The Irony of Fate

When Stephen lived in St. Petersburg, he learned about the Russian classic movie, Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!; The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy your Bath!) and bought us a dvd of it.

I watched that and also the sequel, Ирония судьбы: Продолжение (Ironiya sudby 2; The Irony of Fate 2). In the sequel, the original actors continue the story, now 30 years later. Can you think of any other movies in which the story line continues that long, with the actors aging naturally?

The movie is a sad love story, but also a farce, with slapstick, rampant misunderstandings, demonstrations of the limits of logic, and still, strikingly honest and insightful comments on the human condition. It shows some of the best and worst of Russia.

It’s easy to understand why watching Ironiya sudby has become a New Year’s Eve tradition in Russia. We followed that tradition here in two parts, the first on New Year’s Day and the second last night. In between, Emily and Stephen prepared a special Russian dinner, including borscht, salade Olivier, and blinis with herring, salmon, onions, and creamed butter.

Zhenya and Nadya were the same as always. He’s 36, a talented surgeon, but nerdy and shy. It’s not clear where his life is going next or what he wants to commit to doing. Nadya is a literature teacher, beautiful, but also somewhat shy and unsure of herself. Together with Galya and Ippolit they stumble through a bizarre, yet oddly-believable, sequence of events in which they learn what matters most.

If you were to hear the plot ahead of time, you’d not only lose some of the fun, but you might wrongly conclude that it’s contrived and silly. Instead, that plot becomes a muted background, which the viewer quickly catches onto. It then serves like the click-clack of a train (here, the faceless architecture of the Brezhnev era), with the real action going on inside the railroad cars.

I especially like the guitar-accompanied songs, which are based on poems by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and others. They fit with the story, and they’re sung in full.

See additional posts of mine on movies.

Moving the world: A celebration of writing and community

Parc de la Tête d'Or, Lyon, Sergio Canobbio

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to attend a significant literary event, called Moving the World: A Celebration of Writing and Community.

Over a three-hour period, I heard essays, letters, poems, and collaborative writing, but also saw drawings and paintings. I got to meet with the artists and to ask them questions about their work. The intellectual and artistic quality as well as the variety of the works were outstanding. The program was beautifully organized by Patrick Berry and Cory Holding.

An event such as this one is not uncommon; what made this one special was that it was held in the chapel of the Danville Correctional Center, and the artists were all inmates. They showed off the work they’ve done through courses offered by the Education Justice Project (EJP), led by Rebecca Ginsburg. EJP is a response to the abundant evidence showing that

College-in-prison programs reduce arrest, conviction, and reincarceration rates among released prisoners. Evidence has also linked the presence of college-in-prison programs to fewer disciplinary incidents within prison, finding that such programs produce safer environments for prisoners and staff alike. College-prison programs also have benefits for inmates’ families and, hence, their communities.

Captured Potential, Larry Brent

The EJP is an outstanding effort to help young men who want to become better family and community members. If you had experienced Moving the World, you’d at least have seen inmate-students focusing their energies on reading and writing, on reflecting about their lives, families, and communities, and perhaps most significantly, engaged in how they can make positive contributions to the world both inside and outside the prison.

As I said, the quality of the writing and the oral performances was superb. I was impressed with nearly all of the works. One, entitled “Progressive tears: A prisoner’s retrospective cry for Dewey’s help,” asked the philosopher John Dewey whether his progressive vision was still relevant today. Do we as a people still believe in equality and justice? Do we still see education as a means for building a better society? One may wonder, since the use of Pell Grants for prisoners was eliminated in 1994, and most prison college programs have closed.

Another essay asserts “We all want the same things.” It shows that both prisoners and ordinary people on the outside want prisoners to turn from crime to productive citizenship. Other works included letters to family members, poems, reflections on life. The painting, “Captured potential,” and its accompanying text, express well both the tragedy of prison and the possibilities. I doubt whether anyone made it through the event with dry eyes.

You can see some of the writing itself in the National Gallery of Writing.

An event like Moving the World makes the drudgery and nonsense of many other parts of life much more bearable. I not only enjoyed it in the sense of savoring, rather than counting, the moments, I was also impressed by the obvious thoughtfulness, organization, and high standards that went into it. I now understand why one instructor said that her participation has raised the standards back at the university.


Schopenhauer’s porcupines

Several years ago, I read Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy, by Deborah Anna Luepnitz.

It’s a fascinating book, and you don’t need to be a Schopenhauer scholar, a zoologist, or a psychotherapy patient to get a lot out of it. The entry card instead is being someone who relates to others or would like to do so.

It was there that I encountered Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines, the last of many from his Studies in pessimism:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Schopenhauer presents his parables as telling us just how life is, but Luepnitz takes this one in a constructive way. She shows through five case studies how we all have simultaneous needs and fears for intimacy, thus creating a dilemma for full living. As she puts it (p. 19):

Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.

I was impressed with the book. Coincidentally, shortly after reading it, I had dinner in Philadelphia with a couple, one of whom was her patient.


  • Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2002). Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1891). The essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; Studies in pessimism (tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders). London: Swan Sonnenschein.

The Soloist (2009)

The Soloist (2009) is an excellent film based on the true-life book, The Soloist by Steve Lopez. Lopez is a Los Angeles Times columnist who discovers Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard School dropout, who becomes schizophrenic and homeless, living on the streets of LA.

Ayers is a classically-trained cellist, who now has only a two string violin to play and instead of a concert stage, an urban tunnel or street corner. Lopez wonders how Ayers can stand to play in those conditions, but Ayers tells him that “the only thing that I hear is the music and the applause of the doves and the pigeons.” Ayers is hooked and decides to write a series of feature articles in the Times.

Robert Downey Jr. portrays  Lopez in the movie, and Jamie Foxx portrays Ayers. The two main characters give terrific performances, as do the actual homeless extras from the Lamp Community.

Ayers’s story makes us wonder about the many other homeless people in LA and elsewhere. As Lamp says,

Close to 74,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles–more than in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco combined. Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a 52-block area east of the downtown business district, has the highest concentration of homelessness in the United States. More than half of the homeless men and women in this area are chronically homeless, meaning they struggle with a mental or physical disability and have been living on the street for years.

That relatively greater challenge in LA doesn’t of course diminish the shameful job we do across the US in dealing with homelessness. The book, Ayers’s music, and the movie all reinforce Jane Addams’s view that art and cultural activities can reduce our isolation form one another, and reinforce essential human: “Social Life and art have always seemed to go best at Hull-House.”

The DVD includes features with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers, and also, Beth’s Story, an animated short telling another story of homelessness:


Addams, Jane (1930). The second twenty years at Hull-House: September 1909 to September 1929. New York, Macmillan.

The birth of computer networking

I had arrived at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) in the summer of 1971, knowing of the important work there in artificial intelligence, computer simulations in psychology, and natural language understanding. But I understood only vaguely the explosive potential of the work on computer networking.

Computer Networks – The Heralds of Resource Sharing was a movie made to accompany the public demo of the ARPANET at the 1st International Conference on Computer Communications in Washington DC in October, 1972, about a year after my arrival. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t finished in time for the demo, but it was released before the end of that year. I didn’t have anything to do directly with the movie or the work described, but knew many of the people and projects that are featured.

The movie represents both a thoughtful account and a primary source itself for the general history of computing and communication. It also tells us about successful collaboration–how participants at the time themselves described it. I think it also gives a good account of the motivations behind the ARPANET, forerunner of the Internet, and a good basic description of how it works.

Faubourg Tremé

Just to the Northwest of the French Quarter lies a neighborhood that few tourists visit, and many have never heard of, called Faubourg Tremé. Much of the area now appears bleak with Interstate Highway 10 bisecting it, industrial yards, and boarded up buildings. But it’s one of the most important neighborhoods in American history, and still has meaning for today. There are efforts to restore Faubourg Tremé and to learn what it has to tell us.

faubourg_tremeA recent, award-winning documentary tells the fascinating story, made all the more compelling by relating it to the life of a young reporter for the Times-Picauyune. The film is Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. Reporter Lolis Eric Elie leads us in his discoveries about his own city. He and director Dawn Logsdon show the relation between the city’s present and its rich past, enlivened throughout by music, including Derrick Hodge’s original jazz score, the Tremé Song by John Boutté, and a century of New Orleans music.

Viewers also meet Irving Trevigne, Elie’s seventy-five year old Creole carpenter, who descends from over two hundred years of skilled craftsmen, as well as Paul Trevigne, editor of L’Union, the first black newspaper in the US. L’Union and later, the Tribune, were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery, but beyond that, for full citizenship and social equality for all blacks, something most northern abolitionists shied away from. They hear from Louisiana Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey, musician Glen David Andrews, and historians John Hope Franklin and Eric Foner as well.

armstrong_park_Congo Squre cFaubourg Tremé was home to the largest community of free black people in the Deep South during slavery, where they published poetry and wrote and conducted symphonies. It was a racially-integrated community, a model for our own future. It as also possibly the oldest black neighborhood in America, the home of the Civil Rights movement and the birthplace of jazz. (See Congo Square to the right.)

Long before Rosa Parks, Tremé residents organized sit-ins on streetcars leading to their eventual desegregation. But on June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy from Tremé deliberately challenged the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act, by insisting on sitting in a whites-only car on a commuter train. He was arrested, tried, and convicted and eventually lost in the infamous Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. The resulting “separate-but-equal” decision legitimized segregation throughout the US for the next 62 years, and was a major blow to Tremé.

Following later assaults from urban renewal, Interstate Highway 10, and then Hurricane Katrina, it’s surprising that anything remains in Tremé. But one thing that has survived is a sense of history, embedded deep in the music, dance, architecture, social relations, and stories of the community. It is this history which holds a promise for the renewal of Tremé and perhaps of the larger US Society.

The film is a must-see, telling a story that is simultaneously informative, uplifting, and disturbing.

In This World

in this world-2There are times when a movie just grabs me, despite technical flaws, my low expectations, and even a boring DVD case cover. In This World is one of those. The political message is clear, but understated, conveyed instead by an intimate look at the consequences of war and greed on the lives of decent people.

The movie presents a fictitious journey that conveys disturbing truths of life “in this world” we inhabit. Although it’s low-key and rough as cinema, it produces an intimate connection to its characters, Afghan refugees Jamal and Enayatullah, as they travel from Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshāwar, Pakistan, across Pakistan, through Iran, Turkey, Italy and France, towards London.

ITW_trailerLike thousands of others every year, their desperation feeds the multibillion dollar human smuggling business, an unconscionable stain on any of our pretensions to justice. The smuggling fuels crime, violence, corruption, illegal drug trade, and too often leads to death, no longer being “in this world.”

The actors are Afghan refugees themselves, and the encounters in the movie elide life and art. I was fascinated by the places they moved through, and their resourcefulness in learning how to cope with diverse languages and unscrupulous people.

The camps near Peshāwar are filled with people displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and later, US bombing. UNHCR says that there are currently “1.7 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, with 45 percent residing in refugee villages and the rest scattered among host communities.” But the total, including children born to refugees, may be several million. The humanitarian crisis is compounded now by two million civilians fleeing the fighting in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.

Even though the story is depressing about our institutions, I finished it feeling hopeful about our human capacity. I wanted to travel the modern silk road and more still to learn about the world of these refugees and the policies that lead to their plight.

Cooking up a storm

9780811865777_normFrom Cooking up a Storm, ©2008 Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker. Used with permission of Chronicle Books, San Francisco

Residents of New Orleans lost their homes, their neighborhoods and schools, their jobs and businesses, and the lives of family members because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The effect on the community was devastating as has been documented in books and movies, e.g., Katrina’s Children and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. To this day major areas, such as the Ninth Ward, are still struggling to recover.

Of all the losses, losing keepsakes and family treasures was especially hard. One category had an especially acute impact on a city famous for its food: Residents lost their family recipe files. These included the family recipes handed down by generations, as well as those clipped from newspapers, such as the The Times-Picayune. Without these recipes the task of rebuilding families and communities was made much harder.

As residents started to rebuild their lives, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans became a post-hurricane swapping place for old recipes that were washed away in the storm. The newspaper has compiled 250 of these delicious, authentic recipes along with the stories about how they came to be and who created them. Cooking Up a Storm [Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans] includes the very best of classic and contemporary New Orleans cuisine, from seafood and meat to desserts and cocktails. But it also tells the story, recipe by recipe, of one of the great food cities in the world, and the determination of its citizens to preserve and safeguard their culinary legacy.

The collective effort to reconstruct family recipe collections is positive counterpoint to all of the negative stories that came out of the Katrina disaster. It’s a wonderful example of community informatics—people coming together to address a common need, making use of newspapers, fax, email, digital archives, and other communication tools.

The book is edited by Marcelle Bienvenue and Judy Walker. You can learn more about it in NPR’s story: ‘Cooking Up A Storm’: Recipes From The Big Easy.

Teaching as bringing to life

During the time of the semester when grades are due, it’s difficult to ignore the aspects of the teaching job that involve judging, ranking, sorting, and critiquing in the sense of finding and documenting fault. But these aspects have little to do with teaching, and usually stand in the way. When one is learning, it can be helpful to know where one has gone wrong, but more often the wrong is painfully obvious and what we need even more is to know what of our fragile attempts can be brought to life. For that, we need critique in another sense, one that’s a friend to the new, brings ideas to life, and makes quality vivid.

Anton Ego, Michel Foucault, and Elliot Eisner speak to this issue:

We critics risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism for it’s fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. –the critic, Anton Ego, Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.–Michel Foucault

If connoisseurship is the art of appreciation, criticism is the art of disclosure. Criticism, as Dewey pointed out in Art as Experience, has at is end the re-education of perception… The task of the critic is to help us to see. Thus…connoisseurship provides criticism with its subject matter. Connoisseurship is private, but criticism is public. Connoisseurs simply need to appreciate what they encounter. Critics, however, must render these qualities vivid by the artful use of critical disclosure. –Elliot Eisner, 1985, pp. 92-93


Eisner, Elliot W. (1985). The art of educational evaluation: a personal view. London: Falmer.

Foucault, Michel (1980, April). The masked philosopher. Le Monde, interview by Christian Delacampagne.

Smith, Mark K. (2005). Elliot W. Eisner, connoisseurship, criticism and the art of education. The encyclopaedia of informal education.

Stake, Robert E., & Schwandt, Thomas (2006). On discerning quality in evaluation. In Ian Shaw, Jennifer C. Greene, & Melvin M. Mark (eds.), Handbook of evaluation: Policies, programs and practices. Sage.

“The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun”

I walk by a wonderful video rental store, called That’s Rentertainment, on my way to and from work. It has an amazing collection of foreign and independent films, anime, TV, and documentaries, as well as knowledgeable staff. The prices are good, too, so it often makes sense to take a chance on a movie I’ve never heard about before. One of these was director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s, The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (Slottet, or The Castle in Danish).

The description won’t appeal to everyone, and at times it may seem slow or disjointed. But it’s an unexpectedly good movie.

The true story is about Jørgen Laursen Vig, who lives alone in the derelict Hesbjerg Castle near Odense. His lifelong dream has been to create a monastery. Nearing the end of his life he turns to Russia and invites the Russian Patriarchate to use his castle as the site. They send Nun Amvrosija and a few others to assess the situation and begin the process of creating the monastery. As anyone might suspect, there are good intentions in the beginning, but problems arise as it becomes more a reality.

Through these events the film explores friendship, and what Allan Berg Nielsen describes in an excellent essay as The Manifold Nature of Love. It’s about life dreams, loss, and the challenge of opening up to others. Grønkjær (see photo), the director, is the interviewer, and becomes entwined at times in these questions.

At one point, Vig becomes frustrated with Nun Amvrosija. They argue about trivial things, while not addressing the larger issues. Perhaps he feels he’s losing control of the project. Referring to her, he says:

Vig: It’s hard to argue with people who are always right. Who don’t …
Grønkjær (interviewing): What if she came here just as much for you as for the monastery?
Vig: For me? I don’t know how to react to that. It’s the project we’re talking about, not me. Because that’s not what is needed.

A little later he grows discouraged, and puzzled:

Vig: I can’t solve all the problems.
Grønkjær: It’s not a problem, Vig.
Vig: Perhaps they’re problems you women have.
Grønkjær: We haven’t any problems.
Vig: You have feelings, or whatever. Things like that are not my business. I stay out of it.

That excerpt suggests the movies is about gender. It is, but one could also say that it’s about age, religion, nationality, language, and more than anything, about people trying to come together about things they both want, but struggle to achieve.

Nun Amvrosija writes to Mr. Vig:

Dear Mr. Vig, We were together for almost five years. We were very different, yet we were doing the same thing. We often disagreed with each other. But the Lord directs everything in His wisdom. Our Lord laid this gift in your hands. A gift which I believe opened the gates of paradise to you. I wish for the kingdom of heaven and eternal peace. Dear Mr. Vig, servant of Our Lord.

Vig is not only a fascinating character in the movie, but must have been throughout his life as well. See his East-West Seminar at Hesbjerg, 1995.

Today the monastery is run by Nun Amvrosija. A Russian Orthodox priest comes from Copenhagen to carry out the services. The Russian Patriarchate and the Hesbjerg Foundation now set the future plans for the monastery.