No Big Deal

President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga hosts a summit in Rīga. (Source: NATO)

Little Latvia has something to teach the great United States of America about presidential politics. Namely, that electing a woman as president is no big deal. It was not back in 1999, when Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became the first female president, and it was not in 2014, when Laimdota Straujuma became the first female prime minister. (Latvia has a parliamentary system, so there is a head of state and a head of government.) Though born in Latvia, I had lived decades in the States by the time both of these events occurred. But I knew enough about both countries to be able to spot two reasons why this might be so: (1) the gender gap was not quite as large in Latvia and (2) the prevailing attitude among Latvians the world over was that women could do whatever men did. And could succeed—or fail—to the same degree.

The gender gap can be measured objectively. The Global Gender Gap Report, for instance, is based on data collected from 130 countries, or over 93 percent of the world’s population, in four broad areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. With no country obtaining anywhere near the combined score needed to indicate complete women’s equality (1.0), the most recent findings (2014) show that Iceland comes the closest (0.8594). And that Latvia (0.7691) fares a bit better than the States (0.7463). Curious to see what that says about political outcomes, I linked the scores to a list of women world leaders. Apart from President Borjana Krišto of Bosnia Herzegovina and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, for whom data were not available, all the women came from nations scoring above 0.6:

0.8594  Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland
0.8453  Prime Minister Mari Johanna Kiviniemi, Finland
0.8453  President Tarja Halonen, Finland
0.7850  President Mary McAleese, Ireland
0.7798  President Doris Leuthard, Switzerland
0.7780  Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany
0.7409  Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia
0.7208  President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania
0.7165  President Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica
0.7154  Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Trinidad Tobago
0.7075  Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Croatia
0.6974  President Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan
0.6973  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh
0.6806  Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, Slovakia
0.6455  President Pratibha Patil, India

Attitudes are harder to quantify. But I am fairly certain that I was not unique among Latvians everywhere in feeling empowered as a female from my very first days. This empowerment came from my maternal grandmother, who was responsible for my day-to-day care. Born in 1879, she was able to figure out how to support her remaining family after her husband was executed by Russian revolutionaries and she had to return to Rīga, pregnant with her second child, accompanied by my mother, who was only a toddler, and bags of worthless rubles: she set up her own sausage stand and, later, turned a seaside resort into a resounding success. It come from my mother, who worked outside the home all her adult life. Born in the 1915, she managed to land a good job after we fled to Austria to escape the invading Red Army and then assumed the role of sole breadwinner when my father, after falling the equivalent of several stories at the hydroelectric plant where he had found work, decided that it might be best to study law in Innsbruck instead. And it came from my father, as well. He grew up with two accomplished sisters on a farm Cēsis and was equally proud of the one who became a farmer’s wife and the one who became a dentist. The latter, similar to what my mother did in Austria, became the primary provider not long after she and her husband fled to England. While she was able to establish her own practice in London, her husband, who had served as a judge in Latvia, could only find factory work. Which was not only unsuitable but also became a tax liability. So he quit to manage her practice. And both were fine with that.

I am constantly amazed by how many native-born American women my own age do not feel similarly empowered by their predecessors. However, I am truly heartened by what I hear from those born several decades later. For whatever reason, they have managed to instill the No-Big-Deal attitude in this electoral cycle. While most want to see a female president soon, they are also unwilling to say that it has to occur this particular year and be this particular front-runner. Even—or perhaps particularly—many feminists. So, according to a New York Times piece, some 87 percent of likely primary voters aged 18 to 29 say that they would vote for Bernie Sanders compared with only 13 percent for Hillary Clinton.  As a woman quoted in an LA Times piece says, “Feminists choosing her just because she is a woman is the opposite of what feminism means. A ‘person’ should be elected by their records, not their gender.” So, there seems to be substantial progress.

It is important for the electorate to reach the point where gender no longer takes center stage. Not only so that more women are willing to run for office, confident that they had a fighting chance, but also that this could elevate the level of political discourse. As John Cassidy wrote in a piece in The New Yorker, “One of Hillary Clinton’s problems is that her campaign is largely about her. Sanders, on the other hand, seeks to inspire people with an uplifting theme.” And Clinton has claimed that this is so because she is a woman. If we were at the point where it was not always about gender, Clinton might show us what a remarkable leader she could be. On the other hand, very few have matched the “uplifting theme” marking President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. And racial inequality in the States is clearly greater than gender inequality. And many of the world leaders listed above had to contend with greater gender inequality than either Latvians or Americans endured. So maybe the best that Clinton can do is to make the presidential bid about herself. But then, at least, we would know.

Eighteen women world leaders. (Source: TEDwomen)
Eighteen women world leaders. (Source: TEDwomen)

So Long, Laima

Three Latvian deities: Māra, Dievs and Laima (Painting:  Jēkabs Bīne)

Laima, the primary Latvian goddess of destiny, likes to live under willow trees. And willow trees like to live on riverbanks. And a riverbank was where I elected to live when I moved to Maryland and bought a house. A portion of the Patapsco River’s bank, to be specific. Which came complete with a large willow tree and, I had to assume since I was Latvian by birth, the goddess Laima. Because Latvians—and do not let anyone tell you otherwise—are basically pagans. While most modern Latvians identify themselves as Lutheran and a smaller number as Catholic, Orthodox or even agnostic like me, right below the surface, our essence still resonates most with all the ancient deities.

Meaning that we are not so different from the peasants living in the Vidzeme (Middle Land) region, where I was born, when the 16th Century geographer Sebastian Münster came upon them and, with unpleasant surprise, recorded in his 22-volume encyclopedia Cosmographia that there “are many of those, who know nothing of God and his saints. One worships sun, another moon, one chooses a beautiful tree to worship, while another a stone or whatever he pleases.” To which Balthasar Russow, in The Chronicle of Livonia, quite disparagingly added, “They hold some brushwoods as holy sites, which were forbidden to cut down. Their superstition was so great that one who would cut down a tree in the holy place would be killed immediately.”

Which leads me to the point of this piece, which is that on 6 January 2016—which happened to be Epiphany in the Christian world—men in reflective vests with large bucket-bearing and mulch-making trucks arrived in front of my house and, after much discussion, started to ensnare the largest limbs of the willow. As I watched them work from my front porch swing, sipping my morning coffee, all that disturbed me was the noise. I assumed that the tree would be trimmed, a common occurrence around here. But when the trucks and men returned the following day, a primitive rage arose. I left my spot on the swing to keep from acting upon murderous impulses, telling myself that they were mere agents of a higher power. Likely not Dievs, but at least the Oella Homeowners Association. Once I returned hours later to find that only a stump remained (see below), I was less angry than sad.

Of course, the OHA was within its rights. You see, while I viewed the riverbank as an extension of my front yard, it was, in fact, separated from my house by a narrow road and a strip of sidewalk and constituted common space administered on our behalf by the OHA. And, of course, there were good reasons why the OHA might want the willow gone. It blocked our view of the river. And its roots, aggressively seeking moisture, could present problems if they clogged our water and sewer systems. And, while I viewed the tree as Laima’s home, truth be told, it was a weeping willow. Which is a hybrid of the Chinese Peking willow (Salix babylonica) and the European white willow (Salix alba), and, therefore, not a Latvian willow. (Hey, we exiles have to adapt.)

And, to be honest, I have not been happy with Laima of late. Last year alone, she made my life holy hell with an array of physical afflictions and even set it up so that I almost died. Not to mention messing with the stock market so that I barely eked out a profit and, this year, seem well on my way to a substantial loss. And all the stuff that she decided should break. Apparently, her rule is that a decade after a major renovation everything in a historic millworker’s house should fall apart. Particularly during those historic cold snaps and heat waves she so thoughtfully arranged. And, if I thought that you had an hour or so to spare, she has given me enough material to write about much more. So, maybe I should simply rejoice that she has been forced to flee.

Still, what I have always adored about the ancient deities is that they were never saints. Just consider the Greek or Roman mythologies. Perhaps the solution, therefore, was to take a page from Marie Phillips‘ 2007 novel Gods Behaving Badly, where she felt free to portray the 12 divine beings of Mount Olympus as living in a modern-day rundown London flat while witnessing their powers wane. I could just as easily envision Laima, evicted from her scenic site on the Patapsco riverbank relocating to more urban digs just down the hill in front of the Ellicott City Railroad Museum under one of those linden trees, which some say that she likes as much as willows. That way, I could keep her from meddling in day-to-day matters but still have her nearby to blame for events that I would rather attribute to fate.


Weeping Willow Stump
The sad stump where the weeping willow once stood and Laima once lived. (Photo: Ilse Munro)


Note: Little Patuxent Review, where I was once the online editor, is launching the Winter 2016 issue, Myth, on January 31. Attend the launch reading and purchase a copy, either there or online.

So You Know About Guns?

Melrose Street in Bay Village, a charming neighborhood in Boston, MA.

I moved to Melrose Street in the May of 1983. I was in a PhD program at Boston University and was working in a research laboratory at the Boston Medical Center, so I was delighted to find such a surprisingly lovely and seemingly safe but still affordable—albeit barely—place to live. On my own, no less. I had left my husband, then finally decided to dispense with roommates that I thought I needed to make ends meet.

Apart from the usual hassles, there had been two break-ins at the last place, a striking tri-level apartment on Cortes Street that I shared with two professional women. I was not at home for the first one, later learning that the intruders had gained access by squeezing a small boy through a gap in one of the patio-level grated windows we left for ventilation. Although seriously upset by my losses, I assumed a cavalier attitude, saying, “That’s just the price you pay for city living.” I had, after all, resided in various parts of the Boston metropolitan area for nearly a decade without having even the slightest cause for concern.

I was, alas, the one to discover the second break-in there. When I returned from BU in the early darkness that fell during winter, I saw the lights blazing and a huge hole in the hallway. Having failed to force our solid metal door, the burglars apparently took a crowbar to the adjoining plasterboard. “Come on in, the wall is open,” I quipped to worried neighbors who stopped by. But, privately, I knew that I had to find another place to live, and soon. It was a peculiar area: the elegant old rowhouses on the other side of the street had all been demolished to make way for the Mass Pike, which roared far below.

In similar winter darkness the following year, I returned to Bay Village from the medical center. I stopped at the corner grocery store, where I ran into my upstairs neighbor. Arms full of purchases, we walked to our building and stopped to pick up our mail. Busy locking mailboxes and unlocking the front door, we did not notice a large man approach until he shoved us into the foyer. Out of sight of passersby, he brandished a gun and ordered my neighbor to hand over his wallet and watch. After he, frozen with fear, complied, and the gun touched my ribs, I knew that I had to put some distance between me and both unpredictable men. Without hesitation, I feigned a fainting spell and tumbled down the basement stairs.That allowed my neighbor to run for help and the gunman to get away with only my posh shoulder bag.

I could not sleep that night, knowing that the gunman not only had my checkbook and credit cards but also my keys and identification. The next day, I took care of much of that but still could not sleep. The obvious next step was to get a gun. Which I dismissed, using the same common sense that helped me escape my assailant. I reasoned that even if I had obtained enough training and practice (a big “if,” by the way), there was no way that I could have removed a weapon from my shoulder bag before someone with an already-drawn gun could react. And there was no way, in such tight quarters, that I could have been sure that I would hit the gunman instead of my neighbor. And even if I had hit the gunman, there was no way I would be able to live with the knowledge that I had maimed or killed a human being.  Which meant that there was no way that I could seriously consider buying a gun.

Something else stopped me: much as others expected me to, I did not despise my assailant. You see, there was a housing project about two blocks over. The police had already tied the break-ins to some people living there, and it was likely that he lived in the same place. The project represented the worst of public housing: highly concentrated poverty, with all the predictable sequelae. Which were exacerbated by racial segregation that was so bad that the NAACP finally initiated a class action lawsuit against the Boston Housing Authority in 1988. And management incompetence so bad that the court placed the BHA into receivership from 1979 to 1990. Before the mugging, I gave this little thought, except to note that I thrive on diversity and that proximity to such a project had likely lowered my rent a lot; after the mugging I wondered whether living so close to concentrated affluence might prompt project residents to commit crimes. And whether my family and I, as former displaced persons who had left behind everything that we had, could have ended up in the same situation.

After another attempted break-in, this time in the middle of the night while I was in my apartment, and several months of circumventing a stalker, I gave up and moved into an apartment on the 19th floor of a secure doorman-controlled high-rise overlooking the Boston Common. But still I had no desire to purchase a gun. Even when, while still living on Melrose Street, I accepted a position at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. You see, my unwillingness to arm myself had nothing to do with any unwillingness to support my adopted nation’s Armed Forces. And nothing to do with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which clearly states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” [Italics mine.] You see, the Soviet threat to the security of my own native land, Latvia, is why we had to flee, first to Austria, then to the States.

My area of expertise became the behavioral and medical countermeasures to NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) weapons, which I had a hard time explaining to most until the Gulf War started and the term “weapons of mass destruction” (“WMD”) was popularized. Even harder to explain was that I did not work for war mongers. And that some of the strongest advocates for peace could most reliably be found within the Armed Forces. Because these people—unlike many members of Congress and the Administration—had actual experience with the consequences of the waging war. And using weapons against fellow human beings. In fact, the first compelling external evidence I had that I was right about not wanting to own a gun came from seeing soldiers try to defend themselves in a simulation of ambiguous real-life situations: almost none of what was learned in the controlled environment of a shooting range translated into any effective action.

I was reminded of that simulation several decades later when ABC News broadcast “Proof That Concealed Carry Permit Holders Live in a Dream World” in 2010. By that time, though still very concerned about urban crime—I had moved to the Baltimore area, and the rate there exceeded the national average—I was more  appalled by the madness of the mass shootings that were staring to occur nationwide with a frightening regularity that the rest of the world could not comprehend. Moreover, I was dismayed that, instead of pushing for tighter gun control, the response from all too many private citizens was, as it had been to crime, of wanting to arm themselves. In either case, I could not believe how deluded people who had never felt a gun thrust against their ribs, as I had, or operated under conditions of armed conflict, as many of my colleagues once had, continued to be.

So, on the day after President Barack Obama faced a room filled with parents and relatives of gun violence victims and wiped away tears for the 20 first-graders who perished in the 2014 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the many others in his hometown of Chicago, I had nothing to add about how it finally became necessary to take executive action after it had become abundantly clear that nothing would be forthcoming from Congress. I did, however, have more to say than I could put down here about my strong belief that, even with way more gun control than our president could ever hope to enact, guns will remain a problem for Americans as long as a large number remained clueless about what it takes to effectively use a firearm outside of an artificial environment—a mugging, an active-shooter situation, a terrorist attack or outright war—and still stubbornly insist that they know all that they need to about guns. Perhaps I could at least induce a few of them to watch that ABC video:


Lost Lost Lost

Jonas Mekas, a displaced person in the States. (Photo: Boris Lehman)

“I grew up in paradise,” Brooklyn-based Johas Mekas says, referring to the Biržai area on the LithuanianLatvian border. “Then the Soviets came and they brought Hell.” That precipitated a series of events that turned him into a displaced person, brought him to the United States and made him the filmmaker—often called “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema“—and all-around artist he is today.

Within weeks of his arrival in 1949, he borrowed enough money to buy his first Bolex 16mm camera and began recording his immigrant experience. One result was the 1976 film Lost Lost Lost, which a New York Times reviewer described as “one of the finest” among his many achievements, “a beautifully constructed diary film . . . At once rough-hewn and delicate.” On his site, Mekas describes the film as follows:

The period I am dealing with in these six reels was a period of desperation, of attempts to desperately grow roots into the new ground, to create new memories. In these six painful reels I tried to indicate how it feels to be in exile, how I felt in those years. These reels carry the title Lost Lost Lost, the title of a film myself and my brother wanted to make in 1949, and it indicates the mood we were in, in those years. It describes the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one. The sixth reel is a transitional reel where we begin to see some relaxation, where I begin to find moments of happiness. New life begins. What happens later, you’ll have to see the next installment of reels . . .

Since we are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II and many seem to be confused and conflicted about what America should do about the masses of displaced people, I would like to show how the nation that allowed me in during 1949 has benefited from some of my fellow refugees. So, I will let Mekas tell you his story, as he did a few years ago, and show you around his Williamsburg studio:



Note: There are clips from Lost Lost Lost available on DailyMotion and YouTube, and the entire film is can be purchased on DVD from his website.


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