1. My father bought this house in 1938 for about $2800, if 
    remember right. We had electricity but no indoor plumbing 
    for a while, chickens out back, an outhouse. Not exactly 
    log cabin origins, but I'm not above claiming humble origins 
    when it suits me. The current owners still may take down the 
    "storm windows" and put up screens for the summer, just as we did 
    since the early 1940s, but I see they haven't done that yet. 
    Fifty years ago there were many more trees.
    My last blog entry (Between Winchester and Winstedhad to do with my home town of Winsted, which I was trying to introduce to friends Sharmon and Luis and to Taku, before heading to Connecticut to Sol's graduation. We're now back. Here's how it looks from the after-side.

    high school
    Friend Bill flew out from Indiana to sit with Miki and Bounce for five days so that Taku and I could get on a metal tube and fling ourselves through the air to the coast of my birth. As I sit here I am fighting the urge to rant over the practice of American Airlines of dropping you at one gate at an airport and then expecting you to sprint at the age of 77 across a mile and a half of airport to a gate at the other end, to catch a plane leaving in ten minutes. Without a word of understanding that this is not something kindly beings do to one another. And then cram you into tight seats built for folks under four foot eleven and less than ninety-nine pounds. Won’t rant about that. Will just tell you that I vowed as I left the airport after returning that I would walk, the next time I felt the urge to travel across the country.
    First Church

    But that’s the down side. Had to get that out of the way.

    Taku and I took the trip to do three things: attend the graduation ceremony of a treasured chosen family niece at Yale Law School, drive up to Winsted to visit the biologicals, and then drive up to Northampton, Massachusetts to visit a dear dear friend I have not seen for fifty-five years.

    Luis, Sharmon, grand nephew
    Joseph III, Taku, Jamie,
    nephew Joe,  Stacey
    brother-in- law Joe

    brother-in-law Joe,  Luis, nephew
    Joe Jr., moi
    Stacey, grand niece Clara, sister Karen

    Somehow it all worked. I got to revisit my sister after ten years, meet the wife, Stacey and daughter Jamie of my nephew for the first time, catch up with grand nephews and nieces and put the biological family all together with husband Taku and chosen family Sharmon and Luis. If they didn’t actually enjoy the experience, they fooled me. I left the home town with very warm feelings indeed. But not until we had visited Ralph Nader's Tort Museum, missing Nader and his sister Claire by about fifteen minutes, the receptionist told us. Fine fine museum. Worth a visit to Winsted just to see, I'd say.

    clockwise: Stacey, Joe Jr., Clara,
    Karen, Nick, Joe, moi
    Despite growing up in Connecticut and knowing dozens of Yalies over the years, I had never been to the Yale Campus. That, too, turned out to be an exciting adventure. I’d share pictures, but aside from a couple  showing the tradition of turning mortar boards into silly hats, I’d recommend getting professional quality photos of the campus and its history. Wikipedia does a good job on Sterling Library and the Beineke Rare Books library.

    Seriously. Have a look here if you get the chance.  Really enjoyed walking into a cathedral, complete with stained glass windows, a mural of Mary at the front (who is actually the very secular “Alma Mater” and not Mary at all.  Loved too reading about the squabble between folks who, like Nation magazine, sneered at the “cathedral orgy” sanctimony, and folks like me who have always loved cathedrals and see something noble in building one that will hold over five million books. Fought the urge to genuflect before moving on to the Music Library because I wanted a quiet place to sit down for a while.

    happy grad
    Sol gets her degree
    Sol twixt mama and papa

    Graduation was fun. Fought like everybody else to get a good shot of our already tall graduate girl in heels towering over many other future ruling class movers and shakers listening to speeches by the dean on the importance of remaining humble and seeking to do good. A special treat was the presence of John Lewis, who really did embody the professional career of a guy who took the sticks and stones and spit of the retrograde forces in American life to make for a better America. Had no idea he would be there. He talked about chickens, also. I didn’t get the point, but that was OK. I was too busy hero-worshiping.

    Me and the sister in the Tort
    Museum (note the exploding
    Corvair on the T-shirt
    behind us)
    Lewis was only the latest of a long line of people I admire whom I was able to listen to in person this last week. Amy Goodman came to Berkeley and talked about her work with the Dakota Indians fighting the pipeline. Bill Moyers spoke at the Castro Theater about the “alien” nature of Trump in the White House and the importance of recognizing that although there may be two or more sides to every question there are not necessarily two “right” sides. And recognizing that change takes place when lots of little people get involved and do little things. He spoke of how proud he was of the stop sign his wife had forced their town to put up at an intersection near their house. “Just as important, I told her, as the work I was doing to further President Johnson’s Civil Rights efforts.” That would be bullshit coming out of most people’s mouth. From Bill Moyers, I knew it was sincere – making the point that it’s the effort to actually make something happen as opposed to simply ranting and raving about it, that makes the difference. Following in the footsteps of Ralph Nader, for example.

    Winsted Pet Parade
    I actually left Connecticut in 1958 when I went away to college in Vermont, because I never lived there after that. I still carry a New England identity, however, and the monsters that plagued my conciousness as an out-of-place teenager died off decades ago now, so I can go back to that little town at the intersection of the Mad and Still Rivers, dominated by St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church (and four other stone churches), and a Main Street with buildings on one side only and a pet parade that has been going on in Winsted since before I was born. 79 years. It touched my heart that our family reunion just happened to coincide with Winsted's pet parade of 2017. I got out in time to photograph Section B (No dogs), where the kids were walking their pet chickens down Main Street. Failed to get a good photo, alas, so here's a stock photo from 2013 from the Winsted/Torrington paper.

    Me and Nathan
    The Yale trip was that shot in the arm I need from time to time to convince myself that a) there is beauty in the world, and b) there are good people working to do good things, and c) it cannot be said often enough that the sine qua non for what ails this country is not impeaching the Mango Mussolini in the Oval Office (satisfying as that would be), and holding back the moneyed interests from robbing the poor (necessary as that is), but the importance of insisting that people provide evidence for their assertions.  Here's me at the left with yet another hero. Nathan Hale this time (as in "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country" - which he did at age 21, by the way - "For God, For Country, and For Yale.")

    Then there’s Hasi.

    Gertraud ("Hasi") and me at
     Middlebury, 1961, maybe 1962

    and now in 2017
    In 1961 when I came back to Middlebury to finish my senior year after spending my junior year in Munich, I was a fish out of water. I missed Germany something fierce. It had been my first exposure to the big city, to art and culture and an exciting world I had no idea existed, and I missed it terribly.  Hasi eased the shock and sense of alienation I felt at having that all taken away so suddenly and we spent a lot of time together. She had come from Hinterpommern (“Farther” Pommerania) in East Germany, was still reeling from her escape with her family as refugees after the war with the Russians pushing the Germans out of what is now Poland, and then finding herself in America being poked and probed as a curiosity who knew more about Das Kapital than most of her contemporaries. She suffered terribly from having to go and speak at all these church socials and faculty get togethers. When I asked her why she didn’t simply refuse, she said, “I was raised in the East. We never learned how to say no.” We became fast friends, but lost contact over the years until I found her again on Face Book a couple years ago.

    We had the day Tuesday after the graduation. Our plane back to San Francisco wasn’t until five, so we drove to Northamption where Gertraud (whom I knew as “Hasi”) taught German at Smith until she retired.

    Before saying good-bye and promising it
    will not be 55 years this time. 
    Hasi with the Spousal Unit

    Another dash, this time from one end of Philadelphia airport to the other to change planes,
    and home to the girls.

    Whose welcome wiggles after five days made the discomforts of air travel fly away in an instant.

    Luis and Sharmon, after all this activity in New Haven tracking their second daughter's accomplishments, got to drive their rental car back to New York and hop a plane for Colombia, where their older daughter Paz (how many of you have kids called Peace and Sunshine?) is marrying a marvelous man named Quique, whom I hope to have in my life from here on in with the rest of these marvelous people. Would love to keep up the pace and join them in Cali for the wedding, but it would prevent my taking a long long nap.  And I know my limitations. (And they're doing a second wedding just for us California folks, so all's well, I say...)


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  2. Gilbert clocks
    Let’s start with…

    The Gilbert Clock Shop

    Riley Whiting was born on January 16, 1785, in Winsted, Connecticut.  Two weeks after his twenty-first birthday in 1806, he married Urania Hoadley, from Waterbury, Connecticut. In 1813 he formed, with Urania’s brother Samuel, the company of Hoadley & Whiting, which went to work manufacturing clocks. When Whiting died in 1835, his wife and his son kept the company going until it was bought out by Lucius Clarke and William Lewis Gilbert in 1841. Gilbert had begun his clock-making career at the age of 22. Over the years, with a number of partners, he formed what would eventually become the William L. Gilbert Clock Company in 1871 and eventually, after weathering the recession, the William L. Gilbert Clock Corporation in 1934. The company’s clocks are now heirlooms. “The clock shop,” as the factory was known to Winsted locals, became one of the world’s largest clock companies around the turn of the 20th century. Financial difficulties of the last dozen or so years, exacerbated by the flood of 1955, forced them to sell out to Spartus Corporation of Chicago in 1964 for half a million dollars. By that time, they had been making clocks for 151 years.

    For a more detailed history, click here.  

    Winchester, Barkhamsted, Winsted

    The town of Winchester, in Northwestern Connecticut was incorporated in 1771. The neighboring town to the East is Barkhamsted. It was incorporated eight years later. Both are located in Litchfield County. Barkhamsted’s population of 3799 souls is 97.5% white, down from 98.54% white a decade earlier, .3% black, .6% Asian, 1.5% Hispanic of all races. Winchester’s population of 11,242 is only 94.44% white, making it more cosmopolitan than Barkhamsted.  For every 100 females in the town of Winchester there are only 94 males, which although a boon for homosexuals, makes it necessary for many in the hetero population to seek partners from out of town.

    The Wikipedia page for Winchester, Connecticut lists only one notable person, a certain Phineas Miner, born in Winchester in 1777. Phineas represented his district in the State House for many years from 1809 until 1829 when he was elected to the State Senate as an Anti-Jacksonian, i.e., pro-John Adams. The following year the Democratic-Republican Party to which both Adams and Jackson had belonged, split. Jackson’s supporters took the name Democratic; Adams’ supporters became the National Republicans. Phineas Miner left Winchester early on in his career as a lawyer and moved to Litchfield, where he is buried in the town’s East Burying Ground.

    Settlers moved into the area between Winchester and Barkhamsted, at the confluence of the Still and the Mad Rivers in 1750, within the township of Winchester. The area put the “win” of “Winchester” together with the “sted” of “Barkhamsted”.  And in 1792 the Winsted Manufacturing company began manufacturing scythes. Other factories followed and Winsted became a prosperous town of the industrial revolution.

    The town is known, among other things, for its Civil War Monument to the Union Army, its oil-on-canvas post office mural painted in 1938, its five stone churches, and the fact that Winsted nearly went bankrupt and had to close its schools when the city's Finance Director, Henry Centrella, was found to have bilked the town of 2.2 million dollars.  And, to folks of my generation and the previous one who are still alive, the flood of 1955.

    The flood

    Main Street, 1911. The buildings on the right (south)
    side of the street (the ones remaining in 1955)
    were all washed away in the flood.
    In 1955, Winsted was hit by two hurricanes, Hurricane Connie on August 12-13, and then Hurricane Diane five days later. Connie and Diane dumped a million tons of water per square mile on parts of the state, including Winsted (although Winsted was not the worst hit). The Mad River, which runs along Winsted’s Main Street, climbed its banks and the buildings that survived on the river (south) side of Main Street were torn down and never rebuilt.  My father was among those hauling victims out just above the raging waters on very shaky ropes. Very exciting stuff for a fifteen-year old to see one's dad become a heroic figure in an instant. I spent the next several days bleaching utensils for the free meals we were handing out to survivors with my Aunt Connie. 

    David Halberstam

    Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam grew up in Winsted and was a classmate of Ralph Nader. Known for his coverage of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Halberstam travelled for a time with Martin Luther King to Berkeley for an article he published in Harper's. Criticized by conservatives during the Vietnam years for his insistence that the war was an American moral tragedy, Halberstam held to the view that it was American hubris that led to defeat, and that Japan and Germany would one day beat out the USA economically. Halberstam died in a car accident in Menlo Park, California, in 2007.

    The Naders

    Rose Bouziane was born to a sheep broker and a teacher in Zahlé, Lebanon in 1906. She married Nathra Nader in 1925 and the two emigrated for political reasons and came to Winsted where, after working in a textile mill for a time they set up Nathra’s General Store/Bakery/Restaurant in the center of town. When Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (George W. Bush’s grandfather) came to town after the 1955 flood, Rose managed to grab his hand and hold it until she got him to promise to build a dam, so Winsted would not have to suffer such destruction again. The dam got built.

    The Gilbert School, as it appeared in 1910
    I shook Prescott's hand once, as well. In front of my school, during one of his senatorial campaigns as he whistle-stopped the town and we were all allowed out to see him. Rumors had not reached my teenage ears that the Bush family fortune on which its dynasty is based came from cooperating with German companies funding Hitler, so I thought myself lucky to get my picture taken with the senator.

    The Gilbert School was founded in 1895, as one of three "endowed New England town academies" (the other two are Norwich Free Academy and Woodstock Academy). It's private, and the town pays an annual tuition for each pupil who attends. It serves as the town's only high school. I was given to understand that for a time it wouldn't take catholic kids because Gilbert had specified no kids would come from "St. Joseph School," the local Roman Catholic parochial school, but St. Joseph solved the problem by changing its name to St. Francis [correction: St. Anthony – thanks, Dori]. I am more skeptical these days than I was then, and tried, without success, to corroborate that story. Must check with the town historian at the next opportunity.

    Rose and Nathra had four children, Shafeek (born 1926), Claire (born 1928), Laura (born 1930), and baby Ralph (born 1934). Shafeek is remembered locally chiefly for his work in founding Northwestern Connecticut Community College, which occupied the William L. Gilbert School, the building where I spent my high school years. After his death, the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest was formed, and the foundation is currently run by his sister, Claire.

    The Gilbert School today, in its new incarnation - Northwestern
    Connecticut Community College
    Claire has a Ph.D. from Columbia in Political Science. Over the years she built a career in teaching (New York City Community College, 1956), and civil defense research (Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1960s). She joined the board of directors of the Council of Responsible Genetics (1990s) and became editor of Sage Publications. She has a long list of publications in controlling environmental health hazards, toxic substances and trade secrecy.

    Laura was the first woman to receive a tenure-track position in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley where she was hired in 1960.  She credits her older brother Shafeek with her interest in anthropology. Her PhD is from Radcliffe/Harvard. She has a wide range of interests, including a comparative ethnography of law, conflict resolution, and the nature of power and control. She is known for her advocacy of “studying up,” i.e., focusing less on “primitive people” and “the colonized” and more on the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty. She is a critic of the “ideology of harmony,” and argues the pursuit of harmony often interferes with the pursuit of justice.

    Ralph was educated at Princeton and Harvard and came to prominence with his Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965. His activism, along with seven of his loyal followers recruited in 1968, known as “Nader’s Raiders,” is credited with such legislation as the Clean Water Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. He is the author of more than two dozen books, the subject of the film, an An Unreasonable Man. Throughout the 70s, he became a leader in the anti-nuclear power movement, which eventually grew into an organization with hundreds of local affiliates and 200,000 supporters.

    Nader is known for his view that the U.S. presidential race comes down to a choice “between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” At least that’s how he described the choice between Bush and Gore. Pushed to choose, he said he hoped Bush would win because the democratic party needed the “cold shower.” Despite a study by the Progressive Review in 2002, which concluded that Nader was not a spoiler in the race between Bush and Gore, many are convinced of the contrary. The best that can be said for his presidential runs is probably that they expose the weakness of America’s two-party system, which is characterized by political machines and the will of the folks with the most money.

    In 2015, Nader opened the American Museum of Tort Law on Main Street in Winsted.

    Nader supported the candidacy of Donald Trump, insisting the greater good was the breakup of the two-party system, which he felt a Trump victory would initiate.

    Ralph graduated from The Gilbert School in 1951, seven years before me, so I never got to know him, even though I spent quite a lot of time at the Nader restaurant after school. Nader received a scholarship to Princeton, which his father refused to let him accept, arguing that he could afford to pay his own way and free the money up for a student who really needed it.

    Because of his publication on the dangerous condition of General Motors automobiles, GM hired prostitutes and tried to blackmail him. But Ralph reported these efforts to Senator Abe Ribicoff, whom he was working for at the time, and Ribicoff was able to sue GM CEO James Roche for invasion of privacy. Nader took the $425,000 award and used it to found the Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

    Ralph never married and has never been seen with a date, male or female. He earns a good deal from investments, but lives on $25,000 a year, donating the rest to his various causes. He was raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He suffers from Bell’s Palsy. He once appeared on Sesame Street, forcing them to change the word “who” in their song “a person who you meet each day” to “whom.”



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  3. You and I (Breaking Glass Pictures, 2014) is the kind of film that sneaks up on you. Starts out painfully slow, with not very appealing characters off on a not very interesting trip somewhere and takes forever to be about something. You’re not meant to know what it’s about until it’s over. You only know that it will involve the evolution of an intimate but hitherto non-sexual friendship.

    The road trip begins when Jonas picks up his English friend Phillip at Tegel Airport in Berlin, who flies in from London to join him as he embarks on a photography project. They drive their van loaded with camping equipment out into the boonies, a place called Uckermark, an hour and a bit, plus a couple centuries, northeast of Berlin on the Polish border. The two of them drink wine and swim and horse around with no clear plan in mind. And apparently no time limits. At some point they come across Boris, a Polish hitchhiker, whom Jonas invites to join them once he learns he knows the area.  Boris seems a tad unnerved at first at Phillip’s revelation that he is gay and cannot quite figure out what kind of relationship Phillip has with Jonas. 

    Zwichow Castle
    What starts out as a very slow moving road trip by two uninteresting characters joined by a third guy your instincts should tell you it's probably best to avoid, becomes an erotic tease as you get to watch what Boris’s presence does to Jonas and Phillip’s friendship.  Boris, the horny homophobe has no reason not to explore the unexpected presence of a handsome gay guy fate has thrown in his path. It’s not unimportant to the plot that no other human beings are in sight. And there is nothing that calls them away from eating, sleeping, being young, breaking their way into abandoned castles, swimming in the nude and pilfering the wine cellar.

    In German and English (Phillip and Jonas both switch back and forth). Go to Settings to turn on English subtitles. Since it’s a German film, there are lots of full frontals for those who go in for that sort of thing.  Streaming on Amazon Prime.

    You and I trailer



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  4. Azi Schwartz
    First fell in love with the voice of Azi Schwartz – can’t remember when, exactly.  It may have been the anniversary of 9/11 in 2015, where he appears at an interfaith prayer service alongside the Pope, chanting a Jewish prayer for the fallen. He first sings the memorial prayer adapted for the victims of 9/11 and then follows with the Oseh Shalom, in which he’s got even the cardinals singing along. Shows you what he’s capable of.

    Here he is singing at a memorial at the U.N. for the Holocaust.

    And here he is singing in Budapest (with a little crowd-pleasing introduction in Hungarian):   The occasion is the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, in 2008.  They picked my 8th birthday, May 14, 1948 for the actual founding date. Not that I want to make this about me, but you have to admit that’s a powerful way to get your attention.  Anyway, Sim Shalom.  A lovely melody. Romaji and English translation available here

    Here’s a more informal version of it, where Azi sings it along with the song’s composer, Zina Goldrich. 

    And here he is, in his home synagogue, the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, leading the congregation in L’kha Dodi.  Romaji and English here.  

    And here he is with the Israeli Philharmonic singing the world’s most beautiful national anthem.

    facade at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York
    with which both Azi and Rabbi Cosgrove are affiliated
    Doing the Hasidic Kaddish, with fellow good-looker rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove.  Watch till the end, and you’ll see what a hard act Azi is to follow.  

    Rehearsing with the Berlin Chamber Choir, in 2013, preparing for a concert commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (snippet only, unfortunately cut off way too soon.)

    Another recording in Germany, this time with the RIAS Chamber Choir in Potsdam.  Adonai, Adonai 

    Azi, in drag
    How times have changed.  Can’t help noting some serious future shock here.  Potsdam today is a suburb of Berlin as well as the capital of the state of Brandenburg. It is known to historians for being the site of the Potsdam Conference, where Churchill, Stalin and Truman got together to decide what to do with the defeated Third Reich in 1945. And to tourists today mostly for being the location of Frederick the Great’s famous palace, Sans Souci. But when I lived in Berlin in the 60s, it was still the home of the occupying Russian Army. Very much East Germany. Not the Russian sector of Berlin, but East Germany itself. And here is Azi singing part of the Jewish High Holy Days liturgy with the RIAS Chamber Choir. RIAS stands for “Radio in the American Sector.” 

    And I’ll end with the Kol Nidre, the Aramaic prayer sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s a modern version, sung a capella.  

    If you want more, there’s an abundance available on YouTube.

    Did I tell you I’m coming back as a cantor in my next life?  That’s the plan, anyway.

    photos: bottom:Azi, horsing around in drag http://t2musicinc.com/azi-schwartz-youtube


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  5. I posted a dash through the park yesterday of some of my favorite absurdist musical numbers from the 20s and 30s, wanting to share my hobby with others, even though I know not one in a dozen people I know, even close friends, have any interest at all in such esoterica. No matter. That, I always say, is why God made delete keys. And every once in a while somebody will write me and let me know they listened to some musical piece with fresh ears, and that gives me no end of pleasure. Music is the cement that keeps the bricks together in the house of sanity. Escaping to cheap entertainment as a way of surviving the rigors of reality is one thing. Finding refuge in music, regardless of the genre, in my view, serves the same function, and provides so much more reward in the process. Even the silly songs of yesteryear.

    That said, though, I have to admit in searching for such esoterica as "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" in French (since yesterday, I've found a wonderful Django Reinhardt version, by the way), I've also found a whole bunch of stuff that makes the real argument for not surrendering to nostalgia. Evidence, as if we needed it, that the "good old days" were anything but free of prejudice and provincialism.

    Max Raabe argues his preoccupation with this music should not be mistaken for nostalgia, but recognized as an appreciation of a classical music form. And I give him that. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to refer to "my little cactus" and "the things Ruth does for me" and "Amalie goes to the baths with a rubber gentleman" classics, but there is a timelessness about the energy and the uplift of big band music and absurdist comedy - think Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. They all still work, nearly a century on.

    Where things get problematic is when we dip into the cultural goings-on of the 20s and 30s and tap into some of the things that we have done well to escape, reasons to appreciate this thing called social progress through consciousness raising. We still have racism and anti-Semitism, but they are now peripheral to society. Except for the occasional backsliding - to wit, our very own Trump administration - we are not going to return to the time when anti-Semitism was official government policy in Germany and informally in most of Europe and in America as well. And segregation, cultural as well as physical, was evidence that the slaves had not actually been freed, but only nominally relieved of some of the harshest aspects of American treatment of dark-skinned people.

    I sent around a video yesterday of one of the silliest things I've seen in a long time - a dancer hoofing it to the tune of a ditty about dancing the Black Bottom with the Hottentots.  I went ahead and sent anyway because it was so over the line, I thought, beyond racism and into silliness, and because I don't spend enough time being silly.

    Here are a couple more samples - at least I thought they were at first - of the kind of bad taste stuff that pops up when you go digging in the past.

    Foxtrot: Einen grossen Nazi hat sie. (Foxtrot - "She's got herself a big Nazi.")

    Makes you sit up straight and take notice.  The words go:

    Einen großen Nazi hat sie
    Einen kleinen Nazi hat sie
    Hat den großen und den kleinen Nazi gern
    Sagt zum großen Nazi Schatzi
    Sagt zum kleinen Nazi Schatzi
    Und verachtet in der Stadt die feinen Herrn

    Drum tut mir jeder Herr leid wenn er in
    Der Schweiz verliebt in eine Sennerin

    Einen großen Nazi hat sie
    Einen kleinen Nazi hat sie
    Denn sie ist in puncto Nazi Kennerin

    She’s got a big Nazi
    She’s got a little Nazi
    Likes the big Nazi and the little Nazi
    Calls the big Nazi Schatzi [darling]
    Calls the little Nazi Schatzi
    And respects the fine gentlemen in the city.

    So I’m sorry for every gentleman who
    falls for a dairy maid in Switzerland

    She’s got a big Nazi
    She’s got a little Nazi
    Because when it comes to Nazis, she’s an expert.

    Remember this is 1928, and the Nazis were still just getting started. At first I thought I was onto somebody whitewashing the seriousness of the Nazis and being clueless. But it turns out the song was written as satire by a Jewish Austrian songwriter named Fritz Grünbaum who evidently was able to see the writing on the wall. Not the end of the story, unfortunately. Grünbaum died in a concentration camp. Which begs the question, is something satire when you can't recognize it as satire? I guess you had to be there. Satire is usually limited to a narrow window of time and place, since its power is in its immediate relevance.

    But what about this?  Here's another Foxtrot.  Actually, a "one-step": Der Neger hat sein Kind gebissen ("The Negro bit his child.")

    The lyrics go like this:

    In the darkest forest of the darkest land lives Jumbo, the Negro, exhausted from fighting.
    The wives of the Negro scolded and fought with him, because Jumbo wounded their vanity. He had ten beauties, freed according to custom, but loved another maiden as well, whom he always kissed in secret. And so violently that the blood flowed from her lips. The wives saw that and cried, all ten of them:

    Chorus: The Negro bit his child, o o ho
    Why didn’t he kiss us? o o ho
    Because when you’ve got ten wives you call
    your own, they want to be kissed, too.
    They want to be kissed too.

    What do you make of this example of Culture A seen through the eyes of Culture B, I'd like to know. It's racist, for sure.  (They refer to the protagonist as "The Negro," rather than sticking to his name, for starters.) But is it racism pure and simple?  Or arguably more of a question of naïveté?  Irony? Camp?  The sense of humor of a seriously screwed-up bunch of wackos, maybe? Put your anthropology hat on before answering.

    Or, like its composer, M. C. Krüger, just an isolated piece of trivia, all but lost but for the advent of the internet.

    I mean, he's not up there with the likes of the Kardosch Singers, especially Rudi Schuricke.

    Here is Rudi singing "J'attendrai" in 1939.
    And here's Max Raabe opening his Waldbühne concert with it, in 2010.

    photo credit: text of Der Neger hat sein Kind gebissen


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  6. Berlin in the 20s
    I’m in good standing with Ruth,
    because my Ruth does 
    what’s good for me
     in the month of May.

    Lacks a certain pizzazz, I know, as poetry.

    Sounds better in the original German.

    (And why is that now a permanent joke line carved into the American consciousness – that brilliant take-down by Molly Ivins of a Pat Buchanan speech?)

    same spot, if I'm not mistaken, today

         In German, it goes

    ich steh mit Ruth gut
    Weil meine Ruth tut
    Das was mir gut tut
    im Monat Mai.

    You’ve got to hear it sung.  Especially by Max Raabe.

    Have a listen here. 

    I’ve been listening for the past week to music of the 20s and 30s, ever since we took in Max Raabe’s latest concert at Davies Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Hall, where he shows up every year.  We haven't missed one of his concerts since we started going four or five years ago. I thought he’d wear thin by now, but I enjoyed the latest concert as much as ever. How he manages to keep up the energy I can’t explain. Professionalism, probably. Prussian discipline and order. He puts on a perfect show every time.

    We usually have music going in the background at our house.  Maintaining our gay credentials, I call it.  Schnitzel goes better with candles on the table, music in the background. Usually something like fado or chansons. Something not too starchy.

    At some point, though, Taku started playing his favorite female singers of the thirties.  Japanese ladies, with these awful vibratos. Drove me up the wall. I was about to put my foot down when I realized he really liked this music, so I gave in. Twenty plus years together. I know not to fight every battle.

    To my surprise, I got accustomed to these voices and began to appreciate the musicality of the pieces. Noriko Awaya, for example, singing “Wakare no blues (Farewell blues)” from 1937, in that typical Japanese iambic rhythm, ta DA ta DA ta DA.  

    Wasn’t long before Taku started feeding me other singers of the thirties, German, French and American, and we were off and running as a household with a distinctive musical bent.  Wouldn’t have surprised me to see the dogs doing the Charleston.

    At some point, some Australian friends of ours who had lived many years in Germany brought the Comedian Harmonists to my attention, and from there I found my way to Max Raabe, who credits them for his inspiration in reviving the musical tradition of the twenties and thirties, both in America and in Germany.

    As a kid I remember my grandmother’s stories of her days in Berlin when she would press her nose against the windows of the shops in Unter den Linden, looking at all the dresses she couldn’t afford. By the time the movie Cabaret came out I had a fully developed fantasy of my grandmother as Marlene Dietrich living it up in the naughty days of the Weimar Republic. Marlene Dietrich and my grandmother could not be more different. She may have been naughty in her youth but by the time I knew her, Grossmutter was all about punctuality, tidiness and responsibility – the more bourgeois side of German values.  No matter. Fantasy is its own justification. Imagining the cabaret scene in Berlin in the 20s and 30s gave me a filter to process the ugly truth with that the Germans had given the world reason to despise them. Pride in being German didn’t come without effort, growing up in post war America.

    Then came the Berlin years, when I got especially close to another bourgeois but loving Berlin lady, my Aunt Frieda, and began to think in terms of emigrating and making my life there. Fate would have it otherwise – I got distracted and ended up spending twenty-four years in Japan instead – but I also got to watch (from faraway Japan) the wall come down and Berlin gradually return to its glory days as the fun capital of Europe. The cabaret scene is up and running again, and some have made a place for the likes of Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester. Not everybody’s cup of tea, by any means, but they have a decent following all the same.

    Max Raabe doesn’t like it when people refer to the music he does as nostalgic. For him, it’s classic. Witty, charming, musical, lively, fun. And to that I would add ironic and absurdist. Camp, even. It’s a reflection of a response to the harsh realities of life, an energy that fights back by insisting on ploughing on through the crap and making not just the best of things but a celebration of life while you’re about it.

    I see why people dismiss the nostalgic.  Nostalgia, like sentimentality, is one of the less worthy emotions. For all the signs of decadence, it comes across today as innocent and often naive.

    Take a look, for example, at this piece called “Das gibt’s nur einmal” (It only happens once), from the 1931 film Der Kongress Tanzt.  It was done in three languages. Leading star Lilian Harvey was able to manage it in French (Le congrès s’amuse) and in English (Congress Dances) as well. Super romantic plot. Pretty little girl working as a glove-maker catches the attention of the Russian tsar when he’s passing through for the Congress of Vienna in 1814. She tells her co-workers the tsar plans to come and carry her away. They scoff. He then sends his carriage round and what you have is a 1931 Cinderella story par excellence.  Have a look here.  

    To see the impact the song made in its day, here’s an even better band and vocal version of the song, in Swedish.   By Zarah Leander.

    There’s a goldmine of interesting history if you dig in the background of these pieces, the absurdist Ruth rhyming song, and the fluffy Once-in-a-Lifetime pieces. It happens that the lyrics to both were written by the same man, Robert Gilbert.  That’s zheel-bair, the French pronunciation of Gilbert.

    I can't find a clear explanation for why the song was banned in 1937, so I have to assume it was because Gilbert’s real name was Robert David Winterfeld.  He was the son of another composer, Max Winterfeld, who took the name Jean Gilbert, probably to hide his Jewish origins. The Winterfelds came from a long line of cantors, so there was always music in the family. Both made it out in time. Father Jean Gilbert eventually became conductor of the Buenos Aires Radio orchestra; son Robert made it to America where he lived for ten years, joining forces with Alan Jay Lerner at some point and eventually writing the German translations of American Broadway shows.  I saw his My Fair Lady at some point in the 60s, in Berlin.  Take a moment to listen to Audrey Hepburn standing up to her boyfriend, Freddie, for not having the guts to declare his love for her. Only in German, this time. Here she is singing “Show Me” (Tu’s doch!).  Having struggled with the art of translation - when do you remain literal, when do you use cultural analogues in place of the original - I was astonished at the brilliance of Gilbert's translation from Cockney to Berlin street-slang.

    But back to earlier days, when Jews were still a big part of German culture. I've mentioned that it was the Comedian Harmonists who led to my discovery of Max Raabe, the artist who has now revived many of their songs. The group had three members who were Jewish and were forced eventually to disband and find their way to safety. Their lives were saved, but they never managed to revive their career in America. Americans found them just too German somehow. The parallels are embarrassing in the way we can’t seem to admit Syrian refugees into the country because, as our manipulators are quick to tell us, there might be bad guys among them. In those days it was an inability to separate out the purveyors of a rich German culture, which many Jews manifested, from the thugs of a terrorist regime. They were all lumped together. Today it’s our inability to distinguish between victims of terrorism and purveyors of terrorism, all the more cruelly ironic given our responsibility for helping generate the Muslim rage behind the terrorism in the first place.

    I’m getting political here. The goal of folks like Jean Gilbert and his son Robert was to generate entertainment precisely to take our minds off the ugliness of politics, racism, and war. But sometimes there is no way out but through the political. I mentioned Zarah Leander a bit ago, the singer of the Swedish version of It Only Happens Once. A vivid example of how hard it can be to be neutral in the face of evil.  Zarah was a major success in Germany in the 30s and stayed on, in sharp contrast to the likes of Marlene Dietrich, who left. Actually, Marlene was also non-political at first, and found herself in Hollywood not as a refugee, but as a normal German entertainer who realized when the attacks on the Jews began in her homeland that it would be better for her career if she didn’t go back. Although her mother stayed on in Berlin all through the war, Marlene Dietrich became known as a traitor to Germans for not merely leaving her country but actually singing to the American troops, following them even into Italy right behind the invading forces. Marlene Dietrich and Zarah Leander were both ambitious career-oriented singers and actors who got caught up in different ways in the war. Marlene became a fierce defender of western democracy, however, and turned her back on the Nazi regime in her homeland. When she went back after the war she was never quite able to pick up where she left off. She spent her later years in Paris, returning to Berlin only to be buried next to her mother when she died.

    Zarah Leander tried to follow her country's example of maintaining neutrality by never actively saying anything pro-Hitler. She was used, however, by Josef Goebbels, who although he resented her and called her an enemy of the Reich at one point, cast her in Die Grosse Liebe (The Great Love) – about a soldier who chooses duty to his country over the love of his sweetheart), the best-selling film of the Nazi era. The story is subtle propaganda about keeping a stiff upper lip during wartime. Goebbels was Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and that included watching over the film industry. Watch Zarah singing Davon geht die Welt nicht unter (That's not the end of the world), and tell me that's not a magnificent piece of war propaganda. In Zarah's defense, I feel obliged to pass on the anecdote that Goebbels once confronted Zarah with the question, "Is yours not a Jewish name?" Her response: "And what is Joseph?"

    Dietrich and Leander make an interesting pair, Dietrich arguing that by taking sides against the Nazis she was in fact more of a German patriot than all those who called her a traitor. I find her ability to continue to support the American war effort all the while Americans were dropping bombs on her mother in Berlin a stunning example of personal courage to know and to do what she believes is right. Leander showed less courage, perhaps, but she managed to keep her friendship going with gays and Jews in the Weimar period for all her prominence as an “artist of the Reich.” She remained her own woman, in other words, until her house was bombed in 1943, when she gave up and went back to Sweden. She returned to Germany after the war but her career was done for. Too many people continued to see her as the “Nazi Greta Garbo.” For her part, Leander continued to maintain till the end of her days that she was only interested in performing, that bringing light into the darkness was the job of any artist.

    The lesson would seem to be, if you’re interested in seeing a morale to this story, don’t cooperate with the losing side. And the bad guys will, sooner or later, turn out to be on the losing side. 

    Max Raabe, photo by Olaf Heine
    Marlene Dietrich and Zarah Leander represented the romanticism of the Weimar era, for those who like to swoon now and then.  For those who prefer yucking it up, there was the other end of the spectrum, the absurdist, slapstick German humor. We don't seem to have much interest in reviving the swooning, but Max Raabe does at least bring along with his jokes the elegant Fred Astaire look of the era. He and his band members always appear in tuxedos, his female violinist in a floor-length gown. 

    And he’s not alone. There are others joining in, complete with cross-dressers and 20s headbands and beads and the flapper look.  First off, here is an original version of the Ruth song from 1928 by the Odeontanzorchester. And here is Max Raabe look-alike Hans Daffke doing it today with his Salonorchester Alhambra. And Cabaret artists look-alikes Robert Kreis und die Jazz Sextanten coming to you from on board the good ship Gustav.

    The 20s and 30s are back with a vengeance.

    Here’s Robert Kreis again, this time singing about Amalie, who likes to take a “rubber gentleman” with her when she “takes the waters.”

    And here’s the same song, Amalie geht mit dem Gummikavalier ins Bad, performed by Max Raabe.

    It may come as a surprise that Disney was in on this frivolity.  Here’s Max Raabe and his orchestra doing “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” (in German: Wer hat Angst vor dem bösen Wolf?): 

    Not that you couldn’t find it in French, if you poked around a bit: "Prenez Garde Au Méchant Loup!" 

    OK, I’ve pretty much beaten this drum to distraction, I admit.

    But before we go, here’s Das Gibt’s Nur Einmal (It Only Happens Once) once more.  This time in the version my husband listened to as a little boy when he couldn’t sleep at night because of an asthma attack. He credits this to his love of the singers, both male and female, of the 30s, which led to our listening to this music every night at dinner time.

    Or maybe you’d like to hear it on Ichikawa Deuts-Day, where they do it in the original German.

    Give or take.

    photo credit: Max Raabe by Olaf Heine 
    photo of the Red City Hall tower taken from Schlossplatz in 1928

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  7. I have had a lot of exchanges with friends since I posted that review the other day (April 2) on 13 Reasons Why. Lots of people tuned in on whether the story was little more than "revenge porn" or whether it was dragged out too long, or whether high school sophomores in middle-class America actually wore that many tattoos. There was much to chew on in that film.

    But in the end, it came down to some people liking it for one set of reasons and other people disliking it for another set of reasons. As commonly happens in a review, one gets the impression that one judges a work from the gut and then sets up criteria to create the impression that one has reasons for one's views, and is applying a judgment objectively. As I continued to reflect on the film, my own reasons became clearer to me, and I'd like to share them with you. 

    I think the problem with writing a review of a film that deals with something as heavy as suicide is that one can’t help but fail to get it just right. Whenever art takes on a social issue there is a built-in conflict over goals. With the subject of suicide, any decent writer or filmmaker will want to take sides, and encourage all comers to the book/film to regard suicide as pure tragedy. But to be too explicit about it is to load down the artistic creation with “message,” and nothing spoils artistic creation more than preaching.

    I think that’s why anyone looking for flaws in 13 Reasons Why is bound to find them. To those who prioritize the anti-suicide message, the film “glamorizes” it.  It’s “revenge porn.” To those who understand the writing process and the need to form a story in an appealing way, the device of drawing out the process of getting the whole story is good drama. So is telling a story in which the audience is forced to revise their opinions of characters as they acquire more information on their motivations. Adding complexity to the story as one goes along is an excellent way of telling a good tale, and 13 Reasons Why is well-told. One develops insights as one is drawn in. Personally, when I sat down to watch at 10 p.m., I assumed I’d last till midnight, maybe one in the morning, but I ended up sitting in my chair the whole night through. I had little attraction to Hannah and Clay at the beginning, as characters. They were too immature for me to relate to, as I said in the review. But as the story moved on I saw them as flies caught in a web of youthful deceits, at the mercy of fate, without proper adult guidance, and I began to feel my heart go out to them. I felt the tragedy of Hannah’s death, in the end, and didn’t care whether she was blaming others or not. Or whether others took on the guilt or not. To me it was just another story of human tragedy resulting from a failure to connect with the people who mattered in their lives.

    We all respond to artistic creation – to stories maybe in particular – as Rohrschach tests.  We see what we want to see. It doesn’t really matter what the author’s intent was. I saw human vulnerabilities and the danger of trying to get through life on one’s own, without forming intense personal connections with loved ones. I was willing to forgive the authors their imperfect plot devices. The fact that my head and my heart were both fully engaged were ample compensation for its weaknesses. But that’s because I chose to prioritize the message, to make the message the foreground and the style the background. I’ve been touched by suicide. I will never not take it seriously, and am willing to allow creativity to suffer so the message can sail through.

    I’ve had similar experiences with other pieces recently. Two that come to mind are the films Moonlight and Still We Rise. I got into a discussion about Moonlight with a friend whose opinions I highly value.  This time, though, she started in criticizing the details of the story, complaining about the lack of humor and what she thought was a missed opportunity to make use of a character. I had been knocked off my feet over the message. I have said aloud before that I don’t know why black people have not burned this country to the ground, so egregious is our history of slavery and segregation and our failure till now to put things right, and get kids out of poverty and degradation. So when she focused on the style, I got in a huff and asked her if she would ask a concentration camp survivor if they had managed to develop a sense of humor over the experience. Not the best way to engage a friend in a friendly discussion. But a superb example of what can happen when two people go at a work of art from radically different directions, one prioritizing message, the other prioritizing artistic creativity.

    With Still We Rise, one of the characters, Roma Guy, features large in the history of the gay and lesbian rights movement in San Francisco. The writer, Dustin Lance Black, is a talented screen writer who knows that you may tell history in abstract forms in academic lectures, but for television, you create personal stories and individual characters the audience can connect with. I was talking yesterday with a woman who happens to know Roma Guy and tells the story of how she went to her colleagues to warn them, before the movie came out, that she was going to be presented in it as a heroic figure who almost single-handedly made things happen in the women’s community. The truth is, of course, that nothing she accomplished could have been done without the participation of many others, whom the film would slight, because it couldn’t pepper the story with too many characters. Once again, a conflict between style and message.

    These are familiar challenges to writers and to anyone who takes literary criticism seriously, as well as to anyone who has ever had to choose between whether to make a documentary or create a work of fiction. Anthropologists and sociologists, too, have all had the experience of knowing they had a great story to tell, and wondered if they were in the wrong profession. A social scientist is ethically bound to tell the story without manipulating the facts. A fiction writer knows there is sometimes greater truth in fiction than in fact. You just have to know how to tell the story.

    To be sure, I’ve made this an either/or argument. One can prioritize the message or one can tell a good tale. I’ve given short shrift to those who argue the real artist doesn’t settle for either/or, but writes a powerful story with a powerful message. I agree. This is one of the things, probably the main thing, that distinguishes between a good book and a great book. And I guess I'm saying 13 Reasons Why was a good movie, though not a great movie – and I leave to others who have read the book to tell us whether that holds true for the book as well.

    Fine. I’d also suggest we remember the advice that we should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

    photo credit


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  8. Picture 1
    Big fuss going on at a Berlin-Reinickendorf day care center.  Seems they hired a man to take care of the kiddies.  A gay man.  And it seems the kids' parents are up in arms about it.  And bang, you’ve got a major news story because the parents are Muslims and don’t want a man changing their babies’ diapers and taking them to the bathroom.  Hell, they don’t even want him to hold their hands.

    Picture 2 - How many differences can you find?
    So many ways to take this story. The German right and the German left join forces here, the German right up in arms that these damn Muslims come into our country and try to take over, the German left because after all these years of working on gender equality we finally get men into child care and look what happens.  Can’t win for losing.

    A third perspective is the homophobic one. It’s not just Muslim Germans who haven’t quite put their homophobia to rest. Lest they be turned into boogeymen too casually, consider a report on attitudes toward LGBT people issued this last January by the federal (German) anti-discrimination office. 24.1 percent of the general public stated they didn’t feel comfortable having gay men take care of their kids, and 19.6 didn’t even want lesbians for this job. So, if you wanted to, you could say this isn’t strictly a culture clash between Germans and outsiders over German values – which it is, of course. It’s more a clash between what some might call the values of the progressive modern class, which include fostering greater gender equality, and the values of traditional people where men work outside the house and you need a vagina to wash dishes properly. And take care of babies, obviously.

    Interesting, (I'd say "sad" but we have to avoid that word these days), how we have sexualized the caretaking of children. Nobody thinks twice about a woman changing diapers.  Goes with being female. But when a man puts his hands on the body of a small baby, some people push the panic button. Why is that? Are we that primitive that we cannot see that people with healthy sexualities don’t make everything about sex. And most people have healthy sexualities. And if they don’t it has nothing to do with whether they are male or female. And that sorting the wheat from the chaff is a routine part of the job when you're hiring a caretaker of children.

    That’s the perspective I take on all this, that the issue is not religion but social maturity. There are lots of places in this world where the working assumptions are a) that all people are heterosexual, and b) that they will have sex with each other at the slightest opportunity unless we scare the bejeezuz out of them with religion, or make the women live in bags, so as not to tempt the men, or otherwise chaperone them until they marry and then make sure they never get alone behind closed doors ever after that. [And yes, this applies to our Neanderthal vice president, too.]

    We who lay claim to enlightened modern ways, from the bleeding heart liberals (what the German right calls Gutmenschen - see below) to the hardened cynics, have moved beyond such primitive notions. We have university dorms where the two sexes live together, sometimes even sharing bathrooms. We have women in the armed forces. And we measure social progress by the number of women in business and politics. The road to gender equality is filled with axle-busting potholes, to be sure. But we’re on it, and we don’t want to allow outsiders with retrograde values to join forces with home-growns with those retrograde values.

    So what’s the strategy for addressing this challenge?

    folks in the pot: "All cultures are equal"

    Oh, no! Not those flavorless Gutmenschen again!
    My first concern is that we don't pave the road to hell with more misguided good intentions. Remember when workers from Yugoslavia and Turkey and other places started pouring into Europe to help with the post-war rebuilding? The folks who today are referred to as “Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” (People with a migration background) were then called “guest workers.” They were kept apart from regular German society because the bright-eyed idealists (Gutmenschen) of the day were thinking long term and wanted them not to lose their Turkish and be handicapped when they got home.  They were going back in a couple years and would need it. Gutmenschen is a word – literally “good people” - think “pinko leftie” – used by the right to describe the progressive left. That set the stage for the ghettos of today. Once separated, we came up with concepts such as “Leitkultur” (the dominant culture, the culture of the leading people, i.e., what the Germans would call their traditional German culture), thus loading it up with all the stuff modern German liberals wanted to bend over backwards to avoid – all this stuff from the Nazi era about racist cultural superiority.

    That’s what’s going on here today. Bending over backwards is hard on the back and German liberals are beginning to straighten up. So no, you can’t ask us not to hire a gay male teacher to care for your kids while you earn a living. You need to get used to the idea that men make marvelous caretakers. And, by the way, if you want to congratulate us on being progressive about gender equality, feel free to jump in here anytime with a change of heart. In the meantime, you’re certainly free to seek out another day center.

    Problem with that, of course, is that the person running this center in Reinickendorf can’t make much of a living if all the parents pull their kids out. I hope there’s some sort of back-up system to bail her out until things start looking up.

    I don’t think the alternative – to let the homophobes call the shots – is the answer.

    I mean, ask yourself how you’d react to the following:

    • I’m sorry, but I need my baby to have a white person for a caretaker. I don’t want to see black hands changing my baby’s diaper.
    •  I’m sorry, but where I come from we don’t like Jews.  I don’t want my kids to have a Jewish teacher.
    Sorry folks. Welcome to Europe of the 21st century. We’ve been where you are. We left it behind for good reason. And we’re not going back.

    Kita 2: http://www.morgenpost.de/vermischtes/article210093507/Muslimische-Eltern-wehren-sich-gegen-schwulen-Kita-Erzieher.html

    all cultures are equal: https://www.pi-news.net/2016/01/der-diffizile-begriff-gutmensch/


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  9. My husband is away for the weekend, visiting a friend in Sacramento.  So I’ve got the house and the dogs to myself. To make this a lemonade and not a lemon experience, I decided to use my temporary freedom from “He Who Must Be Obeyed” (“eat your greens” tyranny, not “fall down and worship me” tyranny) to stay up all night.  I started watching the new Netflix streaming series 13 Reasons Why at about 10 p.m. and watched the whole thing in one sitting.  When I got up out of the chair it was 10 a.m.

    This fact will only sound absurder and absurder when I tell you that what captured such devoted attention is a tale of teenage angst, a story by and about sixteen and seventeen year olds whose daily lives unfold in a high school in California. Boys, being boys, obsess about getting a kiss or copping a feel, then betray the girls involved by boasting of their conquests to get standing among their male peers. The girls get slut-shamed and struggle to regain their reputations. You know, high school. Thanks to the plethora of streaming opportunities, I don’t hesitate to shut something down after four or five episodes if it isn’t working for me. Not that I don’t like kids. It’s just that I’m more at home with people with stiff joints and the need for a daily afternoon nap than with folks fighting with their parents over piercing.

    But I’m being misleading.  13 Reasons Why is about much bigger issues than teenage angst, even though in a world of bullying and sexual aggression the challenge of surviving your teenage years psychologically intact is not trivial. I’ll get to this in a minute.

    As a film, 13 Reasons Why, only just released (March 31), is chock full of weaknesses. I cannot speak to the original book by Jay Asher it is based on.  The twelve-part series is too long, and the end is dragged out unmercifully. The plot line taxes credulity. And frankly, I have a short fuse for watching dysfunctional people bumble their way through life hour after hour and then fail. I’d much rather watch smart people figure things out, bad guys get their just desserts, unexpected twists of plot, and heavy layers of irony and sarcasm. What we get here are high school sophomores, some with tattoos, f-bombing their parents and teachers, partying unsupervised with lots of alcohol and drugs, and behaving generally in a way that convinces me I’m even more out of touch with youth culture than I thought.  Either that, or they are seriously overdoing the precociousness. That they could make a movie with such characters and make you nonetheless actually root for these kids deserves serious respect, I think. The good writing and good directing go a long way. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% rating by critics, and an 88% audience rating.

    13 Reasons Why begins with the suicide of the main character, Hannah, whom we actually get to know pretty well because much of the movie plays out in flashbacks. Hannah leaves behind seven cassette tapes, each but the last with two sides of explanation for why she slit her wrists in the bathtub. Each side is devoted to a different character whom she addresses directly. She leaves the tapes in a shoebox with instructions for each of the twelve people involved to listen to the whole thing and then pass the tapes on to the next person. The conclusion we are supposed to come to is that each of her high school friends included in this number, plus her high school counselor, had it in their power to prevent her suicide, if only they had paid closer attention to the signals she was sending out. And that is the first larger intellectual and moral question the film raises: to what degree am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper.  Granted a yes answer is easier to justify when that brother or sister is still a kid, but even then you have to contend with the obvious fact that in the end, if we don’t learn to swim on our own, we sink.

    The characters are beautifully sketched out, and the acting is quite good. There is doubt along the way about whose version of the story is more credible, Hannah’s or those of her friends and rivals she insists have wronged her. That leaves you with enough doubt to hold back on too quick a judgment of these clearly self-centered high school sophomores and juniors. At the same time, because Hannah is telling the story from the perspective of a teenager who is desperate to the point of suicide, all recorded on the night before she takes her life, you have to decide whether she’s being brutally honest, or simply missing the big picture that people suffering from depression inevitably miss. Is she even in possession of all the facts? A tale told by a desperate person is not the same thing as a tale told by a god-like all-knowing narrator.

    Hannah is not the only narrator; there are two. The story is told in Clay’s words, as well, and here, too, you wonder about the slant.  At one point Hannah addresses Clay on the tapes and says to him, very directly, “Clay, honey, your name does not belong on this list.” But he has, by this time, had enough time to realize how much of her story he has missed, despite the fact that he has been obsessively fixated on her. And so his story is tinged with the regret and the guilt he feels, and you’re left wondering how much of his telling is objective.

    What you come away with is a sad feeling in the pit of your stomach that if this is an accurate depiction of how parents and their children communicate with each other, there’s no wonder we seem so often to have come unhinged as a modern society.

    And that’s the issue that, more than any other, kept my eyes on the tube all night. I am fascinated by the split in this country that has led us to the culture war we are engaged in and how that culture split shows up in so many places from the Trump phenomenon, to the place of religion in American life, to what constitutes truth in a postmodernist age. With the divide over Trump’s election victory, one American culture camp is aghast that the members of the opposing American culture camp would allow a lying narcissistic climate change denying proto-fascist (or actual fascist) to shut down government, remove health care from the poor and give the money saved to the rich, install members of his family to leading positions in government and use his power to maintain his business empire.  The other camp calls that simply missing the point, and argues it’s high time we tossed out the corrupt system generated and maintained by a bunch of elitists and boo-hoo if you politically correct bastards got the tables turned on you.  Do you see a tear in this eye?

    The teenagers in 13 Reasons Why are members of that elite class. Let’s call this Culture A. They have parents who even if they are not wealthy nonetheless raise their children to be independent, grant them privacy rights, expect them to experiment with sex and drugs. They begin conversations with “When I was your age I had the same problems…” Not “What the hell were you thinking?” The other class of folk, in Culture B, where kids are more likely to grow up in a spare-the-rod, spoil-the child, “because I said so,” “so long as you live under this roof,” “no son of mine will ever…” world, is viewed by members of Culture A as retrograde, even archaic, subject to rules that crush the spirit and eventually destroy the soul.

    In 13 Reasons Why the families of the two leading characters, Hannah and Clay, are both Culture A people. Loving parents who work hard at parenting. Tragically, in this case they miss entirely what is happening in their children’s emotional lives. Hannah is bullied, and for some reason believes sharing this with her mother and father is the wrong thing to do. Over time, the bullying and the alienation get worse. Her suicide baffles them entirely. 

    Clay is in love with Hannah, but he lacks the courage to tell her. Time after time he misses the opportunity to connect. Hannah doesn’t help in this. She tells people to go away and then faults them for not knowing she hopes they will not listen to her. He, too, is unable to share this kind of information with his parents. Kids spend their time at parties unsupervised by adults, judging themselves and each other on the basis of cool, and creating lists of ratings with categories such as “best ass.” It’s not surprising they reach hasty and often unwarranted conclusions. The impression you get from this particular view of Culture A kids is that the bubble they live in with their peers can be lethal. And yet, parents are held back from getting involved by a desire to demonstrate to their children that they trust them and share the Culture A view that a sense of responsibility is inculcated in young people only when you provide them with the opportunity to fail. With that goes granting them a strong right to privacy. That can send the wrong signal, as it does when Hannah finds one of her classmates is apparently stalking her and nonetheless decides not to burden her overworked parents with this knowledge. We see how this value too can lead to devastating consequences.

    There is a quite thorough review of the book by Jay Asher the film is based on available here.

    The film is rated R for language, two rape scenes and the suicide, which are preceded by warnings for parents with children.

    I have no idea if the film will hold your attention if meted out in smaller doses. Probably.

    If you’ve got a teenage kid in the house, I suspect it will make you want to grab them and hold them tight.

    photo credit: from the IMDb website



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  10. Efgani Dönmez
    Just came across an example of the kind of thing Europeans are struggling with these days.  A video of an Austrian talk show where an Austrian man confronts a Swiss woman in language that might well be considered hate speech if the encounter took place in America.

    The Austrian man is Efgani Dönmez.  He came to Austria with his parents when he was just a few months old, grew up not far from Salzburg, entered politics and was elected to the Austrian Bundesrat as a member of the Green Party, which he served from 2008 to 2015 when he left after the party rejected him for having suggested it might be a good idea to buy one-way tickets for protesting Erdogan supporters. He complained the Party had no room for “unconventional thinkers.”

    Nora Illi on the Anne Will talk show
    The Swiss woman is Nora Illi.  She grew up in Zurich and joined a punk group at some point. She met her husband, Patrick Jerome Illi, a promoter of techno-raves at a pro-Palestinian protest in Jordan, where they were married in 2003. Both became converts to Islam, and Patric took the name Qaasim. Both went to work for the Islamic Central Council. Qaasim ran into trouble with the law and was convicted of racial discrimination. On his web page he celebrated the “taking down” (erlegen) of what he described as 16 Israeli “Zionist Occupation Bastards” killed in a Palestinian suicide attack on the bus they were riding in. Charges of being in possession of explosives were eventually dropped, but he was again charged in 2016 for spreading jihadist propaganda.

    Nora has been making the rounds on German language television wearing a niqab, i.e., fully covered except for her eyes, as a spokesperson for the Department of Women’s Affairs of the Islamic Council. She speaks out in favor of polygamy and after an appearance on the Anna Will show in November 2016, several of her public statements led to an indictment for aiding terrorism. Those charges were later dropped.

    That’s the background for the video I came across today, where Efgani Dönmez confronts Nora Illi on that Austrian talk show, where the topic of the day was the debate over headscarves.

    Normally this topic has been done to death, and if I'm looking for a good debate, I'll usually give this one a miss. But I remembered Nora from a couple earlier shows, the Anne Will Show and Menschen bei Maischberger, and wondered what she has been up to lately. Because of the tough spot Germany is in these days with Erdogan labeling as “Nazi tactics” their refusal to allow Turkish politicians to campaign in Germany, where a million and a half people with Turkish passports live, people are very careful about appearing anti-anything Muslim. I'm assuming this caution applies to Switzerland and Austria, as well.

    But Dönmez is a Turk, originally, and he's fearless.  He really lets her have it.  

    Here’s the video, if you can follow the German. At least have a look at the first couple of minutes. 

    Right out of the starting gate, the moderator asks him why Frau Illi should not have the right to wear a head covering of her choosing.  He responds, addressing Illi and not the moderator:

    We have the freedom in Europe to take up topics, including Islam itself, which in many Islamic countries would be unthinkable.  (But) instead of being a member of this society, you choose isolation.  Instead of bringing Islam forward you choose a Stone Age Islam, which has nothing to do with Islam. What you're doing here is provocation.  You get a stage to perform on.  You are supported by Salafist Wahhabi groups.  You're just a puppet.  You're just a piece of misery, to be honest. You've been brainwashed.  You're like hundreds of others...

    What characterizes our society is that people engage with one another. We look each other in the eye, we offer to shake hands, so we can get to know each other. Even a dog gets to sniff somebody out. And you refuse to shake hands with somebody simply because he's a man. How sick is that?

    I refuse to allow people like you to drag my religion into the dirt.  Your form of Islam is a very particular narrow version of the religion.  I'm not saying that all Salafists are terrorists, but up until now all terrorists have been Salafists. What we have to fight is not people like you - you can't help it - What we have to fight is this theology of contempt which is going around the world like a virus.


    Pinsdorf, Austria, where Efgani Dönmez grew up
    You get the idea.  She fights back.  But he is like a dog with a bone.

    Whatever happened to that picturesque land where the hills are alive with the Sound of Music?

    Makes American television look like a steady stream of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.


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