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Over the weekend, I finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which last I checked was on the bestseller list for most of a year. I enjoyed it a great deal, dispelling many of my preconceptions about bestsellers.

I mentioned this to a girlfriend of mine on Friday afternoon, as I know she is not only literarily inclined but also hails from the South, as her charming touch of an accent can attest. As I suspected, she had not only read it but led a book group in discussing it, and had plenty of things to say on the subject.

Her main response seemed not to be to the book, but rather to other peoples’ reactions to it. Specifically, Californians’ reactions. She said she had had to defend her home territory vehemently, as everyone’s immediate response was, “Wow, the South was so racist!” And what, we’ve never had racism here in California?

As Californians, or rather as denizens of the Bay Area, I think we tend to have a slightly holier than thou attitude to the rest of the country. No matter where you live, it’s easy to judge the South for their racist attitudes, especially when fictionalized. But that lets the rest of us get off the hook a little too easily. Just because we didn’t grow up with Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms does not mean we’re somehow immune to racism.

I for one grew up in a largely Hispanic area, and had bilingual Spanish/English schooling until fifth grade. After that, I went to schools progressively further north of where I started, ending up at my university up at the very top of the county. There I had a total of one black friend, who liked to joke that he and the dark, dark African guy at our college were their token effort at “diversity.” Now, even though I live not thirty miles from where I grew up answering to the name “Soe” because I knew so many Spanish speakers, I am shocked to see such a large Hispanic population when I go back to that same town.

Yeah, real progressive.

Even so, I never realized how racist I am until we moved to Portugal. There, the population is overwhelmingly African or Brazilian, with people of all colors on every city block and square. It took me a while to identify why I got nervous when walking by myself in certain areas. At first I assumed it to be a part of my general discomfort with living in another country, but after some time, I realized that it was because I’m just not used to being around people with dark skin.

Until Lisbon, I had never lived anywhere other than white or Hispanic areas. I had never confronted the fact that the difference in skin colors made me uncomfortable, simply because it was just that: different. Given that I went to two of the more progressive, even radical universities in the world, I was ashamed to find this latent racism lurking in my liberally-educated Californian heart.

So you see, it’s all too easy to cast the first stone, especially in hindsight. It’s too easy to condemn the South for their racist ways, for their inhumanity, their degradation and ignorance. But who among us has not been racist at some point or another? It’s a fundamental human impulse to be uncomfortable with that which is Other, different, not like us. True, some of us can recognize and resist this impulse, while others throughout history have institutionalized it in order to oppress other human beings who are, in reality, just like us.

But to my mind, ignoring that response, damning it in others while pretending it’s not there in ourselves, is very much not a part of the solution. By elevating ourselves above those who we perceive as racist, we are perpetuating the very same problem.

From my reading, that was one of the points Stockett was trying to get across in her book. She is not trying to show us how terrible these people are, but rather the opposite. As despicable as some of the characters may seem, they are all just people, living in a society that prescribes them certain roles to fill, as women, as whites, as servants, as husbands, as children.

When it comes down to it, aren’t we all?


Our final Sunday excursion turned out to be much longer and far hotter than either of us had bargained for, but it was well worth it in the end.

Our goal was to see the Palacio da Ajuda, which was the royal palace for many centuries, up until the last king of Portugal was overthrown in 1910. Since that palace is conveniently located near Belem, our real motivation was to end the day with a final trip to the much-adored Pasteis de Belem. It’s a good thing we had that carrot dangling in front of us, too, or else I probably would’ve given up long before the day was over.

We decided once again to brave the Lisboan bus system, as it looked like the best way to get up the hill to Ajuda. After some confusion over which buses went where on Sundays, we finally found and boarded the correct bus. We asked the bus driver where we should get off for the palace, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when we get there.” Great! That’s real nice of you, senhor.

So we embarked on our rickety old bus, whose shocks had long ago been ruined by the cobblestones and potholes of Lisbon’s streets, making it feel more like riding a jackhammer than a bus. About half way through, we stopped to switch drivers. I said, “Oh that’s nice, so much for us now!” but Gabe said he’d heard the old driver telling the new one that we wanted to go to the palace. I said, “That’s impressive — you’d never see that in the States!”

Famous last words. After we had been winding up the hilly streets above Belem for quite a while, Gabe got up to remind the bus driver that we were going to the palace. “Oh yes,” he said, “Keep going forward. I’ll tell you when to get off.” Reassured, we sat down and waited some more… and kept waiting… and kept waiting, long after we’d passed the stop that we’d originally thought would be the closest one.

As we did so, I looked up the street and saw the corner of the palace just a block uphill from where we were. “Shouldn’t we get off?” I said, with an all too familiar sinking sensation in my stomach. I could already feel one of those “This is Portugal” moments coming on.

Ever the optimist, Gabe replied, “No, he said he’d let us know. Maybe there’s somewhere even closer that we don’t know about, and he was saving us the hike up that hill.”

OK… so we continued waiting, even though the bus was now clearly heading away from the castle. Even Gabe was dubious by this point, but still put his faith in the driver, saying, “Maybe we’re going to turn around and head back in the other direction.” Sure enough, at one point the bus did take a turn back towards the castle, but it didn’t go far enough.

Eventually, the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road and said, “The castle is back that way. Just walk straight ahead and you’ll get there.” He let us off right there, at the side of a roundabout in the middle of nowhere, where there wasn’t even a stop! As we walked to the door, I saw that the entire back of the bus was empty. The only other person on the bus was the little old lady sitting in front of us, and yet somehow still the driver had very clearly forgotten that we were there, or where we were going.

Cursing the day he was born, we set out in the direction he’d pointed us, which was along an abandoned, littered, and very sketchy stretch of sunbeaten sidewalk without an inch of shade on it. It took us about fifteen minutes of walking before we even spotted the palace, by which point I was fuming and more convinced than ever that he’d forgotten about his promise to tell us where the palace was.

I was right: it had become another definitive This is Portugal moment. Hiking half a mile in the hot sun after congratulating ourselves for not only figuring out the bus system but also getting a driver friendly enough to tell us where to go — and then believing that he would actually do such a thing? Only in Portugal. I guess we needed one last reminder of the reality of this place, just in case we were getting too sad about leaving.

When we finally did reach the palace, it was of course well worth it. Only a fraction of the rooms were open to the public, and many were under renovation, as you can see from the first pictures in the set below. The rooms we did see, however, were every bit as ornate and over the top as we’d expected. They were also quite sad, especially when compared to the Palacio da Pena in Sintra, which is immaculately preserved and climate controlled. This place was musty and smelled of rot, which you just knew was coming out of those beautiful satin-covered walls and priceless tapestries.

Also unlike Pena, we had the entire place to ourselves, and only came across two other sets of visitors during our entire tour. And this on a Sunday, when it’s free, in the height of summer. Very sad.

Still, it was pretty cool to have the royal palace to stroll around on our own, and we had a great time laughing over the strange royal paraphernalia (e.g. a pair of silver-capped deer hooves, given to the queen to commemorate a hunt), admiring the impressive collection of Ming vases, and marveling at the size of the throne room. The banquet room, the final stop on the tour, was the most impressive by far, with room for at least 100 people. Life is good when you’re king.

All that oohing and ahhing (and walking in the hot sun) worked up an appetite, so we wandered down the hill (via some more botanical gardens) to Pasteis de Belem, where we gratefully grabbed a table and ate our fill of delicious cream-filled pastry goodness. For the last time — alas! There is really nothing like it in the world. So sad.

Much replenished, we made our tired, warm way home, where we spent the rest of the evening resting and doing some preliminary packing, which somehow hadn’t happened earlier in the weekend. An excellent final Sunday, in the end, if only because it gave me one more great — and very very Portuguese — story to tell.

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Quick update here, as I’d like to get out for a walk on the beach before breakfast.

Continuing to enjoy it here: the beach, the food, the people, the history. It’s Independence Day here on Tuesday, and the country is still young enough to take such a celebration very seriously. Flags are everywhere, including on people’s cars — I’m glad to see we’re not the only country with jackasses who think it’s a good idea to put a large, loosely attached flapping object on the back of their truck.

Tomorrow, the day before Independence Day, is Memorial Day. It will be an interesting transition to watch the country go from mourning to celebration in a short period of time. The juxtaposition may seem jarring to some, but to me it seems natural. How can you celebrate your independence without simultaneously mourning those who died while earning it?

Our country has been in existence for so long that we don’t take Memorial or Veteran’s Day as seriously as we should. Unless you know someone who’s serving or is a veteran, it is all too easy not to think about the sacrifices that have been made to allow us to live the lifestyles we do. (God, I sound like a Republican!) But here, the country is small and the opposition to its continued existence fierce. Everyone has lost someone, and everyone knows exactly what they died defending. It’s a fascinating concept, especially as a historian.

But enough of these abstract musings for now… off to deal with international travel crises. And hopefully, eventually, the beach.

The great thing about longer-term guests is that you don’t have to explore everything all at once — unlike with my half-brother last month, when we fit the entire city and parts of the surrounding area into four days of non-stop walking. When you aren’t under pressure to give a condensed capsule of experience though, you’re more at leisure to wander and explore, and even go home for a while if that’s what you feel like doing.

Yesterday we explored the fancy shopping district of Chiado, where you can find all manner of odd places to peruse. Right down the street from the gigantic H&M I raided last week, we came across a minuscule booth of a shop selling beautifully crafted leather gloves, or luvaria, which has been there since 1925.

On the next block over, we passed a store selling Geox air shoes and a fancy Parisian boutique, then stopped for a coffee in the ornate and multi-colored interior of A Brasileira, the favorite haunt of my homeboy Fernando Pessoa and all his myriad personalities.

After browsing through my favorite 500-year old bookstore and a place down the street that sells reproductions of vintage postcards, soaps, and even cans of sardines, we found a tiny old coffee and candy store tucked between two more overpriced designer stores. As soon as we started talking coffee in serious terms, the old man working there perked right up, clearly appreciative of a break from the candy-buying hordes he’d been helping all day. (Easter candy is appearing in all the stores now, and true to their overzealous religious holiday form, the Portuguese are already stocking up in a serious way.)

While the coffee talk continued, I perused the candy, displayed in rows and rows of bins all along the counter and up and down the walls. On offer were at least twenty different kinds of chocolate covered almonds, all with different colored and flavored coatings on the outside, ranging from Easter pastels to a mottled brown one that promised to be cinnamon (or shin, although I don’t think that would be as appealing.) There was also a bin of ornately decorated licorice bits, and case after case of chocolate, bars and bits and other dark brown delicacies.

The man’s expertise on coffee was just as thorough and wide-ranging as their candy selection, and as he packaged up the grounds and poked a hole in the corner to let out the gases, he gave us a history of the beans we were buying. Until independence, you could only get coffee grown in the colonies, which explained the array of beans on offer from such exotic places as Sao Tome and Cabo Verde. They could get other kinds after independence was declared, but these were the older and more traditional Portuguese coffees. I was blown away — history and good coffee, all in one sweet-smelling, chocolate-drenched place! I could’ve died happy right then.

That evening, we added to the pleasure of our palates by visiting our now-regular local wine bar down the street. Again, the Brazilian waitress greeted us with pleasure and kisses on the cheek, and we gladly seated ourselves outside in their small back patio. As we discovered the place in January, we have long looked out their back window at the tree-covered patio and yearned for the return of the long, warm Lisboan evenings we had when we first got here. For the first time, the mild night allowed us to sit at one of the small wooden tables, softly illuminated by with a tea light lantern on the table and a rope of Christmas lights around the outside of the small graveled seating area.

We asked the waitress to surprise us with three different glasses of dessert wines, and she brought us a a red port, a tawny port, and a sauterne to accompany our chocolate mousse and passionfruit cheesecake. This time she was busy with other customers, but when we’d finished and asked for the check, she exclaimed, “Oh no, you’re leaving already? Let me sit and chat for a minute.” But of course, we said, please do!

Among other things, we got a full update on the lovely owner and her new baby. Ebullient as ever, our waitress said that they were doing great, she had seen them the day before, and he was so cute that he warmed her heart, or coraçao. Since she accompanied this statement with a rounded arm that looked like she was holding or rocking a baby, I thought she said he is cute like a snail, or caracol. When I gave this translation to my mom, Gabe laughed at me and said no, not snail, heart! Oh well. I kind of liked the description “cute like a snail.” I think I’ll keep it.

On that high note of misinterpretation, we ended our very strenuous day of coffee shopping and wine drinking, street wandering and chatting. Rough life, my friends, rough life!

We are definitely entering into winter here in Lisbon. This morning dawned clear and cold, and the last few days have required jackets outside and sweatshirts and socks in the house. The sun rises late and sets early, and all I want to do is sleep, eat, and read. Yep, must be fall.

It’s kind of a nice change, as I really wouldn’t believe it was a week away from Thanksgiving if there wasn’t at least a little chilly fall weather and some falling leaves in there. It’s not too cold though — just a perfect autumnal edge to the air. If we’d gone to Ireland, which was our other option for this year, I would’ve been severely unhappy by now. But at this rate, I have a feeling that we’ll find even California cold when we get back next month!

With the weather making it more conducive to staying inside, it’s much easier to spend the day working at home, which is what we both did yesterday. We took an afternoon break for a trip to the gym and to restock on fruit, but otherwise, it was a day of productivity. Gabe spent the late afternoon and early evening on the phone, making various business calls to the States — I swear that Skype phone was the best thing he did for our sabbatical! — while I sat on the couch, working and studying, perfectly content with the world.

This morning, as I was back on the couch, reading industry news and drinking my coffee, it occurred to me: I love what I do. I love working with books and words, I love reading about books and talking to people who love books as much as I do… I love it. Even if my daily activities have nothing to do with literature per se, but rather with laboriously teaching myself website code and making my brain explode in the process, it’s OK, because it’s all in the name of books. Besides, with my mom as my main (and so far only) client during our year abroad, it gives me an excuse to email her a hundred times a day, so it helps us stay connected despite the distance. What could be better?

People often wonder how I went from studying history to what I do now, and I usually have to admit that I’m not really sure of the connection myself. But in an interview with the LA Times last week, Colum McCann (who just won the NBA Award) expressed it far better than I ever could:

“In a certain way, novelists become unacknowledged historians, because we talk about small, tiny, little anonymous moments that won’t necessarily make it into the history books… I think we need stories, and we need to tell the stories over and over and over not only to remind us, but to be able to have that clarity of experience that changes us, so that we know who we are now because of who we have been at some other time.”

That is exactly why I read, and why I write here — to tell myself the stories of this year so that I can look back and have that clarity of experience of which he speaks, to remember who I was when I first got here and was so overwhelmed by all the strangeness and shabbiness that I broke down crying. That in turn helps me know who I am now and how far I’ve come in just two short months, because my story gives me something to measure my progress against.

So in the end, history and writing do share a purpose, and what I spend my life doing now does have its roots in what I studied five years ago. Who woulda thunk it?!

Yesterday morning, my husband turned on the History Channel in an attempt to ease his transition from sleep to waking. I watched the TV with half an eye while I was getting ready for pilates — being the notorious morning person that I am, this is a fairly usual delegation of duties in our household, and it suits me just fine.

The show he was watching was about historical disasters of the 20th century: the Titanic, the bridge that turned into an elastic band in high wind, a huge hotel that collapsed in the late 70s and killed over 100 people, etc. Just before I left, they played a clip from the Hindenberg disaster. The frantic newscaster was saying, “This is the worst disaster in the history of mankind,” or something equally histrionic. I’m sure at the time it did seem like the worst disaster ever to occur, and trust me, I believe it.

Even in black and white, the spectacle of that huge blimp in flames is devastating. For the people of that time, it must have symbolized all that was wrong and dangerous about modernization. Now, less than a hundred years later, we calmly watch this “worst disaster” as a temporary diversion before we start our daily lives, marveling at the folly and hubris that made all these great technological achievements crumble, taking so many lives with them.

Watching this, I turned to my husband and said, “How long will it take before September 11 becomes someone else’s history show?” Of course 9/11 can in no way be compared to an engineering mishap of the twentieth century. But it was the terminology that caught my attention, for 9/11 was without a doubt one of, if not the, worst disasters of our time.

For those of us who lived through it, the events of that day will forever be burnt into our memories. Everyone can say, “Where were you when…? Do you remember what you were doing?” And I guarantee that anyone you ask will in fact be able to recount every minute of that day, whether they were actually in Manhattan or just waking up out here on the West Coast.

Subsequent generations will hear the stories of 9/11, yes. They will know its impact on our country, both politically and emotionally. They will read about it in their history books, and probably even do reports on it for social studies class. But will they know that sense of fear and helplessness, or grasp how deeply those events affected our country’s psyche? Will they really get how it felt to be there: that knot in your stomach, the sick disbelief that even ten or twelve straight hours of news coverage did nothing to dispel? I doubt it.

I myself have read many first-hand accounts of Pearl Harbor. I have written many papers on the reasons behind the attack, seen interviews with survivors, been to the memorial, and cried as I watched the amazing footage taken from the cockpit of one of the planes. I can safely say that I understand the events of that day fairly well, but only in theory, on paper, on the screen. I still don’t know what it felt like to actually be alive at that time, to be able to pinpoint exactly what I was doing when the course of history was interrupted, diverted, ripped apart. Nor am I sure that I would want to.

Point being, world history is similar to personal history, in that the impact of traumatic events must by necessity diminish over time. There is only so long that a person or a nation can bleed before the wound inevitably starts to knit itself back together. It will of course leave behind ugly knots of scar tissue, perhaps even a lifelong disability, one with permanent effects on the future. And it will never, ever be forgotten. But the real trauma of it, that nauseous, knot-in-the-stomach, tied-to-the-TV kind of feeling, simply can’t be sustained forever.

Life continues, imperceptibly at first, then by tens and soon hundreds and thousands of normal, completely forgettable minutes, where your stomach is knot-free and the quotidian rules supreme. Eventually, the real trauma of an event must diminish to the point where waking up no longer feels like a punch to the gut. Perhaps you find that you can go hours, or even days, without thinking about It. At first this makes you feel guilty, but it doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten — no, sorry, that is not an option. It’s just that It no longer terrorizes the very forefront of your mind with every waking and dreaming moment.

So it is with history. Today’s disasters are tomorrow’s history shows, just as the earth-shattering events of two hundred years ago are now chapters in a textbook, or the subject of a movie starring Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson. These events are no less important in our history, just much less immediate.

Even so, it’s almost impossible for me to believe that September 11 will someday be one of those chapters, that the agony it caused can ever diminish with time. But eventually, some day, someone else’s husband will flick on the History Channel in the morning, or late at night, and there it will be.

It seems incomprehensible, I know, but perhaps in the end it is also kind. In my mind, the ability to regain perspective over time is one of our greatest gifts, and something that makes our continued existence — both as individuals and as a society — possible.

Gentle readers — all three of you — I am writing to you from the warm, sweet embrace of my brand new laptop. Under the threat of leaving the realm of “that fruit company” for the kinder, less flickering world of PCs, the folks at Apple finally got the message and replaced my computer. It only took four tries! So although this one’s keys are slightly funny, and the CPU runs a little louder than the last one, it is blessedly flicker-free. Ah, bliss.

Once we’d secured said computer yesterday, I thought I couldn’t possibly get any happier.  But no, the best part was yet to come. Waiting in the mail when we got home was a big padded envelope containing a black Apple logo T-shirt. It was of course way too big for me and went straight to my husband, but still, I had to laugh. Come on — I lost all my data, my wedding video, hours of productivity, and my peace of mind, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt! It struck me as very funny at the time, although my hubby seemed much more concerned with the parking ticket he had gotten in the same delivery. (Don’t blame him, really — I’d take a T-shirt any time, too.)

I really started laughing though when I looked at the invoice that was included with the T-shirt. It listed the item as one “Appeasement logo T-shirt.” Oh man, I almost died. As if a silly T-shirt would actually be enough to “appease” me after all the drama I’ve been through with this damn computer! But for a history geek, the word appeasement takes on a thoroughly different connotation, making it all the more hilarious:

Appeasement is a policy of accepting the imposed conditions of an aggressor in lieu of armed resistance, usually at the sacrifice of principles. Usually it means giving in to demands of an aggressor in order to avoid war. Since World War II, the term has gained a negative connotation… of weakness, cowardice and self-deception.

I guess in this situation that would make me the aggressor, and that fruit company gave in to my demands by sending me a T-shirt “in lieu of armed resistance.” I wasn’t aware that I made them sacrifice their principles, but hey, fair enough.

Funny thing was, I laughed so hard at this unintended irony that it almost did serve to appease me. OK, so the brand new functioning computer went a long way, as did the speed and efficiency with which they treated this lucky fourth complaint. But in the end, perhaps I won’t leave the land of the fruit company after all.

I am, in a word, appeased.

Hubby and I have been trying to get out and see a movie for some time now, which has proven difficult due to our respective schedules and the inability of the theaters to actually play any movies at a normal hour, i.e. 8 PM. They’re all either too early (6 or 7) or too late (9 or 10). Why is it impossible to play a movie at a time that allows people to eat dinner before seeing the movie? Why?

Anyway, since he just gave his last night lecture for the quarter, we decided to celebrate our first free Thursday evening together by seeing a movie. Being a history geek, I felt it was necessary for me to see The Other Boleyn Girl. It’s not my period (as I’m so fond of saying by way of disclaimer when I’m totally ignorant about a certain aspect of history), and I hadn’t read the book, but I was interested in it nonetheless. I had read one of Philippa Gregory’s other books on our honeymoon, and was amazed at how sordidly bad yet hugely entertaining it was. I had high hopes that the movie would possess the same two traits, which are always required for a mindless evening of film.

Now, the last movie we saw was over a month ago, and that was Cloverfield. It made me so carsick that I almost walked out about 30 minutes before the ending, and really, I didn’t give a damn if those obnoxiously trendy and totally unsympathetic New York hipsters got eaten. Frankly, I cheered when they did. So there was some pressure on Boleyn Girl to bring our 2008 movie-going experience up to par, but really, it wasn’t that hard a task considering the existing track record.

Unfortunately, we had no such luck. While I was highly entertained by the sets and costumes, and the plot did indeed draw me in to its sordid twists and loops, the movie played a cruel, unnecessary trick on me: [SPOILER ALERT] about three quarters of the way through, there was a very graphic rape scene. From what I’ve read after the fact, there was no such scene in Gregory’s book. As such, it was completely gratuitous, and a perfect example of the unthinking way in which sexual violence is portrayed with far too much impunity in our media.

There are movies, such as Boys Don’t Cry, where the rape scene is a crucial part of the plot. So OK, I just close my eyes or fast-forward through it, no problem. But when rape is included for no real reason other than to make the main character seem like a sleazeball (which had already been very conclusively established by this point), well, that is just wrong.

In 2004, the University of Buffalo conducted a study of 1000 women between the ages of 18 and 30. Of those, 38% were victims of sexual violence, including 17% who had been raped. And that was just reported rapes, let alone those were too afraid or repressed to reveal their rapes to the researchers.

Imagine then that even half of those 383 women go to see this movie, because after all 18 to 30 is the ideal demographic for a movie like this one. Hell, that’s my own demographic! That means that in practically every showing, there will be at least one victim of sexual violence, someone who still has trouble sleeping at night, who has panic attacks and flashbacks on a regular basis. What does this kind of imagery do to that person? What makes it OK to portray these things up on a big screen like that?

I know, now I’m getting into the whole censorship drama, but all I’m saying is that there should be a specific warning on movies that contain sexual violence. I mean, it’s like asking a war veteran to go see a romantic comedy, and then all of a sudden — BOOM! — a bomb blows up on screen. What the…? Especially when your guard is down and you’re immersed in the movie, an unexpected trigger like that can be hugely destructive.

As for artistic license, well… it’s true you can’t shield everyone from reality. Shit happens, it’s terrible, and it’s all a valid subject to use in artistic expression. After all, what is art without the darker side of the human psyche? So no, not all movies should be about rainbows, butterflies, and happy endings. But like I said, when it’s just a cheap dramatic ploy to get the audience’s attention, I just think it’s unnecessary.

And the moral of this story is? Let my husband pick the movie next time. I for one am done choosing movies, because so far this year, they have either made me carsick, emotionally sick, or both.

And I thought researching my master’s thesis was bad. I just read a Wired article (thanks to Instapundit) about how East Germany has developed computer technology to piece together the files that the Stasi destroyed before the wall came down in 1989.

It seems that the Stasi documented every instant of every citizen’s life, big or small. Even while three-quarters of the population was protesting, they still held out hopes that they could continue business as usual after things had calmed down. Even so, they decided to destroy key documents just in case, and spent the next two months shredding and eventually ripping them by hand. (I love German – the shredders were called Papierwolfs and Reisswolfs — “paper-wolves” and “rip-wolves.” So literal!) Huge mountains of shredded paper were produced as a result.

Some years later, people decided to see what was so important that the Stasi had to destroy it rather than have it be found. A group started doing it by hand — talk about a needle in a haystack. Eventually, a German computer scientist heard about the project and decided to lend his expertise. Now they can do it digitally, but even so it could take up to five years to match the millions of tiny pieces together.

My question is… and then what? Surely the Stasi compulsively documented so much crap in everyone’s daily life that even the “important” stuff must be mostly trivia. Why not just destroy it and put the past safely in the past?

Apparently there was a huge debate following the end of the Cold War about whether they should do just that. In the end, it seems there is a hunger in East Germany to know what the Stasi had in their files:

“When we started in 1992, I thought we’d need five years and then close the office,” Bormann says. Instead, the Records Office was flooded with half a million requests in the first year alone. Even in cases where files hadn’t been destroyed, waiting times stretched to three years. In the past 15 years, 1.7 million people have asked to see what the Stasi knew about them.

I guess it brings a sense of catharsis, a way of making sense out of a time of tragedy that made no sense at all. Having spent years feeling like someone was watching you, it must feel good in the end to know that they were indeed watching your every moment — and here’s what they saw, page after detailed page of it.

Perhaps the shreds of those documents hold some kind of vindication for a life spent in fear, something concrete after years spent in doubt and uncertainty. If that is the case, then this is one of the best uses of technology I could possibly think of.

I have to admit that I was highly skeptical when I first heard that they were making a movie adaptation of Atonement, one of my favorite books of all time. I initially refused to see it, thinking they could only mutilate the deliciously suspenseful work of art that was the book.

As these things usually go, I eventually broke down and paid my $9.50 to see it with a good friend last night. And I have to say, I was impressed. The director and the writers obviously paid very close attention to the book, and made a huge effort to stay as close to the original story as possible without making it into a four-hour movie. Throughout the first act of the movie, they managed to maintain McEwan’s delicate balance between the ennui of a hot summer day in a rich, spoiled household and an inexplicable, almost palpable sense of suspense and doom. True, it’s easier to portray these conflicting feelings on the screen than in words, but it could so quickly be overdone — and it wasn’t.

As I was watching the rest of the film, I realized that the first act of the book was so powerful that I had all but forgotten what happened in the rest of it. So as the plot twisted itself into a frenzy, I was just as surprised by its emotional rollercoaster ride as I was the first time I read the book. (And apparently I was one of the few in the theater who had actually done so, as I heard many gasps and exclamations throughout the movie.)

Outside of the keen suspense of the first act, the best part of the movie in my mind were the scenes at Dunkirk. Historically speaking, they were simply gorgeous, and formed a seamless portrait of that terrible retreat — or rather, brave strategic withdrawal. At one point, the main characters stride by a group of men who are shooting their horses on the beach, presumably so that the advancing Germans won’t have the benefit of the British livestock after they’re gone. For whatever reason, out of the entire Dunkirk sequence, this was the scene that provoked the most gasps and sighs.

At first, I wondered if that much gritty reality was too much for people to handle. But then I thought to myself, “We have absolutely no idea.” No matter how hard it is for peace-loving Santa Cruzians to witness cruelty to animals, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie, nor men. This is still a Hollywood version of war. Truly, no amount of film or writing can portray what it was like to fight in those two great wars, nor the terrible things that our fathers or grandfathers saw. But they can come close, and they can serve to teach us their heavy lessons. This one did both, as it gave a no-holds-barred portrait of the ugliness and raw emotion of World War II.

In the end, I discovered that the movie Atonement was a masterful adaptation of a much-loved book. It was also a fine historical movie, and told a good story while opening a brief window onto the second World War.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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