Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 7

Almost from that first day in late November when she had taken over the sixth-grade class, Miss Goldstein had begun to suspect that her predecessor's mental affliction had been worsened by the behavior of her students, that it was likely they had baited her, deliberately provoked her to fits of rage just for the theatrical thrill of it.
She was beginning to realize how cruel children can be. A sickening feeling came over her when she witnessed the way her students treated Katrina.

Pretty and a little plump, Katrina had long blond hair that she frequently wore in two braids. She almost never smiled and rarely looked up from her book, or her desk, or her feet. She seldom spoke, and when she did her words were barely audible. She would have gone unnoticed and unheard if not for her German accent.

Katrina was the target of merciless teasing. She could not utter a complete sentence without inciting a chorus of giggles. Boys would follow her down the hall, goose-stepping like Nazi soldiers. They would click their heels and say "Heil, Hitler!" all the time. She was excluded from all games and conversations. Her classmates shunned her.

What worried Miss Goldstein the most was the hate she sometimes perceived. It was not obvious, more like a chilling draft from a mysterious source. Did these students inherit animosity for a former enemy from their parents, many who fought against the Germans not so long ago? Although the war had been over for 15 years, Adolf Eichmann, the "architect of the Holocaust," had only recently been captured in Argentina by Israeli agents.

One day, just before Christmas vacation, Katrina was ill and did not come to school. Miss Goldstein took the opportunity to scold the class, and she did so vehemently and passionately. The effect was that the children felt mortified and deservedly embarrassed by their behavior.
Some of her classmates made promises to themselves to be especially kind to Katrina when she returned, but the child did not come to school the next day, nor the next. Then the long Christmas break arrived, and when they came back to P.S. 8 in January, Katrina wasn't there. Her father had been transferred to a job in another city, and the family had moved.

"I hope you're all very satisfied with yourselves," Miss Goldstein said. I hope you're very happy with how cruelly you treated that little girl."
Her stinging sarcasm was not necessary. The wound had been inflicted, and there was now no chance it would heal.

I still think about Katrina. I am haunted by the desperate sadness that I imagine was in her eyes, and by regret and my own guilt about the misery heaped upon her.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 6

Miss Goldstein had taken over a class of sixth-graders at P.S. 8 late in the fall of 1960, just after the sudden departure of Mrs. Macarber. The explanation at the time, at least around the schoolyard, was that the latter teacher had "flipped out," but that was not exactly the case. Her mental problems were more probably deep-rooted.

Mrs. Macarber had a thing about wasting paper. She encouraged her students to write on both sides of their composition sheets and to save pieces of paper with blank sides for "scrap." But as the school year progressed, desks began to bulge with the hoarded scrap paper. Our teacher began to insist that papers with even a few square inches of blank space be saved for future use. By November, she refused to allow anything to be put in the waste cans, not even used tissues. Eraser crumbs and pencil shavings had good second uses, she insisted. Her classroom became a recycling nightmare.

Mrs. McCarver had a thick head of hair, wavy and dyed red. She would often sit for minutes at a time at her desk, her furrowed brow resting in one palm while the other hand massaged the nape of her neck as we sat silently, awaiting instructions. Then she would suddenly leap to her feet and begin to accuse us of secretly using other waste cans in the building to dispose of perfectly good paper, and of conspiring against her. That's when the school board stepped in.

It did not take Miss Goldstein long to figure out that Mrs. Macarber's madness might have been hastened by her pupils. She found them to be spoiled, unruly and incorrigible, but that made them no different than any other sixth-graders. What bothered her most was an eerie sense that these students were much worse; that what flowed in her classroom was an undercurrent of cruelty.

Today's gripe

I have little problem with readers who complain to me about grammatical mistakes that appear in the paper; mistakes are made, no matter what precautions we take, and errors are embarrassing and to be avoided. A regular segment of our monthly news department meetings is "Grammar Guy," in which I lecture my troops on such things as sentence structure, usage, rhetoric, syntax and spelling, and also pass along complaints from our readers.

What irks me, though, are comments like this one, which was written recently on a subscription form: "Spelling and sentence structure needs to be addressed." What needs to be addressed by the reader is agreement of subject and predicate. Her comment should read: "Spelling and sentence structure need to be addressed."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 5

Building stuff. Sleeping out. These were our responses to boredom. Sometimes we would even build stuff to sleep in. We'd find large cardboard appliance boxes, tape them together, cut windows and doors in them, attach old sheets as awnings, then drag our sleeping bags into the makeshift mansion for the night.

Although the front yard with its rose and tulip beds was off-limits to us kids, my parents allowed us to do as we pleased in our back yard, which was not visible from the street. There we dug underground forts, built huge, unfloatable rafts and assembled rockets from cardboard storage barrels. I built a shack from old doors and sheets of plywood, covered it in tar paper to keep out the rain, and painted a skull and crossbones above the entrance. An extension cord from the garage provided electricity for a light and a radio. It was the perfect clubhouse and a place to camp out at any time of year, but it didn't last long.

One night in early March, four of us were spending the night in the shed. My father came out to say goodnight and told us to quiet down and not to leave the shed. But we did anyway. It was a mild night, but snow still covered the ground. We walked toward town, then climbed a hill and started lobbing snowballs toward passing cars below. The snowballs weren't having much effect, so we packed them hard and added gravel. One of the missiles scored a direct hit on a driver's-side door, and the car braked to a stop. We ran laughing back into the woods for a few minutes, then emerged again and resumed our assault.

Suddenly, something grabbed the collar of my coat, and I was yanked to my feet. The driver had stopped his car, then circled around and crept up into the woods and caught Jimmy Paulus and I by the scruff of our necks. The other two kids took off like startled fawns. The man dragged us down the hill and put us into the backseat of his Rambler station wagon, along with his own wide-eyed, terrified children. He made us tell him where we lived, then drove us to our houses, called out our parents and told them what we'd done.

The punishment I received was severe and wide-ranging. I was forced to rat out my fleet-footed friends. I was deprived of allowance and television and sleeping out for months. Worst of all, I was ordered to tear down the shack.

You'd think that would have been enough to teach me never to deceive my parents or do something really stupid like that again, but I was, regrettably, a slow learner.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Emily Barton's 2006 novel is set in Brooklyn in the late 18th century. It is one of those books that mixes historical fact with pure fantasy. The fantasy here is the construction of a bridge across the East River to Manhattan, something that did happen for another three generations.

The bridge is a metaphor - a big, 4,000-foot-long metaphor - that is very much belabored. And this is a tale heavy with dread; for about the last 400 pages, the reader is convinced that everything will end in death and disaster. Reading it is like watching a car crash in slow motion.

Nevertheless, this is enjoyable reading. Barton develops rich characters while still writing with economy and precision. We're left longing to follow the lives of the people she has created, and their children, and hope we may do so in a sequel.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 4

My mother held a match to the wine cork, which blackened and released a thin stream of dark, aromatic smoke. She held the cork until the black area cooled, then gripped my chin firmly, drew a mustache across my lip, darkened my eyebrows and added long sideburns.
"There you go, my little Mexican man," she said.

Fixing a sombrero on my head and draping a serape around my shoulders, she said, "You keep bundled up tonight, it's cold out there."
She put her hands on my shoulders and held me still for a moment, contemplating her creation.
"You're getting to be such a big boy. This stuff wouldn't even fit you last year. And I guess this will be your last trick-or-treat. You'll be too old for this next year."

The doorbell rang and I bounded downstairs. "You wait for your sister!" she yelled after me. "Aw, Ma, she's 8 years old, she can go herself," I said, but I knew it was of no use.
Jimmy was at the door, dressed as a Texas Ranger. Behind him stood two smaller children, one in a white sheet with holes cut for eyes, the other in a box with a cardboard disk for a hat – Speedy Alka Seltzer. "Sorry," Jimmy said. "My mom made me take them along.
My mother handed us brown paper grocery bags, and, kissing my sister on the forehead said, "Don't take this scarf off and stick close to your brother, and don't eat all the candy before you get home."

It was just after 6 o'clock, Monday, Oct. 31, 1960. A sliver of golden moon hung in the black sky. We shuffled down the walk, marched under the streetlight at the corner of Millard and Ellison and passed into the darkness, stumbling on the sidewalk, the cracks and buckled concrete reaching up to catch the toes of our shoes. We bounced like moths from lighted porch to lighted porch, shivering in the consuming black of night between them. Gusts of wind sent dry maple leaves skittering across the street like frightened animals and fanned an eerie red glow in piles of leaf ash at the curb. The obscure shapes of other children, their voices wafting on the breeze, passed us on the opposite side of the street.

We clambered up steps and rang bells and waited in the flickering orange light of jack-o-lanterns. Muffled noises, homey sounds of television, creaking floors and barking dogs came through the doors, which swung open, emitting the different smells of people's suppers. A woman held a bowl of Baby Ruths before us. Wait, she said. Let me guess who you are. She knew us all except Tommy Gagan, who had caught up with us along the avenue, wrapped from head to toe in strips of sheets like a mummy.

At another house, on a lonely stretch of Birchbrook Road, an old man extended a basket of apples in one hand and a bowl of pennies in the other. "Take a big handful," he urged. "Go on, dig in." Copper rained in our paper bags. We sauntered down the middle of the road, munching the apples and tossing the cores into the woods.

Halloween would never be the same after that night. For me, the spooky magic would be gone, replaced by mischief and hoarding from the candy mine of the Hotel Gramatan. And it wasn't too many years later that Halloween was ruined, buy sick people putting needles in candy bars and razor blades in apples, and by municipalities that replaced trick-or-treat with parties held not on Oct. 31 but on whatever day seemed convenient to adults, and by the adults who hijacked the simple observance and made it an opportunity to party.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 3

Maybe you've experimented with Google Earth on your computer. You type in an address and you zoom in from space to the exact spot on the planet you've selected and see it - perhaps the neighborhood of your youth – as a bird would, or more accurately, as a satellite does.

And so I visit our old house, at the corner of Millard and Ellison. The house and the whole neighborhood look pretty much as they did 50 years ago, except for the giant highway that now slashes through what used to be our wilderness to the east. I trace the streets along which I used to pedal my bike, past Public School No. 8, past the stationery store where we used to spend our money on Three Musketeers bars and baseball cards and Mad Magazines, past Gristede's Grocery, where we bought the white beans for our pea shooters, down onto Palmer Avenue, across from Sarah Lawrence College, where all those barefoot beatnik girls studied, and on to the Bronx River.
Surely, my parents must have been aware of how far I went on my bicycle, and which roads and busy intersections I crossed – without a helmet, I might add, as there were no such things in those days – on my way to town some two miles distant.

The river – more of a creek, really - was damned a few hundred yards upstream, and the pond was where my friends and I with bamboo poles fished on lazy summer days for bluegills and catfish.

I can smell it now, that memory: pond water, fish slime and earthworms. I can almost feel the sun on my shoulders, picture my scabby knees, watch my child hands, black under the fingernails, baiting the hook. I hear the rush of water over the dam, the barking of dogs taken for walks, the whoosh of cars on the nearby parkway.
This was happiness defined, being 9 or 10 years old and to have all this place as a playground, and to be without worry and fear, and to be so far removed from the ugly realities of life.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bronxville Days, Part 2

Children do not invent bad behavior; they learn it from older kids. And we had our share of bad influences in the neighborhood.

Some of the tricks we learned were relatively harmless, like the Jar of Death. If you happened to have a really bad case of rotten-egg farts, we learned from Billy Higgins that you could capture and store one indefinitely in a tightly sealed peanut butter jar. The Jar of Death could then be taken to an appropriate event, like a birthday party, where its effect could be best appreciated.

Other stunts were downright stupid and dangerous. I knew better than to imitate two older boys who liked to stalk each other around the neighborhood with bows and arrows. The arrows had target tips but were still capable of penetrating flesh, which they did on at least one occasion, the victim proudly displaying his wound to all who would look.
I foolishly learned and practiced another stunt, though. In winter, when the streets were covered in snow and oil delivery to homes frequent, we would sneak behind a fuel truck as it was leaving a driveway and grab hold of the back bumper and slide down the street of the soles of our boots.

Older kids would visit the city and buy firecrackers in Chinatown. They'd set off whole packs of these. One day Jimmy Paulus and I found several unexploded crackers and decided to put one into a hollowed-out tree stump with some toy soldiers and light it and see what happened. We did, and ran a few yards away and waited, and nothing happened. So Jimmy went back to the stump and looked in, and that's when it exploded.
Something flew into his eye. The next day, it was still red and his vision blurry, so he had to tell his Mom. His eye was permanently damaged. He had to get glasses.

We were just 9 years old. You could say that we didn't know any better. But we did, and I'll never forget the shame, the guilt and remorse of that incident. My parents didn't punish me. They knew it wasn't necessary. A lesson was learned, and for Jimmy, it was the hard way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: I read the paper online, as does some of my family who live in NY and TX.
It really upsets me when I am trying to read the obituaries and there is a NETFLIX ad attatched to one of the deceased name.....THAT IS SO DISRESPECTFUL! I can't help but wonder what families must think when they are going to read a family member's obituary and an ad for NETFLIX pops up.
Is there ANYTHING you can do to correct this? - C.F.

A: It's a free site, supported entirely by advertising revenue. Obituaries are the No. 1 item viewed on the site. It may be annoying to see an ad there, but would you rather pay to read that obituary?

Bronxville Days, Part 1

We didn’t actually live in Bronxville, N.Y. We had a Bronxville mailing address, but the town itself was just one square mile, and the people who lived in that square - "Bronxville Proper," they called it - were either rich or old, or both. Bronxville was where our fathers got on the train to go to work in New York City. It was where we went to church: Episcopal, Congregational, Catholic or Dutch Reformed, your choice. It was where we went to the movies, and to buy model cars, and to eat banana splits and to ride our decorated bikes in the Memorial Day parade, and, if we weren't so lucky, to the hospital.

There was a tall building in the center of town – the Hotel Gramatan. It was where all the rich widows lived. It was a great place to go trick-or-treating. You could see the sign atop the hotel - made from red light bulbs - for miles. One night some teenagers got up on the roof and knocked out some of the lights so that the sign read, “HOT GRAMA.” I remember my mother telling a friend how hilarious that was, and then catching me eavesdropping, changed her mind and called it disgraceful vandalism.

Before moving to Bronxville, we had been Catholics. Back in West Haven, Conn., I remember going to classes taught by terrifying nuns. I don’t remember much about it, other than being told by them that someone named “Mary” was my real mother. I deduced from this that that woman in my house who raised me, “Irene” as she was called by others, was a fraud.

Anyway, for some reason when we moved to Bronxville, or near it, we didn’t go to the Catholic church but rather the big, fancy Episcopal one. In my twisted 9-year-old brain, I figured that we had been promoted.

I’ll never forget the humiliation my parents put me through in that church. I had worn my good shoes to school on Friday and changed into my gym shoes, then forgot to change back and left my good shoes in my locker at school.
“Get dressed for church, young man,” I was told Sunday morning. “But I can’t go to church today because I left my good shoes in my locker.”
The parents were tired of this excuse. “Then you’ll go in your sneakers,” they said.
I was inordinately fashion-conscious for a boy my age. The idea of dressing in a gray flannel suit and filthy high-top white Keds was repulsive.
They dragged me to church. I felt like a clown. I was mortified.
I never forgot my good shoes at school again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A new story

Sunday was one of those rare occasions when I found myself with nothing to do. No unfinished projects to resume, no repairs to make around the house, no work in the yard to be done until the cool of the evening. The grass had been cut, the tailgate latch on the pickup truck repaired, a fresh batch of pesto prepared. Nothing left to do but sit and think, and to let the mind go back half a century and recall how a 9-year-old boy handled his idle time, inventively staving off boredom but often getting into mischief in the process.

Back then, we lived in a safe neighborhood that crawled with kids. In summer, particularly, we were wild from dawn to dusk, shooed from our houses by mothers too busy to plan our leisure time for us.
Did our parents think that we were always playing within a few block of home, or were they aware that our kid universe was much larger, the boundaries being as far as we could pedal our bicycles in half a day?

From age 9 to 12, I tested the boundaries of our neighborhood and of my parents’ patience. I did what all kids do, and what all kids shouldn’t do, and in the process, lost my innocence. It was a time of wonder and discovery. And then, it all ended rather suddenly, when our family moved north 20 miles to a neighborhood with no children, and I was alone. And after a year, I was sent off to boarding school, and a whole different universe of experiences.

So, this new series is about those last years of childhood, when our perception of the world around us begins to change. As always, please feel free to comment about your own experiences at this age.
We’ll call this one “Bronxville Days.” It starts tomorrow.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Complaints and comments

A subscriber called to complain this morning that "almost every single day" we run a photo of Barack Obama on the front page of the newspaper, and none of John McCain. I told him I thought he was exaggerating. "Go ahead and look yourself," he told me. "Almost every day. It's unbelievable."

Well, I went back through all the papers in a stack going back to July 6, and I counted four photos of Obama and two of McCain. These were all thumbnail mugshots. I also counted three of State Rep. Bill DeWeese, and two each of Fed chief Ben Bernanke and Gov. Ed. Rendell.

I expect some readers to keep track of such things, in hopes of discovering some bias on our part. And I expect some, like this caller, to not even bother to keep track.

By the way, when McCain made a visit to the area (South Park) recently, we had planned to have reporters and a photographer cover his visit, our local coverage of which would have been played on the front page. Unfortunately, the McCain campaign refused to allow our reporters and photographers to attend the event.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: I am continually dismayed to see the Observer-Reporter picture children riding and jumping their bikes without wearing helmets, as on July 3. On July 11 your editorial starts out with the saying that a picture tells a thousand words. What are you teaching our children to do with your pictures? - S.H.

A: Before I get all smarmy and sarcastic, let me say that you do have a point. The photo you cite is a good example. As Byron Smialek wrote in his column last Saturday, the boy shown jumping his bike broke his arm doing so a day or so after our photo was taken.

Our photographers frequently roam around the area looking for things to photograph. When they do so, they often capture everyday life. That is, the real world. And in everyday life, many kids don't wear bicycle helmets.

The newspaper is not an instruction manual, and it is the intention of our editors to report on life as it is, not as it should be.

But as I said before, you have a point worth considering. When old editors like me see photos of kids riding bikes without helmets, no bells go off in our heads, no flags are run up our mental poles, because when we were young and riding bikes, bicycle helmets did not exist. We should be more aware that times have changed, that safety is much more of a concern these days than it was then, and at least consider these facts when selecting photos for publication.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Today's gripe

Our politicians' answer to the high demand and price of oil and the greenhouse gases that burning it causes is this: Find more oil and burn it! Sha-la-lala-lala live for today.
The British government, in response to sharp increases in the price of food, has suggested that its people eat less. Considering that the Brits are huffing and puffing just behind the United States in the obesity sweepstakes, this isn't such a bad idea. I'm sure that if our government had any suggestion about how to get more food for our money, it would be: Supersize it! Don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey-ey-hey ey-hey.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Today's gripe

Some people have a tendency to try to make what they say seem more important by making singular words plural. Instead of saying, for instance, that a child's behavior is bad, that child exhibits bad behaviors.

The one that puts polliwogs in my pants, however, is monies. You know, "invest your monies in these funds." I don't know about you, but I have only one kind of money to invest, and it's American. I don't have any bundles of British pounds or euros or Czech crowns to invest. Just plain old American money. But it's monies you hear about more and more, and before long you'll be hearing expressions like: "monies don't grow on trees"; "put your monies where your mouth is"; and "monies talk."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Comments and complaints

C: I am writing to ask that you please do not publish photos showing dead bodies like the one you published Thursday. Yes, it was a terrible crime and tragedy, but showing one of the poor people that died was really uncalled for. I'm sure that person's family is not thrilled about their loved ones corpse being shown all over the world either. It makes an already horrible crime seem more impersonal and horrible by such graphic pictures.

We are subscribers and enjoy reading your paper each day, it makes a nice change from the sensationalized television news, but I feel that you are trying to sensationalize it by publishing photos like that - we have imaginations - we don't need to actually look at the carnage on the front page or have our kids see it. -C.D., T.S.

A: The front-page photo was gruesome - that's real blood flowing down the street from that body. Unlike all the violence we see on television and in the movie theaters, this was real. It was news. News is sometimes awful and gruesome. We're a newspaper. Sure, we could leave much more to readers' imaginations and not print any photos at all, or perhaps just print the headlines and not bother with all those details in the stories, but then we wouldn't be doing our job.

By the way, there were six people killed in this terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul: three uniformed police officers and three attackers. I have a difficult time getting up any sympathy for one of the "poor people" who died, or for his family, when it's pretty obvious that the dead man was one of the terrorists.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 11

Arvydas resembles the tall grass in which he stands. He sways, from foot to foot, like the shoots in the wind. At 12 years old, he's growing quickly now, and his arms and legs are as thin as ax handles.

We're standing near his family's home, which is not much more than a shack around which chickens and turkeys peck for seeds. Arvydas is one of seven children. His toothless mother, probably in her late 30s but easily looking 20 years older, tells us that he is a good boy, at the top of his class. He is shy and lowers his head as she says this, but he can't help but smile. He smiles all the time, sparks of sunlight on his new braces.

At school, kids made fun of him for his rotten teeth that had become so bad that it was difficult for him to eat. That's when Dijana Kanciene got involved. She knew people who would be willing to help him, to pay for his dental work, for his braces. That would be us, the Washington (Pa.) Rotary Club. We'd helped before, with books, clothing and sporting goods, and sending another needy child to college.

And so, here we stand, looking at Arvydas' braces, at where our money is going. We ask where his father is. His mother tells us that her husband works at the vodka factory, the concrete silos of which are visible across the field of tall grass. He spends all his salary on vodka. He was up drinking all the night before, and as we approached this day, he fled on his bicycle.

Embarrassed, tears in her eyes, she turns away. She tells Dijana that she is sick, that she has allergies and cannot afford the medicine that the doctor prescribes. Dijana tells her she will help. We wave goodbye to them, to Arvydas and his sisters.

Arvydas is young and bright. His family situation is not good, but he has had some help and attention. We do not know yet whether he will have the strength and the will to create a better life for himself and his own family, but we have hope.

Arvydas is Lithuania.


Whine, whine, whine

C: I can't stand when there is 2 A-sections. It doesn't make sense to have them! - C.G.

A: You're right; it doesn't make sense at all. But here's the explanation:

Configuring a newspaper is difficult, in fact too complicated to explain in this space. But let's just say that the size of the sections we print is restricted by the volume of advertisement and the placement of color ads.

Now, with this in mind, consider that many of our advertisers insist on appearing in the A-section. Sometimes, we get way more ads than can fit in, say, a 12-page section. So we print two A-sections and move B, C and D back. It doesn't seem to matter to those advertisers that their ads appear in what is actually a fake A-section. It's still in section A, as far as they are concerned. Everybody's happy. Except you.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 10

What can Regina and her baby daughter tell us about Lithuania's future? Lots, really.

Lithuania's population at one time was nearly 4 million. The current estimate is about 3.3 million. Most of the loss is due to emigration since independence in 1991. But some of it has to do with the low birth rate.

Deaths outpace births in Lithuania 11-10 now. Lithuania is a Roman Catholic country, so the abortion rate is lower than in other Eastern European countries, but it is still significant. It is estimated there are 60 abortions for every 100 births. Women are choosing to have fewer children and later in life. This trend could have serious effects on Lithuania's ability to care for aged citizens in the future. It's a trend that has prompted the Russian government to offer financial incentives to couples willing to have more children. In Japan, the birth rate is so low that an impending crisis in eldercare is feared.

Most interesting in the Baltic countries is a shift in social attitude from east to west. In a recent Gallup International poll examining family values, people were asked whether they believed giving birth outside of marriage is morally wrong. Americans were almost evenly split, with 47 percent saying out-of-wedlock births are morally wrong, and 50 percent saying they are not wrong. In Lithuania, 75 percent said out-of wedlock births are not morally wrong, with 16 percent disagreeing.

It seems that much more than political boundaries and allegiances have changed in Lithuania, and more change is sure to come.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 9

If one person could represent the Center of Europe - that is, the diversity of the continent and the changes occurring at its geographic center, which happens to be Lithuania - it would be Regina Pikasi.

Regina, 32, was born in Kazakhstan to parents of Russian ethnicity and moved with her family to Lithuania at the age of 2. Like many of her country's young and educated people, she left Lithuania, where jobs and opportunity are scarce, for the West. She spent several years in England, working as a waitress and in other jobs, all the time improving her English language skills.

She met a Greek, a oil rig worker, now working off the coast of Algeria. She became pregnant and returned to Lithuania to give birth to their daughter, Sofia, now 9 months old. Regina has been teaching English in Rokiskis, and her partner visits on leave from his job about once a month. He doesn't care much for Lithuania's cold weather. Eventually, she thinks, the will move somewhere else.

In the meantime, she is raising her daughter to speak Lithuanian, Russian (so she can communicate with her grandparents) and English (to communicate with her father).

There's something old and traditional in Regina's beauty and quiet demeanor, but there's nothing traditional about her attitude, which is modern and feminist and skeptical of social norms and habits of Eastern Europe. Conversation with her is intriguing, delightful and unpredictable. From the way I see it, where Regina is going is where Lithuania is going. More on that next time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

War and Peace

If you're wondering why you haven't seen a book review here recently, here's the reason. Feeling guilty about never having read this literary milestone - make that millstone - I put it at the top of my summer reading list. Weighing in at 1,455 pages, it took me nearly six weeks to get through it. For as long as Leo Tolstoy's epic novel is, it deserves the briefest of summaries:

Stupid generals lead armies to slaughter in stupid wars, while Russia's clueless elite party on.

Actually, "War and Peace" is a little more complicated than that. Tolstoy had his theories about the "law of history" and about the philosophical battle between free will and necessity, and his historical novel (the 1968 Ann Dunnigan translation) illustrates those theories.

But it is the characters - up to 500 of them - that makes this one of the world's greatest works of fiction. They are people of the early 19th century, written about in the 1860s, whose personalities are so familiar and contemporary that it is impossible not to imagine them with the faces of people we actually know.

What surprises me most about this book, which I should have read 40 years ago, is that it is not really about war, or about peace, but rather about forgiveness.

But back to the 1,455 pages. Tolstoy has a habit of beating his reader over the head with his theories, and just in case you didn't understand them the first time, he repeats them, several times. Had I been his editor, there would be about 200 fewer pages to slog through.

Today's gripe

We've grown pretty thick skins here and can handle criticism. Hey, answering complaints is part of my job description. But I get a little weary of taking the heat for all of society's ills.

The same guy who complained yesterday about the use of the American flag in an advertisement wrote again, this time sending clippings of photographs we have published recently showing people wearing the American flag: a Wild Things player in a uniform decorated with the flag, and a woman decked out all in red white and blue for the Canonsburg Fourth of July parade. "Shame on you," he wrote in notes attached to the clippings.

Shame on me? Shame on us? A newspaper is a mirror of society. Why smash the mirror for the image on its surface of which it has no control?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

Right off the bat this morning, I received several complaints about the Consol advertisement in the July 4 edition. It was a full-page, color ad of the American flag, with some coal miners lifting up the bottom corner of it.

The flag should have been hanging with the blue field on the right, not the left, one caller complained. "How could you allow this to happen?" she demanded.

Another objected to the flag being touched on the bottom by the coal miners. "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes. Shame on you!" he scolded.

Hey, complain to Consol, and their ad agency. And, I'm sorry, but have you been living in a capsule below the earth's crust? Have you not seen the American flag in thousands of TV ads, adorning clothing, flying on lapels, waved in celebration of causes both lunatic and righteous? The image of our flag is everywhere; it is inescapable; and so sadly, it is overused.

The Center of Europe, Part 8

To find evidence of the animosity Lithuanians feel for their former Soviet overlords, you needn't look farther than the city of Siauliai (pronounced show-LAY) and the nearby Hill of Crosses.

This is a flat land, and it doesn't take much to be called a hill. Back in the 14th century, for defense against invaders from the west, a wooden castle occupied this little hump. After the uprisings of 1831 and 1863, local people began to erect crosses on the hill where the castle once stood in memory of those rebels who were killed or lost. By 1900, more than 100 crosses stood on the hill, and the people regarded it as a sacred place, the hill of the Crosses and Prayers.

In 1961, Soviet authorities destroyed the hill. The people rebuilt it. And it was bulldozed again. And the people rebuilt it. Every time it was destroyed, it was re-erected. Then the occupiers diverted the sewage from the city into a stream that flowed past the hill and transformed the area around it into a stinking marsh. This made no difference.

On Sept. 7, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses. He ordered a crucifix to be sent to the hill from the Vatican and a monastery to be built within view of it.

Today, tourists are encouraged to buy crosses from vendors lined up in the parking lot, and hundreds of thousands of crosses adorn the hill. It is a tourist attraction, but the crowds that ascend and descend it are muted by the spectacle. It is still a sacred place, and always will be.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 7

Some people seem to be able to do everything. Raimondas Sirgedas - Raimis, for short - is one of those people.

That's him playing the accordion a couple of weeks ago. He's pretty good. At his Rotary club's Presidents Night celebration, when he turned his gavel over to his vice president, he grabbed the accordion from a member of the band and serenaded us we were leaving.

He can speak English pretty well, and when he visited us in May 2007, he gave a long and moving speech to the Washington Rotary Club. He can speak Russian, too, not just from being forced to learn it in school, but from being forced to serve in the Soviet army. And he can speak a little Latvian, the native language of his wife, Daiga. The couple have two teenagers, who seem as gregarious as their parents.

He is a businessman and entrepreneur, having started a retail computer business shortly after Lithuania's independence. He now owns one-third interest in the local newspaper.

And he is an organic farmer, growing peas, beans and grains on a 400-acre farm without the use of pesticides. He is somewhat discouraged, though, by the lack of interest in organic produce. He says the buyers of his grain don't market it as organic but simply mix it with other grains.

Although Lithuania is still a poor country, there is wealth there now, and many new millionaires. You notice that familiar Third World juxtaposition of lavish manor houses surrounded by hovels. Raimis is campaigning to use that new money to fix old problems. His current interest is a pre-school in great need of playground equipment for children with physical and mental disabilities.

Raimis attended this school; the broken, rusted jungle-gyms and see-saws are the same ones on which he played as a child. His Rotary club is working to replace them. This pre-school is different now. Children with special needs, once confined to their own homes or institutions, are now taught and cared for along with "normal" kids - a fairly new concept in Eastern Europe. The school is well-staffed and in reasonably good physical condition. But the playground is another story.

Raimis will fix that. some people can do everything, and he's one of them.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 6

On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops moved in on the Vilnius TV Tower, occupied by dissident Lithuanians bent on independence. Thirteen of the protesters were killed, but the Soviet army lacked the will to continue the crackdown and withdrew. Lithuania had won its independence, and the last of the Soviet troops were gone form the country by September 1993, even before they had pulled out of East Germany.

The bitterness, even hatred, that many Lithuanians feels for Russia is understandable.
After a few years of independence that began in 1918, Poland occupied a large chunk of The Soviet Union annexed the whole country in 1940. From 1941 to 1944, Lithuania was occupied by the Nazis, with whom Lithuania sided, out of disdain for the Soviets.

I have found it difficult to get Lithuanians to talk about World War II. They're not at all proud of their collaboration. Five years ago, I pressed Zigmus Mackievicus, the superintendent of school in Rokiskis, to explain what occurred in his town then. "It's nothing something that we choose to remember here," he said. "What happened was that the Germans came, they gathered all the Jewish people together, took them into the forest at the edge of the town and shot them."

More than 240,000 Jews died in Lithuania during the occupation.

But it is the Soviet Union, more specifically Russia, that is the object of Lithuanian ire. The Soviets built resorts for their communist party faithful here, sucked away its agricultural produce, drafted its boys into its army and forced everyone to learn Russian in school and to use that language in education, business and government.

My friend Julia Machlina is hesitant to visit Lithuania and the other Baltic states, for fear that she will be treated badly as a native Russian and a Russian speaker, even though her father is Jewish and her mother Ukrainian. But all Lithuanians I have met have told me that they feel no animosity toward Russian people, only for their former government.

Being an American abroad these days is no different. I have been in countries where American foreign policy is decried, where our president is considered a villain and a war criminal. Yet I have never been treated anything but cordially; no one has ever blamed me for the actions of my government. Most people can make the distinction between the rulers and the ruled. And we can be thankful for that.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 5

Vilma Meciukoniene was fresh out of college and teaching school when she wrote to Books for the World and asked the local organization for a few books to put in the "English corner" in her classroom. That was seven years ago. Despite the fact that English had become the most popular foreign language to learn since independence in 1991, there were few books in English in all of Rokiskis, Lithuania. The only resources for English teachers were a few tattered, dog-eared texts produced by the communist government that served the purpose of anti-American propaganda.

As the founder of Books for the World, I wrote Vilma back and told her that our organization doesn't send boxes of books - it's too expensive and inefficient that way; we send shipping containers instead. I explained that if she was willing to get together with teachers and librarians from an area large enough to make use of, say, 25,000 books, we'd be happy to consider her proposal.

To make a long story short, Vilma did that, and five years ago Books for the World shipped $1.2 million worth of books in English and teaching materials to northeast Lithuania. and it didn't stop there. A little later, and with the help of the Washington Rotary Club, we sent another container, with another 10,000 books, school furniture, clothing and sporting goods, to help not just schools and libraries but Arteities Vardan, a community organization in the village of Obeliai that operates a safe house for abused and neglected children.

Vilma was the force behind all this, the organizer, the cheerleader, the efficient administrator. She never really got the credit or respect she deserved for this because she was so young - just 22 when it all began.

Now 29 and still inspired and active in humanitarian activity, Vilma has moved on from teaching. She went back to school and earned a master's degree in business and now works for the city's planning department. Her marriage fell apart three years ago, and now she lives alone with her daughter, Fausta, 8, in a comfortable first-floor flat at the edge of town. She's not entirely satisfied with her new job, but she feels it's best for her and her daughter.

Vilma loves to travel. In fact, Vilma and Fausta are now in Turkey on a week-long group tour with other people from Rokiskis. For years she has dreamed of visiting the United States. But, she explains with a sad smile, "that's not possible."

As a divorced woman, young and educated, she would never receive a visa from the U.S. Our immigration officials think she is too much of a risk to stay in this country.

You know all that stuff written at the base of the Statue of Liberty? Well, it just doesn't apply anymore.