Category Archives: History

That Kind of Experience Will Change a Man

I was told that I can better relate to (and sometimes write for) a colleague because of some shared Eastern European heritage. (The colleague is directly from there, as was my father.)

I didn’t disagree. “They are more direct,” it was suggested — and this too I generally find to be true. Eastern Europeans tend to possess a more blunt approach, or at least one that doesn’t tiptoe around other people’s feelings. (This does not describe me, yet I somehow appreciate it in others.)

Anyway, I’ve long theorized that part of this tendency, as well as — in Czechs, at least — a more fatalist, absurdist sense of humor, stems from generations and generations of being tread on by forces (invading empires, usually) well beyond their control.

I compare it to family members who had lived through the Great Depression in the U.S. “They’re different,” people would say, whether referring the tendency to save paper bags and twist ties and anything else, or to a generally more cautious outlook on life. And that’s just one generation that lived through the Depression. Imagine if generation upon generation lived through Turkish invasions, Austro-Hungarian domination, the occasional German occupation, and throw in a World War or two for good measure. Maybe even a mass human rights atrocity or two.

Anyway, I’ve been reading “The 900 Days” by Harrison Salisbury, the definitive (and uplifting!) book about the German siege of Leningrad, when they literally attempted to blockade, freeze and starve all of Leningrad into submission. (As we would later learn about the Germans in World War II, slaughtering an entire block of civilians was just part of the playbook.) The book is also a major source for the excellent fictional novel, “City of Thieves.”

In the middle of the winter siege, a radio man showed up for duty to find a new T-shaped broom handle, which his boss told him was to support him at the microphone in case he was too weak to stand. “And you must read,” the director said. “In thousands of apartments they are awaiting your voice.” (More on this in a moment.)

‘The First Violin is Dying’

The following is descriptive of what I’m talking about in many ways, and reminiscent of any random, casually melodramatic health update my father ever gave me:

“The wooden T was not just a gadget. Vladimir Volzhenin, the poet, had collapsed in the studio from hunger after reading his verses to the Leningrad public. He died a few days later. Aleksandr Yankevich, his face black, and breathing with difficulty, read Makarenko’s “Pedagogical Poem” over the radio, although he was so ill [a colleague] stood by in case he was unable to finish. Ivan Lapshonkov sang a role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Snow Maiden’ … he was so frail he had to support himself with a cane. By nightfall he was dead.”

That passage goes on and on. The dedication is admirable, the description almost amusingly matter-of-fact. (Maybe it’s only amusing if you’ve had your dad describe a cough and two broken femurs with equal levels of passive it’s-fine-but-no-it’s-horrible.)

Another echo of my father’s matter-of-fact approach to jarring news (as long as it wasn’t news that shamed the family; then it was avoided like a censor), is when they would dictate the:

“…regular weekly report on the condition of the orchestra: ‘The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.'”

When power was finally cut to the radio transmission in this city populated by an ever-decreasing population of starving, freezing, dying people:

“People from all ends of the city began to appear at Radio House, to ask what the matter was and when the station would be back on air. An old man tottered in [from the other side of town]: “Look here,” he said. “If something is needed, if it is a matter of courage — fine. Or even if it is a matter of cutting the ration. [Note: They’d cut rations repeatedly all winter. People resorted to eating wallpaper to supplement their daily slice of bread.] That we can take. But let the radio speak. Without that, life is too terrible. Without that, it is like lying in the grave. Exactly that.”

‘Nothing-to-Do Was More Terrible Than a Bombing Raid’

Okay, one more excerpt that really gets to the heart of art and human response under such repressive conditions, which was sadly just a different kind of repression than they faced under Soviet totalitarianism:

The surviving writers of the city would spend days planning a “Leningrad Speaking” or “One Day in Leningrad” kind of book that would depict all the people went through during the siege. Merely conceiving the book helped them survive. When it became apparent no censor would approve of actually creating the book, one writer said:

“Tell him that writers are dying without this work, that they cannot live without it.

Ketlinskaya knew this. Living in the cold, hungry, dark city, people themselves together by the consciousness of being needed. They began to die when they had nothing to do. Nothing-to-do was more terrible than a bombing raid.

But try as she would she could not get permission for the book. She became convinced that though no one really opposed the book, no one wanted to take responsibility for approving it; the old Russian problem: bureaucracy.

Yeah, and for many Eastern Europeans, that was just the peacetime problem.

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Guns, Germs and Steel in 30 Seconds

It seems he was mistranslated or completely misinterpreted by Mitt Romney (shock!), but in the process of his response to Romney, Jared Diamond (the “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” guy) sums up his own theories quite concisely:

The reason is the historical effect of geography: 13,000 years ago, all peoples everywhere were hunter-gatherers living in sparse populations without centralized government, armies, writing or metal tools. These four roots of power arose as consequences of the development of agriculture, which generated human population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses capable of feeding full-time leaders, soldiers, scribes and inventors. But agriculture could originate only in those few regions endowed with many wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication, like wild wheat, rice, pigs and cattle.

In short, geographic explanations and cultural-institutional explanations aren’t independent of each other.

And in this context, Romney and all that is great was born on third base thinking he hit a triple. (Ironically, it’s the triples Romney really did hit that he now denies! Oh, politics.)

Anyway, Diamond The Misunderstood: I’m sure as an author he’s had plenty of practice trying to sum up thousands of pages into one conversational abstract — and I saw him speak once where at least it was summed up in 20 minutes or so — but still. It’s fun to read it in one breath, after having so many discombobulated conversations about the book over the years (“Well the food…I mean the land…I mean the food made possible by the land…and the people”).

Maybe I’ll write that on the back of my business card.

A bit of spice

I would totally travel the world by boat and mule and probably kill some natives just to get my hands on some of this. (For the investment, of course.)

Before our wedding someone really nice who didn’t owe us any kind of present at all gave us some grill tools and 24 varieties of “Grill Creations” spice mixes. Those spice mixes — from lemon herb to cracked pepper to cajun blend to seafood to every blend under the Sun — have collected a lot of dust but also been used quite frequently over the last six years.

I’m stunned they’re still there, because it feels like I use them in every meal. (I’m a lazy and uninventive cook — “cook” is probably an exaggeration — but the ability of a different spice blend to change the same old meal makes me even lazier.)

Seriously, it’s ridiculous how much I like these and how long they’ve lasted. This Healthy Choice is now cajun-style, woohoo!

When I was a kid, learning about the Spice Trade in history class sounded so inconceivably absurd to me. “Wait, these people didn’t have cars, TV or plumbing, but they risked death and disease traveling the world for pepper?”

But now that I’m responsible for my own meals and see what spices can do — and I see how people are (including me) with their luxuries — suddenly the Spice Trade makes oh-so-much perfect sense. I get it now: If all I had was porridge or local swill, and if I could afford to do it, I would totally send someone around the world for a nice cigar, beer, or wine. Even pepper.

I still don’t get what the big deal is with diamonds or gold, though. That shit is useless.

Dith Pran

I waited a long time before I watched “The Killing Fields” (1984). I mean, duh: I was a young’n when it came out, so Mama wasn’t exactly rushing me out to see it like it was E.T.

But after hearing of it in reverent terms for many years, I knew I ought to see it yet still avoided watching it until a rainy day. You don’t exactly rush out to rent a film that is not new — in fact is 10-15 years old — and contains stories of epic human tragedy that you’re generally familiar with but, history aside, you’d rather not be reminded of.

Actually, I wonder how many people who were children when “Shindler’s List” was released have later rushed to see it to keep up with the cultural references of their elders?

(I am reminded of the unfortunate day after Thanksgiving when the lady-friend and I decided to use our cherished mutual day off to rent … *drum roll* … “Hotel Rwanda!” Now there’s a pick-me-up for your holiday! We sadly don’t see films much at all these days, so we still laugh when we recall choosing that one, at that time, with predictable tear-flowing result.)

Anyway, the subject of that film, Dith Pran, survived four years in the Cambodian killing fields before escaping to Vietnam and then the U.S., to be reunited with his American journalist friend and develop a career as a NYT photographer. After escaping those horrors and living a life to raise awareness about them, Dith died of pancreatic cancer this week.

NYTimes.com has a nice “Last Word” short on him, with a tasteful interview from his hospice bed. Pretty amazing to see someone at that stage of life, with all he’s been through, and the perspective he has.

All of the 20th-century atrocities are mind-boggling — and granted, they probably differ from other centuries’ greatest hits only in their mass efficiency and multimedia documentation. But the sheer backwardness of the Khmer Rouge effort — eradicating all the educated class and forcing via execution an attempted shift back to a purely agrarian society — is another level of bizarre and backward human absurdity to try to comprehend.

That’s why I appreciate efforts to not let us forget them: because the fact is they do happen again. These things are downers, yes, and awareness freaks can get tiresome. But Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, wherever: the more I live life in comfortable Western society, the more I appreciate the sober reminder of how the weakest capacities of human nature can be realized when people simply collectively look the other way.

We see every day how individuals can be murders, deviants, etc. That is its own syndrome or syndromes. But when a whole mass of otherwise reasonable people are nudged or incited into this sort of organized homicidal insanity — that’s when I really wonder what the hell it is we’re made of.

Pyramids, Patriarch and Papal Pride

The 4,500+ years-old pyramids have been such a point of intrigue throughout the history of new societies that have “discovered” them, it’s fascinating to me that we still have no certain conclusion about how a presumably “primitive” society (well, they didn’t have Bobcats and power cranes, anyway) built them.

In my home’s version of the Remote Wars, I have to make a very persuasive argument to get permission to have “the clicker” take us to a History or National Geographic channel(s) show. I usually fail. Once, campaigning for an archaeology show, I mentioned how there’s not a stable consensus of engineering/archaeological theories on exactly how ancient Egyptian laborers constructed their pyramids, with the heavy stones carefully carved, measured and lifted, etc. — and that this lack of consensus fuels the mystics and paranoids who say they weren’t built by humans at all but gods, superhumans, or an alien race (sometimes all one in the same).

[If you think this group is limited to just a few tinfoil-heads and what-not, check out the very first question in this NOVA Q&A with an Egyptologist: “Have you ever once questioned whether humans built the pyramids?” Kinda funny that they had to get that out of the way first. Sort of a “First, to weed out the whackos who are reading this, you do believe humans built the pyramids, right?”]

To boost my faltering case to watch the show, I mentioned how a Killing Joke song, “Lightbringer,” covers this and other paranoid theories in its narrative questioning everything from the Immaculate Conception, to who taught humans medicine (think the mythology behind the serpent symbol of medicine), to whether the Anunnaki or a super-alien race came down and built the pyramids, taught us mathematics and gave humans intelligence, and made the first automatic dishwasher. It’s a shame: the song is catchy and I like some of its sentiment, but some of its lines are just a bit too silly for me, so it’s unfulfilling.

And of course, Killing Joke’s singer and lyricist Jaz Coleman is just paranoid enough that he might very well believe any of these things.

So getting back to the Remote Wars, then, I tried that hook in hopes of selling my lady love on the archaeology show. You know, maybe she’d agree to it just to check out whether her husband is insane and she should pay closer attention to his music. If she could believe, just for a moment, that her husband believes an alien race taught us geometry, she might think she has bigger problems than whether or not we watch a History Channel show instead of “Project Runway.”

But again, it failed. And there is now a new theory on how the pyramids were built: A French architect is theorizing that they were built from the inside-out, with an internal ramp bringing the massive stones up so many stories high.

The Father(s)
In possibly related news, my father has bought his tickets to come see us in the States — which in Czech Depression-and-WWII-survival norms means, there’s no way he’s missing that flight and squandering the airfare, health or imminent death be damned. I need to organize some sort of party or Grand Tour to prove to my friends that he’s real.

In also possibly related news, the fasttrack campaign to make deceased Pope John Paull II a saint continues. Apparently he cured a nun of Parkinson’s (that would be Miracle #1, for those keeping sainthood scorecards at home). This is so tickling it’s beyond words. Vatican politics and “popular love” for the Holy Gipper is apparently driving the Vatican to move this process forward, waiving the normal Hall of Fame wait period your deceased self must endure before they even consider declaring “Shit, you know I think he was a saint” about you. They just need two more confirmed miracles and some other rubber stamped forms, and John Paull II will be driving a brand new Sainthood Limited GT.

Gettysburg PowerPoint

For all who have toiled in the euphemized, synergetic, value-added conference rooms of Corporate America, this PowerPoint-mocking version of the Gettysburg Address was circulating again this week.

(Lincoln’s battlefield cemetery dedication took place on Nov. 19 some 100-and-forty-somethin’ years ago…and yes, I have a mixed view of numeric anniversaries and their necessary-but-arbitrary role in helping us compartmentalize our memories and reflections of ourselves).

Anyway, the PowerPoint is great. Particularly enjoy the “Government not perish” bullet in the final “Summary” slide, which also could have used an “Action Items” heading.