Monday, April 17, 2017

A Conversation with Ata, my 103 Year Old Mother

Ata Kando
By Madeleine Kando

I watch Ata struggle with her blankets. She has returned from one of her numerous trips to the bathroom, trying to settle back in her recliner close to the window. My sister Juliette moved it there on her last visit, so that Ata can look out, although she cannot see much any more. Just spots, she says. My mother has grown thinner and smaller since last September. When she shuffles across the room, leaning on her wheeled walker, her hunchback is now so prominent, that she has difficulty looking straight ahead.

She breathes heavily, groans and sighs until she finally settles in her usual comfortable position. Then, her sweet smile returns and she is ready to engage with the world, which is now me, on my latest visit from America.

It’s a beautiful Dutch spring day and I ask Ata if she would like to take a ride to the beach that afternoon. But even brief day trips are no longer part of our routine. Her world is reduced to trips to the bathroom and to her bed at night.

A few years ago, when she was only 96, we could still go on overnights together to places like the Ardennes. As the years passed, our trips got shorter, but my visits to Ata were always fused with the joy of driving through beautiful Holland together.

This time it is different. Ata no longer leaves her recliner. She no longer reads, listens to music, or watches TV. She cannot smell the blooming cherry trees in front of her large bay window. Her extreme old age has sneaked up on both of us, as one by one, her senses have abandoned her. Read more...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some of the Things I Remember from World War Two

War is on my mind lately, because of the saber rattling by the boy who leads North Korea and our own man-boy leader. It’s scary, when two mentally unstable heads of state face off, and they both have nukes.

Also, I just saw The Zookeeper’s Wife. The movie is better than the credit it gets. It’s about World War Two, in Warsaw.

I was barely over 4 years old when the war ended in Europe, and I grew up in Budapest, which is “next door” to Warsaw, so to speak. This movie brought back many memories. It’s interesting how one becomes more forgetful in the short-term when one ages, but also how long-term memory sometimes resurfaces.

The Battle of Budapest between the Soviet Red Army and the Axis Powers - Germany and Hungary, primarily - took place in the winter of 1944-45, one of the coldest on record. It is estimated that it resulted in 40,000 civilian deaths, 150,000 Soviet casualties, dozens of thousands of German and Hungarian combat deaths, and half a million Hungarians transported to the Soviet Union (Siege of Budapest).

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tower of Babel, Cacophony, or Multilingualism on Testosterone?

So this morning I Skyped with my family in Holland (actually, it was morning for me, evening for them).

My mother Ata lives in Holland. She will turn 104 in a few months. This week, my sister Madeleine, her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson were all visiting Ata. They are all from America, but my sister Madeleine is an immigrant, like me.

In addition, there were a couple of Dutch ladies there, wonderful women who volunteer to provide my mother with immense assistance. Altogether, there were more than half a dozen people in my mother’s Dutch flat while I was skyping with her from Sacramento.

So this skyping event was exceptionally international, which is not unusual in my family.

We were all born in Hungary. I was seven when we left that country, and my twin sisters were six. The three of us soon forgot Hungarian, but it has always remained our mother’s primary tongue. Read more...

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Is Patriotism Good or Bad?

 There is a lot of talk about patriotism these days. The new president wants to make America great (again).

 Also, I just read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a pretty good book. The author describes with great honesty his feelings about his Appalachian origins, and his feelings about that subculture, as well as about America in general. He was a marine for four years and served in Iraq. He is an “enlightened” patriot. He gets teary-eyed when he hears Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

So I am thinking: Why don’t I get teary-eyed when I hear that song? What’s the matter with me? I am an American, too!

And why do I admire Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49er quarterback who kneeled during the National Anthem instead of standing at salute? The vast majority of the public in the stadium booed him, and he might not be hired by any NFL team next season. His act of defiance was in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He is paying a high price and I I find his behavior heroic. Read more...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hundred Places that will Change your Life?

In the summer of 2016, the National Geographic Magazine published a special edition about “Hundred Places that Will Change Your Lfe.” It describes one hundred  fabulous places in fifty-five  different countries.

As an inveterate traveler, I had to look into this. For one thing, after seventy years of worldwide travel,  - how many of these spots have I had seen?  Regretfully,  I have only been in 32  of the sites listed by  the National Geographic, and only  in 19 of these 55 countries - just about one third.  Oh well, I’ll check out the remainder in my next life.

The National Geographic  divides its list into four categories, each containing 25 places: (1) Mind,  (2) Body, (3) Spirit and (4)Soul:

The first 25 sites  are places where you  may go to enrich yourself mentally and culturally. To clarify the point, the magazine quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. ,who once said that “A Man’s Mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” Here are some examples of such places: Read more...

Monday, March 27, 2017

Juicy French Politics

By Madeleine Kando

The current administration is mired in controversy, ranging from conflicts of interest and foreign meddling in our elections, to sexual misconduct, but looking at what is happening in France, we certainly don’t have the monopoly on political scandals.

The French Presidential elections are around the corner and of the five candidates that are competing for the job, two are under investigation: Francois Fillon, leader of the conservative party ‘Les Republicains’ and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right populist party ‘Front National’.

If you think it unethical for Trump to hire family members to help him govern, you only have to look at France to see that nepotism is not exclusive to America. Giving positions to family members is actually common amongst French politicians, but the latest scandal going by the name ‘Penelopegate’ was too much to swallow for the French voter.

Francois Fillon, is charged with paying his wife $1 million with public money for a job as his assistant, that she never fulfilled. Fillon is seen as a hypocrite, since he has proposed cuts to civil servant jobs to save money. Read more...

Sunday, March 19, 2017

It's the Birthrate, Not Immigration

Just for once, let me NOT write about Trump - although, even today’s topic is prompted by what he stands for, namely white supremacy.

White supremacists include Geert Wilders and Steve King. The former is a Dutch nativist, a Dutch Trump, who fortunately just lost an election in the Netherlands. King is an Iowa congressman who recently said that   “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”  This apes Breitbart News, Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the KKK and all others in Europe, America and elsewhere  who, under the guise of “nationalism,” believe that the white race has a corner on human civilization.

Today, this white panic is prompted in part by the fact that whites make up an ever smaller percentage of the world’s population. There is panic at the prospect that people who are white andChristian are increasingly being replaced by people of color, people who are Muslims, etc. Read more...

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Takeaway from the Dutch Elections

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders
by Madeleine Kando

Holland is in the news this week. They just had their elections and thankfully, the populist PVV party did not win the majority of votes, although it came in a close second. The rest of the world has been watching the Dutch elections closely, since it is the bellwether country for populism in the entire continent. Like the flu, populism is contagious, but the PVV’s relative defeat showed that the Dutch built up some resistance against the populist virus. France has Marine LePenn, leader of the National Front, Germany has the AfD, Italy has the Five Star Movement and Hungary is governed by ultra-right-winger Viktor Orban.

What does this disease consist of, you might ask? It manifests itself in the form of nationalism, anti-immigration on the right and anti-capitalism and a push for redistribution on the left. The ugly side of populism on both sides, is that it is based on exclusion, be it the ruling elite or immigrants, it pushes itself off by demonizing the ‘other’.

Geert Wilders, the leader of the PVV, is often referred to as the Donald Trump of the Netherlands. His is the second largest party at the polls, but that doesn’t mean that the PVV will even be part of the Dutch government, since no other party wants to work with him because of his extreme views on immigration.

In a nationally televised pre-election debate, the ‘Turkish crisis’ was discussed. This is in reference to two Turkish ministers being barred from campaigning in Holland in a bid to drum up support amongst the Turkish residents for Prime Minister Erdogan back home. This caused Turkish authorities to accuse the Dutch of being’ Nazis’. An angry crowd staged an all-out protest outside the Dutch consulate in Istanbul, stabbing oranges with knives and drinking gallons of orange juice. An outsider might conclude that the Turks have finally gone bonkers as a result of being ruled by a madman, but it appears that the color orange is linked to the Netherlands and stabbing oranges was their way to show their displeasure with the Dutch. Read more...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: an Eye Opener

Jane Mayer
By Madeleine Kando

I always knew that money was a big influence in politics, but I took it as a given, an unpleasant fact of life, like the harsh winters in New England. But after reading Jane Mayer’s ‘Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right’, I realize that there are different types of money spent on politics. Hard money is regulated and has to be account for, but soft money, also known as dark money, is not. This type is now so entrenched in the American political system, that it would take an earthquake of enormous force to dislodge it.

Of course, the biggest players in the story of dark money are the Koch brothers. I was not aware of the extent to which they are responsible for the rightward trend in American politics and how far they are willing to go to advance their political ideas, not to mention their fortunes.

They have been at it for almost half a century, inheriting their libertarian (if not anarchistic) views from their grandfather, Fred Koch, whose rabid anti-communism did not prevent him from making a fortune building refineries for Stalin and later made lucrative business deals with Hitler, whom he greatly admired.

Koch Industries’ corporate rap sheet is miles long. They were found guilty of countless health violations, causing the death of several employees. They were convicted of falsifying emissions output figures at their refineries; they willfully disregard safety regulations, which they consider ‘socialistic’. ‘My freedom is more important than your life’ should be the industry’s motto. Read more...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Oh, Oh, Amerika

 I just read the book by that title, written by the Dutchman Charles Groenhuijsen (2015).

The premise of the book is similar to that of Rick Nieman’s What we Can Learn from America: An Optimistic Story about the Promised Land (2015), which we reviewed a few months ago (see What we Can Learn from America). While it provides a detailed critique of most of America’s many flaws, its basic theme is that the country is on the road to progress, and that it enjoys many advantages over Europe. In other words, it is one more optimistic and sympathetic analysis of the USA coming from the Netherlands. Interesting.

In this article, I will summarize Groenhuijsen’s book, and conclude that (1) the author is overly optimistic and that (2) his prognosis might have been more negative if he had written the book AFTER Donald Trump’s election rather than just a few months before.

First, what is good about America, according to Groenhuijsen?

● For one thing, Americans are becoming more liberal in their lifestyle. Gay marriage is now the law of the land, more and more jurisdictions are legalizing recreational marijuana, the country is becoming more secular; church attendance is declining, etc. Read more...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

President Trump Stress Disorder (PTSD)

by Madeleine Kando

Yesterday, I watched Trump addressing a crowd of core supporters at the American Conservative Political Action Conference. **

My visceral reaction was a tremendous sense of doom. Not because he said anything new, which was accusing ‘the dishonest media’ and repeating all the platitudes that we heard during his campaign, but because of the crowd’s reaction. The speech went on for an hour and as the crowd exploded in a chant of ‘USA! USA!’ shivers went down my spine. At the height of this frenzy, Trump turned his back to the audience, showing the world that they have completely surrendered to him and nothing that he can do will change their allegiance to their leader.

How did we get to this state of madness? Gone are the good old days when I could go about my daily life, a life of relative harmony, a life of simple pleasures like taking walks in the forest or wonder whether it was too early to plant my seedlings.

Trump has put an end to all this normalcy. Now I worry about politics every minute of the day. It is like finding out that your child has a major disease and suddenly all your time is taken up by learning everything about that disease and feverishly trying to find a treatment plan. But in the end, would I not rely on the medical experts to tell me what to do? Read more...

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Evil Rising

I just spent nearly a month in Europe. It’s interesting to compare notes:

Europe is also experiencing a resurgence of nativism, xenophobia, anxiety and rightward politics among its still dominant white bourgeoisie. Like the US, Europe is also flirting with neo-fascism. Holland has its Geert Wilders, France has its Marine Le Pen, Hungary has its Viktor Orbán, etc. These are all far-right demagogues, already in power (Orban) or likely to win upcoming elections (Wilders, Le Pen).

Why is this happening?

There are the obvious alleged reasons, ceaselessly reiterated by the pundits. These include:
1. The threat of foreign influx - largely Muslims in Europe, Latinos in the US. In other words, the demographic threat to the primacy of the traditional, white, European-American dominant majority. This is aided and abetted by the ceaseless chatter about terrorism.
2. De-industrialization due to globalization and automation, greatly increasing economic insecurity.
3. Social change, including the decline of patriarchy, which makes men angry.
In sum: A feeling of being threatened, of losing ground, especially among groups that previously held all the cards.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Art of the Trumpf

Frederick Trumpf, our President's Grandfather
By Madeleine Kando

Some people are lucky. They have family names that elicit respect, like names of Scottish clans or old Saxon names like Armstrong or Goodrich. But others have names that are a warning sign for those who are unlucky enough to cross their path.

One of those names is ‘Trump’. It is a surname derived from Old French ‘tromper’, which means, "to cheat". The word ‘trumpery’ first appeared in English in the mid-15th century with the meanings "deceit or fraud". To trump up means, "to concoct with the intent to deceive"

Donald Trump’s original family name was Drumpf. It is derived from the word "Dumpf", which means dull.*

The ‘Drumpf’ family originates in Kallstadt Germany, where the first known person with that surname was Hanns Drumpf. He was so dull, that his relatives advised him to go into the wine business, so that he would be acceptably entertaining, at least when he was slightly inebriated.

Dullness being a trait that is passed on to your offspring, his son Johan Philip Drumpf also remained in the winegrowing business. He was often seen in the local wine cellars, sampling his own wine and making bad jokes, trying to hide his genetic boorishness. ** Read more...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Will the Real Bambi please Stand up?

Mirko Hanák, 1967
By Madeleine Kando

The first time I saw Bambi, I was nine years old. Ten minutes into the movie, I had to leave the theatre, unable to handle Bambi’s mother being shot. It took another 5 years before I mustered the courage to watch the movie in its entirety.

You can say a lot of things about Disney, but he was a master puppeteer at manipulating his audience’s emotions, young and old. He was also an incredibly clever businessman who plagiarized most of his stories, including Bambi.

I found this out when I recently discovered the original Bambi story. It is written by Felix Salten, a Hungarian Jew, whose original name was Sigmund Salzmann. Like many Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, (including my own grandfather) he changed his name to be more accepted by the society around him.

He lived in Vienna, which was the center of European culture in those days and became quite famous as a writer and critic. His most famous work: ‘Bambi, A Life in the Woods’, is a masterpiece if you ever read one.

Contrary to Disney, Salten was a terrible businessman. He sold the movie rights to his story for a mere $1000 to MGM producer Sidney Franklin, who in turn, sold it to Disney. The rest is history.

After having read the original, part of me feels that, although Disney’s Bambi deserves a place in history for having captivated the hearts of millions of viewers, it has also overshadowed one of the most beautifully written stories I know. Read more...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

I was a Refugee

 Trump has signed an executive order banning immigration from a number of countries. This affects first and foremost refugees - for example from war-torn Syria.

So this is an opportune time for me to share with you my own past, as a refugee:

I was born in Budapest at the beginning of World War Two. My family survived the horror of the war, the Holocaust (we are Jewish), the Nazi and then the Soviet occupation. My first foray out of Hungary occurred one year after the end of the war, when I was sent to a refugee camp in Italy. I remember sleeping in an underground bunker. Then, a year later, we fled to Paris. I was seven. We became refugees in France. My only official identity paper was a United Nations document declaring me to be an “Apatride.” This means “stateless,” someone without a country. I remember this card well. It carried the familiar UN Logo.

For the next thirteen years, I grew up in Paris and in Amsterdam as an “apatride.” It was practically impossible to travel even into the country next door. Even visiting friends in Belgium, seventy miles away, required a visa, which required almost insurmountable bureaucratic endeavors. Read more...

Our Many Brains

by Madeleine Kando

It has long been known that our heart has a cluster of neurons that can influence the way we feel and think. Proof of this can be found in cases of heart transplants, whereby an inexplicable change occurs in the recipient’s personality.

After waking up with his new heart, Greg Swanson of Tulsa, Oklahoma, turned from being a fun-loving, hard drinking, skirt chasing Casanova into a shy, introverted bookworm, who suddenly needed prescription glasses and was afraid of everything except his 17-year old hamster, Jesibel. Medical staff found that the donor of the heart had been a reclusive, hamster-loving, semi-autistic genius who had blown himself up while working on an invention.

How do we explain this sudden transformation? Research has shown that the heart contains a cluster of neurons that not only functions autonomously to regulate its own rhythm, but that it also tells the brain what kind of person it wants to inhabit. Evicted against its will, a donor heart will tell its new landlord in no uncertain terms who is the boss. Read more...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why I Marched

By Madeleine Kando

I marched with 150 thousand others yesterday, joining the Women’s March in Boston. Why did I sacrifice my precious Saturday to stand in an over-packed subway car to take me to the heart of Boston to join an ocean of women and men wearing pink pussy hats, brandishing signs of every imaginable shape and size with slogans ranging from ‘Dicktator’ or ‘Keep your tiny hands off my equal pay’, to ‘the pussy strikes back’?

I did this because I am angry, frustrated, disappointed, but mostly because I believe that doing nothing is not an option. By marching I showed the world, you, myself, that the time has come to say ‘this has gone too far’. It felt better than standing in my kitchen, listening to the news while cooking dinner and feeling helpless, hopeless and powerless.

I marched because marching binds people together without using words. When 150 thousand pairs of feet do the talking, people listen. I marched because it gave me strength, even if it was just for one afternoon and if there is anything that can be called ‘action at a distance’, yesterday’s 600 marches throughout the entire world deserve that description. Read more...

Friday, January 13, 2017

Racism and Other Evils

 Since the presidential election, I have come to a point of mental rest and clarity: I am now convinced that the great division in our country today is simply between Good and Evil. After you weed out all the chaff and the noise, all the accidental aspects of specific issues, there remains one clear and simple fact: On one side are hatred, rage, racism, chauvinism selfishness, greed, violence, xenophobia, deliberate lies, deception and ignorance. On the other side are hope, compassion, acceptance, courage and goodwill. By and large, those who elected Donald Trump are on the bad side, and - yes, I’ll simply call a spade a spade - liberals are forever the good guys.

Flawed as we all may be, the political Right is immeasurably more evil than liberals are. The latter may often be incompetent, lazy, they may compromise their ethics and run for cover. Read more...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


By Madeleine Kando

‘I don’t think I am drinking enough these days,’ said the rose petal to no one in particular. ‘I feel a bit dehydrated and it’s not good for my complexion.’ She looked at the petal over on her right with slight envy, noticing a marked difference in tone.

A ladybug, who was lazily crawling up the side of the rosebush overheard. ‘Don’t worry about it. Drinking is overrated, a fad if you ask me,’ he said.

‘It’s easy for you to say,’ the petal said, ‘you have legs but I am stuck here perched on a rosebush. Why they had to plant us in the sunniest spot in the garden is beyond me. Have they no compassion?’

The petal sighed which caused her to droop a little more. The brighter colored petal on her left looked at her with some disdain and said: ‘You haven’t used the treatment I recommended. Dew drops should be applied daily from left to right.’ She twisted a little to show off how rosy she still looked and started to hum with satisfaction. Read more...

Monday, January 2, 2017

Gender: Is it a Thing of the Past?

By Madeleine Kando

My grandson's name is Marshall. A big name for a little 4 year old. His long curly hair is the color of pure gold; the shiniest, softest curls cover his sweet little face. His eyes are blue, with a twinkle of mischief when he is happy, a dark stare that makes you shiver inside, when he is not.

He is my little man and I am head over heels. I never had a little man of my own, so this is a free-bee for me. He has entered my golden years and I feel like I won the lottery.

Because of his long blond hair, people in the street exclaim what a cute little girl he is. It's the privilege of young children to not be pinned down yet by their sex. We treat them with affection not yet tainted with judgment. They are not yet saddled with the burden of gender identity and we treat them the way we respond to pets, without any expectations or prejudice. He has long hair? So what if he is a boy? Read more...