1. Just as the French use the word bourgeois to sneer at somebody who has all the boring characteristics of the conformist middle class, Germans have this wonderful word spießig, which means roughly the same thing.  Boring, mostly.  Unimaginative.  Conventional and dull.  The noun form, Spießigkeit, carries the range of connotations from smugness to narrowmindedness.

    In today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich’s daily, there is an article titled, “Irritiert über so viel schwule Spießigkeit” – “Annoyed by so much gay Spießigkeit.

    Gays have arrived.  And with their “success” at becoming accepted the greatest fear of the avant-garde gay liberationist would seem to have come true as well.  “We” have defeated “them” by becoming them.  Infiltrated the lines.  Pre-empted the criticism of being different. 

    Gay locales seem to be going out of business right and left.  No longer needed, they say.  You’ve got your job now, your life partner and your civil partnership, your dog, your fancy apartment in the right neighborhood.  And access to all the good places to go in the city.  Why restrict yourself to the gay-only places?

    But that’s not the whole story.  While once the issues were things like working to change the definition of manliness – real men cry, real men like beautiful things – today it seems more and more gays are being redefined as people who have always been spießig.  Always had their little private lives of domestic tranquility.  Maybe, the writer of this article suggests, what’s going on has nothing to do with the gay world at all.  Maybe it’s just Germans who are spießig.  Or is it that all Europeans are inclined toward Spießigkeit, and only the Germans worry about it?

    See?  You can write an article about gays now and say absolutely nothing much of interest at all except that maybe there’s nothing much to say.

    How’s that for having arrived?

    Except that this is profoundly insular thinking.  Marveling over how we've "arrived" is understandable for people who have lived through some astonishing changes and whittling away of homophobia in the mainstream.  I've guilty of this triumphalism myself.

    But if the "A-Gays," as the spießig gays of San Francisco and other American cities are described (this Munich phenomenon is not news here) are now actually making straight men stop and wonder if maybe they are missing out, there are still plenty of spaces where gays and lesbians live in fear and discomfort.  Just as the rising economic tide has been great for the 1% while 48 million Americans still live in poverty the rise of the A-gays and gay acceptance has not meant success for everybody. And I'm not just talking about Russia and Uganda and those unspeakable places where gays are pushed off roofs to their deaths.  I'm talking about the useless clowns running for president on the GOP ticket - homophobes to the last man plus Carly the Liar Lady.  We still have not cleared the air yet about Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal all appearing with an evangelist urging death to gays and lesbians.

    This is a challenging task.  You don't want to be a Debbie Downer (to use an old pre-gay arrival term in a language we used to call faggotese).  You do want to celebrate the victories and both the successes and the rapidity of the changes for the better.

    But let's not get all hung up on how "we're all gay now" and "oh, dear, what mountains are left to climb?"

    photo: The photo above accompanied today's Süddeutsche Zeigung article in question.  Whether it was irony or cluelessness that it was chosen to comment on the gay mainstreaming point of the article, I can't say.  It's actually a Christmas tree ornament.


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  2. Out of context, the news that a minority of right wingers in Northern Ireland have shot down the right of gays and lesbians to marry there is just another story of homophobia.   You grit your teeth, shake your head at the latest evidence that gay rights are a long hard slog, and ask yourself, cynically, what else is new?

    The good news is at least you can drive from Belfast, in Northern Ireland, to Dublin, in Ireland Ireland in a couple hours and get married there, now that marriage rights for lesbians and gays have just taken effect.  It’s a small place, Ireland.  Even if you are one of the 72 people who live in Ballyvoy in County Antrim, it’s only 54 miles to Londonderry and across into Ireland to Bridge End, in County Donegal.  I can’t say for sure, but it’s likely that at least one person from among its population of 497 might marry you if you ask them right.

    I know.  The problem with that is you still have to put up with being a second-class citizen, since your straight friends can pop down to the courthouse and do it locally.  Northern Irish folk need to keep up the good fight.

    68% of the residents of Northern Ireland are in favor of the right of lesbians and gays to marry, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, after four attempts to get the law passed, finally succeeded on the fifth earlier this month (Nov. 2).  The fact that the Assembly voted for gay rights is telling, since fifty-six of the members are Unionists, members of the party associated with the conservative Protestant majority.  Only 43 are Nationalists, the more liberal (Catholic) bunch, who would like Northern Ireland to reunite with the Irish Republic.  People who understand Irish politics better than I do may have an explanation for why the Catholic vote here should be pro-gay and the Protestant vote anti-gay.  It would seem that the Catholics of the North are as good at separating themselves from official Roman Catholic church doctrine as their fellow Irish to the South.

    But the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” cover a multitude of sins.  The Protestants are mostly of the evangelical sort, doctrinaire literalists who ignore injunctions in the Bible against divorce at the same time they come down on gay people, missing the irony that their finger-pointing at “sinners” makes them a shoddy bunch of hypocrites.  As usual, the terms Protestant and Catholic actually misrepresent what’s going on.  The majority of both Catholics and Protestants are in favor of full rights for gays and lesbians.  Only the officials of the Roman Catholic Church – not the people in the pews – and the literalist-type evangelical radical branch of Protestant Christians would conserve the pre-enlightenment view of homosexuality as wickedness and use every means at their disposal to get their way.  When you hear of the religious war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, keep in mind how this important social and legal rights issue reveals the real line is between open-minded progressives (Catholic and Protestant majorities) and “the way we’ve always done it” conservatives (Catholic and Protestant).

    The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, one of the conservative lot pushing to prevent gay rights, has this remarkable quote on their website from Matthew 24:12: “Jesus describes days in which, “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”  Lawlessness will be increased?  No, dear.  The Assembly created a law actually extending rights to a minority previously denied those rights.  It was you guys who thwarted that extension.  And, that bit about love growing cold?  You need to get out more.  And read the papers.  Those gays knocking at the door are celebrating their love in all sorts of ways.  Just look at these crowds in Dublin.   

    The subversion of the pro-gay vote reveals a conservative minority ignoring majority rule to get their way, a move neither Christian nor democratic.

    You remember the “Troubles,” as the Irish called the three decades of deadly strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, which led to 50,000 casualties, including the loss of well over 3000 lives.  And the happy day when everybody agreed to lay down their arms and form a two-party peace government, where the two sides could agree to disagree on the fundamentals without offing each other.  Part of that agreement involved a safety valve.  In case the legislature should find itself on the verge of legislating against the rights of minorities, either party can file a “petition of concern” to protect that minority.

    We are familiar in the United States with the chutzpah of the religious right when it insists that its right to discriminate against gays and lesbians is a “religious right.”  Well here’s the same thing going on in Northern Ireland.  The Protestants are a majority in Parliament.  But when some of their members vote with the opposition and the total number of yes votes is sufficient to get a law passed, the Protestants then submit a petition of concern,  effectively vetoing the majority decision.  What the petition does is change the rules and require a majority in both parties for the vote to win. 

    Badges?  We don't need no stinkin' badges!  Or, in this case, rule by majority. We’ve got a god-given right to stop those gays any way we can. A mere 30 members of the Assembly can force a petition of concern.  The U.S. is not the only country where the Tea Party tail wags the congressional dog.

    So the law extending the right of gays and lesbians to marry in Northern Ireland will be delayed a while longer.  And more pounds and pence will be spent on legal battles to fight this obstruction and bring progress to the fifth and last segment of those islands off the coast of France which are England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland – by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.  Already there is talk of taking the case to the courts, the way same-sex marriage rights were finally established in the United States.  At least three couples are prepared to take their case to the European court of human rights, if necessary.  

    Meanwhile, down in the Republic of Ireland, they’re taking a more welcoming approach to same-sex marriage.  If you are already in a same-sex civil partnership, you don’t need to wait the usual three months after getting a license.  You can get married right away. 

    The slog continues.  But these days, in the land where the fairies have beards and will fix your shoes for you – I’m talking about the leprechauns – there’s a rainbow to be seen down at the end of the road.

    May that road rise up to meet you.  And the wind be always at your back.


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  3. Dear CF (Chosen Family) Nephew:

    I just realized that one of my favorite* CF Nephews (i.e., you) was living at just about the same latitude as one of my favorite CF Nieces, on the 17th and 16th parallels, respectively.  Moreover, you are less than 9 degrees of longitude apart, you share the same Indochinese peninsula, the same Southeast Asian land mass, the same Indomalaya and Australasian ecozone and phytogeographical floristic paleotropical region, and are thus readily accessible to each other by car, horse, tuk tuk, shank’s mare, or in your particular case, motorbike.

    I have therefore taken the liberty to provide you with directions from  Hoàn Lão, Vietnam to Hpa-An, Myanmar (Burma) by road.  Should you find yourself taken with a wanderlust and some time on your hands, the trip, Google informs me, can be made in about 19 hours – two very long days, or three days of reasonable driving time, not accounting for traffic or possible tie-ups at border crossings, (i.e., better figure in some extra time.)  About 262 hours, if you make the trip on foot.

    Here’s how.

    Hoàn Lão
    1. From Hoàn Lão, take the Ho Chi Minh highway, the TL 561, west to the Lao border.  It’s a tad over two hours, 142 km. Last rest stop before the Lao border is the Cửa khẩu Cha Lo at 12A, Quảng Bình, Vietnam, two minutes from the border.
    2. Cross the border into Laos and continue on the same highway (there is only one, and from now on it is called Highway 12) to the Mekong River.  Crossing Laos should take you about two and a half hours (158 km).
    3. Stay on the highway and cross the river on the Third Thai-Lao Friendship 3 Bridge into Thailand where Highway 12 continues, running concurrently, at times, with Highway 212 and Highway 22.
    4. Stay on Highway 12/212/22 until you see the turn-off to Highway 2028.  Turn left onto Highway 2028 (Actually, it’s still Highway 12).
    5. Just past the Artificial Insemination Station (Kusuman District, Sakon Nakhon), Highway 212 ends where it joins Highway 22. Turn right onto Highway 22 (which is actually still Highway 12).  The trip across Thailand from the Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Mae Sot (แม่สอด in Thai) , on the border of Burma, should take you about 12 hours.  It’s 858 km.
    6. Stay on Highway 12 and at the Thai border town of Mae Sot, cross the Moei River into Myawaddy ( မြဝတီ in Burmesein Myanmar/Burma.  You are now in Kayin State, of which Hpa-An is the capital.
    7.  From the border, it is about two hours (149km) on the AH1 to Hpa-An (ဘားအံမြို့ in Burmese).

    Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll google you an answer.

    Hope your motorbike has a soft cushion.

    To get back, simply retrace your steps.

    Have a great ride.



    *All my CF nephews and nieces carry the designator “favorite”.

    P.S.  You might want to check for insurrections, revolutions and weather disturbances before starting out.  And do make sure you contact CF Favorite Niece and tell her you’re coming.  She travels a lot and it would be a shame to go all that distance and find her vacationing in Bangkok.


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  4. My home town when I was 10 
    Preamble: This blog entry comes with musical accompaniment, so in another window go to
    same place today, 65 years later
     and listen as you read.  And when “The Hills of My Connecticut” finishes playing, you may want to avoid the following linked YouTube, “DaStreetz,” which would only bring you up to date on the current state of my birth state.  Which is not necessarily a good idea.  With some things you really ought to stop while you’re ahead.

    Friend Linda just sent me an e-mail with a heads-up on a major event in my hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.  Major events don't occur in these little outposts of the industrial revolution very often. There was a flood in 1955, when I was 15, that wiped out one entire side of Main Street.  The devastation was so bad it never got rebuilt.  By the time I got to high school they had torn down the train depot, where you once could take a train into New York or Boston, and the only time we left town was to go to Nova Scotia where my father could hunt deer and moose and my mother could be even more bored than she was in Winsted. We dreamed from early on, my friends and I, of escape from this Nowheresville.  It may have been hopping in 1900 when there were 100 or more factories and 9000 inhabitants in Winsted, but by the 1950s they were all moving South, where factory owners were able to find non-union labor.  Winsted and all the towns of "brass valley," where the nation's clocks, woollens, toasters, pins and brass products were generated, just sort of went to sleep.

    But apparently, not forever.  These days Winsted folk can wake up in the morning knowing their little town has a brand new museum.   A Museum of ... wait for it... Tort Law!   The only one of its kind in the world.  Just opened a couple weeks ago.

    Winsted has two sons of some repute.  And they actually grew up together.  One is David Halberstam, of Norman Mailer and Pulitzer Prize fame, author of The Best and the Brightest, the book that tore to shreds the ill-fated policies of Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam.  The other is Ralph Nader, who I assume needs no introduction or explanation.

    Going back to Winsted always sends me into Future Shock.  I don't do it physically anymore; my 45th and 50th high school reunions were enough.   This online visit was no exception.  First thing I did was go to Google Maps and search for 654 Main Street, the address of this new museum. After some considerable confusion (see the addendum below) I discovered it was once a bank, and it is right next to the Methodist Church where I was a teenager wonder-organist.  Or so my grandmother believed, anyway.  I doubt I could have identified the bank even then.  Not on a teenager's radar.  So Ralph apparently gave up the original plan of using the old mill his family owned - I have no idea why anybody would want one.  In high school I worked part time in the Hosiery, pushing carts of yarn hither and yon, trying hard and often failing not to get the wheels caught in the gouges in the old wooden floors.

    In any case, Ralph seems to have tossed that idea in favor of "one of the most attractive buildings in Winsted," if its web page can be believed.  It has "most of its original architectural features still in place...great stone work...dramatic custom trim work in the lobby," etc. etc. "Would make a great restaurant, dramatic office or gallery."

    Ralph's father ran a restaurant.  We used to stop by the Highland Arms after school when I was in high school, well before we knew we would be citing that fact for the rest of our lives, so his three children could really go places, and I doubt he spent much time considering that possibility.  And, by the way, if you want to hear Ralph's reminiscences of growing up in Winsted, there's a wonderfully nostagic interview available here.

    Go to the museum’s Face Book page and have a listen to Ralph explaining how excited he is about tort law, and why he thinks it is worth a museum.  It will make you glad you voted for him and maybe stop blaming him for giving the election to George Bush.  He blames it on Gore.  I blame it on the Democrats who didn’t vote.  He also explains why we are wrong to sneer at the million-dollar settlement to that woman who burned herself on McDonald’s coffee. (Turns out it was only half a million.)

    You may have guessed that I’m a huge fan of Ralph Nader.  Not just because we both grew up in the same small New England town and went to the same high school – and because I ate many meals after school at his family’s restaurant.  But because he represents the values of New England a lot of people laugh at (because they seem so hokey) until they get past the obvious stereotypical thinking.  People we knew as Republicans when I was a kid.  The kind of Republicans Lincoln would have been proud of.  Also sometimes known as "Rockefeller Republicans."  And a whole bunch of other self-sufficiency types.  Not the knuckle-draggers who have taken over the party today.

    Full disclosure: I have not been to this museum.  So this is a heads-up, rather than a well-founded recommendation.

    But if you’re still driving around looking at the New England fall foliage, Winsted is plunk in the middle of the “Foothills to the Berkshires” and takes no back seat to anybody when it comes to the splendors of autumn in New England.  I can definitely recommend that.

    And I’ll wager, the American Tort Museum will not be a waste of time, either.

    The Museum was featured on the NPR comedy program, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where guests hear three highly unlikely stories and have to guess which one of them is actually true.  Comedian and satirist (and all-around right-of-center kind of guy) P. J. O’Rourke was brought in as one of the story-tellers:

    O'ROURKE: What is it with painfully stupid museums? I mean, there is a roller skating museum in Nebraska, a hammer museum near Juneau and a dentistry museum in Baltimore. And now there's one that hurts even worse - Ralph Nader's The American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Conn.
    O'ROURKE: I mean, America needs a museum of tort law like France needs a museum of military retreat.
    O'ROURKE: On display is a 1963 Corvair - unsafe at any speed except this one, it's bolted down - plus fascinating interactive displays about asbestos, flaming Ford Pintos, overheated McDonald's coffee and car seats without seatbelts. There's even a kiddy corner full of toys called Toys That Kill. I'm going to the American Museum of Tort Law today and trip and fall on the doorstep.

    The guest got the right answer.  This story was the real one.

    Nader spent years raising money for the museum and put in $50,000 of his own funds.  Eventually he reached something like two million dollars and was ready to roll.  Most of the donors were lawyers, although Phil Donohue is listed among them as well.  Punk rock-and-roller Patti Smith, an old friend of Ralph’s, sang at the opening ceremony.  Patti speaks of her love for Ralph as a person who can make you feel "happily ashamed."  

    Nader’s goal is easily flipped off as an ego-trip.  How often do you get a museum in which all your professional successes are featured displays?  Like the Corvair of Unsafe at Any Speed or the infamous Ford Pinto with a gas tank that was likely to blow up if the car was rear-ended,  or the Dalkon Shield, the unsafe intrauterine device.  Seatbelts.  Air bags.  So much history of consumer protections.  People today may be more likely to remember the McDonald’s coffee story.  But what you remember says a lot about whether you see Nader's life work as heroic, and to what degree.  And, of course, whether you can forgive him for running for president.

    The idea came to him, Nader says, when a friend asked him once what happens to all those splendid exhibits he constructs when making his presentations in court.   What a shame, he commented, to let all that work go to waste.

    The museum, if you've followed his career, probably honors Nader’s loyal team of Nader’s Raiders, as much as it does Nader.  And while it may boost his ego in the process, it is also proof that Nader, now 81 years of age, is still going about his business poking a stick at irresponsible government. When asked why his name appears nowhere on the face of the building or the exhibits, he demurs. The successes represented here are due to the labors of thousands of hard-working lawyers, jurors, brave witnesses.  It's an American story, not an individual's story, he says.

    Lately, the world has come to see lawyers as down there with car salesmen and TV evangelists. And that's a terrible injustice, Nader feels.  Tort law, he insists, is democracy on the ground level, where the little guy gets somebody to listen to an injustice that has befallen him. A "tort" is a wrongful injury. It is deserving of a remedy. "Tort reform" is in the zeitgeist.  Big government is trying to persuade us that the cost of medicine, health care, and ultimately higher taxes, are all due to "frivolous law suits" and the American self-centered focus on rights instead of responsibilities. There's no doubt Americans are a litigious lot. But Nader is convinced if we're not careful, the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction and the little guy will lose out.  He has described the conservative agenda of tort reform, which seeks limits on lawsuits and financial awards, as “the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered.” 

    This museum is Nader, at age 81, still going strong.  Still looking out for the little guy.

    To see photos of the exhibit, click here.  For Nader's website, click here.  For his blog, click here.

    Cost of admission is $7.00.

    photo credit: Winsted in 1950


    If you type in “654 Main Street, Winsted, CT” on Google Maps, you’ll discover that the town has a number of eccentric features (besides Ralph Nader, I mean.)  One of them is that little pockets of the neighboring town of New Hartford, some six or seven miles down the road to Hartford, has Winsted's zip code 06098 mixed in among its own New Hartford 06057 zip code, and if you are not in possession of the right four-number code that follows the main zip code, you’ll go astray.  The Museum is at 654 Main Street in Winsted, 06098-1552, and not 654 Main Street in New Hartford 06098-1507.  Got that?

    06098 zip code, Winsted
    and New Hartford
    06057 zip code, New Hartford
    showing spots of 06098
    That’s actually a minor eccentricity of the place.  A bigger one is the fact that Winsted is actually a city within a town.  The City of Winsted is contained entirely within the Town of Winchester, and in fact, on some maps you won’t see Winsted at all.  (See below.)  Just Winchester.  Somewhere in Winchester's history somebody decided to call this settlement between Winchester and Barkhamsted by the head of one and the ass-end of the other.  Winsted not only isn’t a real name (there’s no General Winsted who fought in the Revolutionary War, for example), it doesn’t even have exclusive rights to its own zip
    See?  No Winsted!
    code.  That means if you travel down Route 44 you go from Winsted 06098 into Barkhamsted 06063 and then into New Hartford 06098.  Quiz on Monday.


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  5. Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann
    After seeing Labyrinth of Lies on Friday, I wanted to get my reaction down before I lost the thread and before my enthusiasm cooled.  With apologies to Pascal and Cicero, I didn’t have the time to write a short review of this entertaining and informative film, so I wrote a long one instead.  Since then, I’ve had more time, so I’ve written a shorter one, as well.  Because this is the digital age, and you can easily unburden yourself of too many words with the flick of a delete button, I have no shame in sending you both versions.  I’ll put the short version first.

    The short version:

    In the 1930s, Germany, under Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, unleashed misery and chaos upon the world.  By the time the Third Reich was defeated in 1945, untold millions of people were dead, a largely successful attempt had been made to wipe out every Jewish man, woman and child in extermination camps, Europe’s economies were in ruin, and we still ask ourselves to this day how Germans could have participated in such evil doings.

    Unfortunately, that human disaster was followed by another, a build-up of hostilities between two forces once joined to fight Hitler, the world of Stalinist communism and the Western world committed to a capitalist ideology. 

    In order to fight the Communists, the West, led by the Americans, now the world’s leading superpower, cut short the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, including those who ran the concentration camp at Auschwitz, which has come to represent to most of us the pinnacle of the mechanized streamlined evil that was Nazism.

    Every age gives us heroes, and as Nazism was effectively being extended into the Cold War through neglect, a group of men and women in Germany stood up and resisted the pressures to bury that evil and to dull the memory of the murderers of the six million Jews and others at Auschwitz.  They were lawyers who used their legal system both to punish these men, but also, and more importantly, to raise the consciousness of the German people about what had happened in their name, believing that not to do so only extended Germany’s shame.

    These legal Nazi hunters, Fritz Bauer, Attorney General of the State of Hessen and his team of prosecutors, had their hands tied behind their backs because the German legal system they were working under was the same legal system, still in place, that had defended the worst perpetrators of war crimes at Nuremberg.  Just as East and West was divided by communist and capitalist ideologies, two legal systems were at loggerheads.  While the highest value within the legal philosophy that drove the Nuremberg Tribunal was the rights of the individual, the highest German value was legally-constituted authority, and duty to that authority. Under the German system, there was a wide gap between morality and the law, and reason determined that a man could not be punished, even for the most evil of deeds, if those deeds were not illegal at the time.

    Labyrinth of Lies (Labyrinth of Silence, in German) is the story of those lawyers and their struggle to overcome that legal system and reach the conscience of the German people.

    The long version:

    The Cold War, the four decade long standoff between the Soviet Empire and the West, is generally thought to have started in earnest when the Soviets tried to close off access to Berlin by the Western powers in 1948 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  In reality, the Cold War actually began the moment the Russians and Americans stopped fighting the Nazis and began an all-out competition for hearts and minds and territory and power.

    That period of time is intensely personal to me.  It was my coming of age time.  I had finished school and was just starting my adult life.  And because I had joined the army and gone to work for the Army Security Agency, I was in Berlin from 1962 till 1965, as part of what was perhaps the greatest collection of snoopers in the world at the time.  I remember 40,000 being tossed around as the number of people in Berlin involved in espionage.  Some of it would become the stuff of thriller films for decades afterwards, right up to the present moment.  Other parts of it were, if observed up close, routine and dull as dishwater, including my point of contact with the “Rooskies,” or “die da drüben (those guys over there)” depending on whether you used the bad guy term my colleagues wearing the American uniform used, or the one used by my Aunt Frieda and Uncle Otto and their fellow Berliners, which focused on the tragedy of separation.

    My colleagues and I listened in on communist party cadre sharing information with each other about broken water mains, chemical plant mis-deliveries and visitors from Moscow who had to be met at the airport.  All terribly top secret at the time.  All of absolutely no significance whatsoever a half century later.

    Inside the walls of those quonset huts on top of Teufelsberg in Berlin, we were given to understand we were fighting for God, country and apple pie.  Not far outside those walls, across the country, in Frankfurt, something else was happening which wasn't even on our radar.  The Germans were beginning to come to terms at long last with the horrors of the Third Reich.  A courageous bunch of folk were making it their goal to smash the comforting notion that those horrors could and should be put to bed and forgotten. 

    Astonished at the discovery that many Germans could not even identify Auschwitz as a place on a map, much less as a source of German shame, local prosecutors began taking up the task of charging the murderers of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust.  The beginning and ending of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials coincided almost to the day with the beginning and ending of my time with the ASA in Germany.  That coincidence adds a layer of significance for me, and helps me take this story to heart.

    I learned of this coincidence only yesterday, a half century after these events took place, while watching the film Labyrinth of Lies (German: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens), a somewhat fictionalized treatment of the buildup to those trials.  It's a trivial coincidence, actually, but I’m struck by the irony that this story about how one could live so close to something and remain unaware that it was happening was being mirrored by my ignorance of the Frankfurt trials.  In December of 1963 I had not yet gone to Berlin. I was living in Frankfurt.

    The film’s director, Giulio Ricciarelli, was born in Milan but he has made a career as a German stage and film actor for twenty-five years and calls Munich home.  Labyrinth of Lies is his first full-length film.  He might have made a documentary, but chose instead to fictionalize the story somewhat and create an entertaining tale of detective work.  It's not so much fictionalized, actually, as gussied up with pretty people.  Some might want to say this hero-making and prettifying only cheapens the actual story of the untiring efforts of probably more ordinary bureaucrats who might not dance and make love as well, but I think that would be terribly unfair.  A bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.  And if you find a bit of padding unworthy, remember that the story is ultimately about a man who devoted his life to putting his fellow Germans in a better place to take responsibility for their history.  That part of the story was not fictionalized; that actually happened.

    The storyline is straightforward.  It begins in 1958, thirteen years after war’s end.  The Bundesrepublik under Konrad Adenauer is experiencing an economic miracle. Nobody is remotely interested in talking about the recent disaster. Auschwitz survivor Thomas Gnielka passes a schoolyard one day and recognizes one of the teachers as the former Auschwitz concentration camp commander.  He takes this information to the authorities, hoping to have the man arrested and prosecuted, but finds not only no interest, but actual hostility.  As luck would have it, there is a strict by-the-book kind of guy working in the D.A.'s office, (we're into fiction now) a man named Johann Radmann.  Radmann is bored with his job of processing traffic violations and hoping for a more exciting job.  The main thrust of the plot derives from the fact that when Radmann takes on the case, and finds to his surprise that he has the Attorney General at his back, he is not prepared for the discovery of how many toes he is about to step on.

    Radmann burns himself out, ultimately, trying to bring Josef Mengele to justice. He learns that although Mengele lives in Argentina, he visits his home in Germany regularly and his movements are known to the German police and the local authorities.  He has friends in high places and comes and goes freely.  Having to recognize the limits of his power, Radmann struggles with his boss’s view that justice must take a back seat to recognition, that punishment should not be the ultimate goal of their investigation but bringing their countrymen to accept a sense of responsibility for history.

    Some have criticized the film for its undue emphasis on chasing down Mengele when there were so many other stories to tell.   I don’t share that criticism at all.  It was the failure to capture Mengele that brought home the ugly truth that Germany’s descent into darkness didn’t end in 1945, but lasted well into the Cold War in the form of denial.

    In a very real sense, you can blame the Americans for a good bit of the German failure to understand what they had done at Auschwitz and elsewhere during the Second World War.  If you’ve seen that magnificent film, Judgment at Nuremberg, you’ll remember the frustration the prosecutors had at having their hands tied when trying to track down war criminals.  “The Germans are now our friends,” they were told.  “We need them to fight the Russians.”  The task of chasing down the killers of six million Jews, gypsies, socialists, homosexuals and others would fall on the likes of Simon Wiesenthal.  The Americans were more inclined to help the Nazis blend into the woodwork.  And if the Americans, the war victors who now ran the Western World, were not going to press for justice, why should Germans themselves ask for trouble?   Reconciliation would seem to be in order.  Calming down.  Getting on with it.  Besides, how does one “punish” an entire nation, even if one can agree that they deserve punishment?

    And so it came to pass.  The Americans were not the only enablers of denial and cover-up. The Vatican, too, either actively participated or at least stood by (it depends on whom you ask) when the Catholic Church in Croatia formed what came to be called Ratlines to smuggle Nazis out of Europe to safety in South America.  And there was nobody around – certainly not the Americans - to rap on the knuckles of Pius XII, except people of conscience like Rolf Hochhut, whose play, The Deputy, about the Vatican’s alleged support of Hitler and indifference to the Holocaust, was also making headlines in Germany in 1963.

    In 1949 I was beaten up on the playground because I grew up in a place largely populated by immigrants and at one point our naïve fourth-grade teacher thought it would be a great idea if we all spoke about where our “people” had come from.  Most said Italy.  There was a sprinkling of Ireland and Poland.  I was the only one to say Germany.  (Canada seemed so dull next to Italy and Poland, and I identified more with my German side than with my Scottish/Canadian side.  I would pay for my innocence when some Italian kid (Mussolini?  Who’s Mussolini?) let me have it square in the face.  For being a Nazi, he said.  My mother’s response when I burst into tears at the question, “What happened in school today?” was “You’ve got to be more careful.”  She, who hid her German identity once the rocks went through the stained-glass windows at the local St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church, was being motherly.  She had no interest in politics.  She just wanted her little boy to be safe.

    My mother’s side of the family, the German side, were a marvelous bunch of people.  They gave advice like, “If ever you’re out in the world and alone, find people who love to sing and you’ll be safe.”  They danced, loved their beer and their cigars and their bratwursts.  And more than anything, they loved to laugh.  After getting beaten up for being German, I set about trying to find out what made the bullies pick on me.  What I found out shook me to the core.  I was an American, after all, and Germany was still the enemy, and I didn’t have to go far to uncover the grizzly details of Nazi atrocities.  It took me a long time to reconcile, as a 9-year-old, how these people who could make steamed potatoes so delicious with a little butter and some dill, could be the same people who could make the trains run on time to Buchenwald and Auschwitz and just think of it as another day’s work.

    “There are good people and bad people wherever you go,” was my German grandmother’s explanation.  But even though I was only nine at the time, it was already no longer a sufficient explanation, and I have spent my life with such ethical questions as to what degree do individuals bear responsibility for the groups they identify with, family, neighborhood, race or nation.  And is there such a thing as collective guilt?   And is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen right when he says in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners that we are making a terrible mistake blaming Hitler for the evil of the Holocaust, that guilt belongs on the heads of the entire German people.  Every last one of them.

    Don’t agree with that?  Then how do you go about assessing which ones deserve blame, which ones should get some sort of slap on the wrist, and which ones should be exonerated?  Does the American genocide of the North American Indian and the centuries of slavery mean Americans have no right to speak on the topic?  Ditto for the British and the French and their years of bloody growth-stunting imperialism?  Does the fact that evil is a human condition obviate the need for identifying crimes and criminals and punishing them?  A naïve bunch of questions, ultimately, and our answers have not been satisfactory so far, because they keep coming back up,  over and over again, year after year.   In any case, here we are, in 2015, and the Germans are making a movie about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.  And I feel I have to ask why.  And why now?

    I can guess at the answer to the why-now question.  It appears to be in the zeitgeist now for Germany to finally come to terms with itself as a land of immigrants.  This involves looking for a solid basis on which to build the new nation.  Does Germany have a leitkultur, an “original and foundational German culture” worth defending?  Does it have a right to impose that on new-comers? If so, how does the Holocaust figure in the way that leitkultur is constituted?  Can one justify setting the Holocaust aside as an aberration in German history and get on with it?  Can Germans be proud to be Germans again?  Yes, most would say.  But only if history is not buried and the response to it is responsible.  And there's the rub.  What does that actually mean?

    The simple why question has a more obvious answer. An event as momentous as the Holocaust demands three things of us: that we learn and know about it, that we not forget it, and that we develop a satisfactory response to it.  Labyrinth of Lies tells the story of how the goals of the Cold War nearly led to our falling down on even the first and simplest of these three steps.  It is the story of a number of heroic men and women, driven by personal morality and a sense of responsibility to raise the consciousness of the German people for what happened in their name.  At the heart of the story is the question put to the chief prosecutor.  Johann Radmann is asked, “Do you want every young German to ask if their father was a murderer?”  “Yes,” he responds,  “That’s exactly what I want!”

    Some background is in order.  The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials make no sense without the knowledge that the Americans pushed the Germans to take the low road and let criminal Nazis go unpunished so that the wheels of industry could continue to turn efficiently and so that Werner von Braun would not be the only German to come to work with the Americans against the Russians. 

    Another piece of important information needed in establishing the context of the film is the fact that the German legal system approached war crimes differently from the way they had been approached by the victors at Nuremberg.  You will remember that the single most important outcome of the trials at Nuremberg was the judgment that one must accept responsibility for one’s individual actions, that the excuse of following orders doesn’t hold water. If you kill someone, you cannot hide behind the excuse that somebody told you to pull the trigger.  The law is governed by the notion that the individual is the basic unit of society, not the collective, and every individual must stand behind every act he or she performs, ultimately. 

    The German legal system had not adopted the Nuremberg principles by the time of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, however. They were still governed by the authoritarian notion that if a legally constituted authority gave you an order, you simply had a duty to obey it.  You might be charged as an accomplice to murder, but not as a murderer yourself.   Not only had Nazis gone into hiding, but the legal system had their backs, so to speak, by continuing to argue, as they had at Nuremberg, that while the murderers at Auschwitz might be morally reprehensible, they were not legally liable.  The Allies had enforced victors’ justice. The Tribunal had applied ex post facto law and was violating the nullum crimen principle, that there is no crime without a law to make it a crime.  Both at Nuremberg and here in Frankfurt (because the system had not evolved), the killers had a legal “devil made me do it” defense.  I’m not responsible.  My boss is, and onward up the ladder to the state itself, or in Germany’s case, the Führer, which amounts to the same thing.

    The impact of the principles established at the Nuremberg Tribunal cannot be underestimated.  In plain language, and in fact, the Americans had applied a kind of “victor’s justice,” demanding that those charged with crime should not have obeyed the laws in place, but laws they insisted should have been in place, i.e., the kinds of laws the Americans governed themselves by.  The very legitimacy of the International Military Tribunal was further weakened by the fact that the judges refused to allow any criticism of war crimes committed by the Allied powers, such as the bombing of the civilian populations of Hamburg and Dresden.  And of the wholesale deportation of Germans from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other places east of the Oder-Neisse line, what today would be referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”  And the fact that one of the judges was from the Soviet Union, a country which had committed acts against minority populations and political enemies more or less equivalent to those committed by the Third Reich.

    This is way more detail than is reasonable for a film review, but I wanted to make the point that the film’s “heroes” who were trying to find German guilt for war crimes were not up against an arbitrarily established set of cowardly prejudices.  They were up against a well-reasoned and well-articulated legal tradition, even if today their arguments may no longer be persuasive.

    One of the benefits of viewing the film, besides its obvious entertainment value, enhanced by good acting and good directing, are the questions it raises.  Like why there were so many hurdles one had to jump along the way to a full-scale world-wide adoption of the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And how we might want to (or not want to) adjust the filter we judge the crimes of the Third Reich by now that the United States itself has gone from being a leader in establishing these sources of morality to flaunting its abuse of them on the grounds of alleged national security, and placing the state above the individual in terms of the law.  The moral questions this German film about German history raises has far broader implications.

    The principles articulated by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg led ultimately to the establishment of the UN Charter and a consensus that there is such a thing as an international community.   As a legal concept, with an International Criminal Court, and not just as an academic construct. Without the concept of international customary law as superior to the laws of individual states, there would be no mechanism for furthering human rights generally.  They would remain little more than an impossible dream. The clout necessary to bring war criminals to justice before the ICC is still weak – as evidenced by the failure to make those responsible for the invasion of Iraq or for Abu Ghraib or for Guantanamo face charges, for example – but the concept of international law is firmly in place.  At the time of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, it was not, and bringing Nazis to trial in Germany was an uphill climb indeed.

    As Germans continue to use art and the media to comb through their history and expose facts and events too long hidden, they are inevitably up against the challenge of attracting and hanging onto their audience. The question is worth repeating: who wants to listen to yet another tale of German criminality?  Who wants to call poor old grandpa, now in his doddering years or on his deathbed, a killer?  Particularly if he mostly stood and watched.

    Finding the right mechanisms to make this story palatable was crucial.  Because the task is daunting, one might forgive Ricciardelli and the producers of Labyrinth of Lies for taking the three actual public prosecutors in the D.A.’s office in Frankfurt appointed by Attorney General Fritz Bauer to conduct the investigation and making them into a single handsome and terribly likeable young composite, Johann Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling.  The fictional Radmann is portrayed as a virtual superman who stands alone against the bullying of his colleagues and even his own mother, to fight the good fight.  Add a love story, a bit of humor here and there, and you’ve got some pretty good entertainment.

    It also helps that they made use of the talents of one of Germany’s best known actors, Gert Voss, whom some like to call the Lawrence Olivier of Germany, to play the role of Fritz Bauer.  Some big shoes to fill there, and Voss does the job superbly.  An early opponent of the Nazis, Bauer was jailed and sent to a concentration camp for a time in 1933, long before the “Final Solution” days, when he likely would not have survived.  He was released in 1935 and found his way to Sweden, where he worked with Willi Brandt for a time before making his way back to Germany in 1949 where he entered the civil service and rose to become Attorney General (Generalstaatsanwalt) for Hessen, where Frankfurt is located, and in a position to launch a campaign for justice.  In fact, Bauer chose the more important goal, as he saw it, of raising the German consciousness about its wartime responsibility.  His efforts led to a class action suit.

    Bauer once stated, "In the justice system, I live as in exile."  In the film, if I remember correctly, he says “I’ve got no place to go outside this room,” referring to his office.  In his darkest moments of despair, having learned that Germany was protecting the likes of Josef Mengele and things were much worse than he originally thought, the Radmann character asks Bauer, his Jewish boss why he chose to stay in Germany, given all that has happened.  Bauer then speaks for victims of injustice and brutality by governments all over the world when he says, “This is where I met my wife.  This is where the pond is where my daughter played with ducks for the first time.  This is the only home I know.”

    Voss died in Vienna of leukemia about the time the film was released.  Watching this actor exercise his craft was a highlight of the film for me.

    Many will remember Alexander Fehling, who plays Chief prosecutor Johann Radmann, from Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, in which he played the role of Staff Sgt. Wilhelm.

    Others in the cast include Johannes Krish as Simon Kirsch; Friederike Becht as Marlene, Radmann’s love interest; Hansi Jochmann as “Schmittchen,” Radmann’s secretary; Johann von Bülow as Radmann’s slow to come around colleague, Otto Haller; Robert Hunger-Bühler as opposition force Walter Friedberg; and André Szymanski as Thomas Gnielka, the camp survivor who gets the ball rolling.

    I’m not alone in my view that this film is a success.  It has received a rating, at the moment, of 80% by critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 91% by viewers.  (I’m with the viewers, obviously).  It has already received a number of prizes and is Germany’s submission to the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards in 2016.   It opened this week (October 2) in the U.S.

    I consider it a must-see.

    Picture credit: 


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  6. East German spy's first experience in a Western supermarket
    Deutschland 83 is a made for German television series in eight episodes.  Picked up earlier this year by Sundance TV,  it is the first German-language series to make it to American TV.

    To get to the show’s website, click here.

    If you get hold of a rental copy of Deutschland 83* on DVD – and I hope you do – be sure to watch the extras at the end, particularly the interview with the two writers of the series, Anna and Joerg Winger, and three of the main stars, Jonas Nay, Sonja Gerhardt and Ludwig Trepte.

    Trepte, you may remember from Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter), where he played the Jewish member of the group of five friends struggling to hold together despite the pressures of World War II.  Both Generation War and Deutschland 83 were produced by UFA Fiction. This more recent series was directed by Edward Berger and Samira Radsi.

    Jonas Nay plays a 24-year-old East German border guard, Martin Rauch, who goes undercover as Moritz Stamm, aide-de-camp to General Edel (Ulrich Noethen - Downfall (2004), The Harmonists (1997)) in the West German army.  He is pressured into this job not entirely unwillingly, since he accepts the ideology of the GDR.  But he is kept there once things get rough and he begins to want out, because his mother’s chances of getting a kidney transplant in the GDR are nil without his cooperation.  A bit too soap opera for comfort, you might think, but it kind of works.

    He also leaves a pregnant girlfriend behind without warning or explanation, who also gets pressed into service along the way.

    Despite a first impression that this may be just another plodding and overly earnest German production, the story takes hold and in short order becomes quite gripping.  The lead character, Martin/Moritz is totally sympathetic and you don’t have to be a pinko commie to find yourself rooting for him each time he makes a narrow escape photographing documents or placing wiretaps.

    Your desire to root for an East German spy speaks volumes about the writing skills of the creators of this marvelous piece of popular history – and that’s why I urge you to make an effort to listen to an interview with them.  They are a German man/American wife team.  He’s got the historical direct connection with the period; she’s got the American desire to lighten things up.  Both wanted to find a way to teach their German children about Germany in the Cold War years, and they realized they needed as much time as they could get away with for the events to unfold properly, and for there to be growth and changes in understanding.  Hence the series format.

    In the twenty-five years since the wall went down and the two Germanys came together, a whole new generation has grown up.  That includes Jonas Nay who was born in Lübeck, a North German city just to the west of the GDR border, after the events of 1983 and even after the fall of the wall.  Jonas speaks for the new generation that has never experienced a divided nation, restrictions on self-expression, foreign travel, or the right to leave one’s home without permission.

    Jonas has an easier time getting prepared for the role than the older actors.  In preparing for the role, reading history, consulting with NATO expert Steffen Meier  and talking with other people from East and West, he simply adds new information to his post-reunification understanding of the world. Older actors, however, sometimes have to contend with emotional scars.  Sylvester Groth (Inglourious Basterds (2009), The Reader (2008) and Stalingrad (1993)), for example, who plays Walter Schweppenstette, the East German Stasi agent heading up Martin’s (Jonas’s) spy operation, was among the thousands who in real life committed the treasonous crime of Republikflucht (“flight from the (GDR) Republic to the west”).  The filmmakers managed to get to use the actual Stasi headquarters for sets, including furniture.  And this meant Groth got to sit in the actual chair of the man who once had his fate in his hands – or would have had, if he had not escaped.  One can only imagine the effort it takes to accomplish the assumption of the persona of your nemesis for an acting job.

    Knowing the background of the events, and the personal lives of the actors gives the film a certain edge.  It tests the success of the reunification process, the degree to which the concepts of “east” and “west” have lost their power to generate hostility.  In Generation War the actors had to put themselves into the shoes of their grandparents; here it’s their parents they are playing, and in some cases their own selves from another time frame.

    Some have compared the series to Mad Men because such pains were taken to recreate the look of the 80s and the differences between East German and West German styles and objects, right down to the sickly green color of the East German telephones and the click of the dials.  Mostly the contrasts work, although when Martin gets his first glimpse of a West German grocery store, it’s a bit overdone.  Yes, they had bananas.  They probably didn’t have this many bunches just hanging there.  A slightly more troublesome limitation is in the plotline.  As is common in thrillers, too few people are portrayed in decision-making positions and their connections are just a tad too coincidental.  Like the fact that the agent who presses Moritz into service is his own aunt, his sick mother’s sister, played by Maria Schrader (Aimée & Jaguar – 1999).  Adds tension, but stretches credibility.  

    As is common in stories with thriller or detective or political plotlines, many decisions are made quickly and without extensive consultation.  But then reality would only bore you, so exaggerating the number of fruit offerings in stores and limiting the number of roles hardly constitute flaws.  More like candy for film buffs who get off on this kind of thing.  The only “flub,” if you will, that actually bothered me were the speech patterns of Errol Trotman Harewood, who plays the character of General Jackson, the American counterpart to General Edel.  At some points you see him using English and stumbling over the simplest German phrases.  At other places, he’s clearly a fluent speaker of German.  They might have hired a linguist, or maybe even used a bit more common sense, but they evidently calculated that their audience needed a bit more help in identifying a black man in a U.S. Army general’s uniform as an American.  

    Again, not a major drawback, and easily compensated for by gripping action, superb acting and the care with which the soundtrack was selected:  the song “99 Balloons,” popular in the day, and offerings by David Bowie, New Order (“Blue Monday”) and Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”), Fischer G, Grace Jones, and others, including a great scene where Martin learns what a Walkman is, and listens to Duran Duran (“Hungry Like a Wolf”).

    Generals Jackson and Edel are responsible for arranging the stationing of American Pershing II Missiles on West German soil.  It’s this decision which is the event of 1983, and thus the reason for 83 in the title.  It’s a Ronald Reagan move, and it’s done at a time when the Soviets have a particularly paranoid leader in Yuri Andropov.  From a German perspective, making West Germany a target for a deterrent attack by Soviet nuclear weapons makes this moment a high point of the Cold War, a stand-off event similar to the problem Kennedy had with Soviet weapons in Cuba.  

    What’s missing from the story is the fact that the Pershing II missiles were set up in response to Soviet SS-20 theater missiles, and the fear on the part of the West German and American “militarists” had some foundation – the peaceniks were making the Americans the bad guys, not the Soviets.  But seen in retrospect now, even modern-day Americans (other than hardliner Reagan supporters) can feel sympathy for the peaceniks, and ultimately for the East German spy who (without spoiling the plot) rises above his role to become a player in the larger game.  

    It’s not Americans against the Soviets, in the end.  It’s warmongers against diplomats, and an opportunity to plant a foreshadowing of the notion that people in the two Germanys are going to have reason to seek common solutions to cold war standoffs.   The fact that the story was put together by a German and an American supports the notion as well that the lines between East and West may not matter as much as the ones between those invested in maintaining antagonism and those committed to breaking down barriers.

    Deutschland 83 thus provides a rich source of discussion material for those seeking to trace the path through past antagonisms to where we find ourselves now, where kids in Berlin walk back and forth across now imaginary lines and have been known to ask, “Wall?  What wall?”

    It’s also a series that will satisfy countless numbers of binge-watchers for years to come.

    in German, with English subtitles

    photo credit

    ·     * It’s available on Netflix.   Also, according to one Indian website, “following its US success, the series has now been placed by FremantleMedia International with Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia (Italy), Hulu (US), Sundance TV (English-speaking Canada), Super Ecran (French-speaking Canada), RTE (Eire), Stan (Australia & New Zealand), Telenet (Belgium), RTL Klub (Hungary), Hotvision (Israel), TV4 (Pan-regional Scandinavia) and Kino Lorber (US – DVD and iTunes)” - 

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  7. 2734 Ellsworth - before energy saving devices
    I made a trip down to Home Depot the other day to get a switch that would enable me to turn both bed lamps on and off at the same time.  I hate having to run from one side of the bed to the other.  I was on my way to the electrical goods section when I had one of those moments that make you believe in miracles. Walking straight up to me was this Greek god of a young man, smiling from ear to ear. Wow. Must have done something right in my previous life, I think to myself.  This man clearly loves me.

    The homunculus who sits on my left shoulder and whispers temptations into my left ear says, "Use a hotel.  Don't bring him home.  And pay cash.  No need to leave a money trail."  The right shoulder homunculus then chimes in, "Don’t throw away twenty-one years of married life for 48 hours (I am a positive thinker) of ecstasy."

    "It's only been two years.  The rest doesn't count," says the leftie.  "Besides, your husband will never believe you had the energy to go one hour, much less forty-eight.”

    In the space of the few seconds I try clear my head of the cacaphony, the god extends his hand.
    “Can I talk to you for a few minutes about a way for you to save on your energy bill?”

    I try not to burst into tears.  “Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I say, hoping to regain some dignity.

    Justin, we’ll call him, launches into the pitch.  Solar panels.  No cost to me.  The savings will start immediately.  All I need to do is agree to have somebody come out and see if my house is suitable.

    There’s no way I’m going to say no to this guy.

    The very next day his colleague Frank comes to the house.  An ordinary looking guy this time, not a Greek god.  Obviously this company knows how and where to distribute their talents.  Up the stairs he goes, tries to take the third-floor bathroom fan out so he can look at the rafters.  No luck. Takes pictures on his i-Phone of my fuse box.  Then climbs onto the roof, makes some sketches, and drives off promising to be in touch.

    I wait several days.  And the idea of doing something for the environment begins to grow.  As does the idea of saving ten percent a month or more on my electric bill.  Now how do I make signing the final papers with Justin a condition of the contract without being too obvious.

    More days go by.  Still no word.  Then an e-mail.  "Dear Mr. M.," it says, "We are so sorry, but your roof doesn’t have enough space to hold enough solar panels to make the job worth while."

    Well damn.  So much for making the world a better place.

    Next thing I’m on the phone with my friend Jason, trying to get some sympathy for having to live in such a small house.  It’s a nice house.  Three stories.  If it fell over it would be a ranch style.  But it’s true, it’s more like a tower than most houses in the neighborhood.

    2734, with energy saving devices installed
    No problem, says Jason. Jason is Danish. He grew up in Denmark.  That means he never saw the sun more than four or five times between the ages of seven and seventeen.  “Wind,” he says.  “In Denmark we don’t think about solar energy.  It’s overcast most of the year anyway.  What you need is wind energy.”

    I remind him that a) this is not Denmark, b) if I don’t have enough room for solar panels, I have even less room for windmills, and c) California has 300 days of sunshine a year, so what the hell is he talking about?

    Jason isn’t the kind of guy who takes no for an answer.  He goes to work and pretty soon I have a way to get back on the horse of energy conservation.  See the photo to the right.

    Maybe it can work.  I like the added touch of the rainbow streamers.  We are a gay household, after all.


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  8. I blogged the other day about the pope’s visit and about the confusion so many of us have about what exactly he represents.  I admitted I find myself drawn to the man and urged others to take a nuanced view of him as both a leader of a retrograde institution and a kindly soul underneath a whole pile of crap doctrine.  He’s only human.  Big deal.  He has opinions, and once we remind ourselves that adoring crowds have chased after all sorts of men in leadership positions – such is human nature – and that he is still only human, we can get back to our coffee and our newspaper.  Computer screen.  Whatever.

    I feel the urge to modify that view this morning.  According to articles reported in the Guardian, and in the American press, as well, Pope Francis actually met with Kim Davis while he was in the U.S., and his statement on the plane supporting her refusal to carry out her duties as clerk may actually have been made with some guile.  Certainly there is guile in the refusal of official spokespeople to reveal the fact for some time. 

    So much for diplomatic skills and for remaining above the secular fray.  Mr. B has proven that he is a politician from Rome and need not be taken quite so seriously.  By coming down on the side of religion over secular law, he's just blown his credibility as a neutral observer.  If he ever had any.  Come on now, let’s not pretend we’re surprised!

    But let’s not miss the significance of this revelation, either.  My friend Bill Lindsey, the Catholic theologian, has this to say on his blog this morning:
    …if this story is accurate [it has now been confirmed – Alan], then the story is beyond disgusting. Many LGBT people and those who care about us will read this story to mean that, if the pope has "wrapped his protective mantle" around a woman who wants to claim religious grounds for dehumanizing us and trampling on our human rights, he has done precisely the opposite for us as human beings — he hs cast us off as human detritus, and given us a clear signal that the leaders of the Catholic church decisively hate us.  
    Bill has also come to a dramatic conclusion:
    If you're like me, LGBT Catholic folks and people who care about LGBT human beings, now's the time to give up on the Catholic church. I will never listen with respect to another word this pope says.
    I've had it. 
    And he provides evidence in that same blog entry earlier today that he’s in good company.  There appears to be no shortage of other like-minded Catholics for whom this is the last straw.

    I’d love to be able to dance around with “told ya so!  told ya so!” but I can’t.  I didn’t predict this.  I really thought Francis might roll back the anti-Vatican II efforts of his predecessors.  I got that wrong.

    My father didn't want to vote for JFK because, he said, "Catholics take their orders from the pope."

    It wasn't long after that when JFK made the announcement that his first loyalty would be to the U.S. Constitution, not his religious leader or his religious beliefs.  And he kept that promise, as far as I'm able to determine, as have all Catholic leaders with a respect for the law.  Thank you, Jesus, for that familiar admonishment attributed to you that one should "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars..."

    The progress we've made to rid ourselves of racism, sexism and homophobia is not complete. That's no secret. And the Roman Catholic church is known for foot-dragging all along the way. It is conservative to the core, and changes slowly. Read about the Rat Lines from Croatia to South America, as the Church helped Nazis escape after the war. Remember the prayers on Good Friday for the conversion of the Jews. Remember that to this day the church holds out against women having any real power in the organization of the church. And remember that homophobic bullies find solace in the thought that they are in tune with church doctrine. Catholic authorities may cluck over how "they went too far" in beating that poor gay kid to a pulp, but “too far” suggests going some distance is acceptable. Some will even add, "Their heart was in the right place."

    I had a blow-up with somebody recently over their support for the Messianic Jewish preacher Jonathan Cahn.  If you don’t know this guy, check him out.  He digs around for hidden messages in the Scriptures and has found not one but two cows born with the number 7 on their foreheads, all of which lead him to conclude that the end of the world is near and America is going to be destroyed because it gave itself over to homosexuals.  No kidding.  End of the world.  Had no idea we had such power.

    Anyway, I called this guy a jerk and suggested there was something wrong with people’s intelligence if they got suckered by his wacko notions.  Should not have insulted anyone’s intelligence.  It only makes for bad feelings. I got all riled up because I know how such rabble rousing against gay people leads directly to bullying.  After all, what’s wrong with roughing up a fag when you know he is responsible for the end of the world?  Isn’t that the least you can do to fight back?

    There’s an obvious difference between beating up fags and praying for the Jews – the former is directly violent, the latter only indirectly so – but the origins of the animus are similar.

    Until 1959, on Good Friday priests led their congregations in the prayer, Oremus (let us pray) et pro perfidis Judaeis. “Perfidis,” those of us who don't know Latin are reminded, means “faithless.”  We’re not actually using words like “dastardly” or “reprehensible” in referring to the Jews.  Just “faithless.” 

    You can see why Jews got upset and, as with Galileo, the church has since recanted (see - it can be done) and conceded that maybe God does actually listen to the prayers of Jews   But for a time, the church dictated that one should not even kneel during these prayers because, as the Benedictine leader Dom Guéranger, now being considered for canonization, put it:
    The Church has no hesitation in offering up a prayer for the descendants of Jesus' executioners; but in doing so she refrains from genuflecting, because this mark of adoration was turned by the Jews into an insult against our Lord during the Passion.  
    What can I say?  This is how the church feels – Jews are unbelievers and should be prayed for.  Women are lower than men in importance and should be kept in their place. Gays are sinners.  Condoms are bad. Those are our views, says the church.  And as the gun salesman says, “I just sold the guy the gun.  I’m not responsible for what he did with it.”

    Tell that to the Germans, now struggling with 55,000 refugees pouring through Munich Central Station in the past two weeks alone and taxing their services beyond endurance.  There is some serious discussion going on in Germany these days about the wisdom of selling arms throughout the Middle East.

    Words have consequences.  If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have rules against shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.  When the pope says Kim Davis had a right to follow her conscience and disobey the law, he may not be responsible for riling up the bullies – not directly – but like Jonathan Cahn, who blames gays for the end of the world, he’s certainly retarding the progress of the Enlightenment view that all  men and women are worthy of equal rights before the law.

    The current head of the Roman church has disappointed many who interpreted his kindly words about the importance of pastoral care and "Who am I to judge?" to signify change.  But there is another way to look at what just happened.  Remember the story of the scorpion and the frog? The scorpion wants to cross the river and asks the frog to take him on his back.  "But you'll sting me!" the frog protests.  "Now why would I do that?" says the scorpion.  "If I did that, we'd both die."   So the frog takes him and halfway across the river the scorpion stings the frog.  As they sink beneath the waters the frog asks why he would do something so awful. "Because I'm a scorpion," the scorpion says.  "Stinging is what I do."

    photo credit goes to Lexington, KY TV station WKYT, who I assume owns the copyright

    This link will take you to a news video - don't know how long it will stay up - and a report quoting the chief homophobe organization Liberty Council stating, "You don't make an appointment with the pope.  The pope comes to you."  And the pope, they say, promised to send pictures of the meeting, which they will then share with the public.


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  9. NBC News reported just now that Pope Francis has weighed in on the right of government officials to follow their consciences and not obey the law when they believe to do so would run contrary to God’s will.  Let’s call that the shit hitting the fan.

    Between you and me, this is gotcha journalism.  Somebody asked the pope a question and, whether he realized it dealt with the Kim Davis case or not,  he gave what is probably a sincere response.  Given time, I can imagine he might give a sincere response reflecting a different position.  I can imagine him quoting the familiar “Render unto Caesar…” line, for example.  But I predict (and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong) this remark of his is going to cause a stir.  For a few days, at least, until the next media sound bite alarm is set off.

    I also imagine there is going to be some backtracking here.  The pope, or his supporters, some of them, are going to argue he wasn’t actually interfering in American politics; he was merely restating church doctrine, which everybody knew he was going to do all along.  And he has stated repeatedly, remember, that we ought to stop our confrontational ways and stress the kinder gentler message the church wants to preach. But the toothpaste is out of the tube and it’s not going back in.

    What’s going to be missed on the left, as gay rights supporters get their knickers in a knot – love that British expression – is that the pope is absolutely right.  One should be free to follow one’s conscience.  No government should be allowed to make a person go against his or her conscience.  If I believe a law is immoral I have a god-given right (and I don’t need to believe in God to say this) to ignore it.  It’s called civil disobedience.  Let’s not forget, however, that I have to suffer the legal consequences – my ass may end up in jail. I have a moral right to act according to my beliefs, but I don’t have a legal right to be free of the consequences.

    And then there’s another, ultimately more important, issue. Sometimes your conscience has things wrong.

    The whole notion that Kim Davis has a god-given right to act on her conscience assumes that there is a moral reason for disparaging gay people.  And when you want to know where that comes from, the trail takes you back to the church door.  The pope is wrong, and ultimately cruel, when he preaches that there is something morally disordered about gay people.  Both are interpreting a biblical injunction against same-sex relations and elevating the issue in importance over adultery and divorce, to the level of murder and theft.  The pope is equally wrong about insisting we have sex only when we are set on making babies.  This isn’t the only messed-up item on his priority list. 

    Amidst all the adoration of this gentle man, much of it well-deserved, in my opinion, we must not lose sight of the fact that this fellow represents a medieval world view in which homosexuality is a threat to the family because it suggests sex is about something other than making new souls for the Lord.  A world view in which women need to play their role as wives and mothers and not confuse things by trying to be priests and CEOs.  It is possible to be a warm grandpa type you just want to hug and be a representative of an antiquated world view at the same time.  It’s time for a reminder that the values of Western civilization have evolved since the church called all the shots.  We now believe, contrary to church teachings, that all human beings – regardless of sex and gender, race and creed, should have equal rights before the law.  Time to say it loud and say it proud.  We have made great social advances over many of the world views of an anti-democratic old boys network from yesteryear called the Roman Catholic Church.

    Kim Davis is an American citizen who is breaking the law.  There is a church-state conflict going on here, and we need to make sure the state does not back down. Those of us who depend on the American Constitution to protect us from religious bigotry are lost if one or another religious bigot – even a warm wonderful old man bigot from Buenos Aires – is allowed to call the shots.

    All the pope’s remarks on civil disobedience have accomplished is to keep the debate going on whether homosexuality is evil.  If it isn’t, there is no cause for civil disobedience and the question of whether Kim Davis is behaving well is moot.

    The pope is right about some things, wrong about others.  He is right, in my opinion, about climate change, right about our need to get rid of the death penalty, wrong about women and gays.  That’s my opinion.  If yours differs, let’s at least recognize that this is not God who has spoken; it is a man with a perspective and a whole set of human limitations when it comes to understanding right or wrong.

    We’re being obliged to relive the Kim Davis issue.  OK, so we’ll do it once more…

    If Kim Davis refused to do her job and give marriage licenses to Jews because, according to her, they killed Jesus, we would throw her ass in jail and get really mad at her.  If she refused to do her job and give marriage licenses to Roma people because she was convinced “gypsies are thieves,” we would throw her ass in jail and get really mad at her.  If she refused to do her job and give marriage licenses to African-Americans because she thought they did not make stable families, we would throw her ass in jail and get really mad at her.

    She is not acting on those particular prejudices held by an uncomfortably large number of Americans.  She is refusing to do her job and give marriage licenses to lesbians and gay people because she thinks they are sinners and helping sinners is wrong.  She is misguided and she is breaking the law.  We should throw her ass in jail and get really mad at her.

    We shouldn't stay mad, of course.  But we shouldn't let her off the hook, either.

    The pope is back in Rome.  I understand he had a wonderful time and finds Americans especially friendly.

    I’m a fan, Jorge Bergoglio.  Would love to have you as my grandfather.  (OK, so you're only three years older than me.  But you would do the job so well!)

    So glad you had a great time in my country.

    Hope you’ll change your mind some day about gay people.  (And women, while you’re at it.)

    Wish you well, in either case.

    photo credit


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  10. Arthur Applebee
    I just got some very sad news.  Arthur Applebee, my dissertation advisor at Stanford, died yesterday of heart failure.  Apparently he had been ill for about a year, and this came as no surprise to those close to him.  But we had not been in touch, and the surprise hit me hard.

    Arthur Applebee and his wife, Judith Langer, were a couple known to be especially close.  To know one of them was to know the other.  They were not only a married couple; they were colleagues who worked together in the area of literacy and reading and writing and assessment, and education generally.  They were – and I have no doubt Judith still is – exceptionally good teacher/researchers.

    I owe Arthur more than I can say.  (And since they worked so closely, much of this applies to Judith, as well).  I met them at a party once, some time after my advisor, Robert Politzer, became ill and his many advisees found themselves out to sea.  If you know anything about doctoral programs, you know that in this medieval hierarchical world, a dissertation advisor is pretty close to a god.  Over the years, I’ve heard many people make the statement, “Without …, I never would have made it through.”  I echo that statement absolutely.

    When he learned that I was one of the Politzer orphans, he suggested I stop by his office right away and fill him in on my dissertation plans.  I had actually settled with an anthropologist as a replacement – a very good one – but it soon became obvious that what I wanted and needed was an educator.  My whole focus was on education first, anthropology and the social sciences second, and I was not in a satisfactory place. 

    In very short order, despite Arthur’s initial unfamiliarity with what I was after – the uses Japanese foreign students were putting their American degrees to, he found his way in in no time.  I was persuaded in that first hour talking with him that I had struck gold.  He was encouraging from the first moment on.

    Besides having a daunting list of academic accomplishments, including twenty-five books, he was a master at academic advising.  He knew how to get me disciplined, how to prioritize the tasks I was faced with, what would fly and what wouldn’t.  He had an especially keen sense of the practical and the useful and at the same time loved to get carried away by new ideas.  He had a philosophical bent and I never had a conversation with him that wasn’t stimulating. 

    The best part of the story, for me, was that his intellect was matched by the calm decency he displayed toward everybody around him.  He knew how to push, but he also knew how to respect your limits.  He made me work, and I never went to a session with him unprepared.  Somehow he created an aura where that just didn’t seem worthy.

    When Judith applied for tenure at Stanford and failed to get confirmed, they decided together to take an offer in Albany, where they could work and build a program as a team.  All of us who knew them knew instantly that was the right decision for them.  Whether they continued to believe that, I can’t be sure.  I went off to Japan, to another world, another life, and left the world of graduate school behind.  Since I was not in their immediate academic areas of writing or assessment, where I might have run into them again over the years at conferences, we never met again. 

    His name came up from time to time and occasionally I would run into others who knew him.  I never met anyone who worked with him who didn’t have high praise for his work and for his character.  He was a very fine man.

    He got me through the PhD.  He urged me (how could I have hesitated?) to take the job which became the center of my life for eighteen years before I retired.  As I sit here, nearly ten years after retiring, I marvel at the good fortune I had to run into Arthur Applebee at just the right time.  Without him, the good life I have today simply would not exist.  It’s easy, of course, to say I might have found another route to this place, but I honestly don’t see how I could have fared even half as well with what other resources were available to me at the time.  My only regret is that I did not tell him this while he was still alive.

    I have cut and pasted the photo above from a LinkedIn website.  If there is a problem with copyright, I will of course search for another.  I hope not.  This smile captures the man so beautifully.


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