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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah 2014: An Atheist's Badass God

Look out! God's coming! And he's meaner than Godzilla! 
The storyteller telling the Noah story faces this serious challenge: how to make the protagonist sympathetic. This is a bigger challenge than explaining the logistics: How one man and his family were able to build an ark capacious enough to accommodate all species on earth and sturdy enough to withstand a flood; how rain could fall hard enough to flood the entire planet; how to feed all those creatures and eliminate their waste products. I've worked with animals and mucking out five stalls every morning was, well, Herculean.

No, the bigger challenge is how to get the audience to sympathize with God, the real protagonist of the story (Noah is just God's tool). The God of the Noah story is all too much like the Pagan divinities of ancient Greece: petulant, fickle, and not all that bright. God creates mankind and loves mankind, but then God turns on mankind, eager to wipe out mankind. God preserves some humans, but among the humans God preserves is Ham, who is accused of "seeing his father naked," which some take to mean that he humiliated, castrated, or perhaps sodomized Noah. In other words, the remnant this God saved is not any better than the masses God drowned. Duh.

I was looking forward to Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" not only for the special effects flood and animals, but also because I wanted to see how Aronofsky would justify his God.

What would be the great evil that Aronofsky would attribute to humanity? Why did we deserve to be wiped out? If this were Cecil B. DeMille, our sin would certainly be sex. Sex sells tickets and entertains audiences. A swaggering, bare chested Yul Brynner married to the very hot Anne Baxter deserved God's smiting!

Aronofsky assigns a much more prosaic sin to humanity: environmental destruction. Noah, Aronfsky's hero, subsists on lichens. This is ridiculous; no one gets to be as beefy as Russell Crowe by eating lichens only. (Jennifer Connelly, Noah's wife, is quite thin and I can believe that she eats nothing but lichens.) The rest of mankind hunts animals, eats meat and mines minerals. Also humans chop down a lot of trees.

Tubal Cain, the king of the bad humans, is a miner. There is a scene where Noah walks through a blasted wasteland of tree stumps. Think of that the next time you use toilet paper, made from trees!!! Also, humans are shown eating flesh ripped from a living animal. People also engage in much violence, and there is a smudgy rape scene. The sin that gets the most attention, though, is environmental destruction.

"Noah"'s greatest strength, for me, was its seriousness. The God of "Noah" is a badass God who gets very, very angry and takes no prisoners. He is a mythic, superhero God who supplies his chosen with "Watchers," giants made out of stone who have glowing, fiery eyes. Darren Aronofsky is a self-described atheist, but he has put a Godzilla divinity onscreen. This God is not New Age. He is not touchy feely. He is not singing Kumbaya. There is such a thing as sin, and if you sin, Godzilla's foot squashes you.

The angry God and sin part of "Noah" surprised me and gripped me. The scenes of humans clinging to rocks and howling as they drowned were powerful and frightening. I would not bring a small child to this movie.

The rest of the movie was only so-so. The special effects were meh. The animals are all CGI; Aronofsky has said that he does not believe in working with real animals, presumably because it discomfits the animals. A lover of good animal footage would get much more enjoyment out of watching any given animal video on youtube than from "Noah." The flood was okay. The stone giant Watchers were interesting at first but quickly became semi-comical. The second half of the movie revolves around a couple of non-Biblical subplots – a stowaway on the ark, and Noah becoming obsessed with killing someone – and those did not grab my interest. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"God's Not Dead" Christophobia on Campus; Disappointing

Christophobia on campus is all too real. I have attended faculty meetings that open with professors making the most egregious comments mocking Christian students. I have helped students who were harassed and bullied by professors once they made their identities as Christians known. I know of cases where hiring committees did look askance at applicants after discovering that they were Christian. I have seen hostile professors mock not just Christians, but also devout Muslims for belief in God. I have heard reports of devout Jews also being openly ridiculed in university settings.

"God's Not Dead" was a profound let-down. Christophobia on campus is a real problem, and it deserves better treatment than this ham-fisted, simple-minded, sadistically triumphalist film.

"God's Not Dead" opens provocatively. Josh (Shane Harper) a college freshman, takes a class with a professor (Kevin Sorbo) who requires his students to write "God is dead" on a piece of paper. Josh refuses to do so. He and the professor square off. The professor challenges Josh to convince his fellow students of God's existence. Harper and Sorbo are both good in their roles. The film's premise is excellent. The film does almost nothing with it.

Instead, through choppily edited scenes, it juggles several strands of subplots. A Muslim college girl converts to Christianity and her father reacts with hostility and heartbreak. An American minister wishes he were in Africa, but learns, through a providentially malfunctioning car, that life here in the US presents important challenges. A reporter having an affair with a callous, selfish man gets some bad news about her health. An elderly woman has Alzheimer's. Her daughter is involved with … the arrogant, atheist university professor. Two Duck Dynasty TV stars appear; this celebrity scene took me out of the movie completely. There is a concert with a Christian rock band called the Newsboys.

The duel between the frightened but determined college student and the arrogant professor was the most promising plot thread. It could have made a great, great movie. Instead the script fritters this contest away. It is never developed.

For me the most moving scene from the various subplots was also one of the most obvious and ham-handed. In a darkened room, a woman who is otherwise rendered senseless by Alzheimer's suddenly delivers a powerful sermon about how Satan can keep people trapped in comfortable prison cells.

Commentators have blasted the movie for depicting a Muslim father reacting with hostility to his daughter's conversion to Christianity. In fact Marco Khan depicts the father with great sensitivity. He obviously loves his daughter and he wants to protect her from negative influences. When he learns of her conversion, he is practically in tears. This is a complex and human character, not a hateful stereotype.

I won't reveal the end of the movie here, except to report that it is shameless. The movie handles the atheist professor shamelessly. This ending portrays God as much more shallow than he could ever be.

"God's Not Dead" struck me as a film that reflects some of the, to me, less attractive features of modern American Evangelical Protestantism. I reflected on Catholic films that, I think, handled issues of faith in deeper, more complex, more human ways. I'm thinking of pop movies like "Going My Way" and "Bells of Saint Mary's," blockbusters like "Sound of Music" and Fred Zinnemann's 1959 classic, "The Nun's Story."

These films show all the ups and downs, the pimples and pockmarks, the real-life roadblocks, mazes, and dark nights of the soul of a life of faith. In "Bells of Saint Mary's," a pacifist nun teaches a bullied boy how to box. In "Sound of Music" faith goes up against lust and Nazism. In "The Nun's Story" the atheist, Dr. Fortunati, is an ally of a person of faith. In "God's Not Dead," all the Christians are purely good, and all the non-Christians are close to being purely bad. In "God's Not Dead," it seems all you have to do is say, "God is good all the time" and presto changeo, even cars obey God's will to make your life better, and everything ends up as a triumphant sing-along.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Atheist Ignorance and Violent Crime

We are all potential victims of violent crime. How does religion help in the prevention of violent crime and the treatment of violent criminals?

If Atheists* had their way, how would this treatment of violent criminals be stopped?

A spokesman from the Freedom from Religion Foundation was on the Michael Medved show on Friday, March 21, 2014. He introduced an Atheist song entitled – really it was entitled this – "Poor Little Me." Lyrics:

"The multitudes mumble mythologies without end.
Lutherans have liturgies. Calvinists have creeds.
Muslims have their minarets. Catholics have their beads.
Methodists have methods, Holy Truth to ascertain,
But poor little me, I only have a brain.
Bishops transubstantiate. Shintos ring their bells.
Transcendentalists meditate. Wiccans weave their spells.
Hindus chant a mantra when they can't relieve the pain,
But poor little me, I only have a brain.
Unhappy with the weatherman, the Zunis wave a feather—
They dance in circles to demand: Great Spirit, send some rain!
But what do you do if you only have a brain?
Quakers quake and Shakers shake. Jews eat kosher food.
Rastafarians wear their hair in pious gratitude.
But poor little me, poor little me,
I only have a brain."

You will immediately notice four things about this song:

1.) Atheists believe themselves to be, and announce themselves as being, much smarter than everyone else, "I only have a brain," repeated over and over.

2.) Atheists believe themselves to be, and announce themselves as being, VICTIMS!!!! (Poor little me – repeated over and over.)

3.) Atheists oppose EVERYBODY. Atheists get most press for opposing Christians, but Atheists reject any concept of God, psychic ability, synchronicity, worship, prayer, song, dance, sacred architecture, tradition, recipes. Anything and everything that isn't a material reality you can touch, see, taste, hear, or smell that plays an instrumental role in your Darwinian struggle for life is CRAP and should be eliminated!!! Achtung!

4.) Atheists totally misunderstand human nature. Demonizing meditation, tradition, myth and sacred architecture is a scorched earth Utopian worldview that can lead only, and has lead, to events like the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Terror in France, the Gulag in the Soviet Union, the destruction of Buddhist Tibet under Red China and the Holocaust in Germany.


Later that same day, Friday, March 21, 2014, Adrian Raine, professor of criminology, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers, and author of "The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime" appeared on "Fresh Air."

Raine argued that there is a biological basis to all antisocial behavior: "there's a biological basis really to all forms of antisocial behavior - you know, not just homicide, not just rape, not just pedophilia, but just plain everyday thieving and stealing and even cheating.
It's not just the social environment. Of course the social environment is very important; nobody's denying that. But what I'm saying here is that there's another side of the coin, and that side of the coin is biology.

Murderers had much poorer functioning in the very frontal region of the brain. Now, why might that predispose someone to homicide? Well, the prefrontal cortex is very much involved in regulating and controlling behavior.

You know, it checks on our impulses. You know, we all get a bit impulsive at times. What stops us lashing out? It's a good-functioning prefrontal cortex that says wait a bit, you know, now is not the time to lash out. And it's also the part of the brain that regulates and controls emotion.

What stops us, you know, going crazily berserk and picking up the kitchen knife and stabbing someone out of rage, it's that prefrontal cortex. It's like the guardian angel on behavior, you know? And if the guardian angel is gone, well, the devil may come out, and an individual may commit homicide."

Raine argued that it's not just the prefrontal cortex, but also the amygdala:
"When we brain-scanned psychopathic individuals in the community and compared them to matched controls, we found that that amygdala part of the brain, the emotion part of the brain, it was reduced in volume by 18 percent. It was shrunken physically 18 percent. So if the emotion part of the brain is shrunken, that might well explain why psychopaths lack remorse, lack guilt, lack conscience and why they don't really care about sticking a knife in you to get what they want."

Raine mentioned toxic chemicals that might predispose individuals to commit crimes:
"Lead is neurotoxic to the brain, may be one of the environmental causes of the brain basis to crime and violence."

Raine said that a low resting heart rate is also correlated to criminal activity, "low resting heart rate predisposes to crime is because it reflects a lack of fear and a lack of fear we think is a predisposition."

Raine asked a profoundly provocative question, a question that could change society as we know it:

"The key question is this: Simply put, if bad brains do cause bad behavior, if brain dysfunction raises the odds that somebody will become a criminal offender, and if the causes of the brain dysfunction come relatively early in life then should we fully hold that adult individual responsible when the root causes of its behavior came early in life, well beyond its control?"

How in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do do, and punish them as much as we do, including death? That's the question that neurocriminology, this emerging body of evidence, is posing for the judicial system who are increasingly becoming interested in the interface between neuroscience and the law?"

Raine insisted that "biology is not destiny." He pointed out that persons with low resting heart rates might become criminals, or they might become heroes – bomb disposal experts.

What makes one man with a low resting heart rate become a criminal and another man become a heroic bomb disposal expert?
"The social environment is absolutely critical" Raine said. If a person is born in "sort of higher socioeconomic home background" that "could lead to a very different outcome"

What can we do? One might reasonably ask. If a given percentage of any population will have the biological precursors to crime: low resting heart rate, dysfunctional prefrontal cortex and amygdala, and lead exposure, do we all just have to be victimized by this biological monster?

Raine mentioned one way that criminals might be helped to overcome their biological handicaps: "meditation."

"There's very good randomized controlled trials which do show that, you know, eight weeks of meditation or mindfulness training, training yourself to be more in tuned with what's going on inside you and your senses and your feelings and your thinking, then that enhances the prefrontal region of the brain - the very part of the brain that we find to be dysfunctional in offenders.

Also we know that people who meditate on a long-term basis, they have increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex, and we find structural impairments in that frontal part of the brain in psychopaths and antisocial offenders. So if it's really the case that mindfulness training can enhance brain functioning - and by the way, you know, one study has shown it activates the amygdala, that brain structure that is burnt out a bit in psychopaths - then the intriguing question is: If we could put some of these offenders through mindfulness training, would it bring back online those emotion regions that are involved in empathy and compassion like the amygdala and possibly change their behavior?

Now, some studies have been done. There's even been a study giving meditation to 1,300 prisoners, claiming it reduces aggression, but we haven't had the randomized controlled trials yet to document that this can really change reconvictions in the future. But it's intriguing."

Here Gross and Raine mention only a Buddhist form of meditation. I suspect that they stick to Buddhism because Buddhism is acceptable in Politically Correct circles that would reject any activity associated with Christianity.

But Christian prayer – specifically repetitive prayer like the rosary mocked by the Atheist song, above – is also efficacious in studies of the impact of human behavior on the amygdala.

I would bet that the other material manifestations of spiritual life like chants, minarets, stained glass, and kosher food – all also mocked in the atheist song, above – soothe and protect our nervous systems.

Here's an article citing Dr. Andrew Newberg, author of "How God Changes Your Brain," saying just that,

"Brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months."

Newberg ascribes "a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s 'number one best way to exercise your brain' is faith. As he puts it, 'faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.'" Source


To sum up: Atheists* demand a Utopian, scorched earth policy that relegates ALL spiritual behavior to the trash bin. Any engagement in such behavior is "anti-brain," stupid and counter-productive.

The best research we have on brains and criminal behavior shows that spiritual behavior aids the brain, and may help criminals change, and may help keep society safer.


About the asterisk on "Atheist." I have a couple of Facebook friends who occasionally read my posts and insist that

I am really stupid and I need them to educate me

I am oppressing them.

This is part of the Atheist script – we are smart you are stupid; you require us to educate you; you are oppressing us and we are your victims.

They allege that any criticism of a certain subset of atheists maligns all atheists.

I always make clear in my posts that I'm not talking about all atheists or even most atheists. I'm talking about a subset, a minority, of capital A Atheists. Which Atheists are these? They are the type I talk about here – Atheists who demonize all religious belief, announce themselves as more intelligent and more victimized than others. Most small a atheists aren't like this, and I'm not talking about them at all.

You can read the lyrics of the above cited Atheist song here.

You can read the transcript of Fresh Air's Terri Gross' interview with Dr. Raine here.

You can read the interview with Dr. Andrew Bergman about his book "How God Changes Your Brain" here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger. Book Review

"A Woman's Role" by Carol Moessinger is a heartfelt memoir of a place, a people, and a time too little treated in the American literary canon, or in films, academia, or the wider popular culture. "A Woman's Role" introduces the reader to "Bohunk" immigrants and their descendants working Pennsylvania's coal mines in the 1950s. These people were Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, Lithuanian, and other peasants from Eastern Europe. I want every Polish American to buy and read this book, but I also want those curious about a slice of America that they haven't learned about from school, films or other novels to read "A Woman's Role."

"A Woman's Role" follows the life of young Celina Pasniewska. Celina is the granddaughter of a Polish peasant immigrant woman. Her father and her brother are coal miners. Her mother is a workhorse who cooks on a coal stove, cans produce and keeps chickens and pigs.

Celina dreams of a life beyond her coal town. Her dreams have no easy or obvious route to realization. Her parents insist that she work at home as well as at her place of paid employment, Duxbury's Department store. Tomas, Celina's father, orders her about like a maid: make coffee; bring me ham. Her mother relies on her to be her helper. Her mother insists that Celina must not move away. Local men find Celina attractive, and if she marries them, she will never leave her hometown.

Celina is a Bohunk, and, as such, she is not a "Johnny Bull," someone descended from the British Isles. Some look down on her for that. Too, Celina is a woman in the 1950s, when America was retiring Rosie the Riveter and women were expected to be domestic goddesses. Celina must navigate her desire for love and romance, her thirst for an intellectual life, her craving to be free and independent, her traditional Polish Catholic immigrant family and their demands, and her heartache over a lost love. Celina's boyfriend died while serving in the US military in Korea.

"A Woman's Role"'s cover calls the book "a 1950s romance." I think some will read it, and enjoy it, that way. I see the book differently, though. To me it read like a memoir of a small town Polish girl. Romance is part of the book, but it isn't the largest part. And men will enjoy this book every bit as much as women. Celina is the main character, but her father is a believable coal mining man. His struggle for dignity and satisfaction in life is as important as Celina's.

"A Woman's Role" has the episodic structure of a memoir. Events are strung out like beads; each event teaches the reader something about what life was like for an ambitious Polish American woman in the 1950s. Celina has that conversation with her mother about her hopes for the future versus her mother's hopes – they are irreconcilable, and one woman's hopes must give way so that the other's may be realized. Will it be the younger, or the older? Celina experiences workplace harassment, and workplace diminishment because she is a woman, and because she is a Bohunk. There is a Polish wedding – the community's greatest joy; there is a mine accident – its greatest dread.

"A Woman's Role" is written in a straightforward, highly accessible style. I would recommend this book not only to adults, but also to young adult readers. It does not exercise high literary ambitions. This is a book that wants to connect with the reader and make its message plain on a first read.

Moessinger's great gift is vivid description, for example this passage, "The faint scent of incense and milted bees wax candles clung to the church's cool, dimply lit sanctuary. The cavernous, echoing sacredness of the place encouraged the parishioners to speak in hushed whispers. Celina genuflected and slid into the pew beside her parents as dappled beams of colored light streamed through the figures of angels and saints frozen in the stained glass."

The ethnographic details of the book made certain scenes most memorable to me. Moessinger brings to life a 1950s era Bohunk kitchen. There is the coal stove, the damper, the process of taking a season's harvest of apples and reducing them to apple sauce. Three generations of Polish women, and a family friend, sit around the table peeling and coring apples. The son takes the cores and peels out to the family pig.

Moessinger's characters refer to Americans whose ancestors came from the British Isles – their coal town's more privileged citizens – as "John Bulls." My father was a Polish American coal miner when he was a child. He didn't mine for long – he hated it. Children like my dad were used because mine bosses want to exploit the shortest tunnels possible, tunnels into which only children could fit. My father called Americans of British descent "Johnny Bulls."

There is a scene that touched me especially deeply. Celina's mother orders and begs her daughter not to move away from their coal town. She talks about the loneliness of having grown up with no grandparents, no aunts nor uncles. Her parents had left Poland, alone, and started new lives in America. Her father had lost one brother who, upon emigrating from Poland with his brother, went to South America. That brother was never heard from again. This passage touched me deeply, as I, too, grew up without real grandparents. My surviving grandparents never learned English, and I had little contact with them. I also had Old Country relatives I heard tales about, but never met.

For me this book, given its episodic structure, lacked a strong plot drive. I'm not sure the novel is Moessinger's strongest genre. Given her obvious ethnography knowledge, and her urge to educate – there are brief but strongly didactic passages – I think Moessinger's next literary project should be a straightforward ethnography. 

Buy "A Woman's Role" at Amazon here.

MH370 Missing Malaysian Plane: What Atheists Don't Want Us to Say

Lamjura La. Source
Kim Coleman, whose daughter passed away on 9-11. Source
Years ago I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a tiny village in Nepal. The village was at about seven thousand feet in altitude. It took me five days of walking from the nearest trailhead, the nearest road with vehicular traffic, to reach the village. During that walk I went over an eight thousand foot pass and an eleven thousand foot pass.

The village had no electricity or running water. While I was there, I never heard a radio, a motor, or an overhead plane. I could have been living in the Middle Ages.

One night I had a dream that a helicopter landed in the village. Dr. Theresa, the Peace Corps doctor, my mother and my sister got out of the helicopter. They said to me, "You have to go home. There is someone sick in the family."

The next morning, I got my passport out of hiding. I told my headmaster that I'd be leaving for a trip to Kathmandu. I asked him to send a runner to the nearest bazaar town to send a telegram to Kathmandu telling them that I'd be coming in on a Pilatus Porter airplane from a nearby village.

It was monsoon. Trails were full of terrestrial leeches and often washed out. Trekking to the airport would be dangerous. Flying would be uncertain. My school was in session. My students needed me.

I left on the basis of a dream.

I arrived in Kathmandu airport and was greeted by the Peace Corps doctor. She shuffled me onto a jet. "Your brother is dying, and we are flying you back to America to see him one last time before he dies."

Later Dr. Theresa would ask me why I had not seemed shocked on that day. I told her. I had previously received the news in a dream.


I was not the first in my family to do so. My father was a sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. He served in combat and rode in the same jeep with General Douglas MacArthur. One night he had a dream that his brother Mieczyslaw was dead. Some time later, the telegram reached him with word.


I know that some of the relatives of the passengers on missing Malaysian flight MH370 are receiving news about the fate of their loved ones through dreams, prayers, visitations, and professional psychics. We aren't supposed to say that, because zealous Atheists – not all Atheists, just the intolerant kind – will mock us as backward and stupid. But I know that that is happening.

One of the very best documentaries I've ever seen, "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," was broadcast on PBS Frontline in 2002. It addresses the September 11, 2001, terror attack at the World Trade Center.

Uncertainty about their loved ones' fate tormented many surviving family members after that attack.

Below is a transcript from the PBS website. Mother Kim Coleman talks about how she learned her daughter's ultimate fate. Her daughter's name was Jacquelyn Patrice Sanchez.

I realized that the first plane hit my daughter's building. And as I bent over to pick up the telephone, my daughter was on the other line. She didn't know what happened. So I told her that a plane had hit her building and for them to get out of there. And I could hear my daughter tell her co-workers that her mother told her a plane hit the building and they needed to get out.

Then she asked me where was her baby. And I told her I had her baby and he was OK. And she asked me just to take care of him, and I said "OK, just get out of there." And I ran out of my apartment into the hallway, and I was just screaming in the hallway. And all of a sudden, my neighbors came out and they didn't know what happened. And I just said, "My baby's gone!''

That night, when I went to bed, after I finally was able to lay down, there was a light that shines through my window. And for some reason, this light was real bright. And I opened my eyes, and I saw an angel. She was dressed in white and she had a smile on her face, and I took that to believe that she was letting me know that my daughter was in heaven and that she was OK.

I just pray every day that she didn't suffer and maybe she just fell off to sleep and she didn't feel anything. I know she was scared, but I know my daughter also has faith in God, so I know she was praying.

I never question why God didn't intervene. I often ask the question as to why he picked her, but I have come to the conclusion that I felt God knew something I didn't know. And maybe he felt that- maybe she was- even though she was here 23 years, that she was suffering a lot more than I knew about. And I felt that God knew best. I always felt that way when he takes someone, that he knows better than we do.

The full transcript is here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" Aunt Tetka Would Say, "Smutna ale Krasna"

My Aunt Tetka lived most of her 101 years in Bayonne, New Jersey but she never learned to speak English well at all. Who needed The New York Times, Kennedy's inauguration speech, or William Shakespeare? Aunt Tetka could sing all one hundred verses of Slovak folksongs.

Visiting Aunt Tetka was a trip to another world, a world she took with her when she (finally!) died. There were many curtains. The air was inside her home was as thick as soup. It smelled sweet, like Uncle Strecko's pipe smoke, and pungent, of cabbage, onions, and ham. There were sepia photographs of grim faced men with serious mustaches and women in embroidered babushkas, oil paintings of peasant huts and high mountains, figurines of goose girls, brass ornaments incised with pagan sun symbols and a graphic crucified Christ. Aunt Tetka consumed only pastries, sprinkled with powdered sugar, served on handmade doilies. Five minutes into Wes Anderson 2014 film "The Grand Budapest Hotel," I was weeping. Anderson took me back to Aunt Tetka.

Mitteleuropa means "Central Europe" in German. Mitteleuropa has had many meanings, some of them frightening, geopolitical, and military. The friendlier Mitteleuropa references musics, languages, cuisines, colors and attitudes of Central Europe, an area stretching roughly from Germany to Ukraine, from the Baltics to the Balkans, a region sharing slivovice, zither and cimbalom, Gypsies, irony, pastry, sentiment, Catholicism, Judaism Orthodoxy, empire and cataclysm. Given recent news events, Mitteleuropa is much in the news: today we speak again of Cossacks, Crimea, and empire.

There aren't many American films that encapsulate the feel of Mitteleuropa. "The Third Man" comes to mind, with its famous zither score. There's the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Most of these films emphasize the dark side of the region, and that's too bad. Mitteleuropa has a rich tradition of joy and humor. It's remarkable that Anderson, an all-American filmmaker produced "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

When watching this film, I really wondered how much of it the audience would understand. GBH so tenderly reflects the peculiar history and experience of Mitteleuropa. For example, the movie is told as a reminiscence by a writer remembering an encounter from his youth with another person who retells the life story of yet another person. Why this "as told to as told to" feature? Why not just present the narrative directly?

The "as told to as told to" feature adds to the feeling of a lost world, of the antique, of a word-of-mouth story that is not reflected accurately in official histories. If you read the official histories of Mitteleuropa in the 20th century, you read of battles and massacres. If you know the people from Mitteleuropa, you encounter warmth and humanity and fate and humor and hair's breadth escapes and moments of generosity and grace that never made it into official histories. If you hadn't gone to that one déclassé health spa in the Zubrowkian Alps, you never would have met that one person, and never learned the story of Monsieur Gustav, and the tiny nation of Zubrowka would always be a mystery to you.

The opening scenes, in rapid succession, show the Grand Budapest Hotel under communism, and then in its glory days, under something like the Hapsburg Empire. These very brief juxtapositions are brilliant. They really capture what those of us who traveled to Mitteleuropa saw under the Soviet system, even the creepy green paint.

Monsieur Gustav is a concierge and gigolo. While training a new lobby boy, Zero, Gustav becomes entangled in a family scandal, a heist, and a prison break. There is a war in the background. For all its silliness, the movie brings M Gustav to life. Ralph Fiennes MUST receive an Academy Award nomination, and he really ought to win. He plays his part completely straight. His deadpan delivery of funny lines and his commitment to M Gustav brings this parody character in a wacky film to complete life. You love Gustav. You admire him. He moves you. You care about his fate.

Tony Revolori is very good as Zero Mustafa, Gustav's protégée. His relationship with Gustav is adorable.

The movie moves at a surprisingly brisk pace. The film itself may be looking back with nostalgia, but it is an action film. There is a genuinely exciting chase scene on skis.

GBH doesn't attempt to honor the horrors that took place in Mitteleuropa in the 20th century. The Holocaust is just one of these horrors; there was also the Holodomor, the mass migration of starving peasants to the US, battle casualties, and too many other atrocities to mention. There are scenes where characters speak of being displaced and on the run, of families massacred. The viewer knows what Anderson is referencing. At one point the GBH is taken over by evil forces whose insignia, a design close to a swastika, appears on banners draped all over the hotel, in the same way that a swastika was draped over the von Trapp home in "Sound of Music."

Anderson's answer to this evil is M. Gustav: be kind, be a friend, and be quietly clever. Make connections with other humans. Do favors, and rely on favors. This focus on the ordinary gestures of good hearted people in the face of enormous evil is deeply touching.

I wish there had been more women in this film. Saoirse Ronan is the one female part of note, and she speaks in an Irish accent as sharp as a blade that totally took me out of the film. Her screen presence is cold and not fitting. I wish there had been more peasants, and more outside scenes. Mitteleuropa was built on peasantry and GBH needed at least one buxom earth goddess binding sheaves of wheat or milking a cow.

There's so much more to say about this film – Alexandre Desplat's fabulous score, the hints of German expressionism, the all-star cast, the use of painted backdrops, the funicular – but there's time for that. "Grand Budapest Hotel" is a film that people are going to be talking about for a long time. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"I Want to Kill Myself Because I Have Wasted My Life"

William Blake Ancient of Days 
The other day a friend said to me, "I want to kill myself because I have wasted my life."

I was pissed off. I was pissed off because I want to kill MYSELF because I have wasted MY life. And my friend stole my complaint! Bastard.

And this friend doesn't deserve my complaint at all. Check this out: my suicidal friend

Owns a home in a desirable neighborhood

Has a spouse, kids, siblings, parents, cousins, nieces, nephews, all of whom said friend sees regularly in social settings

Earns a six figure income

Owns lots of vehicles

Has a tv, pets, swimming facilities, etc.

Compare this to me. I'm alone. I live paycheck to paycheck. Professional failure.

Which one of us has EARNED the "I have wasted my life and I want to kill myself" whine?

Me, obviously.

But here's the thing.

All right, here it gets tricky, and I want you to stay with me.

I want to use a big word, an abstract concept: teleology.

Teleology: the study of endings.

Let's break it down. "Telos" is the Greek word for "end." But it also means "purpose."

Logy: study of.

Let me take it from abstract to concrete: two times in my life when I felt I was at some kind of an end, and when I studied my life.

It's around eight a.m. local time, Bloomington, Indiana, September 11, 2001. I'm seated at a computer. The computer sits on a desk overlooking a half acre backyard, an oak tree, a train track. I'm working on what will become the book "Bieganski." I take a break, and turn on NPR. Bob Edwards is informing us that two planes have hit the World Trade Center. I immediately understand what this means – at a previous job, on another campus, I worked with a group of very outspoken young, Arab Muslim men and – and I know exactly what "two planes have hit the World Trade Center towers" means.

I do what a lot of people did on that morning. I reflect on my life.

I had always wanted to travel, especially since two of my brothers, Phil Goska and Mike Goska, died young and never got to travel. I reflected on the fact that I'd lived and worked in Asia, Africa, and Europe. I felt grateful and satisfied that I had traveled.

I had always wanted to write and publish, and I had. I felt grateful and satisfied.

I had always wanted to learn, and I was about to finish a PhD. Again, I felt grateful and satisfied.

I had always wanted to be of service. I thought about my years working as a nurse's aide, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and an inner city teacher. I felt grateful and satisfied.

True, I had not yet met Mr Right. I never married or had kids. But hope springs eternal, and I thought, someday, that will happen. I was not as young as I once was, but I still had plenty of time. My biological clock had not yet struck midnight.

And I concluded, on that morning of September 11, 2001: the dirtbags could fly their airplane into this house right now, and I would die without regret.

Fast forward to 2012. A doctor has just phoned to inform me that I have cancer. The lab is reporting that it's a particularly deadly form. The only hope I am given is chance.

On that day of reflection, I thought: I've completely wasted my life, and I will die with nothing but regret.

What changed between 2001 and 2012?

I finished my PhD, went on the job market, and could not land a tenure-track job. I had spent the previous ten years not having any fun at all, not socializing, not doing much of anything I enjoy. I had spent ten years applying for jobs, and being rejected for jobs, and living on nothing in a slum.

I tried to publish "Bieganski," and publishers always liked it at first, promised publication and success, got a sense of how controversial it would be, and backed out. Finally, a very brave publisher took it on, only for it not to sell well at all. Also, "Save Send Delete" was never advertised by the publisher, and it, too, has sold very few copies.

I never did meet Mr. Right, and I never had those kids I dreamed of being a mom to. I never moved into that home I'd been decorating inside my head for as long as I could remember.

No tenure-track job – all those hundreds of hours spent in graduate classrooms, breathing fusty air and putting up with gasbag professors and sycophantic, trendite graduate students – wasted.

Few readers – all those hundreds of hours spent honing my writing – wasted.

Alone – all those dreams, all that hoping, all that money spent on mascara and pantyhose and just the right dress, my heart beating fast, gazing at my young face in the bathroom mirror, wishing as hard as I could that I could be pretty – wasted.

My twenties, spent living all over the world, when I should have been making the RIGHT career choices, and realizing I'd never snag a man and adopting or going to a sperm bank and having a kid on my own – wasted.

That's a real world definition of teleology. At one point in my life, September 11 2001, I looked back at my life and it seemed pretty good. At another point, 2012, I looked back at my life and it struck me then (and still strikes me now, truth to tell) as a gigantic wasteland, enough to excuse suicide. What's the difference? The telos, the end. It's the same life, the same plot. In one version, I assess the life very differently, because of what looks like the last page.

Back to my friend. I look at my friend's life and I see the house, the kids, the extended family, the pets, the swimming, the money, the vehicles, and I can't imagine how or why anyone would assess that as a wasted life. My friend looks at me and sees publications and travel and freedom and education and can't imagine how I would assess my own life as wasted.

See? It really is a matter of perspective.

The economy sucks right now. I have Facebook friends who are looking for work, and not finding it. And, here's the thing. The BEST people are having the hardest time.

I know a couple of very successful people through Facebook. They really are just two people. One male, one female. And they are both 14 carat phonies. They aren't my Facebook friends. I come across their posts on others' threads.

These two people are loud – they post a lot, in ways guaranteed to get attention. They publicly stroke themselves, talking about how successful, kind, praised, loved, they are. A sentence as obvious as "I am so fabulous" is not beyond either one of their senses of shame. They say it without any irony.

You could grab a bunch of pop ideas from New Age pitchmen and the most conventional talking heads on MSNBC and four pounds of white Domino sugar and a couple of pinches of meth and run them around a Cuisinart and spew them out and you'd get an accurate simulacrum of their posts. And these two non-entities have thousands of Facebook friends and accolades and publications and photos of themselves with movers and shakers, their best-friends-forever.

Mediocrity often exceeds anyone's wildest dreams.

Genuine humanity often struggles.

Not always. But sometimes.

I want so badly to say to my struggling Facebook friends, people struggling because they are genuine and unique and the economy sucks: Okay, you want to kill yourself because you have wasted your life.

Please understand that that is Satan talking.

Yes, yes, Satan with a capital S. (Satan is even a harder word to use than teleology.)

Please understand that it is all about perspective. Teleology.

Please understand that the demonic perspective you have now is telling you that your life sucks.

Remember teleology. At another point, you will come to another ending, another telos, than that which you have reached today. You will have another perspective, and you will realize that this all means something more than you can now know.

How do I know? Not just because of these two moments: the September 11 moment when my life seemed good, and the 2012 moment when the same life seemed like a total waste.

We also know because of those who have had Near Death Experiences.

There are a handful of themes that come up again and again in Near Death Experience accounts. By now the basics are familiar: a dying person rises up out of his or her dying body, sees a tunnel, a bright light, and departed relatives. That dying person is told, "It's not your time yet" and returns to his or her body.

The people who have had this experience report something else, too. They report that what we often assess as marks of success ultimately mean nothing. The million dollar deal, the Academy Award, aren't really the big things. What are the big things? The day you were kind to someone. The day you urged someone on. The day your experience had a positive impact on someone else's spiritual journey.

One Near Death Experiencer, Betty Jean Eadie, was shown a homeless, drunken bum lying in the street. Eadie's spiritual guides told her how valuable this man's life was. We would assess this man as a wasted life. Not so, the spiritual guides taught Eadie. In fact this man was a great teacher to a highly successful attorney who lived near the homeless drunken bum. The attorney was learning about others' needs by passing this bum on the street. The attorney would be inspired to do good things.

I know from experience that we can touch others without realizing it. I walk everywhere. To me, walking is the simplest thing in the world. I don't think about it at all. In fact I walk so much that I often am not even aware of my walk when I arrive somewhere. More times than I can count, complete strangers have approached me in public – on the street, in supermarkets. They have a look of awe in their eyes, an awed look that strikes me as utterly inappropriate for any contact with me. They say, "Excuse me, but I see you walking," and then they name places where they have seen me. "I see you walk in the sun, rain and snow. It inspires me. I show you to my kids. Thank you."

I'll be honest – I don't understand this reaction at all. But it has happened so many times I can't question it.

A wasted life? When Satan talks that way to you, he is, as ever, lying. Your life is not wasted. Give it time. You will reach another telos. You will have another perspective. And you will see.

Don't give up.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Top Ten People I Want as Facebook Friends

The Top Ten People I Want as Facebook Friends

1.) Laugh. Make me laugh.

I do not care where you go to church or whether you go to church or not. I do not care what party you vote for. I do not care if you are ugly or handsome or fart with excessive frequency. If you laugh and can make me laugh, I want you as a Facebook friend.

2.) Be genuinely kind.

Now, look. We all know that there is this socially conventionally niceness. People say stock things: "I know exactly how you feel." "That is the cutest baby I've ever seen." "Have a great day!"

Conventional niceness is a good thing. I respect it.

The worth of genuine kindness surpasses that of gold. It glows. It lights and warms the world. It is precious.

A Facebook friend is a leukemia survivor. She says uplifting things to me at tough moments. She is really kind. She's a human light bulb. Her kindness erases darkness.

I could go on, listing other friends and their genuine kindness, but then this list would be too long.

3.) Educate me – even accidentally.

Some Facebook friends teach me inadvertently. Disgruntled, clueless haters are good at this. That's one reason I keep them around.

I had a Facebook friend who was spreading the conspiracy theory that Adam Lanza, who murdered 26 human beings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, was a cyborg programmed by the US government to foment gun control support. I had kept that person as a Facebook friend because I learned a lot from posts like that. I learned how the human mind can resist consensus reality when reality is inconvenient to the person's belief system. That Lanza post was a bridge too far and I ended that friendship.

4.) Educate me by illuminating me – share your light.

Some Facebook friends are just fascinating people and they and their posts coruscate. A Facebook friend appears to be a libertarian lawyer and she shares libertarian, law-oriented articles. She doesn't post links randomly, but selectively. I learn from her posts about stuff I would not think about without her carefully curated enthusiasm bringing it to my attention.

5.) Teach me – on purpose.

I grew up poor, spent a good chunk of my twenties in Third World villages, came back and went to grad school where I was even poorer than I'd ever been and kept my nose in books. Long story short – I have almost no exposure to a lot of technology, even something as simple as a camera. Right now I don't own a TV and have not owned one in years.

I use computers constantly because I write, but that's what I use them for – to write.

In short, I am technologically clueless.

And yet I live in a techno age.

How do I get by?

I flounder.

I got a cell phone some years back and kept it in a box, unused, and kept paying for a landline phone, because I had no clue how to make the cell phone work.

I showed it to a younger relative who is very phone savvy. She snatched the phone from my hands, pressed a few buttons, said, "Yeah, see? It works." And thrust it back at me.

Well, thanks. What a special moment.

Eventually I did figure out how to make it work. The whole roadblock was the difference between pressing a key button and pressing and holding down that same button.

My techno-incompetence and others' refusal to teach me anything has taught me something: it has taught me that real teachers are valuable people. (Yes I am a teacher. I like to think that I am a real teacher.)

Some people hoard knowledge as tightly as they hoard money. They wrap their little fists around it and don't let the sunshine ever see the contents of their tightly grasping hands. "This is MY knowledge and you can't have it!"

So different from my Facebook friend Scott, who eagerly and generously taught me about cars. Thank you, Scott. You'll always be a knight in shining armor to me for the knowledge you shared.

And my Facebook friend Lisa.

Lisa and I met in the midst of a very long thread that was actually a big, honking barroom brawl. I loved how Lisa carried herself – with the agility of a ballerina pirouetting through roughnecks settling scores with roundhouse punches, broken bottles, and spittle-flecked oaths. I asked to be her Facebook friend, and she and I got caught up in a barroom brawl. We fought long and hard over a topic we disagree about.

I didn't unfriend her, and she didn't unfriend me.

Later, I needed information about computers.

Lisa helped me. She found information, and she introduced it to me in a way that I understood it and could apply it. She anticipated my need for follow-up information. She *taught* me.

Nothing earns my respect more than a real teacher.

6.) Beautify my world.

Do you see beauty? Do you share beauty? I want to be your Facebook friend.

I looked up a girl I knew in high school. Her name was Gale and she was stunningly gorgeous. A perfect Polish-American princess. Long, blond hair; a joyful and yet shy and slightly mysterious smile. She has grown into a photographer. Her photographs make my Facebook page a more lovely place. Brian Kushner posts stunning photos of birds. Anna Martinez posts beautifully written, from-the-heart mini-essays about the human soul.

7.) Exhibit Humanity So Real I Can Smell It.

Sometimes someone on Facebook tells his or her story. One Facebook friend is a retired nurse dealing with cardiac trouble and inadequate, or absent, health care. Another is gay and she almost lost child custody because of that. Another believes in alien abduction, and she really likes football. Another was young, attractive, and wealthy, and, then one day…a marriage ended badly, followed by an unhappy medical diagnosis, and suddenly she found herself poor and desperate, living in a town Bruce Springsteen made famous. Another simply hates her job and, showing a great lack of discretion and a great deal of potty-mouth humor, announces it on Facebook every chance she gets.

These stories are bumpy and oddly shaped. They don't fit into any easy box. They aren't "liberal" stories or "conservative" stories or "Christian" or "Jewish" or "Atheist" or "Muslim" stories. They aren't male or female. They are full of facts not easy to digest: worked hard all her life as a nurse; can't access health care in America now. Is a loud and proud Lesbian who takes no shit from homophobes; is a loud and proud Christian who takes no shit from atheists. Is a caped crusader against stereotyping; is a Jehovah's Witness who aspires to be "no part" of the world.

I have Facebook friends whose stories I constantly guess at. I think one of my Facebook friends, who is a world traveler, may be … an heiress? A spy? I know if I keep reading her posts, I will put all the puzzle pieces together someday.

I love encountering these people through their stories, told either in one long post with no hard returns for paragraph breaks, or told in snippets over the course of years.

I am one of those people who has trouble recognizing faces. I also tend to forget names. What do I remember? Someone's story. I read those stories on Facebook. They don't appear every day. Usually something prompts them. When they do appear, it is a deeply moving experience. The relative rarity of their appearance shows how special another human's story is, and how someone sharing his or her story with you is a generous and sacred act.

8.) Be Kind Enough to Read My Post. Even Better: Be Kind Enough to Read My Post and Click "Like." Better Yet: Read My Post and Comment On It. Best of All: Read My Post and Share It.

Every time someone reads one of my posts and likes or comments or shares, I am so grateful.

9.) Surprise Me.

I am surprised, even after twenty years of internet chat, by the fresh, sharp tang of sarcasm from my holier-than-thou JW internet, and now Facebook, friend. I am surprised by the rare but genuine tenderness and respect forthcoming from Sandy, who usually doesn't show me either. I am surprised when someone who usually presents a buttoned up, not to say anally fixated façade breaks down and admits that life alone is a rocky road, in a late Saturday night post that blurts out, "I've never had a boyfriend and I don't think I ever will." I am surprised by friendings, unfriendings, and refriendings. I am surprised at how many fall for internet hoaxes.

10.) Allow Me Into Your Life

One day Facebook friend Zoey, whom I don't know well at all – she is the Facebook friend of another Facebook friend whom I also do not know well at all – both are people I've never met – one day Zoey posted a request for prayers for a baby named Cohen.

I don't know if Zoey ever posted the reasons why Cohen needed prayer, but if she had, I would not have read those reasons. I have an aversion to anything medical and I just don't want to know. I don't know about my own medical issues and I don't want to know about anyone else's, either. I certainly don't watch doctor shows on TV. (No TV; see above.)

I prayed for Cohen that one time and moved on.

Zoey kept posting these messages. A pic of an infant; a request for prayer. I prayed again, and then again, and then again. It became a ritual.

I never clicked on the link to discover more about the child. Don't know what he has; don't know his prognosis. Don't know anything about his parents.

What surprised me is that day after day of taking these prayer breaks for Cohen – never initiated by me; always by Zoey – became a moving ritual for me. I felt my body change as I prayed for Cohen.

It is good.

Thank you Zoey, and Cohen's family, for letting me care about your little guy. It has meant a lot to me.

11.) Because, like Spinal Tap, we have to turn it up to 11!

Help Me Debate to Clarify My Own Thoughts.

I debate with others as a way of clarifying my own thoughts.

If I'm keeping my thoughts inside my head, I don't challenge myself, and I don't see the flaws in my own argument.

Recently Jack Philips, a Christian baker, of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was ordered to design and create an original wedding cake celebrating the marriage of two gay men.

This is wrong, I thought. He is an artist, and the state ordering an artist to create art that violates his own moral code is wrong. The analogy to the Civil Rights movement is not correct, I thought, because thorough oppression and exclusion of African Americans was America's official business for hundreds of years, and so enforcing accommodation laws that allowed African Americans access to lunch counters in the South was in America's best interest – in fact it was vital to make America truly America. The gay couple, though, could simply cross the street and go to another baker and buy cake from that baker. No problem.

I thought, I need to present my take on this issue to others and see what I'm missing.

I did so. I posted my position on Facebook and friends argued pro and con.

And I saw that my argument was sound. No one had a counter argument that defeated mine. In fact, people who disagreed with me resorted to changing the subject. Always a sign that your argument is sound.

On the other hand – It's a truism that no one ever changes their mind in debates. Certainly not in Facebook debates with strangers.

I posted something against duck hunting. I love birds and hate violence and I was mad at the Duck Dynasty people for their anti-gay comments.

A Facebook friend pointed out that duck hunters financially support refuges for wildlife, thus keeping more ducks alive through habitat preservation than killing ducks through hunting.

And I changed my mind, just about instantaneously. He was right; I was wrong. And I said so.

12.) (12 is the New Ten!) Be Willing To Listen To Me, To Break Through, And To Change Your Mind.

I LOVE, not just like, Facebook friends who can listen to me and change their minds.

A Facebook friend posted a pro-Irshad Manji post. I said I don't admire her lack of courage. My friend asked me what I meant. It wasn't hard for me rapidly to find material on the web summing up my own point of view eloquently. Manji avoids speaking harsh truths and peddles a false image of cultural relativism. My friend responded, "I see your point." I don't know if he agreed with me, but he got it. He didn't bash me for expressing an opinion that isn't PC, and that might disagree with his own. And that's a beautiful thing.


Hey, check out "Save Send Delete." It has received more than forty five-star reviews on Amazon. Click here.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Months of Free Movies: A Look Back

Last summer I was kicked out of a movie theater I'd been attending without incident for ten years. Sudden objection: I walk with a cane and carry a backpack (always have). Cane could be a weapon. Backpack could contain weapons.

I whined on Facebook and friends encouraged me to complain to corporate headquarters. Vivian was especially supportive. She told me to demand a year of free movies.

I did complain to corporate headquarters and I was offered several months of free movies. That period is coming to a close. Here's an assessment: given how much money is involved, and how many talented people there are out there, it's surprising how many bad movies get made.

Best Movie Seen: "Captain Philips"

Runner-up: "Monument Men"

Worst Movie Seen: "Her"

Biggest Disappointment: "Son of God"

Movie I Wished I'd Never Seen AND Wish I Could Imprison and Legally Punish the Filmmakers: "Prisoners." What a tortured, pretentious crapfest.

Movie that would have been much better had they not gone for tri-continental sweep, historical import, and truthy pronouncements about Art with a capital A and just tightened the focus and made it a character study of a bitchy woman and her charming chauffeur: "Saving Mr. Banks."

Movie I would not see not only with a free ticket; movie they could not pay me to see: "Gravity."

Most forgettable: "Pompeii," "Elysium," "Lone Survivor"

Most overrated and biggest Schadenfreude when it ended up empty handed at the Oscars, but offers most Amy Adams sideboobage "American Hustle"

Movie I would be least likely to see without a free ticket: "The Conjuring."

Movies I would probably have seen had it not been for the snowstorm, and, then, the snowstorm, and, oh look, another snowstorm: "Frozen," "Anchorman Two," "August Osage County."

Biggest, most nagging question: Where are the women? Where is the twenty-first century "All About Eve" or "Now Voyager"?

International Woman's Day: Child Bride Magazine

Thank you to Catapult. Source

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"The Crooked Mirror" by Louise Steinman. Review of a New Book that touches on Christian-Jewish Relations

There's a new book out, "The Crooked Mirror" by Louise Steinman, published by Beacon Press.

It's about Polish-Jewish relations, but by extension it's about Christian-Jewish relations, too.

The book is just so awful.

Review below.

Louise Steinman's "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" has been praised as "appealing to wide audiences," and "unblinking, scrupulous and enduring." Richard Rodriguez called "Crooked Mirror" "the most extraordinary travel book I have ever read" about a "nightmare" country, "dark, haunted" Poland, into which "miracle" working Steinman breaks "shattering light."

In fact "The Crooked Mirror" is the self-indulgent, impressionistic travel diary of a New Age, dilettante Holocaust tourist. The book consists of brief, unorganized anecdotes. In one, a Lakota healer burns sweet grass and waves an eagle feather over Auschwitz visitors. In another, an impoverished Polish peasant listens to Radio Maryja. These anecdotes are meant to give us enough ammo to conclude who our protagonists and antagonists are. With the sketchiest of information, we presume to gain the authority to elevate the healer as a good guy, and condemn the old woman.

"Crooked Mirror"'s literary style is basic, its discipline absent, its arrogance depressing. Steinman's tic is putting two parts of speech at the end of sentences and separating them with a comma. The Jews she knew hated Poland more than Germany, "a fact I never questioned as odd, misplaced." Or, "why would you expect your neighbors to shoot you, take your house?" Or "she begged her father, her aunts." Or "he questioned her urgently, gently." Or "We baffled him with our reactions, our decisions." Or "my overcoat was forgiving, pliant." Steinman's tic is distracting, annoying. Where is the editor, the proofreader?

Steinman visits Treblinka and tries to say something of note about that piece of earthly Hell, but Treblinka receives fewer words than tedious descriptions of the dreams of Steinman's travel companion, Cheryl Holtzman.

During a layover in Paris, Steinman visits La Bibliotheque Polonaise – the Polish library. In this chapter she says a few things about Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, and then a bit about the gingko trees in Krakow, Polish words for trees, and how fashionably dressed and made-up the library's chief curator is. At the end of this chapter I had to ask myself, "Why did I just read that?"

Steinman asks rhetorical questions, for example, "Why does one person reject" stereotypes, and why does another accept them? She responds to her own rhetorical question: "Breathe in why. Breathe out why. So simple. So difficult." The chapter, and the book's attempt to plumb the serious questions it raises, end right there.

Steinman purports to be addressing how the Holocaust could happen, and why Polish Catholics responded as they did. Scholars have addressed these questions. Michael C. Steinlauf provides historical context and psychological insight. Jan Tomasz Gross cites economic motivations. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz writes about real tensions caused by high-profile Jewish Communists who did torture and murder Home Army veterans. Edna Bonacich and Amy Chua advance universally-applicable theories that explain atrocity as far afield as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Africa – not just acts committed by Polish Catholics. It behooves any ethical author and publisher taking on this topic to engage previous scholarship. Steinman and Beacon Press do not.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In this empty space where scholarship should be, Steinman reveals her "answer" to the big questions in a series of anecdotes. For the most part, older, poorer more rural and more Catholic Poles are "provincial" "Neanderthals" who hate Jews. Younger, better educated, more sartorially elegant Poles who have devoted their lives to recreating Poland's lost Jewish culture through tours, publications and artwork are good Poles.

Steinman and Beacon Press hand a free pass to the reader. Do you, reader, need to know any serious facts about Poland before making up your mind about any of these issues? Nah, not really. Just interpret the dream you had last night.

Breathtaking in its arrogance and solipsism, "Crooked Mirror" reports that Steinman and her travel companion Cheryl "imagined convening some grand international conference" for Jews and Poles. Later she and Cheryl powwow with "four sincere Polish university students. It was a start." "It was a start"? There have been numerous international conferences dedicated to Polish-Jewish relations. Steinman's and Cheryl's chat was not "a start" at anything.

Steinman appears never to have learned even conversational Polish – but that's okay; she speaks hot-tub. Steinman encounters an elderly Polish woman. This woman wears "threadbare" and "frayed" clothing. Her hands are "stained" with dirt. Her greenhouse is "rotting." Her lawn furniture is "overturned." Her blanket is "rumpled." Her hand is a "claw." This Polish peasant crone is listening to the "infamous Radio Maryja," an "anti-Semitic station." Steinman concludes that the old woman is an anti-Semite and "xenophobic."

Those who know Poland know that Radio Maryja does broadcast anti-Semitic material, but the station also broadcasts genuinely loving material. I have met deeply good people who listen to Radio Maryja. Not all its listeners are anti-Semites, any more than all NPR listeners are effete, brie-eating anti-Zionists. I suspect that had this old woman been more elegantly dressed – perhaps in garments by Hugo Boss, the Nazis' couturier – Steinman would not have judged her so harshly. Indeed Steinman, while writing about Poland but never capturing its appearance except to describe it in clichéd ways as dreary or grim, never misses a chance to report who is wearing a leather jacket.

Cheryl dresses "beguilingly" with "great fashion sense." Cheryl is an American woman who lives in the South of France and enjoys the beach. She makes everyone around her indulge her whims to march, unannounced, almost into strangers' laps at their workplaces, withdraw into pouts, stop a car suddenly, run down a public road, and scream, or to detail yet another one of her dreams. Cheryl's carte blanche to be difficult: she inherited grief from her survivor father.

The reader is to be less indulgent of August Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk, a Pole, was captured by Nazis at age 19 when attempting to join the resistance. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz for eighteen months. He was tortured. Kowalczyk described an SS man casually reading the newspaper, his pet dog at his feet, during this torture. Kowalczyk escaped. In retribution for his escape, Nazis gassed three hundred Poles.

The only thing in Kowalczyk's talk that raised a reaction from his listeners – one was "stricken" – was his perhaps casual comment that "Jews were resigned." Listeners to Kowalczyk's talk protested – just that comment. That was perhaps all they heard of this Polish man's description of his own crucifixion in Auschwitz. One must question a value system that allows Cheryl her constant indulgence of her own pain, though she was born in the US and lives in the South of France, and denies to a man like August Kowalczyk his heroism and his pain because he is Polish.

Steinman reports anecdotes as unquestioned fact. Scholarship shows that this is a mistake. People alter first-person accounts. Anecdotes may or may not be representational. A responsible storyteller addressing the Holocaust will compare first-person accounts with accepted scholarship. Steinman's readers will take these stories as true and representational. That is unfortunate on so important a topic.

Steinman Orientalizes. Because she does not speak Polish or Ukrainian, or possess much knowledge of the cultures she visits, Poles and Ukrainians come across as wacky exotics. They paint murals, sing songs, love or hate Jews, and kiss hands. Poles exist exclusively as "Neanderthals" who hate Jews or good goys who love Jews and devote their lives to them. There are no Poles who live their lives without their relationship to Jews being their primary feature.

I cannot imagine Beacon Press publishing such an Orientalizing text about Jews and the Holocaust. Would they publish a book about a tourist who spent several weeks in Israel and never bothered to learn conversational Hebrew, or penetrate Israeli culture? No. Then by what set of rules is this book's paradigm acceptable? Poles remain objects in this text – things about which Steinman speaks. They do not speak, or live, for themselves.