Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

If I were a terrorist... part 2

Ever notice those grey metal cylinders hung on telephone poles? Those are distribution transformers. They step down the high voltage electricity from the power lines to what gets delivered to your house.

I only notice them because I once worked in a factory winding the interior coils for them. There are only a few factories in the entire midwest that do this, and every summer there is a lot of overtime put in as transformers fail due to heat stress.

Now a funny story. Years ago a redneck bud of mine told me how as a teenager, he and some friends went out shooting their .22s outside of town and like the young a**holes they were, started taking pot shots at a transformer. When they got back to town, they found that a fair-sized part of their small town had had a power outage for a short while. Oops!

Now imagine a group of disaffected youths recruited and financed to drive around the country and take pot shots at as many transformers as they could, wherever they could do it without getting caught. (A silencer on the .22 makes it easier to operate in urban areas. That same bud of mine and I made one once, out of a beer can, window screen and cheesecloth just to see if we could.)

Of course not all transformers are at strategic areas serving large populations, power companies know how to route around damage, and county and municipal services have spares on hand.

Doesn't matter. Damage enough of them and the capacity to replace them will be stressed quite soon. They could also try for the larger transformer installations as opportunity presents. And every time anyone experiences even a brief power outage, they'll know how close terrorism came to them.

In the comments on part 1, a reader directed me to a site where a contest was held to suggest plots for a terrorist novel. Fun, but not serious. The suggestions ranged from the overly complex to the science-fictional (I'll get science-fictional myself later.) Most required resources and planning that made the notions impractical.

Now notice the essentials of this plan:

1) It does not require highly trained terrorists for the operation, only for the initial recruitment and financing which can be done by as few as one. The operations are carried out by local talent with minimal training, knowing little of the organization, who can be insulated from the foreign terrorist by several layers of cutouts if neccessary. Technical directions can be posted on the Internet.

2) It does not require any suspicious equipment to be smuggled into the country, only money. Nor for anything to be bought that would arouse suspicion or leave a paper trail.

3) It does not require that the agents die in the operation. If caught, it is unlikely that they could be convicted of anything that would get them serious time. (Except perhaps that silencer.) They'd be heroes in their set and compensation could be arranged for their time, as compensation is paid to the families of suicide murderers in Israel.

4) It could serve as the gateway/initiation for terrorists, providing a pool from which terrorists for more serious operations could be recruited in the future.

5) The targets cannot be "hardened". No security could ever monitor all of these things across the country.

Now lets consider another horrid plan: caltrops.

Huh? OK, before you go any further, have a look at this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caltrop it'll make this a lot simpler.

OK, back now? Now you know a caltrop is a device formerly used against cavalry, and in modern times against wheeled vehicles. As you see, they can be made by twisting wire together, bending small sheet metal plates, or made with nails welded together with a "buzz box" portable welder from any large hardware store. You throw them on the road and however they land, there's a sharp point sticking upwards.

Now what do you suppose would happen if, during the time of the heaviest traffic on the freeway that is still going the speed limit, someone threw a bunch of these across the road, or drove along merrily dropping them behind? Pileup would you say? How much anxiety could you cause across the country if people constantly wondered if they were going to drive over these things on the way home from work?

And again, it's a job for punks, not operatives trained in remote camps in Afghanistan. Nor do you need elaborate and expensive equipment and preparations.

Now we've gone from the sub-lethal to the potentially-lethal while conforming to the criteria listed. Now we come to the level of mass murder, and the plan that gives me nightmares.

I thought long and hard about publishing this, and refrained until I read that it had been done by Maoist terrorists in Nepal, and the M. Night Shaylaman film Unbreakable introduced the idea to the movie-going public.

Train wrecking.

A lot of passenger trafic goes by train every day on the East coast, and quite a bit of toxic material such as anhydrous amonia is shipped by train. You can heighten security to prevent anyone from smuggling weapons or bombs aboard an airplane, but how can you guard thousands of miles of track?

You could get a bit elaborate and use a small bomb under a rail, detonated by a pressure switch. This would have the advantage of allowing someone to plant it fairly quickly, which is a consideration in an urban area. But all you really need is a big wrench.

(About thirty years ago I remember reading about a series of train wrecks in the south that ended when someone the FBI considered a "person of interest" was killed by toxic gas released in a wreck he happened to be watching.)

This also conforms to the 5 criteria of a cheap and effective terrorist plan, except that if caught they might get the needle.

The purpose of this little exercise is to examine how one might go about seriously disrupting everyday life in an advanced industrial society with only some comparatively modest funds, a very few highly trained agents and a pool of youth disaffected from the host society, enough of whom think that terrorism is "sometimes justified" and that jihadists are heroes.

Yes of course I'm talking about a lot of the immigrant Muslim population of both the U.S. and Europe - but I'm also thinking of young, white, middle-class Hard Leftists that loathe America and support jihadism. The kind that take Ward "the-little-Eichmann's-had-it-coming" Churchill seriously.

Beyond the material damage done, what would we eventually be willing to accept in the way of security measures?

Now you know why they call me "Cheerful Steve".

In part 3 it's my turn to do science-fictional speculation.

Monday, January 29, 2007

If I were a terrorist... part 1

A few years before 9/11 I gave a presentation at the Ethnographic Museam in Belgrade called, "Weapons technology and culture: is the world becoming the Balkans?" In it I made the point that modern technology had put the capability of producing both small arms and weapons of much greater power in the hands of basically anyone motivated enough to make or acquire them, and that this was only going to get worse as technology advances.

The Oklahoma City bomb was, as everyone knows by now, made from ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel. IED's in Iraq are remotely detonated with devices made from cell phones and TV remotes. Any modern machine shop with computer-controlled milling machines can, with the appropriate programs, turn out any small arms, from pistols to heavy machine guns, etc. (It's actually more difficult to produce the primers and modern smokeless powders for bullets. I think they can be made with a setup equivalent to the average meth lab though.)

When the attack happened I was asked to comment on it in print in the English-language media in Warsaw. I wrote, "It gives me no pleasure to be proven right." So a little while later I set myself the exercise of trying to think like a terrorist for the purpose of anticipating the worst that terrorists could throw at us.

How'd it work? Not very well actually - thank God. I came away from the experiment convinced that I could plan a better terrorist campaign than these freaks. By which I mean, I think I figured out a number of tactics to bring disruption to the American economy and create a state of constant low-level tension among our people. All this and live through it too.

That was the odd thing. Jihadist terrorists seem to be obsessed with suicide/murder attacks and seem to show no interest in preparing their agents for multiple survivable missions. Like the managers of the Nazi labor/annihilation camps, whenever they have a choice between efficiency and death, they choose death.

I wrote my thoughts up and then sat on them for a while, out of a sense of responsibility. Now I'm going to voice them anyway, with some trepidation. We need to have some serious discussion about how to go about attacking a country like ours before someone takes the project really seriously.

9-11 proved that an airplane with a pilot willing to die is a cruise missile. But that's likely to prove a one-trick pony. The citizen militia that constituted itself on United 93 made "Let's roll" a battlecry for our people for all our subsequent history, and made that plan obsolete while the operation was still ongoing. Even without the often tiresome security at airports these days, no load of passengers is going to passively submit to a hijacking again.

It's still easy to make ANFO (Ammoium Nitrate and Fuel Oil) and deliver it by truck, or perhaps even by plane, but these days if you show interest in buying large quantities of fertilizer you're going to attract some attention.

And perhaps most importantly, in spite of various groups screaming bloody murder about discrimination, racism, Islamophobia and whatever; groups that produce and support terrorists are being watched. And yes, that means all you Muslims who have lived in the US for years, become citizens, etc etc. Now you know what it feels like to be Irish and have every romantic idiot think you're foursquare behind the murdering psychopaths in the Ould Sod.

In part 2 I will explore some thoughts about how to run a terror campaign in the US with available resources, and then I'll really let my morbid imagination run wild and think about Terrorist R&D: futureweapons of terror.

Sweet dreams.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


* The Battlestar is back, after what one reviewer called an agonizingly long wait - two months. Tough - last year I think it was six months.

Galactica has been moved to Sunday. Usually a move is a sign that the show has jumped the shark and is being put out to die. But in this case I think it's because it now has a fan base that will follow it anywhere. If you put it on at 1 a.m. Monday morning some of us would be staying up to watch it.

As I said here http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/11/great-political-discussion-of-our-time.html Battlestar Galactica is where the really important political debate of our time is going on - and I was only sort-of kidding. Actually, I'm not kidding at all.

That debate is over the question, How can a society survive as a free people under extreme stress?

* Started what are possibly my last semester of classes at this university. I finally managed to find an opportunity, and an excuse, to study Rhetoric. It's something that has interested me for a while that I never had a chance to study formally.

Did you know that when you use an expression of the form (for example), "Donald Trump is not exactly a poor man" that that kind of expression has a name? It's called "litotes" (lee-TOE-tays).

Or that the old piece of doggerel, "I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me than a pre-frontal lobotoby" is called "chiasmus" (ki-AS-mus), Greek for "criss-cross". It doesn't matter whether it's ridculous, like the bottle, or sublime like Winston Churchill's,

"You were given a choice between war and dishonor.
You have chosen dishonor, you will have war."

It's the form that counts, the criss crossing of words or phonemes.

If you look here http://rhetoric.byu.edu/ you'll find the Silva Rhetoricae, a site that explains it all, from "abating" to "zeugma".

* Speaking of jumping the shark, what are we going to say when James Woods' show Shark, jumps the shark?

* The other day we caught Republican Gov. Bill Richardson and Hillary Clinton announcing their respective candidacies for president. My impression: Richardson said "I'm going to... I'm going to..." a lot. What he was going to do to fix this country. Oh are you? All by yourself or will you have help? And if you can, is there something preventing you from doing it now, or do you absolutely have to be president before you can start helping your country?

Hillary on the other hand, came off far more humble (the effort must have nigh killed her) and spoke of "working with..." people.

I mentioned this and my wife said, "I was thinking exactly the same thing." Remember, she knows my prejudices but as a Polish citizen she doesn't have a dog in this fight. (Though admittedly a lot of Eastern Europeans would probably be Conservative Republicans if they could vote in our elections, just on the foreign policy agenda.)

Hillary has a lot of personality issues that handicap her. But, reports have it that the lady entered the senate with cap in hand and asked the old pols to show her the ropes. Who'd a thunk it after her arrogant behavior as First Lady?

If I'd never seen either of these people before (and in fact I haven't seen a whole lot about Richardson, I'm only barely aware of the name) I'd go for her. I don't know who the nominees will be come election time, but if it were these two I'd say Hillary would kick his ass.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Robert Anton Wilson R.I.P. (or not)

Novelist/philosopher Robert Anton Wilson died last week. I've been enjoying reading the obits all around the Internet - and he would have too. We know this because a few years ago he did have the pleasure of reading his own obits when word went around that he'd died.

This time it's for real. Or maybe not. Or maybe he's alive/dead/neither-alive-nor-dead in that box with Schrodinger's Cat.

If you haven't read Wilson, you have no idea what I'm talking about (and probably didn't get the joke in the first word(s) of this post either).

Well you can read about him here http://www.reason.com/news/show/117878.html and that'll link you to a lot of other stuff about him. But the fact is, if you haven't read Wilson I couldn't tell you anything about him and his writing that would make any sense.

So... if you'll trust me on this one, try the Illuminatus Trilogy written with Robert Shea. If you're younger than the Kennedy assassination generation, it may not be topical for you - but the lunacy is timeless. (Whew! A trilogy is a lot of trust in someone's literary judgement I know. But take it from me, the Atlas Shrugged parody alone is worth the slog.) If you make it through to the other side, there is the Schrodinger's Cat trilogy and the Historical Illuminatus.

Wilson wrote about conspiracies. (Like Micaelangelo painted buildings.) His attitude towards conspiracy theories was expressed in two maxims: 1) Never attribute to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. 2) Never be surprised by conspiracy, conspiracy is normal mamalian politics.

Clear? That was Wilson, most people do well to see two sides to any question. With Wilson, any important question was less like a sheet with two sides, and more like a dodecahedron. Or a tesseract.

In the last year of his life, Wilson sent out a haiku he'd written to his email list:

Well what do you know?
Another day has passed
and I'm still not not.


Well what do you know?
The last day past, at last
and now you're not.
Bye Bob

"The fear of death is the beginning of slavery."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anti-Semitism Part 2: the religious factor

Years ago I had a class in Medieval Hebrew Civililzation, taught by the director of the local Hillel Foundation. Towards the end of the semester, Dr. Rubin* asked if anyone cared to try and explain anti-Semitism in the Western world. (A term he dislike by the way. He preferred "Judeophobia".)

Since from earliest childhood my mouth has lived its own life, wild and free, I said I'd have a go at it. In brief:

For a Christian, his whole faith is wrapped around the idea that the life of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies of the messiah. This implies the highest possible stakes, his belief in eternal life as a reward for believing this and acting accordingly.

For anyone who has studied the messianic prophecies under the guidance of a good Hebrew scholar as I have, the thing that strikes one most forcibly is - that it's not true.

The reasons are complicated and not relevant to this discussion, but among other things there is not a single messianic tradition but several (3 to 5 depending on who you're listening to), which scholars have been arguing about for a long time. But the most important reason lies at the heart of Christian symbolism - crucifixion. In the Hebrew scriptures, an accursed death which renders the body unclean and destroys the chance for resurrection.

Christianity looks like a combination of Jewish intellectualism and certain elements of Mediterranean paganism. Chiefly the idea of a literal "Son of God"**, "begotten, not made". This goes against the conception of a non-corporeal god of pure thought, not tied to any specific place or object, so different from the anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks and Romans and the demigod sons they begat on mortal women***. This ironically makes Judaism closer to Islam than Christianity in its core concept of the nature of divinity.

What I concluded was that for a believing Christian, the very existence of believing Jews is going to be a threat to their core beliefs, since he can't get around the fact that the basic scriptures of his faith are Jewish and the Jews stubbornly refuse to be convinced that their prophecies have been fulfilled.

(Ask any violence professional the quickest way to get assaulted: challenge core beliefs.)

Dr. Rubin listened to my exposition with a completely impassive expression and commented, "You're essentially correct. That's a rabbinical answer." (Meaning, you nailed it but it wouldn't be politic of me to say so.)

But Judaism is also the parent religion of Islam. Near the beginning of the Prophet Mohammed's career, the writings which became the Koran were shown to a Jewish scholar (Gaon), who pronounced them to be, "Garbled scripture." He was quickly given reason to recant his opinion and maintain further silence.

This set the pattern for Jewish relations with the derived religions. A new teacher arises who may initially be favorably disposed towards the Jews, because he's "fixed" and "purified" their religion. They reply that their religion is just fine thank you, and doesn't need fixing. The new teacher reacts with the rage of a rejected suitor.

It happened with the founder of Islam, and it happened with Martin Luther. "If we hang felons on a gibbet, we should have one twelve times as high for Jews."

I don't much like this conclusion but I don't see a way around it****. In further posts I will deal with the political, economic and cultural dimensions of anti-Semitism.

* Dr. Rubin was a good friend and teacher, and one of the bravest men I've met though I didn't realize it at the time. After many absences due to illness, he announced to us that he was going in for treatment for a chronic health problem that would soon be fixed, "One way or the other." He died on the operating table while underdoing surgery for a pancreatic ulcer. We realized only then that he had been saying good bye to us.

**I remember reading in a Biblical dictionary that "sons of God" was sometimes used as a term of praise for the very righteous.

***Heracles and Perseus for example. One historical speculation had it that in some societies of the ancient world, women of good family might serve terms as temple prostitutes. Any child conceived in that term would be considered children of the deity of that temple. Interesting, but I have no idea how that theory is regarded by scholars today. Anybody?

****See my previous post "Can you think?" http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html Quiz question 2: How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?

Friday, January 12, 2007

I didn't know my child was ODD - I just thought he was ornery

The other day my wife and I were in Barnes & Noble bookstore and while browsing around we saw this book http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&EAN=9780878339631&itm=1

The Defiant Child: A Parent's Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder
by Douglas Riley

*From the Publisher: The American Psychiatric Association estimates that sixteen percent of children in the United States may have oppositional defiant disorder. These kids relentlessly push the boundaries set for them by authority figures. By exploring the mindset of O.D.D. children and explaining the way they operate, Dr. Douglas Riley teaches parents how to recognize the signs and modify the behavior of their O.D.D. child.

Well, I really don't want to pull a Fonda and review a book I haven't read. So I'll review the title and blurb.

What a triumph for modern psychiatry, they've managed to medicalize childhood!

Children who "relentlessly push the bounds set for them by authority figures"? Oh whatever will this poor old world be FORCED to endure next? Oh my, I simply must learn to "recognize the signs". (Of what? Being a kid?)

My five-year-old son pretty relentlessly pushes the bounds set for him by the authority figures in his life, i.e. Mommy and Daddy. These days it mostly involves how much TV he's going to watch and when it gets turned off. We're told by more experienced parents that we've got bedtime battles in store.

He's also argumentative at times, pays highly selective attention to what his Authority Figures tell him and has learned to quibble. ("I told you not to run away in the store!" "I didn't run Daddy, I walked.")

Why would he do that? Are we bad parents? Is there some kind of Oedipal conflict involved? Or could it be (and I'm just speculating here) that it's because he's intelligent, spirited and in robust good health? (Knock wood.) Could it be that it is in the nature of kids to "push the bounds set by authority figures" and that it's the job of parents to first set those bounds, enforce them, and then loose them at the appropriate times?

Q and A time:

Q: Do you blame yourselves?

A: Hell yes. Heredity has got to count for something after all.

Q: How do you deal with a defiant child?

A: Lots of different ways. My wife studies the subject of child rearing seriously and in fact there is a fair amount of good advice available. Mostly it amounts to saying "No!" and meaning it.

Q: What's your position on spanking?

A: No special position, just a swat on the butt while standing. Doesn't much work though, grounding without TV is what seems to sober him up quickest.

OK, so maybe the book is about behavior extreme enough to warrant serious concern, and who knows? Maybe it does have some good tips for dealing with defiance in children. But SIXTEEN PERCENT? You're telling me that sixteen percent of American kids have a "disorder" that warrants medical intervention?

Now here's a speculation of mine. We have reason to believe that some people are born, what for want of a better term we might call "natural leaders". People who have reason to know, such as Henry Morton "Doctor Livingston I presume?" Stanley, say that about one in five men are such. That's close enough for government work to 16%.

Could this be what they're trying to define as a "disorder"?

It's all about choices...

I suppose everybody has thought about the choices they made in life, and how things might have been different if they'd chosen differently. I also suppose that everyone has deep regrets about things they've done, and wish they hadn't or things they hadn't and wish they had.

I'm a little ambiguous about that first one. There are mistakes I've made that I deeply regret - but on the other hand, the way they bent my life's path led me here and I'm pretty happy with that. If I hadn't screwed up the way I did at a few critical points in my life, I might have had success earlier in my life and not taken off for odd parts of the world and then I'd have never met my wife and had children with her.

Most of my regrets involve phone numbers I was given and never called, or realizing too late that certain women were waiting to be kissed. Heavy sigh.

Anyhow, I've got a bud who did everything differently from the way I did. I drifted into college after high school and pursued more formal education whenever I was at loose ends. I took off for Eastern Europe and found my voice as a writer abroad. Now I'm back in education collecting more degrees.

John got himself a job at the post office and secured himself financially, investing in some houses etc. With that taken care of, he pursued ventures in writing, publishing and lately film making - entirely self-taught.

Check here http://possibilityx.com/ved/about.htm for one of his projects Vino e Donne ("Wine and Women").

"In vino, veritas.

That's Latin, and it means "In wine, there is truth."

Talking with my Italian friend Mara one day, I was struck with how open and honest she is. When I mentioned this, she said: "You should hear me after I've had a couple of glasses of wine."

Huh. This gave me an idea---

---a series of conversations with different women, each drinking a bottle of their favorite wine. To make it really interesting, you could ask each woman the same questions, to see how the answers vary.

So, my pal George The Greek and I did exactly that, and for maybe the first time in human history, men plied women with wine in hopes it would encourage them to....TALK MORE.

And now, we have the results on videotape.

"Vino e Donne" is Italian for "Wine and Women," and it's the title of this experimental documentary video project. We bought 14 of our best women friends a bottle of wine and sat down with them---one at a time and one on one---and asked each woman The Twenty Questions.

Nobody knew the questions in advance---we wanted things to unfold organically, naturally, as a conversation---NOT as an interview with prepared answers.

For balance, we made sure to converse with women of different ages. We ended up talking with three women in their 20's, three in their 30's, three in their 40's, three in their 50's, and two in their 60's.

Vino e Donne is being edited now, for a March 2007 release."

Folks, IMHO this is pretty good stuff. At least as good as some of the stuff I've seen at "art house" theaters in various parts of the world. Which is good. As Norman Podhoretz said (in "Ex Friends") it's probably not possible to remain friends with an artist whose work you don't like.

What impresses me is, 1) that John had the juevos to pursue this kind of thing, and 2) that technology and good old capitalism produced the equipment to produce professional-quality video, and brought the cost within the reach of common folks like us.

John and I have talked up a project to produce a video on Indian Club exercises together that we may even get around to now.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Gorale, Polish highlanders

This is an article I published a few years back in the Warsaw Insider, an English-language monthly published in Poland. Since it was a tourist article, I had to gush a bit. But now I can tell a couple of stories about doing it.

I interviewed the wojt (governor) of Bialy-Dunajec through the good offices of my wife-to-be Monika, since my Polish wan't quite up to that level of complexity, and there was a different accent and dialect to deal with. He was very helpful, but when he took us around the county seat and showed us the meeting hall, he introduced us to the council which was sitting at the time. As soon as he said "journalist" we could feel a cold wave going around the room. See my point in the article about how the Highlanders have felt slighted by the lowland media.

We must admit that when the Wojt was describing local customs, we had to supress some chuckles at how he kept going on about "many weddings, funerals etc. are non-alcoholic these days" and "fights used to break out at these events but nowadays..." Hey, both her and my people were highlanders way back, we know all about the drinking and brawling mountain men regard as manly sport.

And what we still chuckle about to this day, was when our goralka landlady was heading off to a highlander festival in costume, I had the opportunity to ask her about that Bulgarian saying quoted below. "Do you have this saying I heard in Bulgaria, "The flatlands grow onions - the mountains grow men." She answered excitedly, "No, but it's true!" and off she went.

My lady and I looked at each other and thought, Omigod, did we just start a new "traditional" highlander folk saying? Sometimes I wonder just how many corruptions of the Polish language I am personally responsible for?


“The flatlands grow onions. The mountains grow men.”
Bulgarian Highlander’s saying

Before beginning our research for this article, we already knew for sure certain things about Gorale, the highland people of the Tatra Mountains. We knew that they were proud, independent, hardy, self-reliant, have strong traditions of cooperation and hospitality, an economy traditionally based on herding and a long history of sending their young men into the army. We knew this because it could be a description of almost any of the mountain cultures of the world. More than any other peoples, highlanders are shaped by the land they live in.

The mountains are beautiful but a hard land to live in and they breed hardy people. In historical times transportation from the lowlands was tremendously expensive so people made most of what they needed themselves. Men often made their living as herdsmen, spending long periods of time alone in the mountains. People necessarily became independent and self-reliant but also necessarily had to be ready to help one another to survive and prosper and hospitality became an almost sacred obligation.

Because transportation into and out of the mountains was so expensive and arable land tends to occur in isolated pockets separated from others by long stretches of land unsuitable for agriculture, farming was largely for subsistence. What was produced for export were commodities that could take themselves to market, such as live animals and in the Tatry Mountains, lumber, which could be floated down the Wisla river all the way to the port of Gdansk.

The Tatry Mountains lie in the Southeast of Poland on the border with Slovakia. They form part of a connected series of mountain ranges that extend from the Sudety Mountains on the Czech border, through the Carpathians and down the Balkan Peninsula. The people of these mountains have a culture that varies from region to region in dialect, dress, musical styles and other elements of material culture but nonetheless possesses a unity that extends across the various national borders and separates them from the lowland peoples.

The Tatry are a favorite destination for tourists in Poland and from all parts of Europe. In winter there is the skiing and in the spring and summer there is hiking and climbing among the spectacular beauty of the mountains. Zakopane, in the heart of the Tatry, is the most popular destination, winter or summer, but there are any number of surrounding communities with accommodations even cheaper than the already pretty reasonable rooms in the city if you don’t mind being a bit distant from the restaurants and clubs of the city center. Now the winter capitol of Poland, Zakopane was, not too many years ago, a small town known to outsiders as an artist’s colony.

Everywhere you see the distinctive architecture of the mountain people. Houses are constructed of whole tree trunks, squared and notched at the ends. The corners are beveled off so that when the beams are fitted together the joins form a “v” shape and are sealed with straw rope hammered into the crack between beams. The whole is surmounted with a high peaked roof, traditional wood shingles, terracotta or sheet metal and often decorated with elaborate woodcarvings.

You also see the traditional highlander’s dress: the long colorfully embroidered skirts, velvet vests, tasseled scarves and white blouses of the women, the felt trousers, cape and wide brimmed hat of the men. Traditional costumes are worn by people in the service industry, of course, and on Sundays but we have also seen Gorale shepherds wearing the same clothes, only travel stained and worn, when bringing the sheep in from the mountain pastures.

Everybody who goes to Zakopane buys a traditional hiking stick/weapon of the Gorale, called in various dialects ciupaga, welazka, siekierka or laska, whose handle is a tomahawk head. We gained great face with our landlady by buying a ciupaga with a real steel head rather than the decorative brass or wood that the tourists generally favor.

To find out about Gorale culture we went to Zakopane where we contacted Maria Biegun, owner of a pension we favor when in Zakopane, former women’s shot put and Judo champion and proud Goralka, active in Gorale cultural affairs. Through her gentleman friend Wojciceh Opiela we met and interviewed the wojt (governor) of the gmina of Bialy Dunajec, Jan Gasienica Walczak. Pan Inz. Walczak shared his knowledge of his people with us and proved to us that the ancient traditions of Gorale hospitality had survived the years of the communist interregnum when he vowed to roast some local bureaucrats who were less than helpful to us in our quest for information. Perhaps they cannot be blamed though, we got the impression that Gorale feel that their culture has been slighted, even insulted by journalists in the past.

The life of a typical highlander begins with a christening. The baby is taken to church by its’ godfather and godmother, called in the Podhale dialect, kumoter and kumoska. If the christening is held in the winter they will go in a one or two-horse sleigh called a kumoterki, decorated with carvings and the horses caparisoned in the Goral style. The next day there will be a party. In these times there is a growing tendency for the parties to be non-alcoholic.

First Communion occurs between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, depending on local tradition. The ceremony differs little from lowland Polish custom except that, if the priest agrees, the young boys and girls may be dressed in their best clothes, decorated according to the custom of their region.

When it comes to marriage nowadays there are no more matchmakers. It was explained to us that today’s youth have ample opportunity to meet at clubs and discos. Nonetheless certain old customs are still adhered to. The engagement is recognized when the young man formally asks for the young lady’s hand at a dinner in the presence of both of their families. A wiano (dowry) is collected, traditionally of bed linen, quilts, pigs, chickens etc. Nowadays it is whatever they want and need. The parents may build them a house beforehand.

Young men, called pytacy (“inviters”) go throughout the village to invite people to the wedding. Before the wedding day there are parties for the bride’s party and the groom’s, after which the couple are formally escorted to the bride’s house for the blessing on their union. The starosta wesela (host of the party) gives a speech, where it is expected that everyone will cry.

Then the druhny (“bridesmaids”) will fetch the groom to the church and the groom’s party will fetch the bride, for Mass and the nuptials with the pytacy leading the procession.

After the ceremony there is a reception and a party, a jolly affair called ocepiny from the word, czepek, “bonnet”. In the traditional bonneting ceremony the bride is seated, her maidens garland removed and a matron’s bonnet placed on her head. The bride is “kidnapped” by the pytacy and must then be “ransomed” by the druhny with songs, skits, chocolates and the traditional smoked cheese, oscypek, which is often made in the shape of toys for children to play with – and eat later.

The groomsmen and bridesmaids have a song duel with traditional melodies to which lyrics may be improvised making fun of each other – but cannot be vulgar. The staroscina (hostess) will sit in the center of the crowd wearing a traditional podolek (apron) while the people gather around and sing traditional songs, przyspiewki to celebrate the wedding and urge people to be generous to the newlyweds. Guests approach one at a time with gifts of money in their hands, held out in front of them so that everyone can see the amount of their gift.

In these times two bands are often hired for the occasion, a traditional Gorale band and a modern pop band. Traditional melodies, nuta pytacka, are danced to. Traditional Gorale dancing is technically difficult, physical and exhausting. Today’s young people may learn the basic steps at home or in a group. The governor’s two teenage sons started learning at home and have been participating in a group for ten years now. The custom is that one couple dances at a time, one may interrupt by singing special lyrics but in old times this was sometimes the source of misunderstandings and fights.

Along with the wedding guests, there is a long-standing tradition that laziki (“drop-ins”), young single men, may come in and dance, though they may not claim a place at the table. Today they may come and sit at a table outside where cakes and sweets are sent out to them and a special bottle of vodka, unless the occasion is non-alcoholic.

The day after the wedding there may be an optional party, the poprawiny, held so that everyone can consume the leftovers.

In recent years, a new custom has grown up, the roczek, a dinner party after church held for a few intimate friends to celebrate a baby’s first year.

Funerals ceremonies traditionally start at home and if a highlander dies in hospital the body is first brought home. There is a sitting by the open casket with prayers and remembrances, after which the casket is closed and carried out. When crossing the threshold the casket is knocked three times on the threshold so that the dead will remember his home but not come back to haunt it. Gorale music is played, on a sad note with no singing. At the gravesite after the prayers and eulogy, people walk by to throw handfuls of earth on the coffin and express their condolences. Afterwards there is a banquet for family and intimate friends, which is in these times non-alcoholic.

Other important festivals in the life of the Gorale include St. Wojciech’s Day, April 23 when the sheep are taken to the high mountain pastures and St. Michael’s Day, September 29, when the herds return to the valleys. On the first Sunday after St. Michael’s Day the juhasi (shepherds) and bacowie (the bosses of the mountain shepherd’s huts) go to church to give thanks to Matka Boska Ludzmierska (Our Lady of Ludzmierz) the Gazdzina (patroness) of Podhale region. The baca (boss) would bring gifts of toys made of smoked cheese for everyone in the village, called redykolka, from redyk “flock” and made from recipes kept secret within families.

Like many herding peoples, the Gorale shepherds have phenomenal memories. A man with a flock of a thousand sheep will be able to recognize every single one of them and will be able to look over his flock and instantly know if one is missing! The governor personally knew one six-year-old boy who knew every sheep in his father’s sizable flock.

Highlander cooking is based on cabbage and potatoes. Several kinds of regional dumplings and noodles are made from potatoes and a kind of pancake called placek zbojnicki, which is served with goulash. Look for: kluski gruland, bukty and maluski on the menu. Cabbage is made into sauerkraut and the making is traditionally a family affair. Cabbage leaves are laid in the bottom of a thoroughly cleaned barrel and then grandfather and the kids beat the cabbage until the juices run out. Try kwasnica, sauerkraut soup.

If you are a vegetarian you might consider avoiding Zakopane. The center of town is permeated with the smell of meat being roasted over wood fires. Try the szaszlyk, meat roasted on skewers or kotlet barani, mutton cutlet with oscypek cheese. We found that after a day spent in vigorous hiking up and down the steep trails in the pure mountain air, the body craves meat and the smell from the many outdoor restaurants was indescribably, irresistibly appetizing.

There are many fine restaurants in Zakopane but you must be sure not to miss the Chata Zbojnicka,, the “fighting Men of the Mountains”. There you will be met by young men in traditional dress who brusquely inform you, “Men first” when you enter. You sit at long wood benches before massive wood tables with a lot of people who are total strangers – at first. After fruitlessly trying to order another beer, “Prosze pana – piwo” (“Please sir, a beer.”), I was taught to shout “Hej! Daj mi @#&* piwo!” (“Hey, give me a @#&* beer!”)

And woe be he who comes in a tie! He will be ceremoniously escorted to a headsman’s block (with commentary, “Hey is that an old sock or what?”), have the tie pinned to the block with a knife while the headsman sharpens the axe and then the tie is chopped off! If one is a good sport about it he will have many glasses of vodka pressed upon him by the waiters and guests. This is followed by much dancing and group singing.

Gorale sports are as vigorous and physical as their dancing. If you want to take up climbing, some of the best climbers in Poland live in Zakopane – and several of them speak English. During the winter you can see races of kumoterki and young men who race on skis pulled by horses with the slush flying from their hooves, getting thoroughly drenched.

The highland culture spreads across the mountains, irrespective of national boundaries. Polish Gorale can understand the highlanders just across the border in Slovakia perfectly well. We were told that they use a somewhat more colorful embroidery with more red in it and that their music is the same, except where it incorporates Slovakian elements into it. Further away in the mountains, the dialect becomes harder for Polish Gorale to understand because of the Hungarian words incorporated into it.

The Gorale dialect differs from lowland Polish in accent and in a number of different words. Freedom, in standard Polish is Wolnosc. In the Gorale dialect, Sleboda. Fajny (super, great) is swarny; dzierzawa (leasehold) is harenda.

Like many highland peoples around the world, their young men are much sought after as soldiers, because they are hardy and valliant, touchy about their personal honor but disciplined. Today though, all that remains of the Pohale regiment is the Strzelcy Podhalanscy battalion of the Polish Army. This past August in Bialy Dunajec a monument was dedicated to its founder, General Inzynier Andrzej Galica.

The mountains abound with legends: the sleeping knight Gievont who awakes when Poland is in danger and the tales of Janosik, a kind of Polish/Slovakian Robin Hood who fought the powerful landowners. Our informant the wojt, told us that this could only be a legend. He said that the legendary Janosik fought for the serfs but, he said, the people of Podhale have always been free, never serfs.

Somewhere in Dolina Koscieliska, they say there is an army that sleeps in a mountain cavern, awaiting the hour of Poland’s danger. Once, it is said, a smith was commissioned to shoe the horses of all the army and promised a rich reward. Once the job was finished he was presented with a sack containing the nail parings of the horses. Disgusted, he emptied the sack outside the cavern and went home. Once home he discovered that all of the nail parings that had clung to the rough surface of the sack had turned to golden thalers!

Today you can go to the Tatry and find the treasure of the mountains, which lies in the beauty of the scenery and the hospitality of the people. And make no mistake the culture of the Gorale is a living culture, not a museum piece. The economy has adapted to a large degree to tourism but this is a logical extension of the ancient tradition of hospitality, not a disruption of tradition.

As in any living tradition, times change customs and new customs arise over time. Today there is a competition for the Najswarniejsza Goralka, the finest highland girl, chosen not only for her beauty but for her resourcefulness, cookery and embroidery. There is also the Parade of the Gazdy , the owners of a certain amount of land and sheep, corresponding to landed gentry in English. And recently Zakopane has been host to an annual International Highlander Festival with participants from all over the mountain lands of Europe.

Of all the traditional cultures in the modern, industrialized world, highland cultures have proven to be as durable as the mountains. The people are shaped by their land and their love of it and only by removing them from it can their heritage ever be truly lost.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Anti-Semitism Part 1

In the early 1930s in Germany, a Nazi brownshirt stops an elderly Jewish man and demands that he answer a question, "Who is responsible for all of Germany's problems today?"

"The Jews and the bicycle riders" the old man answers.

"Why the bicycle riders?"

"Why the Jews?"

Last night I watched most of the PBS documentary "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence."

Verdict: Thumbs up - with some caveats.

Andrew Goldberg did a great job of this and Judy Woodruff was an excellent presenter. It was well organized, thoughtful and balanced. When they talked about European and Islamic anti-Semitism they backed it up with videoquotes, facts and figures. More importantly, they sampled a wide range of opinions, not just the most extreme. And they didn't shy away from what Israel has done that Arabs have a legitimate right to resent.

Nonetheless, the conclusion that Islamic hatred of Jews is way out of proportion to their grievances is well-supported. They examine the role of state propaganda in fostering this hatred and the motives of Middle Eastern elites in using Israel and Jews in general as scapegoats for their failed states.

Given that there was a lot of Jewish financial support for this project, which they put right up front in the credits, Goldberg must have known that he was going to have to do a really good job supporting his conclusion, since it was likely to be attacked as Zionist propaganda. (We'll see, perhaps it'll simply be militantly ignored.) However in attempting to be fair and balanced he did something questionable at the beginning.

The documentary attributed Islamic anti-Semitism to something they learned from Christian Europe. After reviewing the Islamic-Nazi alliance during WWII (something a European friend of mine dismissed as "that old chestnut" as if it were trivial) they seemed to attribute modern Islamic hatred of Jews as somehow starting at this period.

This is historically unsupportable. Muslim anti-Semitism has existed for a long time, is supported by the Koran, and existed long before the establishment of the state of Israel.

European anti-Semitism at times may have been more extreme and violent during the Middle Ages, though the image presented herein of the golden age of tolerance for Jews and Christians in the Muslim lands during the Middle Ages has recently been questioned by some historians.

Judy Woodruff commented on her participation in the project, “We live in a time of growing intolerance, especially religious intolerance, and it is unsettling to see anti-Semitism on the rise once again. As a journalist, I am proud to be associated with this documentary, which sheds light on a particularly troubling form of hateful behavior.”

With respect to Ms Woodruff, this is misleading at best. We do not live in a time of growing religious intolerance, we live in a time of rising Jew-hatred.

Buddhists, Hare Krishnas and cultists of all kind flourish in Europe and America, where a Mormon politician is regarded as having a pretty good shot at the presidency. Muslims live unmolested in the lands of the West, maintaining their own communities, places of worship, modes of dress - and increasingly making demands for their own laws. No one is defacing their cemetaries or spraypainting swastikas on their properties. And none go in constant fear of assault.

I will deal with the origins of anti-Semitism and the question of Israel in later parts, but for now I'd like to throw out some observations and questions to consider:

*Does anybody doubt that anti-Semitism is getting worse, both in the West and the Muslim lands?

The documentary cited figures on vandalism and assaults. Personally, I remember when the accusation of anti-Semitism was a career wrecker in academia, just as "racism" is now. Nowadays it's a respectable position once again, as long as you make it out to be "anti-Zionism".

*And speaking of which, does anybody see a difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism anymore?

I remember a generation back, when my Arab friends on campus tended to be religiously relaxed and made it plain that they didn't hate Jews but just weren't crazy about Zionists. (A Saudi friend thought it was scandalous that some Christians still believed that the Jews killed Christ - and could quote the Pope on the subject.) Many expressed profound sympathy for the sufferings of the Holocaust and didn't deny the right of Jews to settle in Palestine as members of a Palestinian state.

You don't hear that now. The Holocaust is either actively denied (or "exaggerated" a Jordanian colleague told me) or actively excused, and sometimes denied while promising a real one in the near future.

*Does it seem as plain as the proverbial nose on the face that the Left is in the process of selling out the Jews?

Jewish intellectuals have long been the brain trust of the Left, from moderate Democrats to the hard Left. Now the Democratic Party leadership has taken in minority leaders with strong anti-Semitic feelings and they are finding that in a democracy, votes delivered outweigh brains and money. And... within the past few decades, the number of American voters of Middle Eastern origin has approached parity with the number of Jewish voters.

On the Hard Left, they have discovered the plight of the Palestinians and the nobility of the Jihadist hatred of Western civilization.

*Does anyone doubt that the first war Israel loses will be the last one it ever fights? Because they'll be dead. All of them.

*The Iranians have stated publicly what many of us have considered privately. That in an age of nuclear weapons, a geographically small country is at an inherent disadvantage compared with larger countries, i.e. it takes fewer nukes to blow it all up.

So... when contemplating the nuking of Israel, have the freakin' Palestinians noticed that they and the Israelis are living in each others laps? Are they so consumed with hatred that they haven't noticed that when it's bye-bye Israel they get it from the blast and fallout too? Have we heard a single expression of concern from the Palestinians about Iran's nuclear program and openly stated intention of using nukes when they get them - on THEM?

And in the rest of the Islamic world, does concern for the plight of the Palestinians go out the window when they see a chance to turn the Jews into radioactive ash?

Monday, January 08, 2007

A place to kipple

Those who read an early post of mine here http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/08/have-you-ever-kippled.html
know I'm a Rudyard Kipling fan.

Recently I found this web site http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/kipling_ind.html
where the Complete Kipling Verse is online, all poems listed in alphabetical order. I can't seem to find certain lines I remember and am trying to place using their search engine, but it's nice to have this available when my hard copy is in my apartment in Warsaw.

I also found a poem new to me browsing the titles. I've never attempted to work my way through the whole verse systematically, that way I'll have the pleasure of discovering previously overlooked treasure for years to come.

Check out 'The Dove of Dacca', right before 'The Dutch in the Medway', an old favorite of mine.

The poem tells the story of a Hindu king of Dacca who goes off to battle against Moslem invaders. He takes a homing dove with him and tells his queens, "If she return, be sure that I fall."

He wins the battle - but on the return home the dove escapes and flys home. The imagery evoked by the lines is pure Kipling,

The freed dove flew to the Rajah's tower --
Fled from the slaughter of Moslem kings --
And the thorns have covered the city of Gaur,
Dove -- dove -- oh, homing dove!
Little white traitor, with woe on thy wings!

And the queens believing the day is lost, immolate themselves in the city.

The Queens of Dacca they slept in flame
Slept in the flame of the palace old --
To save their honour from Moslem shame.
And the dove -- the dove -- oh, the homing dove,
She cooed to her young where the smoke-cloud rolled!

The poem ends,

So the dove flew to the Rajah's tower --
Fled from the slaughter of Moslem kings;
So the thorns covered the city of Gaur,
And Dacca was lost for a white dove's wings.
Dove -- dove -- oh, homing dove,
Dacca is lost from the Roll of the Kings!

Fate, death and disaster coming on the wings of the most innocent symbol of love, gentleness and divine grace. Good stuff!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mike Nifong, pedophile priests, and what I wonder about

Thomas Sowell has written several columns on District Attorney Mike Nifong and his prosecution of the three Duke University lacrosse players accused of raping a stripper. You can find the latest here at the Creators Syndicate site.


For those of you who were recently rescued from desert islands, this is increasingly looking like the biggest case of prosecutorial misconduct since the days when "Guilty by reason of being Black" was an acceptable argument. Except now the shoe is on the other foot - dumb white jocks are guilty until proven innocent beyond what even the idiot academics at Duke can stomach.

The high points so far:

- The alleged victim told a story that kept changing. Not to worry, the DA didn't interview her or any of the accused.

- It turned out the victim had made a previous false rape accusation, and it seemed that not even her own family believes her.

- Her co-worker at the party told a different and contradictory story.

- The alleged victim was shown a photo lineup of all the members of the Duke lacrosse team - with no "ringers" in the lineup at all, contrary to long-established police procedure.

- One of the accused had a rock-solid allibi. A cab driver (African-American in fact and a stand up guy it seems, he's taken a lot of flack for this) told police that he was in his cab at an ATM at the time of the alleged rape - and the ATM obligingly took a timed video.

- And now, Ta-da! It turns out that Nifong was in possession from the very beginning of DNA evidence that indicated that the stripper was a veritable sperm bank of DNA samples - not a damn bit of which belonged to ANY of the Duke Lacrosse team, AND which he had conspired to supress in spite of rules that require him to share any potentially exculpatory evidence.

What Dr. Sowell pointed out in his latest column on the subject was that Nifong at the time of the alleged incident was interim appointed DA, running for the office for the first time, against a woman he had previously fired.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here?

Those idiot jocks are innocent and Mike Nifong has known it all along. He deliberately undertook to prosecute people he knew were not guilty, knew in fact that there had been no rape, for personal advantage - to keep a job.

Lessons learned:

1) Injustice is blind too. This kind of thing used to happen too often in the South to Black people - look up the Scottsboro Boys http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotsborough_boys . Evidently some Black people in Durham feel that it's payback time, abetted by idiot Whites who need to feel good about themselves in a way that doesn't cost them anything. They're not getting the point; any gaming of the justice system to screw people you don't like will turn around and bite you in the ass the next time you're the unpopular ones.

2) What those boys and their families probably don't appreciate right now, is that the system is working. Some at least. The case didn't after all stand, the facts were revealed, and Nifong looks more and more like he may be the one who faces jail time. The media has turned a local injustice into a national concern, and this just may provoke some really serious discussion on how to protect and recompense the innocent from malicious prosecution (given that even proving one's innocence can leave you bankrupt).

And what's realy cool is, the academics at Duke who supported the prosecution are revealed for the ideologues they are and their concern for "justice" as the sham that it is.

But (after that long-winded introduction) here's my point and the thing I wonder about: what was going through Mike Nifong's head during all of this? How in God's name does he justify this to himself? How can he live with himself? What does he say to himself, knowing that he is imposing terrible pain and financial loss on innocent men and their families?

I've written before http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/amish-tragedy.html how I can imagine the motives of some pretty horrible people. This however, is beyond me. I mean, it's a job for God's sake! A man with a law degree can always get another one in this litiginous country.

Now I get to make a really invidious, but not inappropriate comparison. This strikes me as being in the same league as pedophile priests, men charged with service to a community who betray their trust and their communicants to gratify their personal desires. What goes through their heads? What do they say to themselves about what they're doing?

Well, it could be that Nifong doesn't like college jocks, and the impression from their pictures, and the circumstances of the party make them out to be a somewhat unlovely bunch. Anybody living on or around a college campus with a strong athletic program can tell you stories about the behavior of the privileged athletes. Maybe Nifong got sand kicked in his face when he was a kid or something, and now he's kicking the law in their faces.

However I wonder if I didn't see the process of self-justification expressed in the oddest place several years ago.

There was a movie made from a Stephen King short story 'Silver Bullet' in 1985 http://imdb.com/title/tt0090021/ with Corey Haim and Garry Busey. Basic plot outline: a series of grisly murders terrifies a small New England town. Kid in a wheelchair suspects that it's really a werewolf. Turns out the werewolf is the local pastor.

At any rate, there is a scene where the pastor confronts the boy, knowing that he's found him out. He justifies himself, "Surely all the good I do... (when I'm not a werewolf) makes up for...(horribly murdering people on a monthly basis)."

Is that what goes through Mike Nifong and the pedophile priests' heads? I do X amount of good, so I get to indulge myself in Y amount of behavior I know is wrong? And of course, I have to get elected to do good...

Now one last question: What does it say about our culture that this is meaningfully discussed only in an obscure Grade B horror movie?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Eastern Europe did to my sense of humor

I have written, and intend to write more, about the changes I've gone through living abroad for thirteen years. Changes in my politics, lifestyle, taste in reading, taste in women...

However, one thing a friend pointed out to me was that my sense of humor had changed to the point that she couldn't understand many of my jokes.

I myself think that it's not exactly my 'sense' of humor - I still laugh at the same kind of jokes. I think it's the content and context. I really like satiric irony and word play, and a mutual taste for that kind of humor is one of the most important things my wife and I have in common. This has to be really important, given that we are of different countries, native languages and generations. (That and the fact that we are both military brats, US Navy and Polish Army - some things transcend country and culture.)

How the things I laugh at has changed was driven home to me in a class taught by a distinguished American professor, originally from Romania. He has a collection of books on Eastern European jokes of the communist era and one day brought them to class to illustrate a point about communication through political humor.

So... he started reading some of the jokes. I started telling some, and pretty soon we were swapping jokes and chuckling - as the rest of the class looked on with expressions that eloquently said, "Huh?"

At any rate, here are some that might need only minimal explanation:

The milicia ("militia") were the communist police force, now reorganized as "policia". Many jokes known in America as Polish jokes are milicia jokes in EE and Russia.

Why do milicia always patrol in threes? One can read, one can write, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.

Two miliciants are walking with a police dog, and a two men stroll by. One miliciant stops, walks to the back of the dog, lifts its tail and looks under it. The other asks, "What are you doing?" "Didn't you hear what that guy said ? "Look at the dog with the two assholes."

In Hungary there is a whole genre of jokes about Little Moritska:

One day in school, the teacher asks, "Who can tell me about the advantages of socialist agricultural production?" Moritska volunteers, "Under the latest five year plan, if you piled all the potatoes in Stalin Square, they would make a pile that would reach to the feet of God!" Teacher gets very frightened and says, "Moritska, haven't you been paying attention in class? Don't you know there is no God?" "And potatoes? Are there potatoes?"

From Slovakia:

A man is drinking in a bar, raises his head and shouts, "The president is an idiot!" Two secret policemen rush over, "You're under arrest!" "For what?" "You said the president is an idiot." "But I didn't mean OUR president." "Don't try to fool us! We know very well whose president is an idiot!"

One found all over the Soviet bloc, and which possibly goes back to the Nazi regime as well:

There was a peasant, and one night Death knocks on his door. "Who's there?" he calls timidly. "I am DEATH!" "Of thank God! I thought it was the secret police!"

When I was living and working in Serbia during the Milosevic regime, my students told me this one:

Slobo and his family are flying over the country. Slobo says to his wife, "Mira, why don't I throw out a hundred-dinar bill and make somebody happy?" "Oh Slobo, why don't you throw out two fifty-dinar bills and make two people happy?" His daughter chimes in, "Oh Pappa, why not throw out ten ten-dinar bills and make ten people happy?" Then his son says, "Gee Pappa, why don't you just jump out and make everybody happy?"

And a Russian girl told me this variation on the classic multi-ethnic joke, "How many miliciants does it take to change a lightbulb?"

Six. One to hold the bulb, four to turn the table, and one to walk counter-clockwise around so the guy holding the bulb doesn't get dizzy.

Some of you might have chuckled at some of the above examples. And indeed, many are "plug-in jokes" - the kind of ethnic humor you can adapt by changing the butt of the joke to the local equivalent.

Some however, are pretty context dependent. You have to know something about the history of Poland in WWII to appreciate the quip that was going around Warsaw during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the General Uprising that resulted in the almost complete destruction of the city. The government of Poland invited the chancellor of Germany as a gesture of reconciliation, and most people were pretty OK with that. Then they invited Boris Yeltzin - and nobody was really OK with that at all.

During the Uprising, the Red Army advanced to the banks of the Vistula river (that divided the old city from the newer suburbs on the East bank) and waited for the Germans to complete the destruction of the Home Army and the city, before moving in, occupying the rubble and arresting the surviving members of the resistance.

So, the joke at the time of the anniversary was, that if Yeltzin wanted to come to the ceremony, they should give him a place to stand on the opposite bank of the river and a pair of binoculars to watch it with.

If that fell flat, consider that I once had to spend about a half-hour explaning to some Japanese students, "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

I remember the moment I realized how much I'd fit in to Polish life when I read a local political joke, and laughed immediately. First you have to understand that ZChN is a Polish religious/ political party. The acronym means something like "Christian Nationalist"* and they are considered by many to be the political arm of the Catholic Church.

The Emperor Nero is opening the Games at the arena in Rome. "Send in the lions!" he commands. In come the lions, roaring and pawing the sand. "Throw in the Christians!" They throw in the Christians. There's roaring and a cloud of dust rises. When the dust settles, there are all the lions. Dead, with their throats torn out. "No, no!" he cries. "Not the Christians from ZChN!"

That falls flat in America no matter how I explain it. But there are still jokes that I don't get no matter how they're explained.

For example, I told my wife once that I'd asked a Polish friend about the traditional rivalry between Poles and Czechs. What is it about, I asked. There's no great history of warfare and conquest between them, like with the Germans and Russians. What's the deal?

He answered, "Oh, they're OK. If you like all of that Om-pah-pah shit." "So what the heck does that mean?" I asked. "Too German." he explained.

To this day, I still don't get it. My wife however, still laughs whenever I repeat it. And when I mentioned this example to that Romanian-American professor, he laughed uproariously as well, while I and another equally clueless grad student looked on.

Note: I have done some research into humor, particularly linguistic humor, and will have more to say on the subject later.

* Interestingly, America is accused of having politics dominated by religious extremists, but though several European countries' have political parties named "Christian Democrats" I can't see anything like that happening here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Small town Oklahoma, Christmas season

After Christmas we took trips to a couple of the smaller towns in central Oklahoma. When we've got free days we like to pack up the kids and take long car trips, avoiding the interstates whenever possible. The sights are more interesting and it's the best way to find great local burger joints.
Because my wife is not American, it's all new to her and it's a lot of fun to rediscover my country showing it to her.
Tuesday we drove down to Paul's Valley, population 6,256 and home to the Action Figure Museum http://www.actionfiguremuseum.com/ about an hour from our place. The boy loved it of course. Afterwards we took in a local museum we'd spotted coming into town, located in the old railroad station. It was a standard settlement era to early 20th century display, of the kind that small towns can put together with donations from people's attics.
I'd have found this only mildly interesting at one time, but my wife loves that kinds of museum. Becuse she's not American it's quite foreign to her and she finds it endlessly fascination to see how people lived here when Oklahoma was newly settled. And when people ask where she's from, they're thrilled to talk to her and show her around. Through her, I've come to see it with new eyes.
In my grandparents time, people moved into this land and built a piece of civilization literally from the ground up. It wasn't always pretty, the museum lady pointed out which parts of the station were waiting rooms for "Whites only" and "Colored", and you can read about how the Five Civilized Nations got screwed in Angie Debo's book "And Still the Waters Run" by men whose portraits still hang in the rotunda of the capitol building in Oklahoma City. http://www.amazon.com/Still-Waters-Run-Angie-Debo/dp/0691005788/sr=1-1/qid=1167657838/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-6199134-6384120?ie=UTF8&s=books
Nonetheless, I'm mightily impressed with my grandfolks.
On Wednesday evening we drove to Chickasha, population 16,849, to see the annual Festival of Lights. That's a local park that they festoon with as many colored light displays as will fit in the place without causing rolling brownouts. "Now this is a custom I'd love to take back to Poland." Monika remarked. On the way out of town we found another great local restaurant and discovered an appetizer they call "Armadillo eggs", jalapeno peppers stuffed with cream cheese, breaded and fried.
Oklahoma has a population of about three and a half million, a third to a half of which is located in two major metropolitan areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The rest live in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. The overall population of Oklahoma is growing (2.8% since 2000) due to a healthy birth rate and immigration - about two thirds of which is from outside the US.
We've noticed that there are a lot of Asian and Mexican restaurants in small Oklahoma towns these days, so some of that immigration must be going to the smaller communities.
America is said to be becoming more urbanized as small towns shrink and disappear. Well here at least, small town culture seems to be doing just fine. Oklahoma is still a predominantly agricultural state, so I suppose that has a lot to do with it. I also think that good old consumer technology has made life in small towns a lot more bearable. Small town life may look pretty good to an adult, but can be a hell of boredom for teenagers. Satellite dishes, cable TV and video rental are a godsend in towns that can't support a movie theater or club scene.
When I brought my family to America, we took off car camping from Virginia, across the Great Smokey Mountains and stopped off in Oklahoma to put the goods in storage before heading to Snowmass, Colorado where I had a speaking engagement. So we passed through some of the most beautiful parts of the eastern and western mountains. My wife remarked at one point, "You're showing me this beautiful country, and you're taking me to live in Oklahoma?"
Now she says, "When we move I'm really going to miss the Great Plains."