Monday, April 26, 2010

Off the Air Waves

Comic book hero Air Wave and his sidekick, Static the parrot (1946)

How long do you take to put together a blog post?

Obviously something like putting together yesterday's Star Trek macros takes hours;
but even when I'm not actively composing, my brain hums along on blog-related lines, and it's really hard for me to switch channels.

Like, today at the YW my brain was sparking, thinking about how I might write about the body pump class instructor.
She's the sort of big bold blonde who wears eye makeup at all times, smokes (secretly) mentholated cigarettes, played community-college basketball--the sort of straight woman who would happily discuss the intimate details of getting a Brazilian wax with you in the sauna. She'd made a terrific starship captain.
I worship her and have as much in common with her as I would a Palomino.

OK, now I've got that out of my system (I made most of those things up--I know nothing about her), I have GOT to take a break from blogging for a week, so I can focus on finishing up a first draft about the Frindian Wars.

Ciao, till May!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Turning "Turnabout" Around

Many people hate "Turnabout Intruder"--Star Trek's final episode--because it seems to justify sexism.
I like it because it sets a philosophical puzzle--how could Star Trek possibly condone injustice?--and because the solution is not in the usual place.

The episode opens with Jim Kirk meeting his former lover Janice Lester again for their first time since they were students in Starfleet. They had shared the same desire: to be starship captains;
but as Janice reminds Jim, Starfleet doesn't admit women captains.

He agrees it is not fair, but he still resents that she used that against him.
To get her revenge and a captaincy, Janice switches bodies with Jim.

This is one of the few episodes where the captain's moral sense is badly askew. "A Private Little War" is maybe another, but there, Jim knows it. Here he is relentlessly sure of himself.
His self-righteous pigheadedness is the classic posture of an otherwise decent person who's in the tricky position of having benefitted from injustice.

Instead, it is Spock who is the moral fulcrum of "Turnabout Intruder."
As the objective, rational non-human, he sees right past emotive, cultural gender constructs to accept Jim, in Janice's body, as the captain.

By the end, the body transfer has fallen apart and Janice is led off, weeping in impotent rage, by the man who loves her, while Jim looks on, sad but smug, and declares she could have been happy as any woman, if only...

When I tried to write about this, it turned into a tedious philosophy paper, so I made a macro instead.
Anyway, it's Macro Sunday, per Margaret.

[Click to embiggen.]


"There's a place for women in SNCC: on their backs!"
~ Stokely Carmichael (1968)

JANICE: Your world of starship captains doesn't admit women. It isn't fair.
JIM: No, it isn't.
Dialogue from "Turnabout Intruder" (1969), Transcript here

''If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.''
Clayton Williams, Texan gubernatorial candidate comparing bad weather to rape

"The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves."
~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

"So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state."
~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Her life could have been as rich as any woman's. If only... If only...”
~Final lines, spoken by Captain Kirk, "Turnabout Intruder" (1969), Transcript here

"Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material."
~Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock to Kirk

"And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself...."
"I simply state that I'm a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation — with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals. Even if, deep in my heart, I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as a stroke of a pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try, at least, to displace old cants with new ones."
~This Side of Paradise (F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920), not the Star Trek episode of the same name)

"The future is something to be constructed through trial and error rather than an inexorable vice that determines all our actions."
~Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedoms

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On a Lighter Note...

A new take on the girly way Kirk sits in the captain's chair
From Freaking News

Friday, April 23, 2010

Being American: The Voice of the Sock Monkey

I. The Diamond-Studded Lemur

I used the phrase "Ironic Lite" in the previous post, referring to a communication style that's popular now.
It's a precocious style that might include, say, composing a song about your sock monkey's preference for root crops.

I don't know if it's prevalent all over the Western world, but recently this clever style has become one of the dominant ways of communicating in the United States, among certain groups. *

"Ironic Lite" is too sharp-edged to be the right name.
I'm going to call it Voice of the Sock Monkey, because it often includes some sort of exotic but endearing, possibly endangered or old-fashioned, animal or toy.

Like, here, I found this on Vitaminwater's Facebook page:

"take that refund check and spend it on something important like a pet lemur named 'richard' or diamond-encrusted belt buckle that reads 'head honcho'. what are you going to spend your tax refund on?"
[image from Nat'l Geographic.]

(Need I mention, the speakers/consumers of Sock Monkey are usually not poor.)

II. Sock Monkey Mammy

I went looking for images of sock monkeys, and they're more popular than I realized.
After scanning through many pictures, it struck me that there's a kind of frightening old-fashioned "cozy" (to whites) racism to sock monkeys, with their soft brown color and thick lips sewn shut.
Like the myth of Mammy or the old picture of Aunt Jemima, they are meant to be comforting to the privileged children they care for.

This Obama sock monkey was meant for supporters of Obama. The makers pulled it after accusations of racism, but you can hear the hurt in their voice, because they are nice white children who meant no harm.

If only the harm done by people who meant no harm didn't count.

I don't mean people who speak Sock Monkey are racist.
The common element isn't the toy, it's the child.
How comforting to think of oneself as a privileged child, since children are not repsonsible for the social inequality they benefit from. And how dangerous.
There's nothing wrong with being children.
Except when we're not.

III. Putting Padding Between Oneself and Horror

I say the Voice of the Sock Monkey has become popular recently, but I don't know since when.
Could it be since 9/11?

I'm tempted to say so, because as an American, to express authentic hopes after 9/11, even if you speak very intelligently, opens you up to charges of naiveté, opens you up to ridicule.
While to express authentic fears is again to make yourself vulnerable to social disapproval:
no one wants to hear that fear because they feel impotent in its presence too.

This was probably always the case in the past too, more or less. No one likes prophets of doom, and "laugh today, cry tomorrow" is an old formula warning against being too happy: it will bring bad luck.

I suppose we just come up with new ways to pad our hopes and fears to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
If I tell you my sock monkey lives in the root cellar, there's enough of the padding of humor to make the palpable fear palatable.

There is irony in this style, just not full-on irony. You can see--are supposed to see--the tender heart underneath. But if you come at that heart with a stick, the sock monkey can step in front and take the jab.

Sock Monkey/Irony Lite seems to me to be the protective voice of someone who's smart and educated enough to express themselves smoothly but not sure where to go from there.

In some ways, it's the voice of a young person--though it is not just people in their teens and twenties who use it-- like Holden Caulfield, feeling their way forward in a hostile world. Reluctant to take on full adulthood because the mantle of power that goes with it looks--is--so heavy and cumbersome.

Maybe that's why it feels so American to me.
We are a young nation, in so many ways... precocious and powerful, but not sure what to do with that.
And then, we get hit--hard, on the nose--and now we're even more unsure.

But don't make the mistake of confusing Sock Monkey, who truly does not want to hurt, with a being who is unable to hurt.
That sweet hand is quite capable of dropping the sock monkey and pulling the trigger--and then feeling truly and horribly sorry afterward.

I like Sock Monkey/Irony Lite the way I like Holden Caulfield:
I recognize myself in it, and I really like the tender heart that peeks through.

Today, in fact, I relate a lot, because I'm sick with a fever (spring cold? or flu). I feel little,
the way you get when you know you couldn't defend yourselves against ravening wolves. I felt this way when I came home after I gave blood for the first time (almost fainted twice), and took to my bed with my toy panda.

So, I'm sympathetic to the Voice of the Sock Monkey, even if I don't want to hear much of it.

IV. The Monkey on Our Back

Here's what seems to me the Most Important Thing:
Like it or not, the Voice of the Sock Monkey is an expression of people who are feeling their way (one hopes) toward growing up (even if they are in their forties).
As such, I am fine with it. We all need comfort and funny voices.

Who am I to judge, with my Captain Kirk obsession?
(That's organic vitamin-fortified Saurian brandy he's drinking, in a reusable container. And his makeup was not tested on animals.)

But what I do judge negatively is the theft or co-option of that voice by marketing.
There's nothing authentic about the top quote from Vitaminwater, owned by a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, btw (link to Wikipedia). The clever quirky copy on its every label was mindfully composed to sell colored water in a plastic bottle.

V. Rebel, Rebel

Here's an idea of how to resist this particular marketing:
Eat oranges.

Really. I read on one of your blogs (RR's?) that people aren't eating many oranges because they don't want to do the work of peeling them.
We could start a rebel group...

VI. Mockery and Mufflers

I've been wanting to write about this peculiar American voice for a while.
What triggered me today is this interview with David Foster Wallace, who does not use it.

[Below, part 3 of 10, from 2003; sent to me by Lee. Thanks, Lee!]

Wallace says here--with awareness of the paradoxical bind he's in--that he thinks the idea, the work, of being a citizen is important.
He's ashamed to say stuff like that, he says, because "it'd be very easy to make fun of what I'm saying." He says he can hear the mocking voices in his head.

Boy, do I recognize this.

I think this is where the Voice of the Sock Monkey comes in. It muffles the voices inside our heads and the mockery outside.

Wallace does not use a muffler.
You can see him working hard to speak authentically here, wriggling to get around the blockades of doubt and dismay, which are visibly, in his body language, present.

And now, me and my fever are going to take a nap with Stuffed Panda.
But first I'm going to eat an orange.

* Besides Sock Monkey or Irony Lite, another popular modern style is belligerence, which we've seen a lot of lately.
Possibly belligerence is an expression of people who feel intellectually insecure;
while Ironic Lite is the expression of people who feel emotionally insecure?

Country-Western tends toward belligerence;
bright young things tend to employ Irony Lite.

P.S. An earlier post, on a related subject: Being American: Cheetohs and Arrogance.

I think the Voice of the Sock Monkey is also related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon.
2016 Update, via Tumblr--The Sock Monkey Abides!

Movies & Poetry: "The Drink"

Krista sent me this fun prose poem * last year, and now I'm rounding up connections between poetry and film, I finally have the perfect place to post it.

Does it bring a movie scene to mind?

"The Drink"

I am always interested in the people in films who have just had a drink thrown in their faces. Sometimes they react with uncontrollable rage, but sometimes––my favorites––they do not change their expressions at all. Instead they raise a handkerchief or napkin and calmly dab at the offending liquid, as the hurler jumps to her feet and storms away. The other people at the table are understandably uncomfortable. A woman leans over and places her hand on the sleeve of the man's jacket and says, "David, you know she didn't mean it." David answers, "Yes," but in an ambiguous tone––the perfect adult response. But now the orchestra has resumed its amiable and lively dance music, and the room is set in motion as before. Out in the parking lot, however, Elizabeth is setting fire to David's car. Yes, this is a contemporary film.

--by Ron Padgett,
from You Never Know, Coffee House Press, 2002

The movie scene that comes to my mind doesn't lend itself to the Ironic Lite tone that strikes the "I'm not deeply invested" note, so popular in modern life. (It's amusing, but for me, a little goes a long way.)

The scene is from To Kill a Mockingbird, and it paralyzed me when I was a kid:
the mad dog racist Bob Ewell spits in Atticus Finch's face, and Atticus merely takes out his handkerchief and wipes the gob off his cheek.

Only as an adult do I, a Northerner, see this movie is as full of class tension as it is of racial tension.

[Image from Screencap Heaven]

*Wikipedia notes prose poetry is bascially the same as what we now call flash fiction (a kind of microwriting).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

People Are Clever Monkeys

We are, aren't we?
We come up with the most amazing little problem-solving gadgets.

Do you recognize this one?

I came across this picture of this common object from my youth and realized my life has entered history.
How would an archaeologist in 300 years know what this object was?

It is a "spider" or a "spacer", a doohickey inserted in the wide center of a 45 record so it will fit on the narrow spindle of a 33 1/3 rpm record player.

Thomas Hutchinson invented it for RCA in the 1960s, and people bought millions of them every year.

It looks space agey, doesn't it?
Without corroborative evidence, a future archaeologist might guess it was a Star Trek insignia.

Or an IUD birth control device.

I went looking for a photo of an IUD to compare and found these IUDs (left), from the early 1900s. (From the Midwifery Fact File.)
The shaft goes into the uterus, with the button outside the cervix.
I had no idea these existed this early, but people aren't dumb. (Well, not about everything.)

These remind me of advice an old Southern woman gave me in 1978 on the neutering of cats.
I worked with this homespun woman in the cafteria of the student union in Madison, and she scoffed when I told her how much I'd paid to get my cats fixed.

Waste of money, she said:
"For a girl cat, just stick a few BB's inside her.
For a boy cat, wrap a rubber band tightly around his balls, and they'll drop off after a while."

I've been thinking a lot about material culture, looking for simple things to illustrate what life was like in colonial times.

Here's a good one:
George Washington's militia in 1754 ate up most of their food. All they had left was parched corn.
I had no idea what parched corn is, so I looked it up.
Basically, it's Corn Nuts--dried corn heated until it puffs a little bit.

Looking for info led me to all sorts of survivalist sites. Some of them are created by jolly, helpful, clever monkey folk.
Some of them by freaky cannibalistic folk.

Anyway, seems that after the Big One, humans will fall back on Corn Nuts. And homemade birth control, no doubt.
iPods are out, of course, but I bet we could hook our record players up to a bicycle-driven generator and listen to our 45s. If we could find a spider.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movies & Poetry: "A Film from the Sixties"

[Interview with Wislawa Szymborksa, The Guardian, July 15, 2000]

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (left) wrote one of the funniest descriptions of writing I've come across.

Here's what she says about the unfilmability of poets.
From her Nobel lecture, no less:
"It's not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves.
... Of course [they are] all quite naive and [don't] explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there's something to look at and listen to.

"But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic.

"Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens ...

"Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?"
There may be few films about writing poetry, but poets do write poems about films. Including Szymborska.

To me, her wonderful poem "A Film from the Sixties" is like one of those riddle-poems from the Middle Ages that describe a thing and end with the question, "Who am I?"

I'll tell you my guess at the end.

"A Film from the Sixties"

This adult male. This person on earth.
Ten billion nerve cells. Ten pints of blood
pumped by ten ounces of heart.
This object took three billion years to emerge.

He first took the shape of a small boy.
The boy would lean his head on his aunt’s knees.
Where is that boy. Where are those knees.
The little boy got big. Those were the days.
These mirrors are cruel and smooth as asphalt.
Yesterday he ran over a cat. Yes, not a bad idea.
The cat was saved from this age’s hell.
A girl in a car checked him out.
No, her knees weren’t what he’s looking for.
Anyway he just wants to lie in the sand and breathe.
He has nothing in common with the world.
He feels like a handle broken off a jug,
but the jug doesn’t know it’s broken and keeps going to the well.
It’s amazing. Someone’s still willing to work.
The house gets built. The doorknob has been carved.
The tree is grafted. The circus will go on.
The whole won’t go to pieces, although it’s made of them.
Thick and heavy as glue sunt lacrimae rerum.
But all that’s only background, incidental.
Within him, there’s awful darkness, in the darkness a small boy.

God of humor, do something about him, okay?
God of humor, do something about him today.

--by Wislawa Szymborska
So, who could she be describing?

To me, those wonderful last lines give it away.

"The circus will go on" could be Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, with its crazy circus dance at the end, but the God of humor has got him well covered.

The small boy in "awful darkness" describes Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows, but how delightfully resilient the boy, Antoine Doinel, turns out to be. Way too funny.

I thought it might be Eric Rohmer, because of the reference to knees (Claire's Knee).
And Gene Hackman's character in the 1975 film Night Moves describes watching Rohmer's films as "kind of like watching paint dry." (Well, I like them.)
But still, I can't imagine any of his characters running over a cat.

I suppose the poem is a bit about all of these Sixties directors, but for my money, the answer is Jean-Luc Godard (left).

He's everything a cool French film director should be;
but if there's any leavening in his movies, godknows I missed it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Library-Book Thieves: George Washington

Now all of us who confessed to "never returning" library books can feel even more less alone.
Kellie alerted me to the recent news that George Washington has racked up $300,000 in fines for two never-returned library books, borrowed in 1789 from New York Society Library.

But I'm afraid we're not in very good moral company.
I mean, I knew Parson Weems made up the cherry tree story, but geez...

Here, listen to what Washington told his Seneca ally, Tanaghrisson, to get him to support British efforts to drive the French off native lands:

"[The] only motive of our conduct is to put you again in possession of your lands, and to dispossess the French, to maintain your rights and to secure the whole country for you." *

Talk about a whopper. Not only was it untrue in general (as Tanaghrisson probably knew),
but in specific, at that time Washington himself had money in a land speculation company that wanted to get its hands on these profitable lands.

There are good things you can say about George. Relentlessly honest is not one of them.

* Quoted in Alan Axelrod, Blooding at Great Meadows (2007), p. 161

Water Melon Light

When Augustine was a young man, back in the 300s, he hung out with a religious group called the Manichees, who believed, among other things, that you should eat foods that contain light.
Top of their list was watermelons.

This drawing is from the visual journal I kept when I was studying Augustine. You can see I wrote, "watermelons are commonly believed to have originated in North Africa [where Augustine was from]."
Yesterday Margaret posted a poem of hers that posits a more interesting origin. Here's the first part of her poem.


I know where they're from, the green zebra mother potatoes.
We have nothing to do with them, or the cultivating of them.
They grow full in the stomach of the sea until, touched by the sun in July,
the ocean unfurls them from her skin.

They float up the fathoms, break surface with a bob,
are swept into bare human arms, rushed ashore,
carried heavily like emerald-wet elephant eggs across hot sand,
over hills (swollen giant watermelons in grass-wombs),
into towns, cities, villages, valleys: wherever there are naked feet.

--by Margaret

Monday, April 19, 2010

Not Exactly a Volcano...

This is the cover illustration for Comet in Moominland, by Tove Jansson.

In the comic strip version of the story, the comet hits Moominvalley and destroys the landscape, but immediately the flowers begin to bloom again. (I always think it's interesting to factor in that Jansson said she began to write the sweet but weird Moomin stories in response to World War II in Finland.)

Busy today, going over the layout of the Slovakia geography book (which I turned in last summer) one last time before it goes to the printer. It's fun to see the photos and captions in place. Soon, Finland will be ready to go too; though I won't see the actual books for a couple more months.
Blogging is so much better for instant gratification.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Begin Afresh"

Every spring the trees remind me of this poem; this year, today,
the young elm tree off my second-story porch.

"The Trees", by Philip Larkin (53 sec.)

(Above link to the poem on Jeanette Winterson's site. I agree with her: Larkin isn't my favorite poet either, but this poem is just right.)

Larkin reads "The Trees".

Friday, April 16, 2010


Thank you all for making my blog interesting this week, confessing things you've stolen. (Amazing the libraries have any books left at all!)

I'm not much for blog writing right now:
the verbal part of my brain is otherwise occupied, trying to fit together the puzzle pieces of colonial America.

Inside my head, the madness-inducing process (because of the mercury fumes) of making beaver-felt hats is bumping up against
the demographics of 1750 Virginia (almost half and half Euro- and African-American);
French Papists are handing out rosaries to Indians, and Indians are cutting off gun barrels to make flutes;
colonial women camp followers are washing soldier's linen,
and soldiers are eating parched corn--what does that taste like?

Aaargh. How am I going to pull this all together into a short book for kids?!

Luckily blogging isn't all writing--we have pictures 'n' stuff.
So, here're a couple simple-minded things that make me happy.

I. Slicing an Orange (23 sec.)

I love special effects made with everyday objects. Here, I slowed down the knife sharpening.
Listen: when the blade hits the steel,
you can hear why the orange stands no chance at all.

II. SFX = Shatner Effects

I'm still learning blogging tricks.
Jen recently told me how to post large images on blogspot: upload them from a photo-hosting site on the web. (I've always loaded them from my computer.)
So, I finally set up an account on Photobucket. Today I'm trying that tip...
OK, yeah, it works.

Now I just need to figure out how to get my blog banner to stretch out to fill the space behind the title. Do you know?

I found these Star Trek Special Effects among thousands of images on Zainin666's William Shatner Album. They were originally culled from Star Trek History, which has tons of good stuff about the show's production.

Six more Shatner SFX are on my account.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Are you doing what I'm doing?

April 15 = Tax Day in the United States

(NOTE: None of these books is stolen property.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Special Offer: Clear Your Conscience Here! (Plus, Soothe a Suffering Soul!)

My confession of stealing Paul Eluard's collection of poetry, Capital of Pain, has brought forth a fellow sinner.

Verily, our brother in blogging, Manfred Allseasons, hath commented...

"At last, a chance to confess.

I too have stolen (or taken on a long lend as I kept telling myself), three books. Plautus' The Rope and Others (not the Penguin edition, some Victorian hardback), from Hull University Library under the very nose of Philip Larkin, and two very old battered (not first editions) Waugh, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust.

I swear I will return them. Well, the Plautus anyway. I was young and stupid and, it appears, slightly criminally inclined, but no more.

I would ask that your other correspondents confess their little crimes, M'lud, in an attempt to, y'know, make me feel better.

I should also say I have comitted no further crimes in the quarter century since these offences were committed..."

[end Manfred's comment]

So, how 'bout it?
Any stolen literature lurking on your bookshelves?
Or other trifling or not so trifling crimes or misdemeanors weighing on your conscience?

Come on, even Captain Kirk "borrowed" a few items in the past. Not to mention stealing starships.

Poetry: Light & Dark

Dania sent me the link for Eddie Izzard discussing Bobby Burns's poetry-writing process. (Thanks!)
It's even subtitled in Hungarian (I think) for added interest.

Long ago I'd posted Eddie Izzard Does Star Trek.

To balance the silliness, here's Anna Karina reciting from Paul Eluard's collection of poems, Capital of Pain, in Godard's Alphaville.
I was so enamored of this when I was fifteen, I stole a copy of Capital of Pain from the university bookstore.

("I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters
that I have sinned. In my thoughts and in my deeds...."

What can I say? It was an expensive edition and I was out of babysitting money.)

It is now my policy to avoid all works with "pain" in the title.

(More here: Close Up: Paul Eluard on the blog Thesis Anxiety)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rain: Night and Day

Distant thunder woke me up in the dark of the early morning, so I grabbed my movie camera. It was still raining when I got up a few hours later. Rain is a good thing.

[Be sure to move the cursor off the movie screen to make the menu bar go away (so you can see the title).]

"Rain: Night and Day" (25 sec.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rhymes with "Cow"

For the poetry round-up, Manfred contributed John Betjeman's wicked funny poem "Slough", which I'd never read before.

The BBC comic series The Office (the original and more disturbingly awful series) is set in Slough--an ugly industrial town (right).

The U.S. adaptation is set in Scranton, PA.

Here, Ricky Gervais as office manager David Brent (like Steve Carell's Michael Scott, but perfectly, slimely worse) takes John Betjeman down a peg or two.
Left me gasping.
"I don't think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place."

Show me the monkey.

"The great humorists were people who had been driven to despair and anger by the conduct of mankind.
In this respect, I am one of those people."

--Stanislaw Lem, (left, Polish author of Solaris, etc.)
from "Chance and Order", The New Yorker 59 (January 30, 1984) 88-98.

Mm. Yes. Very wise, very profound... But I WANT THAT SPACE MONKEY!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anna Walentynowicz, Woman of Iron, R.I.P.


I rolled over in bed this morning, turned my laptop on, and read, "Polish President, 96 Others Dead in Plane Crash".

I was shocked to read that Anna Walentynowicz is among the dead. I got out of bed and dug up the college paper I wrote about her in 1983, at the height of the Solidarity movement for justice and freedom she helped form.

This is the obituary I just wrote. An obituary with footnotes.

In August 1980, Anna Walentynowicz was a rather dumpy little fifty-year-old widow. In photos of the time, you often see her wearing a mauve polyester paisley dress and carrying a big black handbag, her hair in a granny bun.

She was also a crane operator at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, a tough town on the Baltic Sea.

Soon to retire from her job, she was fired for trumped up charges that August. The real cause was her ongoing work to form an independent labor union, something the Communist government outlawed.

It wasn't the first time the regime had punished her for her outspokenness.
The first time was in 1953.
Postwar Poland was under the paw of its neighbor the Soviet Union. Like many Polish women, Walentynowicz had gone to work in state-controlled heavy industry. After three years as a welder in the Rosa Luxemburg Brigade, she complained that women weren't receiving equal prize money as production incentives.
Pointing out inequality in the socialist system got her an eight-hour interrogation.

In 1968, the year a Soviet invasion of Prague crushed Eastern bloc hopes of reform, Walentynowicz was fired for speaking out against corruption in government trade unions, the only kind of union allowed.

Two years later, Poland broke out in strikes, protesting the government's enormous hike in food prices.
Walentynowicz described what happend at the Lenin Shipyards on December 15, 1970, called Bloody Tuesday:
"It was horrible. Tanks and trucks with police surrounded the shipyards. When the workers wanted to go out into the street and were told to halt, the shooting erupted. Those who fired were policemen dressed up in soldiers' uniforms. The first victims were right at our gates." [2]
By December 20, the official toll was 45 dead and 1,165 wounded.

Again she was arrested in 1978, this time for her work with Lech Walesa and others to organize independent labor unions. Their group, the Free Trade Union Committee, published the underground newspaper called Robotnik Wybreza (Worker of the Coast).

The English word robot comes from robota, which means work or labor, including the slave labor of serfs, in many Slavic languages. It also carries the sense of "drudgery." Czech author Karel Čapek introduced artificial people called robots in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), in 1920. [3]

The Polish workers' crusades against using people as if they were machines matched Poland's deeply Catholic culture.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II, once Karol Wojtyla of Poland, visited Poland and met with Lech Walesa.
In the pope's nonspecific but nevertheless obvious blessing on the workers' movement, he stated,
"Christ will never approve that man be considered, or that man consider himself, merely as a means of production. This must be remembered both by the worker and the employer...."[4]
On August 6, 1980, management fired Anna Walentynowicz again, just months from her retirement.
In the unjust firing of a well-liked woman, the Free Trade Union Committee found a rallying point.

On August 14, workers walked off their jobs, carrying signs demanding Walentynowicz's reinstatement. The strike committee also demanded a raise in pay and the right to an independent trade union.

Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa, August 1980

On August 16, management agreed to everything. Except the trade union.

Walentynowicz described what happened on that day:
"[Lech] Walesa declared an end to the strike... and the workers started leaving the shipyard.... The workers standing outside from the other factories protested:
'You got your issues taken care of, but what about other people from other factories who were fired? They will be lost!'

What could we do? How could we stop 16,000 people leaving through three different gates?
We ran to the gate and I shouted, 'Let's have a solidarity strike!'

Then Alina [Pienkowka] took action. She stood on top of some barrels, such a close-to-tears girl in a candy pink blouse, and she said:
'We have to help the people from other factories because they won't be able to defend themselves....'

Alina's quiet voice stopped the masses of people. The gate was closed––then another. Six thousand people stayed in the shipyard.
For me, only in that moment did the Polish August begin." [5]
Walentynowicz was called "the most powerful orator in the whole strike movement." (pictured right) [6]

In an interview with the New York Times in August 21, 1980, when asked what the main cause of the strike was, Walentynowicz said:
"It is the lying and cheating the government does. The truth must be told to the people––that's the main thing.
We workers are much more sure of ourselves [compared to a disastrous strike in 1970]. In 1970 it was a shout of despair. We went into the streets calling 'we want bread for our work.'
Today our demands are different. We are more humanitarian, more political." [7]
And so the Solidarity--Solidarnosc--movement was born. A blend of workers' revolutionary fervor and Catholic social justice piety--a blend sometimes hard for those of us in the secular West to imagine––Solidarity brought down the Communist government in Poland and was influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union itself.

Before that happened, there was at least one more arrest for Walentynowicz. On December 13, 1981, General Jaruzelski declared martial law and put Poland under "state of war" status. Police arrested Soldiarity leaders along with radical priests, intellectuals, journalists, and any other people perceived as threats. Including Walentynowicz, who said:
"There was an old lady in our house, very ill with high blood pressure. I had to take her to the hospital. On the way a car pulled out, some men jumped out and tied my hands behind my back, bundled me into the car and left the old lady standing in the street." [8]
"Anna Walentynowicz with Lech Walesa, 8-29-80" [9]

Relations didn't proceed smoothly between Walentynowicz and Walesa. She felt he made too many compromises, and when Walesa received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, she commented,
"I started Solidarity, but the winner was Leshek [nickname for Lech]." [10]

At the time she was doing clerical work and campaigning against alcohol, saying "It's easy to rule a nation that drinks." [11]
Eventually she left Solidarity.

But Walentynowicz wasn't forgotten. On May 3, 2006, President Lech Kaczyński bestowed upon her the Order of the White Eagle.

Poland's highest decoration since 1705, the White Eagle was never awarded during the nation's Communist era. It was only given again in 1992, after the fall of communism.
How fitting that a woman of iron should get a cross of gold.

On April 10, 2010, along with President Kaczyński, Anna Walentynowicz was part of an official Polish delegation flying to western Russia to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Massacre: the slaughter by Soviet secret police of twenty thousand Polish officers and others in Katyn Forest at the beginning of World War II.
LEFT: Polish soldier at Katyn Memorial [12]

The plane crashed in thick fog, killing everyone aboard.

Former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said, "This is a great tragedy, a great shock to us all."

I wonder if he remembers that mauve paisley dress.


Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa appeared as themselves in Man of Iron, by Andrzej Wajda. The filmmaker was part of a Polish "cinema of Moral concern."

"It is not exaggeration to say that films played a major role in the struggle for Poland’s independence," says blogger Venkat SIddareddy in a review of Man of Iron.

It is because of films that I know who Anna Walentynowicz was.
I went to see Man of Iron in 1983 and had not a bloody clue what was going on. Distressed at my ignorance, when I saw a course offered that fall on "Postwar Polish Culture," taught by Wlad Godzich, I signed up.
The paper I wrote: "Anna Walentynowicz, A Polish Woman, a Polish Worker" is one of the few college papers I saved.

(I haven't seen Strike, a fictionalized story of how Anna Walentynowicz (renamed Agnieszka in the film) provided the spark for Solidarity.
Walentynowicz reportedly did not like how she was portrayed. Now I'm going to watch it anyway.)


[1] Top photos:
a) Black-ribboned flags for plane crash victims, April 10, 2010, at Poznan, Mickiewicz Square, by Andrzej Monczak; from the gallery at Gazeta Wyborcza
b) Anna Walentynowicz by Michal Grocholski/AG 2008-12-05]

[2] Bloody Tuesday: "Catalyst of Poland's Crisis," New York Times, August 21, 1980, p. A-12.
Photo: "Gdansk,December 15, 1970," from Andrzej Friszke, Polska Gierka, [Gierek's Poland], Warsaw, 1995;
found at Anna M. Cienciala, History 557 Lecture Notes: Poland 1957-1980/81.

[3] Film poster for the Soviet film "R.U.R." after Karel Capek, 1935, from Wikimedia

[4] Pope John Paul II, from Lawrence Weschler, Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982

[5] Urszula Wislanka, "The Solidarity Movement: Women's Roles," New Women's Times, March 1982, p. 1

[6] "most powerful orator," from Weschler, Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion

[7] "lying and cheating," from "Catalyst of Poland's Crisis"

[8] "ill old lady": Urszula Wislanka, "The Revolutionary Activities of Polish Women," Off Our Backs, April 1982, p. 12

[9] B&W photo of Walentynowicz and Walesa, © Harald Schmitt / stern

[10] "I started Solidarity": Wislanka, "Revolutionary Activities"

[11] "a nation that drinks": Ibid.

[12] Katyn Memorial, April 4, 2010, from Gazeta Wyborcza