Monday, December 22, 2014

Speaking in Tongues at the Lonely Mountain

Certainly, I'm not the only one who walked into the theater this week to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with mixed emotions, including anticipation, curiosity, and sadness at the thought of this being the last film. Having seen Peter Jackson's approach to Tolkien in the first two Hobbit movies I was somewhat prepared--but not totally--for the way he closed the trilogy.

Mr. Jackson's Hobbit is not your mother's Hobbit (or in some sense, even J.R.R. Tolkien's). The characters, the setting, and the plot are there, but the theme, the emotional import, the direction, and the tone have all undergone a sea change. Knowing the great love fans of Tolkien have for the original material (I share the feeling), I think it was risky for Mr. Jackson to take the road he took. If you come to the last film expecting a warm farewell to beloved characters, I think you'll come away baffled. Rather than sticking to the agenda of beguiling children's tale, the last film in particular seems to me to have outgrown its genre. Personally, I wouldn't take a kid to see it.

I'm guessing many fans are shaking their heads and wondering why this had to happen. Considering what the book is really about--a company of adventurers in search of treasure and territory who run afoul of enemies and end up fighting over it all--I wonder if there was a way to keep the tone light without seeming at least a little disingenuous in view of the world we're living in. Is there a day that goes by when we don't read about territorial disputes, ambition, and the bloody consequences that ensue when they aren't held in check? In the real world, none of this is good news, so why would it be in a movie? Still, we seem in some ways very far from Middle Earth here. It is more as if the film is really about something else.

My sense of the three Hobbit films is that the first one is closest in tone to the book, with all the bonhomie and excitement of a shared adventure as the companions set out on their quest. They actually do have some claim to the territory and treasure they're seeking, they seem like good fellows, they have a wizard on their side, and Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of unimpeachable character, falls in with their plans. He is undoubtedly reluctant at first but more from a sense of the inconvenience and bother of it all than from any moral concern. The companions meet some nasty enemies, fight their way out of tight corners, and display a becoming sense of loyalty and courage.

It's in the second film that the moral ambiguity really surfaces. Elves and dwarves are revealed to be at one another's throats; greed and antagonism make the entire enterprise seem less noble than it did at first. Even Bilbo, who now possesses the ring of power without fully understanding its effects, discovers in himself an unexpected viciousness. In Lake-town, to which the company eventually makes its way, a self-serving leader lords it over the population. In the end, the dwarves' efforts to recover Erebor awaken the dragon, a consequence everyone seems to have expected without considering the danger this might pose to the innocent inhabitants of Lake-town.

In The Battle of the Five Armies, the strain shows most tellingly in the disagreements among the members of Thorin's company. Thorin angrily asserts that someone is hiding the precious Arkenstone from him; he's actually right, but his bitterness over this assumed betrayal begins to consume him. The mayor of Lake-town abandons his people to Smaug's wrath and dies, smote by the falling dragon, creating an opening for Bard to take over. When Bard comes to Thorin to demand Lake-town's promised share of the treasure, Thorin goes back on his word--nor will he share any of the treasure with the elves, who also have a claim. While the elves and the people of Lake-town prepare to battle with the dwarves, the orcs and their allies show up, forcing alliances to shift again as the erstwhile enemies prepare to battle a common foe.

This is pretty much in line with the book, but the battle itself is much less sanitized than in Tolkien's handling of it. There is great courage shown in the battle, and there is also a sense that some enemies, like the orcs, are truly dangerous and must be stopped. The fighting itself is fierce and bloody. In the end, several of the company die in a nasty and protracted fight with the orcs on top of Ravenhill, including Thorin. The effect of the finale is not so much heroic as disheartening.

By this time, I was not so sure the dwarves had done the right thing by returning to Erebor or that much had been accomplished aside from some people getting richer. Who was having a good time on this quest? (Nobody, by now.) The ring of power is now abroad in the world, the company is diminished both in numbers and moral standing, many lives have been lost, including that of Kili, the sweetest and most valiant of the dwarves, and the certainty of more war looms on the horizon. Of course, this all leads to the War of the Rings, a contest in which the moral certainties seem to be much clearer than they are here.

I wonder what that trilogy would look like if Mr. Jackson were making it now instead of a few years back, but fortunately it's already been done. The Lord of the Rings depicts the hero's quest as a way to conquer one's own shortcomings and to sacrifice for the common good. The battles are not only with one's enemies but with one's self, and we need that kind of story, even more so than this kind. The Battle of the Five Armies shows the tragedy of war, its senselessness, and the too frequent result that it leads to more war. The film also has a marked sense of suspicion about the uses of power. Even a seemingly "good" figure like Galadriel is transformed by it. (Actually, I found her to be the most terrifying thing by far in the battle to vanquish the Nine and can only think that was the intention.)

The Lord of the Rings deals with the results of events enacted in The Hobbit and shows the good that can come when disparate parties realize they must overcome their differences to preserve what's good and useful in their world; as depicted by Jackson, it's the more optimistic of the stories. It's ironic that The Hobbit, which comes across as something of a lark in its original form, has become more somber than The Lord of the Rings on film. Perhaps Mr. Jackson is trying to point out the difference between a quest based on the desire for wealth and advancement and one in which the key theme is sacrifice and endurance.

In my essay last year on The Desolation of Smaug, I talked about my sense that the film's characters sometimes played more than one role and that that fluidity was in tune with the ideas of James Hillman, who believed that we all play multiple roles in life. I had an even stronger sense of that happening in this film. When Smaug attacks Lake-town, we see Tauriel looking up at the dragon from the boat in which she is escaping with a curious smile. A strange thing perhaps, unless (just for an instant) Smaug represents something other than an enraged dragon. Or is it rather that Tauriel herself is someone other than she appears to be?

In another scene, the rather horrifying battle on Ravenhill, the orc Azog pauses for an instant with an almost kindly smile. There are several instances like this throughout the film, in which a different personality unexpectedly appears in place of the one you were just looking at, causing a bit of discontinuity, a shift in energy. What you thought was happening a moment ago then seems to be called into question. I read last night that even Peter Jackson used a double in his own cameo scene, so that from one angle, you're seeing Peter Jackson, and from another, you're seeing a stand-in for Peter Jackson. I don't know if that was merely a coincidence or if it says something about what's going on in the film.

To what end, you may wonder? The effect is jarring, and I confess to being mystified. If the purpose was to demonstrate that a character can have more than one side, I'm sure Mr. Jackson could have handled it with more subtlety and conviction. In the end, I was left with the feeling that I no longer knew who the characters were or what they represented. It was a little bit like the film had been made in a foreign language and translated awkwardly, so that the lips were moving but didn't match the words being spoken. That's surprising for a director of Mr. Jackson's ability.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the Rails at the North Pole

The other night, I watched Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express on DVD. I had sort of a tradition going for a few years in which I watched it every Christmas Eve, until the feeling that it was actually a little too spooky for Christmas Eve made me stop. It's a very layered film, something along the lines of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It started as a book, an enchanting, much-loved children's story by Chris Van Allsburg. In the process of becoming a film, it, like The Hobbit, gained additional layers of meaning, while remaining true to its origins.

While telling a simpler story than The Hobbit films, The Polar Express shares their sophisticated ability to speak to several audiences at once. The story concerns a young boy who is beginning to doubt that Santa Claus is real. On Christmas Eve, he is awakened by the astonishing sound of an approaching train on the street outside his house. The conductor offers him an opportunity to board for a trip to the North Pole; after some hesitation, he jumps on at the last minute, finding himself in the company of other children all going to the same place. It is, as the conductor puts it, the boy's "crucial year": as a "doubter," he's running out of chances to have his faith in the magic of Christmas renewed before it disappears completely.

The magical night journey involves several crises, including a lost ticket, a child from a poor family who doesn't fall in with the others, a caribou crossing, mechanical malfunctions, and some very steep tracks. Once they reach the North Pole, adventures keep coming for the hero boy and a few of his companions, who get separated from the others. They make their way along perilous tracks and through back alleys to the nerve center of Santa's operation, the distribution point from which presents are routed to their destinations. They eventually make their way to the main square in time for the appearance of Santa and the reindeer, and the young "doubter" is selected to receive Santa's first gift of Christmas--a bell from Santa's sleigh that he's finally able to hear when he puts his doubts to rest.

As a story about the magic of Christmas, the film succeeds both for children and for adults who remember what Christmas was like when they were young. But the real theme of the story is the importance of belief in something good--love, friendship, generosity--that Santa is only the symbol of. The film wants you to keep that spark of belief alive.

As to the reality of the train, the journey, and the destination--well, that's left in some doubt. The boy encounters a mysterious hobo on top of the train who seems to be both part of the trip and independent of it. When the question of Santa's reality comes up, the hobo doesn't exactly offer assurances; on further questioning, he allows that the entire journey could indeed be a dream. He is glad to entertain questions of doubt, unlike the conductor. The other issue on which he gladly assists is the boy's efforts to find the girl who befriended him so that he can return her ticket. That unselfish act, he seems to feel, is worth going to considerable trouble for.

So there's the putative journey, and there's the meta-narrative about the journey--only available to one who climbs outside the framework--in this case, to the top of the train. The hobo, who admits that he himself is probably a ghost, nevertheless offers some trenchant observations, suggesting the possibility that what really matters is not the particular form of belief, but its substance, the matter that underlies it. Since Tom Hanks portrays not only the conductor but also the hobo, the boy's father, Santa Claus, the boy himself as an adult looking back, and one or two other characters, it starts to look as if the real point (if you choose to go there) is not whether Santa is real or not. Christmas Eve merely provides what you might call a teachable moment about deciding what you do believe in and holding on to it.

As for Santa Claus himself, in this movie he is not quite the jolly old elf portrayed elsewhere, but considerably more solemn, almost wraithlike. My friend Jot has said he liked The Polar Express but didn't like its Santa Claus, and I agree that there is something a bit off about him. He is less an elf than a judge, and a rather stern one; his countenance almost suggests that whatever miasma you've fallen into, you might want to snap out of it, and fast. The entire North Pole sequence has a more dreamlike quality than the beginning of the journey, as if self-consciously calling its own solidity into question. The Christmas carols blaring from speakers throughout the town are piped in and have the dragging quality of a tired record player. The town itself has deep crevasses under the train tracks, visible only to those who get off the guided tour, and they are traversed with great difficulty on foot.

This is not only scary but suggests a couple of things: 1.) that a world of total fantasy has its own perils and 2.) that even though the children have been selected for the trip to encourage their belief in Santa Claus, their time is already drawing to a close. One slip through those hazardous tracks, one imagines, and they might very well . . . wake up in their own beds at home.

None of this means, however, that the journey had no meaning or was a foolish enterprise. Far from it. Beyond just telling a Christmas tale, the filmmaker seems to have wanted to say--to those who believe in magic as well as to those who don't--that the real gift lies in what you take from the journey. What did you find out while you were on that train? Are you a better friend? Has your belief in yourself grown stronger, if it needed to? Do you now understand humility, if you needed to? Can you find the courage to make your life better than it has been? Are you now more discerning? None of these are small matters, as we know.

The Polar Express somehow does all this while leaving the magic of Christmas intact for those who do believe. It's a children's story, a coming of age story, and a hero's journey rolled into one, and like any great story offers the possibility of new insights the more you revisit it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Understanding the Fisher King

The other night, I posted a link on Facebook to a clip from a speech Hillary Clinton had given in Boston the day before. In the speech, she was talking about imbalances in our criminal justice system and the need to address them. I was struck by how stiff the former Secretary of State seemed in her delivery and how ineffectively she conveyed sincerity. In short, to be truthful, I didn't believe a single word she said, though there was nothing actually wrong with the speech itself, beyond seeming calculated. There was something in it for everyone, that's for sure.

I posted the clip and made the comment that I didn't find her credible, that I'd thought so for a long time, and that--speaking as a lifelong Democrat--I wouldn't vote for her for president. (I don't think I'd vote for her for dogcatcher, either, not to put too fine a point on it.) I'm used to posting things that reflect my opinions and not getting much of a response, so I wouldn't have been surprised if no one had said anything. I got a "Like" from someone, turned off the computer, and eventually went to bed--and then found I couldn't get to sleep, no matter how hard I tried. I had to get up in the wee hours and read a book until I finally felt sleepy.

I asked myself, "Why am I so restless?" It took me a little while to realize that a lot of it had to do with that posting and the feelings I had about its subject, the state of our country, and the "leadership" we're stuck with. I was angry, and part of the anger, I realized, stems from the fact that I believe we, the public, have participated in creating a leadership crisis in our country by our complacency, reluctance to question our own cherished assumptions, and refusal to ask hard questions. As I was tossing and turning, I thought to myself, "If only, for once--just once--someone would ask me, 'Why do you say that about Hillary Clinton?' or 'What makes you feel that way?' I would feel so much better. A discussion beats silence any day, in my book.

The next day, when I got online, I saw that a couple of other people had agreed with me, and--lo, what wonder is this!--someone had actually asked me what kind of problems I had with Clinton's credibility. Someone actually wanted to know! Stop the presses! A Christmas miracle! In that moment, I thought I knew what the Fisher King, in the Grail legend, might have felt like if only Perceval, instead of hesitating, had asked him the right question: "What ails thee?" Shackles, peculiar enchantments, rotting castle walls, festering wounds, and all would have fallen away in a flash if only the Grail Knight had had the courage to ask the obvious.

In fact, I was so taken aback that someone asked me a plain question that it took me a minute to realize that the person was quite serious. I'm so used to the rah-rah treatment the Clintons get in our state, the seemingly unthinking endorsements the former Secretary of State gets from so many feminists, and the too-frequent assumption by the media that she's the one to beat in the next election. My feelings of discomfort with Secretary Clinton actually go back a way and have several sources, but not least among them is, it must be said, Benghazi.

As I said to my questioner, I realize that Benghazi has been made into a political football. I realize, too, that the investigations that have been done so far largely absolve the government of wrongdoing in the aftermath. But all of the accusations and counter accusations as to who said what when on TV afterwards seem to me to focus on the wrong issue. What I find incredible is the fact that the State Department did so little to defend the consulate, considering its location in such a dangerous place. I just didn't believe Ms. Clinton when she said she didn't know about the requests for more security and that it was all an unfortunate oversight. Not only did the explanation not make sense, but her demeanor during the Congressional hearings bothered me. In short, I still think that the government, including the State Department, is culpable in the deaths of those Americans.

I'm constantly amazed at people's willingness to lionize people who have done little to deserve it. If you think talking a pretty good lick about this and that is enough of a basis to make someone president, I think your standards are way too low. You realize, of course, that many politicians, including Ms. Clinton (and our president), are lawyers, and that talking is one of the things they excel at. This is not a slur against lawyers in general--I know quite a few who are fine people--but you know, making a good appearance is an art, a craft, and a science with them. If you're ever going to know who they truly are, you have to look way beyond the surface. Forget about this "It's high time we had a woman president" business. It may be past due, but that's a very poor basis for selecting someone for the job. Are you going to make me ambassador to Lichtenstein because they've never had one from Kentucky?

Do you want to elect someone who's worthy of your trust rather than someone who merely spends every waking moment trying to cultivate an image of someone you can trust? Start by asking the hard questions and checking your assumptions at the door. I've stopped assuming that because someone thinks like me (or says they do), that they must be a good Scout. (The reverse is also true; it's possible that someone who thinks differently than I do isn't a miscreant; in fact, they may be right about certain things.)

By their deeds shall ye know them. Not by what they learned in law school about selling themselves to a jury or by what an image consultant told them they should say to get elected or how good they are at figuring out what your values are so they can twist them around and trip you up with them.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Madeline's Casement

Does the unconscious have a sense of humor? I'm only asking because of the dream I had the other night, which seemed in some way a response to my blog post of last week, in which I talked about two previous dreams I had eight years apart. My dreaming mind wasted no time in coming up with another installment of the cliff's edge/oceanic/sea creature saga that sprang to life so vividly in the first dream and turned sort of Moby-Dickish in the second.

First off, I have to say that the latest dream was in no way as dramatic as the previous two. There's no rapidly rising tide and no sea monster. In the beginning, the dream didn't even seem to be taking place near the sea. I worked for someone who lived in a large house and was apparently a wealthy invalid. I was in the role of a personal assistant and went into an upstairs bathroom to check on a bottle of medicine; then I went into my own room, which opened out of it. There was a small desk in front of a tall window, and I opened the drawer.

To my surprise, opening the desk caused the bottom to slide out and tilt down at an angle. There was no glass in the window, though the bottom of the desk drawer appeared to be glass--and its contents were hanging precariously over a rocky cliff that plunged into the ocean about 50 feet below. I could see a man cliff diving from the rocks, and I wanted to slide the bottom of the drawer back in so as not to drop anything into the water. There was a long, cylindrical object on the right side of the drawer, but as if it had a will of its own, the drawer slipped further down, tumbling the contents into the water.

The cliff diver had just made another dive, so he and my projectile hit the water at about the same time. I waited to see him come up, and he did. I was glad I hadn't inadvertently drowned him, but it was a near thing. After that, I noticed other people of various ages swimming nearby, none of whom seemed to have noticed that contents were raining down on their heads from an open window. I hadn't knocked anyone out, but on the other hand, wasn't their carefree attitude a bit surprising? I stood looking in some perplexity at the desk that turned gravity into a launch pad.

In this dream there was no sense of danger to me. I was an actor--though an unwitting one--not a reactor. The ocean posed no threat, I did not mourn the loss of the contents, and I was more concerned with the safety of the people in the water than they appeared to be. Above all, I was mystified by the trick drawer that seemed to have been set up to act as it did. There was an inevitability about the scene and a feeling of a sly sense of humor at work.

If you're interested in setting, I will say that the house, while having a more or less 20th-century look (and an up-to-date bathroom) had the heavy atmosphere of established wealth. I believe I had driven there in my car, which was parked on the street. As for the room with the desk, it was something like Madeline's chamber in Keats's The Eve of St. Agnes, except for the fact that it wasn't winter (or even nighttime), there was no stained glass, and in fact no feeling at all of anything medieval. I'm not sure there was even a bed. 

If you're thinking, "That doesn't sound much like Madeline's chamber," all I can say is it must have been the slightly ponderous air of the house, the feeling of looking down from a height, and the unexpected drama of the window treatment. Her window was pretty to look at, but mine was notable for its absence, the difference between a romance and the dream of a modern writer, I suppose. At least I was dry this time.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mythologist Dreams of a Blue Fish

I don't know why I dreamed this week about a giant blue fish jumping over a house, but I did. A few nights ago, in my dream, I was sitting or leaning on the porch railing of a white frame house very much like one I actually lived in when I was young. It was an overcast day in a small town neighborhood, and there were a number of people standing in the yard between our house and the one next door. All of a sudden, an enormous blue fish rose out of the depths, leaped over our house, and landed in a pool in the front yard.

Where the fish came from is an open question, since we were nowhere near the sea but in about as landlocked a situation as you could imagine. Not that that matters in a dream, of course. The sudden appearance of this enormous creature was extraordinary, but the lack of an ocean didn't seem to signify. Perhaps there was a subterranean ocean underneath the house.

My first thought was, "It's a blue whale." However, it was not a whale, but rather a large, flexible flatfish with a big head. It was not a kite or a ray--its shape was elongated and sinuous. It turned itself around in the pool to face us, and it may be anthropomorphizing to say so, but it did not have a friendly look. (Actually, I'm not sure it's possible to anthropomorphize in a dream, even if it sometimes is in waking life.)

It may be good to mention that Jung compared the stages of consciousness with the chakras of kundalini, so that the Leviathan that swims in the unconscious is associated with the second chakra, svadhisthana. In this stage, Jung said, one moves from lack of awareness to a confrontation with unconscious contents, a tricky undertaking requiring considerable courage since the flooding one experiences can threaten equilibrium. It's no minnow you're facing; certainly the fish in my dream had the menacing aspect of a Leviathan as it turned to look at us.

Everybody seemed to know the fish was going to make another leap and probably land on the house. There seemed to be a collective impulse to move out of the way, even a surge of panic. But for some reason, no one really did anything except stand and watch. I remained on the porch, oddly disinclined to move quickly, though part of me thought it was a grand idea. The fish did leap and actually landed on the house . . . but all that came down were a few splinters.

This dream reminds me of one I had some years ago (and have written about before) in which I was lounging on a cliff high above the sea, a brief idyll that ended when the water began to rise. It was not a single creature but rather the ocean itself that threatened. Interestingly, it was not so much physical danger in that dream but the damage to my belongings that concerned me; I was urging people in the house on the cliff to help me move things inside before they got wet.

In the fish dream, there was no water visible except in the pool, which was somewhat shallow, and though the fish carried through on its destructive leap, the result was anticlimactic--though there was still some talk of adjourning to the neighboring house for safety. The situation seemed unresolved, some feeling of uncertainty still remaining.

Maybe it's too much to pair two dreams occurring eight years apart, but I do seem to see a kind of progression from one dream to the next: from a diffuse but overwhelming threat to a specific, visible one; from a beautiful but exotic location to homely, familiar ground; from a frustrated feeling of trying to rouse others to a shared (but measured) sense of danger. The contrast between the urgent activity of the first dream and the watchfulness of the second dream is also striking, though I am not sure what we all were waiting for. A fish fry, maybe?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Natural Phenomenon

I have a memory of sitting in a car with my brother in downtown Fort Myers, Florida, when I was about seven or eight, and he was nine or ten. If I remember right, our Dad had gone into the insurance company to pay a premium or take care of some other business. I'm not sure why I recall that, but I do. Anyway, it was a mostly cloudy day, late in the afternoon, and while we were sitting there, looking toward the roofs at the other end of the street, an unusual cloud formation filled the spaces between buildings to create a shape that looked, for a brief time, uncannily like the state of Florida. To my eyes, it was quite incredible.

It was my brother who pointed it out to me, and I can still remember him saying, in an authoritative, scientific sort of way, "That's what you call a natural phenomenon."

I'm bringing this up because of what happened when I was out walking Friday afternoon. It was five o'clock, probably pretty close to the same time of day as that long-ago wonder. It's also a bit of a coincidence because I wrote another post about something that happened at five o'clock a while back; if there's a quota on five o'clock phenomena, I seem to be running through it rapidly.

I had put my sunglasses on when I left home, appreciating the blue sky and bright afternoon but doubting whether I really needed them; it was partly cloudy, and, anyway, the sun was rather low in the sky. It kept peeking in and out of the clouds, but by the time I'd gone nearly all the way around the Arboretum, it was shining directly in front of me.

That's when it happened. Due no doubt to moisture in the air and the layers of clouds above and below, the sunlight shaped itself, briefly, into a column of fire, dead center in the sky. It was so remarkable that the first thing I wondered was if anybody in rush hour traffic was seeing it, too. It looked like something that, in ancient times, would have been taken by astrologers or prophets as a "sign," as in, "Yo, a plague of locusts is at hand," or at least, "It's time to harvest the persimmons."

I'm cynical about "signs," which seem to me to be overdone these days, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," but the event was beautiful and striking and certainly fit into my brother's category of natural phenomena--so I have another to add to the list of the many I've seen. I know there are names for almost any atmospheric occurrence you can think of, but I don't know what the name for a column of light is. I was mainly just happy that I had my sunglasses on so I didn't have to squint at it and also that it happened when I was facing in the right direction. It did occur to me that there's no telling how many wondrous and amazing things happen around us all the time when we happen to be looking the other way.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Berlin Adventure

It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That means it's been 25 years since my friends and I undertook our three-week whirlwind European vacation (nine countries in 20 days). What was happening in Berlin actually affected us because we had a friend living there; going to visit her was part of our itinerary.

There were probably several times for each of us on that trip when we felt ourselves especially far from home. I had been to England before and was familiar with London; one of my friends found it unfriendly and didn't care for it at all. One of us had already been to West Germany and considered it a "been there, done that" item; I found Amsterdam to be rather scary (but fascinating). I think all of us would agree, though, that crossing the border from the West to the East in Germany (a border still being maintained even as the Wall was coming down) was both unforgettable and Kafka-esque.

It was like slipping into a time warp and landing in the barbed wire and searchlight days of World War II. Both were in evidence from the train windows as we showed our passports to an extremely grim-faced guard. A brief, unexplained stop once the train started moving again caused someone to quip, in a whistling past the graveyard moment, that perhaps some unfortunate soul had been thrown from the back. It seemed remotely possible. It was November, and East Germany was cold and dark, with a twilight, industrial sort of darkness even during the day. By contrast, Berlin, once we arrived there, reminded me of New York: though gritty and gray, it was edgy, electric, and sophisticated--a world-class city.

Our friend was expecting her first child, and we spent the first couple of days close to her comfortable home, catching up on news and going with her to a doctor's appointment. On the third day, we took the train to Kochstrasse, which I believe was the last subway stop before East Berlin, and walked to Checkpoint Charlie. We were immediately enveloped in the mood of excitement that seemed to have gripped everyone in the vicinity (if not the entire world). The Wall hadn't been torn down yet, but it wasn't for lack of trying. People who weren't taking photographs were renting hammers and chisels for a few marks to do their part.

I have pictures of the three of us at the Wall, hammering, chiseling, and looking cold. I was taking a picture of one of my friends chipping away, and something was said about the angle or posing. I said, "Just keep doing what you're doing." At that, a young man who was passing, apparently British from his accent, paused, laughed, and said, "You have a long way to go!" True enough for one person, but of course in the end the Wall--as solid as it was then--came down. I have some pieces of it still, packed away with other mementos.

My most vivid memories of that visit to Checkpoint Charlie, other than the graffiti and the pervasive excitement in the air, are of my friend attacking the Wall valiantly with a Swiss Army Knife and the exhibits in the Wall Museum that dealt with people's escape attempts. One woman had hidden her four-year-old in a shoulder bag and escaped via subway to Kochstrasse Station; someone else had a false bottom in a car and hid underneath it. The consequences were grim for those who were caught, but it didn't stop people from trying.

In the end, you wonder what it's all about. Politics, wars, international agreements . . . and the end result was a city divided in two. I was reading an article by a diplomatic expert earlier that said not all the results of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War were favorable. He may have been right about some of the things he said, but to me a lot of the events that have happened since 1989 can be interpreted as missed opportunities to create a more stable world.

Some people don't believe such stability is possible, I know. But if you were to ask some of the people who were divided from one another by the Wall that broke their city in two (or the loved ones of those who died trying to cross it) what they thought about its demise, I bet you'd get a different opinion from that of the diplomatic expert. People living with the results of decisions made by the great powers ruling the world often have a different outlook than any number of diplomats do. And their outlook may be truer.