“Long Goodbye” – a Book About the Right to Die, Highly Recommended ($1.53)

On January 11, 1983, 25 year old Nancy Cruzan was involved in a one car automobile accident on Krummel Nursery Road in Carthage, Missouri.  Still breathing but unresponsive, she was taken to a nearby hospital.  She remained alive, but unresponsive and in a coma and a persistent vegetative state, until the early morning of December 26, 1990, when she died.

Nancy Cruzan was very close to her parents, her sister and her nieces, all of whom wanted the best for her, and each of whom became convinced that her condition was not going to change for the better.  Although Nancy could breathe on her own and did not need a respirator, she could not eat on her own, even if fed by hand.  So a feeding tube was inserted to provide her with nutrition.  After much thought and discussion, her family decided that Nancy’s best interest lay in removing the feeding tube, and letter her die a natural death.  They were convinced that the death would be painless and that Nancy would die comfortably.  They were certain that this is what Nancy would have wanted.

The facility in which Nancy spent her final years did not agree.  While they acknowledged that medical care could be eliminated in a case like this, they concluded that nutrition was not medical care and that removing the feeding tube could be determined to have been the first step in her murder.  In addition to the potential criminal liability, hospital officials had moral or ethical objections to removing the feeding tube and it appeared that, even if a court determined that it was possible to disconnect Nancy from her food supply, they might not be willing to actually perform the act.  They would, in such a circumstance, however, not object to Nancy being transferred to another facility where the ethical conclusions were different.

William Colby, a young lawyer with a large Kansas City firm, was asked by his firm’s pro bono committee if he would be willing to represent the family and bring litigation to get permission for Nancy’s feeding tube to be disconnected.  He agreed, not knowing what he was getting himself into.  In 2002, Colby published his account of this tragic situation, “Long Goodbye: The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan”.  It is a fascinating book because of the underlying story and the many issues the story raises.  It is a book I highly recommend also because Colby’s writing is so readable, so clear, and so compelling, and he writes both with the dispassion of a lawyer, and the passion of someone who became very close to his clients.

This was a case without bad guys.  Everyone sympathized with the Cruzan family, even if their own personal ethical beliefs, or their interpretation of Missouri law, put them in opposition to the Cruzans in court.  There were a number of issues involved – the Missouri law, whether a feeding tube is a medical instrument, how can one determine the intent of someone who cannot express intent, what – if any – constitutional rights of privacy against state intrusions into medical decisions exist.  The state opposed the Cruzans in court.  At the trial court level (actually probate court), the Curzans won.  On appeal, they lost.  They applied for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.  At the last minute, it was granted.  The Supreme Court heard the case.  On a 5-4 decision, they ruled against the Curzans, upholding the appellate court decision.

But the Supreme Court case contained a loophole.  The court determined that there was insufficient evidence presented that would require a court to conclude that Nancy Curzan would have wanted her nutrition halted in these circumstances.  If additional evidence ever turned up………..

And it did.  Two new witnesses appeared – women who had worked with Curzan years before and had spoken with her about her end of life medical care beliefs.  A new case was commenced in the state courts.  The state determined this time not to intervene.  The feeding tubes could be pulled and Nancy died, almost eight years after the accident.

The toll on her family was enormous.  They never recovered from the ordeal.  Her father, persistent in his attempts to do what was best for his daughter, persistent in the attention he paid to her and to her care, committed suicide six years after his daughter’s death.  His wife died of cancer a few years after that.  Her sister, after dealing with serious depression, apparently recovered – and devoted her time to running a foundation to help others deal with difficult end of life decisions.

There were, of course, other cases involving similar situations; Nancy Cruzan was not the only person to wind up in a persistent vegetative state.  What should be society’s role in these decisions?  What should be the role of the immediate family?  What is the line between stopping life-saving processes and murder?  These issues will come up again and again, particularly as medical care becomes technologically more advanced.  Opinions – all well intentioned – run from pro-life, to pro-personal autonomy.  The Living Will movement is meant to deal with this situation, as are the laws of all of the states (which of course differ from each other – why should this be?).



Today’s concert by Cha Park – a few notes (42 cents)

Today’s concert at Church of the Epiphany was a triumph in several ways.  Young Korean born, Washington resident Cha Young Park was cursed during her playing of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 by a couple of disruptive people in the back of the church.  They were part of a small group of mentally challenged individuals who were brought to the concert, but who could not help themselves from groaning and making other sounds as the music went on.  It is very generous to invite these people to attend, but when they can’t control their sounds, it becomes very disruptive to the artist and to the audience.  Mid-way through the piece (after further disruption by an irate older man yelling “get out right now.  you have no right to insult the pianist,as he bolted from his seat and went out the door) the group left the church and the concert continued.  This is the second time this has happened this year, and I think that this particular group should be discouraged from coming back. I am not sure why this has already not been done.

While Ms. Park did not appear to have let the disruption disrupt her playing, I am sure that, in subtle ways, it did.  Not the technical aspects, but the emotional ones.  Certainly, as an audience member, I was continually distracted.  Perhaps this is why I thought that something was lost from the obviously talented playing.  I don’t think it was because of anything the soloist did herself.

From the Beethoven, Ms. Park went to Chopin, selecting his Andante and Grande Polonaise Brillante.  Her playing of this was magnificent, from the softness of the opening portion to the brilliance of the latter half of the piece.  Could not imagine it being played better.

She then chose, as an encore, a Scriabin left hand doctrine.  She explained that she had been looking at the repertoire for left hand only, and discovered this particular piece that she described as beautiful.  She said she was still learning it, used the music, and apologized in advance for any missed notes (if there were any, they passed right by me).  Again, beautiful playing of a piece that I do not remember hearing previously and which, as she says, is an extremely appealing (and obviously challenging) work.

Ms. Park teaches at the Levine School.  Her descriptions of the three pieces she played were informative, as far as I could tell.  Without a microphone, her somewhat soft voice did not carry well, at least to where I was sitting.

I did not write about last week’s concert by the United States Army String Quarter.  They played Beethoven and Ravel, and again it was a wonderful concert.  I especially enjoyed the Ravel.

The Wisdom of the Ancients (3 cents)

A few years ago, I read Graham Hancock’s “Fingerprints of the Gods”, a very intriguing book which looked at the various myths that are pervasive across Latin America, based on the appearance in times far past, of a red headed white man from an unknown civilization.  Hancock talked about the similarities of the traditions of communities that existed at different times, in different places, with no contact with each other, thus concluding that there might actually have been some truth to the myths.  He went on and looked at certain other places in the world, particularly Egypt as I recall, and showed some similarities between the traditions in those places and the traditions he studied in Central and South America.  He then developed a most unusual premise – that being that there was at one time, before the last ice age, when a civilization existed on the continent now known as Antarctica, an advanced civilization the knowledge of which has been completely lost.  And that the visitors to Latin America, and Africa, came from this civilization, leaving behind on traces of their visits.

Well, this was very interesting to think about, and I am waiting for the time that enough ice melts at the South Pole to test Hancock’s theory.  The publication of “Fingerprints of the Gods” did not end Hancock’s study of the subject, and his further research and thoughts are set out in his “Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilization”, which he published with his photographer-wife Santha Faila.  I must admit that I did not read this entire book, only the sections on Mexico and Central America, the on Egypt.  He goes on to look at Cambodia, the Pacific (Easter Island) and South America.  Looking at ancient buildings and structures, he finds again many similarities, including many common elements based on astronomical observations that are thought in common knowledge to have begun in Greek times, but which he believes were being observed thousands of years earlier.

Again, he posits the existence of an advanced earlier civilization, now lost.  It does not look like he is here suggesting that the civilization was Antarctic (he does refer readers to “Fingerprints of the Gods”), but he does believe that such a civilization existed, being wiped out about 10,000 years ago, before the time of any civilizations about which we have affirmative records.

Another book written by Hancock, “The Mars Mystery”, dealt with the placement of ancient temples and other buildings in reference to the positions of the stars (as those positions have changed throughout the centuries). “Heaven’s Mirror” builds on this as well as on “Fingerprints of the Gods”, and he pays a lot of attention to the placement of structures, and their sizing, in connection with very sophisticated celestial measurements.  Is it possible that this was the common basis of virtually all ancient religious sites?  Of course it is, but whether it is likely, I don’t know.  But this is a topic that tantalizes many, and not only in this context.  For example, I also recently ran through (its details make “reading it” too difficult) “The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital”, which claims that the street system of Washington DC, and many of its public buildings, were also designed to fit into astronomical, and astrological, patterns, in order to bring the world into balance and help bring about human fulfillment and success.  The book is filled with measurements, and calculations, and you can read it (as you can read Hancock) and conclude that the book’s conclusions are obvious.  But, on the other hand, the possibility that those involved in the design and construction of governmental Washington were both educated in and fixated on creating a city on this basis seems illogical.

So, there is a conclusion to be reached about all of this.  Unfortunately, we human being (and especially me) are not intelligent or knowledgeable enough to discover it.


Three Relevant Books: on Israel-Hamas, on Hostages of Islamists, and on the Disappointments of the Obama Years

Three books recently read (and their contemporary relevance):

1.  Benny Morris’ “1948”, published by Yale University Press in 2008 (relevance:  Israeli-Hamas War).  Benny Morris is an Israeli historian who teaches at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.  “1948” tells the story of the end of the British Palestine Mandate, the creation of the State of Israel, preparation for war, and the invasion of Israel by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  It is not an easy read.  It’s a long book (the version that I have runs 500 pages and each page is tightly packed), filled with more details than you probably need (or want) to know.  And it has been very controversial, largely because of its details, as it doesn’t shy away from blow by blow accounts of confrontations resulting in injury, death, and dispersion of presumably innocent residents of various villages and kibbutzim.  Morris was accused by some in Israel of exaggerating the less than friendly treatment of Arabs by Jewish forces during this crucial time period, and of therefore being anti-Zionist.  His response was that he is a Zionist, but that he is not trying to make moral judgements in his book, just to report the facts as an objective historian.  You have to respect him for that.

So what does the book show?  Some things are obvious – after the United Nations, which controlled the area through inheritance from the League of Nations and for whom Britain was acting as an agent mandatory power, voted for partition, the Jews accepted the partition, and the Arabs did not.  They claimed, as many continue to do today, that the Jews (now the Israelis) had no right to live in, or to govern, any of the land of Palestine, and that the Israeli state, from day 1, was illegitimate.  They did not hide the fact that there would be an invasion to destroy the young state.  Prior to the invasion, the Jews prepared for it, and what resulted was an effectual civil war.  During this period, the Israelis, using their new army (a combination of various military forces that had been created to act defensively during the mandate period) to try to eliminate what would become an Arab fifth column after the invasion.  This meant that, while some Arabs were left alone, other were forced to abandon their homes – these were largely those whose villages lay on what would be potential roads of ingress for Arab armies, or who could obstruct movement on important internal roads (for example, the road connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem).  While the Jews were well organized (and had started acquiring weaponry abroad – largely from Europe), the Palestinians were not well organized, and not well supported by the neighboring countries.

This meant that the young State of Israel was better prepared when the Arabs attacked.  As to the five separate (and not particularly well coordinated) invasions, the book details each invading army separately.  How the Israelis were able to protect West Jerusalem and the road to Tel Aviv, but not East Jerusalem or the Old City (and detailing what happened to the Jewish residents of the Old City, and their homes, business and synagogues.  How difficult the fighting was in the Negev with Egypt and how final determination of parts of the south awaited the armistice agreement at the end of the immediate conflict.  How fighting in the north (the Galilee) gave Israel more territory than it would have received by the partition itself.  And so on.

Throughout all of this, there were individual battles in both Israeli and Arab towns which left many dead and injured.  On both sides.  There were also significant numbers of Arabs who left the country – some because they were told to by Israeli forces, some because they were told to leave by Arab leaders, some because they were afraid and expected to be able to return after the conflict died down (and, in their thinking, after the Israelis were defeated).

It’s a sad story.  How different it would have been had the Arabs simply accepted Israel and the UN partition.

Morris does destroy a number of preconceived theories that many have.  First, the Israeli victory was not a miracle.  The Israeli army was well trained and well supplied; the Arab armies, although there were five of them, were very unprofessional – poorly trained and led, not coordinated, and not well supplied.  Second, the Israelis, while not maintaining a policy of clearing Palestinian Arabs from the land, had selectively determined that, primarily because of location, certain Arab towns had to be cleared and, in several cases, demolished, in order to provide for domestic security during and after the time of active war.  In some cases, he finds these actions to have been handled with a remarkable lack of empathy and finesse – people were killed, for example, who certainly did not need to be.  On the other hand, there were several attacks on Jewish settlements, which also led to the murder of many, including women and children.  It was war, after all.  But he does conclude that there were more Arab victims of these attacks than Jewish victims, one of his conclusions that did not sit well with many of his fellow countrymen.  But, as he says, facts are what they are.

For those for whom understanding of the context of the current problems in Israel and the Occupied Territories, “1984” is an important book (one of many, of course) to read.  But you can’t do it at one sitting.

2.  “A Rope and a Prayer” by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvilhill (relevance:  the beheading of James Foley).  David Rohde is an American journalist, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2008 and held for about 9 months.  Kristen Mulvihill is his wife.  After his escape in June, 2009, the two of them jointly wrote this book (sort of a diary), alternating chapters, showing the experience of a captive, and the experience of his wife working as hard as she could to procure his release.

Rohde was captured while on his way in Kabul to meet with a Taliban leader (he was writing a book), who it turned out had duped him.  He, his driver and his translator were all captured.  They were moved from place to place (they didn’t appear to have been physically hurt, although their living conditions were far from acceptable), they were threatened with execution from time to time, he was pressured to convert to Islam, and there were demands made for a large amount of money (starting at $15 million) and the release of Taliban prisoners held elsewhere.

It appears that the Taliban (or at least the guys who held Rohde) were less brutal than the ISIS leaders who were holding Foley.  But there was no way for Mulvihill to really know that.  There were communications from the captors (email and telephone), there were even a couple of videos and well controlled phone calls from Rohde to show he was still alive, there were threats of execution (first, they were to kill the driver, then the translator, then Rohde – none of this happened), and there were demands for excessive ransom. The American government was not involved in ransom discussions – this was done privately.  The family hired a consultant, the New York Times hired a consultant (of course, they were often at odds with each other).  The government did have the FBI involved, and presumably overseas intelligence agencies.

Rohde and the others were taken from Afghanistan (then a little calmer than today) and taken to the tribal territories of north west Pakistan, where no government had much in the way of control.  This was viewed to be a bad sign.  There was never an attempt by the American government to rescue him.  And everything was kept out of the press.

Finally, Rohde and his translator escaped.  Hard to believe, but they got a rope and used it to scale down a 10 foot wall, and then (obviously not dressed like an American) walked to a small Pakistani military base, where they were taken in and, quickly, flown out of the country.  Eventually, the driver was also released.

Well, this one ended well.  Are there lessons to be learned from this?  Not sure.  But probably – techniques of how to deal with those that capture you, what the possibilities for escape are, what might be going on at home while you are a prisoner abroad.  All these things might help someone in the future – however different the circumstances and individuals might be.

3.  Evan Thomas’ “A Long Time Coming” (relevance:  the disappointments of the Obama years).  Published in 2009, this is the Newsweek report on the Obama-McCain campaign (and on the Hillary Clinton-Obama primary fight).  It is a good retelling of what occurred during those important months, and it appears that the author (and John Meacham, who wrote a fascinating preface) were much more sympathetic to Obama than to McClain (who came across as moody, often distracted, impatient with campaign details, and totally off the wall when he selected Palin as his running mate, and decided to “suspend” his campaign due to the financial crisis).

Obama, on the other hand, came across as someone without a lot of experience, but as someone with great intelligence, extraordinary stability, very good work habits, and a determination not only to move the country ahead during difficult times, but to do it in a bipartisan manner.  Clearly, the Newsweek crew did not foresee the Republican “if he’s for it, we’re against it” attitude, nor Obama’s decision to concentrate on health care reform as the hallmark of his first administration above everything else.  They really seemed to believe that there would be “change”, all of which would be positive, and that race issues would recede, and bipartisanship carry the day.

How wrong they were.


Marrying Sam……Who performs the ceremony? (2 cents)

Still in my mind, a wedding ceremony is performed by a minister, priest or rabbi, or perhaps by a judge for those who do not want a religious wedding, or cannot agree on which religious tradition to follow.  But I am well out of the mainstream it appears.  Anyone can now perform a wedding ceremony.

I looked at the weddings announced in yesterday’s New York Times.  Sure, there were some traditional ceremonies.  But there were also the following: 

1.  “E____ S_____, who became a minister of the American Marriage Ministries for the event, officiated.”

2.  “The ceremony was led by the groom’s father, Dr. R______ E. K_________, who received permission from Massachusetts to officiate.”

3.  “H________ F_______, a friend of the couple who became a Universal Life minister for the occasion, will officiate.”

4.  “M_____ S. R__________, a cousin of the groom and a Universal Life minister, officiated…..”

5.  “M_____ W________, a Universal Life minister, officiated.”

6.  “S______ R______, a Universal Brotherhood minister, will officiate.”

7.  “D_______ R. B_________, a son in law of the bride who received a one day solemnization certificate from Massachusetts, officiated.”

8.  “L____ T______, a friend of the couple who became a Universal Life minister for the occasion, officiated.”

9.  “D____ P_______, a minister ordained by the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, officiated….”

10.  “The Rev. F___  A____, an interfaith minister who was ordained by the New Seminary, officiated.

11.  “R_____ Y_____ , an uncle of the bride affiliated with the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, took part.”


The Universal Life Church appears to offer free ordination to anyone over 13 who fills out their name and address, and gives them a password and an email address.  It bills itself as the “world’s largest on-line religious organization”. It has no doctrine, but says that members must do “that which is right” and respect all other religions and religious freedom.  Hey, what could be wrong with that?  (By the way, the status of ULC ministers to perform valid marriage ceremonies, according to the various state laws, is discussed in some detail in Wikipedia.)

To apply for ordination from the Universal Brotherhood, in addition to filling out your name and address, they ask you to submit a short biographical essay on your spiritual path, a “spiritual biosketch” (which does not seem to be graded, but does become a part of your permanent record).  Here, the doctrine seems to be that you affirm to dedicate your life to the “brotherhood of mankind”.

To be ordained by the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, it appears that you have to go through two years of classes.  The focus of the organization seems to be to provide spiritual counselors and leaders for the “unaffiliated community”.  The New Seminary, which adds a study of various world religions to a study of spirituality in general, also has a two year program (which can be accelerated in one year).

The church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness is perhaps the most controversial of these organizations, having been called a “cult” based on the centrality of its founder, a former Mormon who created this organization (in California, of course) following a near death experience as a result of a multi-day coma.  It seems somewhat different from the other organizations, but does seem to have a particular theology or life-style requirements.


The Children’s Hour – Free Film in Downtown DC (10 cents)

The National Theatre, downtown Washington, is hosting a free Monday evening Audrey Hepburn festival this summer.  Who can resist that?

This week, we saw “The Children’s Hour”, a 1961 film starring Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner, directed by William Wyler, based on a play by Lillian Hellman (one of the few people in history, I would assume, with five l’s in her name – six, if you add her middle name, Florence), which ran on Broadway for two years.  The story was not a Hellman creation, but was based on an earlier Scottish book.

The setting is a private girls school in an upper class neighborhood in the 1940s.  The school is owned and run by two young women, former college classmates (MacLaine and Hepburn).  One of the twenty young girls at the school is a mischief maker named Mary, a sneak, an inveterate liar, and someone whose strategic thinking is much more mature than her age (she is probably about 11).  Tired of being punished every day, hating the school and everyone in it, Mary tells her grandmother that she believes (based on her interpretation of various small incidences) that there is something “unnatural” going on between the two women.  Exactly what she tells her grandmother, we don’t know, because it had to be whispered (in order to clear the film censors).

At any rate, this leads to all of the parents pulling their children from the school, leading to its collapse, as well as destroying the reputation of Hepburn and MacLaine.  Complicating matters a bit is Hepburn’s fiance, James Garner, who is also a cousin of the evil Mary and her grandmother, who sticks up for his fiance.

By the end of the film, all agree that the accusations were trumped up and misplaced, but it is too late to save the engagement, the school, or the psyches of the two women. The two women are thrown into an isolated existence where, perhaps unsurprisingly, the initial false claim turns out to be more true than you might have thought.  A nifty twist, I thought.

This apparently was the first movie with a homosexual theme, and could be produced only without any graphic visuals or descriptions.  Even so limited, it was only possible because of recent liberalizations of the censorship code.  Of course, today anything is possible, and the story certainly could not be set in the 21st century because insinuations of a relationship between the two women would not have led to the extreme consequences portrayed in the film.

Quality of the film?  Mixed, I thought.  Both Hepburn (age 31) and MacLaine (age 27) did a fine job, but the film itself was heavily stylized.  Everyone spoke with deliberate pacing and with accents redolent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The black and white cinematography could have been done by Eisenstein, the great Russian director.  No nuance there.  Some scenes dragged.  Some (such as the scene where the grandmother confronted the two women) were terrific.

James Garner (age 31)?  I would say “Here’s a tall guy with no career ahead of him.”  It was like he was told “Just stand there, say your lines, don’t look credible, and don’t show any realistic emotion.”  On the other hand, Miriam Hopkins and Fay Bainter, two older women playing the grandmother and Shirley MacLaine’s busybody aunt, were terrific in their roles.

An interesting film.




Page 107, paragraph 2, sentence 1

1.  The years had not been a friend to this dwelling, but then again, it hadn’t been featured in House and Garden (except maybe as one of their “before” photos) to begin with.

2.  “On a museum intern’s salary?”

3.  The stairwell was enclosed with paneled wood.

4.  He shouted at his old mother when she offered water.

5.  I was going to wait until Sunday, but then I got thinking about it – how my wife sort of slants her week towards that day – so I decide to go up there Saturday morning.

6. “Anita’s regained consciousness, Mrs. Beecham,” Gretchen whispered.

7.  Jade frowned and slipped her wine.

8.  Siefert let his tape recorder do the work.


This make you want to read any of them?

Donna Leon’s Latest Venetian Mystery – “By its Cover” (27 cents)

People tend to recommend to me mysteries involving rare books.  I tend to read them.  I tend not to like them.  Several months ago, someone recommended a John Dunning mystery which I found less than inspiring, and now it was suggested that I read Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti mystery, “By its Cover”.  Bleh.  [Aside:  I just looked up ‘bleh’ in Urban Dictionary, where it is defined as “a slightly disgusted meh”.  I was not at all disgusted by “By its Cover”, so I will change my reaction to ‘meh’.) Meh. [But another definition of 'bleh' in Urban Dictionary  says it's a "verbal shrug".  That's sort of what I thought of the book. So maybe I should change it back again.] Bleh. [Aside: that's the thing about Urban Dictionary.  So many definitions that there are no definitions.  Or perhaps that's what wrong with the English language today?  What do I think about Urban Dictionary?  Bleh.]

OK, back to Leon.  The setting (surprise! surprise!) is Venice.  Brunetti is a police commissario.  The rare books librarian at a local (private) library discovers books are missing and books are disfigured by the removal of illustrations.  Not just any books, but rare books, of the 16th century kind.  Who done it?

Obviously, I won’t give away the plot, other than to say: if you think, towards the beginning, that you probably know the answer, but – no- it can’t be that obvious……think again.  You got it.

Advantage of the book?  236 pages, big print, little words (other than those in Italian).  Want a heads up on the Italian?

1.  acqua alta = high water

2. laguna = lagoon

3. riva = shore or bank

4. tramezzini = sandwich

5. questura = police station

6. ropa da donne = women’s thing

7.  gratta e vinci = scratch and win (lottery ticket)

8.  edicola = newsstand

9.  recivuta = receipt

10. paga i danni = pay damages

11. oddio = oh, my

12.  androne = entrance hall


Now you are set…….



“Ida” at the Avalon – Not a Good Review

The reviews for Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film “Ida” have been virtually all positive.  In fact, on Rotten Tomatoes, “Ida” gets a 94% positive review from critics (and a 79% rating from audiences).  A number of people had recommended it.  So why didn’t I like it?

Filmed last year, but set in Poland in the early 1960s, “Ida” is the story of a young novitiate in a Polish convent, raised in the convent’s orphanage, and about to take her vows to become a full fledged nun.  The mother superior of the convent insists that before she does so, Ida should meet her one living relative, her aunt, her mother’s sister.  Ida travels from the convent to the big city, and knocks on the door of her aunt’s apartment.  Her aunt, it turns out, is a nont-quite-middle-aged, alcoholic, worn out former prosecutor, now a judge, who barely can keep her life together.  She is depressed, looking for a “good time” and constantly drinking and smoking.  A danger to herself and society and – beyond that – an exceeding unpleasant, unfriendly and rude person.

But her aunt tells Ida something that she didn’t know before.  For one thing, she didn’t know her name was Ida – she thought it was Anna.  More importantly, she had no idea that she was Jewish and that her parents and her cousin (her aunt’s son) were killed in the Holocaust.

They start on a search to the village (not called a shtetl) where the family lived and they go to the family house, contacting the owner and asking about his father’s whereabouts.  They believe that the father killed all of their relatives, and they want to find their bones and give them a proper burial. Which they (sort of) do.  (You learn, by the way, that Ida was just a baby when she was given to a local priest to hide, but you never know how the aunt survived the war years.)

So, it’s part road trip, part descent into alcoholic hell.  Both Anna and her aunt are from time to time in a daze.  The Poland that is presented is grayer than gray, older than old, poorer than poor, and exceedingly unpleasant.

Oh yes, there is some romance – they pick up a hitchhiking saxophone player who likes John Coltrane and take him to his gig in a town where they are staying, and he falls in love with Ida.  Her aunt, meantime, winds up with whomever is available.

I am not going to give away the entire story line, but will (SPOILER ALERT) say, as do many of the reviewers, that in the end Ida decides to go back to the convent.  Hard to blame her, perhaps, since Poland seems so unappealing.  But why does she do it?  Does she see it as providing her with opportunities?  Does she see it as an escape from the world.  Does she do it out of religious conviction?  Does she feel at all Jewish?  Or Christian?  Or anything else?  Is she too nervous to go out into a world she does not know?  Will she change her mind in another 48 hours?

You can’t answer any of these questions, because the film gives you no clue.  And this is part of the problem.  The plot is simplistic.  The characters are vacuous and one dimensional.  The message is hidden.

None of this negativity comes through in virtually any of the reviews.  (The St. Louis Post Dispatch did not like the film.)  It didn’t even come across in the reviews that I saw in the Jewish press, where you would think that someone would comment on the crass portrayal of the aunt, the lack of Jewish feeling in the Jewish Ida, or the decision of Ida to go back to the convent.  A Polish Holocaust film where the central Jewish character chooses Christianity (I have nothing against Christianity) over Judaism (or even atheism) somehow offends me – I liken it to those who put up the large cross across the street from the Auschwitz camp.  But no one else seems to notice this (and I have no reason to think that Pawlikowski is trying to offend – he is a liberal, and the grandson of a Jewish woman killed in the Holocaust).

Oh, well, I obviously expected something different.  And I didn’t get it.

The Death of the Fromes – What Happened on that Texas Road in 1938? (21 cents)

A true story:

It’s 1938, and Hazel Frome and her 23 year old daughter Nancy set out on a cross-country automobile trip from San Francisco to South Carolina, where Hazel’s other daughter is living with her Marine husband.  They never get there. North of El Paso, on the road to Dallas, their badly tortured bodies are discovered.  Not far away, their Packard sedan has been abandoned.  What happened?  Who did this?  And why?

The case apparently was intensely covered by the media.  In part, because the victims were members of a successful family (Hazel’s husband was one of the top officers of a very large manufacturer of explosives – selling to private industry, the government for public works projects, and (secretly) the military.  A cross country trip by unaccompanied women was rather rare in 1938, and today’s highway and freeway system did not yet exist.  And why the Fromes took such a southern route, by far not the most direct, raised other questions.

Clint Richmond digs into this case in his new book, “Fetch the Devil”, scheduled to be published this summer.  It’s a fascinating study – if sometimes a bit more detailed than necessary.  We learn about Hazel and Nancy, we follow their trip and their stay in El Paso while their car is repaired, and the final leg of their journey as reported by several witnesses.

We see the effort put into solving the crime over a three year period, both the successes of the various enforcement bodies involved (the sheriff of El Paso, the sheriff of the county in which the body was found, the Texas Rangers, the FBI and local police and investigatory departments in Los Angeles and the San Francisco area.  We also learn about the turf wars between these various agencies – a fascinating report itself.

And, most surprisingly, we learn about an extensive Nazi spying network in the United States of the late 1930s – led by the various German consulates in the country (which were shut down after the start of World War II at the end of 1942), and a large number of agents not only in this country, but in Mexico, several of whom had made contact with the Fromes while they were in El Paso.

The entire case is an intriguing one.  So many possibilitieThe s, with so much focus on the Nazi spies, and the administrator of an explosives company.  I couldn’t wait to get through to the end of the book to learn about what happened.  What a great job, I said to myself, the author has done (not that his grammatical style or writing is perfect) in keeping this mystery going so late in the book.  I looked forward to the final chapter.

And then?  Then…….

the last chapter came and went, and we learned that this crime has never been solved.  And although Richmond has his own theory as to what happened to the Fromes, it is only just that – a theory – and not one that has been tested by any investigation.  I must admit to having been very disappointed when I realized that the Fromes death would have to remain the mystery it has been for the past 75 years.

I do recommend the book.