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The Bone Church: Real and Imagined

bone church exteriorThe Ossuary at Sedlec – or Bone Church of Kutna Hora as it’s more commonly known – is a relatively plain church from the exterior. At least as far as Old World European standards go. It sits about an hour outside of Prague in the Czech Republic, and last time I was there, some ten years ago, it was still a dingy mustard color on the outside.

In fairness, most ossuaries are just church basements filled with neatly piled up human bones, so there typically isn’t anything out of the ordinary about the actual structure it’s housed in. There’s no electrically powered Grim Reaper standing with a scythe a chuckling a deep MWAAHHAAHAAA, the way there is at any self-respecting haunted house.

In fact, the only feature that advertised that there just might be more than meets the eye to The Bone Church of Kutna Hora was the skull and crossbones spiked at the top of its spire – right where you’d usually see a crucifix.

Otherwise, the place just sat there like Boris Karloff without make-up.

bone head

When I visited on a gloomy October day in 2004, dragging my 20 month-old son and a prehistoric digital camera with me, I thought I would have to muscle my way through a throng of tourists.

But we were alone there.

Suitably, the only sounds we could hear were my own boot heels clicking on the stone tiles as we entered the foyer, the wheels of my son’s dilapidated MacLaren stroller and the whistle of a fall wind – the kind that blows tufts of dead leaves in a swirl. Some of those, mostly a fresh cluster of fiery orange oaks, blew with us into the Bone Church. A young man, very pale and black haired with a warm smile and crooked teeth, greeted us.

It should have been eerie, but it was exquisite.

A short staircase – also stone – led us down into the chamber, where an enormous chandelier lorded over the place. It was fashioned entirely of human bone – utilizing every bone in the human body, the young man told us in his hushed, churchy voice. The skulls would have held candles, I suppose, but the chandelier was unlit. In fact, the only light in the Bone Church came from the outside through a few kidney-shaped Gothic windows.

There were urns made primarily of femurs, a bone Coat of Arms belonging to the Schwarzenberg family, an endless garland (skull-vertebrae-vertebrae-knee cap, skull-tibia-skull-tibia) strung loosely along the trim like it was Christmas and several pyramids constructed of bones – ones that sat in iron-barred enclaves like slayed prisoners. bone church chandelier

My son and I stood there absorbing the sheer magnitude of death around us. People who’d died of flu, arsenic poisoning, small pox, swords thrust into their rib cage, a heart-attack, a mallet to the temple, infection, childbirth, trampling, a broken heart.

The bones of some 30,000 Christians beautified this stark, chapel-like holy chamber – prominent and presumably pious Christians who had been promised burial in the Church of All Saints cemetery. But due to a string of plagues and wars, had found themselves without a place to land after they blew their last breath.

bone church 6

It occurred to me this strange permanent installation of sacred art – the devil’s art, some called it – was actually a clever solution to a very sensitive dilemma. Church teachings, after all, forbade cremation. And the poor souls who had counted on burial in the Church of All Saints holy cemetery had paid considerable tithes to earn their way into some kind of dignified and noble entombment.

And what could be more noble than the care and inspired vision required to create such a communal, yet deeply personal way to honor the departed? To me, it was the ultimate expression of both grief and hope.

cherub bone church

My little son – and my first and most tender reminder of my own mortality – was getting restless and hungry, so I snapped a couple of pictures and we left.

But The Bone Church stayed with me and made its way into a story I’d begun writing.

The Bone Church: A Novel is now available on Amazon:

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http://www.amazon.com/The-Bone-Church-A-Novel/dp/061598052X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397503269&sr=8-1&keywords=the+bone+church+victoria+dougherty

The Cardinal’s Preoccupation

Cardinal 3St. Peter’s Square was already awash in gold when Felix emerged from the Vatican’s private visitors’ chapel. For a moment, he watched the sun teeter at the top of the basilica’s spire.

Cardinal Merillini stood at the entrance to Bernini’s Colonnade with Primo at his side.

“Your Excellency.” Felix bowed, kissing the Cardinal’s ring.

“Liebermann has a contact in Prague,” the Cardinal began. His voice was slow and deliberate, as if he had just awakened from a long sleep. “This man wants no help from our German friend – only as a point man on the inside. Distrusts Germans. But he claims he can deliver the woman by the end of the month.” He waved Primo ahead and the two men began their walk through the Colonnade. “It’s a man in Czech intelligence – a comer, not some flak in charge of tampering with the mail.”

“What would a man like that want with us?” Felix asked.

“He wants to be paid, of course.”

It was unlike the Cardinal to be so direct about their extra-vocational endeavors. The Cardinal was by nature an eloquent man who preferred the realm of ideas to the details of their realization. “She has a son, you know,” the Cardinal said. “The husband – this man Melan – was executed in 1952. He was one of the defendants in the Slanský show trials.” The Cardinal cleared his throat, but his voice remained rough, like a mortar and pestle grinding seed. “Pitiful turn of events,” he continued. “Fourteen men. All of them Jewish, all of them innocent. Forced to confess to concocted acts of treason – and for what? For being intellectuals instead of blunt instruments.” cardinal 4

Felix had never met Antonin Melan personally, but had heard he was a decent fellow, an ideologue who believed communism would save the world after the ravages of the Second World War. His only crime had been to trust the wrong people. And to be a true believer instead of a mere apparatchik. Any records of Melan’s immediate family – his wife, Magdalena, and the son, Ales, had been hidden or destroyed by the Soviets. For years Felix had searched, but was unable to find a trace of any Melan – either alive or dead. It wasn’t as if Antonin Melan’s family had disappeared, but rather had never existed – a not uncommon fate for those refusing to denounce a disgraced relative.

Until last month.

Magdalena Melan’s name had resurfaced in Czechoslovakia as a foreign agent – a ludicrous charge if there ever was one. She was now, officially, an Enemy of the State rather than just a nuisance who needed to quietly go away.

m in prison

“Does he have a name?” Felix asked.

“Who?”

“This contact – the man from Czech intelligence.”

The Cardinal tipped his chin up, his lips forming a short, puckered line. “You know better than to ask.” The Cardinal reached into his vestment and retrieved a large folder from under his arm. He handed it to Felix, contemplating the Czech Jesuit, who sifted through its contents. Cardinal Merillini had hoped to dissuade Felix from any involvement beyond the strategic on this assignment, but forbidding him to go would’ve only invited disobedience. And once a priest flagrantly disobeyed an order, it wasn’t long before he disavowed his robe.

“Thank you.” Felix bowed his head, and the Cardinal led the way into an early Renaissance building, its interior decked in blue-veined marble. The Cardinal’s office was perched on the third floor corner, one of many rooms that comprised his suite of apartments.

vatican b+w

For Felix, visiting the Cardinal’s apartments was a bit like coming home. The artists whose work his father had so admired from a distance – Caravaggio, Pisanello, Daret – were mounted in heavy gold frames. Michelangelo had painted images of the apostles on the wall alongside the banister, one of the few artifacts left unmolested during a seventeenth-century renovation.

Felix’s first glimpse of those same apostles hadn’t been in the books of his father’s study or on his initial visit to the Cardinal’s office some years before, however. It had been in his mind’s eye when he was little more than a child – a reverie that he’d tried to convince himself was the result of an overactive imagination. Felix was a boy of nine and skating alone on a pond in the Blansko forest, when a still, mental image of Simon the Zealot, disciple of Jesus, avenging priest of the temple, appeared before him. Felix mistook him for a neighbor at first and began skating towards the figure when St. Bartholomew emerged from the snow. As Simon whispered into Bartholomew’s ear, they faded away into a jumble of tree roots.

Back then, Felix had explained away every prescient dream and strange, wakeful image, the way a dweller in an old house might justify the creak of footsteps when he knew no one else was home.

“God’s delays are not God’s denials,” the Cardinal rasped.

Felix looked up. His Excellency wasn’t referring to Michelangelo or the apostles, but had turned to face a painting that hung high behind his desk. It was an eighteenth century depiction of Lady Polyxena of Lobkowicz presenting the Infant of Prague sculpture to the Carmelites. A new addition to the Cardinal’s collection, it had been loaned to him indefinitely by the Bishop of Verona. Infant of Prague 2

The chandelier above them flickered, but the Cardinal ignored it. He placed his spectacles on his nose and squinted through the thick glass, studying the Infant’s rosebud lips. He bit down, exposing his teeth as he noticed an irregular brushstroke in the painting – an unforgivable error made by a careless restorer. “Hmm,” he lamented. His thumb and index finger rode the links on a platinum chain strung around his neck, until they landed on a tiny replica of the Infant of Prague. The Cardinal picked up the holy relic, kissed it and made the sign of the cross before letting it dangle over his heart again.

The lights flickered once more, and this time they went out. A moment later, Felix heard the handle of the Cardinal’s office door jiggle as his secretary, Francesco, entered. The young priest carried with him an arabesque lantern, the oil’s acrid aroma saturating the room.

“Buona sera, Your Excellency,” the Cardinal’s secretary bid. His engorged eyeballs glowed in the dim lighting. He explained that an electrical shortage had been causing problems for hours. It appeared to stem from the Cardinal’s apartments – most likely in the western corner – and he begged permission to enter his superior’s private quarters. The Cardinal agreed.

Cardinal in shadows

“It smells strangely of …it’s sweet, isn’t it?” Felix observed, as they padded over the silk carpets in the Cardinal’s living room. A low mist of smoke, barely visible in the glimmer of the lone oil lamp, hovered amidst the Cardinal’s Baroque furniture. Francesco led the way into the Cardinal’s bath, illuminating a carved oval sink resembling a birdbath – all gold and trimmed in gemstones. A bidet, shrouded by red velvet curtains, hugged the southern-most wall. They could hear a faint drip.

“I bathed in the Sistine apartments today,” the Cardinal said. “Not here.”

Francesco opened the stained glass entry surrounding the bathtub. “Mercy,” the young priest gasped.

Inside the glazed marble tub – his body splayed and rigid and his mouth open wide like a snake hole – lay Father Duch, an accountant to the Vienna Diocese. The towel warmer, still spitting an occasional spark, was partly submerged in the bathwater and discreetly covered the Father’s genitals.

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Thanks so much for reading, my Cold friends. The Bone Church will be available on Amazon from April 15th (Print on Demand and ebook). In the meantime, please enter my giveaway on Goodreads for a chance to win a free, signed copy.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21457935-the-bone-church

The Bone Church Cometh

BoneChurch_borderMy Cold War thriller, The Bone Church, debuts on April 15th and I’m nervous, excited and more than a little bit relieved. Honestly, it feels like my daughter’s wedding or something.

Here’s an idea of what it’s about:

In the surreal and paranoid underworld of wartime Prague, fugitive lovers Felix Andel and Magdalena Ruza make some dubious alliances — with a mysterious Roman Catholic cardinal, a
reckless sculptor intent on making a big political statement, and a gypsy with a risky sex life.

As one by one their chances for fleeing the country collapse, the two join a plot to assassinate Hitler’s nefarious Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels.

But the assassination attempt goes wildly wrong, propelling the lovers in separate directions. Felix’s destiny is sealed at the Bone Church, a mystical pilgrimage site on the outskirts of Prague, while Magdalena is thrust even deeper into the bowels of a city that betrayed her and a homeland soon to be swallowed by the Soviets.

As they emerge from the shadowy fog of World War II, and stagger into the foul haze of the Cold War, Felix and Magdalena must confront the past, and a dangerous, uncertain future.

cherub bone church

The Bone Church is quite a ride, my Cold friends.

I’m posting Chapter One in two parts – this week and next – so please have a look. I’m hoping to hook you. And do enter my Goodreads giveaway for a chance at a free signed copy (click the link after the chapter segment).

Truly, I’d love your comments. Nothing means more to a writer. And thanks in advance. Cold readers are thinkers, seekers, lovers and dreamers. What you have to say means as much to me as what I sit down to write. And that’s saying a lot.

THE BONE CHURCH, A NOVEL

Chapter 1
Vatican City: March 11, 1956

vatican stained glassThe viscount with the dense, copper hair rocked back and forth in the front pew. He whispered to the man next to him.

Felix pretended not to notice the disturbance. He unlocked the tabernacle and retrieved a gold chalice, pyx, paten, and crucifix from its purple silk interior, then arranged them on the altar before the Cardinal. A sweet, breathy gust of air blew in from the only open window in the chapel, making Felix’s cassock flutter against his legs. It felt good – almost like the touch of a woman’s fingertips.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen,” the Cardinal said, making the sign of the cross over his head and breast.

At long last, the viscount looked up from his rocking and whispering. He folded his hands and consigned them to his lap, where Felix could still see on the man’s middle finger the shiny indentation where a bulbous emerald ring had rested until a few weeks ago. It had come time to pay off the Romanian attaché and his pet border guard in exchange for a wispy woman with an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease.

“But what wouldn’t a man do for his mother?” The viscount had said upon their last meeting. Plenty, Felix had thought. He’d once watched a man shoot his mother in the face for a single gold tooth rolled in a piece of blood-stained suede. Of course, the attaché had failed to disclose that the viscount’s mother – in addition to her Parkinson’s – was also in the late stages
of dementia, soiling herself and exhibiting a total vocabulary of five words: “Paris, last Christmas” and “hideous curtains!”

Still, the viscount appeared grateful for her safe recovery. He’d even remarked that she was eating better.

“Judica me deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab homine iniquo; et doloso erue me.”

Psalm 42. Felix recited it in tandem with the Cardinal. Judge me, O God, distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy; deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.

rush in the rain

Mass was brief – twenty-five minutes start to finish – and Felix was glad of it. Cardinal Carlo Merillini’s obligation to the row of elegant gentlemen bowed in the front pew was fulfilled. The Cardinal now stood in the back of the nave with Primo, his valet, while Felix collected the tithes and thanked the visitors: an Argentine cattleman, an American steel magnate, a Polish-born hotelier, the viscount, and a handful of other influential Catholics.

“Envy and death, Father,” muttered the cattleman.

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s all they know.” He was a little man, fully bald.

“Yes.”

The cattleman spoke lovingly of his Lithuanian wife. Pretty woman. Felix had met her before.

“Envy and death,” the cattleman repeated.

The cattleman’s sister-in-law and young niece had been killed by a Russian soldier at the end of the War. Raped on a bed of horse dung in their stables, then bludgeoned with a bottle of cheap brown vodka. Only his wife’s daughter from a first marriage had survived the incident, hiding behind a bushel of hay and biting a salt lick to keep quiet. The cattleman mouthed the girl’s name.

It was just the year before last when Felix had finally been able to arrange passage for the girl. Already sixteen by then, she’d been instructed to dress as a prostitute – presumably for one of the port guards – but was instead folded into the bowels of a sofa and smuggled over the Baltic Sea into Sweden.

“She still hates horses,” the man said. “And she hates her mother.” The cattleman tapped Felix’s forehead with his index finger. “Poisoned her mind.”

Felix looked the man in the eye and clasped his hand. He then took the cattleman’s envelope and handed it to Primo.

“And this is the acquaintance I wrote to you about.” The cattleman tugged at Felix’s cassock.

Felix nodded at the Polish hotelier, though they hadn’t been officially introduced. The man took Felix’s hand and squeezed, bringing it to his lips and rubbing his twice shaved cheek over the priest’s knuckles.

“A tragic story if I ever heard one,” the cattleman said.

The Pole began to sob.

Felix put his hand on the Pole’s head and assured him that he would speak to the Cardinal on his behalf. “These matters take time,” he explained.

He didn’t have the heart to tell the man how far down in the queue he was – how many dozens had come before him begging about a wife, a husband, a son or daughter, a brother, a lover. And how Felix, too, had begged and prayed until finally his turn had come.

priests praying

Thanks again and here’s the link for the giveaway:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21457935-the-bone-church

Flat Out Love

industrial love“Love is hard,” people say. “Marriage isn’t about romance.”

I was at a panel about love on Saturday at the Virginia Festival of the Book and it got me thinking.

While love is most certainly one of my favorite topics, that’s not why I went. Daniel Jones, the editor of the New York Times Modern Love column has a new book out (LOVE ILLUMINATED), and since I’d written a Modern Love essay a few years ago and found Daniel to be delightful and so very helpful to a novice essay writer like me, I wanted to go to the panel and buy his book. It was my small way of saying thanks.

Besides Daniel, two other authors shared the podium: a family lawyer and blogger who’d written a book about what it’s really like to be a divorce lawyer, and a psychologist who is both a grief and a marriage counselor. The latter had written a book about tips on cultivating a happy marriage.

All of them were wonderful and had a lot of poignant things to say.

I learned from Daniel that many of the students who write to him feel lost and lonely in the current “hook-up” culture prevalent on today’s college campuses. There is, after all, a poverty of soul to waking up next to someone you hardly know and getting a “well, I guess I’ll see you around,” after a night of passion instead of a loving smile, a kiss, and an “I’ll see you after class.”

First time

He told stories about modern day struggles to find a lasting relationship: the analysts who make tallies of pros and cons in their love prospects, and the romantics who bathe themselves in that magical potion of common sense and lust as they keep an eye out for “the one.”

The psychologist spoke of the dichotomy between her grief and marriage counseling practices, and how much one informs the other. A full half of her patients are widows and widowers who are utterly heartbroken at their loss and would do anything to have their beloved back. Even if just for a scant minute – to tell them how much they love them.

The other half of her practice is made up of people who have in many cases squandered the most precious relationship in their lives through everything from adultery and abuse to negligence or mere nit-picking. They are now desperate and repentant, and confused and adrift, or hopeful and re-energized. Ready to make it work. love flies away

And last, the family lawyer took the podium. Her words were counter-intuitive and romantic – yes, romantic. It was a privilege for her, she told us, to see people at their most raw and be privy in an intimate way to the fallout from their greatest personal failure. She has sat with men as they wept openly because they missed their children so badly. With women who shook with fear at the prospect of having to sell their house.

Yet at the end of the day, she said she still considers herself a love junkie despite the nature of her job. One who posts wedding pictures of former clients and their new families all over her office. Who holds a deep appreciation for her own happy marriage.

With love, the stakes are so huge – especially after love becomes marriage. There is no other relationship, as the psychologist pointed out, that combines all elements of the human experience: ardor, friendship, partnership, sexuality, blood and death.

Jan Saudek - sex

Could anything possibly be more important?

At the end of the hour, despite so many painful and gushing revelations, all the panelists agreed that love was not like a Disney movie or a romance novel. Not real love, anyway.

But I disagree.

For my part, I’ve sat and listened as a family friend talked about his wife of almost twenty years with a breathlessness that bordered on rapture. “She’s all that matters,” he said. “Her and our kids.” And this was coming from a Marine Corps General who looks like a cross between Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston.

I’ve watched men and women shower their step-children with the same affection and financial resources that they had reserved for their own, and cry as those kids go off to a college they’ve mortgaged their house to pay for.

If that’s not a Disney movie, I don’t know what is.

In my own marriage, my husband and I say things to each other that would make most cultured people want to gag – Harlequin novel stuff, but hopefully with better dialogue. paris love

It’s that very fact that prompted our son – a typical glib, dirty-joke telling, tits-obsessed twelve year-old to say to his buddy – in all seriousness – “Why won’t you tell me who you like? It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He paused and looked out the window. “Love is beautiful.”

I’m glad his father and I have had something to do with his perception of love and I’m not going to disabuse him of it. Or manage his expectations down as is so popular to do nowadays.

But I also don’t live in la-la land.

There is a tactical side of love that goes hand-in-hand with the rapid heartbeat, the five hour telephone conversation, the damp sheets that gather in your balled-up fist.

It was summed up best to me by a businessman, of all people. Not some poet. I met him on a train a few years ago and he was a funny, glad-hander type. He had some of his employees with him and was trying to keep things light as they traveled back and forth from his offices in Philly, New York and Washington DC.

I sat down with him and his crew on the Philly to DC leg of the trip – they actually made room for me as the train was packed. It was nice of them. I was exhausted and didn’t relish the idea of standing for a few hours – especially as I’d already been camping out for weeks at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where my youngest daughter had been born with every medical problem imaginable.

When the businessman noticed my hospital bracelet, he leaned in to me and asked, “How’s your marriage?”

Very direct. Just like that.

“Great,” I answered. “Otherwise you’d probably have to wrestle the gun out of my mouth.”

He laughed “You’re blessed,” he said.

I knew that.

“You know, my first marriage was a colossal disaster,” he told me. “I mean on a biblical scale.” He went on to tell me about how bitter and angry that marriage had made him. That he’d vowed, as he was going through his horror-show divorce, to never, ever marry again.

“Can you believe it? I met my wife in the middle of all of this,” he said. “It was flat-out love.”

But his soon-to-be ex-wife was suing the hell out of him and their kids were a disaster. He felt both used and used up and was terrified at the prospect of getting it wrong again. Nor could he imagine, for the life of him, how someone could love a man who was going through what he was going through. And worse, who’d brought it upon himself.

“But you know what?” he said. “My wife was always part of the solution and never part of the problem.”

That observation alone could describe every happy partnership I’ve ever known.

“A few years later,” he continued. “We had a sick kid born at the same hospital where your daughter’s being treated. I remember sitting outside on one of the benches and thanking God that this had happened with the woman I’m married to now and not my ex-wife. Otherwise I would’ve ended up on the nightly news.”

He cupped his hand over mine and ran his finger over my hospital bracelet. “It’s the most important decision you’ll ever make – choosing your mate. It can make or break your life.”

this is love

And don’t those kinds of stakes deserve the sorts of over-the-top dreamy declarations we find so simple-minded in any self-respecting Once Upon A Time love story?

Please check out LOVE ILLUMINATED by Daniel Jones. It’ll make your day. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_7?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=love%20illuminated%20jones&sprefix=love+il%2Cstripbooks%2C211

Cheers to the End of a Long Winter…and to The Prague Spring

Prague swansIn honor of winter’s dying breath, I’d like to train my eye on spring this week – The Prague Spring, specifically.

For those of you who think that involves merely fresh water smells of trout and river mud, carpets of violets and a sun like a dollop of warm lemon curd surrounded by clouds of meringue – you’re not entirely wrong. Prague is like that most every spring and I highly recommend a visit in April or May. It’s better than Paris – honest (except for the food). And you won’t have to deal with the French (I actually like the French; I just enjoy a good joke at their expense).

In the spring of 1968 – what’s known as THE Prague Spring – Prague was like that, too.

In historical terms, The Prague Spring was a brief time of freedom from Soviet tyranny. It was everything that Spring promises – sunshine, fresh air, re-birth. But like Spring, it also came to an end.

prague spring

The Prague Spring lasted from January 5th, 1968, when the reformer, Alexander Dubček, was elected as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, through August 21st of that same year, when the Soviet Union invaded the country to halt the reforms.

It was a devastating turn of events – not just for Czechoslovakia, which bore the brunt of the invasion – but for the whole world. The Prague Spring had given everyone hope that reason could indeed prevail and the Cold War could thaw just a little bit. Maybe even end.

prague spring cartoon

Although my mother fled Czechoslovakia the hard way – just months before The Prague Spring would have allowed her the freedom to leave without the threat of being shot or imprisoned – my aunts Helen and Viki boarded a train and an airplane unmolested (thank God) and headed to Switzerland and the U.S.A., respectively, where they would be reunited with my mother and their parents. Where they would endeavor to live out the rest of their lives. For all of its obliterated promise, The Prague Spring did at least deliver that – it allowed, for a brief period, the opportunity for people who wanted to leave to do just that.

In retrospect, my mom says, she never really believed the reforms would stick. And they didn’t – not then at least. Real reform wouldn’t come until some twenty years later with The Velvet Revolution. It took the Soviet Union going bust for them to reluctantly, begrudgingly give up power. Havel and Velvet Revolution

If you have time today, I urge you to watch the link I’m providing below. It’s to a film called Czechoslovakia, 1968, and won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short at the Academy Awards in 1968. Its maker, Robert M. Fresco, died just a few weeks ago.

The documentary plays like a silent movie: haunting, beautiful, employing an economy of theme and voice that’ll leave you breathless.

You can watch it on your lunch hour, and I assure you it’ll be fourteen minutes well-spent. You might even walk away feeling something akin to a state of grace. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel kinder towards your colleagues, happier in the presence of your family and sadder. But better.

Recommended: Cold

Stalin propagandaI have been a fan-girl of Espionart since their very first post and I’ve reblogged several posts here on Cold that just blew me away (see Propraganda, Power and Persuasion, American Modernism Comes to Moscow, Painting the Trial of Ceausescu etc).

The art is great, the commentary is smart and spot on, and the topic – well if you come to Cold you know how I feel about the topic.

Anyway, this week Espionart recommended Cold to its gallery of followers and I couldn’t be happier. Thank you, Julia. Thank you Espionart. You are, without question, my favorite blog.

Recommended: Cold.

The Olympics are Over. Let the Games Begin

Ukraine Despite my obvious fixation on the Cold War, I don’t love it. Not in THAT way, at least. I love that we won, of course. We deserved to. The world needed us to.

But I’ve never longed for it’s return. Especially not to watch a sovereign nation get manhandled by a second-rate Bond villain like Vladimir Putin: vain, inelegant, cheating his way through the high-stakes poker game played on the international stage.

I’m sickened by what’s going on in the Ukraine.

It feels all too familiar, yanking me back to the kitchen table of my 80s youth – a small black and white TV broadcasting the latest Soviet highjinks: the invasion of Afghanistan, the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the propping up of puppet governments in Africa, Central America and elsewhere. My parents looked on in horror, while Sting crooned from my boom box, reminding us that the “Russian’s love their children, too.” As if that had anything to do with…well…anything.

It was scary then, uncertain, but at least it was better than the seventies – when it felt like we were meting out our lunch money to an assortment of class bullies everyday. What made it worse was that we didn’t even allow ourselves the moral high-ground. Vietnam had given us a complex, I guess, and we sunk deep into a piss-warm pool of moral equivalency. Like the cheating spouse who hates herself for having shagged her mechanic in the backseat of her Volvo. Even if her husband did call her fat all the time. And broke her nose after last year’s Christmas party.

Thank God for the “miracle on ice” of the 1980 Winter Olympics. The one where our Bad News Bears hockey team trounced the six-time gold medal-winning Russians. miracle on ice

My grandfather, a Czech Olympic hockey player who played in the 1936 Olympics (yes those Olympics – Hitler’s Olympics) cried when our boys won. For him, it was a spiritual victory. A moral victory. And he knew something about those.

For my grandfather – and all of my family – that win was nothing short of a light from above shining down on us. Reminding us that even though we are far from perfect, we didn’t need to be sinless in order to be right and good.

I wonder what he would have thought about our hockey win against the Russians this year. Not as big – that’s for sure. But perhaps a gentle nudge that things haven’t changed so much. A softer light pointing in the direction of right and wrong.

dark cloud with light

I don’t know what the solution is to the madness that’s going on in the Ukraine. I pity any president that has to deal with wars stemming from horrific terrorist attacks, and then lightning bolts of Cold War aggression from a Russian leader who’s been deeply embarrassed. First, by a string of twitter feeds detailing cartoonish misadventures in the Olympic village, then by successful protests in a neighboring country he thought he had by the balls (if you’ll excuse my French). In retrospect, given Putin’s propensity for flaunting his bare chest and slaying tigers and riding bears for heaven’s sake, we could hardly have expected him not to pull some grandiose act of thuggery.

I guess I just expected he’d wrestle a lion, or poison another spy, or shoot a journalist – the way he always does. Not threaten an entire people.

Putin as emperor

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