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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Muslims Who Want Free Speech / Englishmen Who Reject Free Speech / Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller Banned by Neville Chamberlain

Egypt. Free Speech. Source
Afghanistan. Free Speech. Source

Pakistan. Free Speech. Source

Turkey. Free Speech. Source
Iran. Free Speech. Source
England. No Free Speech. Neville Chamberlain lives! 

I'm a Christian. I find many of atheist Richard Dawkins critiques of Christianity to be profoundly offensive, even evil. Dawkins is a British superstar biologist.

I wake up to a radio alarm blasting the morning's news headlines. If, tomorrow morning, my radio alarm announced that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had barred Richard Dawkins from entry into the US because his critiques of Christianity had offended many, I would recoil. I would realize I had woken up in 1984. I would realize that the rest of my life wouldn't be worth dirt under such an oppressive regime. I would immediately devote everything I had to overturning such a regime. Free speech is the sine qua non of Western Civilization. No free speech means no Western Civilization, no science, no scholarship, no comedy, no progress.

The English now live under such a regime.

On June 26, 2013, England announced that it would deny entry to authors and bloggers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. The English government denied Spencer and Geller entry because Spencer and Geller report on acts of jihad. You can read the full story here.

Neither Spencer nor Geller is accused of any crime. They are not accused of wanting to commit a crime. The only reason the English gave for denying Spencer and Geller entry: They criticize acts of jihad.

If this bugs you as much as it bugs me, please sign the petition here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Save Send Delete" Is Humbling, Compelling, Amazing says Patric Miller, Near Death Experiencer

Patric Miller, golfer and near death experiencer 
I was recently reading reviews of Dr. Eben Alexander's book "Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife." The most helpful Amazon review was by Patric Miller, who identified himself as someone who had had a near death experience. I was impressed by Patric's review, but even more impressed by his comportment in the lengthy discussion that followed. As is often the case with Amazon discussions, some posts were prickly. Patric remained classy and on topic. You can read Patric's review here.

Patric maintains a webpage, "Beyond God and Science," where he talks about the insights he gained from his own near death experience, here.

I asked Patric to review "Save Send Delete." His review is below:


In the C.S. Lewis classic book, "The Screwtape Letters," we read one-way communication from an earth-bound demon, working to try and capture the soul of a wayward Christian. In Danusha Goska's "Save Send Delete" we are privy to one-way replies to a modern day demon, in the semi-fictionalized role of one of the chief skeptic leaders of the modern atheist movement.

Like many who read this book, you may be compelled to try and figure out who the key protagonist is based upon. I was assured by the author that the actual role model was indeed a well-known, public skeptic/atheist who can be seen regularly on talk shows, and multimedia interviews online. And more important, that the events of the story were all true.

Which of course makes the entire book all the more compelling.

If this "fiction" was indeed based upon real life events, then one must believe all of the heartbreaking and amazingly revealing transcript of a life that is enlightened, beyond challenging, and yet based in a Christian faith that is not only unshakable and adamant in its defense.

"Mira" is resolute and amazingly brilliant in her defense/offense, dodge and parry dueling with "Rand," the flawed, flailing, and all too foibled famous atheist/science pragmatist known for destroying every challenge from Christianity and other traditional faiths and "fringe science," that would dare look at our existence as being more metaphysical than physical. Her arguments are solid, and convincing, in a way that is hard to refute, although we are not privy to what is actually being written by "Rand."

While this literary vehicle can be frustrating at times, her replies make it clear as to the direction and stance he takes. And let's be honest...if you have seen any of the aforementioned professional atheists on a talk show, or read one of their books, the "party line" is pretty clear, thin and repetitive.

However, what makes this a great piece of writing, worthy of the highest recommendation, is not the outward debate that transpires, but the way in which this book examines the true state of the human condition, and how frail and fragile "success" really can be, in this complex, reality-show-as-stars-world. The fact that more people know who "Honey Boo Boo" or "Snooky" are, and don't know who Michael Shermer or Richard Dawkins are, should make my point.

Mira and Rand are not just theological polar opposites, their very existence as a famous, rich, well-lettered, and privileged voice of humanism, contrasted by a person marginalized by circumstance, health issues, and a health and education system that borders on sadistic, is at the root of the amazing transformation that takes place in both of the characters of the book...and most likely the reader.

While I am not a member of any specific faith or religious denomination, the message here is clearly one of the need for us to see every person beyond the basic outer shell, and realize that compassion cuts both ways in a society so divided by religion, politics, and a widening income gap that creates a clear caste system in the Western world, as well as third world countries.

The most amazing aspect of this book to me...and I agree with other reviewers that it is a short read, simply because you can't put it that you are left to fill in the blanks in your own life, in a way that almost no other modern book on theology, personal relationships, or the perils of online relationships usually does. This is a cautionary tale, not only in realizing the limitations of electronic communications without personal contact, but even more important, the need to reach out and MAKE personal contact with everyone you meet in your everyday life.

Mira/Danusha does this in ways that are humbling, compelling, and amazing.

This is a voice that should be matter where you stand on the debate between science and faith. This book should be the beginning of a life-changing moment for the well as the reader. I only hope that I can be part of getting the word out to a far larger audience.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"There Are Times that My Eye Welled up with Tears; There Are Times that I Burst Out Laughing": Deacon Kevin McCormack of "Religion on the Line" Endorses "Save Send Delete."

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack
of WABC's "Religion on the Line." 
On Sunday, June 23, 2013, I was interviewed by Deacon Kevin McCormack and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of WABC radio's "Religion on the Line."

My fellow blogger, Otto Gross, who blogs about World War II mysteries including the disappearance of the L-8 blimp, kindly recorded the show and posted an mp3 of the interview. You can listen to the interview here.

Amanda Cooney transcribed Deacon Kevin McCormack's endorsement of "Save Send Delete." Here's what he had to say about the book:


I downloaded the book off Kindle…and I got hooked into it! It's a journey of faith in a real modern way. It's a real person's struggle with understanding what it is to be a believer in the 21st century.

The book is a pretty neat book! The book is done through emails. You get great reviews! Talk about some of the people who have reviewed your book positively. And it's big names! You and an atheist have this dialogue debate with one another. We live in a society that very often is segregated; people of faith on one side, atheists on the other and there is little discussion between.

I want to reinforce the importance of the book, but also the pleasure of reading the book. This is not a philosophical tome. This is very clever-you are a very funny writer also-I mean there are times that my eye welled up with tears, there are times that I burst out laughing with some of the ways you turned phrases. It was a fun read, I certainly enjoyed it.

There is a tension within it, a personal tension that adds suspense to the whole thing. It's definitely something worth a summer read. If you're looking for something to take with you that's not going to be complete fluff, but is going to have something that is readable and is going to challenge your soul, I can't more thoroughly suggest that you pick up "Save, Send, Delete".

I think God wanted this interview to happen. I am very glad that we could do this. I can't tell people enough, go to Barns and Noble and Amazon. Pick up this book and enjoy it, absolutely enjoy it! It's certainly worth your time and effort. I'm honored that you've become a friend through all of this.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"My Son the Fanatic" 1997 Hanif Kureishi, Om Puri, Rachel Griffiths. Shoddy Art, Repugnant Politics, Brilliant Performances by Puri and Griffiths

"My Son the Fanatic," writer Hanif Kureishi and director Udayan Prasad's 1997 film about Farid, an English-born Pakistani boy who becomes a devout Muslim who firebombs a brothel, is a train wreck. Its art is shoddy and its politics are repugnant. But Om Puri as Parvez, the taxi-driver father of the fanatic son, gives a performance that is solid gold. Rachel Griffiths, as a prostitute, is brilliant.

Parvez (Om Puri) is a taxi driver in a depressed English mill town. He befriends Bettina (Griffiths) a prostitute. He works for a monstrous German sex tourist named S---t. Parvez's son, Farid, is engaged to the lovely Madeline Fingerhut, daughter of the chief of police.  Farid breaks off his engagement and becomes the Muslim "fanatic" of the title. Parvez tries to stop his son's fanaticism. He also enters into an affair with Bettina, the prostitute, who loves him.

"My Son the Fanatic" struggles to combine several disparate themes and subplots. It is never successful because it never probes deeply enough into any of its material. The film ends ambiguously; the viewer has no idea how any of the story strands will resolve themselves.

The two most powerful features of the film, the only real reason to see the film, are Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths. They are very different and they are both powerhouses. Om Puri feels like a beating heart. He is totally believable, irresistibly lovable, and charismatic. Puri had smallpox when he was two and his face is cratered. These scars just make you stare at him all the more.

Rachel Griffiths is perfect as Bettina, the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold." She's smart, and she's in pain.

In spite of their age and culture differences, Parvez and Bettina's love is completely believable and poignant. It's clear that Parvez's wife Minoo is not providing him with passion, respect, or either emotional or physical intimacy. She calls him a "useless idiot," and at one point it appears she may leave him to go back to Pakistan. While Parvez resists his son's fanaticism, Minoo supports it.

You really want to know – can a man fall in love with a prostitute? Parvez's friend Fizzy reminds him cruelly that Bettina has been penetrated by thousands of men. Could Parvez ever get over that? Could Parvez and Minoo separate in a way that worked for them both and spared them both great pain? Could Bettina settle down with one man? Could the couple survive the disdain of respectable people? Again, the chemistry between Parvez and Bettina is so compelling you really want the film to attempt to answer any of these questions. In fact, it answers none. Sadly, Parvez and Bettina are merely Hanif Kureishi's little wind-up toys. He has zero respect or affection for his own characters. Kureishi created Parvez and Bettina just to make his own, repugnant, political point. They are agitprop.

With the exception of Madeline Fingerhut, who is onscreen for about 120 seconds, every last Westerner the innocent Muslims encounter is a racist, a prostitute, or a monster. The thrust of "My Son the Fanatic" is this. Innocent, decent Pakistani Muslims immigrate to England and are confronted by orgies, naked women selling their bodies in the streets, racism, violence, and booze. The film is graphic and disgusting. There are gratuitous scenes of Bettina being used by her johns. The German sex tourist S– is depicted abusing men and women and hosting orgies. There is no logic in this; this man is shown to be ridiculously wealthy. A sex tourist with that kind of money would not travel to some grim northern English mill town.

S–-, the German sex tourist for whom Parvez works, is named after feces. He is utterly disgusting. There are graphic scenes of his exploitation of Bettina. Later, she is shown with bruises from his beatings. He also beats Parvez. When Parvez goes out, he is cruelly mocked by an English comedian. There is no other English life depicted in "My Son the Fanatic." Not a single English person is kind to children or animals. The English are all violent, sexually perverse, racist scum. Farid becomes a fanatic after Madeline's father is rude to him. "You are the only pig I've ever wanted to eat," Farid tells his future father-in-law. All this graphic perversion is thrust into the viewer's face to emphasize: innocent, decent Muslims are forced by Western ugliness to become terrorists.

Okay, let's rejoin planet Earth, shall we? On May 21, 2013, the BBC reported on 54 separate child sex slave rings in England run by Pakistani men. The descriptions of the activities of these gangs are nightmarish. Western Civilization did not corrupt these men; their corruption was already installed. And as for the charge that racism forces otherwise innocent men to become fanatics; please see Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarneav, two beloved, funded, coddled, immigrants who arrived in the US as "refugees." The refuge the US gave these men was used by them to murder innocents.

The London Times named Hanif Kureishi one of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945." Given the shoddiness of the plotting and characterization of "My Son the Fanatic," and its skewed politics, one has to wonder why.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Save Send Delete" on WABC's "Religion on the Line"

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack

I'm scheduled to discuss "Save Send Delete" on Sunday, June 23, at 9:35 Eastern Time, on the WABC radio show Religion on the Line. Hosts are Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack. The show's website is here

Saturday, June 15, 2013

My Jihad Against Cute Food v. The Question of Sex

I had a boyfriend once named Mark. We both liked poetry and hiking. We were both from New Jersey and we both had parents who didn't love us. I write and I watch birds. He wrote and he hunted deer. We both had to strategize before, and seek consolation after, any encounter with our parents. That's what we had in common. That's what brought us together.

He was a pool player. He told me one day that his dream was to buy a pool cue that cost over a thousand dollars.

I choked and stared at him.

A great gulf opened between us. I didn't even say anything. He just said, angrily, "I don't think everybody should be poor until everyone on earth is not poor."

I realized, when he said that, that I did think that.

And I realized, wow, not everyone thinks that.

And I realized, wow, morality varies by person.

And I realized, wow, Mark and I are not going to last as a couple.


One of the first things I noticed about Facebook was that people post photos of cute food. Only nice people post photos of cute food. If Ted Bundy had a Facebook account, he would not post photos of cute food.

One of the second things I noticed was that these photos of cute food really irk me.

And the thing is, they're CUTE. I'm getting upset over something that is CUTE.

Cute food. Upsets me. Good grief.

Cute food is probably one of the most harmless, adorable, eager-to-please things you will ever encounter.


Yes I was in Peace Corps in Africa and Asia and yes I did see children die from hunger.

Yeah, well, so what. I've got ice cream in my refrigerator right now.

But I do regard food as sacred.

I have this vow never to throw food away. When Sandy hit in October, 2012, and we lost electricity for almost two weeks, I went into survivalist mode and managed, with prepared ice packs, to keep my food cool and edible that entire time. I did have to throw out two things: lentils and tomatoes. It's an indication of how seriously I take the vow never to throw away food that eight months later I can tell you exactly which food items I had to throw away.

When I make it to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter is going to tell me, "Well, we were going to allow you in to heaven, but in November of 2012, you threw away lentils and tomatoes. Sorry."


Cute food turns food, something sacred, into a visual joke.

Contemplating the time and effort necessary to making cute food drives me nuts.

My first exposure to cute food, and to how much cute food horrifies me, was when my Facebook friend Gale Miko posted a photo of strawberry Santa Clauses. You can see that photo, above.

I cook. I love cooking. I realize how much effort, focus, and concentration it would take to prepare those strawberry Santa Clauses. How steady your hands would have to be. How much energy and attention each strawberry Santa Claus would demand.

Shouldn't you really be spending that time and attention saving the world?


But every time someone posts a new, ever more elaborate cute food photo, that is exactly where my mind goes: Starving children. Never throwing food away. Growing up poor and eating foul tasting – I can still taste it – surplus food the government gave our family – margarine, pasta, white rice. It all tasted as if it had been stored for a hundred years in the back of a greasy mechanic's garage.

I think of the incredible skill and focus it would take to make six layer cakes look like six polo shirts in a stack. And I think, why couldn't they apply that focus to world peace?



I'm a Christian. In "Save Send Delete" I do my best to present why I'm a Christian.

Before I began writing the book, I had a problem.

I knew I wanted to do my best to present the Christian point of view.

But, I knew, there's always been this one problem with my Christianity.

I've never been able to adhere to the party line on sexual sins.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating orgies, bestiality, or pedophilia.

But most of the people I know had sex before they got married. I don't think they will go to hell for that. I don't think being gay is a sin, either.

I can't even understand why any God would want to send people to hell for premarital sex, or for being gay.

Cute food? That’s another matter entirely.


Just to state the obvious. I'm not condemning cute food in this blog post.

Rather I'm thinking about morality.

What's right? What's wrong? Why is it that one person's sin is another person's pleasure?

I am perhaps gaining insight in to people like Robespierre, Torquemada, the Mutaween. People who violently enforce their morality on others in trivial matters like how much hair peeks out from under a woman's veil.

You can see some amazing artwork made from food, including a landscape made from a single cucumber, here.

John Guzlowski writes about what his father ate in Buchenwald here

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On My Knees I Beg You To Read This Blog Post

On my knees I beg you to read this blog post. Tara Hardy tells you everything I learned from being diagnosed with cancer, and my sister being diagnosed with cancer some months later. 

Read Tara Hardy. You won't regret it. 

Bone Marrow
by Tara Hardy

You will be standing in the market,
sorting through avocados,
when the band Kansas “Dust in the Wind”
will come pumping through the ceiling and you’ll think:
“Jesus, this song is gonna out live me.”

There are a few things that getting really sick illuminates.

1. Dieting is ridiculous. The way you look is beside the point.
The biggest gift you bring to any room is your heart.

2. You will ask anyone for money.
Will get on your knees to beg your enemy for help,
because you know that way down under all that animosity
is a deep and abiding love,
for why else would she hate you with such loyalty.

3. Things that used to taste bitter
suddenly turn to maple sugar in your mouth.
What you wouldn’t have for another year to grieve that man
you thought you loved more than your own bone marrow.

4. Suddenly everything will be so beautiful.
The halfhearted sunset. The rotting leaves. The way a rind hugs a lime.
Your own age spots. What you wouldn’t do to earn more of them.

5. Yes, you will drink liquid seaweed.
You’d stand on your head in a mini skirt
wearing no underpants in front of your ex’s new girlfriend
if you thought that it would make a difference,
but you won’t not ever be the same again.
This is neither good nor bad, it just is.
And anyway, too much suffering is caused
by trying to hold onto things.
There goes your youth. There goes your lover.
There goes your health, your wealth, your beauty,
all of them useful when they were around,
but there are other tools with which to cherish yourself now.

6. The first thing you give up
is the means of comforting yourself with thoughts of suicide.

7. The second thing you give up is pride,
and as you do, the world will come rushing forward.
It is fucking hard to ask for help,
but if you don’t, you will never know how much you matter,
or the fact that the only person who didn’t love you enough
is huddled inside your skin.

8. Your skin, your skin is the biggest gift you were ever given.
When the doctors first said, I might die
what surprised me
is that I didn’t wish I’d written more poems,
or even told people I loved them.

If I love you, you know.

What I wished is that I’d seen more the world, let its salt stick to me.
I spent so much time in my head and in my heart
that I forgot to live in my body.

Maybe that’s why she’s in trouble now.

I have been obsessed with achieving immortality through poetry,
but when I was told in no uncertain terms
that this rickety container has an actual expiration date,
I knew that immortality is bull shit,
so I left that hospital with a horse’s dose of right fucking now.

We don’t get to take anything with us
and anything we leave behind is not one foot still in life,
because once we are dust we are literally for the wind.

So on my agenda, with whatever time I have left, is joy.

Because, #9, anticipatory grief is absurd.

When I’m dead, I won’t be here to miss anything
and engaging in pre-missing seems like an indulgence.

It not that there isn’t pleasure in weeping –
why else would we do it so much –
but I’ve got ocean’s to float, I’ve got lava to peep,
I’ve got a balcony in the South of France on which to slow dance
with a lover that I love down to the spaces between her eyelashes.

Poems will happen because that is how I process life,
but I will no longer mistake them for living.

If there is any advice I would have to give
to my formerly non-sick self, or maybe you, it would be this:
Eat the avocados, love yourself down to the marrow and out past the rind,
make stalwart enemies out of good people
who will hate you with their whole hearts,
make it mutual and unconditional
and this way you will never be alone with love.

I don’t want to be finite,
but the fact that we are is what makes even the terror exquisite.

So, step out from behind your walls,
let the world rush forward, rise to meet it.

Turn your precious attention towards God’s most tangible gift,
this physical world,
and while you still have the chance,
let your beloved skin salt in the wind.  

~ Tara Hardy is the working class queer femme poet who founded Bent, a writing institute for LGBTIQ people in Seattle, WA.

Thank you to Stephanie Sugars for introducing me to this poem. Stephanie Sugars blogs about living with advanced breast cancer at her blog here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Edward Snowden, Patriot or Traitor?

Edward Snowden: patriot or traitor?

I asked on Facebook this morning. I received an interesting reply from Otto Gross, who himself had a security clearance. I asked Otto for permission to post his reply here, and he granted permission.


The question is not whether the government did anything wrong or not. I'm no fan of the current administration but they seem to have followed due process in getting Prism setup. If Snowden knew of wrongdoing, then he should have followed the chain of command to report it. If that didn't work, there's a Congressional committee that deals with secret issues. He should have gone down those roads.

When I received my clearance I not only had to sign and initial each page of the regulations governing my top secret clearance, but people asked specific questions about whether I would have a problem with the  nature of the work being done. The document is the thickness of the Manhattan phone book and there's no ambiguity in any of the wording. If you divulge secrets during a time of war, they can kill you. If it's not a time of war, they will more than likely stick you in prison, but they have the option of killing you. I spent two weeks straight signing each page of that book, and initialing the two lines present on each page stating what could happen to me if I divulged secrets.

We live in a republic. For better or for worse, the numbskulls were elected and they determine policy. It is not up to some high-school drop-out who thinks he knows better than the people duly elected after three months of working in this type of environment. The coup d'état mentality is counter-productive to a functional society. We're a nation of laws, and if he did have some earth-shattering knowledge of wrongdoing then he should have followed the rules and laws that are in place.

He's a traitor. I know they have the legal right to shoot him because I read every one of those pages. I keep hearing him spoken of as a hero and that he should get a metal. If they do pin a metal on his chest, I hope it's a 9 mm.

"The Lives of Others" 2006 Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Edward Snowden has put spying on the front page. Reminds me of the best film I've ever seen about spying, "The Lives of Others," 2006, by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Here's an article about that film I wrote for a scholarly journal. 

"Weren't you afraid?" listeners demand, when they learn that I spent years traveling alone, by the cheapest means possible, including hitchhiking.

"No," I reply. If pressed, I confess: I trust in God. In spite of armed kidnappers in Africa, the goods I smuggled in Burma, the Texas thug with a gun, I was not afraid.

Except. One country stands out -- The German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany. Nothing happened to me there, and yet something about the GDR rattled me. "East German border guard" became a favorite insult.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's 2006 The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) invites viewers on a quick trip to the late, in some corners, lamented, GDR. Lives depicts the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.) One in fifty East Germans played some role in Stasi spying. Unofficial Collaborators (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter) included husbands, doctors, parents, informing on wives, patients, daughters and sons. Stasi spy archives constitute more written records than Germany had produced in all of its previous history.

Sounds pretty grim. And yet Lives' fans report joyous weeping during its final scene. Lives won the 2006 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film, and too many other awards to list here. IMDB fans have voted it number 74 of the best films of all time, after Rashomon, Modern Times, and Singing in the Rain. Naysayers insist that Lives' fans are naïve. Not I. This review will argue that Lives is a profound, if flawed, work of art, and that its beauty, wrung from soul-crushing ugliness, is earned.

It's November, 1984, the screen title reads, the Orwellian year. We are walking down an institutional hallway. This is Hohenschönhausen, a former Gestapo prison, inherited by the Stasi. The walls range between blue-gray, green and yellow: the signature spectrum of a Caucasian dying of cirrhosis, or of the Soviet empire. Get used to it. A tall, uniformed man with a cinched waist keeps a tight grip on his prisoner. Without a second thought, you would have passed this prisoner -- a somewhat cocky, handsome redhead, in a windbreaker -- on the line getting into the theater showing this film. No armband or exotic ethnicity differentiates him from his guard or from you. The horror begins.

A slightly built, balding, fifty-something captain, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), clicks on a bulky, reel-to-reel recorder. Lives is a trip down spy technology memory lane. Okay, what's this? The prisoner is ordered to place his hands under his thighs, palms down. The viewer had been girded for scenes of torture. The palms-down routine is quaint as, but less menacing than, punishments meted out in Catholic school. Huh, we think, perhaps along with the prisoner. We can take this. And other viewers are thinking, "See? I told you that the Commies were never as bad as the Nazis."

The captain wears the facial expression of a commuter driving through a familiar toll booth, waiting for the electronic acknowledgement that he's paid his fare. The prisoner is self-assured. He will just continue denying everything. Wiesler points out that the prisoner's so much as implying that he has been detained without reason impugns the benignity of the GDR, and, thus, itself constitutes reason for the prisoner to be punished. Eventually, controlled, righteous anger registers on the captain's face. This man is doing his duty; the prisoner's "prepared lies" slight the captain.

The reel-to-reel is fast forwarded. In fact, it is being played, later, in an intercut scene, to a brightly lit class of prospective Stasi agents; young people listen to the tape while looking like the attentive, ambitious young people one might find at any lecture given by a powerful man whose power the students hope, one day, to take. This interrogation is also a performance. Lives' theme of voyeurism is announced. The camera cuts back to the interrogation room, now darkened; these yellow-greens have rotted to the necrotic. The cocky young man sobs, sweats, wilts. He has been deprived of sleep. His mind has been toyed with. He provides the captain with information Wiesler may have had all along. The camera cuts back to the classroom. A student raises his hand and protests that these techniques are inhuman. Wiesler coolly, silently, and efficiently marks an "x" (like a cross) next to the student's name -- which is, appropriately enough, "Benedikt." (Lives is nothing if not a movie worth paying close attention to; "benediction" from "speak well" means "blessing;" Benedict is the current, conservative, German pope.)

Wiesler stares down his students, as, in the intercut scenes, he stares down his prisoner. His job is getting at the truth, that's all, and upholding the very high ideals of the GDR. Wiesler allows a moment of exasperated annoyance to show on his face as he takes his prisoner's finally delivered confession; with a wait-for-it flourish, he instructs his students to listen carefully to the interrogation's denouement; wearing gloves, Wiesler kneels and flips screws off the seat cover. The cover is placed into a jar sealed with a metal clip. This is a scent sample, to be saved in case the prisoner is to be tracked with dogs.

This, then, as cited in the title of a recent documentary, is the "decomposition of a soul." As stated in Stasi documents, ''the aim of decomposition is fragmentation, paralysis, to disorganize and isolate the negative enemy forces and thus allow a political ideological recuperation.''

As students file out, Wiesler is intercepted by his old school chum and current superior, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur). Grubitz, tall, superficially handsome, with a floppy, blonde comb-over, suggests a new investigation to Wiesler, who glances at Grubitz's back as he, Wiesler, puts away his equipment. This is the first of many scenes in which Wiesler, without making eye contact, registers others the way an animal registers predator or prey. These moments of unreciprocated glances are feral, they communicate isolation. The audience begins to learn how difficult it would be for Wiesler to make human contact.

The screen goes black; typed words appear: "The Lives of Others." A chill goes down the viewer's back. Will the "lives" here serve as menu items for a Stasi soul cannibal? Or does that title promise, and not threaten; are its use of the words, not a reflection of callous exploitation, but an invitation to the unique gifts others' lives afford when they are engaged with love?

Wiesler now sits in the box of a theater, watching, through opera glasses. The play is Faces of Love (Gesichter der Liebe), about heroic female factory workers. A tall, handsome man, dressed in rumpled, Bohemian jacket, no tie, appears in the wings. This is Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), "the GDR's only non-subversive author," who thinks that he lives in the greatest country on earth. The playwright, he graciously acknowledges applause from the audience.

When Wiesler views the play's heroine, the sensual, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), he is no longer the functionary in complete control. Gabriel Yared's soundtrack perfectly emphasizes this moment that kicks the plot into gear; the operatic score luxuriates in a vibrancy, color and brio otherwise impossible in a film about the GDR. After the play, Wiesler observes Christa-Maria's embrace of Georg; he looks angry; he looks competitive. He tells Grubitz he wants to investigate Georg. Grubitz reports this to Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Hempf is a human Jabba the Hut; he's fat and vile; even the sounds his body makes as he shifts his girth in his theater seat are grotesque. (Thieme deserves special appreciation for his willingness to be so repulsive.) Wiesler watches from above. Wiesler watching Hempf watching Georg hammers home the voyeuristic theme.

Later, at a cast party, Georg and Christa-Maria dance; their friends stand back and watch. Even among show people, Georg and Christa-Maria are the show. As glamorous as they are, though, they are still behind the bars of a cage; Christa-Maria's shiny dress is the dreary shade of a faded bruise; her eye shadow is a too obvious blue. Hempf, channeling Castro's "Words to the Intellectuals," says that "The party needs artists, but artists need the party more." Hempf nails this by surreptitiously pawing Christa-Maria, who moves away. He praises Georg by announcing, "Writers are engineers of the soul." Georg reminds Hempf that that's a Stalinist quote.

Georg tells Hempf that he needs Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) to direct his plays, but Jerska has been blacklisted. Hempf reprimands Georg; "there is no such thing as a blacklist" in the GDR. And, Hempf insists, Jerska cannot be trusted. "People don't change."

After the party, which he has observed surreptitiously, Wiesler returns to his apartment. Wiesler's trimly efficient, unostentatious body enters a vestibule; the camera pans his dwelling as Wiesler hangs his jacket on a hook. Apparently the one color allowed in Stasiland other than jaundice is beige. Wiesler's wallpaper is beige faux-wood. His apartment is large, spacious, and clean. All angles are a sharp ninety degrees. Two too small paintings adorn the walls. Nothing is messy or out of place. The scene is chilling. In his pristine kitchen, Wiesler squirts a tube of red paste onto white food. He settles down in front of the TV. His companion: a report on land for chicken farmers.

The next scene is a strong contrast. Georg, in a long coat that flatters his height and adds dash, is transporting a mess of scallions and other groceries. He interrupts his shopping to play boisterous street soccer with neighborhood kids. Wiesler is plastered against a wall, watching Georg play. He is wearing a waist-length, multiply zipped and snapped jacket that is -- no surprise here -- gray-blue-green, the exact shades of the wall behind him.

With a brisk, practiced efficiency that consumers might wish their internet providers could emulate, as soon as Georg steps out, Wiesler and his team, working against a stopwatch, wire Georg's apartment. Wiesler's eyes stare straight ahead, never veering left nor right; his body seems directed, given shape, not by his spine, but by his stare. Given the intensity of his stare, and the slightness of his body, he seems almost a mythical creature made only of the stare, straight outward, incapable of the poetry, spirituality and ethics that arise from introspection, from seeing oneself in relation to what one sees.

Even as Wiesler prepares to spy, a shot through a peephole reveals that he's being spied upon -- by Frau Meineke (Marie Gruber), Georg's neighbor. As if by ESP -- and Wiesler is so competent that the viewer accepts that ESP may be part of his job description -- Wiesler senses. He knocks sternly on her door, and calmly informs her, "Frau Meineke, one word of this and Masha loses her place at the university. Understand?" The intimacy of Wiesler's communication -- he knows her, he knows her daughter, he knows her most vulnerable point -- Meineke's cringing stance, her inability to meet Wiesler's gaze as she mutely nods, thus becoming a collaborator, speak volumes, and economically so.

Wiesler is now ensconced in his observation blind above Georg's apartment. In a high-ceilinged, unfinished loft, spattered by light from marred panes and wall chinks, surrounded by bulky equipment that seems the closest he'll ever have to companions, headphones on, Wiesler types his account of Georg's 40th birthday party.

Before the party, Christa-Maria gave Georg a necktie; at first he resisted, but he gives in. Georg is the quintessential nice guy. He is tall and effortlessly handsome, but he does nothing to play that up. His hair needs a wash and a cut; his clothes are as rumpled as his friends'. In his small struggle against the necktie, the viewer might guess some of his backstory, how communism's egalitarian ideals appeal to him; how the state has been good to him; in his easy smile one sees a writer who hasn't felt any need, so far, to rock any boats.

Georg is surrounded by people more complicated than himself. He didn't see Hempf paw Christa-Maria; he mentioned the forbidden word "blacklist." He does not notice that Christa-Maria needs to take drugs before she can face the birthday party. And he is not in tune with his more radical friends. He does not see Jerska's pain at being denied the opportunity to direct. "A director without a play is like a projector without film," as Jerska says. Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer) storms out of Georg's party, saying that Georg should contact him only when he is ready to take action.

"They unwrap presents, then presumably have intercourse," Wiesler types, as Georg tugs Christa-Maria's hem up to her garter belt, encasing a lush thigh. Wiesler's nightshift replacement, Udo (Charly Hübner) arrives. Wiesler registers awareness of the youth's arrival without making eye contact; he even hands the headphones to Udo without looking. Udo, fat and jolly, expresses lubricious satisfaction in listening to sex. "I much prefer monitoring artists over peace activists or priests," Udo says. Wiesler rolls his eyes toward the ceiling and sighs. Udo makes to high five him; Wiesler leaves him hanging.

Wiesler meets with Grubitz at a Stasi cafeteria. He chooses to sit with his inferiors; "Socialism has to start somewhere," he says. Wiesler tells Grubitz that Christa-Maria is having an affair with Hempf. Grubitz shrugs. "We can't monitor top officials." "Is that why we took an oath on the sword and shield?" Wielser asks.

One of the lower-ranked employees tells a joke: the sun, once it reaches the West, says "Screw you," to Erich Honecker. Grubitz toys with the young joke teller, alternately threatening, and egging him on. Here Ulrich Tukur, who is very good at looking both pleasantly bland and diabolically evil, uses that skill to chilling effect. Wiesler's face registers disdain.

On the rough plank floorboards of his aerie, Wiesler draws a chalk floor plan of Georg's apartment. He steps into the diagram marked "CMS." As Wiesler metaphorically steps into Christa-Maria's bedroom, the camera cuts to Christa-Maria stopped on the street by Hempf. At first she resists his blandishments, but then, with a look of defeat, she enters Hempf's car, where he paws her resistant form, as his chauffeur watches in the rearview mirror. Hempf violates Christa-Maria; she allows it because she is afraid. Strangely, more than one reviewer has commented on the sight of Hempf's white underwear in this scene, as if it were indicative of the lack of fashionable clothing in the GDR.

Wiesler sees Hempf's car pull up. Grubitz won't let Wiesler turn Hempf in, so, Wiesler turns him in himself. In his first step away from observing and toward the "engineering" that, according to Stalin, writers perform, Wiesler uses his electronic equipment to buzz Georg's apartment. Georg runs downstairs and sees Christa-Maria getting out of a man's car, and tucking her blouse into her skirt. Georg hides behind the building's door as Christa-Maria enters. She takes a shower, panting and crying. Wiesler turns up the volume on his control knob marked "bath." Christa-Maria collapses to the floor of the shower. She takes more drugs. She falls onto the bed, in a fetal position. Georg, who had been pacing the apartment in a state of heartbreak and confusion, sits beside her. "Hold me," she begs. He embraces her. Whatever reaction Wiesler had hoped for or expected, Georg's show of compassion was not it. In his attic, Wiesler slumps, his eyes closed, his mouth slack, his arms wrapped around himself and the back of his chair, in a simulated embrace. Udo walks in on him. Without a word, Wiesler rises and leaves.

In his apartment, Wiesler washes his face, and answers the door. A Stasi-issued prostitute has arrived: a blowsy, buxom, bottle blonde. She serves a fully-clothed Wiesler a carefully timed orgasm. Wiesler clutches at her naked breast and begs her to stay a moment, she reminds him that she must service other Stasi men before the night is out. She nags him to schedule more efficiently. A look of bitter disappointment registers on his face.

Wiesler steps into Georg's empty apartment. His attitude announces that this time he is here, not as a spy, but as a mendicant pilgrim. He crouches down, almost kneeling, his head lowered, and, with a reverential air, he strokes only the very edge of Christa-Maria and Georg's rumpled bed.

"Where is my Brecht?" Georg asks. In fact, Wiesler is reading it, a poem about a kiss, a plum tree, and a cloud: "Erinnerung an die Marie A." He lays on his couch, not so much as a pillow between his head and the armrest behind him. For the first time in the film, something like a look of human warmth and happiness registers on Wiesler's face.

A phone call informs Georg that Jerska has taken his own life. Georg crumples. But then he composes himself, and turns to the piano. Jerska had given him, for his 40th birthday, the sheet music for "Sonata for a Good Man." Georg plays it. Christa-Maria places her hands on Georg's back.

We see the attic's vast space, and the small grey man in the center, connected to nothing but surveillance machines, like an embryonic creature ensconced in its shell. He listens to the music Georg plays. The camera moves around, from Wiesler's back to his front. His face is transformed. He looks possessed. For good or ill? The viewer cannot tell. The camera continues moving, until Wiesler's entire face is visible. Then it is clear: a tear is falling down Wiesler's cheek.

Georg says to Christa-Maria that he remembers a quote by Lenin. The actual quote:

I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles! But I can't listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can't pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly.

"Can anyone who has truly heard this, be a bad person?" Georg asks.

Wiesler trudges towards his apartment. A small boy with a ball enters the elevator with him; says that his father says that he is a Stasi agent. Wiesler flashes a look of contempt. "What is the name of your --" we know he's going to ask for the boy's father's name. Wiesler proceeds, "--ball?" The boy protests that balls don't have names.

Christa-Maria leaves Georg's apartment for an assignation with Hempf. Georg pleads that she not go. Wiesler, troubled by this exchange, checks into a dismal bar right out of a Charles Bukowski short story. As it happens, Christa-Maria enters the same bar. Again, Wiesler's registering of her presence is feral; he does not look at her; he may as well be registering her by scent. After debating with himself, Wiesler approaches Christa-Maria. He breaks the fourth wall. "I am your audience," he tells her, and we know how true that is. "You are a great actress." In other words, she doesn't need Hempf's patronage.

"Actors are never who they appear to be," she scoffs, thinking that Wiesler is just a worshipful fan.

He will not be put off. "Many people love you for who you are," he says. "You were more yourself onstage than you are now." She says that artists sell themselves for their art. "You already have art," Wiesler says. "That would be a bad deal."

"You are a kind man," she tells him.

The next morning, when he arrives to relieve a sleeping Udo, Wiesler slips Udo's report from the typewriter platen. The typewritten pages are superimposed over a love scene, as if it were erupting beneath the words. Christa-Maria, inspired by Wiesler's words, stood up Hempf and returned to Georg; they affirmed their deep love for each other with great passion. Wiesler is shot from below as he reads. A faint smile of satisfaction crosses his face.

With Jerska's suicide and Christa-Maria's reaffirmation of her love for him, Georg resolves to create a more significant work of art. He meets his dissident friends at the Soviet War Memorial in Pankow -- Hauser and Wallner meet there in order to avoid the Stasi microphones they know to be in their own apartments.

They supply Georg with a smuggled-in typewriter he can use to type up an essay exposing the high suicide rate in the GDR. All typewriters in the GDR are registered and his typing could be traced to him. The smuggler apologizes: only red ribbon had been available. We had been seeing Wiesler at a typewriter; now we see Georg tapping away. Georg speaks of honoring those who have made it to the other side, a phrase that could mean the West, or the next world, a reference to those who died trying to escape. Christa-Maria enters the apartment unexpectedly and catches Georg hiding the typewriter beneath the floorboards; she says nothing to him, economically conveying how day-to-day state terror efficiently splintered human relations.

Wiesler brings his report to Grubitz. Before he can deliver it, Grubitz describes a new report on prison conditions for subversive artists. It divides artists into five types, and details methods to break each. In some cases, the Stasi initiates no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, "nothing they can write about later." This approach merely isolates the writer, so that he never writes again. As he listens to Grubitz, Wiesler rolls his report in his lap. "You're hiding something from me," Grubitz says. Wiesler denies it, but he never delivers the report.

Grubitz must discover the identity of the author of the suicide essay, which receives prominent attention in West Germany. A typewriter keystroke expert presents his analysis. This young bureaucrat's tight little presentation of focused attention on keystrokes and their role in state spying involves no blood or torture, but is chillingly effective.

Christa-Maria is arrested, ostensibly for illegal drug use. While being interrogated by Grubitz, she offers herself to him in exchange for favorable treatment. He says it's too late -- she's made an enemy of a powerful man. Grubitz raids Georg's apartment. Wiesler sees him in his TV monitor. Knowing he is seen, Grubitz waves at Wiesler. Again, the watcher is being watched. Stasi agents slit Georg's couch cushions, finger his tea leaves, turn back his bed covers, all as Georg powerlessly watches. Georg is not alone; upstairs, Wiesler squirms with him; he had begun altering his reports to protect Georg. Georg has a Solzhenitsyn book. "It was given to me by Margot Honecker," he explains.

Grubitz calls Wiesler in to headquarters; gestures to him to sit. Wiesler's assigned chair is the wooden kind for prisoners being interrogated. It lacks, however, the removable cloth cover. The implication could be that the Stasi needn't collect a scent sample for Wiesler; they already have one. Grubitz asks him, "You are still on the right side, aren't you?" In its most flamboyant move of the film, the camera careens backward to Wiesler, whose head is turned left at a sharp right angle to his body. "Yes," he replies, emphatically.

Wiesler is ordered to interrogate Christa-Maria in front of a large mirror, behind which Grubitz and a stenographer watch. At first, he keeps his back turned on Christa-Maria. He had, of course, exposed his face to her in their encounter in the bar. He turns slowly; slowly so as not to startle her into blurting out their previous meeting. He alludes to what he had said to her in the bar, "Remember your audience." Perhaps he is telling her that she is a great actress, and she is being watched, and it is her job, now, to perform in such a way that will get all three of them -- Wiesler, herself, and Georg -- out of the fix they are in. After some hesitation, she announces the location of the typewriter.

Agents return to Georg's building. As they rush in, hiding behind the door, in the exact spot Georg had occupied when he ran downstairs after being alerted to Christa-Maria's arrival in Hempf's car, is Wiesler. The agents run upstairs; Wiesler exits rapidly, a typewriter hidden behind his back.

Christa-Maria, clad only in a bathrobe, (she had, again, been showering, after her interrogation) walks into the street, into an oncoming truck. Red blood stains her white robe. Wiesler runs to her, kneels beside her, and, in a heartrending gesture, holds out his hands above her body, without ever touching her. Georg believes that she had removed the typewriter. He arrives; Wiesler stands back; Georg sobs over the corpse of his beloved, begging, "Forgive me." The investigation is declared at an end; one might think that the movie would end here, as well.

There are, though, five codas, and their payoff is so great that viewers identify them as the source of the film's most profound power. Grubitz informs Wiesler, who, again, does not look at him, but who registers awareness of the import of what Grubitz says, "I know it was you. I have no proof. But you're going to spend the rest of your career steaming open envelopes in a basement." Wiesler accepts these damning words stoically. The End. And yet, Grubitz has tossed a newspaper onto the seat of Wiesler's car; on the front page is a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev, who, then, March, 1985, had just been elected General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Four years and seven months later, a screen title announces, we see letters, delivered down an automated belt, being methodically steamed open on w-shaped steamers. The men steaming the letters are Wiesler and the young man who had told the joke about the sun. The joke teller announces, "The Berlin wall is down." Wiesler, without a word, rises, and leaves the room. His coworkers follow.

A curtain rises on a stage. We are, again, viewing Georg's "Faces of Love", only this time in a slick, new production. Georg watches from the audience, with a beautiful woman at his side. She looks a bit like Christa-Maria. When the character that had been played by Christa-Maria makes her speech, Georg, overcome, must leave the theater. In the lobby, he is confronted by Hempf. Hempf attempts to sully Georg's memory of Christa-Maria; he points out that Georg has not written anything in years. Georg looks at Hempf in disgust. To think that people like you used to rule a country, he says. Hempf's expression communicates that he regards Georg as naïve; of course it is people like Hempf who run countries.

Hempf had informed Georg that "we" knew all about his activities. Georg returns to his apartment and finds the wires. He looks horrified, despairing, and yet as if he has gained new knowledge that will further mature him. He then visits his Stasi file. The camera travels to the archive room's 125 miles of rolling metal file cases. Georg appears intimidated when a hand cart brings him the numerous notebooks accumulated on him. He steels himself to read them. Georg cringes to read of his sex life on the page; like the reader of a good novel, he is fascinated by the development of the plot. His chronicler, Georg learns for the first time, had become his ally. There is a red smudge on the final page. It was this Stasi spy, Georg learns for the first time, not Christa-Maria, who had removed the typewriter. The author of these accounts, he learns, is "HGW XX/7." Georg asks for, and receives, a photograph of the man who had, without his knowledge, shared his life.

Georg is traveling in the back of a taxi. He sees a small, gray, robotic man delivering junk mail to old, stone buildings incongruously colorful with graffiti. It is HGW XX/7. Georg instructs the taxi to stop. Georg gets out. He appears overwhelmed. What could he say that would honor the moment? He reenters the taxi.

And the final coda. It is two years later, the screen title informs us. The gray, robotic man is still delivering junk mail in a joylessly efficient fashion. He passes a bookstore display window. Georg's handsome face gazes out from a poster advertising a new book, Sonata for a Good Man. Wiesler initially passes, but then walks back, does a double-take. He enters the bookstore. The camera pans back; this is the Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung. Wiesler picks up a copy and flips through it. Sonata for a Good Man has been dedicated to "HGW XX/7."

Wiesler approaches the cashier. "Would you like that gift wrapped?" the cool young clerk asks.

"No," Wiesler says. "It is for me."

Von Donnersmarck's success has generated a backlash. "Naïve," his critics scorn, "sentimental," "melodramatic." These terms are the egghead equivalent of calling von Donnersmarck a "sissy." The most devastating cut, "Hollywood," translates that Lives is worthy to be taken seriously only by the unwashed. Some wanted a crueler film, with more scenes of torture; many rejected Wiesler's change.

These criticisms are themselves naïve; naïve about art and the mechanics of human perception. The New York Times dismissed the 2003 documentary, The Decomposition of the Soul, which focuses without let-up on non-fiction accounts of Stasi evil, as "a bore," as it merely presented horrid facts without "intelligent, specific, directed filmmaking." Under prolonged battering, the perceptions of the filmgoer, no less than those of the political prisoner, go numb.

As van Gogh said, to startle the viewer's eyes with the pink of a cheek, juxtapose a sliver of green. High, controlled contrast communicates content in a way that monochrome cannot. The love in Lives, Georg's for Christa-Maria, and the viewer's for Wiesler, allow us to feel the hate all the more. Further, narrative demands change; Wiesler's high-contrast transformation invests us, and makes us feel, rather than just intellectually acknowledge, the moral miasma that was the Stasi.

Intelligent filmmaking recognizes the impact on the viewer of economical, restrained scenes: a young man telling a joke in a cafeteria becomes a squirming victim of psychological torture; a mother is intimidated into silence after seeing her neighbor's apartment wired. These scenes transpire in a world without obvious gunshots, death squads, or jack boots -- a world that looks like one many viewers inhabit. That these soul-destroying activities are folded inconspicuously into lives viewers can imagine themselves living highlights their horror.

After screenings of Lives, viewers in the former GDR sat with von Donnersmarck and his leads for hours, crying and telling stories, he reported, that they said they had never told anyone before. Von Donnersmarck worked for, and achieved, verisimilitude.

When I surveyed Americans who had, for the most part, never been to Eastern Europe about their stereotypes of the place, they often mentioned the word "gray." Was it really? I remember one night in Poland waking up to my dorm roommate kneeling on my sleeping body. "I just got back from West Germany!" she crowed. "It's pulsing with capitalist color!" A Polish friend had been desperate to spend her months' income on one spool of turquoise silk thread from West Germany.

"The Eastern bloc did look different," von Donnersmarck told NPR's Fresh Air. "These somehow desaturated, washed-out colors that the East had, there was something very unique about that. I even once spoke to a chemist who explained to me that there were certain patents that the East did not have, and, therefore, they couldn't make those bright, neon colors that the West had. But I didn't simply want to do it by washing out the colors or doing some lab trick. So I tried to analyze which colors were the most shockingly Western, and I actually found that it was red and blue. Those colors really throw you and seem very loud and extreme. And so I said. . . 'OK, well, look, let's eliminate blue and red altogether.'"

The red in the film ratchets up, from the blurt of red on Wiesler's white bachelor dinner, to the red of the typewriter ribbon on which Georg types his magnum opus, to the red of Christa-Maria's blood, and, finally, the red smudge that informs Georg of Wiesler's support. Red symbolizes passion, compassion and sacrifice; in a wonderful irony, it also symbolizes communism.

Sets serve verisimilitude equally well as colors. The property master was a former Stasi prisoner. He used actual surveillance equipment, including an original letter steamer. Von Donnersmarck went so far as to interview former Stasi prostitutes.

Housing was at a premium in the Soviet Empire in the post WW II period. Jerska, the blacklisted director, is depicted living with a fat drunk, his dog, and a woman the drunk yells at. We all knew people who roomed in such makeshift asylums. Citizens of the empire might fantasize an apartment like Wiesler's. Viewing it, its spaciousness, order, cleanliness, and isolation, one acknowledges how immediately irresistible it would be to someone who has to live like Jerska, and shudders both at its price, and at what one might dream of, under what life circumstances: "This is what we sell out for." Stasi agent Werner Teske sold out, inter alia, for canned mushrooms. In other circumstances, people have betrayed their child for a hunk of bread. In his pan of Wiesler's apartment, von Donnersmarck invites the thoughtful viewer to consider the immediate allure and loathsome retrospect of whatever we ourselves have sold out for.

When Polish teachers presented seminal films, poems, and other artworks to us foreign students in their midst, they began, "You won't fully understand this, because it is peculiar to our national experience." That stance struck me as self-indulgent and self-defeating. Why not present your particular experience in universal terms outsiders can be moved by? Lives is masterful in its insistence on presenting a particular story in universal terms. In discussions of his film, von Donnersmarck mentions invisibility cloaks in folklore. "If you had one, wouldn't you use it?" He's teaching viewers the peculiarly GDR narrative of the Stasi using universal and ancient motifs with which most viewers can identify; he's made a kind of monster -- Wiesler -- a man who has a power many viewers might wish to have.

Spying is a perfect entry point to capture universal interest in the GDR's particular history. Spying is of current interest in the wake of 9-11 and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Lives came out in the same year as Robert DeNiro's CIA history, The Good Shepherd and Casino Royale, a controversial "reboot" of the James Bond franchise.

But spying is of perennial interest because it may really be the world's oldest profession. We learn by watching others; we have all been tempted to watch surreptitiously. As NPR's This American Life has pointed out, when given a choice between superpowers, most people would choose to be invisible rather than to fly. In addition to wanting to spy, we crave to be spied on. The fantasy of being spied on satisfies our paranoia; it thrills us with a frisson of danger and the suggestion that our lives are much more exciting than they really are. It flatters us; maybe our quotidian activities are so consequential that someone would bother to read our e-mail or install hidden microphones in our bathrooms.

Spying also thrums with divine association. God is a spy, in one fundamental understanding. God is the one who watches our every move with interest, reports psalm 139. We are seen; what we do matters. A piece of wildly popular devotional folklore, "Footprints in the Sand," argues that at the moments when we feel the most alone and bereft, God is closest to us. In Lives' fourth coda, Georg reads his Stasi file, and realizes that at what, to him, must have seemed the bleakest and most alone moment of his life -- when he found Christa-Maria dead on the street -- unbeknownst to him, a benign, powerful force, Wiesler, was altering events in order to make life easier for Georg. The Stasi file scene is in some ways what some of us think our arrival in Heaven will be like: a file recording everything we've done will be unscrolled in front of us and examined.

Wiesler could have set up his listening post anywhere, but he did it in an attic, above Georg, the position traditionally assigned to God in relation to man. Writers, and all artists, have been, in art, traditionally associated with God, in that writers and artists create, a function associated with the divine. After Wiesler breaks the fourth wall, approaches Christa-Maria, and ends her association with Hempf and causes her to return to Georg, Wiesler learns of their love-making by reading words on a page; the page grows translucent; the love-making takes place as if beneath the typed words. Wiesler is shot, God-like, from below. His look is beatific.

Directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, certainly, in Rear Window, and film scholars, like Laura Mulvey, have emphasized the voyeuristic nature of film-watching. Part of Lives' power may be its placement of Wiesler as the hero. Georg is the matinee star: he's tall, handsome, charismatic, successful, loved, with the hot girlfriend -- and he's no deeper than necessary. Wiesler, on the other hand, is like us, an average-looking, working stiff. When Wiesler eats his instant bachelor meal in front of the TV, his companion, a televised discussion of land for chicken farmers, he recollects not James Bond, but another lonely, nebbish Everyman. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) in Billy Wilders' 1960 The Apartment is just a working stiff following orders in corporate America. Baxter turns his life around after he experiences an epiphany, and ends his own compromised collaboration with corrupt higher-ups, one of whom is having an illicit affair with a compromised woman Baxter comes to love. As in Lives, there are two attempted suicides in The Apartment; unlike Lives, both are unsuccessful. In a classic moment in this classic film, Baxter arrives home, cooks an instant meal, and plops down in front of a TV showing unsatisfying fare -- capitalist commercials. In these scenes of lonely, average working men, both Baxter and Wiesler are universal; they are the lonely man in all of us.

Georg and Wiesler develop a doppelganger-like relationship. Both Wiesler and Georg believe in the GDR's utopian ideals; both defy cynical GDR reality. Before Wiesler had left a red smudge on his soul-redeeming final report, Georg had smudged his magnum opus, his suicide essay. Georg and Wiesler both interact with boys with soccer balls. Georg and Wiesler hide in the same spot. Georg begged Christa-Maria to forgive him as she lay dying; words Wiesler might have spoken. And, Georg and Wiesler both change, neither into a perfect man, but both into a better man.

Everyman Wiesler watches Matinee Idol Georg in the same way that we, the audience, watch celebrities like Georg. Audiences watching films and reading books often feel the temptation felt by Wiesler -- to break the fourth wall and intervene in the action, to engineer characters' souls. We want to "rescue" characters in peril. We want to rewrite their narrative. Wiesler fulfills that exact fantasy. Wiesler is the hardcore film fans' surrogate.

Ulrich Muhe's award-winning performance resists penetration or description. This is no Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, for example, a human meteorological device registering every alteration in conditions via distended nostrils or quivering lips. Muhe appeared to be doing nothing; there were certainly no fireworks scenes. Muhe's body channels Wiesler completely; note, for example, his hesitant, apologetic tread as he approaches the cashier in the bookstore to purchase a book dedicated to him. After watching Lives with the sound off, I concluded that Muhe's face speaks what his words do not. When, for example, Grubitz describes how he will destroy Georg as an artist, Muhe looks as if he's a little boy and someone is about to strangle his puppy in front of him. Muhe's Wiesler hides nothing; he simply does not speak it. That a state that monitors everything could allow a turned spy to hide in plain sight speaks volumes about the abysmal level of humanity achieved by communism's guardians. Or by most of us, for that matter, who don't see what is right in front of us.

Von Donnersmarck's script, rich with implications and yet still simple, incites the viewers' imaginations: What is Wiesler backstory? How did he become a master interrogator who could be moved to tears by the "Sonata for a Good Man"? In the backstory imagined by this viewer, Wiesler is a sort of high functioning autistic, uncomfortable in social situations, and yet expert in one, mechanical, function. He had been traumatized by growing up under Nazism, and when the communists arrived offering a brave, new world, Wiesler believed them; he lacked the human calculus to compute the new narrative's errors.

Naysayers claim that Lives depicts an impossible transformation that never occurred in real life. The first assertion is untrue; the second is unprovable. Wiesler does not change from being a robotic Stasi agent to being a life-affirming, Broadway-anthem-singing, Amnesty-International poster boy. He makes one small choice -- to hide a typewriter -- that results in one small change -- a minor, nascent dissident's not being brought in for questioning. Alas, Wiesler cannot rescue Christa-Maria from Hempf or from suicide; he cannot rescue Georg from writer's block. Wiesler continues to work for the Stasi until the fall of the Berlin wall; even after, given his body language, one has to guess that he still lives in that sterile apartment. We hope he has continued to read poetry.

"No Stasi agent ever did what Wiesler did," naysayers protest. In fact, that can never be proved. Wiesler's invisible small choice, though he is punished for it by Grubitz, might well have been hidden by Grubitz in CYA mode; Grubitz has nothing to gain by telling his superiors that he suspects, but cannot prove, that Wiesler duped him. Grubitz punishes Wiesler out of spite. He didn't like being outsmarted.

Wiesler's tiny act of heroism is not a plot hole in a falsely comforting fantasy; it is, rather, a brilliant and deeply moving portrait of how everyday goodness works. Most good deeds are invisible, many result in the punishment, rather than the reward, of the "hero." Polish peasants who hid Jews during WW II, often hid their own heroism as well. Fellow villagers might have blamed them for risking Nazi retaliation. Years later a camera crew shows up, to find "heroes" slopping hogs and blinking into the spotlight. The power structure, and, therefore, the narrative around them, has changed, and suddenly they are recast as "heroes." Very likely we are surrounded by invisible heroes. This is why cinema-goers report their audience's spontaneous tears and applause at the end of Lives. We aren't, and can't be, Spiderman, but we may well be Wiesler.

Von Donnersmarck finalized his script in his uncle's monastery. His most heinous character, Hempf, declares that people don't change. People don't change, in this worldview, because humans are not equipped with any immaterial essence that transcends their material reality. The Judeo-Christian tradition insists that people have immaterial consciences that transcend material reality, and an immaterial free will that equips choice, and that any person, in any circumstances, including a Stasi agent, can be affected by the conscience and can choose to do right.

Wiesler's final line, "It is for me," has grabbed moviegoers. Wiesler is simply informing the clerk that he does not need the book gift-wrapped. He is also acknowledging his own awareness of how the one good deed of his life has been seen and acknowledged. Here, again, is the theme of the divine as celestial scorekeeper and spy: just as Wiesler had seen Georg and protected him when Georg did not realize it, Georg, in a divine gesture, has, in spite of all the harm he's done, seen and elevated Wiesler's best self.

"It is for me" defies the preceding forty years of communism, and the twelve years of Nazism before that. Wiesler's utterance affirms the priority of the individual, of ownership, and of one-on-one intimacy. Under totalitarianism, the collective is the significant unit, rather than the individual, and wealth and art are generated for the collective -- "property is theft." To replace individualism and intimate love with a primary focus on membership in, and loyalty to, the collective, Nazism and communism eroded and degraded one-on-one relationships -- by invading the home, usurping child-rearing authority, and, indeed, by spying. Stasi goals included "the destruction of all love relationships and friendships." Wiesler's final sentence is a triumphant declaration that the best in him survived the worst; that it is delivered in Wiesler's signature stoic deadpan makes it all the more glorious.

We live in an imperfect world; Lives' imperfection is its misogyny. Almost all the leads and supporting characters are male. There are three females, all are invidious stereotypes; all are Madonnas or whores. Christa-Maria is an actress, that most feminine of professions. Her life is devoted to the feminine-coded activities of artifice and self-presentation. Throughout the film, Christa-Maria is shot in clingy, satiny materials; she sashays her hips and lounges provocatively. Even when interrogated by Wiesler, she cannot stop stroking her own lips and running her hand between her cleavage. Unlike Georg, Christa-Maria is never shown carrying groceries or playing ball with children; she can't; she's strictly a sex machine.

Christa-Maria functions as the stereotype as ancient as Eve; she is the weak-willed, treacherous woman who destroys paradise by giving in to the blandishments of Satan. She has sex with Hempf, takes drugs, betrays her lover, and destroys herself, in spite of the superhuman devotion shown her by Georg, who does not so much as raise his voice when he learns that she is cheating on him; in spite of a compassionate Stasi agent who gives her a loving pep talk in a bar, and risks himself to help her.

Wiesler's hooker doesn't even have a heart of gold; seconds after his state-sanctioned orgasm, she's out the door, leaving him bereft, showing even the Stasi man powerless before The Lady Eve. She's the only powerful woman in the film, and she uses her power for evil. Frau Meineke is a mother whose life revolves around her child. She, like Christa-Maria, is weak. She cowers before Wiesler.

Could these characterizations of women have been balanced without damaging the film's verisimilitude or artistic merit? Yes. In Poland in 1987-89, I never attended dissident activity -- protest rallies, planning, street scuffles with police -- that did not include women. In East Germany, there were women like Vera Wollenberger. Study 1989 photos of Leipzig; were there not as many women on the street as men?

Georg is aided and inspired by several dissidents. Hauser and Wallner are gender-neutral parts. Either or both could have been women. Frau Meineke could have attempted to say something, and been disappeared, without Georg ever knowing why. These small changes would have eliminated Lives' misogynist valence.

Scholar Agnieszka Graff has written on an association of women with communism, especially as depicted in the 1983 film, Sex Mission (Seksmisja). In Sex Mission, communism is part of a evil feminist plot. Women's roles in defeating communism, on the other hand, have been suppressed, reports Shana Penn in Solidarity's Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland. Polish director Andrzej Wajda, himself winner of an Academy Award, took this turn in his own oeuvre; first he made Man of Marble (Czlowiek z Marmuru 1977), that placed a woman, Agnieszka, (Krystyna Janda) centrally in efforts to expose the truth about communism's past; its sequel, Man of Iron (Czlowiek z Zelaza 1981), featured his crusading heroine scoffing at her own former zeal; now she was a contended housewife.

Lives is often described as a corrective to the "ostalgie," or nostalgia for the departed Soviet Empire, depicted in Wolfgang Becker's 2003 comedy, Good Bye Lenin. In that film, Alex, a teenage boy, in post-1989 Berlin, recreates East Germany so as not to upset his mother, who had been in a coma when the Wall came down. Alex's mother is duplicitous and weak. Her heroic husband had escaped to the West and begged his wife to accompany him, along with his children, whom he deeply loved. Alex's mother lies to her children, telling them that their father left them coldly in order to commit adultery. She, in a skewed attempt to replace her lost husband, maniacally embraces communism. Her husband writes love letters to her and to his children, and she, in a microcosmic recapitulation of state censorship, hides the letters. Her delusion holds the entire family hostage; no one can enter the West until she dies.

Alex, displaying the superhero powers of a comic book blockbuster star, and the unrequited, devoted love of a male for a female typical of misogynist fare, orchestrates his family, friends, neighbors, and even passersby into an acting troupe, and recreates East Germany for his mother. The GDR, he reports, "is a country I will always associate with my mother."

This association of women with communism is not limited to the former Soviet Empire, nor is it new; C. S. Lewis once said, "In the hive and the anthill we see fully realized the two things that some of us most dread for our own species -- the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective." It's worth mentioning here that in Oliver Hirschbiegel 2004 film, Downfall (Der Untergang), about Hitler's final days, the most horrific moment comes when Magda Goebbels methodically poisons her own children. The insults Paul Verhoeven visits on his female character in 2006's Black Book (Zwartboek) include having her shave her pubic hair on camera, falling in love with a Nazi (she's Jewish), and being showered by a vat of feces.

When men feel betrayed by seductive, alluring, but strumpet ideologies, do they associate that sense of betrayal with a more atavistic one: that of feeling betrayed by man's ur other, women, who, apparently, can never love men enough to eliminate the misogynist taint from art, even great art, created by the best artists, with the purists of intentions? Perhaps von Donnersmarck would consider penning his next script, not in a monastery, but in a convent.

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or any number of other buddy movies, the important bond in Lives is between two men. Its ending is reminiscent of one for which von Donnersmarck has expressed a "lifelong love" -- that of the 1942 Hollywood romance, Casablanca. The Stasi codename for Georg is "Lazlo," the name of a key character in that film. In a tense stand-off at an airport, cynical Rick (Humphrey Bogart), in a moment of atypical self-sacrifice to the higher good, encourages the love of his life, the beautiful Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), to leave him and stay with her husband, Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a resistance fighter. Also at the airport is Rick's friendly antagonist, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a morally compromised Vichy officer. Previously, Renault had said, "If I were a woman . . . I should be in love with Rick." Casablanca ends with Ilsa eliminated, and Rick and Renault walking off together, Rick saying, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." There is no room for women, any women, at the end of Casablanca nor at the end of The Lives of Others.

The antidote to brilliant movies' flaws, is, of course, more movies. Man of Marble, 1990's The Nasty Girl (Das schreckliche Maedchen) 2003's Rosenstrasse, and 2005's Sophie Scholl all address Central Europeans coming to terms with totalitarian pasts in a woman-friendly way.

Finally, the question of art. Von Donnersmarck said that the art that changes Wiesler had to be music, because music is an "X-ray" that transcends language and rational thought. As reported in the Washington Post, "The director challenged composer Gabriel Yared . . . To 'imagine that you can travel to 1933 and meet Hitler before he commits any of his atrocities. All you can do is play him your new piece of music. What will that piece of music be?'"

Von Donnersmarck is bold. Theodor Adorno famously encapsulated the belief that "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Adorno himself stopped composing music. The 2001 film Taking Sides opens with a provocative scene: a dramatization of the great conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgaard), conducting Beethoven's fifth symphony before an audience of uniformed Nazis. The bulk of Taking Sides consists of a verbal duel between Furtwangler and the denazification official (Harvey Keitel) interrogating him. Furtwangler protests that he never supported Nazism, but stayed in his country because it needed art during its darkest hour. "Art for me has mystical powers that nurture man's spiritual needs," he says. The denazification official remains cynical, as did many who just could not buy Wiesler's transformation.

Of course art changes people. All totalitarianisms know this; that is why all exercise a stranglehold on art. It would be obscene, after Auschwitz, to stop writing poetry, out of any misguided desire to appear sophisticated, to surrender art's transformative power to the burners of books and mounters of exhibitions of the degenerate. Von Donnersmarck's further insistence is antique: that good art changes people for the better. What constitutes "good" art and "better" people are concepts ostensibly abjured by relativism; yet another reason why the film may offend. The tears Lives induces may be, in some part, a flood of relief that the old-fashioned concept of human goodness has survived efforts to save it by destroying it.

Art, like reason, like love, like faith, is an invitation, not an incontrovertible order. Its flexibility is part of its power. In declining the invitation, we don't alter that which we decline; we alter ourselves. That Lenin had to refuse art to turn himself into a smasher of heads is testimony to the power of art and what it did to Lenin to resist it. Art does not elevate every audience with every exposure, any more than science reaches every mind. But one can't get what one gets from science, at its best, any place else, and the same is true of art. I have seen the transformation that Wiesler's face reveals as he listens to "Sonata for a Good Man." Muhe plays epiphany exactly right -- as an "Oh no" moment as much of an "Aha" one. That is why this viewer's eyes, with so many others', teared up while viewing The Lives of Others.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Much Love to Turkey

Istanbul today. Source CNN
What Turkey looked like to me as a tourist. Source
Turkey is in the news. From the Washington Post: "Turkey has been hit my demonstrations since Friday that grew out of anger over excessive police force against protesters holding a sit-in to prevent the uprooting of trees at Istanbul’s main Taksim Square. The demonstrations have since spiraled into Turkey’s biggest anti-government disturbances in years, challenging Erdogan’s power..."

I visited Turkey once and could not have loved it more. Below is a letter I wrote to friends about traveling by train from Krakow, Poland, to Istanbul, Turkey. 

Leaving Poland, Summer, 1989. A Letter Written to Friends, Stored, and Re-Read in 2005

Right before leaving Poland, I got sick. The disease was sudden and ugly. I was covered with pus-filled sores. I had so much to do before leaving. I had to abort my list. The disease set the agenda for me: ten days on my back, sleeping or staring.

When Nancy came by to pick up her bird, for which I had been pet-sitting, she fixed me with a look. She came back a couple of hours later, her baby on her hip. "Let's go," she announced, "I'm taking you to a doctor." It was a national holiday. Everything was closed. She had "zalatwicz-ed" an appointment for me with the colleague of a friend.

As she was driving me home, I expressed a lack of confidence in the doctor I saw. In spite of her being busy with a move to a new apartment, and in spite of the potential danger I posed to her baby, she drove me to another doctor after nightfall.

Alicja, in spite of possible contagion, washed my sheets, brought me homemade soup, and sat with me every night. She also gave me difficult-to-acquire medicines. Anita visited often and made me laugh. Tenia whizzed in and out with cartons of yogurt. My next-door neighbors arranged meetings for me with two more doctors, one of whom visited a couple of times, never asking for payment. Witek fetched some powdered medicine for me from the pharmacy, mixing it up in water and encouraging me to drink it. During his visit, the sores in my mouth and throat that had been bothering me very much popped and never returned.

Poles and Polish-Americans in Poland treated me with a care and attention I had never received in the U.S. when sick. Does Poland's self-declared status as a crucified nation make its citizens mindful of the vulnerable pocket in our souls?

A completely unexpected wave of sentiment and respect for Poland possessed me. For the past year, I had been one of them, these people I watched from my tram window, my ticket in my pocket. I, too, had jostled in line, had, with the focus of a barracuda, stalked shops; I had been blindsided by purse-wielding buffalo in my desperate attempts to score a seat on the trams. I had drunk tap water that Scientific American had deemed unfit even for industrial use; I had mouthed cynicism but secretly hoarded hope that something like the seventeenth-century miracle at Bright Mountain might happen again, and all the bogeymen in Poland might be made to leave with the waving of the Madonna's smoke-darkened icon. I had marched and chanted lunatic, swashbuckling slogans like, "Wilno is ours!" and, "We want Afghanistan to happen here!" I had had no patience for Poles because I felt I was one of them, and it was my toes they were squashing, goddamnit.

Seventy-two hours before I left, I realized that I wasn't one of them, after at all. There was a very good reason why I could float past the security guard at the American consulate, my flat New Jersey accent key to an entry that the crowds fidgeting or fighting outside – the women all tricked up, the peasants in their Sunday clothes, their suits with potato-digging hands at the ends of the sleeves – might never possess. I was about to be lifted out of this punishing reality as if by divine helicopter, and they would stay, those I observed from my tram window, the "stare babki," old grandmothers, to take up their posts in the lines outside meat shops, the pale children, the proud, always well-groomed women to alcoholic husbands, the young men to making fists, painting placards and shouting; all of them to the vocation of heroism, which is a required course in Poland. They may pass or fail, but none can opt not to take the class.

I would appear by magic in America, a country which I envisioned increasingly as a brightly lit supermarket, where various cuts of meat lay in sterile plastic, which I could calmly approach, inspect, select, pay for, and take home, without standing in a chaotic, serpentine line, a line whose length reminded me that there are only so many cuts of meat on display, and that that number is always smaller than the number of people on line, and if the woman in front of me got hers, I won't get mine. There would be no thwack, thwack of cleaver into messy flesh and firm wood below, no smell, no flies, to remind me that sirloin is not born in Styrofoam. Or sometimes I envisioned America as a dizzying smorgasbord of freedoms and opportunities, and a drunken, giddy sense of not knowing which to exercise first.

Already I began to miss Poland, where I had seen teenage boys drop their backpacks and stand at teary-eyed attention after one of them had struck up the national anthem; where I knew I need never feel hungry because I was always within a few feet of someone, even a total stranger, who, given any prodding at all, would feed me; where, in the middle of a snowstorm, on a remote country road, I could be picked up by a jolly man who, when asked what he did for a living, would merely smile and say, "Listen. This is Poland. Anything is possible."

In America it would not be necessary to "zalatwicz" or "kombinowacz" anything. (The delicate barter of favors, connections, promises; the acquisition of what's necessary through clever daredevilry and complete flouting of how it's supposed to be.) If I got sick, I could call a doctor and make an appointment; my next-door neighbor's heart would be immaterial. If I got sores on my mouth, I could apply the appropriate balm, prescribed by an MD, dispensed from a tube, rather than wait for Witek to show up.

My train left Krakow at 10:22 p.m. Alicja, Tenia, Jim, Gosia, and Steve saw me off. Alicja gave me flowers. Steve handed me a bunch of cattails, an atypically sentimental – for him – parting gift. Tenia, who has lived in the Middle East – her father, an exile, had taken jobs around the world, and around the world, he would ask people if they knew where Poland was, and no matter how they responded, he would pull a map out of his breast pocket and show them – Tenia gave me a silk veil from Arabia. Then she said one of the most moving things I've ever heard in my life.

I've always wanted to feel as if I was combating the darkness. I've only ever taken jobs that really meant something to me. Poland was hard; I was parsimonious in applying any meaning to what I was doing there. Tenia knew this. As the train began to pull away, we were still holding each other. "If you ever wonder why you came to Poland," she began, and then choked up, and couldn't continue. The train was not patient.

"Tell me!" I demanded, my hands tearing away from her body.

"It was to meet me," she shouted, "because you've made a tremendous difference in my life."

I waved and waved, as the goofy neon "Krakow" sign grew smaller and smaller. Suddenly I knew what to do: the Nepali goodbye, and hello. Two hands pressed together. "Namaste," I said, to the figures no longer visible on the distant platform, to the sooty city of Krakow, to the whole heavy Polish karma, which I couldn't take on and would love to shake off. "Namaste," "I salute the divinity within you." Our Lady of Czestochowa would like it.


The Romanian border guard was plump, sweaty, prickle-faced; his teeth protruded from his mouth at a forty-degree angle. "Hey, Yankee," he said. "Do you know why Mexicans call you 'Gringos'? Because when the evil Yankee soldier came to beat up the Mexicans and kill their cattle, he was wearing green. So, they yelled at him, 'Green! Go!'" We laughed. My laughter was something of a charity operation, an airlift donation. Suddenly his face grew grim. "What are you reading? We'll have to take a look at that." It was the Arts and Leisure supplement to the New York Times. I offered it to him. "Hey, thanks," he said, suddenly humble. "I could use it to improve my English."

Romania looked beautiful and primitive; there were earthen houses daubed with white and ocher earth, as in Nepal; a woman leading a water buffalo, peasants who stopped work to wave at the passing train as if it were the first they'd seen, as if it were chugging through a Brueghel painting. Then a scarring vision of the Apocalypse: a valley devoid of trees or human forms, dozens of smokestacks vomiting opaque orange smoke into a sky dyed orange, sewers of orange sludge foaming under the train.

No sooner had the train stopped in a station than it was besieged by Romanians of all ages, in modern urban, rural peasant, and Gypsy attire, to beg, buy, and barter. I was reminded – in Poland, when lights suddenly flicked off, when there was nothing in the shops, someone would always manage to say, "At least we are not in Romania," and thus developed an image in the mind of the hearer of Romania as the worst of Poland, and then several circles of Soviet hell drearier. "Do you have anything, anything at all?" the Romanians pleaded in Polish, over and over. "To buy? To sell? To give? We have nothing." A Polish train is rich for them. Some of the throng, unable to say anything in Polish, merely mimed putting food to their lips. Polish hands and arms reached out of windows; hands extended from shrugging shoulders scattered candy to children. A beautiful Gypsy woman (I've maybe never seen any other kind) bought some coffee from a young Pole in a suit. He had that "I'm determined not to get cheated here" look on his face. He was a bit altar-boyish, in the sense that he was studiously missing something of life. The train began to move. The Pole counted his new wad of bills. Not enough. He hollered; handed the short bills back to the Gypsy, demanded his coffee. The Gypsy woman grabbed her bills. She now had both: the money and the coffee. The Pole, trapped on a moving train, spluttered outrage. The Gypsy just smiled that slick, "I've got you" smile at which she might have had some practice. Then, as the train gained speed, she ran, stretched, and handed the Pole, captive in the train, but fleeing, freed from Romania, which she might never leave, his coffee. I think she would have come out of it more than the Pole if she had kept both, or if she had given both away. She'd still have that smile.

In Sofia, Bulgaria I wondered fecklessly for two hours, trying to decipher a way to get south to Turkey. I had only thirty hours on my transit visa. Finally, I heard, "Prosze pani, czym moge sluzyc?" "Please, ma'am, how may I help you?" I turned around to see a shirtless, bronzed and blonde Polish boy and his slightly less Adonis-like companion. They chaperoned me around Sofia for a few hours, helping me to find other Poles with whom I could change money at an advantageous rate, buying my train ticket, and packing me off with seven buns, a can of meat, three bottles of peach juice, an actual peach, and some tomatoes. When I tried to pay them back with a can of Bulgarian halvah, they snuck it back into my pack when I wasn't looking.

That train only went as far as Burgas, where I would have to await a morning bus. Hotel rooms for Americans, even the rat-holes, rent at fifty bucks a night, minimum. In a park, I put my pack down on a bench, put my head on that, and fell asleep. Around one I was awoken by a mobile beer hall, a crew of Germans drinking cheap vodka straight from the bottle. I leaned in and asked, "Does anyone speak English?"

"Yes!" piped a bright-eyed girl.

They were East Germans, and had that sorrow about them that young East Germans have. They have none of the bravado and drama of young Poles, whose history has given them a recently handy mythology to plug into.

As Bright-Eyes and I chatted, chuckles arose from a distant bench. Finally, and one could feel that he was resisting it but had to give in to temptation, the source of the chuckles joined us. A face emerged, that of a young man. He was dark; well, no, the night was dark; was it that he was sad? But he announced himself through chuckles. Somehow, he was older than his years, or Brontesque; something about him was not what an American would expect in a nineteen-year-old guy. As we talked, I slowly awoke into the conversation. He was from Leipzig, where East Germans had been staging massive street protests that were being broadcast all over the world. He had participated in those protests. He had been making history. He had a German accent.

Though I struggle against it, I, or my gut, associates German accents with "drag nach osten" and "kulturkampf," with churches in Poland with no stained glass – "All smashed by the Germans" – with older friends whose forearms bear their Auschwitz tattoos, with masks of childlike helplessness and horror on my older relatives' faces. But in this young man's mouth a German accent was not an expression of power. He seemed so earthy – in that his mood and his ambition seemed on a level with the earth.

We traded barbed one-liners; almost anything can be a double entendre when such two get going. Never mind the triple and quadruple entendres. Hadn't his country invaded mine? Or was that not East Germany, but the Third Reich, an entity that was incinerated by firebombs on Dresden long before he, or even his parents, was born? And was it my country his invaded after all? Or Poland, while I was born in America of an immigrant father, unable to speak my father's code lingo, Polish, till this past year of study? And hadn't my president called his country part of an "Evil Empire"? Not my president; so alienated by Reagan, I spent his two terms outside of the US.

I and the boy from Leipzig, whose name I never got, made each other laugh in spite of ourselves. Around five I lay back down on "my" bench to "rest my eyes," thinking, "I'll have to get that Leipzig guy's address… but wait. I promised myself – after that Polish man, no more men. Yeah, well, this guy from Leipzig, he'd just be a friend … " Before I knew it the bright-eyed girl was shoving a bus ticket into my hand, and a rising sun was shoving itself under my eyelids. "I got this for you. You slept too long to stand in line. We have to go this minute. Bye!"

" Auf wiedersehen!" I said, regretting that I wouldn't have more chances to test out my German.

I took the Bulgarian bus as far south as buses go, then stuck out my thumb in dry, rolling, Biblical-looking hills, with low, spiny, deep green bushes scattered on them. Boys and girls drove sheep; old men rode donkeys. I stood for more than an hour when two very chic French tourists, looking like Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, picked me up and drove me within a tantalizing nine kilometers of the border. It was a hot, uphill climb the rest of the way. The heat, sun, and incline drove me to larceny. I skipped off the road and picked four pears from a tree "protected" by homemade barbed wire made of carefully braided thorn branches. Finally, I did the truly unthinkable. I flagged down a taxi. Thank God no one I knew was there to witness my abandonment of divine commandments and proletarian ideals.

I couldn't believe my eyes at the border. We are so trained on movies, I thought, "This can't be real; there's no majestic, tear-inducing music swelling with each step I take towards this pitiful sight." Dozens of families, maybe a hundred or more, clotted at the border, choking it with all their possessions: mattresses, lamps, kids, stoves, pots, pans, piled so high atop ramshackle trucks I had to strain my bench-sleeping neck and squint against sun to take it all in. These were Turks, or maybe just non-Christian Bulgarians, depending on whom you asked. Bulgaria had decided to kick out its Turks, or, again, its "Turks," folks whose ancestors had lived in Bulgaria for five hundred years.

I sat on a table, told to wait by the border guards. After an hour of this I stuck out my thumb. "Autostop" – "I'm hitchhiking," I informed passing cars. The third driver pointed to his back seat. I jumped in and pleaded with the border guard. Because of glasnost or perestroika or being overwhelmed by the massed refugees, he let me go. I slept as Peter the Hungarian, who spoke no English, drove the 275 kilometers to Istanbul.

Turkish driving is like nothing I've ever seen. It's a patchwork of all the worst of driving styles elsewhere: New-York-cabbie-cutthroat-drive-or-die-aggression, Northern-California-laid-back-go-ahead-and-cross-I've-only-got-a-million-cars-behind-me-and-this-is-a-six-lane-highway-stoner noblesse oblige, small-town-stop-in-the-middle-of-the-freeway-and-lean-out-your-window-and-converse-with-your-cousin-or-scrape-up-some-roadkill-for-dinner redneck unconsciousness, with a dash of Praise-God-This-Is-A-Car!!! But-last-week-we-had-only-donkey-carts!-Wait-till-the-village-sees-this! Third World creative experimentation with the new. Peter the Hungarian drove with the cool control of an Indy Five Hundred champ, even when a car full of Turks veered in front of him on rush-hour freeway, gesticulating wildly, shouting in Hungarian, "Pull over! Pull over! You've got to try our new hotel!"

When we passed our first Turkish fruit stand, I wanted to rip the wheel right out of Peter's hands. I was coming from Soviet-era Poland. The land where lard, flour, and potatoes, in various forms, make up a goodly percentage of the calories one is likely to encounter in any given day.

Peaches! Big as grapefruits! Pink and yellow, orange and glowing as sunset! Mountains of watermelons, the one on top cut open to reveal firm, magenta flesh! Grapes! Several kinds! If you think I am using too many exclamation points, talk to me after you spend a year in Soviet-Era Poland and then pass a Turkish fruit stand in high summer! And here are five more - !!!!! Apples! Fresh figs! I didn't even know you could eat fresh figs! Honeydew! Oranges! Limes! What a cosmic tease! I couldn't understand how Peter, how anyone, could whiz right by them without stopping to rape, pillage, plunder, slurp and spray saliva and fruit juices as spectacularly as a fountain, feel the peaches, just feel them, bury one's face down to the last watermelon seed, or at least to fall down prostrate in spluttered prayers of gratitude and wonderment. With each fruit stand we passed, I was sure it was the last one, an impossible to reproduce miracle. Surely these were what inspired the Crusades. Indeed, my first foray alone in Istanbul was to a fruit stand, where I learned, to my shock, that the Turkish words for "watermelon" and "cherry" are almost identical to the Polish. Was this the best echo of 1683, when Poles changed history, halted jihad, and defeated the Turks at Vienna? They appropriated Turkish tents and fashions … did they take fruits, and their names, as well? Apparently, not enough.

Peter's plan was to camp outside the city, but he drove me into downtown Istanbul, and, with the help of maps, took me to the exact street address I wanted. Such are the good people in this world.

I stayed with Haldun and Hale Bingol, two former students, and their parents. I could never say enough to honor the hospitality they showed me, or even the simple graciousness that pervaded their conduct of their lives. They were endlessly generous and warm, giving me more than I ever thought to ask for. Haldun chauffeured me around, showing me sights I would have never seen otherwise, like the view of the Bosphorus at night, its two magnificent bridges, tour boats looking like wedding cakes gliding up and down, dour, shadowy and huge Soviet navy vessels, wee fishing boats determinedly putt-putting along, the seven hills of Istanbul sprinkled with multicolored lights, the full moon rising in a vast, flat, black sky, and a very handsome Turk, maybe thirty or thirty-five, manning his portable coffee stand, his immaculate white shirt and tight jeans and deep dimples lit by a pressure lamp, as he makes and serves tiny cups of coffee to whomever comes by between midnight and six a.m., his shift.

I've loved many places, and tried to honor love: Nepal, most breathtaking; Burma: most polite people living under a horrific dictatorship; England, most polite people not living under a horrific dictatorship. My best praise for Turkey: I quickly wished something I'd never wished before, in my fast-forward, no looking back life; I wished I could be granted another youth, so I could throw it away here. Fall in love with the wrong, dark, hairy men; become addicted to fruit, and like some absinthe fiend, waste in a garret writing unhinged poetry muddled by too much fructose. Oh, for time just to get lost in Istanbul. Finally, after a year in Krakow, where, as often as not, the sound of a horse's hooves clip-clopping on cobblestones woke me from sleep, I was in a city, the kind where you feel the need to walk fast and think fast. It was hot; it was crowded; there were more races of people than I could make sense of, all in their own costumes: Persians, Africans, Saudis, Europeans, in chadors or Dutch wax or kaffiyehs or pink and lime halter tops and baggy shorts. There were ancient, rancid alleyways manned by deeply creased men on stools who made being an old man on a stool look the weighty vocation indeed; alleyways swept by the kind of eternal Madonnas who could, if asked in the right words, give you eyewitness accounts of the down-home in all of human history – how good Jesus was at hide and seek; how Suleiman liked his eggs. There were chrome and glass. There was the call of the muezzin.

The men carried themselves with a sexual energy in their shoulders and hips and a pride. Once, I had to cross a street. I stood behind a Turkish man, who, I was sure, had not seen me. I was waiting to cross, utterly befuddled by the traffic, and whatever three-dimensional system of hieroglyphs that directed its flow, sure crossing on my own initiative would require me to first draft my last will and testament, thinking all those things one thinks while standing, certainly invisible, behind a very handsome Turkish man. Suddenly, without turning around, he said, in English, and very gently, "Come on." We crossed. After a few words, we went our ways …

Wasn't I talking about a peach? No, no, the Blue Mosque. The space inside did something completely different to my spirit than the interior of a Christian church. It was not a superior sensation, nor inferior, just different. God there was not a pinprick of light at the end of a tunnel, but an omnipresent companion. At the mosque there were little children selling water, a plump, veiled woman repeating, "Mash Allah," as she gave out candied almonds. The cautious, slender French tourist took one or two; the veiled-in-black woman in the dark corner, deep in prayer, slid the entire tray's contents to somewhere deep in her veil, and handed it back empty. Oh, I loved Istanbul.

I went south, to Bodrum, a blinding, white beach resort, took a boat to clear, turquoise waters, dove into a school of fish. I went north and took a walk through the countryside, where peasants plied me with food, offers of shelter, watermelons. I took a night bus, where I was ungracious to my seat companion, a nursing mother. She responded to my international signals of snotty impatience with her engagement with life in "my" space with silent humility and an all-night-long tenderness toward me, as if I were one of her own, though she was younger than I.


I'm back in the states now, looking for work. Applied for a dream job with Amnesty International. It's not what you know, but who. Can the night bus Madonna, the Turkish man who gets American women across the street, vouch for me? More realistically, I've sent in my application to do substitute teaching.

In Romania, someone had walked up to me and asked, "Czy Pani jest Polka?" "Tak," I replied, without thinking. "Are you Polish?" "Yes." It wasn't until moments later that I realized what I had said.

Right now I'm at my sister's house. As it happens, a Polish man has been working on her driveway. He did all the things I had come to loathe in Poland. He immediately brought up the past, the epic suffering. Was I aware, he had to ascertain, of the Katyn Massacre? Now, mind, I had just met this gentleman, and he was pouring crack-filler in a suburban New Jersey driveway. What had the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish army officers to do with that, or any aspect of life in 1989 New Jersey? Who cares? He was obedient, regardless of temporary circumstances, to the command to recite the litany of betrayed heroism. He exercised the "We're at a formal ball" dramaturgy of phrases, gestures, that keep a Poland of knights and aristocrats alive, at least as an alternative universe to the one that involves paving driveways and applications to substitute teach. He commented that since my sister and I were preparing his lunch, it would be a fine one. "Two womens. Good meal!" The sexism! And yet I couldn't get enough of this. To his call of "Katyn Massacre," I provided the response, "The Battle of Grunwald!" till we had run through the whole history of heroically bleeding Poles. He made me feel cozy, at home, among all these Americans who could never understand.

In my loneliness and confusion, I stumbled upon the teacher I've been seeking. My niece Amanda was lying on the couch. I was wondering how a two-month-old fills her day. No pen or paper, no passport, no big questions, how does she avoid getting bored? And she just lay there, laughing and smiling, frowning and knitting her brow, reaching out her hands and feet, opening her hands, spreading her toes, over and over. She was so ready, so sure and eager. Over and over, reaching out, ready for what life had in store, no agenda, just reaching out, bravely.

Comments Added, 2005
"I see you had chicken pox while you were away," said my sister, a nurse, fingering a scar near my scalp line. It was chicken pox. Chicken Pox! Why didn't any of the Polish doctors know? What could have been more obvious? I wax so romantic here about Poland, but what is romantic about a country whose doctors can't diagnose chicken pox? Sheesh!

And Poland today? I've been back since '89. They've embraced materialism with a vengeance, and hard-core Republican attitudes, as well. Beggars are spat upon. Neon signs are screwed into Krakow's ancient stones. A Google search of the words "stare babki" takes you to porn sites.

And yet…what I saw in '89 – the heroism of kids facing down water cannons and brutal police – the supportive social network that defied Soviet atomization – was all real. I insist. At the risk of sounding like Dorothy just back from Oz.

…Who was Steve and why did he give me cattails?

…If this letter is not proof that the Vatican erred when demoting St. Christopher, I don't know what is. How did I ever survive traveling like this, tempting fate with every item on my itinerary, hopping from one serendipitous encounter to another, without my constant prayers to Christopher, the allegedly mythical, Christ-carrying Patron Saint of Travelers?

The nice things I say about Turks here, if said today, after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, would be heard by some, inevitably, only as examples of a strained political correctness. But, again, as with Poland, it is all true. The Turks really were that nice to me.

Would I even contemplate going to Turkey today? What are the travelers' advisories? I just found them at "Security will be extremely tight … Americans should avoid demonstrations… " On a lighter note, the US State Department has issued a "Driver Safety Briefing." It says, "never let emotions affect what you do," and the "local driver" in Turkey is likely to take "some unexpected action." I back my State Department on this matter one hundred percent.

…Finally, Amanda. She's sixteen now. If she gave any sign that there was any chance that she'd even contemplate a trip like this – the excessively romantic, threadbare locales with inadequate medical facilities; the hitchhiking! – I'd do everything I could to help my sister have her daughter Amanda committed to a convent school with tightly secured dorms and a rigorous academic program that trains students in skills that guarantee long-term employment.