Thursday, July 31, 2014

July 31, 2014--Blood Feud

This is the first Arab-Israeli war that isn't about territory--about expanding or protecting borders.

It is about hated and blood letting. Pure and simple, killing. That's the agenda. For both sides.

It is about Palestinians associated with Hamas trying to kill or capture any Israelis they can get their hands on purely in order to murder them or use them as bargaining chips. And on the other side, it is about the Israeli military, in spite of its denials, attempting to kill as many Palestinians as possible without regard to the distinction between fighters and civilian innocents.

There is no place to hide in Gaza--all available land is built up and there are no open spaces where refugee camps can be established and declared safe havens for non-combatants. And so those whose homes have been destroyed or live in fear are either trapped where they live, continuing to be subject to bombing, or flee to shelters provided by the United Nations.

But then, while cringing in these, they are not immune from attack. Just yesterday one of these shelters was destroyed and 20 more civilians were killed, many children. This is the third or fourth time a UN facility was destroyed with significant loss of life. In an era of smart bombs this cannot be explained away as "collateral damage."

So the Israelis claim it is the Palestinians themselves who have been attacking what should be sanctuaries. Hamas is doing this to its own people, they say, to make it look as if Israeli forces are intentionally targeting women and children.

The UN says it has evidence that it has been Israeli rockets and bombs that have destroyed these so-called sanctuaries.

And so it goes.

Each day we have updated body counts--remember body counts? More than 1,200 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 100 Israelis.

Both sides are seeing "progress" in those numbers--Israelis believe that if they kill enough Arabs Hamas will give up its struggle to expel Israelis from land they claim to be theirs while Hamas, recently losing power and influence in Gaza, will become resurgent if they kill enough Jews and thereby reestablish their credibility as warriors for the Palestinian cause.

This is thus a blood feud fueled by decades of hatred on both sides--equally vicious ethnic stereotyping and bigotry that is promoted in schoolbooks and popular media. Recall that this most recent conflict began after an exchange of barbaric killings of Israeli and Arab teenagers. It is Old Testament retributive tribal warfare waged lustfully and hatefully by both sides.

Both have legitimate issues. Israeli has the right to live securely within some version of its current borders and Palestinians have the right to a contiguous state of their own. Both have ancient claims to these lands. But both have moved beyond the normal range of political and geographic struggle, even warfare, and descended into hatred-drivien, senseless slaughter.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

July 30, 2014--POW/MIA

El Bohio, our favorite place in Florida for a Cuban breakfast, is right across the road from the Lantana post office.

Sipping my cortadito, I noticed that right below the American flag, the post office was flying the POW/MIA flag.

"Is that legal?" I asked, pointing.

"I'm not sure about the legality," Rona said, "The post office is no longer an official part of the federal government and so I don't know what rules they have to follow regarding flags."

"I don't know exactly why I'm saying this, but it gives me the creeps. Look at the image--a silhouette in black of a prisoner with his head bowed and behind him a guard tower and a string of barbwire."

"It gives you the creeps?"

"That's how I feel. I mean, I think this flag was designed and first flown during the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese held many prisoners and certainly there were bodies of soldiers that hadn't been discovered or their remains expatriated. But . . ."

"That was, what, 40 years ago and you still see lots of these flags all over. What's that about?"

"I don't know, but I know it's not flying in downtown Manhattan,"

"You hardly see American flags there. Somehow any show of overt patriotism to some--I hate to admit it, liberals and progressives--is considered suspect. Too pro-America. Minimally not cool."

"Remember how when Barack Obama was first running for president he was criticized for not wearing a lapel flag?"

"Or covering his heart when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?"

"Or," I added, "excoriated by rightwing extremists for not saying 'under God' during the Pledge."

"Crazy. Since there are lots of videos of him saying just that."

"So that's in part why the POW/MIA flag agitates me."

"And what's the other part?"

I thought for a moment. "You know, I don't know."

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 29, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Winking

“If you want to talk to me you have to call between winks.”
"Between What?"
“I’m sleeping all the time. Twenty winks.”
“Forty what?”
“Winks. You’re catching 40 winks.”
“So call me later when I’m awake. When I’m not winking.”
*  *   *
Which I did.
“Did I wake you?”
“No the phone did.”
“That was me.”
“You? I heard the telephone. Not you.”
"That was me calling. So the phone rang and . . .”
“I know. I was sleeping. And it woke me. Not you.”
*   *   *
When I called again, she said, “I’m such a baby.”
“A baby? Is there something frightening you?”
“No. Nothing.”
“But, I’m such a baby. All I do is sleep.”
“That’s not true. You nap.”
“Nap, schnap, I sleep. I’m turning into a baby again. They sleep all the time. And do other things I don’t do . . . Yet.” She chuckled.
“You watch the news, read the paper, do the puzzle, join friends for breakfast and dinner, and . . .”
“Sleep all the time.”
Nap all the time,” I muttered under my breath and said, “You are after all more than 106-years-old. And you do need your rest and . . .”
“And sleep.”
She trailed off, breathing heavily.
*   *   *
“While I’m between winks I have something to say.” It is rare now for her to initiate calls.
Is there something wrong I feared?
“I know this is upsetting you,” even on the phone, at 106 she can still read my mind and emotions.
I lied, “Not at all. I love hearing from you. It’s just . . .” I couldn’t hide my anxiety.
“Just that I never call any more. I’m so mixed up by what day it is.”
I wasn’t sure what that had to do with calling.
“I used to call you religiously every Sunday at 12:00. When I say religiously, I don’t mean . . .” She was breathing heavily.
“I know you don’t,” I jumped in, not wanting to tax her—it is now unusual for her to be able to sustain a conversation of more than five minutes. A few back and forths. Actually, with me doing most of the talking, which is easier on her.
But this time, with considerable effort, she pushed ahead.
“I know you are wondering what is keeping me alive.”
“Not really. I know that . . .”
“I’m too old and too smart for you not to tell me the truth.”
“I’m not. I’m . . .”
“Stop interrupting. At my age, this could be the last thing I ever say to you.”
“That can’t . . .”
“Yes it can. So just sit still.”
“I’ll try.”
“We’ve talked about why I got to be this old and you told me it’s because of my IRA.”
DNA, though your IRA doesn’t hurt.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about that. DNA, IRA they’re all the same to me.”
“In terms of the quality of your life that’s probably true. But you’re fortunate to have both.”
“Who’s doing the talking? Me or you?”
“Worrying is what keeps me going.”
“Sorry, worrying?”
“About everyone and then the rest of the world.”
“I . . .”
“You know how I always ask you about the young people in the family?”
“How I am the last one?” I knew she meant of her generation and, now, more and more, even of the next one as her nieces and nephews are aging and . . .
“I worry about them and need to know they will be all right after.”
I held back from asking what she meant about after. I knew.
“And then I worry about what Mama and Poppa will say.” Her parents died nearly 70 years ago.
Will say?” I was having difficulty not responding.
“What they’ll ask when we are together again. If I took good care of everyone. As the last. As they want me to.”
“I am certain they . . .”
“You don’t know them like I do. So I am not so certain.”
“We can disagree about . . .”
“And I also worry about the world. Not just the Jews. Though about them I am most concerned They are not doing the right thing.”
“The right thing?”
“For themselves and their neighbors who have been there for thousands of year. My Poppa always says that it is the responsibility of the strong to show understanding and compassion. Not to make it worse for those who are weak and suffering. Shouldn’t we Jews especially have learned that lesson? After so long being weak and suffering?”
“About this we do agree.”
“So I read, I watch Wolf on CNN, I listen to the girls at dinner, and I know it is not yet time for me to go.”
“I am happy that . . .”
“But I am not happy. I am not happy living this way where I can’t do things for myself. And I am unhappy at what I see. Not with the family. Though I worry about this one and that one I know they are secure and either can take care of themselves or are being helped. This is what to me family means.” She took a deep, raspy breath.
“I am unhappy with what I see in the world,” she said, “Russia. Iraq. Syria, Lydia.”
“Lib-ya, yes, thank you.”
“You are not responsible for any of this. I keep encouraging you not to spend so much time watching the news. It upsets you.”
“What else do I have to do with my remaining time?”
“I understand. Though I have urged you not to dwell on all these troubling things, to do so is who you are. And, I’m sure you’re right, worrying, being concerned about everyone and everything has helped keep you going.”
“Where am I going?”
I chose to not respond since I did not have a good answer for either her or myself. Instead I said, “You can report about all of this to your parents when the time comes.”
“It is coming. But I try every day to live. There is still so much more . . .”

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Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28, 2014--Booked

I was surprised to read that John Cheever's house is for sale. The Chekhov of the Suburbs' house in the suburbs. But that should not be much of a surprise. He died in 1982 and his widow this past April. Now their writer-daughter Susan, who lives elsewhere, has it on the market. Nothing unusual about that  either except the asking price--the New York Times reports it is listed at only $525,000.

It's in a desirable New York bedroom community, Ossining (better know for being the location of Sing Sing Prison and the leaky Indian Point nuclear power plant) and is the place where Saul Bellow and Philip Roth came for dinner. $525K for all that literary history? Well, it abuts the very busy Route 9A. I suppose location, location, location.

As something of a writer and obsessed as I am by books--those I read, collect, and shelve--I was eager to learn what books were in Cheever's bookcases.

Works by Kierkegaard, Ovid, Chaucer, and The Age of Pericles, the Times reported, but also The Backyard Bird Song Guide and How to Live with a Neurotic Dog.

I was happy to learn about the neurotic dog because I worry a lot about the books on display on my bookshelves. If it were necessary to put my places on the market and the broker were to advise my executor to leave them furnished, I worry about what people will think about my reading habits.

I admit this is an attempt from beyond to influence how people regard me; but in a confessional mode, here's how I'm thinking about the books I have on my shelves in Maine--

I'm an American history buff of sorts. Of sorts because there is more on my shelves by popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin than by the more substantial and literary Gary Wills, though I did read and am proud to display his Inventing America (about the history of the Declaration of Independence); his meditation on the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln at Gettysburg; and, of course, Nixon Agonistes.

But also shelved in my cottage are more presidential biographies by James MacGregor Burns than by Robert Merry, author of the fullest biography of James Polk, my favorite guilty-pleasure president.

There is a lot by Robert Caro--his thus-far four-volume bio of Lyndon Johnson. These are good to have read and on view because they are both page-turners and definitive. I can leave them where they are--right in the middle of my histories--and will thus probably be thought well of. But I should lower some of the Goodwins, maybe leaving No Ordinary Time where it is because I love it no matter what it reveals about my reading habits.

I also have lots or contemporary novels. Since I was in college, I wanted to be in their published company and I still have my hopes; but in the meantime, I am content to have written three non-fiction books and keep up with 25 or more novelists who are recently departed or still producing noteworthy work.

The relatively-recently-departed or retired (Philip Roth) include Graham Greene (especially his Catholic novels--The End of the Affair, The Power and Glory, and The Heart of the Matter), John Updike (the Rabbit books), Stanley Elkin (The Dick Gibson Show), and Saul Bellow (Augie March).

Among the living are Alice Munro ( The Moons of Jupiter and Dear Life), Alison Lurie (The War Between the Tates and Foreign Affairs), and Richard Russo and Richard Ford, good novelists both who can also be considered Maine writers since they spend part of the year here, Ford typing away right across the bay from us. I like to think I can see him at work if I peer hard enough, and this helps inspire me to keep writing even if I am not making the progress I aspire to.

I have read and display other Maine writers to show that I keep up with the local literary scene, though the highly-charged and hilarious work of Charlotte Chute could sustain closer, more serious consideration--she is much more than a regional writer. I love and shelve prominently The Beans of Egypt, Maine and Letourneau's Used Auto Parts. Adjacent to these brilliant and savage Chutes, in one of my bookcases, are works by other Maine writers, Cathie Pelletier among them, whose Funeral Makers is delightful, perfect for a summer day or a chilly November afternoon, and Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize winning, Olive Kitteridge though I didn't really like it and can't understand why it was so highly regarded. Must be a guy thing.

But you won't catch me reading (publicly) much less having on view anything by by far Maine's most prolific and successful writer ever--Stephen King.

However, I have still more to confess--

We have a very literate niece; and when she comes for a visit, I want her to think well of me or, if not me, at least my books.

In that spirit, I have placed on a prominent shelf a couple of Lydia Davis books (I know she loves Davis)--Can't and Won't and her Collected Stories. Then, to maintain my big-city bona fides, even when tucked away in rural Maine, I have moved to a central location a couple of books by, another niece favorite, Junot Diaz--Drown and his vibrant (another Pulitzer winner) Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Then for her to see and approve there are a few Dan Chaon's short-story collections, Among the Missing and Stay Awake, all what sensitive 25-year-olds are reading.

Also there is George Saunder's Tenth of December--it's featured in one of my bookcases even though, truthfully, I couldn't get through more than a quarter of it. Too post-modern for me. I am hoping my niece won't want to talk too much about him or it.

Davis, Chaon, Diaz, and (in spite of my opinion) Saunders are real writers who appeal across the ages, assuming people come to know about them, which folks of my age, unless they cling to the illusion of late middle-age youthfulness, are unlikely to do. That's what well-read nieces are for.

I can't aspire to Cheever standards (I couldn't get away with ordering up some Ovid) without making myself seem even more pretentious than I already am. But I was pleased to read that when he bought the Ossining house in 1961, he paid all of $37,000 for it. So maybe $525,000 isn't so disappointing. That represents a decent capital gain.

And perhaps the new owners will put up a marker saying:
John Cheever Lived Here--1961-1982
The Chekhov of the Suburbs
Loved Ovid, Backyard Birds, and Neurotic Dogs

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Friday, July 25, 2014

July 25, 2014--Best of Behind: Horsing Around

This is from September 8, 2009. I'm typically up very early and though that is a good time for me to write, I also wish I could on occasion sleep until noon. OK, 9:30.

Admittedly mornings are not my best time. Though I am a poor sleeper and wake very early, don’t ask me to operate heavy equipment before 9:00 much less make much sense of what I might be reading.
This even applies to something undemanding such as the sports section of the New York Times—the Jets and Giants somehow on the same day managed to eek out victories, the Yankees lost as usual on the west coast, and of course the Mets lost by relinquishing the lead because of a raft of errors late in the game.
And, to quote from another story:
Martha Maxine might seem like an ill-fitting name for a 5-year-old, but there is an explanation. He used to be a she. 
A 5-year-old who used to be a she? This sort of story will jolt one into full consciousness. I pride myself on being a liberal sort, including in the sexual-preference-transgender realm, but what parent, I wondered, would allow their 5-year-old son to become their 5-year-old daughter?
Next to me Rona was stirring and, so startled and disturbed by this story, I muttered something loud enough to rouse her in order to share my outrage.
“What’s going on?” she asked, half awake and barely audible. “Are you OK?”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I fibbed, “but there is something that’s disturbing me.”
“A bad dream?” She struggled to sit up under the heavy quilt. “Something with your stomach?” A few years ago I had a serious intestinal problem and frequently woke up earlier than usual and thus Rona was having a sort of flashback to that distressing time.
“No, no. I’m all right. Go back to sleep.”
“But there is something wrong. I heard you moaning to yourself.”
“I wasn’t moaning but there is something in the paper that . . .”
“How many times have I told you not to read the paper so early in the morning? The healthcare debate can wait until later. And so can all the wars and murders.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t, but this time it’s about something else.”
Rona by then was sitting up and switched on her bedside light. “All right. I’m listening.” So I read to her the opening paragraph about the 5-year-old. This time without leaving anything out, realizing why it was in the sports and not the news section:
“Martha Maxine might seem like an ill-fitting name,” I read, “for a 5-year-old male horse . . .” I paused, “Oh my, sorry, this is not at all about a boy, but a horse. A male horse that became a female horse.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I said I’m sorry. You see, I thought that this was about . . .”
“For this you woke me at 5:00?”
“Sorry, but . . .” I heard her light switch off and she rolled over so forcefully and even angrily that she pulled all of the blanket to her side of the bed, leaving me uncovered except by the other sections of the Times. Which I continued to read.
It seems that Martha was doing so well racing against fillies that track officials, noting that “she” “carried a lot of muscle tone” for a female, suspected that she was being given illegal substances since, from a genitalia perspective, she looked totally female. While the doping tests showed no traces of steroids they did reveal elevated levels of testosterone and, after further examination, they discovered that Martha Maxine had testicles in her/his abdomen.
She was thus thereafter required to race against colts. Last year, competing against females, she did quite well for a trotter, earning more than $200,000. How would she do, racing against colts? At first, not so well; but two weeks ago, in a prep race for the $125,000 Tony Maurello Stakes, Martha won, covering the distance in record time for her . . . or him.
Please do not find fault with me for struggling with which pronoun to best use when writing about him. Even her trainer and co-owner is having problems. Erv Miller still refers to Martha Maxine as “she” and “her.” He said, “I tried it the other way for a bit, calling ‘her’ ‘he.’ It just mixed me up.”
Then there is the case of Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African runner who won the women’s 800-meter race at the 2009 world track and field championships. For some time she has been suspected, minimally, of being of mixed gender. If you can forgive the comparison, like Martha Maxine. And thus sports officials want to test her. If she is found to have both ovaries and testicles . . . what to do?
This case is fraught with more than integrity-of-the-sport baggage. Semenya is a black South African and, after their appalling racial history, some are claiming that she is being persecuted and suspected of, in effect, cheating by doubters who are acting in a sexist and racist way.
The inquiry has so angered many South Africans that they are comparing her plight to that of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman taken to Europe in the early 19th century and exhibited like a wild beast under the name “Hottentot Venus.” While in Europe scientists in public scrutinized Baartman’s genitals in the same that some assert sports officials are now wanting to humiliate Caster Semenya.
Rona, of course, is right—I should try to do something about my sleeping problem. Further, she says that if I can’t figure out what to do with myself when I wake up so early, I should do my blogging. Which I’m right now doing.
It is 6:29 AM, I’m done, and I think I’ll post this and try to go back to sleep.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

July 24, 2014--Groves of Academe

I came to Francine Prose late in life. I have been aware of her but mainly through her essays and book reviews. After hearing her at the recent PEN conference in New York, I thought it was time to take a look at her novels.

From her other writing, I was anticipating that they might be a bit thick and too politically correct for my taste, but the two I've read thus far are anything but. I am only sad I did not begin reading her sooner, but it is exciting to know that there are about a dozen novels altogether and thus I have many months of pleasurable reading awaiting.

Her A Changed Man is about identity and the possibility of self-transformation, even if one has been a neo-Nazi; while Blue Angel is an acerbic satire set on a backwater New England campus where the frustrations of long-term faculty and the self-involvment of their students erupt into a full-scale witch hunt to root out and punish political incorrectness.

While gobbling up Blue Angel I wondered why so many significant authors have set one of more of their novels on college campuses and why most of them are wicked satires, often descending into sarcasm.

The ones I remember from years ago are Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe and John William's Stoner. Later, I enjoyed Bernard Malamud's New Life, Philip Roth's Human Stain, and Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates, also Richard Russo's Straight Man and, among the initiators of the genre, Randall Jarrell's 1954 Pictures from an Institution. Biting jeremiads all.

Most of these authors, and many of the dozens of others who have set novels on campuses (David Lodge, Donna Tartt, Jane Smiley), have taught literature and creative writing and, it would seem, for the most part, had miserable experiences among, what to them must have seemed, insecure, petty hypocritical colleagues. Often in settings where male professors pray on the erotic vulnerability of worshipful, cum vindictive, coeds, usually finding themselves hauled before campus vigilante committees seeking to stamp out all signs of transgressive and sexist (and even, often, by distinction, sexual) behavior.

The typical protagonist is a middle-age tenured professor well aware of his declining powers--physical and creative, saddled with debt, culturally isolated, stuck in an unfulfilling marriage, and almost always estranged from his children, children who nearly always include a 20-something daughter just about the age of the students he seduces or allows to seduce him. These obsessive relationships are often presented in parallax perspective--first from the Humbert-Humbert side or, in other cases, Blue Angel among them, with the relationship also viewed by the Lolita-like seductress.

In virtually all the novels, the transgressor has a hard, life-altering fall that is both deserved and, to the transgressor, welcomed since, no matter the public disgrace--often because of it--it is liberating. He shakes off or abandons the comforts that have defined and confined him and this allows him to remake his life, no matter how mean it may seem. In some instances the meaner the better as there is a strong element of expiation required, a fierce price to pay for this liberation.

Again, thinking about why so many meaningful novels are set on college campuses, beyond the obvious--from experiences with which novelists are intimately familiar--they are metaphor-rich environments in which youth and age coexist and clash, where decline is starkly measurable, where things are widely sexualized, where cultural collisions play out naturally and often viscously, and where human nature across its full range is on full flagrant display.

Thus these places are perfect venues to find things to satirize and titilate. All of which writers are incapable of resisting.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 23, 2014--Suffer Little Children

Governor Rick Perry is sending 1,000 National Guardsmen to the Texas-Mexico border to help round up and deport some of the tens of thousands of children who have made their way to the Rio Grande from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They have fled their countries to get away from the brutal gangs that are murdering children in cold blood.

I know this makes for good macho-political photo-ops--and it shows GOP candidate Perry acting presidentially in contrast to the actual president who to many--me included--seems passive in the face of this humanitarian crisis. But you and I know this is more about theatrics than getting the job done.

In the midst of all the blaming and posturing, it might be legitimate to ask what getting the job done means.

To some (including Perry) it means securing the border, making it impenetrable by building walls, having armed patrols (including vigilantes) all along it, and using whatever technology is available to track and pursue those attempting to sneak into the United States.

To others it means deporting every one of these children who make it across without much judicial review--they do not consider them to be refugees from tyranny or political or religious persecution (which would require an assessment of their status and claims to asylum)  but rather just more illegals trying to take advantage of work opportunities and government healthcare and educational programs.

To still others--sadly, a minority--this is a humanitarian crisis and America should be welcoming these refugees and granting them asylum in the spirit of how this country was founded (by religious refugees) and for long has presented itself to the world.

This would be in the spirit of Jesus, who said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for such is the kingdom of heaven."

Thinking about this, the other evening during dinner with friends, Rona wondered out loud what Catholic Charities was doing. "And what about the Southern Baptist Convention? Or the Evangelical groups that are so active signing up members in the very countries these children are fleeing. What are they up to?" Rona asked. "And the Salvation Army? The American Jewish Committee? Of for that matter, the Red Cross and Save the Children?"

There was silence at the dinner table.

"Good point," our host finally said.

We all nodded in agreement.

"I think Save the Children has people on the ground," I said.

"I read about that. Good for them," Rona said, "But they're a minor presence. Overall, when it comes to religious organizations, I'm not impressed."

"And what about right-to-life groups?" a dinner companion asked, "They're faith-based and claim to be concerned about the sanctity of life, even a fertilized egg, but not these children?"

"Also not impressive," Rona said.

No one had anything helpful to add.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014--Terror Tunnels

I've been struggling with what to say about the current Israeli incursion into Gaza and the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. All precipitated by the savage killing of three Israeli youth by Palestinian terrorists and the equally shocking capture, torture, and murder of a Palestinian youth by three equally-youthful Israeli ultra-orthodox fanatics.

One could say that this exchange of barbarisms was precipitated by many decades of animosity, ethnic and religious bigotry on both sides, and claims and counterclaims about territorial primacy. There is enough blame to go around and around and around and . . .

There is no good solution here.

Actually, there is the idea of one--the so-called two-state solution--but the motivation to agree to this in practice is virtually non-existent. Radicals and hateful people--again on both sides--make any possibility of compromise remote. I almost wrote "hopeless."

Hopeless is the way I feel and thus my reluctance to try to write about the situation. I dislike even the prospect of considering hopelessness.

Anyone who feels that what is happening now will lead to any sort of reasonable progress on all the conflicting but often legitimate concerns knows nothing about the irreconcilable history that stretches back millennia in that fraught region. When people feel that their right to exist and have a homeland in the area--actually, in Palestine or, of you will, Greater Israel--is divinely sanctioned or, in Israeli's case, chosen for them by God, it is hard to think what adversaries might productively say to each other if they could be induced or compelled to negotiate.

In truth, both sides, not just the side represented by Hamas, do not recognize the other's right to exist. Militant Israelis--more and more in charge of the situation--would as much like to see the Palestinians eliminated or, minimally, expelled from the contested region as radical arabs would like to see Israel "pushed into the sea."

It has even gotten to the point where Hamas and Israel do not know how to effectively wage war against each other.

The best current example is Israel's inability--despite it military superiority and high-tech capacity to deploy smart bombs and anti-missile missiles--to suppress the fighting capacity of their decidedly low-tech foe who blend into civilian areas of Gaza when Israeli troops and weapon systems appear.

Israel cannot even wipe out the tunnel system that enables Hamas fighters to manufacture home-made bombs and rockets and, using them, infiltrate into Israel proper to carry out acts of war and terror.

As incredible as it may seem, until the new military regime in Egypt clamped down on them, there were at least 1,200 tunnels connecting Egyptian Sinai and Gaza and many dozens of others linking Gaza with Israel itself. Some of these latter tunnels--ones Hamas calls "terror tunnels"--penetrate nearly half a mile into Israel. Others, reenforced by thousands of tons of concrete, are over 100 feet deep and, for reasons I cannot explain, go undetected by Israeli satellite, inferred, and other intelligence assets.

We are not talking about a 2,000 mile border like the one between the United States and Mexico which is thus impossible to make impenetrable, but rather a relatively short one in a circumscribed geographic area. One would think it would be relatively easy for Israel to know about every one of these tunnels since they have the will and technology to do so. But that appears not to be the case as the Israeli military is right know risking life and limb to find and seal them.

And so when they do finally find and destroy them all, where will things stand?

Pretty much where they were five years ago, a decade ago, a century ago, a millennium ago. There will be a brief halt in the mass killings as both sick step back under worldwide diplomatic pressure, lick their wounds, rearm, rage on about the cruelty of the other side, ratchet-up the hatred, and get ready to do it all over again within the next two to five years.

Just as the sun inexorable rises and sets, this too shall come to pass.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

July 21, 2014--Clown Car

I don't know if they're still doing this, but in my youth, a favorite moment during the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus was when a car smaller than a VW would trundled to the center of the center ring and slowly disgorge clown after clown after clown after clown. At least a dozen appeared to have been piled into that tiny vehicle. I guess this was the inspiration for Steven Sondheim's Bring in the Clowns.

Of course there was a trap door beneath where the car came to rest and the clowns scrambled up from below the circus floor. Think of this as a metaphor for what follows.

Though Ringling Brothers may have moved on to higher-tech stunts, the good news is that their own version of the clown car is beginning to trundle toward center stage in the Republican scramble for the 2016 presidential nomination.

Three GOP clowns were especially active last week--Chris Christie, thinking his troubles are either behind him or that potential voters in Iowa have not been tracking the Bridgegate scandal (or, what is in fact true for them, seeing it to be a scandal created by the liberal eastern-establishment media) plunged into adoring crowds who came out to see a genuine political celebrity (ironically a celebrity created as much by media-fed scandal as achievement) who was eager to show the Republican competition how a seemingly straight-talking, tell-it-like-it-is anti-Washington regular overweight guy looks and feels like in the flesh (double meaning intended).

It feels pretty good, the ever-modest Christie concluded, all smiles before heading back to New Jersey, praying that the various prosecutors and grand juries investigating the mess at the GW Bridge as well as other signs of corruption will not indict him before next November. My guess is they will, and that that will finally deflate him. In the meantime, he'll keep pressing the flesh. (Sorry, at times I can't restrain myself from being bad.)

Also getting into their clown gear were Rick Perry, who I believe is still governor of Texas, and Rand Paul, Ron's son, who I think is a senator though the last time he was seen in Washington was two years ago when he was sworn in. He's now a part of the Washington establishment, like it or not, and since politically being perceived that way is a ability, he is trying to figure out how to be both a senator and an anti-establishment, anti-governement figure though he is in fact a public employee and earns more than $200,000 a year in salary and generous benefits paid for by taxpayers whose taxes he wants to cut. Get it?

Only a clown could be that audacious. And then have you seen his hair-dye job and eye makeup? Right out of clown school. But there I go again being bad.

What is unusual so many months before the Iowa caucuses is for undeclared but for-certain candidates to attack each other directly, by name. This early in the game unannounced candidates have always talked in broad generalities while wandering around the country attempting to line up wealthy supporters while appearing to be above the fray and trying to act presidential.

But Rick Perry couldn't control himself. He went right after purported front-runner Rand Paul both by policy and name. Maybe he recalled that the last time around, assuming his memory is more intact this time--he had trouble during the debates remembering even his own talking points--perhaps he is acknowledging that that last-minute strategy didn't work. His front-runner status lasted about a week.

Though the problem may have been more him than his strategy, this time around he is working more on the strategy than the "him" part.

The governor showed up last week with a new pair of professorial-looking eye glasses. These are part of a strategy to look smart because, again in 2012, he both looked and sounded, how else to put this, dumb.

And he's even given up wearing cowboy boots. Another strategy to make him look serious. And maybe to appeal to women and independents who don't like to see too much testosterone in their presidents. Though God knows with John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and FDR it flowed freely.

All Democrats. Hum.

Rick Perry, to show he knows the location of Russia and that he can't see it from his ranch, and is thus comfortable with foreign policy issues and therefore ready to move into the White House, but also to distinguish himself from the GOP frontrunner, attacked Rand Paul by name, calling him an "isolationist," "flat wrong," and "curiously blind" (recall the eyeglasses).

Very bold. But before the ink dried on reports about Perry's otherwise high-toned speech, Paul's people retaliated, calling Rick Perry "dead wrong," saying that though he is running around wearing "smart glasses" (not spiffy smart but the style of glasses that make you seem smart), "apparently his new glasses haven't altered his perception of the world or allowed him to see more clearly."

I call that hitting above the belt and not politically smart since so many voters need glasses not to make them look smart but to see. Though someone should check to see if Perry's have prescription lenses or are just window glass.

Now if we could only get Herman Cain wound up and ready to climb into that clown car how much fun would that be this hot summer where nothing else is going on. Except, of course Israel invading Gaza and Russians or Ukrainian rebels shooting down commercial airplanes.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

July 18, 2014--Best of Behind: The House that Ruth Built

With the baseball all-star game behind us and regular season play about to resume, here is something I wrote in September 22, 2008 that appears to be a baseball story but in reality is about family--

It was early April and the family was gathered at Aunt Tanna's and Uncle Eli’s apartment. After my grandparents died it had fallen to Eli to conduct Passover services and to Tanna, with the help of her sisters, to prepare and serve the sumptuous dinner.

As is traditional, Eli as the host, early in the reading of the Haggadah, set aside a napkin-wrapped portion of matzos, which would serve as the Afikomon. Since Jews no longer participated in sacrificing and serving the Pascal Lamb during Passover, this matzos symbolized that lamb and was to be the last taste of the evening—a sort of desert that was shared by all after the host broke it into enough pieces to serve everyone. Happily, to those of us still too young to understand or enjoy the magic of such symbolism, Aunt Tanna, and especially Aunt Gussie managed to bake delectable treats in spite of the Passover prohibitions against using normal forms of flour or leavening. It was well worth enduring what seemed an endless service and meal to get to Gussie's coconut macaroons and matzos-flour angel cake.

Though I did not at the time appreciate the meaning of the Afikomon, I did love the custom that required the youngest children (boys really) to “steal” and hide it from Uncle Eli. Which we always managed to do with his obvious complicity—he made an art form of looking the other way so that we could snatch and run off with it and hide it behind a sofa cushion in the adjoining living room. When it came time to need it to conclude the ceremonies, Eli would make a broad theatrical effort to search for it, of course--with great sighing and frustration--always failing to find it. Even though the previous year and the year before that my cousin Chuck, his son, and I hid it in the very same place. Obviously stealing and hiding things were not among our limited number of talents.

So when Uncle Eli would give up in faux-frustration, with much squealing of delight we would retrieve the Afikomon from the sofa and hand it over to him so he could do his symbolic thing and we, the best part, would get our reward. The year, before we--actually Chuck--asked for two pairs of boxing glove which through the year he used almost every weekend to pummel me, his pathetic sparring partner, as he “trained” to become the last in a long line of Jewish boxing champions. And though I was quite a good punching bag for him, he was better at schoolwork than in our improvised ring and went on to become a successful personal-injury lawyer. What else was appropriate for an ex-boxer?

But this year we planned in advance to ask Eli to take us to Yankee Stadium, to the House that Ruth Built.

Back then, with the Dodgers ensconced and beloved in Brooklyn where we lived, with Chuck, and me under his influence, unlikely and passionate Yankee fans—you could get killed on any Flatbush street corner for showing even mild interest in the hated Yankees—a secret trip up to the Bronx to attend a game in person was a transgressive treat. Eli, who liked the idea that in their risky enthusiasm for the Yankees his son and nephew showed signs of intrepidness—he himself had as a boy escaped from Tsarist Russia and made his way on his own to America—was happy to accede to our request, receive the Afikomon, and bring the long Passover evening to conclusion—it was getting late, the family was showing sign of restlessness, and some had to make the long trek back to Long Island.

A week later, Uncle Eli told us that through a friend he had gotten box seats for the three of us for June 13th. Though my memory is beginning to fail me I will always remember that date vividly because, as good fortune would have it, June 13, 1948 turned out to be the day the Yankees retired Babe Ruth’s uniform number. Everyone knew that the Babe was suffering from throat and neck cancer and did not have long to live, and so they wanted to honor him before he was unable to be there in person to bask in the cheers and love of the more than 100,000 of his fans who packed that great iconic ballpark.

There is grainy newsreel film of the event that helps jog my recollection-- 

A stooped and fragile Babe, desiccated to half his bulky size, wearing his uniform with the familiar number 3 emblazoned on his back, no longer the physical manifestation of the Sultan of Swat he had been during his playing years, on that sultry afternoon, he shuffled haltingly to home plate where he stood, leaning heavily on his bat as if it were a crutch rather than the instrument of divine power it had been, to take in the adoration of his fans. 

And though Chuck, still harbored dreams of stepping into the boxing ring in this very Yankee Stadium, where not that many years before Joe Lewis avenged himself, and all of America, by defeating in slightly more than two minutes of the first round, the great Aryan hope, Max Schmeling, through my own tears I saw Chuck’s.

So many years later, with Chuck prematurely off with the Babe, now in an even-better, loftier box seat, last night my tears flowed again when the Bambino’s 92 year-old daughter Julia threw out the first ball at the last game that will ever be played in the house her father built, soon after that to be torn down and replaced by a new, antiseptic Yankee Stadium. 

More symbolism.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 17, 2014--Too Busy

And so I will return on Friday with another Best of Behind.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

July 16, 2014--Tatts

"When I was in the Coast Guard," Al said in answer to me, "which was a long time ago, and we were in port, the older guys would get the kids right off the farms drunk and then take them to tattoo parlors and get them an anchor or heart with MOM inked on their arms. When they came to they were men."

"But what about you? You have that amazing tiger tattooed on your arm and had it done only a few years ago. What were you thinking? Why did you do it? I mean it's beautiful and all that."

"I'd been thinking about it for years and nobody had to get me liquored up to get it done."

"I assumed that but I'm trying to understand why so many people, very much including girls and women, are getting tattooed. So I thought, why . . . ?"

He smiled, "I just liked the idea and how it looks." He pulled up his sleeve and the crouching tiger, in vivid colors, slowly emerged.

Al clearly wasn't in an introspective mood, but I kept trying, "My whole thing about tattoos is because of something that popped up on my MSN homepage. I think it's programmed to report gossip, which I confess to enjoying. There was a story about Rihanna getting another tattoo. I think it's at least her 19th, if you can believe that. I admit I was intrigued why someone as beautiful as she would have tattoos all over her body, including, the piece said, a huge image of the goddess Isis on her chest with her wings extended under each of her breasts. She needs that?"

"I read about that too," Al chuckled, "It's apparently a tribute to her grandmother who died recently."

"Some tribute," Rona chimed in, "though in Greek mythology she is considered the ideal mother and protectoress. So I get the Isis thing but not the disfiguring tattoo. I guess that tells you how I think about the whole thing. Tattoos."

Sitting at the counter of the diner were a couple of young women, maybe in their early 20s, both with tattoos visible on their backs and arms. I wondered how many more might be hidden from view. I had too much caffeine in my bloodstream and called out to them. "Can I ask you something?"

Both women swiveled towards us. "You mean us?"

"Yes," I said. "Forgive me for being personal but I'm writing something about tattoos, about why so many young people get them. Could you . . .?"

"Sure," the woman on the left said, who had a large bird tattooed on her back with its tail feathers wrapping around to the front of her right arm. "I wanted something that would distinguish me. You know, something that would stand out. Be unique."

"If I may?" I said.

"Sure," she said, "Anything. I'm cool to talk about this."

"There's a lot that's unique about you without needing a tattoo. Your face, for example. Unless you have an identical twin no one else in the world of seven billion people looks like you. Or, for that matter, sounds like you, has thoughts like you, has . . ."

"I get your point," she cut me off.

But I pressed on, "No one else has had the experiences you've had. So why do that bird and any others you may have make you unique?"

"You have a point. But it's also body art. A way to express my creativity."

"But couldn't you do that on paper? On canvas? Sculpt, paint, draw, take photographs?"

"I could and I do. I feel I'm a very creative person and I guess I want to put my creativity on display."

"I get that. I respect that. But what happens if ten years from now you feel you made a mistake? They're permanent, no?"

"Basically, yes. You can get them sort of lasered off. But that costs a fortune. Maybe if ten years from now I want them removed there'll be an easier way to do it."

"And cheaper," her friend said, smiling broadly.

"The same is true for you?" I asked, looking at the bouquet of flowers on her shoulder.

She kept smiling and nodded. And then they both swung around to finish their breakfasts.

Later in the day I did a little research about what people say about being tattooed.

Rihanna herself says, "I am so intrigued by tattoos. It's an entire culture, and I study it."

Intrigued indeed and she's also right about it being an "entire culture." Many tribal people routinely are tattooed or painted as a way to mark them as a part of a tribe or member of a religion or sect. Also to delineate their social status or, as in India, their caste or marital status. So people now who think of themselves as tribal or members of a world culture or indigenous religion may get tattooed as a way of connecting them to, to them, more authentic, less hybrid cultures.

Tattoos have also been used to stigmatize people. Criminals, for example, in the Western world until the last century were often tattooed on the face to warn others of their potential to do harm. As a way to offset and undermine this, imprisoned criminals, on their own frequently will tattoo themselves as a way of flaunting their outlaw status. Gangsta rappers, as a show of solidarity and to proclaim their own toughness and authenticity, are frequently extensively tattooed.

Gang members, to tag themselves as members of the Bloods or Crips have certain symbols tattooed on they bodies. As a right of passage.

Some young people, also to demonstrate their "badness," emulate prisoners by getting tattoos similar to the ones common in prisons.

And of course tattoos can be expressions of undying love. Though their permanence can be a problem when relationships sour and love turns to animosity.

Then of course, in Nazi Germany, Jews in concentration camps were tattooed on their arms to identify them as Jews and, in the unlikely case they were able to escape, could be easily identified and sent back directly to the gas chambers. So some, who know that history, may be showing solidarity with the persecuted.

This is a long way from Al's tiger or the women's tattooed bird and flowers. But perhaps, as Rihanna said, even these benign and decorative tatts connect them to this "entire culture."

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

July 15, 2014--eBay

eBay, which started as a place to sell and collect Pez dispensers and then became a venue to put up for bid almost anything--thus it's tagline the Nation's Flea Market--may soon need to come up with a very different way to represent itself.

At first most of the stuff listed for auction was, well, junk. But buyers were attracted to the Website as much by the "action" provided by participating in an auction as by the stuff. How many people actually needed a stuffed Minnie Mouse doll or a glass citrus-slice Christmas tree ornament or a 1954 Sears Roebuck catalog? Apparently tens of millions.

But now, in addition to these tchotchkes, you can make an offer on a 1966 Lotus Elan sports car. The required opening bid is $20,000. And, as incredible as it my seem, cars like this--though you can't take them out for a test-drive--actually get sold via eBay for very big bucks.

What do I know.

Obviously not much because soon you will be able to bid on paintings by Andy Warhol through a deal eBay recently struck with Sotheby's.

Starting this fall, eBay's 145 million subscribers will be able to bid multimillions online for Picassos as well as Pez dispensers.

(A set of 12 Disneyana Pez dispensers--Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Donald Duck, Goofy, and the rest of the gang can right now on eBay be yours for $20.22. My guess, you can have them by the end of the week for 20 bucks even.)

A Warhol, on the other hand, could go for $100 million. Shipping, though, is extra. New York to Dubai will cost you.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

July 14, 2014--Vixens

I have no idea how we go to talking about plurals.

Sometimes, always at the best dinner parties (and this one was the best) conversations wander. In this case from world religions to education reform to caring for aging mothers.

But with a stretch, all three are related.

In most belief systems one is taught to honor parents and care for them in old age while looking back on how mothers were our first educators. And if one's mother, as in my case, was also professionally a teacher, well, you see, subjects can wander but they are usually free-associatively connected.

But how we got to plurals is another matter.

I think it began when a guest mentioned that earlier in the day he had seen a fox sniffing across our hosts' rolling lawn. "Two, in fact," he said, "Two foxes."

I don't know what possessed me to suggest, "Not foxes," I smiled, "but two fox."

He looked at me skeptically. He is well educated and knowledgable about many things, including the arcane. "I think," he said gently (he's from Kentucky where disagreements can range from dangerous to gentlemanly), "I think the plural is foxes." I was happy to see that he continued to smile.

I say this about disagreements because earlier in the evening someone had reminded me that officials in Kentucky may still be asked if they ever engaged in a dual. And with a tall glass of superb bourbon in my system, knowing that, I was taking no chances.

"I'm glad no one here is bonded to a smart phone," another guest said, "We'd be tempted to look it up and that would be the end of this interesting discussion." I wasn't sure if he was teasing me. That's Kentuckian too--teasing so subtly that it's hard to know.

"Sometimes I like to wallow in uncertainty," I said, attempting to sound metaphysical since one of the dinner guests, a great person, is a leading authority on the metaphysical and mystical. Not the same thing, she and I had earlier agreed.

"I think the foxes I saw," he emphasized the plural, "were a mother and a baby."

"You mean a vixen and her kit, cub, or pup," someone else suggested.

"A what?" I blurted, the bourbon circulating.



"Yes, that's the name for female foxes." That plural again.

"And so fox babies are called kits, cubs, or pups?" I managed to work in my version of the plural, the singular, suggesting it is also the plural--like moose.

"That's right," he said with a sense of triumph. "Just like male ferrets are hobs, females jills, and babies are also kits--like foxes.

His wife showed some signs of impatience but Rona, totally intrigued, asked, "So you too must do crossword puzzles?"

"In fact, he's addicted to them," his wife said.

"Keeps the mind young," he said. Which his is.

And so it went until my dinner partner and I returned to talking about how Joseph Campbell had influenced our lives through his lectures and writings about world religions, seeking, searching for, and ferreting out (sorry) their histories and interconnections.

"And there's Jessie Weston," I said.

"From Ritual to Romance," she said, "I too love that book. It had a profound influence on me in college. About pagan influences on Christianity. If we read it now we might find it a little simplistic but back then . . ."

"For me that was a hundred years ago," I said.

"Maybe only half that," she said, making me immediately feel better. Which she is quite expert at.

Early the next morning, without needing to make a quip about not wanting to be connected to too much connectivity, I googled "names of male, female, and baby animals?"

When Rona woke, after coffee and listening to the recently-deceased Paul Horn on Pandora, I could no longer contain my enthusiasm about what I had been learning.

"Did you ever wonder," I asked, why in so many languages people have assigned specific names to male and female animals?"

Rona squinted at me, still in a state on endorphins from Horn's new-age sound. I raced on, "Take hawks for example. We have lots of them circling here. Males are called tiercels, females hens, and babies eyas."


"Eyas, if I'm pronouncing it correctly."

She shrugged. "And squirrels," I said, "also many here--are unlikely called bucks, does, and kits."

"Squirrels and deer have the same names? Sounds crazy." I was pleased to see that Rona was starting to get into it. "At least they don't call squirrel kits fawns."

"You see what I mean?"

"What you mean? No, I don't."

"How all this is really unnecessary. Why not just call a male ferret that--a male ferret--and not a, what was it?"

"A hob." It was now Rona's turn to smile. "I'll bet it's in Sunday's crossword puzzle."

"For humans it's just men or males or women or females. And all babies are children and maybe kids."

"Like goats," Rona said. "Kids," she added in case I missed her jab.

"And billies," I said, "Also a name for goat babies."

"Maybe there are all these names to torment crossword-puzzlers."

"Or just, in language-building terms, out of a sense of play."

"Could be because we're animals too. And many animals just seem to want to have fun."

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Friday, July 11, 2014

July 11, 2014--Best of Behind: In the Sunlight of Horror

From September 21, 2007. Not your usual light-spirited Friday posting but . . .
Some years ago I was in Munich. Primarily to visit the museums, but also to take in whatever remained of the atmosphere out of which Hitler emerged. My idea of fun!
So I visited the beer hall, the Bürgerbräukeller, where in 1916 he made his famous speech and launched the putsch that brought him and the Nazi party to prominence. I must admit, though decades had passed since that infamous night, when up in the private room where the early Nazis gathered, to hear the same songs from his day filtering up from the huge hall below, it was not difficult to project myself back in time. In my mind’s eye I could see Hitler surrounded by Rudolph Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Herman Göering.
The following day, as a part of my Nazi tour, I wanted to visit the Dachau concentration camp since I understood it was nearby and because it was among the first of the camps. I didn’t have a car so I tried to find out if there was a way to get there by public transportation. It was not easy to find someone to direct me much less get anyone to look me in the eye so I knew it and concentration camps in general were still not discussable subjects in Bavaria. But I did manage to find my way to what was in effect a commuter train—Dachau, you see, is only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Munich.
Thus, in a mere 20 minutes, on a beautiful sunlit day, I arrived in the town of Dachau; and since I assumed I would need to take another train or taxi to wherever the camp was located—considering what had gone on there I assumed it would be at a considerable distance—I wandered around again seeking directions. I was not ignored because of my halting German, though it was pathetic. I suspected it was more because no one in Dachau wanted to even hear mention of the real Dachau—the camp.
I did, though, eventually find a taxi driver who agreed to take me to it. I got into his car and sat slumped in the back seat not wanting to draw too much attention to myself by looming as a presence in his rearview mirror—I was happy enough that I was able to find someone willing to drive me there and didn’t want to put any pressure on him to have to acknowledge me.
But without any provocation he asked, “Would you like me to take you to the camp by the road along the railroad tracks?”
I didn’t immediately understand the implication of this, thinking only that I did not have much cash and since getting to the camp would be a long and expensive ride I didn’t want him to take a route that would run up the meter. So I said, “Whatever you prefer is fine, as long as it’s the shortest one.”
He chuckled at that and said, “Along the tracks is the shortest.” And added, “You see, they located the camp as close to the tracks as possible. They prided themselves on being efficient.”
Along the tracks we drove, following them as they wound their way right through the center of this medieval town. “You see where we are,” he said, “Where everyone could see.”
Again not understanding, I asked, “See what?”
What was going on,” he said.
Embarrassed that it had taken me so long to get what he was trying to tell me, I muttered, “Ach, I understand,” and pulled myself up in my seat so I could get a better view of things.
“The trains went right through the town. In the morning they were packed full of prisoners. In the afternoon they returned empty.” For the next few minutes we rode in silence. “And then at night, everyone could smell what was going on. You will see why because we are almost there. It is not far and the prevailing wind blew the smoke right over the city.”
We had been driving for no more than a total of ten minutes when he stopped at the entrance. “This is as far as I can go,” he said.
He refused to take any money from me and then looked back over his shoulder toward where we had been. The town of Dachau was clearly visible. 
He pointed. “Now you understand, yes?”
I did. 

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