Saturday, January 31, 2015


I'm in a bit of a mood and today's post will probably be disgusting and profane.  If you are sensitive about body humor or cussing, you'd best move on...  I truly aim not to offend.

Yesterday was not such a good day for me.  About an hour after I woke up, I got a cold sore.  I vented about it on a Facebook page called "Stuttgart Vents".  This is what I posted.

Here's a fucking vent. A pox on whatever or whomever caused me to have a cold sore today. It's bad enough when I go on the rag over the weekend; now I have to deal with a damn herpes sore on my mouth. Will have to kill it with booze.

I was cheered up a little when a few other people joined in on the fun.  The actual discussion regarding cold sores was minimal.  Soon we were posting pictures of cocktails and I was bragging on Bill.  Then I was confronted by a bastard.  This guy wrote...

Nothing like a good period and herpes story to really get the weekend going. Gross.

I responded...

Oh, grow up. I'm not on the rag right now; I just have a cold sore, which I didn't even photograph. Besides, if it weren't for periods, you wouldn't exist. At least I didn't include any photos of feminine hygiene products. Get over yourself and be glad you aren't female.

He comes back with...

I'm grown, thanks. Here I was, thinking that I came about from sexual intercourse that led to cell division, but nope, it was just a plain old period. Thanks for enlightening me. Maybe there are some things we can keep to our various herpes infections and details on our menstrual cycles? That would be nice. (so sad that two women like this comment... they probably don't have a fucking clue about how condescending this dude is...)

To which I said...

The group is called Stuttgart Vents, isn't it? How am I supposed to know what's going to gross *you* out? I get grossed out by pictures of naked genitalia but you don't see me bitching about it. I either hide the offending post or block the person who annoys me. You could do the same.

And he said...

It's called Stuttgart Vents, not Stuttgart Overshares.

So my response was...

Right, but who made YOU the sole decision maker as to what is considered oversharing? I don't know you from Adam, so how could I possibly know that posting about a common cold sore and a monthly process all healthy women go through was going to offend you? I promise I did not wake up yesterday with the idea of upsetting you with my post. I was just venting. Besides, this post was only obliquely skimming on oversharing territory and, in fact, had moved on from the original topic before you chimed in with your concerns about Internet etiquette. We were posting about cocktails and I was praising my husband for making one before you had to go there with your squeamishness. I sincerely apologize that you were "grossed out" by my post. I will try to be more considerate of *your feelings* in the future.

Maybe this cold sore has put the proverbial bee in my bonnet.  Because on the same page, there is a post about someone wanting to rent a wheelchair for a "two day period".  Naturally, the person just wanted a wheelchair for two days, but other people-- *not me*-- immediately moved on to the topic of menstruation.  I wrote this...

I'll refrain from saying anything. Wouldn't want to remind people that women have periods. It's too "gross".

Another guy wrote...

Don't you mean groß?

And I responded...

LOL... If it only lasts two days, it probably is pretty groß.

Maybe today, I'll go out of my way to post about nasty body processes like shitting, pissing, and passing blood and the lining of my uterus through a hole between my legs every 30 days just to gross out the guy whose crotch obviously hurts.  I'd say his pussy hurts, but that would be giving him way too much credit.  Everybody knows vaginas are actually pretty tough. 

"Some people don't want you to say this... Some people don't want you to say that..."

George says it best.  

Men who get offended by the mere topic of menstruation always strike me as being more than a little misogynistic.  That guy's tone toward me was way more offensive than my oblique reference to cold sores and periods.  I bet he's the type of guy who just sees women as a life support system for a vagina and doesn't want to think about the icky, real, human things that all women face.  And imagine me, expecting a grown man to take responsibility for his experiences on the Internet.  The truth is, you're not always going to like what someone else posts online.  There are things you can do to minimize their effect on you before you ask them to try to guess what's going to offend you and consider your feelings-- and yours alone-- before they make a posting.    

Caroline Williams tells the truth about periods...

Right after I encountered this Facebook confrontation, I read about Amy Duggar, nee Amy Jordan, who just confessed that she was born out of wedlock.  In the old days, they would have called her a bastard child.  To those who are shocked that a member of the Duggar family was born out of wedlock, she says...

"The tabloids are telling the truth, my mom and dad did have me out of wedlock. Just because we are Christians doesn't make us perfect, it just makes us forgiven...

Just because I share the Duggar name doesn't mean my life is perfect!"
Mmmkay, well Amy, I would never in my lifetime ever suggest that being a Duggar makes you perfect.  As I am reminded on a daily basis thanks to constant postings about them on the Internet, Duggars are far from perfect people.  And Amy, if I understand it, you went by the name Jordan until your uncle became famous and you decided to wanted to be a country singer.  Isn't that sort of lying about who you are?  Why would you arbitrarily change your perfectly good last name of Jordan to Duggar if it wasn't about show biz?  Wonder what Jesus thinks of that shit?  Oh right.  You are forgiven because you are a "Christian".  Alright then.

The truth is, I don't give a rat's ass whether or not Amy Jordan Duggar's parents were married when she was born.  I certainly wouldn't judge Amy for being what used to be referred to as a "bastard" child.  It's not like she could have helped it.  I honestly don't see why this is news, other than the fact that the Duggars are so outspoken about the "right" way to live and don't even hug before they marry.  Indeed, were the Duggars seemingly less inclined to get involved with politics and trying to change the way other people live their lives, they would be just an amusing blip on the radar.  

Anyhoo... it's time for breakfast.  I'm feeling a bit pissed off right now.  Bacon and eggs will cure that.

ETA:  The bastard came back for more...

A different guy wrote...

and right below this on my screen is the admins 2-day period post...guess we know where the boundaries are, right? you go girl!

Bastard's response...

One thing was a joke, the other was not. I am not grossed out by periods, but I really don't want to open this page to 300 posts by one woman, most of which are about her personal medical issues and her problems with her periods. Its not my feelings that are at stake, its a simple matter of nobody wants to read that shit.

I come here for amusing stories about the community we live in, or other related issues, not to read your personal blog.

And my response...

Once again, you are speaking for people other than YOURSELF. My guess is that some people "don't want to read that shit", some people couldn't care less, and some can commiserate. Take some responsibility for your Internet experiences and stop trying to tell other people what they can and can't post.

And another woman's response to Bastard...

Dear sweet Jesus, Bastard, I think you might be better on SF not SV. On SV people say real things that may hurt your baby soft duckling sweet fucking sensibilities.

My final comment...

You have the option of blocking people whose postings upset or annoy you. I certainly won't be offended if you choose to avail yourself of that handy Facebook tool.

If he's smart, he'll fuck off.  So glad I don't have better things to do on a Saturday.

ETA again...  He came back with a profane rant.  I didn't take the time to read it.  Instead, I wrote "You know what?  I am done arguing with you."  Then I blocked him.  Should have done that hours ago.

Friday, January 30, 2015

English lit is bullshit...

I was thinking about writing more about my upcoming dental drama, but decided to write about something more interesting.  When I was a young woman in college, I majored in English.  I chose English as my major because I enjoy writing and it's something that comes relatively easily for me.  I also chose it because I figured writing was a skill that will always be in demand (I was naive) and frankly, I didn't know what else I could do.  That was before I knew I had musical talent, but even if I had majored in music, I'd probably be in the same position I am in right now.  I am not really what you'd call a "go getter".  I am also one of those people that tends to be loved or hated.

Anyway, this morning I was reading Alexis's blog and we got to discussing Robert Frost.  Robert Frost, as you probably know, was a great American poet.  Alexis had referenced one of his most famous poems to describe a situation she is dealing with right now.  I remembered learning that same poem set to music when I was a member of my college's choir.

"Frostiana" (otherwise known as "The Road Not Taken")

In a comment back to me, Alexis wrote that Frost was "incredibly cryptic in his writing."  And, according to Alexis, he would get annoyed when people would ask him what he meant by certain things he wrote.  She explained that he didn't want to discuss the deeper meanings and nuances of his works.  I'm sure it was irritating when pseudo intellectual literature professors or students would assume they knew what his words "really" meant.  I'm sure the prospect of people dissecting his words, looking for some hidden meaning or a look at his soul was unnerving to him.  To me, it seems kind of arrogant to try to figure out a writer's motives more than just enjoying the story.

This clip from Back to School is pretty telling about writers and literature professors...

Alexis's comment about Frost reminded me of an article I read about Flannery O'Connor, who basically had the same thoughts when a literature professor asked her to explain herself.  You can click the link to read her whole response to the professor, but this is the part that I think is pertinent to today's post...

"The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it."

As an English major, I never really understood the full value of analyzing a writer's work, looking for symbolism and hidden meanings.  Now that I'm older, I see that analysis is good for teaching one to look beyond the obvious and find new ways to look at a piece of writing.  As someone who likes to write and used to do a lot of fiction writing back in the day, I wasn't sure I felt all that comfortable with some nameless person reading my words and making assumptions about what I meant.  How can a person really interpret a writer's meaning if they don't know the writer?  Sure, you can learn about history.  You can even learn a writer's life story.  But unless you are inside the author's head, you can't really know how he or she meant their work to be "interpreted" or even if such interpretations would even be welcome.  And if the writer was writing many decades before a reviewer's birth, I would think the lens would be even more skewed.

Reading that post about Flannery O'Connor kind of validated how I felt when I was an English major.  I was a pretty mediocre English major and didn't care too much about a lot of the works I was forced to read, some of them for the second or third time.  I was in classes with many women who intended to be teachers and would be forcing the same books down their future students' throats.  All I really wanted to do was creative writing.  At the time, my college didn't offer creative writing as an option and even if I had wanted to pursue it, I am sure my parents would have vetoed it.  Or maybe they wouldn't have.  Although I am a creative person, I am also very practical and don't wish to be a starving artist...  Thanks to Bill, it's highly unlikely I will ever will be one.

On the other hand, I kind of wonder how people interpreted what the writer of this piece meant...

Talk about a smelly headline.  Wonder if the SCAT team responded...

I wasn't going to write about this, but I feel impressed to share something with my few regular readers.  As you may know, Bill and I visited a dentist the other day.  I got the news that it's time for an extraction or a root canal.  We are leaning toward the extraction so I can be done worrying about this diseased baby tooth I have.  Anyway, I asked on the local Facebook page if anyone could offer me anecdotes about their experiences getting an implant done by this particular dentist.  My post was pretty clear as to what I was looking for.

Another dentist, an American just starting a new dental practice nearby, piped in and invited me to come in for a consult.  I am certain he's competent, but if I'm honest, it kind of turns me off for a dentist trying to poach customers from a colleague on Facebook.  Indeed, the fact that this guy was on Facebook in the afternoon also turned me off a bit, even though I know he's just now building his business.  I don't have a problem with that or even Facebook advertising, but when someone specifically asks about a doctor's or a dentist's work, it does seem tacky for another doctor or dentist to chime in and try to steer that person to his or her practice, especially on Facebook.  But perhaps all is fair in love and dentistry... and maybe, like some folks on RfM concluded, he has a boat to pay for.  As everybody knows, dental implants aren't cheap and I'm sure he'd love a few new customers that need that kind of work done.  

As an addendum, it always surprises me how carelessly people read things online...  Quite a few people seemed to think I was looking for advice when I was really just kind of venting.  But I did appreciate some of the comments anyway, which came from people who had been there and done what I'm about to go through very soon.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Girl gets slut shamed at Utah school dance...

Okay, so maybe she wasn't technically "slut shamed".  The school officials just asked her to cover her shoulders.  Wouldn't want anybody getting a hard on at the sight of a woman's bare shoulders, would we?

16 year old Gabi Finlayson and her mom picked out a beautiful and classy dress while they were on a  trip to Paris over the holidays.  Gabi has an adorable figure and the dress is very timeless looking and extends well past her knees.  School officials specified that shoulder straps had to be at least two inches wide.  Gabi and her mom thought they were in compliance, but the chaperones at her dance didn't agree.  She ended up wearing a coat all evening and said she felt embarrassed and ashamed instead of beautiful.

In the same article I posted, another teenager from Florida was busted for wearing a skirt deemed too short.  Not content with simply having the girl change clothes, school officials made her wear a florescent colored t-shirt with the words "Dress Code Violation" in large letters on it.

I remember dress codes from when I was a teen.  I don't think they are entirely inappropriate.  Kids in school do need to learn about the types of clothing that are okay to wear in a workplace, for instance. However, I think when it comes to social events like dances, a little leeway is appropriate.  Looking at the photo of Gabi, I don't think her dress was at all in poor taste.  It's tasteful and beautiful and she looks wonderful in it, certainly not sexually provocative.  There's no reason why her evening had to be ruined by an arbitrary rule.

As for the other teen, I can't see why it's necessary to force someone to wear a shaming t-shirt.  While I'm sure the school administrators think the idea of shaming a teenager may force them to be more careful about their dress, I also think such a bright green/yellow t-shirt with the words "Dress Code Violation" must be somewhat distracting to other students.  The t-shirt was designed to be noticeable, after all.  How is that better than wearing a skirt that might be a bit shorter than school officials prefer?

I'm reading about these two school related incidents today, as I also read about a couple dozen kids in a Texas school who were rounded up and forced to drop their pants for school officials because someone had left feces on a gym floor.  So apparently, it's okay to shame and humiliate girls for showing more skin than school officials prefer, but it's also okay for school officials to order kids to drop their pants so their underwear can be inspected for shit stains?

Actually, to his credit, Gustine, Texas school superintendent, Ken Baugh, admits that what staff at the school did was "inappropriate".  It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is done to deal with the school staff members who inappropriately asked these kids to bare it and share it.

Reading about this kind of stuff makes me glad Bill and I have no kids.  It's enough to make anyone want to homeschool.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Glad I have Bill...

So, if you checked out my travel blog, you may know that I need another dental procedure.  This one will very likely involve an extraction.  I am a little freaked out at the prospect of having my tooth removed, but something does need to be done about the infection I've had for the past few months.  I flat out told the dentist that I expected decent pain management.  He said there would be Valium.  I have never had Valium before, so we'll see what it does.

I asked Bill what he was going to do with me after they take out my tooth.  He said he'd put me in the car, take me home, and put me to bed.  He said he'd come with me whether or not they gave me Valium.

The whole thing freaks me out.  I am probably making more out of it than I should.  I am a terrible wimp when it comes to stuff involving my health.

I'd add more to this post, but I have an awful headache and just took Advil PM... I will probably be ready to sleep soon.  I guess we'll be needing to get this process started soon, though some people live for ages with these infections.  I wish my tooth would just fall out.

I'd like to be blindfolded through the whole thing... and knocked out.

Monday, January 26, 2015

God has dandruff...

It's snowing again.  I've been out to shovel the walk twice since I got up less than two hours ago.  It's really coming down pretty hard.  I like snow and this is a nice change from what our last few winters have been like.  At the same time, I kind of miss the sun.  We haven't seen much of it lately.  I see how cold and snowy it is outside and am grateful I have a warm home to go to.  Not everyone is so lucky.

Tomorrow, Bill and I are going to the dentist for cleanings.  I suspect more will need to be done for me, since I still have that area of my gum that is bothering me.  I look forward to having clean teeth, but dread the process of cleaning and the exam.  I fear more dental work could be needed.

I've been reading more articles about World War II, since tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  It still amazes me that I know people who were alive during that time.  It seems like a long time ago, but it really wasn't.  My mom was a child when World War II ended and she's still alive and kicking.

Of course, if it weren't for World War II, I doubt Bill and I would be living in Germany.  War is a terrible thing, but as I have often observed, good things can come out of any situation.  A lot of people died in war, but a lot of people were also born.  Still, reading about the ordeals that Holocaust survivors endured is horrifying.  I am happy they survived, yet I know that they must have been tortured by their memories.  Many of them probably experienced survivor's guilt, too.  I am happy to get the opportunity to live in Germany.  I think it's a good thing.  But when it comes down to it, I'm here because a lot of people died in a war.  The United States set up bases here decades ago and has historically sent many Americans here for work in Europe.  Now the efforts are dwindling somewhat, but I can't deny that I've gotten a lot out of being here and getting to know this culture.

My Uncle Carl's funeral was yesterday.  I'm not sure how many family members were able to attend.  I would have liked to have been there and would have gone if we still lived in the southeastern United States.  My thoughts were with Carl's immediate family yesterday as they laid him to rest.  He was a really fine man.

I wish I had more to write this morning, but I've got nothing really serious on my mind.  Maybe I'll be back later with a rant.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

John Kerry uses James Taylor to smooth things over with the French...

The United States made a faux pas when no high ranking officials were sent to offer condolences and support for a massive unity rally after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.  So Secretary of State John Kerry gets James Taylor to come play his famous cover of Carole King's "You've Got A Friend".

I love JT's music very much, but this was LAME.

He starts by trying to play the French national anthem, as if it's the first time he's ever played it.  He adds in a few phrases in French.  Then the sound is kind of messed up.  Still, it's James Taylor and the French folks in attendance are gracious enough.  Poor James.  This was just very awkward and kind of embarrassing.  It looks pathetic and reminds me a little of this...

BP president and CEO Tony Hayward apologizes for the Gulf oil spill...

Uh huh... you're a sorry motherfucker alright...

Well, I'm sure James Taylor did his best.  Shucks.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Now that I've reposted some book reviews, here's another rant about nannyism...

The other day, I read an article by Lenore Skenazy about a woman who left her ten year old and one year old daughters alone in a car for ten minutes.  The woman's toddler was sleeping and she didn't want to wake her.  The ten year old was very familiar with looking after her sister, having looked after her three siblings.  Mom was in the store for a very short time.  No one got hurt.

Unfortunately, a clerk called the police on mom and law enforcement came out.  The cop who dealt with this woman was in no mood for excuses.  He said she had "neglected" her child.  When mom tried to explain, the cop said "a murderer that has never murdered anyone in the past doesn’t make them any less of a murderer."

Somehow, this mom didn't know she was going to be charged with a crime until she started getting letters from lawyers, looking for her business.  She ended up being charged with a misdemeanor and got six months probation.

I posted about this on Facebook with the comment that my parents totally would have been in trouble with the law had they raised me today the way they raised me in the 70s and 80s.  One of my friends, a mother of two, commented that the mother had broken the law.  I responded that the law is stupid because it retards children's ability to evolve into adulthood.  My friend said that she thinks many laws are stupid, but still obeys them.  At that point, I lost patience and said, "Good for you."

Personally, I probably wouldn't have left kids in the car.  But it wouldn't be because I feared for their safety.  It would be because of busybodies like the store clerk who involve law enforcement at the drop of a hat.  I've been reading way too many stories like this one lately.

Last week, I read about the couple in Silver Spring, Maryland who wanted to let their kids walk home from the park.  These parents are educated and caring.  Their kids knew their way to and from the park, which was located near their home.  Mom and Dad felt the risk wasn't too great to let them exercise some independence.  But apparently, their neighbors felt differently and called the cops.  Now Mom and Dad are in trouble with the law.

I also read about an Arkansas family with seven minor children (two more are grown) who got CPS called on them because neighbors saw their kids running barefoot in the snow.  The cops showed up, along with a CPS worker, who ended up taking the children because the children's father was using a supplement called MMS to purify their garden water.

Naturally, when something like this is in the news, there's lots of controversy.  I just read an op-ed by columnist John Kelly, who empathizes with cops and CPS because they "can't win".  For the record, I agree that child protective services is a tough field.  There are a lot of kids who truly are being abused and neglected.  In fact, I just read about one such case the other day...  Two nine year old brothers were left home alone for 120 days while their parents were in Nigeria.  Somehow, they managed to survive, even without adult supervision.  Make no mistake about it, to me, this is a true case of child neglect.  And yet, these two boys managed to get themselves out of bed, feed themselves, get themselves to school, and basically handled every problem that came along without arousing any suspicion until one of the brothers showed up at school underdressed one day.  Incidentally, the boys' parents are now back from Nigeria and the family is together again.  I guess CPS is okay with the the 120 day absence?

When I was a kid, I was regularly left home alone.  I had three older sisters, but they didn't necessarily babysit me all the time.  I walked to and from the store by myself, rode my bike several miles to and from the barn where I kept my horse, cleaned stalls from the age of 12 in order to help pay for my horse, and basically ran free, where I'd occasionally run into problems with other neighborhood kids.  We worked it out amongst ourselves.

Thanks to all the news we get about kids who are abducted or egregious situations where children are abused or neglected, American society has become obsessed with child safety.  I have nothing against trying to keep kids safe from unnecessary risk.  I just think it's gone overboard.  There's no reason in the world why CPS needs to get heavily involved with a mom who leaves her child unattended for a few minutes while she picks up items at the store.  There's no reason why seven healthy kids need to be taken from their parents because their father uses a supplement for his own health and to purify his water.  And why do we need to get the police involved when two kids who know their way around their neighborhood are allowed to walk home by themselves?  Their parents are competent, educated, and caring individuals.  Why is it that we need to call the cops because someone makes a parenting decision we don't agree with?

Yet another article was posted today about a Missouri doctor and his wife getting a nastygram from a substitute teacher because their daughter reportedly brought an "unhealthy" lunch to school.  As it turned out, the cafeteria worker who told on the girl got their facts wrong.  The substitute teacher who wrote the chastising note also got their facts wrong.  Granted, what the doctor said the daughter had for lunch didn't sound like the healthiest lunch it could be, but really, why is it anyone's damn business?  At least in this case, the parents got an apology and CPS was not involved.

I really think the government is getting way too involved with how people parent their children.  With all the interference that's going on these days, is it any wonder that so many people choose to homeschool their kids so they might not be harassed for raising their kids the way they see fit?  We can't have a one size fits all solution for all parents.  Not all kids are created equal.  Some ten year olds are very independent and capable while some fifteen year olds need supervision.  Parents are the best people to decide what their kids need... unless, of course, there is some proven reason why they aren't.

It's probably a good thing I don't have kids.

And finally, a reposted review of A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy

I read Thomas Buergenthal's book about his experiences at Auschwitz last time we lived in Germany.  Since I am on a roll reposting reviews about the Holocaust, I decided to repost my review of Buergenthal's A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy.

Living to tell about Auschwitz... May 31, 2009 (Updated Sep 12, 2009)

Review by knotheadusc in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:  Beautifully written and ultimately a happy ending.

Cons:  Some horrifying reminders of the Holocaust.

The Bottom Line: The rest of the world is lucky that Thomas Buergenthal was such a lucky child.

Almost two weeks ago, I reviewed a book about a young man who escaped Saddam Hussein's army. That review generated a lot of comments and good discussion and in the course of the discussion, the name Hitler came up. And a week later, I happened to come across Thomas Buergenthal's 2009 book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As a Young Boy. Naturally, I had to read it.

Tommy's story

Thomas Buergenthal was the only son of Mundek and Gerda Buergenthal, a handsome Jewish couple who got engaged three days after they met in 1933. Mundek Buergenthal owned a hotel in Lubochna, a resort town in what is now Slovakia. Gerda's parents had sent their 20 year old daughter for a vacation in hopes of taking her mind off of her non-Jewish boyfriend. Gerda came from Goettingen, Germany, a university town. Her parents were somewhat well-to-do; they owned a shoe store. But at the time, Jews in Goettingen were being harassed by Nazi youths.

Mundek met Gerda at the German-Czech border instead of sending a driver to fetch her. That evening at dinner, Gerda was supposed to be seated at the owner's table. She was surprised to see her driver there. She didn't know he was also the owner of the hotel. They were married a few weeks later and Tommy Buergenthal was born eleven months after that.

The first few years of Tommy's life were somewhat idyllic. But by 1938, the Hlinka Guard, a Slovak fascist group supported by the Nazis, had begun to harass the Jews. Mundek lost his hotel and the little family left Lubochna with only a few suitcases. They moved to Zilina, Slovakia and were able to get by for awhile. Mundek found a job and Gerda learned how to cook. Before long, however, the family was driven from Zilina and into Poland. Mundek had lost his Polish citizenship because he was out of the country for more than five years. Gerda had lost her German citizenship. The family was, in effect, without a country. They had no right to be in Poland or Czechoslovakia... and they didn't want to be in Germany. They were finally able to settle in Katowice, Poland.

One day, Gerda and a friend went to see a fortune teller. The fortune teller was apparently very good at her craft and told Gerda that she was married and had a son and that her son was ein Gluckskind, a lucky child. The fortune teller then added, prophetically, that Gerda's son would emerge from the future unscathed. Although Mundek thought Gerda was silly for believing the fortune teller, Gerda never forgot the encounter. It would give her much hope in the coming years.

The family was set to leave Poland for England on September 1, 1939. Unfortunately, Hitler invaded Poland before they could leave from the Polish port. They were going to try to leave Poland from the Balkans and were on a train heading that way when they were attacked by the Germans. By 1942, Tommy and his family were in a Nazi labor camp. By 1944, they were on their way to Auschwitz. Tommy was just ten years old.

The horrors of Auschwitz

When people ask Thomas Buergenthal about his time at Auschwitz, he tells him he was actually lucky to get in there. He adds that he often gets shocked looks from people when he tells them that, then explains that they were actually sent to Birkenau first. Birkenau is a few kilometers from Auschwitz and that was where the gas chambers and crematoriums were. When people arrived at Birkenau, they were subjected to a "selection". They were lined up and the children, elderly, and invalids were immediately taken to the gas chambers. For some reason, Tommy's group did not go through a selection. They had come from a labor camp and the SS guards had likely assumed that the weak ones had already been gassed. Had there been a selection, Tommy would have been killed immediately.

Tommy and his father were separated into one camp, while Gerda was sent to another. Their heads were shaved; then they were tatooed and issued uniforms. That evening, Tommy witnessed the first of many horrible scenes as a man was beaten to death in front of him. For the next year, young Tommy would be starved and exhausted; yet, he seemed to be as lucky as the fortune teller said he was. He escaped death many times before the Soviets liberated him in April 1945. He was finally reunited with his mother in 1946. And the fact that he was able to reunite with his mom was also a one in a million shot. Unfortunately, his father did not survive the camp.

Tommy Buergenthal ended up in America, where he later studied international law. He became a human rights lawyer, judge, and eventually the dean of the American University's Washington College of Law. Now in his 70s, he wrote this book based on the fuzzy memories of his ordeal. He admits in his preface that had he written this book earlier, he would have had a clearer memory about everything that happened. But having just read this book, I can say that I think the memories he did have were probably enough. Buergenthal and his wife now live in The Hague, Netherlands.

My thoughts

A Lucky Child is a fascinating book. I found it very easy to get into Buergenthal's story, which was alternately horrifying and exciting. After reading about everything that has happened to him, I have to admit that he really was a lucky child. He ran into so many kind people along the way... people who made it possible for him to survive. In one gripping chapter, he describes being moved from Poland to Sachsenhausen in Germany via Czechoslovakia. He and many other prisoners were on a freight train with open cars. When the train first started moving, the car was packed with people and that was enough to keep him warm, albeit uncomfortably squished. But the freezing conditions and lack of food was too much for some of the prisoners to take. They started to die. Soon, it was easy for Tommy to move around, but it was freezing cold and he was starving. As they passed under a couple of bridges in Czechoslovakia, people started dropping loaves of bread into the car. Had it not been for those kind people, it's likely that Tommy and his friends would have died like the others. He was just eleven years old.

I also found Buergenthal's story fascinating because as horrible as his experiences were, he also managed to have quite a few adventures, especially after he was liberated. Again, this was because many kind people had taken him under their wings and saw to it that he made it. He never seems to forget it, either. His attitude toward his benefactors is always appreciative. The fact that Tommy survived Auschwitz also made him somewhat a celebrity.

As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that I've been to a lot of the places Tommy was. He includes a map of Germany and the surrounding areas during World War II. A lot of the cities were familiar to me. This book also includes pictures, which help put faces to the Buergenthal's words. Buergenthal speaks several languages and includes a few foreign words in his text, which he thankfully translates.

One thing that was very clear to me as I read this book is that Thomas Buergenthal's experiences at Auschwitz profoundly changed his view of the world. He describes feeling very irritated with his children who, when they were growing up, hated milk and were picky about food. As a starving inmate at Auschwitz, Tommy and a couple of his friends once risked their lives for a spoonful of milk. He writes that he can't bear to see food wasted, even when it's a stale piece of bread. He'll feed a crust of bread to the birds before he'll throw it away. His perspective on conservation is one that perhaps a lot of people ought to revisit these days.


I marvel at the fact that Thomas Buergenthal is the same age as my parents are and that reminds me that World War II really wasn't that long ago. I think A Lucky Child is an important book. It's a good reminder of how things can go terribly awry when people get complacent about their leaders. I'm also amazed by Buergenthal's resilience. He not only survived Auschwitz, he went on to thrive and later even came back to the places where he and so many others had suffered so much. I couldn't help but wonder how he was able to process all of the horrors he witnessed. Yet, I also understand that because he processed them, he was able to share his ultimately triumphant story with the rest of the world.

I definitely recommend this book to everybody.
Recommend this product? Yes

Reposted review of Rena's Promise...

And because the news article I wrote about in my last post was about a woman and her sister who survived Auschwitz, here's another book review about sisters who survived the Holocaust.

Two sisters survive Auschwitz... May 3, 2010 (Updated May 3, 2010)
Review by knotheadusc in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros: Beautifully written, heartbreaking account of two sisters' experiences in Auschwitz.

Cons: None, except that the story is often horrifying.

The Bottom Line: Rena's Promise is well worth reading if you're interested in the Holocaust.

It's ironic that I finished reading Rena's Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz (1995) last night. Last night, it was May 2, 2010. May 2, 1945 was the day that Rena Kornreich Gelissen and her younger sister, Danka Kornreich Brandel, escaped the nightmare of the German labor camps. Rena and her sister had survived the Holocaust against all odds. Their bittersweet story is related, with help from ghost writer Heather Dune MacAdam. Having finished this book on the 65th anniversary of the sisters' liberation from Auschwitz and Birkenau, I can state with no hesitation that this is not a story I will soon forget.

A brief outline

Rena and Danka Kornreich grew up in Tylicz, Poland. Their parents, Sara and Chaim Kornreich, had four daughters. Rena and Danka were the two youngest. When Danka was a few months old, she got the croup, which made her cough relentlessly. When the coughing suddenly stopped, Sara thought her baby had died and covered her with a sheet. But a few minutes later, it became clear that Danka was still living. Sara asked Rena, who was just two years older, to promise that she'd always look after the little one.

Born in 1920, Rena was a young woman when the SS invaded Poland and the surrounding countries. She ended up escaping to Slovakia, but later turned herself in to German authorities as a means of protecting the people who were hiding her. Rena was engaged to be married at the time; it was just two weeks before her wedding.

Rena was on the very first transport of Jewish women to Auschwitz. She arrived on March 26, 1942. Upon arrival, she was tatooed with the number 1716. Three days later, her younger sister Danka arrived. Remembering her promise to her mother, Rena vowed to look after Danka. Over the three years time Rena and Danka spent in Auschwitz and Birkenau, they escaped death and forced medical experimentation several times. They survived, in part, because they formed a bond with each other, were very cunning, and cooperated with other prisoners. Of course, I think they were also very lucky, particularly when they were selected for forced medical experimentation by Dr. Josef Mengele.

While the two sisters were in Auschwitz, they were forced to write letters that made the camp sound like it wasn't such a bad place. Of course, if any relatives volunteered to go to the camp, they soon found out what they were in for. Rena and Danka came up with a way to include a warning so that others might be spared their fate.

When the sisters were liberated, they went to Holland, where they met and married their husbands. In the 1950s, both sisters emigrated to America, where their eldest sister Gertrude had been living since 1921. They never knew what became of their parents or their other sister, Zosia. It's because of Gertrude that Rena's Promise has any photographs from the girls' childhood.

This book includes a postcript that explains what Rena and Danka knew of the people they knew while they were in Auschwitz. From what I could gather, the vast majority did not have an ending as happy as theirs was.

My thoughts

This book is the incredibly moving and often inspiring story of two sisters who were determined to survive against all odds. Heather Dune MacAdam did a marvelous job writing Rena's story as if it came straight from her, translating the heartbreak and terror Rena and Danka experienced as well as the few lighthearted moments that made their experiences bearable.

In this book, I read of the supreme hunger and exhaustion the two sisters endured together, as well as the terror they experience every time there was a "selection" of prisoners who were to go to the gas chambers. I read of how Rena and Danka felt when they were forced to witness executions of their fellow prisoners who dared to attempt escape. I got a mere inkling of the incredible brutality the sisters and other prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis who forced them to work and live in deplorable conditions. Rena even describes what it was like for her to have her period while she was a prisoner. As I read this account, I was amazed at the sisters' will to live and how Rena kept her promise to their mother.


I would definitely recommend Rena's Promise to anyone who is interested in learning more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, particularly from a woman's point of view. According to Wikipedia, Rena Kornreich Gelissen died in 2006, though her sister Danka is still alive. Rena died without her tattoo. She had it cut off after her liberation.

Recommend this product? Yes

Repost of my review of Children of the Flames

On January 27, 2015, it will have been 70 years since Russians liberated the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.  This morning, I read a fascinating news article about an 80 year old Slovakian Jewish woman who was at Auschwitz when the Russians came.  It was Marta Wise's 10th birthday when she was caught by Nazis and sent away, first to the Sered labor camp in Slovakia and then, a few weeks later, to Auschwitz, where she and her sister, Eva were imprisoned and were subjected to the cruel medical experiments carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele.

In the last days of Auschwitz, there was a lot of chaos.  Able bodied prisoners were forced to march westward in an attempt to escape the Russians.  Because Eva was sick, Marta stayed behind with her.  The Nazis tried to kill Marta and some other prisoners by locking them in an enclosure and setting fire around it... but European weather is fickle.  A sudden rainstorm put out the fire and Eva and Marta were rescued.

Their survival was against all odds.  The sisters were able to go back to Bratislava, where they reunited with their parents and all but one sister, Judith, who died at Auschwitz.  Marta moved to Australia and went on to marry and have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am reposting my review of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz.

The story of Dr. Josef Mengele and his gruesome twins experiments May 8, 2010 (Updated May 8, 2010)

Review by knotheadusc
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:  Fascinating book. Well-written and insightful. Photos.

Cons:  May depress some readers.

The Bottom Line: This book is a valuable reminder of where humankind has been and where we don't want to return.

Last night, I finished reading Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. This book, published in 1991, was co-written by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Lagnado is writer who has had a special interest in Dr. Josef Mengele and his twins experiments at Auschwitz. Sheila Cohn Dekel is also a writer and an educator, as well as the widow of Alex Dekel, one of Mengele's victims.

A brief overview

Dr. Josef Mengele was a high ranking Nazi physician. He literally had a deadly charm to go with his handsome face. Although Dr. Mengele had been an undistinguished student at his Gymnasium in Gunzburg, Bavaria, he eventually managed to study at the University of Munich, where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology. Mengele happened to be in Munich as the ideas of eugenics, racial purity, and ethnic cleansing were becoming popular in German society.

Graduating from university with highest honors, he went on to Frankfurt University, where he earned a medical degree and later joined the military. In 1941, he got his first taste of combat and was an excellent soldier. The following year, he was in another battle on the Russian front when he made his first selection. Because there wasn't enough time or supplies to help every wounded man, Mengele had to decide which of the wounded would be treated and which would be left to die. This task was reportedly very gruesome for Mengele and he hated to do it... but he was evidently very good at it.

Mengele's skill at picking and choosing would be used again when he went to work at Auschwitz. It was often Mengele who met the trains carrying hungry, exhausted, and often very sick Jews when they arrived at Auschwitz. With a white gloved hand, he would casually pick candidates for the gas chambers, directing the new prisoners to go left or right.

Mengele's studies in genetics and anthropology made him fascinated by so-called "freaks of nature". And so, when those trains came to Auschwitz, he directed his fellow Nazi soldiers to help him find quirky subjects for his research. He looked for dwarves, giants, and Jews who didn't look like Jews. But he was most interested in twins. Mengele believed that twins held the answers to the genetic secrets he had a burning desire to explore. Mengele's position as a high ranking SS physician at Auschwitz gave him the freedom to explore those secrets by undertaking any experiments his heart desired.

Mengele's children: a protected class

Dr. Mengele sought twins every time new Jewish prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. Most of the prisoners who arrived were under the impression that they were there to work. So when soldiers called for twins, some parents of twins and adult twins were reluctant to come forward. But as it turned out, the people who ended up in Mengele's experiements were often better treated than other inmates were. They were fed better, allowed to keep their hair, and had better quarters. They were also safe from the gas chambers. The catch was that they had to be Mengele's specimens for his often gruesome experiments and exploratory surgeries. Those that didn't survive the experiments or surgeries were autopsied by an assistant, who would send their body parts and organs to Berlin.

Supposedly, Mengele was comparatively gentle with the twins, particularly with the small children. He kept them in fairly good health and had a fairly gentle touch when he drew blood (on a daily basis). Sometimes, if he had a very young set of twins, he'd let their mother come with them. Mengele would often pick a pet who would be especially well treated. It's said that he was affectionate with the children, giving them candy and chocolate and sometimes even playing with them. Some of them called him Uncle Mengele. But he would also casually dispose of them when he grew tired of them and none were spared his horrifying experiments.

This book's layout

The authors of Children of the Flames chose to recount the story of Mengele and the twins in an interesting way. They got the stories from surviving twins who were the subjects of Mengele's research and flip-flopped between the twins' experiences and Mengele's life story. Among the twins interviewed were a pair of male/female twins. The male half had been chosen to be the "twins father" because he had served in the Czechoslovakian army. He looked after all of the male twins. His sister was almost murdered, but was saved before she was sent to the gas chambers. The female twins in Mengele's research did not have a "twins mother".

The authors include a lot of commentary from the "twins father", as well as several other sets of the several thousand twins that Mengele used in his research. Of course, of all of those twins, only a few hundred survived the war. The authors also include photos as well as an afterword that updates readers on the twins.

One thing to know about this account is that it's not entirely about the concentration camps. The authors don't go into great detail about the experiments and they don't dwell much on the concentration camp experience. Instead, they approach the story by describing how it was for the twins before and after the war as they interweave Mengele's story.

My thoughts

I found Children of the Flames fascinating. Josef Mengele was a horrible person, but he's extremely interesting to read about. From this account, he comes across as deceptively charming and kindly, yet underneath that gentle exterior was a monster who killed and tortured people as if they were toys. As someone who has studied the social sciences, I find Mengele an extraordinary subject. He really is an example of a sociopath. The authors follow him from Germany to several countries in South America. They also offer information about his two wives, his son Rolf, and his nephew and former stepson, Karl Heinz.

I also enjoyed the interviews from the twins, most of whom were incredibly resilient. Their stories from before and after their experiences at Auschwitz are recounted, giving readers some perspective as to what it was like during their recoveries. Anyone who thinks the Jews had it so much better after they were liberated may be in for a shock. The twins describe very hard times, particularly for those who went to Eastern Europe or Israel rather than America or Canada.


Children of the Flames is excellent reading for anyone who is interested in learning more about Nazi Germany and concentration camps. The authors did an outstanding job of describing who Josef Mengele was as they put a face on his victims. They provide valuable insight as to what it was like for Jews after they were liberated. Even when they weren't prisoners, they were still victims, haunted by nightmares, poor health, and crushing poverty. This should be required reading for anyone who is a student of European history.

Friday, January 23, 2015

German judge says landlords can't make their tenants sit down to pee...

Since yesterday's post was rather serious, I think today's post will be more light-hearted.  Or maybe I should say light-bladdered.  Yesterday, I came across an article about a German judge who ruled that a landlord can't force his male tenants to sit while they urinate.  It's true that in Germany, a lot of men sit down when they pee, apparently because of the splash that can result when a man pees while standing.  I was under the impression that it was German women who demanded this custom, since they are apparently the ones who often end up cleaning up after sloppy male pissers.

According to the article I linked, landlords also sometimes try to tell men how they should take a whiz.  The lawsuit was brought against the landlord by a former tenant because the landlord withheld €1,900 of a €3,000 deposit.  The landlord kept the money because he said he needed to repair the area around the toilet where wayward urine droplets had messed up the marble tiles.  The landlord even brought in an expert who verified that the damage to the floor was wrought by urine.

The judge explained that while he empathized with the landlord, the landlord failed to warn his tenant about the floor's sensitivity.  Moreover, standing while peeing is a common custom, even if in Germany, many men sit when they pee.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised about this lawsuit.  Several years ago, a couple sued their landlord because they had been told their flat would be quiet.  The landlord neglected to tell them about the upstairs neighbor, a man whose snoring was so loud that it interfered with the couples' ability to sleep.  The female half of the couple began having health problems, so they sued.  I don't know how this case ended, but I do think it's kind of funny how people in America complain about lawsuits.  Germans can also be rather sue happy, from what I've come to understand.

I got most of my housework done yesterday, so today I may work on some creative pursuits.  It's snowing outside, which I'm glad to see, because the snow that fell Tuesday is still here and rather nasty looking.  A new layer of snow will make things prettier.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Godspeed Uncle Carl...

As I woke up this morning, I checked Facebook, which is my usual habit.  My cousin, Lori, posted that her dad, my Uncle Carl, had passed away.  I wasn't surprised by the news.  He was suffering from leukemia and my mom told me a couple of days ago that Carl was on hospice and had been told there was nothing more to be done.

Carl was one of my dad's four brothers, younger by about seven years.  He was a great dancer, very friendly, loving, and warm.  For many years, he worked in Natural Bridge, Virginia, running all the tourist attractions.  Later, he worked in Luray.  Carl had a son and a daughter, eleven years apart in age.  He also had five grandchildren, three of whom are now grown and two that are still very young.

Over Thanksgiving in 2014, I sat down with Carl and we had a long talk.  One of my other uncles, my aunt's husband, Bill, interrupted us briefly to comment on a "houseguest" Carl was hosting, a young guy with serious OCD issues who had gotten his girlfriend pregnant.  The guy couldn't live with his girlfriend because she was getting welfare and it was against the rules for her to co-habitate.  Uncle Bill said, "Carl, that guy at your house is a POW."  I looked up at him questioningly and he clarified, "Piece of work."

Carl then started telling me about this young guy who had moved into a spare apartment on his property.  He didn't pay rent and couldn't keep a job.  Carl told me his wife, Betty, could barely stand to be around him.  But Carl was determined to help this young fellow.  He did all he could to try to hook him up with people who could help him... ministers and social workers, even though the guy wasn't interested in that kind of help.  He let him live in the apartment, even though the guy didn't pay rent.  Carl said the guy did pay for his electric bills and food, at least.

As Carl was telling me about his "guest", he focused on the positive, saying that the apartment was kept immaculately clean, thanks to the guy's issues with obsessive compulsive disorder.  He liked having the apartment lived in rather than sitting empty.  If no one lived there, he still wouldn't be getting any money for the place.

I got the feeling that Carl just wanted to be kind and helpful, even though many people told him that he was being used and was enabling his houseguest's irresponsible behavior.  Many people told him to toss the POW out on his ass.  But Carl wouldn't do it.  He wanted to be a positive force in the young guy's life.

I have a feeling that Carl's "POW" is about to lose his free ride.  My Aunt Betty has been ill with Alzheimer's Disease and Carl had been taking care of her.  When we saw each other at Thanksgiving time, Carl told me that his wife's illness was getting worse and they often had the same conversations repeatedly because she would forget.  Betty can't live by herself, so arrangements will no doubt have to be made.  That will likely mean that Carl's POW friend will need to move on.

I will miss my Uncle Carl.  He was a very loving and decent person.  He loved his family very much and was always smiling and laughing.  He was deeply caring and empathetic, yet he had a fun loving side, too.  I wish I had access to my wedding photos.  I have a hilarious picture of him at my wedding with a red rose between his teeth and a big toothy grin.  Every time I saw Carl, he was happy to see me.  He always gave me big bear hugs and he loved to just sit and talk and tell stories.  He told a funny story at my dad's memorial just two months ago.  I will always treasure that memory and am grateful that he was able to spend his last holidays with his loved ones instead of in a hospital room.

I am not a very religious person, but I picture my dad up in heaven, waiting to show Carl the way to the rest of his loved ones who passed before him.  Four of Granny's nine children have gone home now.  

This is a picture of the ceiling at Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.  Bill and I visited there in 2012.  We had a wonderful little Scottish lady giving us a tour and she was a great storyteller.  She told us about how the house was used as a Naval hospital during World War I.  As she was telling us about the house under this beautiful ceiling, she talked about sick and injured military men, waking up to see that ceiling.  She said, in her delightful Scottish brogue, "One look at that and you would surely think you'd crossed the bar!"  I like to think that Carl and my dad both saw something amazing as they slipped away beyond the bar...  Maybe they saw something even more amazing than the ceiling at Mount Stuart...

ETA... I like to think Carl would like this dedication to his memory.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Repost of my review of They Always Call Us Ladies by Jean Harris...

Here's yet another interesting review of a book written by a woman who committed murder.  In this case, the perpetrator was Jean Harris, former head of The Madeira School in McClean, Virginia.  She shot her lover, Dr. Herman Turnover, creator of the Scarsdale Diet, dead when she found out he was being unfaithful to her.  Well educated and well employed, Jean Harris was the last person anyone would have ever expected would end up behind bars.  In 1992, Harris was released from prison on compassionate grounds.  She died of natural causes in an assisted living center on December 23, 2012.  She was 89 years old.

A very unlikely voice from behind bars... Oct 11, 2005 (Updated Oct 14, 2005)
Review by knotheadusc
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Well-written account of a prison experience written by a very unlikely inmate.

Cons:Dated, may be hard to find. Author sometimes seems detached from her situation.

The Bottom Line: From the cultured young ladies of the Madeira School to the underprivileged young ladies of Bedford Hills, Jean Harris remains, first and foremost, an educator.

Jean Harris, author of the 1988 book They Always Call Us Ladies is probably the last person anyone would have ever guessed would have ever spent time in prison. Harris, who is a graduate of Smith College, had spent her whole life educating people, even working as the headmistress of the exclusive and very expensive Madeira School for girls in toney Great Falls, Virginia. But in March of 1980, the 15 year relationship she had with Dr. Herman Tarnower, creator of the Scarsdale Diet, came to an end. She fell into despair and decided to visit Dr. Tarnower in New York. Unfortunately, she brought a gun with her, allegedly planning to kill herself that night. She ended up killing her lover instead and wound up sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Much has come to light about Jean Harris's case. In fact, just last week, my husband Bill and I caught a special on Court TV about Jean Harris. She is now out of prison, having been released in 1993 after thirteen years behind bars. Her book, They Always Call Us Ladies, was written four years prior to her release from behind the walls of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York. As I read this book, I got the feeling that Jean Harris was trying to make the best of her situation, as hard as it was for her. In many ways, They Always Call Us Ladies is an eye-opening book. In other ways, it leaves some questions unanswered.

I don't remember exactly when or where it was that I picked up Jean Harris's book. I do remember that I got it at a second hand bookstore, probably about ten or eleven years ago. I was lured by the subtitle: Stories From Prison. I didn't even have an idea who Jean Harris was when I purchased this book. I suppose I was looking for lurid details. At the time, I lacked an appreciation for books that weren't long on action. I remember trying to read They Always Call Us Ladies and setting it aside after only a few pages or so. I was disappointed because I felt like I didn't get what I had been looking for.

I picked up Jean Harris's book again last week after I saw the special about her on television. This time, when I started reading it, I was able to keep going. And now, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Jean Harris, the convicted murderer. They Always Call Us Ladies is a remarkable book that goes far beyond just "prison stories". Jean Harris also tries to educate her audience about the history of her prison and the importance of prison reform. Clearly intelligent and articulate, Harris offers readers some valuable insight into what it's like to be in prison and puts a human face on the ladies with whom she did time. She points out that no one is ever called a "girl" in her prison; instead, they are all called ladies. But despite the overtures of gentility, prison life is hard and Jean Harris effectively drives home that point.

At the time Jean Harris wrote They Always Call Us Ladies, she was more than halfway to her first opportunity for parole. She focused a lot of time and energy toward helping the other inmates, especially those with children who were born in prison. The fact that she actively spent much of her time helping and getting to know her fellow inmates is clearly evident as she relates more stories about the "ladies" around her than herself. It's not surprising that Harris is empathetic to the other ladies. She explains how and why some of the other prisoners ended up in prison and why a few of them came back again and again. They were simply unequipped for life on the outside of the prison's walls. At the same time, Harris injects her own opinions about what she sees. Although she is sometimes disapproving toward the lifestyles of the ladies with whom she is serving time, she is always supportive of them as human beings. I got the feeling that she took a fond motherly or grandmotherly interest in the other prisoners and they, in return, took a similar interest in her.

One thing that did strike me about They Always Call Us Ladies was that although Harris makes it clear that her life was hard, I got the feeling that the prison she was in was very progressive. The prison had a children's center, where new moms could keep their babies for a year. If the mother was going to be paroled within eighteen months of giving birth, officials would allow the mothers to keep the child until the mom got out. Harris explains that Bedford Hills was the only American prison that was allowing new mothers to keep their babies at all. She then points out that in Europe, prisons are much more accommodating. I got the feeling that she much preferred the European way of doing things. It's not that I blame her for liking the European way better, but I did notice that Harris doesn't really explain the differences between the European and American cultures. Just as some people view imprisonment as strictly punishment, other people see it as a chance for rehabilitation. I got the impression that Harris is more for rehabilitation than punishment and evidently that's the way the Europeans feel about prisons, too.

Another thing that stuck out at me as I read They Always Call Us Ladies is that it must have been a HUGE culture shock for Jean Harris to be in prison. She is nothing like the other ladies she writes about and, I suspect, that Jean Harris never had much of a criminal mind. In fact, I think it was a tragic turn of events that led her to prison in the first place. Because she is so much a fish out of water, she gives her readers a rare and different glimpse of life on the inside of a prison. She doesn't seem like she belongs there.

Jean Harris does include some examples of dialogs she heard in prison, even writing them in dialect. She explains the racism that she witnessed in prison, mostly directed at her fellow inmates. She comes across as almost detached. I had heard on a few occasions that homosexuality is rampant in prisons and Jean Harris doesn't dispute this fact; in fact, she offers statistics on homosexuality in prisons. She also doesn't give any indication as to whether or not she engaged in homosexual conduct. She seems especially detached from this issue as it personally pertains to her, even though she addresses it regarding other prisoners.

Harris's memoir does include some foul language, but it's used in the context of quoting other people. She never uses it herself and doesn't condone its use in other people. In fact, in one passage, she writes disapprovingly that those who must use the word "sh*t" in place of every noun have a serious deficiency in their vocabularies. As I read They Always Call Us Ladies, I was continually reminded that Jean Harris is first and foremost a teacher, not because she actually wrote those words, but because of her actions and her writing style. I do believe that Harris must have been a great asset to her students, despite the fact that she later wound up in prison.

My comments on They Always Call Us Ladies so far have been overwhelmingly positive. For the most part, I did really enjoy reading this book, even though it's been sitting on my shelf unread for years. Despite my positive comments, however, this is not a perfect book. For one thing, Harris writes a lot about legislation circa 1988. For an historical point of view, this is a good thing. I get the feeling, though, that Harris didn't mean for her book to be read years down the line; she meant for it to be read when it was hot off the presses. Consequently, her references to "now" and 1988 drive home just how dated this book is. For another thing, anyone who is looking for information about what got Harris put in prison will be disappointed.  For that story, you'd have to read one of her other books. 

Because she doesn't really discuss her crime, though, I almost got the feeling that she didn't think she belonged in prison. I got the feeling that even though she was in prison, she wasn't of it. And while at times her writing drifts very slightly into self pity, she never really gave me the impression that she felt like she deserved to be in prison, even though she did kill a man. Again, I don't believe that Jean Harris initially set out to kill Tarnower. That doesn't change the fact that she did kill him. Yet, there are times in this book that she seems to take a detached, almost superior position over the inmates about whom she writes. On the other hand, I have no idea what prison must have been like for Jean Harris. Maybe taking this position offers her a defense mechanism-- a way to protect herself from the reality of her situation. The last, but not necessarily negative, comment I want to make is that this book is challenging reading. Even though I enjoyed reading They Always Call Us Ladies, I didn't find it the kind of book that I could finish in a matter of hours.

They Always Call Us Ladies appears to be out of print. If my review has enticed you to seek it out, be warned that you may have some trouble finding it. Nevertheless, I will recommend it to a wide audience because I think it is an impressive and enlightening book. If you have any interest in prison reform or history and want to read an eloquent, true account from someone who's seen prison firsthand, I definitely would encourage you to read this book if you get the chance.

For those of you who are intested in Jean Harris's case...

Interesting political ads...

Bill and I went to Hamburg last weekend.  Apparently, it's election time, so there were many political billboards and signs posted all over the place.  Although my German is still sehr schlecht, I can generally figure out what's going on in pictures.  I posted a lot of these on my travel blog, but not in a post about political ads.  So, since this is where I tend to be more provocative, I give you some of the issues affecting Germany now as depicted in political signs and graffiti.

Stop radical Islamists!

These signs were all over the place... very provocative!

Wonder why half his face is missing?

I must admit, I was more interested in the classic Mini Cooper than the politician... 

"Let's fight white pride" was also spray painted on a building I saw in Dresden back in 2008.

I'm not sure what this says, but I have a feeling it's profane.

This is not a political ad, but I thought it was kind of cool just the same.  Cops are showing what happens if you get too loaded in the St. Pauli district.  Wonder why it's in English instead of German...

Self explanatory.

I saw this sign in Salzburg, Austria, too...  "No person is illegal."  In Hamburg, I also noticed a sign warning immigrants that they were going to be tracked by the man soon.

Jesus lives... even in St. Pauli.

And this is not a political ad or anything, but I just thought it was funny that there's a store called "Snotty" in Germany.

Did I mention that I love living in Germany?  Every day is a new adventure.  Now to wait for something to fire me up so I can start ranting again.