nowadays, modern Germans are leading proponents of the EU.  German nationalism is for the
    outliers, the neo-Nazis and other crackpots, and most people look back on
    Kaiser Wilhelm I
    Germany’s history with something less than unadulterated pride.  Too much militarism.  Too much rigidity.  Too much Prussianism.  At the time of Prussia’s last hurrah, however, during the First World War, what others looked upon in Germany with emotions ranging from suspicion to disgust, Germans looked upon with pride.  German virtues were Prussian virtues: honor, duty, loyalty, punctuality, earnestness, discipline, obedience, seriousness (the other side of which is lack of a sense of humor, of course), and many Germans will still cite these as “German virtues,” conspicuously leaving out the other one, which the Nazis stressed, soldierly bravery.

    Kaiser Wilhelm II
    When the two Germanys divided, the DDR liked to portray these purported virtues as imperialist tendencies which, they say, the west persisted in maintaining, while the east was developing socialist values to replace them, including eliminating the fawning after nobility once and for all.  One has to wonder why they kept the goose-step when the West dropped it, but maybe that's asking too many questions.  In any case, it can’t be easy for those raised with a socialist consciousness to see the warm embrace of the current head of the pretender to the House of Prussia by so many in the west.  Not all, to be sure.  One of the biggies of West German postwar history, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, made it clear he saw entirely too close a connection between the Prussians and the Nazis and made a point of shunning a fest back in 1981 in Berlin, at which Prussian history was jumped up a notch.  

    On January 20, 2013, two little boys were born in the North German city of Bremen.  You won’t see their pictures plastered all over the place.  Their parents are committed to keeping them out of the limelight, but their names are Carl Friedrich and Louis Ferdinand Christian Albrecht.  Their mother is Sophie of Isenberg. Their father, Georg Friedrich, is heir to the Prussian throne, “Kaiser-if-you-need-me.”  Twin Papa Georg Friedrich got the title “Prince of Prussia” in 1994 from his father, Louis Ferdinand, who got it from his father Crown Prince William in 1951.  Crown Prince William (Wilhelm, actually), remember, had to abdicate in 1918 along with his father, Kaiser Wilhelm II, when Germany lost the First World War and there was a revolution which ushered in the Weimar Republic. 

    The boys, Carl Friedrich and Louis Ferdinand, were baptized on June 22 in a Lutheran ceremony at Burg Hohenzollern, where the Prussian throne is kept.  As well as the crown.  And tons of other beautiful (and expensive) objects – many railroad cars full -  from the good old days.  The Republic was generous to their former rulers when they shuffled them off to a mountain top in Swabia or life in exile in Holland.  You can visit Hohenzollern Castle for 7 euros (5 euros for children 6 to 17).  5 euros more if you actually want to go inside.  Another €3.10 for the round-trip shuttle bus between the parking lot and the castle.  Georg, as we've pointed out before, has a lot of Hohenzollerns on the payroll, after all.

    *          *          *

    Among the many curiosities of this age gone by is Paragraph 103 of the German Criminal Code, the law that forbids one from “Majestätsbeleidigung” – what we in English refer to as lèse majesté, the insulting of royals.   The law first went into place in 1871 when the Hohenzollern line was placed in position to rule the new united Germany, and Wilhelm I took on the job.  It’s commonly referred today as “the Shah paragraph” because it was Iran’s Shah Pahlavi who got his nose all twisted by satirists and others of his critics in Germany.  The foreign leader has to register a complaint, you see, for the wheels to start turning.

    *          *          *

    The Russians turned “Caesar” into “Tsar.”  The Germans kept the initial k sound and used German spelling to write it “Kaiser.”  Works just as well as “emperor,” you have to admit.  Today, when I go see a doctor, I pull out my “Kaiser Permanente” medical card.  Have associated the name with the Henry J. Kaiser, the automobile, and Willi I and Willi II come to mind these days, pretty much as an afterthought.

    In any case, the days of the kaisers are gone.  What’s left are just the princes, including Georg, the current head of the Hohenzollern household, Wilhelm II’s great great grandson, and from all appearances really nice guy.  He’ll be 40 on June 10th.  Educated in Scotland, where he got his A-levels.  Lost his father, Louis Ferdinand Jr.,  when he was only a year old and became very close to his paternal grandfather, Louis Ferdinand Sr. whom his younger son was named after.  But I'm repeating myself.

    I used to assume he would use Hohenzollern as the family name – just as Queen Elizabeth might call herself Betty Windsor when she's in a casual mood, but apparently the family uses “Prinz von Preussen” as the official family name.  When Georg joined the army, his name tag read, simply “Preusse” – which led to no end of ribbing by his fellow soldiers, since he was stationed in Bavaria.  The Bavarians speak of “Prussians” the way U.S. Southerners speak of “Yankees”.  It’s as if you were stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia and had to walk around with “Yankee” on your name tag.

    But at least it seemed to deflect from the fact that this “Preusse” guy was heir to the German throne, and should the citizens of the Bundesrepublik ever tire of being republicans, could one day parade around like the kaisers of old.

    Georg as a kid with his grandfather, Louis Ferdinand,
    in front of a portrait of his great great grandfather,
    Kaiser Wilhelm II
    Not that he would, I imagine.  I’m quite charmed with him.  It's not long ago that he was a gangly teenager with glasses, rather bookish looking.  He married nobility, as was required of him, apparently finding a fellow modern thinker for a companion, and displays all the behavior his trainers inculcated.  Real class, if his projected persona in the press is any indication.  His grandfather, the one who raised him, was asked in an extended interview, “Would you like to be Kaiser?”  The answer was perfect.  “I’d do the job if the German people asked me to, but I’m happy just being a German and a European citizen.”  Georg and his wife Sophie both work full time.  She works at a consulting firm for non-profit organizations.  He manages the family fortunes when he's not at work "helping universities bring their innovations to market."

    Even those inclined to insist on removing any trace of sentimentality about royalty and nobility in the modern nation-state seem to find him appealing, personally.  Another success, if I'm not mistaken, of modern German democracy, turning royals into decent Menschen.

    As discussed previously, things were never exactly all peaches and cream within the Hohenzollern household.  Remember how Louis Ferdinand Sr., as head of household, followed the rule that heirs must marry within their station, i.e., only other nobility.  And how since his first and second sons both broke that rule and married commoners, the title passed to the third son, Louis Ferdinand Jr., and thus to his son Georg Friedrich.  Those little twin boys? – the one named Carl who stands to inherit and the other one who missed the honor by what may have been only minutes – blue blood all the way back.  At least he shares with his older twin brother (as well as pretty much anybody else in Europe who is royal) - Queen and Prince Consort of the United Kingdom and Ireland Victoria and Prince Albert of England (she’s also Empress of India) as great-great-great-great grandparents.  How many kids do you know who can tell you their four-times-grannie was Emperor of India?

    The modern line of the kings of Prussia began in 1701 when the duke of Prussia got permission from the committee to call himself a “King in Prussia” – but not the King of Prussia, because that would be stepping on too many toes.  That got “corrected” in 1772 when, thanks to Freddie the Great, wasn’t nobody going to push these kings around no more.  If you’re familiar with the Philadelphia area, you may know the city with a population of about 20,000 called King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.  It got its name from a tavern named for Freddie the Great.  But I digress.

    The line goes like this.  To get from Frederick the Great’s grandfather, the first King in Prussia to the present-day two-year old presumptive heir to the Hohenzollern title, Carl Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, you pass through fifteen generations (counting both ends), although #11 and #13 will not appear on the family tree, since they never actually held the title.  Here's my unofficial compilation.  If you want to see the official one, complete with photos and spousal units, check out here and note they begin one generation earlier, with Frederick William, the Elector.

    Hohenzollern boys, modern day (i.e., since 1701)
    birth and death years
    Head of House of Hohenzollern from...to

    Friedrich I, King in Prussia, aka Duke of Prussia, aka Elector of Brandenburg
    1688-1701 as duke
    1701-1713 as king

    Friedrich Wilhelm I
    Aug. 14 1688-
    May 31, 1740

    Friedrich II, aka Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great) (died childless)
    Jan. 24, 1712 – Aug. 17, 1786
    1740-1772 as King in Prussia;
    1772-1786 as King of Prussia

    Friedrich Wilhelm II (son of Freddie the Great’s brother Augustus Wilhelm)
    Sept. 25, 1744-Nov. 16, 1797

    Nephew FWII 1744’s mother was Fritz’s wife’s sister.  Nephew married Elisabeth Christine, whom he dropped four years later to marry Frederika Louisa by whom he had seven children while having five children by his mistress Wilhelmina Enke whom he took up with while she was still a teenager.  Nephew became a patron of Beethoven and Mozart and played the cello himself.  Fritz thought he was a bum.  Nephew removed Fritz’s ban on the German language and became a Rosicrucian and shut down the freedom of religion Fritz had installed and limited religious expression to officially accepted doctrine with himself deciding what that might be.  Ironically, this policy is credited with stability.  He ran into money problems and had to make deals with the newly formed French Republic, which made him a traitor to other royals.  He married two more women (i.e., became a bigamist twice over) and had seven more children with them.  One daughter married the Duke of York, another married William of Orange.  He built the Brandenburg Gate.

    Friedrich Wilhelm III
    Aug. 3, 1770-June 7, 1840

    FWIII spoke without using personal pronouns.  This later became the model for military officers.  Unlike his father, he was happily married to just one wife, Luise, who bore him ten children.  Until she died.  Then he married another woman, morganatically, but they had no additional children. He is best known for uniting the Protestant Churches, Lutheran and Calvinist, into one, the Church of the Prussian Union and making himself the leading bishop.  He’s buried in the Mausoleum in the park at Charlottenburg Castle.
    Friedrich Wilhelm IV
    Oct. 15, 1795-Jan. 2, 1861

    soldier boy

    FWIV was known for completing Cologne Cathedral and for designing the Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet; patron of Felix Mendelssohn, no kids.  Was king during the 1848 revolution, joined forces with the progressives and was offered the crown of all Germany.  He refused, complaining that he could not accept “a crown from the gutter” – i.e., ordinary folk, as opposed to those of the noble classes authorized to determine the succession of kings.  Buried at Sans Souci.

    Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig, Wilhelm I – the first “Kaiser Wilhelm” brother to FWIV (who had no kids, remember)
    Mar. 22, 1797-Mar. 9, 1888

    Otto von Bismarck,
    the "Iron Chancellor"

    Kaiser Wilhelm I was the first head of state of a modern united Germany.   German Empire (Reich) established under Otto von Bismarck, and title of Emperor (Kaiser) created.

    Friedrich Wilhelm, Kaiser Friedrich III; married Victoria, eldest daughter of Victoria and Albert
    Oct. 18, 1831-June 15, 1888
    March 9 – June 15, 1888 (99 days)
    Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen, Kaiser Wilhelm II – eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria, son of Victoria; married Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein
    Jan. 27, 1859 – June 4, 1941
    June 15, 1888 – Nov. 9, 1918
    Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor August Ernst; Crown Prince Wilhelm, last crown prince of Prussia and German Empire; married Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin; ladies’ man
    May 6, 1882 – July 20, 1951
    became heir apparent (after K. Wilhelm II) at age 6 in 1888 with death of Friedrich III; abdicated with his father, Nov. 9, 1918 but retained his title till death in 1951.

    Wilhelm Friedrich Franz Josef Christian Olaf
    July 4, 1906 – May 26-, 1940

    WFFJCO died before acquiring the title, fighting with the Wehrmacht in the invasion of France.  50,000 people showed up for his funeral at Potsdam.  That made Hitler jealous and he forbade any more participation in his wars by the Hohenzollern boys.

    Prinz Louis Ferdinand Sr.
    Nov. 9, 1907 – Sept. 26, 1994

    LF Sr. married grand duchess Kira of Russia and had seven children.  The first two, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and Prince Michael pissed their father off by marrying commoners, so he refused to grant them title to the family and it went to his third son, Louis Ferdinand, Jr. Funeral held at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

    Louis Ferdinand Oskar Christian, Prince of Prussia, aka Louis Ferdinand Jr. – “Lulu” to his friends
    Aug. 25, 1944-July 11, 1977

    LF Jr. died in a military maneuver accident.  His two children are the current pretender, Georg Friedrich, and his sister, Cornelie-Cécile, who was born developmentally disabled six months after her father’s death.
    Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia; married Sophie of Prussia, Princess of Isenburg
    June 10, 1976
    1994 to date;
    current heir to throne
    Carl Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, heir presumptive
    Jan. 20, 2013
    There's an heir and a spare: CF has a twin brother, Louis Ferdinand

    Carl Friedrich lives in a house with his mother, Sophie and his father, Georg Friedrich and his younger twin brother Louis Ferdinand and his one-year-old sister Emma Marie in a village called Fischerhude, just outside of Bremen, a lovely little town known for its painters, including Clara Westhoff, wife of Rainer Maria Rilke.  They also call home the Hohenzollern Castle in Swabia, Southwest Germany, about thirty miles south of Stuttgart.

    Hohenzollern Castle is one of 20,000 German castles.

    photo credits: Hohenzollern Castle

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  7. 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


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  8. 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: http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/Dancing-Across-Borders/70119678?trkid=201886046 credited elsewhere to dancingacrossborders.net

    The film actually came out in 2010 and has been extensively reviewed: http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Review-Dancing-Across-Borders-3190455.php
    I am grateful it has finally been released on Netflix.


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  9. 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.
    source: https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_stgb/englisch_stgb.html 

    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


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  10. Stave Church, Borgund, Norway
    late 12th century
    Well, hot-friggin DAMN!

    One of the world’s once-official state churches has gone and recognized same-sex marriage.  Norway has not merely issued an expression of tolerance for civil marriages; it has invited same-sex couples into the church, where they will bring them before the altar, wave some crosses in the air signifying God’s blessing at them, and call them hitched before God and everybody.  Holy Homo Secks You Wells,  Batman, that I should have lived long enough to see this!

    I know, I know.  Too little, too late, you say.  It’s happening in a country where religion is on its last legs, you say.  Who cares, you say.

    You’ve got a point.  It’s not like this was happening in Alabama or Poland, where the church still warns you that putting chocolate bits in your oatmeal can lead to eternal damnation.  It’s happening in Norway, where a mere 20% of the population even admit they still believe in God.  And only 5% of the population ever goes to church.  There are more than four times the number of people living in Ouagadougou as there are people who go to church in Norway.

    So why the big deal?  It's not even the official church anymore, like it was from 1536 when it joined with other Lutherans in thumbing their noses at Rome, right up to 2012, when the nominal head of the church was the king.  OK, it's still the national church, the "folks' church" recognized by the state as the religious home to the Norwegian people.  But it's not a world player.  Not like they've got a pope for Bernie Sanders to visit and talk about climate change with.  Why should it matter what they do in Norway?

    Glad you asked.

    For years we have allowed the religious right to claim it speaks for God.  We have confused religion with belief, doctrine with spirituality, morality with silks and satins, groveled around on the floor when this kinder-than-most pope throws some crumbs to the gays and the women under the table.  We have not fought back against slimebags like Ted Cruz working to persuade the dim-witted among us that he will do God’s work like only the candy man can.

    What this small move in a small snow-bound country far away is all about, besides granting dignity to its members who happen to be gay, I mean, is demonstrating to the world that it is possible to be Christian and to live in full confidence and dignity that you are god-worthy, acknowledged and embraced by your religious community.  Not an outcast to be pushed away from the communion rail to make room for corrupt politicians, rapists and murderers who manage to hide their sins while you ask others only to accept your god-given sexuality.

    Conservatives like to stress tradition.  We’ve always had male-female marriage, they tell you.  Wrong to change.  Black kids next to white kids on the school bench, maybe, if you insist, women in the voting booth, maybe, if you insist.  But gays at the altar rail?  Why do you insist on slapping the face of God?

    The world is a bit less messed-up today than it was yesterday.

    Norwegian Christians?  You’re a lovely bunch of people.

    OK, so you’re following the values of the larger modern society, the values of humanism, not the medieval ones of your founder Luther, who thought Jewish homes should be burned to the ground.  You pick and choose your official church’s values.

    I'm sitting here wanting to throw both arms in the air and give you a rousing Japanese "Banzai!"

    One of those things, like wanting always to take my shoes off in the house, that come from twenty-four years of living in Japan.

    Won't embarrass you.  (Or myself.)  Won't actually do it.

    Oh hell, why not?

    "Banzai" - "May you live ten thousand years."

    photo credit
    banzai guy


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