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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    photo credits


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    photo credit: from Netflix page: http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/Dancing-Across-Borders/70119678?trkid=201886046 credited elsewhere to dancingacrossborders.net

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.
    source: https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_stgb/englisch_stgb.html 

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

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

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

    This is a story worth following, I think.

    photo credit


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

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

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

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

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

    Glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Oh hell, why not?

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

    photo credit
    banzai guy


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  5. After posting that blog entry on Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Hamlet the other day, I began YouTubing other versions available.  I am now focusing on the question of what it means to have so much information at your fingertips.  When the world moved at a slower pace, you had more time for things to sink in.  You were also left more to your own devices.  You watched a performance of Shakespeare, took the time, if you wished, to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary, and went for depth, and paid less attention to superficialities.  Before television and way before the age of the internet you were lucky to see Shakespeare performed at all.  You could spend years thinking and talking about a single theatrical event.  Today we live in a world of luxury.  We can do so much more than read and study and try to understand.  We can wallow.

    There is a fascinating video clip online of a conversation between Peter O’Toole and Orson Welles.  Also present, but much overshadowed by these two giant egos, is the San Francisco born actor who pioneered Shakespeare for BBC Television, Ernest Milton. The discussion is moderated by Huw Weldon. Peter O’Toole is playing Hamlet at the time of the interview and demonstrates how much work he has put into getting into the character.  Welles adds much to the discussion, explaining for example, that Hamlet is driven to kill not as an individual but out of a divine requirement to put right the act of regicide that has taken place before him.  That raises the question of whether he really is a troubled youth contemplating suicide – which is how I connected with him in my twenties when I myself was suicidal – and have stayed connected ever since – or whether he was a prince of great strength acting out a destiny assigned to him.  The discussion brings home how much pleasure can be derived from taking a course in Shakespeare and digging for motivation, background and perspective.  And how brilliant people can alternate between half-baked ideas and brilliant observations and make you want to listen to them no matter what level they're on at any given moment.

    I’m still riding high from that marvelous night out with Benedict Cumberbatch, and this discussion with three greats of the English theater, two of them American (Welles was born in Wisconsin), offered just the kind of wallowing I was in the mood for, just the kind of discussion to prime you for a serious engagement with a work of the stature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an intellectual journey which, experience suggests, if undertaken sincerely, can turn just another night out at the theater into an event which stays with you for years, and maybe forever.

    Once you dwell on them for a while, the two suicide soliloquies, “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt” and “To be or not to be” are no longer disembodied lofty language pieces you take and apply to your own life (as I did as a kid filled with self-doubts) the way fundamentalists quote lines of scripture out of context.  As you grow and learn you are not the center of the universe as you thought you were at twenty that there is much to learn from the lives of others, even from someone who lived four hundred years ago. 

    I know people speak of relating personally to characters on stage, and it was through Hamlet in moments of personal desperation and through Romeo, when my teenage heart was broken for the first time, that I first saw something irresistible in Shakespeare.  I saw them as telling my story and that made them some version of me.  That's what I looked for in the lives of others, people who could speak in my voice while I wasn't yet confident I really had one.  The time came, though, when I stopped looking for myself in others and came to appreciate the fact they had their own stories to tell, different from my own.  They had ways of coping with success and failure.  And I found comfort in the sheer number of ways there are to meet life's challenges.

    That meant looking less for ways in which "we all are the same deep down," more for ways of understanding the full scope of the human condition in all its fascinating variability.  That could only be done if what is presented on stage (or in books) is true.  The more one is stretched to understand difference, the more important it becomes to know you are observing honest and sincerity.  And, in theater, that means cutting out the bombast and the pretention and getting at what's genuine.  To run through a great work of art such as Hamlet and see how many ways his expression has been interpreted is to see how hard that is.  How often the lines are delivered, even by the greats, as overly weighted, ponderous, even bombastic.  Shakespeare is put on a pedestal, and the words, particularly the soliloquies, are often treated as messages from heaven, rather than as devices for providing the best opportunity to see into a man’s soul.  Shakespeare, it seems pretty obvious to me, chose the soliloquy precisely because it is in speaking (loqui) to oneself (solo) that one is most likely to speak the truth.  Not to do so is to be a fool.

    Listening to Hamlet’s thoughts of suicide these past few days I came to realize for the first time that he was not simply expressing self-loathing and cowardice (oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I...makes cowards of us all) as we would understand it today, but he was dealing with medieval notions of the power of Satan.  Was his father's ghost really his father?  Or was it Satan taking that form in order to drag him down to hell?  Hamlet was of the world of Christian ideology, where spirits "roamed the earth seeking the ruination of souls."  His agony was thus inflicted by the culture he lived in and his hesitation in killing his murdering uncle (something he had to do for justice - who was he going to go to, the police?) was church-imposed.  To read Hamlet becomes yet another reason to rid the world of Christianity.  Right?  No?

    Whatever conclusions you reach, Hamlet's circumstances are not yours.  He is a prince.  His loneliness and his burden can be yours, but he is not you.  He is artifice. You have the great master of the English language putting words into his mouth that can be distracting in their loftiness. But for me, the engagement with Shakespeare (or any other playwright) begins there – in the connection you are able to make with the hero at the same time as you wallow in language too rich and suggestive to be real.  It is being lifted up and out of the ordinary that a better understanding of the human condition can begin to take place.  Because the language is so unreflective of real life, you have to determine for yourself what is real and what is artifice about the man uttering them.  This is what draws you up onto the stage and out of your own experience.

    There should be times for objectivity and careful analysis, I think. And there should also be times for simply wallowing in the wealth of human experience.  With Shakespeare, everything begins with language.  How can you not wallow in such glorious language?  Put “I wish I were dead” up against “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew.”  Put “Why did God make suicide a sin?” up against, “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”  How are you supposed to avoid making the language itself your focus, and not the events unfolding and the character revealing himself.

    The answer, it seems to me is precisely to read or to listen to the words again and again over time, to see how many ways people have found to deliver them and to judge with each new turn the sincerity of each delivery.  You have to accept that most performances, in the end, will come to be unsatisfactory as you become more discerning (or perhaps just bored).  But fortunately, in the case of Hamlet, for example, there are enough brilliant performances – and I’m embracing the internet age where Olivier, Gielgud, and other greats are now instantly accessible ­– to keep you going for days. I'm still not done wallowing, actually.

    Because Hamlet has been taken in by the world and has been translated to an astonishing degree, right down to Esperanto and Klingon, the internet offers you enough rope to hang yourself with.  It is possible to lose whatever critical skills you might have started with.  But that’s up to you, I should think.  You can just as easily use the repetition to sharpen those critical skills as you add more and more to look for in the next performance.  You might want to take Laurence Olivier’s version as the performance to beat, and handicap each succeeding actor’s performance accordingly.  For me, it’s not Olivier or Gielgud, or Orson Wells’s favorite, John Barrymore, but David Tennant whom I most enjoy watching twist and turn over "the law's delay...the proud man's contumely..."  And sorry that the Barrymore link it to such a silly recitation.  To get a better sense of him, check out this link to him doing the “Rogue and Peasant Slave” soliloquy.

    If you want to really get into the game, listen as well to Hamlet in translation, even if you don’t understand the language.  Listen for inflection and sincerity.  You may be struck more by its absence, but no matter.  It can be a way of enhancing your appreciation for a job well done once you get back to a great performance. Take these two versions, for example, one in Danish, one in Japanese.  My Danish is virtually non-existent, so I cannot judge the quality of Danish version, where the Iranian born actor Alexander Behrang Keshtkar expresses the tension of his emotions through tears.  I sense it has some merit, though, but I may be unduly swayed by this photo.  If you think this guy is just a run of the mill wuss – you might want to join his fan club. (And then take a moment to reflect on what immigrants can do for a country.)  Then contrast that performance with this dreadful Japanese version I came across, which made me want to find a stick and beat the actor off the stage.  He’s stuck in a Japanese kind of method acting where men growl their lines and you’re left to conclude that Hamlet actually works for the yakuza.

    And, to jump back to some of the English-language greats, here are versions by Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, and Richard Burton (directed by Gielgud, yet!).

    You can’t miss the evidence of the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The phrase “to be or not to be” is now sufficiently widespread that it makes a pretty good illustration of language families.  I list a few here, with links to performances in those languages, where I have been able to find them:

    West Germanic:
    German - sein oder nicht sein - (Kenneth Branagh dubbed in German)
    Dutch - zijn of niet zijn -
    Luxembourgisch - sinn oder net sinn
    Yiddish – צו זייו אדער ביט צו זייו (tsu zeyn oder nit tsu zeyn)
    English – to be or not to be
    Frisian - bestean of net bestean
    Afrikaans - om te wees of nie te wees nie

    North Germanic:
    Swedish - att vara eller inte vara
    Icelandic - að vera eða ekki vera

    Romance languages
    Latin - esse aut non esse
    Spanish - ser o no ser - (Mel Gibson dubbed in Spanish)
    Catalán - ser o no ser
    Galician - ser ou non ser
    Portuguese - ser ou não ser -  (by Brazilian actor Daniel de Oliveira)
    Italian - essere o non essere - (Kenneth Branagh dubbed in Italian)
    Corsican - a essiri o nun essiri
    Romanian - a fi sau a nu fi

    Slavic languages
    Russian – быть или не быть (bit’ ili ni bit’) – (Mel Gibson with consecutive translation)
    or быть или не быть - (Russian version with Innokentij Smoktunovskij) 
    Polish –  być albo niebyć 
    Bulgarian – да бъдеш или да не бъдеш (da badesh ili da ne badesh) - (Bulgarian version with Bogdan Dukov)
    Ukrainian – бути чи не бути (buti chi ne buti) 
    Serbian – бити или не бити (biti ili ni biti)
    Croatian – biti ili ne biti
    Slovenian – biti ali ne biti
    Bosnian - biti ili ne biti
    Belarusian – быць ці не быць (bits’ tsi ne bits’)
    Czech – být nebo nebýt –  (Kenneth Branagh dubbed in Czech – monologue begins at 6:19)
    Slovak – byť či nebyť

    Scots Gaelic - a bhith no gun a bhith
    Irish - a bheith nó gan a bheith
    Welsh - i fod, neu beidio â bod

    Other languages

    Japanese - 生きるべきか死ぬべきか (should live or should die) – that wretched performance cited above

    And when you’re tired of reality, there is always:

    Klingon – taH pagh taHbe’ (to continue or not to continue) 

    Or, here, for English subtitles translated back from the original Klingon.

    and Esperanto -  Ĉu estiaŭ ne esti – spoken with a lovely Portuguese accent 

    And then you’ve got to see what Mel Brooks made of the soliloquy – (not a translated version; more of a hit-and-run version.

    Then take a few years off and start all over again.

    photo credit


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  6. Benedict Cumberbatch
    I went to see a filmed version of a live performance at the Barbican Centre of Hamlet the other night, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Prince of Denmark.  I’m using the British –re spellings here as a way of doffing my hat to the Brits and their dedication to theatre and to drama.  What a glorious tradition it is: Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Sean Connery,  Sir John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Peter Sellers, Tom Wilkinson, and the entire cast of Downton Abbey, to tick off a few of my favorites (consciously mentioning Maggie Smith twice).

    Now comes the question of whether to put Benedict Cumberbatch with the greats or with the merely superb.

    A performance of Hamlet is not just any night out at the theater.   It’s never just the story of a troubled soul; it’s always inevitably a celebration of the richness of the English language.  The crème de la crème of the work of the Bard.  So to undertake the challenge of yet another interpretation of Hamlet and the inevitable comparisons with John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier shows real courage, I should think.  In my view Cumberbatch did himself proud.

    And it’s not just the leading actor who picks up the gauntlet.  The entire cast is first-rate. Hamlet (or Gamlet, as it’s pronounced in Russian) has been translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak and performed to the music of Shostakovich.  In Germany, “unser Shakespeare (our Shakespeare),” the translations by Schlegel and Tieck, have been taken by some to be among the best examples of German literature.  At the head of the list for most people is Hamlet.  In the English-speaking world we even produced a Disney spin-off in The Lion King.  It has been translated into 75 languages, including Klingon.  It remains one of the most frequently performed plays ever.

    But just because we have lionized it (pardon me – I couldn’t resist), it doesn’t mean it’s instantly accessible.  Shakespeare introduced a couple thousand words into the English language and many of his choices are obscure indeed.  (How many people can tell you what the “proud man’s contumely” is, actually?)

    I came across the German Shakespeare back in the 60s, while studying in Germany, and recognized the obvious fact that 19th Century German was a lot more accessible than 17th Century English and used the German translation as a key to understanding the original Elizabethan text.  To this day, I cannot hear “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!" without the automatic translator clicking on in my head and producing “O schmölze doch dies allzu feste Fleisch, Zerging und löst’ in einen Tau sich auf!”

    I wasn’t ready for the opening.  The curtain goes up, and there sits Prince Hamlet.  With his record player playing Nat King Cole singing Nature Boy – “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…”  Took me a moment to get into it.  But only a moment.  I knew this was going to be good.  Cumberbatch was not the only one up for a challenge.  So too, apparently, was Sonia Friedman Productions.

    It was well into the first act, after both the “Too too solid flesh” and the “To be or not to be” soliloquies before I was fully into the play itself and not distracted by the fact that this was Sherlock Holmes at the table under the biggest chandelier I’ve ever seen on stage. 

    I had taken a long time to warm to Cumberbatch.  The upstart (Sherlock really belongs to Basil Rathbone) was doing it again.  Hard to get my head around just who this tall, sprightly, energetic and eccentric yet attractive actor was all about. I was about to watch the man I think of as Sherlock Holmes strut his stuff on the English stage.  Cumerbund Bandersnatch, I called him there for a while before he became a household name.  I note that others have struggled with his name, as well.  Cumberbatch has a good sense of humor about it.  “Sounds like a fart in a bathtub” he admits.  What’s the worst you’ve had your name twisted, one talk show host asked him.   “Bendy dick come on my back.”

    He has a huge following.  His fans call themselves “Benedict Cumberbitches.”

    OK, enough of that.  The question in my mind was is this young man I am getting to know as a popular film and television actor up to the job?  I liked him as Sherlock, eventually.  Really like him as Turing.   Star Trek, Hobbit, the voice of Severus Snape in the Simpson’s takeoff on Harry Potter.  What would he do with this role?  And what was to come, I wondered, from the coming together of all these seeming incongruities?   I don’t remember ever having waited for the curtain to rise with more anticipation.

    I’ll cut to the chase.  He had me with “too too solid flesh.”  And he tied it up with “to be or not to be.”  By the time he was calling his mother a whore, I was a convert.  This guy, I said to myself, is going on the shelf with Laurence Olivier.

    Many disagree, I noted the next day when I began reading reviews.  Michael Billington of The Guardian, for example, called it a “ragbag of a production by Lyndsay Turner…full of half-baked ideas.”  Paul Taylor of The Independent compares him unfavorably to Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale.  Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph called it a “middling three-star show,” although he gave Cumberbatch’s performance five stars. 

    Fortunately, not everybody agrees with these sourpusses.  Cumberbatch was nominated for an Olivier Award for this performance at the Barbican Center.   So was Es Devlin for the set design.  Awards will be given  the first week of April at the Royal Opera House, so stay tuned on that front.   Cumberbatch won the What’sOnStage award for best actor for this performance and the previous year he was included in The Sunday Times in the "100 Makers of the 21st Century," and cited as this generation's Laurence Olivier (Seriously  Somebody was bound to make that claim.)

    Ciarán Hinds, who played Claudius, was also nominated for best-supporting actor, by the way, but did not win.

    What’s the matter with people?  What was for me the glory of the performance, the magnificent expansive staging, Henry Hitchins of The Evening Standard found to have “overwhelm(ed) the play’s psychological studies…”

    Balderdash.  Poppycock.  Bunkum.  Tommyrot.

    This performance, we’re told, was the “fastest selling show in London theater history.”  Obviously somebody liked it! 

    For those who don’t know it, or need a refresher, here’s the plot.

    William Gorman Wills'
    Laertes and his sister Ophelia
    Claudius is the King in Denmark.  He got this job by murdering his brother, King Hamlet, the rightful king of Denmark.  Gertrude, King Hamlet’s wife then marries Claudius less than two months after the death of her husband, thereby enraging her son, Prince Hamlet, who is nearly driven mad when his father’s ghost appears to him and tells him of the dastardly deed.  He goes off half-cocked, pretending to be mad and driving his girlfriend, Ophelia, into actual madness.  Ophelia eventually drowns herself.  Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, had warned Ophelia early on to be careful about this guy Hamlet before going off to France. Ophelia and Laertes’ father, big bag of wind Polonius, is King Claudius’s advisor.  After stumbling about trying to drum up the courage to off the king to avenge his father’s death, Prince Hamlet finally finds that courage when confronting his mother over being so quick to hop into the sheets with her husband’s killer. Thinking it’s Claudius hiding behind the drapes in his mother’s room, he runs his sword through the drapes without bothering to check, only to find he has killed Polonius, instead.  Laertes then gets a mob together to avenge his father’s and his sister’s deaths, blaming Claudius, for some reason, and returns to Denmark from France.  Claudius persuades Laertes it was Prince Hamlet, not he, who was responsible for the two deaths in the family (and he’s right, please note), and arranges a sword fight in which Laertes is given a sword with a poisoned tip.  In case this doesn’t work, Claudius has a back-up plan.  He drops some poison into a cup of wine which he plans to hand Hamlet when he stops for a drink.  The plan works.  The poison sword does Hamlet in.  Problem is, before Hamlet dies the swords get switched and Laertes gets a cut from his own poisoned sword and dies as well.  Meanwhile, not knowing the chalice contains poisoned wine, Gertrude picks it up and drinks it.  She then drops dead.  Before Laertes’ last gasp, he manages to tell Hamlet it was Claudius who plotted all this, finally giving Hamlet enough stuff to overcome all his reservations about killing the king. 

    “Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies,” runs the final stage direction.  Couldn’t ask for a more perfect operatic ending.

    Taku, my Japanese husband, and I sat separately, fortunately, so I wasn’t affected by his reservations about the performance.  He’s the guy, some of you may remember, who when I first took him to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman some years ago (could that possibly be nineteen years ago already?) had no sympathy whatsoever for the plight of the sailor cursed to roam the earth.  Taku focused instead on Senta, the woman destined to save the Dutchman from the curse.  Words like “patriarchy” and “erotophobic” flew through the air.  Taku was a women’s studies major.  Wasn’t about to waste time with crap like suspension of disbelief. 

    More recently, we went through this again when I tried to get tickets for the New York Met’s simulcast broadcast of Madame Butterfly.   I tear up at every performance, even though I’ve must have seen it over a dozen times by now.  For Taku, though, Butterfly is all about the imperialist American who comes in and commits statutory rape on a vulnerable Japanese teenager.  He just won’t watch.  Un bel di  – one fine day (my prince will return) – you say?  Give me a break!

    With this performance of Hamlet, all he saw was Sherlock Holmes ranting and carrying on hysterically, messing up royally (pun intended), and dying in the end.  Sure, you can sense there is something more going on with the language here, but when you understand only 10% (his assessment, not mine) of it, it’s hard to get carried away.  He’s come a long way, though, and admitted, not even grudgingly, that this was a pretty impressive performance by Sherlock Holmes.

    Because Hamlet’s glory consists in large part of his 1500 lines, including five stunning soliloquies, one might be tempted to overlook or downplay the other characters.  But Cumberbatch’s performance is by no means the only one worth mentioning.  And here again, the performance is worth noting on several levels at once.  The actors are superb.  And I’ve already mentioned the staging.  And so is the political statement made, admit it or not, by the fact that the National Theatre greats have gone considerably beyond a whites-only Britain.  Laertes is a black man playing off a white Polonius as his father as well as a white sister.  There is no attempt to make physical appearance match audience expectations, as when you make up Bill Murray to look like FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson or Daniel Day-Lewis to look like Lincoln, say.   Somebody has clearly decided removing the barriers for non-whites in theatre was a higher priority than what we now sometimes refer to as “optics.”   

    And then once we stop worrying about the racial anachronism, we’re free to cast Leo Bill as Horatio.  Bill is covered with tattoos, including the name Cazale on his right forearm.  Cazale the American actor (Deerhunter, Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon) and partner of Meryl Streep who died at 42, was a hero to Bill.  Nullo Problemo.  He’s got the acting chops; he got the job.

    And on it goes.  Claudius is played by Irish-catholic Ciarán Hinds from Belfast who worked for years in Glasgow.  Voltemand, the ambassador to Norway (no trivial job – Denmark, remember, is at war with Norway) is played by Scottish actress Morag Siller, a woman playing a real woman.  The politics and prejudices of yesteryear have clearly been cast aside.  The effect this brave new world has on an audience is quite satisfying.  What might be “incongruities” are assumed to be trivial, and possibly a means of connecting the turmoil on the stage with the reality of life outside the theater.  The play's the thing, evidently.

    Sarah Bernhard's "Alas, poor Yorick"
    As I watched, my head filled with questions and with details I had overlooked before.  Like the fact that Hamlet’s father’s name was also Hamlet – King Hamlet, as opposed to Prince Hamlet.  And that the tragedy of Ophelia’s madness was compounded by the fact that the priest (he’s a catholic priest in the First Folio of Hamlet and a “doct,” or Doctor of Divinity, a Protestant, in the Second Folio, for some reason) refuses to give Ophelia a full Christian burial.  Because she committed suicide.  And my interest continued well into the next day when I got online to learn such things as that they’re making 100 seats available for every performance at £10.  And that along with the many great performances by the likes of Steven Dillane, Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance, Roy  Kinnear, Sam West, Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings, and the Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara, Hamlet has quite often been performed by women, most recently Maxine Peake, but by no less than Sarah Bernhardt and Frances de la Tour, as well.  

    In one interview with Bandersnatch he mentions that in preparing for the role he toyed with the notion that it’s possible Gertrude’s relationship with King Hamlet was not all that satisfying for her, that it may have been an arranged marriage, or that after the shock of his death she simply found a way to move on, like Jackie Kennedy did when marrying Onassis, and squeezing out whatever of life’s possibilities may remain.  That the son’s rage at his mother misses this and is simply an indication of their alienation from each other.  That question gets resolved, actually, in the confrontation later on between Hamlet and his mother when she reveals how unsatisfying her present marriage is compared with her former marriage.  But the thought was allowed to fester, at least for a time, and gives us a look at how an actor readies himself for the task of loathing his mother and understanding her all the while.

    There are so many theatrical contrivances – staging a play within the play “to catch the conscience of the king."  And Hamlet's being exiled to England but then being captured by (no kidding) pirates, which good luck enables him to return to Denmark and complete his life mission to kill his uncle.

    I recognized Ciarán Hinds, the Irish actor playing Claudius.  No surprise, since he has 60 films to his credit as well as roles in 36 television productions.  I checked when I got home, and realized it was probably his role as Aberforth Dumbledore in Harry Potter that rang the bell.

    So much going on behind the scenes.  Have a look, for example at an interview with the Ghanaian born actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who plays Laertes.   A list of Cumberbatch's accomplishments is available here.

    A brief aside: I am reminded of the time I went with a Greek student of mine to see the Franco Zeffirelli film version of Romeo and Juliet.  He raved and raved.  Years later I ran into him and he mentioned it was that film that led him to believe Shakespeare was a genius and worth the effort of reading.  And that led me to the filmed versions of Hamlet.  Not just the black and white Laurence Olivier number, but also more recent versions by Zeffirelli (1990) and Kenneth Branagh (1996),  and the reworked Michael Almereyda version (2000), starring Ethan Hawke. And, more recently, the Kenneth Branagh version of Winter's Tale with Judi Dench.

    As the play goes on, over and over again you are hit with familiar lines and phrases.  Just how many there are is astonishing, in fact. 

    • Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…
    • what a rogue and peasant slave am I…
    • …when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…
    • the mind’s eye
    • the primrose path
    • murder most foul
    • brevity is the soul of wit
    • what a piece of work is man
    • methinks the lady doth protest too much
    • There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.
    • Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

    As the wit sitting behind me commented to his wife during intermission, “This whole thing is just one cliché after another!”

    If you live in the East Bay, it’s showing at the Rialto Cinemas – there’s one in Elmwood and one in El Cerrito.  There will be additional presentations on Thursday, April 21 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and on Tuesday, April 26, also at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.  Pick a theatre with comfortable seats:  Running time is 3 hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute interval.


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  7. Debra Saunders, the lone Republican voice in The San Francisco Chronicle, an otherwise superlefty newspaper, has a column out this morning titled, “My New Best Friend Ted Cruz.”  She joins the anybody-but-Trump wing of the Republican Party in arguing that Trump is so dangerous Republicans have no choice but to get behind the most viable alternative.

    But consider what Saunders – and presumably other Republicans speaking in the same voice – are saying.  That Ted Cruz should be president.

    Should he?  Really?

    Brush right past the arguments for now that Republicans have used in the past against Cruz – that he climbs over the bodies of his fellow Republicans to get ahead, using brazen lies in the process.  What about the policies he advocates:

    1. His anti-woman stance is extreme.  He would have women impregnated by rapists forced to carry their pregnancies to term.  They would have no say in this government control over their bodies.
    2. His anti-LGBT stance is similar.  He actively works to remove the right of gays and lesbians to marry, comes down consistently against civil rights for gay people  and would even remove their right to serve in the military despite research showing the removal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell has had no negative effect whatsoever on performance.
    3. He is opposed to showing compassion for children brought into this country by parents who entered illegally, who have grown up in America and never known another home.  He would have these people forcibly deported.
    4. His solution to the problems in the Middle East is to “bomb them back into the Stone Age.” 
    5. He is big oil’s golden boy.  The industry has been his biggest corporate financial supporter and he opposes any environmental laws that would limit the expansion of the petroleum industry. He denies climate change, making Americans the laughing stock of the world. 

    It’s wrong to characterize these as typical conservative policy positions and brush away objections as the ranting of angry liberals.  To support Cruz is to help put hostility to gays, immigrants and women into action and to help lead the country into a stunningly foolish and destructive foreign policy.

    Politics, we keep saying, is about the art of compromise.  One should never expect to find candidates with whom one can agree on everything.  But that’s not what this is about.  This is about throwing your weight behind a politician with thoroughly repugnant views.

    It’s not true that Cruz is the only alternative.  Americans are under no obligation to vote for the party they register with.  One is never obligated to vote blindly.  If the Republican Party failed in its responsibility to put forward somebody a voter might reasonably support, voters do not have to follow them off the cliff.  They can vote democratic this time and work harder to fix the party before the next presidential election.


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  8. There is a new English-language film just out by German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger titled Colonia.  It actually had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, but it opened at the Berlin International Film Festival just over a week ago, and was finally released for wider distribution in Germany on February 18th.  It is up for limited release in the United States on April 15 and will also be available through video on demand. 

    Since I have not seen it yet, I will leave it to others to do a proper review.  For my part, I want to comment on a question of ethics in filmmaking the film raises.  How does one bring a broad audience into a movie theater to see a movie about a piece of history most people would prefer to sweep under the rug?

    I like to claim I grew up with Harry Potter,  even though I was in my fifties when the series came out, because I watched my neighbor and friend David in Japan teach both his kids English by reading them each of the seven books in the series, one each year. If you saw the eight films made over a ten-year period from the series (the seventh was in two parts), you know who Emma Watson is.  She’s not quite as famous as Harry himself, but the fact that she has gone on, as Daniel Radcliff has, to become a successful actor should bring a smile to the lips of countless numbers of fans who watched her grow up.

    So imagine my disappointment when I came across a review of Colonia, the other day – it’s Emma Watson’s first leading role – and found the critic telling me it’s a real loser.  Poor Emma, I thought.  I want better for her.  I want her to succeed.

    Then, it turns out, Emma is starring with German actor Daniel Brühl, whom many will remember from that very touching film, Goodbye Lenin, some years ago.  So wait a minute, I say to myself, how could these two lovely young people have found their way into a film that is going to crash and burn?  And there’s more.  Also in the film, playing the role of the sinister Paul Schäfer, is Mikael Nyqvist, who starred in the films of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    My sense that there must be more here than meets the eye was enough to get me digging into the background story of Colonia, tracking down information on a German cult run by an evangelical pederast named Paul Schäfer who, when it was discovered what he was up to, moved his whole cult to a remote location in Chile and began working hand in glove with Augusto Pinochet.  Not only providing a place for ex-Nazis to hide in Chile, but getting the German government to return the favor and providing a place for Pinochet thugs to hide in Germany.  For a while my interest in the film took a back seat to lots of internet speculation I have yet to verify.  But I was so taken by the story – and the fact I had never heard it before – that I began to hope that negative reviewer is wrong, and the film captures considerable attention. 

    To be fair, the story did make headlines, apparently, when Schäfer was arrested in the late 80s and the child abuse story came to light.  But it obviously ran its course and, like all scandals, burned itself out.  It might have remained just another historical footnote, if Gallenberger had not decided it should be otherwise.

    Actually, I began with a German television interview with a woman named Gudrun Müller 
    who was brought to a place known as Colonia Dignidad by her parents as a child, where a man named Paul Schäfer had established a cult, after being exposed as a pedophile in Germany.  Digging further, I uncovered Deutsche Seelen:Leben nach der Colonia Dignidad (German Souls: Life after Colonia Dignidad).  It is available (without subtitles) here.  The story now began to unfold as a psychological drama about how people are taken in by charismatic leaders – in this case religious ones – and learn not to ask troublesome questions.  Quite unlike the Colonia film version, which is all about two young lovers making a daring escape from hell.

    Doubly interesting, to me, is the way the story raises the question – but doesn’t answer it – of how it is that Germans could wake up in 1945 from the nightmare of having followed their Führer Adolph Hitler into unspeakable misery and destruction, and then turn around, a mere half generation later, and attach themselves to another Führer.

    Paul Schäfer was a lay preacher with the kind of charisma, we are told, that led vulnerable people, like the San Francisco folk who followed Jim Jones to their death at Jonestown in Guyana, to sell all their worldly goods and move halfway around the world to live by the sweat of their brow, farming and praying and suppressing their earthly desires for sex and comfort for the sake of their souls.  After the war, Schäfer was employed by the local YMCA in his hometown of Troisdorf, just outside of Bonn, to work with children.   Within a short time he was discreetly dismissed to avoid scandal when it was revealed he had been sexually abusing some of the children in his care.  

    Not long afterwards, in 1954, he became a lay preacher and formed a mission organization with another Baptist preacher which they called Private Sociale Mission e.V. and which preached an end-times message of fear.  It was the Cold War era.  This was Germany, and the memories of the Russian occupation were still fresh and it didn’t take a whole lot of fear-mongering to persuade the naïve in the population that the Russians were about to roll over them once more.  An ascetic life of good honest farm labor in the mountains of Chile far away from it all obviously held some appeal.   

    When a warrant went out for Schäfer’s arrest in 1961 for abusing young boys, his followers enabled him to resettle some 240 miles south of Santiago, in Chile, which they named Colonia Dignidad.  The children who were to testify against him in Germany were secreted out in a single night, all 150 of them.  For reasons I have yet to discover, no one, apparently, found this move suspect or worth pursuing.  As one witness put it, “This was the Adenauer Era.  We didn’t talk about things like sex.”  And apparently the mindset which ran the Third Reich, the belief one was simply not entitled to know certain things, was still working in this instance.

    Once in Chile, Schäfer separated the men and the women and the children all into separate housing and preached a message of sexual abstinence, all the while not only engaging in sex with children, but beating and torturing them as well.  This was made possible because Schäfer had organized his most ardent followers into a band of unquestioning loyalists, (who were called “Sprinters” for some curious reason).  Obviously religious faith in a man who speaks for God can cover a multitude of sins.

    In Chile, the residents of Colonia Dignidad lived behind barbed wire, guarded by spring guns.  Tunnels were dug under the dormitories where conversations could be monitored and outliers punished.  Everyone lived in fear of being denounced, resistance was met with electric shocks and beatings, and nobody went in or out.  Almost nobody, that is.  Soon after Pinochet came to power, aided by the CIA overthrow of President Allende in 1973, he began to use the facilities to torture, a fact corroborated by an Amnesty International report, and to train his own men in torture.  Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal claims that Josef Mengele was there for a time, before he made his way to Brazil.  

    Since interns were not paid, Schäfer was able to turn the agricultural compound into a financial success.  Meanwhile, Western leaders, most notably Margaret Thatcher and Bavaria’s President Franz-Josef Strauss, openly supported Pinochet.  The CIA under the Nixon Administration put him in power.  Strauss visited Colonia Dignidad on his visit to Chile to receive an honorary doctorate, and the German Embassy was redecorated by workmen from Colonia Dignidad.

    Following Pinochet’s demise, several members of the cult brought complaints to the German Embassy about the goings-on under Paul Schäfer’s totalitarian regime, but were rebuffed and sent back to the colony.  Moreover, several attempts were made by family members of abducted cult members to get the German Foreign Office to take action.  They too were rebuffed.  Ambassador Erich Strätling is said to have been a close associate of Paul Schäfer and this association has now been highlighted due to the Gallenberger film. 

    A Spiegel article from 1987 reports that Strätling declared he visited the place looking for underground torture chambers and found none.  The following year, the German government rebuffed the Chilean Supreme Court's attempt to remove immunity from two West German diplomats operating in Chile in a turf battle over who had the right to investigate the Colonia Dignidad abuses. To this day, according to a German Wikipedia article, the German government has taken no stand on the case.   No mention is made in the film of the connection between the colony and CIA assassin Michael Townley, now living in a witness protection program. Townley has testified that a toxin that killed former Chilean president and Pinochet opponent Eduardo Frei Montalva was made in a laboratory at Colonia Dignidad, although that report has been officially contested.

    Eventually the jig was up for Paul Schäfer.  He managed to get away to Argentina, where he turned up in March 2005, but was extradited back to Chile for indictment.  He had already been charged in absentia the year before for the abuse of twenty-seven children and found guilty.  He died in a Santiago prison hospital in 2010 at the age of 88.  Twenty of his senior loyalists have now been convicted of aiding him in his abusive activities.

    There is a bizarre postscript to this story.  Not only are some 120 members of the colony still there, but Colonia Dignidad has been renamed Villa Baviera and turned into a tourist attraction, which somebody has suggested is not unlike what it would be to open a MacDonald’s at Auschwitz.  On the other hand, who knows what survivors are up against psychologically?  Perhaps enabling them to stay on as a community with others who understand what the outside world finds largely inexplicable may be a lot less cruel than sending them out into a world they have never known.  The only question is what is to be said about whitewashing a history of abuse and depravity with beer festivals, dirndls, lederhosen and oompah bands?  And, once the sadistic perpetrators of Schäfer’s enterprise are separated from victims and others claiming no knowledge of what went on, one has to wonder how they can go on living side by side.

    Having dug into the background of this “dignity colony” – was there ever a better combination of chutzpah and irony? –  I am now curious to see this thriller and love story with a feminist pitch (this time it’s the girl that performs miracles to save her man), if only to see what Gallenberger has made of this piece of his country’s history.  Oscar-winner (for best live action short film in 2001) Gallenberger is also known for his 2009 film about German businessman John Rabe (City of War: the story of John Rabe), credited with saving 200,000 Chinese lives during the Nanjing Massacre.  No doubt the success of that film figured in Gallenberger’s decision to once again fictionalize history for effect.  City of War – which also featured Daniel Brühl, by the way – was also criticized for being overly melodramatic, but in the end it received pretty good ratings (75% on Rotten Tomatoes, for example.)

    I mentioned a negative review of Colonia which got me going on this story.  As of this writing, four of the five reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes have panned the film, as well. One complains it’s too over-the-top good guys/bad guys and suggests the happy ending stretches credulity, not unlike Ben Affleck’s Argo.  Another complains the film has shlocky horror-film techniques, including music, suggesting that the filmmaker’s intention is to bypass the political importance of the Pinochet era and make a cheap thriller, complete with prison escapes and car chases, just to put bottoms on theater seats.  To take one of the darkest periods in Latin American history and turn it into a Hollywood love story – a fictionalized one at that – you can see why the protests are coming in.

    On the other hand, look at it from Florian Gallenberger’s point of view.  If you don’t get those bottoms in the seats, you don’t get people paying attention to the story.  Hitler is credited with the question, “Who remembers the Armenian massacre by the Turks?”  Actor Daniel Brühl says when he was first given the script to read he had never heard of this ugly postwar German story.  I had never heard of a German religious colony in Chile, either, or of this evidence that human gullibility didn’t stop with the fall of the Third Reich. 

    The silence is underlined by the fact that there are still questions looming large not only about hushed up child abuse, but about possible German government enabling of a notorious pederast operating in Chile, possibly with their tacit approval.  Roman Catholic bishops, it would appear, are not the only authority figures – if these allegations about government complicity are to be believed – to circle the wagons to protect the ruling class.  How, in this day and age, does one get people talking about this horror?  What better way than to promise a thriller and hope, once the curtain goes down and the lights come up, that people will ask questions they have not asked before.

    It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, of course.  You should be able to make a first-rate work of art – or jolly good entertainment, for that matter - that still works to get people asking political questions.  But you can’t blame a guy for aiming for the largest possible audience. 

    Or can you?

    photo credit:  Photo credited to Majestic/Ricardo Vaz Palma


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  9. Absolutely wonderful hour and fifty minutes.  I laughed, I cried, I cringed, I despaired.  I did everything filmmaker Michael Moore no doubt intended when he made Where to Invade Next.  Preaching to the choir!  Beating a dead horse and making you cheer all the while.  It’s Michael Moore at his very best.

    Moore goes off first to Italy, then France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Tunisia, Portugal and Iceland, and looks at the way they educate their children, especially about sex, provide their workers with six weeks of vacation, assure equal rights for women and make prison a place not for revenge but for reintegration into society – in large part by not spending half their GDP on weapons but mostly by summoning the will to act collectively for the welfare of all instead of just one or another king of the mountain.  And by treating drug use as something other than a crime and the death penalty as unworthy of a civilized state.

    It’s not a fair picture, and Moore admits from the start that he is cherry-picking the good parts of European cultural practices and setting them against the worst of American ways – “I went to pick the flowers, not the weeds.”  But this is not America-bashing.  It’s constructive criticism, for those with the eyes to see it that way.  Despite the title and the silly device of carrying the American flag around with him and planting it in Italian living rooms, German factory lunch rooms and Finnish faculty meetings, he’s not really “invading” these places so much as he is discovering American inventions that Europeans have improved upon and Americans have allowed to decay.  It’s time, he declares, to bring these ideas back home, and admit we have much to learn from others.

    His reputation has been built up over the years by previous successful investigative documentaries.  He started with Roger and Me, in 1989, about how General Motors had beggared Flint, Michigan by firing everybody in Flint and moving their factories to Mexico for its lower wages.  Then came a short (23-minute) documentary titled Pets or Meat (1992) and his only non-documentary film,  Canadian Bacon, in 1995, in which he satirizes the notion of declaring war on international terrorism.  Then The Big One, in 1997, in which he singles out Nike as an example of a corporation – but hardly the only one - that puts profits ahead of the interest of workers, a theme which he revisits in Where to Invade Next.  Then came the major hit, Bowling for Columbine, in 2002, about guns and violence in the U.S., a film many consider one the best documentaries of all time.  He then broke his own record with his next film, Fahrenheit 9/11, in 2005, the highest-grossing documentary of all time, about the links between the Bush administration and the bin Ladens.   (He takes on the Bush family in Dude, Where’s My Country? one of the eight books he has to his name, as well.) Two years later, in 2007, he came out with Sicko, about the American health care system.  He took on both the managed care industry and the pharmaceutical industry and pushed the envelope by taking 9/11 rescue care workers to Cuba to get health care unavailable to them in the U.S.  He followed those with two more, one on capitalism and democracy. (Capitalism: A Love Story) and one on the politics of college students (Captain Mike Across America).  Where to Invade Next is his first new film in six years. This time the focus is not on any one particular outrage, but on how many good ideas there are out there we might take to heart.

    Obviously Moore’s reputation preceded him and gave him entrée onto the factory floor of the Ducati motorcycle plant in Italy, the Faber-Castell pencil factory in Germany, and into a school lunch room in France.  At one point, he even presuades Borut Pahor, the president of Slovenia, to grant him an interview.  And Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, the first woman ever elected as head of state in a national election.

    To know the work of Michael Moore is to know subtlety is not his game.  He’ll take a sledge hammer over a scalpel any day, as when he puts Norwegian prisoners with access to knives and the keys to their own prison apartments up against what he calls the re-enslavement of the American black man in U.S. prisons, complete with regular floggings.  Or when he shows a child being frisked at an airport.  And yet, there is method in his ability to get you to guffaw at his outrageous satire at the same time you are shaking your head in disbelief.

    There are wonderful moments in Where to Invade Next.  My favorites are the sessions with the French school children who get a four-course meal served to them on real plates and drink out of breakable glasses, who turn up their noses at Coca-Cola and express a preference for Camembert over other cheeses, one of which is served at every school lunch.  And the interviews with Icelandic women, in which he gives them plenty of time and space to declare that the problems of the world can and will be solved by women, as soon as the world can get its act together and let them have equal access to power.  Another favorite moment is when he appears at the Berlin Wall, announces that nobody thought it would ever come down, just as nobody thought a few years ago that gays and lesbians would have the rights they have today.  The world, he concludes, can and does change, if we just get in there and make it happen.

    Only an idealist could take on the miseries created by human incompetence and greed which Moore has dealt with over the years.  A cynic would have folded long ago.  I always liked that about him.  Until Where to Invade Next, though, I never realized he was such an optimist.

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  10. I was not going to put these remarks on my blog because I already commented on Doris’s passing two weeks ago and don’t want to repeat myself.  But I’m still riding high from the Celebration of Life service her colleagues and my friend Cathy put together yesterday, and it’s a way of keeping the good feeling going.  Hope nobody minds.

    Doris’s brother and two sisters and a brother-in-law were all there from Switzerland.  I think they were working on the assumption they were coming to a funeral.  They weren’t ready for the fact that in the circles Doris and I and all our friends move in, funerals have been replaced with celebrations of life. 

    The first time I heard of such a thing was about twenty-five years ago.  My first reaction was, “Oh, what a bad idea.  How ridiculous Americans can get, insisting on putting a smiley face on every damn thing – even death.”  My best friend, Craig Buchanan, had died unexpectedly, like Doris in his fifties, and thus arguably way too soon.  It was pure tragedy.  Absolutely the last thing you’d want to put a smiley face on.

    But Harriet, his wife, and some friends put together a table full of his favorite food, and we loaded up on champagne and all gathered around, forty or fifty of us.  We began with a toast, and then started telling Craig stories.

    Craig was the closest friend I ever had.  We met in the army at a time when we were both beginning our adult lives and we shared everything.  Our insecurities, our dreams, our vulnerabilities, our fears and inner thoughts and the wildest of imaginings.  I was convinced I knew everything there was to know about him.  But then as the reminiscing went on, and more and more people began sharing the Craig they knew, I was struck with how wrong I was.  Looking back now, it’s obvious.  No one can possibly know all there is to know about another person.  But at the time I was shocked.  And ultimately delighted.  In that room, in those couple of hours of reminiscing, an image of Craig was beginning to appear that none of us had ever seen before or could have seen before in its entirety.  Harriet made the same comment some time later when we shared with each other how surprised we were by all the aspects of Craig’s life we had not been privy to.

    There were two Israeli friends of Harriet’s in the crowd.  At some point they had to leave.  “This is just too much,” one of them said.  “This is not how we deal with death.  We cover the mirrors, we rip our clothes and we wail to heaven.  You guys are laughing like it’s some big joke.”

    It was a good example of culture shock, of two entirely different ways of approaching one of life’s basic rituals.  We were laughing, yes, but we were crying, too, and somehow they missed that.  We were not missing the tragedy of the event.  On the contrary, we were giving full vent to our feelings.  Only our feelings included a respect for a much loved friend with a joy of life.  To just feel sorry for ourselves and miss the opportunity to see the full breadth of his humor and the power of his personality on others, would have only added more tragedy.  It was not an either/or proposition.  We would grieve and mourn.  We would wail to the heavens, actually.  But we would also celebrate a life well-lived and a create a version of Craig that could only be put together collectively.  A life too short, but definitely well-lived and worth celebrating.

    The memory of that first celebration of life and of the several I have experienced since then all came to mind yesterday when Doris’s colleagues put together this marvelous service, with poetry readings, songs and testimonials.  And out of it came a much richer image than any of us had had before.  I think her family were amazed at the fact that over a hundred people showed up to honor their sister.  They had no idea that she had made such a good home for herself.  Suddenly, I think, her choice to take American citizenship made a little more sense.

    Lots of laughter and lots of tears, yesterday, as I have now come to expect from a celebration of life, this wonderful substitute for dressing in black and listening to some preacher-man talk about how the dearly departed is now flying around in heaven.  If anybody is flying in the clouds, I’m sure Doris is.  But what matters to me is that I received a great gift yesterday in seeing a richer and more complex picture of a good friend than I had ever seen before.  And I sincerely hope her siblings and her other friends can say the same.  It was a wonderful way to say good-bye.

    I was one of the speakers at the event.

    Here are my memories, the view I had of Doris, reduced to about five minutes.

    *          *          *

    When I think of Doris, I think of her smile.  And her amazing abilility to make friends easily.  The two obviously go together.

    German teacher and biker chick
    My connection goes back over twenty years now to when I first met Doris at work.  She was teaching German at the same university in Japan where I was teaching English and our offices were four doors apart.   The workplace was stiff and there were lots of rigid people around.  I could feel the tension as soon as I stepped off the elevator in the morning.  Then, one day, things changed noticeably.   There was this new person on the floor.  Bright and cheery and completely out of character with all the self-important folk playing their cards close to their chest.  She had flaming red hair and a look of adventure about her.  It was as if somebody had thrown open all the doors and windows.  Suddenly the stuffiness of the environment had been replaced with fresh air and sunlight.  I began seeking her company at lunch and before long we were hanging out together.

    At some point Doris reached the conclusion it was time for her to leave Japan.  She ran into a problem with her lease, though.  She wouldn’t be there another year, so it made no sense to pay several months rent to renew.  I had an extra bedroom, so I suggested she move in with me.  I had a house about ninety minutes down the coast from Tokyo.   She took me up on the offer just as I was leaving for two months home leave here in the Bay Area.  I was concerned about leaving her there on her own.  I had found the neighbors a bit stand-offish, and suggested she should not expect too much of them.  

    Two months later I returned only to discover that she had not only met all the neighbors, but she was already walking their dogs and baby-sitting their children.  And suddenly I had a network of people around me popping in unannounced.  My life changed completely.   Suddenly it was filled with neighborhood barbecues and political action groups.  Doris had done her magic. 

    I would watch her repeat that magic again when she came to visit my husband Taku and me in Berkeley some years later.  She was around when Taku and I first met and we loved seeing her again. 

    Next thing I know she is announcing this looks like a great place for her next great life adventure and we’re helping her find a place to live and work.  In no time, she had made friends with my friends Dov and Cathy and was once again baby-sitting and becoming a regular at family gatherings. By now she was more a part of my chosen family than just a friend, and over the years, at shabbat dinners, birthday parties, Thanksgiving and other holidays, Doris became part of the scene. Many of you here are part of that scene also, and those of you here from Leapfrog can attest to her power to make friends of her colleagues, as well.
    Doris and Ziva

    We asked people to submit photos of Doris and I posted them on a Flickr page.  If you haven’t seen them already, let me know and I’ll give you the link.   We started with a half dozen or so, and I believe the number at last count was up to 89.  As I look over the array of photos there, I’m moved especially by the ones of Doris and the little girls she played auntie to and at how she was able to come into our lives and make such a lasting impression.  Doris showed up at our house one Saturday morning and said, “Come on, the Pet Food Express on Broadway is having one of their mobile adoptions.”  Our two little girls, Jack Russell terrier/Chihuahua mixes named Miki and Bounce, now the center of our lives and pretty close to the meaning of life, come from that day when Doris took the initiative and put us in the right place at the right time.

    Doris’s life was cut far too short.  She should have had two or three more decades of adventures, and time to share her love of birds and of dogs, of hiking, and her notions of healthy living and the importance of good posture, the need to buy organic and to organize your kitchen cabinets so you use your food up well before the shelf expiration date.

    Doris and I didn’t see eye to eye on everything.  She had an appreciation of homoeopathy, which I thought was just nuts.  She loved Hawaiian music - at least she did at one point - which doesn’t do a thing for me.  But when it came to the important things in life she had much to teach me and others she came in contact with.  She had no patience for incompetence or violence or deceit or laziness.  She was inevitably up and at’em.  I think what I admired most about her was that although she was no Pollyanna – God knows she could peel the paint off the walls with her criticism of crooked politicians and self-serving bureaucrats – somehow her response to the bumps in the road was always to keep a cheery disposition.  She had an ability to get back in the fray with that big smile that filled her face and gave off a sense of almost boundless energy.

    The day she died I didn’t know what to do with my shock and grief, so I put something on my blog on the spur of the moment.  And the photo I picked to go with it is that wonderful one of her with the leafy green trees in the background, the blue-rimmed glasses and the bright red lipstick, looking every inch the wise and mature lady she had become over the years, that combination of cheer and warmth and wisdom that was Doris Kyburz.

    That smile will always be there for me.  It will always be there.


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