Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A missing ingredient

Last year I watched a PBS special on Woody Allen that, for some reason, they were running instead of Masterpiece Theatre. With the Soon-Yi scandal of 1992 (and can you believe it's been 20 years?) Woody Allen fell sharply out of favor with me (and a lot of other people), though I'd always been a fan of his movies, his humorous writings (from Without Feathers: "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me..."), his comedy routines. But I felt he had proven himself a dirty old man with an off-kilter moral compass, and couldn't bring myself to see any of his more recent movies.

The program was very interesting; Allen is, after all, an interesting man, as well as a very talented one. They showed clips of some of his comedy routines -- or even just his response to interview questions on late night talk shows -- and I could hear myself shouting with laughter. I had thought that he started out as a standup comedian who branched out into movie-making, but was surprised to learn that he started out, in his teens yet, as a writer of jokes. He'd submit them to newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson, who would include them in their columns. He continued as a comic writer for years, graduating to writing for people like Sid Caesar. Then his managers convinced him to do the thing that I had thought was his "beginning," perform his own material. And apparently he actually hated doing that! Hated facing a live audience. But, as I said above, the T.V. clips demonstrate that he was really funny. However, he was not successful at all to begin with; his managers had to keep after him, to keep it up. Which, note, he did.

And eventually Allen became successful enough, well-known enough, for him to become involved with film-making, which led to his becoming rich, famous and much admired for his body of work. After his first couple of films he was on his way, knew he wanted to be doing this, and was, amazingly, able to get the kind of artistic freedom he needed.

O.K., O.K., this is all very interesting, but isn't my main point. Here's my main point. Allen was never in a position of not knowing what he wanted to do with his life. He started writing jokes -- it came easily to him, he liked doing it -- and right away he was able to make money doing it. He assumed he would keep on doing it, and that was fine with him. And he did that, in one way or another, for years. Even when he moved into films, first of all he wrote the film. Which, especially in the early years, was intended to be, essentially, one big joke, full of smaller jokes. He was still in the same ball park as the teenager churning out the jokes for the newspaper columnists.

I find this kind of single-mindedness of purpose both admirable, and enviable. I remember wanting to be a nurse when I grew up -- then going to the hospital to have my tonsils removed, at the age of 11, seeing what nurses had to do (like change bed pans!), and deciding that was not for me, after all. Then I wanted to be an interior decorator, because I'd discovered some interior design books at my local library, and had fallen in love with all those beautiful houses, beautiful rooms. I don't recall exactly what disabused me of that ambition -- perhaps it was my belief that you needed artistic ability to be an interior decorator, and I knew I had absolutely none -- but the next thing I wanted to be was an actress. "The greatest actress the legitimate stage has ever known," as I grandiosely announced to my ninth grade English class, when making a "personal speech." That ambition was behind my original college major, drama. But the courses I took that first semester -- or, perhaps more to the point, some of the things said by some of my instructors -- suggested to me that I didn't really have what it took to be a great actress. And I realized I lacked the burning intensity needed to reach this goal over all obstacles.

I had by that time been writing for some time -- for the most part not-very-good poetry -- and "being a writer" had also been a possible ambition, hovering there at the edge of my thinking. Now it moved front and center. But here's the thing. In the intervening 44 years, though I have never stopped wanting to "be a writer," and in fact have never stopped writing, I never thought: o.k., I want to be a writer, which really means be a published writer, and I'm not going to let anything get in my way, or discourage me. I am going to make my living as a writer. Instead, I spent years in deadly dull dead-end jobs -- none of which had anything to do with writing -- in order to keep a roof over my head and food in the belly. I lived in New York City -- the hub of the publishing industry in America -- for a year and a half and it never occurred to me to try to get a job in that industry...and this was the early 70s, when it might actually have been possible for a bright, determined girl to get her foot in the door at some publishing house, even with just a high school diploma.

My decision to go back to college and get a teaching degree was the result of being sick unto death of all the unsatisfying, low-paying jobs. I had thought about what I might like to do, and came up with teaching. But why didn't I come up with writing? Admittedly at that time I hadn't written my first novel, or even my first short story; I was still doing poetry, and philosophical ramblings (which it hadn't occurred to me to try to turn into articles that I might be able to sell). But in college I did start writing short stories, and shortly after I graduated I started my first novel. The short stories I did eventually try to get published, in a literary review or two or three...which really is about how many times I would send something out, before getting discouraged by the rejections. My novel took a ridiculous number of years to finish, ten! Ultimately I wrote two other novels, as well as two travel books, and a number of plays; all of these I would try for a while to get published (or produced), then give up, discouraged.

After graduation, when I had trouble finding a teaching job, (1975 was a very bad year for teachers), I found myself again taking boring, low-paying jobs -- despite the college degree! -- and finally wondering what else I might go into, that was similar to teaching, but perhaps would provide me with greater opportunity for work. And I settled on librarianship, which I've been engaged in ever since. Writing in my spare time, as I always had. And producing a sizable body of work which, alas, I failed to try to market in a consistently never-give-up manner.

So at this point in my life I am looking around and saying o.k., I've been a responsible, hard-working citizen for most of my adult life, but the thing I derive the most satisfaction from, the thing I arguably do best of all the things I can do, I was not single-minded enough to pursue as a career, or even a serious avocation. Although I write I am not really a writer. I am a librarian, and one who feels she has never been more than a passable one of those, and in her most recent job, barely that. Well, darn.

Lucky are the souls like Woody Allen, who have always done what they were meant to be doing.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Because company is coming...

I recently experienced for the first time something that many of you may have done, perhaps more than once. I went through the ordeal of washing my kitchen rug. This isn't a little thing that lies in front of the sink, you understand, but a full-sized rug that covers the entire floor. In fact, it's really too large for the kitchen, so one end is kept folded under.

I decided to clean it in preparation for my sister Ellen's visit, the first week of October. Ellen keeps her house spotlessly clean, so I knew I would have to make some effort to clean this place up. I don't mean tidy it up -- it's generally tidy, because it's so small clutter would make me crazy -- but really clean. Get all the dust bunnies out from beneath the bed, actually dust the furniture, that sort of thing. And wash the kitchen rug, which I've had for about 15 years...and have never had cleaned.

I had at first hoped to have someone come in and clean both this rug, and the red, fake-Oriental in the living room; but none of the cleaning places I called offer that service. They'll clean carpets, yes, but not rugs. I also called the cleaners I use and the woman there said they do do rugs, but it's very expensive (she warned), and I would have to get it from my house to the cleaners, as they did not pick up. The rug is 9x12, and heavy wool; I knew it would be very difficult for Melody the Weakling to get it rolled up, out to, and into her car; then the same in reverse.

So I decided to rent a machine from a rental place down the road. The woman showed me how to use it, since i'd never done this before. The actual process of applying the soapy water to the rug -- and later, applying clear rinse water -- was relatively simple, though not quite so simple as she insisted it would be. The main problem was that the machine would grab hold of the edge of the rug and pull it back as I moved backward with the machine -- a problem inherent in doing this to a rug, rather than to a carpet which is tacked down. The result was that I simply could not clean to the very edge. But everything else about the procedure was anything but simple, or easy.

Just getting the rug ready to be cleaned was something of an ordeal. The rental place woman had told me I should vacuum the rug three times. Since I don't have a vacuum-cleaner, I had to sweep the thing to within an inch of its life. And in case you're wondering, yes, I do usually sweep my rugs to clean them. Every three or four months I borrow the vacuum from the library and give them a good vacuuming. However, I didn't feel like making the drive all the way back to the library to borrow the vacuum, having already made the drive twice that day.

Before I could even do the sweeping I had to shove the extremely heavy trunk that normally sits at one end of the rug, up against the counter that separates the kitchen from the living/dining room, out of the way, into the living room. I had also had to ask the fellow next door if he and his son-in-law could come lift up the stove, because one edge of the rug was under the front edge of said stove. Roger's s-in-l wasn't home at the time, but Roger came in and managed to pull the rug out by himself. (And if you're wondering why I didn't ask him to help me move the trunk, the two events happened two days apart.)

Even the actual sweeping was difficult and awkward because I kept having to move the rug around to get at all parts of it (a reminder: it's too big to completely open out on the kitchen floor.) And, as I said, it's a heavy rug.

Then putting the soapy water into the machine was a hassle, because the lid of the opening where you poured it in would not stay up. Truly a case of terrible design. I had to use my elbow/back to hold up the lid, while I tried to pour a gallon of water into this narrow opening, essentially with one hand. Naturally water got all over the place, besides in the opening, so naturally I did some healthy swearing. This had to be gone through four times, you understand: soapy water, then rinse water, when I did half the rug the first night, soapy, then rinse, when I did the other half the following morning. In between was lugging the heavy water container out to the back deck to pour the contents over the railing.

But at least, and at last, it's done! And the rug really does look much better, the colors brighter. The main background is a deep green, with a medallion of pink and beige flowers in the very center, the same motif on a wide border all around the edge. I have few material possessions that mean a lot to me, but my two rugs are among those few.

Every time something like this comes up -- like putting in/taking out the air conditioners (that's going to have to be done soon, too) -- I feel the difficulty of living alone, and do long for a "man around the house." Ah, well.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

And when the curtain opens...

[This continues the previous posting.]

PBS also ran the operas themselves, on succeeding evenings. The only night I saw an opera from the very beginning was the first night (Das Rheingold), because I kept forgetting to tune in on time (see Note of April 15, 2012 for more on the failing memory). And I did not last the night with that one; I simply became too bored, pure and simple.

Indeed, I have to say I found all the operas much less enthralling than I did the documentary, "Wagner's Dream," on Monday evening. I guess I've discovered I am not a Wagner opera fan. Too long, too slow, too lugubrious, almost utterly lacking in the duets or rousing ensembles that I so enjoy in other operas. Instead it's a matter of individual singers singing their dialog at one another, no "songs" you can hum afterwards. On top of which I found the story of the Ring pretty stupid, and painfully slow to develop.

In the documentary we had been treated to some singing by some of the principal singers, e.g., Deborah Voigt, who was singing Brunhilde for the first time and was a little nervous about that. Alas, her big number, The Ride of the Valkyries, comes at the very beginning of the second opera (Die Walkure), so since I forgot to tune in on time, I missed that. I had thought that some of her singing in the documentary sounded a bit shrill, and apparently she came across in performance somewhat that way, too -- in the inevitable Comments that now accompany any news report on the Web numerous people said she sounded shrill, or just didn't sing as well since she'd lost so much weight. Couldn't speak to that, having never heard her when she was fat. But the singing she did in the last opera (Gotterdammerung) seemed more controlled and full-bodied.

I was also sorry to have missed the famous Valkyrie scene because this was one that had been featured in the documentary, with the poor Valkyries scared to death during rehearsals, each on her own separate board (horse) that would tilt back and forward as she "rode" it.  I'm wondering if they looked more properly confident, like true maiden warriors, in performance.

In "Wagner's Dream" we'd also heard from the singer who was stepping in at the last minute -- as in four days before Opening Night -- to replace an ill Siegfried. I was delighted, and I admit astounded, to learn that this singer, the tenor Jay Hunter Morris, was from Texas. Knowing Texas as I do, I have to wonder how any young man growing up there could become enamored of and involved with opera; the culture simply does not encourage that sort of thing. Later, when I looked up Hunter Morris's biography online, I learned that he didn't really discover opera until he left Texas, that the music he had been involved with growing up was gospel, singing in the church choir, performing with a couple of garage bands, that sort of thing.  Much more Texas-like. Listening to him talk in backstage interviews was amusing, because of his very pronounced good-ol-boy accent -- then he goes onstage and sings his heart out in German.

Indeed, the opera which he literally carries, since he is in virtually every scene (Siegfried) singing and singing and singing, is the one I watched the most of, simply because I was quite taken with him. He's very handsome -- in his make-up he looks amazingly like a blond John Barrymore, and in his acting is even a little hammy, like Barrymore could be -- and he can certainly sing. Not shrill at all. And I was impressed at the high energy level he had to maintain throughout, as well as the fact that he had so much to memorize!

Because the operas are full of villains, there were lots of guys with wonderful deep voices (just as heroes in operas have to be tenors, villains have to be basses). I especially liked Hans-Peter Konig, who sang the role of Hagen, the son of the evil dwarf, Alberich (and note that the latter was very black, while the former was very white. I continue to have trouble with this kind of color-blind casting. Aren't there other good black basses out there who could have played the son?) At any rate, Hagen illustrated one of the other problems I had with various characters: I didn't realize at first that he was a bad guy, actually found him quite sympathetic. Same was true of the dwarf Mime, who had reared Siegfried. Despite the apparent love and care of the dwarf, Siegfried openly despises and ridicules him. This initially made me look upon Siegfried as mean-spirited and selfish, until I (finally) learned that Mime had actually cared for Siegfried all these years, in hopes that he would help him (Mime) get hold of the Rhinemaidens' gold. This latter fact is an example of the absurdity of much of the story; the fact that I couldn't always tell who was a bad guy and who was good I'm inclined to fault Wagner for.

The last opera is ridiculously long -- five hours -- and I finally gave up after about two. My thought, as I stumbled off to bed was, well, I've finally seen, and heard, some of the famous Ring Cycle, but it's just not my kind of opera. Give me Carmen swishing around in her gypsy skirt and singing "Et si je t'aime, regarde toi" any day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Man Behind the Curtain

Last week I watched the most fabulous show on PBS's Great Performances. It was a documentary about what it took for the Metropolitan Opera to put together new productions of all four operas in Wagner's Ring Cycle, for their 2010 - 2011 season. The emphasis was on the technical problems involved in creating and manipulating the very elaborate set that was used for all four plays.

I love shows that take you backstage, whether we're talking movies, plays or operas, which are of course singing plays. I love seeing what it takes to produce the magic we then see "out front." And this program served to remind me just how very important the technical crew is to any kind of production. I first learned this during my one semester as a drama major at the University of Texas. All acting majors were required to work on tech. crew for at least one production a year, which is an excellent idea, as it keeps those future "stars" from thinking they're the only important part of a play. I pretty much sucked at everything I had to do, during my stint on the backstage crew for Somerset Maugham's play "The Constant Wife," everything from painting flats, to helping to move the heavy sons-of-bitches from place to place, to pounding nails into them to connect one to another; but I had my eyes opened to the important role played by all the backstage folk, from lowly stage crew like me, to the people on lights, to the people on sound, to the poor assistant director who had to try to keep everybody happy and doing their jobs (the director just told people what to do).

On the Ring productions the technical crew was especially important, because of that behemoth of a set that was basically a bunch of boards side-by-side -- one reviewer said they looked like a line of piano keys; they made me think of a bunch of ice cream sticks -- that could be tilted at any angle from completely horizontal to completely vertical. So you would have part of them lying at the horizontal, serving as a raft on which Siegfried and his horse were traveling, while the boards to either side, at a tilt, and with the help of fabulous lighting, became the water. And shortly thereafter became the walls of Gunter's magnificent house. Moving those piano keys up and down -- as we learned on the documentary "Wagner's Dream" -- took a lot of unseen manpower, all wearing black from head-to-toe. And long before there were any performances the work done by these unsung backstage heroes was of enormous importance in getting the production stage-ready.

One thing that delighted me was seeing all these big, burly guys in black t-shirts and blue jeans working on an opera. And this is what these guys do for a living. They use their muscle, and mechanical know-how, not to put up a high-rise, but to put works of high art on display.

The Machine, as everybody was calling it, was incredibly complicated and expensive to produce. For one thing, it was developed and built in Quebec, then had to be transported to New York. Then they had to shore up the floors of the opera house's wings, because they couldn't handle the weight. And as I've mentioned, it took a lot of people to make it do what it was supposed to do, all of whom had to be paid. After seeing it in action in the actual performances, which were shown on successive evenings, and which I'll discuss next posting, I couldn't help agreeing with a number of first nighters -- and professional reviewers -- that The Machine was basically much ado about not very much. If nothing else, moving it from one position to another was a painfully slow process. In the documentary you saw that the singers were frequently fearful, working on it, especially when it was tilted (which it frequently was). Even in performance, they often looked clumsy as they tried to navigate on it.

In his interviews the director, Robert LePage, said he was interested in combining elements of the cinema with the usual spectacle of opera. I can't help wondering why. He also made the telling comment that "they," meaning the Met big-wigs, had naturally been wanting a different kind of take on the new productions from him, something that hadn't been done before. Well, they got it, but I for one question whether it was worth the expense, the labor-intensive effort (combined with the huge technological investment), the effect on the performers and the performances themselves. I give it a thumbs down.

But the documentary about it was splendid!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Politics as usual

I have tried to watch parts of both National Conventions, but in both cases the sis-boom-bah rah-rah-rah atmosphere pretty much did me in. Often I found myself hitting the mute button when I couldn't take anymore of a particular speaker -- and always when some new singer started screaming at us (why have entertainment?!) -- I'd turn to my book, or my dinner, or even slip into the study to write some more at my computer, until a check of the screen showed me that somebody new had taken the stage. Then I'd give the new speaker a couple of minutes, to see if something new was being offered, or if it was the same old same old. For example, at the Democratic Convention I felt that far too much time was given to speakers in support of women's rights. Thought we should have heard from just one pro-choice advocate (and one who would not keep using the word abortion, as that word is such a button-pusher -- Democrats who do not favor abortion can live more easily with the word 'pro-choice' than they can with the 'a' word), rather than a parade of women who kept assuring us that we women could lose our right to choose if Romney is elected. Polls have made it clear that such social issues are low on the list of priorities for most Democrats, and even for most Republicans, though not necessarily for many Fundamentalist Republicans.

And there were lots of Hispanics -- often women -- as well as blacks, who all emphasized how various policies of President Obama have benefited the group they belonged to. Frankly, if I were a white male Democrat I think the Convention would have almost had me feeling left out! We needed to hear from more of those "white bald men," that one commentator said made up the Republican base. There have to be some of those guys among the Democrats, too!

I was impressed by all the Hispanics speaking at the Republican Convention, virtually everyone of them an illustration of the Successful American Dream. But of course, most Hispanics in this country are no more Big Success Stories than are most whites, and I felt like the plight of regular Joses was as missing from the Republic perspective as that of regular Joes.

Indeed, David Brooks, the conservative commentator who joined the PBS Newshour anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Iffil at both conventions, and whom I in general respect and admire as a highly intelligent, articulate, and reasonable, not fanatical, conservative, made the statement at one point that he felt the Republican Convention had been too individualistic, and I agree with that completely. The Democratic Convention then bent over backwards to emphasize the opposite concept, that of success-through-cooperation. This is not a bad concept to emphasize, but I got tired of hearing it.  Especially since, as stated by both the commentators Shields and Brooks, and some of the people interviewed outside the convention hall, what is most on most people's mind right now is the economy, and the President's plans for same. We needed to hear more about those issues. The successful bail-out of the automobile industry is a good story, but it's too bad there couldn't have been more such stories; that one got sort of played into the ground.

I didn't watch the much-admired speech by Michelle Obama, because I feel I already "know" President Obama to the extent I need to know him. I already admire his intellect, his courage, his integrity, his idealism combined with pragmatism, his coolness under fire. I don't need to have him "humanized" for me by his loving wife. But I was very glad I caught Bill Clinton's speech. It was invigorating and inspiring -- as well as frequently amusing -- while at the same time answering some of those questions that hadn't been answered, or even addressed, by anyone else so far in the convention. Clinton took on the issues of our national debt -- which got a great deal of play at the Republican Convention, but almost none at the Democratic, even though polls show many Americans are very concerned with lowering the debt -- he took on the question endlessly asked by the Republicans: are we indeed better off than we were four years ago (individually, maybe not, but as a nation, given how bad things could have been, yes) -- and he gave some specific examples. And he took on various lies of the Republicans, particularly those of Paul Ryan, and shredded them. He surely helped the Obama campaign enormously with that speech.

And I discovered Elizabeth Warren! Her speech was a pleasure to listen to. She struck me as a tells-it-like-it-is lady with class and a heart. We will surely be hearing more from her.

In a little while we will be hearing from President Obama himself. He has a history of giving terrific speeches. Let's hope this one is a doozy. And then, thank God, the Convention nonsense will be over.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nature, being delightful

There is a particular plant that is quite prevalent in this neck of the woods, and which I dearly love. In fact, year before last when I was arranging to have new plants installed in the flower beds on either side of my little front stoop, I wanted some of these plants, but the landscape fellow talked me out of it, assuring me that they grew from little bushes into big trees in no time at all, and would quite overwhelm my little house. So I've had to content myself with enjoying those I pass on my walks around my neighborhood, or as I drive to and from work.

The plant is Viburnum opulus Roseum, or the snowball bush. Big, white, round blossoms, that do, indeed, look like snowballs, beautifuly contrasted against a leafy green background. They appear in early summer and usually begin turning a dull pink in early September. When you've got some pink blossoms and some white on the same bush, it makes me think of the scene in Alice in Wonderland, when the Queen's gardeners are busy painting the rose trees. It looks like they've been called away in the middle of their work.

This year, for some reason, the snowball bushes began turning early, by the middle of August (because it's been so dry?). When I noticed this, I kept telling myself I must remember to take my camera when I went to work, so I could stop and take a picture of a completely white plant, on either the inbound or return trip. And of course I kept forgetting. When I finally remembered, this past weekend, I discovered that the battery on my camera was dead. And it was the weekend before payday; no discretionary funds for camera batteries.

And now, alas, it's too late; there isn't a bush left that is all white. I've missed my chance to get a picture of these beautiful bushes while they are in their most Fairy Kingdom stage. So, as I did with the picture of Ford's Theatre, I must again make do with a picture that someone else has produced. We'll call this Something That Gives Melody Pleasure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hooray for the land of four seasons

Sunday, Labor Day, today, the first three days in over two months during which I have not had to turn on my air conditioners at all. In fact, this evening I'm sitting at my computer wearing long pants, rather than shorts, for the first time in over two months -- it's chilly! And I am so happy; fall is on the way!

We had a very unusual summer, day after day of warm, dry, sunny weather. Very little rain. There were a couple of weeks in there when the humidity was a typical summer-in-Maine high, but many more days when the humidity was relatively low. It was the perfect summer to spend a week vacationing in Maine. Some years I feel so sorry for the tourists, because there are so many rainy days. But this year not only were the tourists happy, but all the many businesses that cater to tourists in one way or another, have to have been happy, too.

But me? Alas, I just endured the summer, as I always do. For one thing, in my little granite stone library, completely without insulation...or air conditioning...even if it wasn't all that hot outside, it could be absolutely miserable inside, by the early afternoon. Which is why we again went to Summer Hours this year, being open in the morning every day, rather than opening at 2 p.m. three days of the week, as we normally are.

But even released from that hot little oven each day by two p.m., what I usually did was just rush home to hide out in my air-conditioned house. It is a true curse to be so... allergic! heat. My goodness, especially in these days of global warming! In the past it's scotched the idea of trying to teach English in the various countries that were in the market for such teachers, because those southeast Asia, in South America...were hot and humid. The places that get touted online as The Cheapest Countries to Retire To...the countries of Central America, for example...are also hot and humid. The lucky people of the world are the ones who aren't bothered by such weather. The rest of us live in Maine, and eagerly await the fall.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Counting Your Blessings Department

I was just watching the last half of the appalling documentary, I Was Worth 50 Sheep, which some of you may have seen. Basically it's about the traditional Afghan practice of selling young girls when a family is broke. This particular film follows the story of 16-year-old Sabere, who was sold to a man in his 50s when she was all of 10 years old. She was both wife and slave to him for six years -- during which time she was frequently beaten, talked to constantly as though she were lower than a dog, and had four miscarriages, as well as a forced abortion when she was seven months pregnant -- before she finally escaped, and made her way to a safe house in Mazur.

The film is also concerned with the plight of Sabere's half-sister. Her mother had had to remarry after the death of her husband, Sabere's father, in order to avoid the shame (and destitution) of widowhood. She and her second husband -- who was, as tradition dictated, a cousin of her deceased husband -- also had a daughter. The husband, who had lived in and been deported from Iran, had heavy debts which he could not pay. He "had no choice," but to sell his daughter. When he said this, during one of the interviews with him, I let out an unamused laugh. "You had no choice," I said sarcastically to the screen. "What if selling your own daughter were not socially acceptable -- that wouldn't be a choice -- you'd have to figure something else out!" The father had made a deal with the buyer -- who was also a much older man -- that he and his wife would be able to keep their daughter with them until she was 15 -- when, according to the father, she would be "old enough" for marriage -- and instead of receiving the sheep all at once they would receive 10 a year.

The "drama" of the film had to do with the fact that Sabere, with the help of the people at the Safe House, was trying to obtain a divorce from her husband, while at the same time the stepfather was trying to fend off representatives from the man he had sold his daughter to, who were saying the buyer no longer wanted to wait; he wanted little Farzane now.

Watching something like this reminds us of something we all know, but prefer not to dwell on: while women in western industrialized nations have made great strides toward fair treatment and equality with men over the past century, in many parts of the world they have value only as slaves, as someone a man can kick around when he's feeling angry at the world, frustrated perhaps by his bad luck, or a bad day, someone he can always feel superior to. The stepfather, who kept insisting he did not want to have to give his daughter to the man who had bought her, nonetheless lay around on his cushions-on-the-floor barking "Bring me some tea," "Bring me a glass of water," to the three women who lived under his roof. Nary a please, nary a thank-you. He did go out most days and try to sell some pens that he had, inevitably without luck. But he didn't really hustle at all, didn't do whatever he could to feed and protect his family; he just metaphorically scratched his head and said, "I don't know what to do." If ever there was an example of a loafer, waiting for a miracle to save him, this was it.

At the same time, there is no denying the crushing poverty of places like Afghanistan, the lack of jobs. The United States and various international agencies have been trying for years to improve this situation, to help "develop" the economy of the country. But an "Asian Voices" segment I was watching recently on PBS stated that too much of the intended help has been poorly thought-out, poorly organized, and ineffective. This is one reason I have been so supportive of the Central Asia Institute, begun by Greg Mortenson.  Despite the controversy that arose around Mortenson at the beginning of this year, it has seemed to me that the organization has done a better than average job of working with locals to bring schools -- that oh-so-important commodity, education -- to the impoverished familes in the hinterlands of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Effective aid.

We all know that too much of the aid money, from our government, and that of other countries, that was supposed to go towards Afghanistan's economic development, has instead gone into the pockets of various government officials and their families; and this is of course maddening. But do we stop trying to help? Do we throw the country back into the hands of the Taliban (the man Sabere was married to was a member of the Taliban). What to do, what to do...