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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"I Came All the Way To Djibouti To Talk To You About Diarrhea."

(Overheard quote from Mary Roach, author of the non-fiction book Grunt in an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross. Let me write that again, so you can say it in your mind a la Ms. Gross, Fresh Air.)

Once I heard that, I knew I had to write this post as a call-out to my friend, the infectious disease-specialist. And as another thank you note to Sporcle's Georgraphy tests and as an aha! because England's King Henry V died of dysentery while on military campaign.  (Dysentery is essentially horrible, bloody diarrhea, though it can come out both ends.) 

Now, King Henry V leads, via his wife, Katherine de Valois, straight into the early Tudors, which I have blogged about before, so yes, everything does ultimately connect back to everything else.  



But back to Djibouti, a smaller country located on the Upper East Side of Africa, officially established as a country in 1977. Before that, Djibouti was known as The French Territory of the Afars and the Issas, which tells you the names of the two major ethnic/tribal peoples who inhabit Djibouti. 
It appears that among the Afar, teeth-sharpening is still a thing to do, for both
men and women, but that may
only be in Ethiopia. I can't find reference to it in Djibouti
Remember that next time you want to
judge a teenager with his underpants showing.


The Issa are a sub clan of the Somali. 

Djibouti's current leader is of the Somali ethnicity. The minority party walked out of the last two elections, stating they weren't fair. Still, when you compare it to nearby Somalia and Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, so since Djibouti's Civil War ended in the 1990's, it is considered relatively stable. (I am basing this on people I have met from Djibouti, not from the Internet. 

As such, Djibouti serves as a base for military operations for nearby  Somalia and Yemen, the former a failed state and the latter on the verge of failure. 

Hence this reporter who had to travel to Djibouti to talk to a Special Services guy about Diarrhea for research on the Science of the Military, particularly of the kind of Science that helps people get, stay and be returned to health. 

Her book sounds both disgusting and fascinating, much like my friend's experiences--she's soon heading off to Kenya, or Uganda, or Rwanda, (they keep switching locations,) to teach good practices for infectious disease control. And oh, I wish I could stow myself away in her suitcase and have that adventure with her. Yes, I know, lecturing is hardly an adventure, but still. . .

So, pull out your maps and look up Djibouti, and your assignment for tomorrow is to research and write a report about either the Afars or the Issas, or a paper on the languages spoken in Djibouti, and please diagram the accents created by colonization. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Leaping Into the Future, Parenting Style

When you are a parent, there will come a time when you will look at your child and make a mad leap into the future. 

It could be the sight of your three-year-old stuck perpetually behind a binkie when  nobody else's child is using a binkie. Suddenly, you are certain that everyone is staring at your child, who you are certain will wind up one of those horrendous teenagers who sucks on a pacifier-like piece of candy. 

This happened to a friend of mine. Her blood-pressure spiking, she popped the bink from her toddler's mouth, and thus ushered in an hour's long tantrum, all through his preschool day. 


I know. It hurts to look at it. 


On the way home she saw a teenager covered with safety pins. Soon enough, she realized, her child would be a young adult, and his body would be his own. He'd be able to pierce it, tattoo it, whatever he wanted, and she would not be able to do a damned thing about it. 

She gave her toddler back his bink. 

Or, as my cousin said, through her tears as her oldest walked down the aisle, "He really did potty train before he got married." 

Or take last night, at a baseball game with people from work.  An acquaintance was upset that her four-year-old daughter had sidled past her, hiding the bag of Hershey's kisses. Suddenly, this caring mom envisioned her sweet little creature at sixteen, sneaking out the window to have sex with a boy. 
How could her daughter do that? The girl should be able to talk with her mother. About absolutely everything. Even about having sex with a boy, Maggie yelled at daughter, lecturing her, while loudly saying, "I'm not angry. But you have to tell me everything. Then I won't get angry. Don't hide things from me." While, of course, the little girl learns the exact opposite. 


My nightmare
Don't think I'm judging. As I told Maggie last night, I have been there, and done that. And with a special needs kid, my blood pressure really shoots through the roof, with times when I am certain this child will never make it out in the world, and in fact, will live in the basement, playing video games (as several supposed specialists around me have openly suggested) and what will happen to him after we are gone--even though, at the moment, he was only eleven and has since, on his own, begun to figure a way out of his disability's prison. 

But last night, I also met a family with a child in a wheelchair. Someone whispered in my ear: "She's got this disease that means she won't be able to walk at all soon, and then, she won't be able to eat, and she'll die before she's twelve." 

I bent over the little girl, admiring her earrings. "Oh, aren't you lucky," I said. "I won't let my daughter get her ears pierced." And I felt a jolt--I won't let my daughter get her ears pierced yet, is what I meant. But this little girl's family doesn't have the luxury of a yet. They can't leap to the future. If she wants her ears pierced, the time to do it is now. Right now. While she can still be aware. While she can still enjoy it. 



Nearly impossible lessons for a family to learn--the big sister, Mom, Dad and the little one in the wheelchair. When my oldest was two, a little boy in our neighborhood, born two weeks later, needed surgery and chemo for a cancer in his abdomen. We gave him a terrific playmobil set of a hospital room, and my husband was the first person he would walk with, after he was finally allowed home, his little hand grasping my husband's giant first finger as he took those first after-surgery steps. His mom said, 
"When he gets to be a teenager, he can tattoo himself all over his face, he can drop out of high school, he can listen to heavy metal--as long as he gets to be a teenager." 


But at least, in that case, my friend could be hopeful--and, in fact, her son is inching up on those teens as we speak, considered cured. 

Plus, I have very good reasons not to want my daughter's ears pierced, beginning with the intense pressure on girls to be about their appearance, moving on into cost and infections and ending up with a kind of knee-jerk reaction that I always have about things like piercings and tattoos. (Listen, I got my ears pierced when I was twenty-eight, with much foot-dragging even then.) 

But the truth is, as this family knows more than any of the rest of us, that we can plan for the future and try to learn from the past, but  the only time we really have is right here, right now. 

Maybe I should get her ears pierced. Maybe. 




Friday, May 27, 2016

Geography Pays Off--Again

I was looking something up for a friend, and came across someone with an African name. I thought maybe Nigerian, but couldn't find it as Yoruba or Igbo or anything else connected with Nigeria, so I looked further and found a remote possibility of connection to Namibia. And I was right. The person's father seems to have come from Namibia. 

Quick--go do your Sporcle Geography quiz and you, too, will immediately know where Namibia is--just below Angola, just above South African, and connecting inland to Botswana and Zimbabwe, and by a panhandle, with Zambia. (Truth-telling, I didn't know until this moment that there was a panhandle in Zimbabwe or any of the information that I will herewith divulge as though I am an expert.) The name appears to be from the Mafwe people of the Caprivi region, which has recently been renamed the Zambeze region in an effort to erase the marks of German colonialism on the area--remember The African Queen, how Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut travel down the Ulanga River--no relation to the rivers of Zambeze-- to Victoria Falls, where they encounter the Germans? Yup--there you go.)  

And by the way, in case you want to dazzle your friends, the name Caprivi comes from  Count Leo von Caprivi, chancellor of Germany, from 1890 to 1894. 


Is this not exceptionally gorgeous? The Zambeze area. 
The Caprivi/Zambeze area is along rivers, and most people who live there farm for a living, mostly surviving hand-to-mouth. (This is what they mean when they use the fancy word, "subsistence farming," meaning you also fish and harvest wild things, and hunt and struggle to subsist, pretty much like Laura Ingalls Wilder's family during her entire life.)   

Most of the images I can find of the Mafwe people come from what looks like an amazing living history museum. 
Yes, they're topless. Get over it.

















So I'll include one here, along with this, so you know that these images are from a museum, while the modern one is of a reporter talking about opposition to a tobacco project. 

So, hello Namibia and hello Mafwe people. Google doesn't give me translation from English to Mafwe, so I'm having to write this in English. If someone logs on and tells me how to say hello, I will be happy to do it. 

How connected we all can be these days. (And hello Maldives. I am thrilled that you are looking at this blog.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cannot Manage One Post A Day-- My Apologies

Life is heating up, and despite my best efforts, I have not been able to manage a post a day, as was my ambition. I am hopeful that I can keep up at least one every two days. I thank you readers for hanging in and sticking with me as I explore life, writing, parenting, geography and politics, with what I hope is clarity and humor. 



E Olá , Portugal. Como é lindo ter você todos a bordo. Acredito que a minha família deixou o seu país cerca de 600 anos atrás, na diáspora forçadas de judeus - Eles se estabeleceram na Holanda. Algum dia , espero visitar o seu país e aprender mais sobre o passado de minha família. 


Doesn't this look gorgeous? Isso não está linda ?

(Hello Portugal. How lovely to have you all aboard. I believe my family left your country about 600 years ago, in the forced diaspora of Jews--They settled in Holland. Someday, I hope to visit your country and learn more about my family's past.) 




 . 


sobre o passado de minha família.

Two Stories of Brutality and How Two Cultures React To Them

I have been thinking about two stories I recently read. One--let's call this story A) was about a worker at a Burger King in Tel Aviv, a Bedouin (a Muslim minority in Israel), who was beaten by an undercover border policeman while taking out the garbage from the restaurant, because he allegedly refused to identify himself to this ordinarily-dressed person. 


A screenshot from posted video of the event


The second, let's call it story B) was about nearby Gaza, where inhabitants, struggling to rebuild after the 2014 bombings by Israelis, find themselves terrified by the sounds of new tunnels being built under the homes they are now too frightened to rebuild. 

Story A) echoes U.S. problems of police brutality engulfing an ethnic and religious minority. Data provided by the Abraham Fund, an NGO aimed at equality and coexistence between Arab and Jewish citizens, reported cases of police violence against Arab Israelis has risen sharply, from 15 cases in 2010 to 55 cases in 2015. Those 55 cases were over 60% of all police brutality cases, even though Israeli Arabs make up a fifth of the population there. 

Israeli Arabs aren't the only groups who have been singled out by Israeli police. In demonstrations, Ethiopians, Haredim and hilltop youths--three minorities who are visually different from typical Israelis--have also been harassed or detained by police without cause. (*See below for more information about these minorities.) 

Within the same day as Story A) broke, according to the Jerusalem Post and the Guardian, the justice ministry had begun a probe of the incident outside the Burger King, where Maisam Abu Al-Alqian was beaten by a plainclothes police officer after arguing with him when asked to present an I.D.

Within two days of the beating, Stav Shaffir, the chair of the Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information called a special meeting of the Knesset and requested statistics and a demographic and social breakdown of complaints issued against police, plus a breakdown of how these cases are handled by police. 

She also called on members of the public to contact the committee with information relating to police brutality, in particular if they themselves have been witnesses to or victims of such violence. 

Now, let's return to Story B and how the government of Gaza is helping them deal with another very real crisis. 

The opening of a tunnel discovered by the Israelis military this month.
In February, the New Yorker reported that two Hamas operatives had died from a tunnel collapse and that seven Hamas members were killed when another tunnel caved in, apparently due to heavy rains and flooding. 

Ismaeil Haniyah, a Hamas leader in Gaza, spoke at the funeral of the seven Hamas members. "East of Gaza City, heroes are digging through rock and building tunnels, and to the west, they are experimenting with rockets every day."

This photograph is from the New York Times. 
Here is someone the "heroes" are digging for: a woman living in ruins two years after war destroyed her home. She got a coupon to buy concrete to rebuild, but was told there is no concrete. Yet every night, she hears trucks carrying concrete and building materials rumble by her house and disappear into a tunnel underground. 

She is terrified about the tunnel under her house. "Dear God--we will be torn apart," she says. "I am sure, one million percent, that those with tunnels under their houses cannot sleep, or taste the joy of life." This woman, like others in the NY Times article, would not give her name, for fear of government reprisal, which I guess means for fear that people like Ismaeil Haniyah might attack her. 

Where can these villagers turn? Perhaps to a Human Rights organization. Sari Bashi, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch and an expert on international law regarding warfare said that militant groups have "an obligation to take all feasible measures to protect civilians, including not taking the armed conflict to civilian areas to the extend possible." 

But Ms. Bashi also said that building tunnels in residential neighborhoods is not explicitly prohibited.  Not much help. 

And yet, Ms. Bashi said that while Gaza's density makes it difficult to avoid civilian areas, "it also seems as if armed groups are choosing to dig tunnels in populated areas because it provides cover, and that raises questions."  Raises questions?

What would I do if I were raising children while the ground beneath me shook with tunnel building. What would I do if I was living in a shack, but could not find concrete to build a new home, yet every night, I heard trucks filled with concrete rumbling down into a tunnel beneath my home? 

"We have a Gaza City under the ground and we have nothing up here," said one 23 year old man in Gaza. A neighbor said that he was afraid to rebuild. "I give it 99.5 percent that our house will be destroyed again. I go crazy thinking about it." 

In Johar al-Deek, along Gaza's 32-mile edge, a mother said she had sold four sheep and her gold jewelry, used her savings and borrowed money to scrape up $8750 to buy a quarter of an acre in sight of the border fence with Israel. The land near the border is all she can afford--inland, a plot that size would have cost $20,000. 

This mother knows that there are probably tunnels under the property. A few months ago, a relative slipped into a tunnel after heavy rains and had to be pulled out by passers-by. "We lost our home last time," said this mother. "This time we fear for the souls of our children." 

Back in Israel, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, an organization advocating Jewish-Arab coexistence, has raised more than $18,500 in crowd funding to cover legal fees and to help pay for the studies of Maisam Abu Alqian, the 19-year-old student who was beaten by a plainclothes border policeman. "I thank all the donors from my heart," Abu Alqian said in a statement on the fundraising page. "Now I know what help is. I'm waiting to utilize my rights and bring back my honor. I hope that what happened to me will lead to a change in the law, so policemen will not be able to beat civilians." 

He has legal rights. He is confident he can fight for them. He has open allies, helping him along. 

The Gazans in this story are not so lucky. They know their government is planning to use their children's bodies for propaganda purposes, and yet, because they fear this government, they cannot complain, speak out or even move. Please understand, I am neither a knee-jerk Palestinian supporter nor a knee-jerk Israeli supporter. I just want people to think. I know many people who think that Palestinians are victims of Evil Israel, plain and simple. Reality, as these stories show us, is far more complicated. 


(*Explanation of Ethiopian, Haredi and Hilltop Youth Jews.)


Required military service has
been a great leveler for Ethiopian Jews.

Ethiopian Jews are a visible minority in Israel, making up just under 2% of the population. Although some Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Israel in 1934, most were brought as refugees in waves from 1960's through today. They came from a subsistence, farming economy with a mostly oral-history culture, and many had very little formal/written education. Their children have mostly assimilated into Israeli society, but there is still an employment problem.  Ethiopian Jews tend to earn less than Israeli Arabs. 
Haredi Jews scuffle with border police

The term Haredi covers a wide spectrum of ultra-Orthodox groups. Today, they make up 13% of the Jewish population of Israel, but because the average Haredi family has five children, by 2030, they will make up 20% of the population. Haredim, also known as "Black hats," shun modernity and live in isolated communities even within cities. Once a tiny remnant of Europe's yeshiva, or religious school, past, and thus excluded from military service--to make sure this history survived--they are now a powerful political bloc, growing ever more conservative in their behavior, in many cases trying to force women to walk on separate sidewalks from men, and often actively opposed to the existence of a Jewish state, claiming that only God can create such a state and God hasn't done so yet. Today, half the haredim population of Israel is under 16 years old. In new Haredi cities, half the population is under age 11. Because their parents' religious beliefs decry most kinds of employment, three-quarters of Haredi children in Israel live below the poverty line. 


 Hilltop youths are hardline, nationalist young people, mostly men, who establish illegal outposts in the West Bank--they are identifiable because they wear long side locks and a large, crocheted kipah and they have been found guilty of hate crimes against Palestinians. 


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

So, A Rabbi, An Iman, A Priest, An Elder, A Minister And An Athiest All Walk Into A Cathedral. . .

Not our cathedral, but a lot like it. 


Yesterday, I was telling some school parents about our latest Girl Scout field trip. "So, we went to the Cathedral: two Muslims, two Jews, two Mormons, four Atheists, one Baptist, one Lutheran and one Catholic and some I don't know about--"

"This sounds like a joke," said a parent and the rest of us burst out laughing. "A very long joke," she added. 

My little hijab wearing girls, (sisters, age 10 and 6) were worried that people would be mean to them in the Cathedral. I reassured them that we are Jewish, and it's okay for us, so they should be fine. We've had atheist parents pull their children from scouting over the Girl Scout pledge, and we had some atheists along, but I decided not to worry. 

We talked about behavior and being respectful. We tiptoed past the wedding rehearsal taking place in the main sanctuary and headed to the circle of shrines. Everything was huge and quiet and overpowering, except for the soft velvet of the kneeling rail and the allure of lighting candles at each shrine. (We said no.) 


Our girls have never, ever, been so quiet and well-behaved. Even the little one wearing Cinderella-clear-plastic-heel slippers that clop-clop-clopped everywhere managed, by walking on her tip-toes, to keep silent the entire way. 

In the last shrine, there was a man passionately praying, immersed in grief. The girls were awed. Outside, they wanted to talk all about it. And ask questions. 

One grownup asked what "amen" meant. Nobody knows what it really means, and I said so. Our youngest Muslim girl breathlessly explained that it was like when they say, "insha'allah," which she told us meant, "If I don't die first. Like when I ask if I can go to the mall, and my mom says, 'insha'allah--if you don't die first.'" 

I carefully did not burst out laughing. "Actually," I said, "It means 'if God wills it.'" And the little one nearly exploded--these are very bright little girls--in her eagerness to recite, in Arabic, the ninety-nine names of God. Fully half of were virtual replicas of the 100 Hebrew names used for God. How much different is Rahamim (merciful one in Hebrew) and Ar-Rahim? (The exceedingly merciful one in Arabic.)

I asked the girls what the Cathedral was designed to make them feel. Did it make them feel running and jumping around? 

No, they said. Like being--scared. Sad. Quiet. "Intimidated," I said. "Awed." 

"Where were the girl statues?" they asked. (Hurray, girls!) We did stop at the shrine of St. Theresa, which I had pointed out, but honestly, you could not tell from the statute that she was female.

What's a Saint? They asked. 

Here, my Mormon fellow-leader, whose mother was raised Catholic, said, "By doing holy things."

I disagreed. "By refusing to convert so you got killed with lots of blood and torture," I said--kids this age love lots of blood and torture. 

"And then, by having people say that your memory created miracles," said my partner-mom. 

I think we did a fairly good job of explaining Catholic Sainthood--observed by the Atheist mom and grandma. At least, we have had no complaints so far. 

I am so grateful that I live in that small part of the world where my wonderful girls can visit a Cathedral and not fear hostility or harassment no matter what their explanations of the Great Unknown. 

I wish, so much, that people who are afraid of Muslims--or Mormons--or Jews--or Baptists--or Lutherans--or Catholics--or Atheists--or White People--or Brown People--or mixed-race people--could get to know our girls. They are splendid folk and I love them deeply. I am a peaceful soul, but I would physically fight anyone who harassed any of them or made them feel small. Though, right now, they are small people,  they won't be for long. They will, all of them, improve our world, so filled are they with ideas, and energy and enthusiasm and love. 

Advice for Job Search Informational Interview Calls--Research, Research, Research

A friend is looking to make a career change and asked me to check out her script for requesting informational interviews. 

Her script was good, but too generic for my (limited) experience. I suggested she personalize it, and to show her how, gave some examples. 

Hello, X. My name is Bubbles McBubbles.  And I am very interested in (Food prep safety/Elephant art-therapy/in-house editing for lawyers’ briefs/brief design for men) 
because I have always been passionate about (How biology, eating and commerce connect/Red vs. Blue states in elephant culture/How to make legal briefs both legally cutting and unsoporific/the comfort factor for men’s equipment--the secret is in the gussets.) 


Jane Doe said that you were the most knowledgeable person she knows on the subject. My research on your work with (Lettuce prep/Elephant's and Picasso's Blue Period/Snoozing over briefs/sweat-wicking crotch fabric) confirms that I would love to meet with you (briefly, of course) to discuss your career path and your work in this field. 


So, I was using humor to make my point, but I want to make sure that I am actually helping my friend. And be honest, I am not that experienced in job interviews or cold-calling. If you have suggestions, please figure out how the heck you get into Google and post them. I'll pass them on to my friend. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Block Party Surprises--Glen Campbell's Last Song

Who would imagine it? At a block party? That ultimate American experience, where we petition to block traffic on one block, and haul out the grill and lawn chairs, water balloons and sidewalk chalk, and everybody stands around and talks while the children go haywire? 

This wasn't our block. It was two blocks down, but we walk through their block so much that we know everyone and thus were invited. The children were a colorful crew--Asian mom's with African-American-looking children, very tall white German Catholics with Asian-looking children, white parents with adopted African-American kids, and as always in this area, a lot of little blondes and red-heads. Everybody was damp from the water balloons, and mostly wearing great big smiles. 

My oldest chased around a busy baby for a bit, hauling her away from the bottom of the slide and the swings, and announced he wants to become a certified babysitter through the Y. 

One family and brought their amplifier and microphones, while a teenager had loaned her keyboard and a guitar. After some moms sang folk-ish songs, the guitar mom accompanied a slew of children in The Minnesota Spider, which is just like The Itsy Bitsy Spider only colder. 

The Minnesota spider climbed up the water spout
Down came the snow and washed the spider out
Out came the sun but it didn't do a thing.
So the Minnesota spider will have to wait till spring. 




"And we'll all join in on the second verse," said the Mom, "which is exactly the same as the first one. And let's sing it again. And again. And again." 

After that, another neighbor came forward, his mother in tow. Jamie is short, maybe because his feet splay out to either side. His glasses are thick. He wore a nice suit. He has several disabilities including autism and something that makes vision a challenge, so he had to put stickers on the keyboard to make sure that he could find the right notes. He lives downstairs from his parents. "I'm going to play Glen Campbell's last song," he said in his flat, level way.  "In honor of my father, who has Alzheimer's."  

And I knew I was in trouble. I was going to bawl like a baby over someone that I loved who died of Alzheimer's, someone who was a musician, like Glen Campbell. 

But Jamie needed an audience, so I pulled up a chair, put my cowboy hat on, and gave him my attention. 

He sang as simply as he speaks, mostly matter of saying the words on the right notes. Which is perfect, really. The song has a simple melody and simple words. And sometimes, the more the singer gets out of the way, the more power the song has. 

I'm still here, but yet I'm gone. 
I don't play guitar or sing my songs
The never defined who I am.
The man that loves you 'til the end.

You're the last person I will love.
You're the last face I will recall.
And best of all--
I'm not gonna miss you
I'm not gonna miss you
I'm not gonna miss you.

I'm never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids.
You're never gonna see it in my eyes.
It's not gonna hurt me when you cry.

I'm never know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain. 
One thing selfishly remains--

I'm not gonna miss you.
I'm not gonna miss you. 

I was gone at the end of the first line. I pushed the hat down and turned my face lower and just listened. I didn't want to be the focus of attention--this was Jamie's performance. Still, it's honest emotion and no shame. 

My oldest held my hand, and then went to get my husband, who sat with his hand tightly wrapped around mine. Jamie's mother put her hand on my back. A little girl ran up to her father. "What's she doing?" I heard her ask. 

My youngest said later, "That's because kids think that grownups never cry." 

"Well," I said, laughing. "I sure taught her." 

Afterwards, Jamie's mother said, "It's an awful disease." It sure is. Like schizophrenia, where the person you know disappears. With Alzheimer's they forget everything, even how to swallow. 

When he was done, I thanked Jamie for his singing. I said he had made me cry which was a gift. He didn't understand, of course, that's not the way his brain works, but it was a great gift all the same. 

And then, I wiped my eyes, and got up and went to talk to the neighbors some more. A nice crowd. Several families happily settled. One woman afraid of pursing her dream. Three kids with disabilities--those are the ones we know of. Divorced families, whole families. One troubled child had a melt-down, one parent didn't deal with the troubled child melt-down, one neighbor took care of it for him, one step-mother held herself together and didn't interfere. (I bucked her up.) Quiet happiness, quiet pain, quiet courage. Community the way it should be. Nobody perfect, everybody connected. 

It's a great gift. 






Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Transformative Power of Art--Billy Elliot, Film and Musical



I know that the film version of Billy Elliot was so long ago that the actor is a grown man, starring in the AMC series Turn: Washington's Spies, and being followed as a "hunk" by paparazzi. (I think Mr. Bell smolders beautifully in Turn, and manages to find every last tiny drip of humor in the role, which is to say, at least five drips per five episodes--they didn't write this guy for laughs.) 

I know it's been a while since I saw the play because my oldest was little, though I brought him, knowing most of it would fly over his head, but that metaphors would sink in. And Billy Elliot, both film and musical, (both directed by Stephen Daldry and choreographed by Peter Darling) is filled with metaphors, about individual freedom, family love, community, politics and most especially about dance, which is to say about an art form that uses the body as its medium. 

The story takes place in a town at war with itself and its country, a tightly knit and narrow community more than decimated by Margaret Thatcher's decision to break the mining unions, a town literally invaded by its own police. 

The film shows this by having the Billy and his young quasi-friend, Debbie, walk down the street, Debbie, oblivious, dragging a a brick wall, a fence that has painted figures of strikers, and the riot shields of a line of police, like an invading army. The police also serve as a 
metaphor for the communities restrictions against Billy's dancing and his friend, Michael's homosexuality. Thus, we've got a doubly-powerful metaphor, one you'd think that a stage, with its limitations would be hard pressed to beat. 



You'd be wrong. In the theater, the battles between rioters and police literally spill into the classroom where Billy and the little girls hang onto Police officers batons, and both sets of fighting men serve as the ballet bar rather than a wooden bar along a wall. There is no escaping suppression and violence, not even in a shabby, shoddy little dance class where a bored, irritable teacher struggles to give her talentless students some sparkle. 

And yet, dance--art, expression--is precisely what the inhabitants of this town seek, whether it's Billy's friend's longing to tap dance with giant women's dresses 


or Billy dancing out his rage at his father's opposition to the ballet. (on stage, against a backdrop of riot shields).
Or Billy's grandmother wistfully recalling Saturday nights spent with her husband, a man who's brutality ruled her life. 

And it's in these extraordinary explosions of longing and desire, as the need for self-expression and connection rails against the narrow walls of society, that Billy Elliot transcends its little Ugly Duckling story and becomes, instead, a musical about the music in all of us, and how it longs to break free. 

And nowhere is that more clearly expressed than in the Grandmother's Song, as this woman, memories dribbling away from her, tells her grandson the most important things she has learned from life while explaining about what a bastard Billy's grandda was. 

As she begins her song, a line of ominous men appear on the edge of the stage, beer mugs in one hand, wooden chairs in the other. They set the chairs on the ground in one-handed push-ups, their feet in the air, a rolling wave that streams onto the stage as: 
"But we'd go dancing," she sings. "And he'd hold me tight. He was air, he was water, he was breath, he was light. And he would hold me there with all his might and it was bliss for an hour or so. And then it was time to go. 

And in the morning, we were sober. 

This wave of drunken, powerful, angry men continues to roll past Billy and his grandmother, leaving four standing tall beside her.
"I suppose times were hard," she sings. "Things were different then. Women were women, and men were men. Seventeen, that was it. Your life ended when you had a ring around your finger.

And she dances up the line of men of hard-eyed men holding drink and cigarettes in one hand and dreams in the other. 

But we'd go dancing. He was me own Brando. And for a moment then, life had a glow. We had dust" (implied coal, implied star) "in our hair, and nowhere to go. But we were free for an hour or three from the people we had to be."

"But in the morning," as always, "we were sober.


Here, the men gymnast or stumble their way into the darkness, leaving a chaos of chairs behind. 

And the grandmother brings her grandson back into the song, singing to him that, if she had it to do again, she'd do it without the help of men." And you see how the choreographer brings the child into the chaos, into this transmission of wisdom--as much as Grandma has to share--as she erupts in anger-tinged joy for just a moment: 
She'd have "gone dancing, and not give a shit. Spin around and reel and love every bit, and I'd be me for an entire life, instead of somebody's wife.

"And I never," she says finally, back to her usual, shuffling old self, "would be sober.

(Two different versions of Grandmother's song are available on Youtube. If you can't see the whole show, I encourage you to watch these. The first stars Carole Shelley and the second, Lola Nixon. Both are extraordinary, as is the song, the lighting, the direction/choreography and the supporting performances.) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMS18ShVrZw This is Carole Shelley


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOFDasdTxrE  This is Lola Nixon.