Category Archives: Current Affairs

Vacationing in the Past with Edward Lear

Sometimes I need a change from the present day with its endless news—endless recycling of stories that make me sad or mad or both. That’s when I lose myself in reading about the past. For the last week or so I’ve been reading a new biography of Edward Lear. Remember him? He was the author of children’s verse such as

The owl and the pussycat went to sea

In a beautiful pea-green boat

They took some honey and plenty of money

Wrapped up in a five-pound note.

Even more famous are his limericks, which have become almost as familiar as Mother Goose rhymes.lear limerick

Like most people I had no idea that Lear was not primarily a poet, but rather a respected painter specializing in birds and landscapes. That was how he made his living and the reason why he traveled ceaselessly around Europe and the Middle East. I learned all this from a sparkling new biography by Jenny Unglow called Mr. Lear; a Life of Art and Nonsense.

 During the past two weeks I’ve spent much of my spare time dipping into Edward Lear’s remarkable life. Unglow makes his life memorable by describing his unusual family life—he was the 13th of 14 (or possibly more) children and was raised primarily by an older sister because his mother couldn’t cope with all the babies.

Born in 1812, Lear was able to take advantage of the speedy travel made possible by the spread of trains across Great Britain and most of Europe and the steamships that took him to Greece, Malta and Sicily. His network of friends gave him companionship when he was in foreign lands. Although not an aristocrat, he found patrons among wealthy families who valued his pictures and enjoyed his cheerful company and his way with children. He was welcomed everywhere he went.Lear_Macaw

Certainly his life wasn’t easy. He suffered from a range of ailments including epileptic attacks as well as episodes of depression. He longed for the stability of marriage and family life, but his emotions centered on men and he never found a way of balancing his desires with the rules of Victorian society. Still, he maintained his friendships and found satisfaction in his work, although like all of us he often complained of overwork.

The past was not a happy place, and I wouldn’t want to live there, but visiting it now and then is refreshing. I urge you to read Jenny Unglow’s book, which is available now in libraries and bookstores as well as on Amazon.com.

People have lived through worse times than those we are going through today. Reading and writing about them today gives me perspective on the life and times of the 21st century. That is why I have set my Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories   in the 1840s, a tumultuous period in both Europe and America. Charlotte Edgerton and her friends lived through many of the same events that Edward Lear did.

Later this month, the fourth Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Enters the Convent will be published. I’ll write more about that in my next post.

 

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A Gloomy Fourth of July

Those of us who are old enough may remember a little verse by Sarah Cleghorn that we heard in school:immigrant child

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

 

That verse popped into my mind yesterday as I heard the news about Congressmen (and women) leaving Washington this weekend to go back to their districts for the Fourth of July celebrations. Some of them are no doubt headed for golf courses. And meanwhile we have thousands of immigrant children being held in detention centers, separated from their parents, wondering what will happen to them. While our representatives celebrate the past glories of our country, they have not taken the time or made the effort to fix the immigration system so horrors like this do not occur.

This has been a bad year for America. Congress neglects its duties and focuses instead on satisfying donors and carrying out the demands of an erratic president. This month has shown how far America has wandered from the virtues celebrated in its usual July 4th self-congratulations.

Land of the Free? Well, not entirely. The Supreme Court upheld the right of individuals to use their religious beliefs to deprive some people of their right to buy a cake in a public shop. But now that Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump and his supporters are determined to appoint a new justice who will take away the right of women to practice their own beliefs in choosing the medical treatment that is right for them and their families. A justice who will support laws imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans about when human life begins to prevent all women from following their own consciences. Depriving other people of their right to privacy and their right to access appropriate treatment is not freedom.

Home of the Brave? It is difficult to see much bravery in Congress these days as they meekly accept the orders of an ignorant and bullying president. Paul Ryan, who spoke out bravely during the 2016 election campaign and refused to support a man whose morals showed him to be blatantly unfit for office, has crumbled along with the rest of the Republican majority. Congress stood by and watched the farce of accepting an order that immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries should be barred from the U.S. No one will be more secure because of this limitation, but many families will suffer. They passed a tax bill that reduced taxes for their supporters and probably themselves, but will leave ordinary working people behind. They accepted the imposition of a record-breaking national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. And they failed to ensure that all Americans get a decent level of healthcare

No, this is not a Fourth of July to celebrate. Instead of mouthing worn-out phrases about America’s past glories, this is a year to start reversing, as much as we can, the slide backward into the bad old days we worked so hard to overcome. Instead we can

  • Get in touch with our representatives and urge them to fix our immigration policies and live up to our ideals.
  • Choose candidates in the upcoming midterm election who will battle to ensure that the gains that have been made over the past century in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights are not thrown away.
  • Urge our leaders to work with our allies and democracies around the world to maintain peace and stability in the world. We do not need to cater to autocrats and sully our reputation as an example to the world.
  • And the only way to do all of this is to REGISTER AND VOTE! voting

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A city frozen in time or on the move?

If you have ever seen the old (1999) movie Blast from the Past, you probably remember the ingenious premise. A suburban American couple in 1962 decides that an atomic war is about to begin. The husband has prepared a secret bomb shelter underneath the house for just such an occasion and he leads his pregnant wife there. For 35 years the family remains hidden and when their son finally emerges, he discovers the world has completely changed. No atomic war came, but their neighborhood has turned into a slum and the people he meets are unfriendly and greedy. In the movie this encounter leads to romance and comedy, but what would going back to an old neighborhood after 35 years really be like?

Reading David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) has reminded me of how dramatically and quickly American cities can change. Talbot’s book is a well-documented history of frozen_hippie vanSan Francisco from the 1960s until the 1990s. During that time the population of the city did not change much—hovering in the 700,000 range—but the people and the mood of the city altered sharply. New groups arrived in the city and many descendants of earlier residents drifted away.

Talbot begins his book with 1967, the Summer of Love, when San Francisco attracted crowds of young people demanding peace, love and an end to war in Vietnam. The staid citizens of the city, many of whom looked back on World War II as the proudest moment in American history could not understand why young men were unwilling to become warriors. Conflict was inevitable, but the hippies learned to provide their own services to take care of the young people flooding into the city. Eventually the war ended, the runaways went back home or settled down in the city, but San Francisco was never the same. Many memories of the city of love are still alive in the minds of city residents.

No city can remain a city of love forever and the days of love and trust faded away as drugs came into the city and with them some brutal crime sprees that shocked residents and titillated the rest of the country. The zodiac murders were especially brutal. And later came the trauma of Jonestown when hundreds of people—men, women, and children—died under the guidance of a charismatic but deluded minister. Drugs, death and destruction all became part of the indelible history of the city.

Reading Season of the Witch makes you aware of how swiftly and irrevocably a city changed over a short period of time. The gay community gradually overcame the fearfrozen_parade and resistance of many of the city’s more traditional residents. Today the city is a center of LGBTQ life. The Gay Pride parade became an emblem of the city and the movement it started spread across the country and around the world. The tragic crisis of the AIDS epidemic might have torn the city apart, but instead it seemed to bring the city together in working to heal the sick and find a cure.

All of this happened within the lifespan of one generation. Each decade brought the city another influx of people with new ideas and ambitions. And now a new wave of people have come, bringing another source of tension.  Well after the period covered by Talbot’s book, came the invasion of the “techies”, welcomed by some and hated by others, but undoubtedly a group that must be reckoned with.

The prices of houses, condos and rentals have soared, streets have become crowded with cars, bicycles, and scooters and giant buses have appeared to carry the newcomers back and forth to their jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And now developers are hoping to push height limitations on new buildings to accommodate the newcomers. Will San Francisco eventually become a city of high rises like so many other cities around the world? That remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain—it will not remain the same.

Centuries ago Heraclitus told us “There is nothing permanent but change” and it is still true.

freeze_tower

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Why Are Women Still Dancing Backwards?

Almost everyone is familiar with the comment from a cartoon written by Bob Thaves about Ginger Rogers, “she did everything he [Fred Astaire] did, but she did it GingerRogersbackwards and in high heels.” That about sums up the extra requirements put on women as they move ahead in a professional world dominated by men. Often this includes the expectation that women in any field will look like models and stay as fit as athletes whether this has anything to do with their work or not. Men are usually permitted to put on a little weight (as long as they wear a well-tailored jacket to disguise it) or to let their biceps sag a bit.

A recent New York Times story described the rigid standards set for cheerleaders who work for professional sports teams  but it is not only women who perform before the public who must observe different rules depending on their gender. Female writers, artists and political figures are judged differently than the men they compete against.

Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, was featured in a recent Vogue magazine article looking like a model.  Although the article itself was respectful and professional, it seemed odd to have the caption label all the items of Ms. Smith’s wardrobe. Can anyone imagine Virginia Woolf allowing a magazine to inquire into the brand names of all of the clothing she wore for an interview? Tracy Smith’s poetry stands on its own as one of the treasures of American literature. Surely her readers do not need to know the details of her consumer choices.

Women who run for political office are scrutinized not only for what they say and the causes they work for, but also for the clothes they wear and the way they style their hair. Hillary Clinton’s pants suits and shoes certainly became part of the stories written about her. No one bothered to report on these items for the men who were running for office.

Some of the most glaring examples of the different ways in which professional men and women are viewed can be seen in the various TV news channels. The women who report the news on CNN all seem to have carefully made-up faces and to wear sleek, tight-fitting dresses while they report their stories. I sometimes wonder how many more hours they must spend preparing for work than their male colleagues, who go on air sometimes rumpled and tieless, but with all their flaws hidden behind a generic jacket.

It is certainly great that women are reporting the news at all. I can remember the bad old days when it was said than the TV audience would not accept serious news presented by female reporters. Still, the playing field will not be level until women are allowed to be fully human in their professional lives. They may occasionally gain a few pounds, or their hair may turn gray or white, and wrinkles can be seen as an honorable sign of a thoughtful life and knowledge gained. Until they can appear honestly—aging and changing as the years go by—will women have achieved full equality?

I think I can hear the ghost of Ginger Rogers urging us on.

 

 

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Changing Roles for First Ladies

This has not been the best of weeks for me, primarily because I had a fall early in the week, at home, of course, where so many falls take place. While I’ve been fretting over my aching muscles and experimenting with how to get my meals ready without putting too much strain on my sore leg, I haven’t had much time to think about a blog post.

Then I read an article about Melania Trump in the New York Times which set my mind to melania-trumpconsidering a subject I wrote about the changing roles of first ladies back in 2016.

Two of the most watched speeches of the conventions were those given by Michele Obama, our popular First Lady, and by Melania Trump, who aspires to be a first lady. Our Founding Fathers would be aghast if they knew that candidates wives were actually appearing in public and speaking on behalf of their parties and their husbands roles in politics.

Like so many other revolutions in American politics, Eleanor Roosevelt was a pioneer in opening the way for wives to speak at nominating conventions. She surprised everyone by appearing on the podium at the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago to urge delegates to nominate her husband, Franklin. As the New York Times reported:

Eight years after her husband shattered the tradition of the non-appearance of Presidential candidates before the conventions which nominated them, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the same hall and on the same platform, established another tonight, the first wife of a President or nominee ever to address a major political party conclave.”

The Times went on to report that the First Lady spoke with unusual gravity, both at the press conference when she arrived in Chicago on a chartered plane, and in the convention hall. Franklin Roosevelt had announced earlier that he did not wantEleanor Roosevelt1940 to run again, and Eleanor Roosevelt said she was not surprised at this because “I cannot imagine in the present state of the world, why anyone would want to carry such a burden…” Her reaction when told that her own name had been placed in nomination for the Vice Presidency was to laugh and say. “I could imagine nothing more foolish or less wanted.” Her speech, when it came, was forceful and the delegates went on to nominate Franklin Roosevelt by acclamation for an historic third term as President.

Eleanor Roosevelt, like both Michele Obama and Melania Trump…could not escape press comments on her clothes. “Her traveling suit was a tailored ensemble of navy cloth coat with long lapels of Eleanor blue, with a soft crepe dress beneath in the same shade. Her hat was a small one of navy straw in a modified beret type…” At least the newspaper did not report on her hair style or the height of the heels of her shoes.

Time has moved on since 2016, although Melania Trump, still gets many comments on her clothes and even on the height of her heels, other changes are being made. Our new first lady chooses not to be completely buried in the shadow of her husband any more than Eleanor Roosevelt or Michele Obama were. She has chosen a different route to independence. She did not move into the White House immediately after the inauguration, and she has chosen not to appear with her husband or travel with him as often as most other first ladies have done. Instead she pursues her own interests and has not been a fierce political supporter.

I urge you to read Kate Andersen Brower’s column “The Quiet Radicalism of Melania Trump” and think about the changes that are coming to the First Lady role in American politics. Sometimes long lasting changes occur without our even noticing. And sometimes they are made by the people we would least expect to make them.

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Women in Black–starting a new battle

The Golden Globe awards ceremony last weekend was raised far above its usual status as just another awards show by the dramatic way the women participants coordinated metoo-featured-imagetheir costumes. All of the women wore black dresses, some starkly black from top to bottom, others relieved by a touch of gold or color. But the overwhelming effect was of a crowd of beautiful women wearing the most dramatic color possible for women’s clothing—black.

The Golden Globe display was, of course, in support of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements protesting sexual harassment and assault. Many of the women who spoke at the event mentioned the prevalence of sex discrimination in the entertainment industry and urged both men and women to protest against it.

As a follow-up to that successful display, several Democratic Congresswomen are planning to wear black to President Trump’s first State of the Union speech on January 30. Whether others will follow their lead remains to be seen.

Will any of this matter? Are we at a turning point for relations between women and men? It will be a long time before we know for sure. The history of women’s demands for fair treatment has not been a happy one. Generations of American women fought for women’s right to vote—from 1848 until 1920 the struggle continued. Hundreds of women and then their daughters and granddaughters argued, wrote pamphlets, and demonstrated in an effort to convince men they should have the right to vote. By the time the women won, most of the early supporters had died.

And the movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prompted long and vigorous struggle that has not yet been successful. You can read the full story of how the amendment was proposed and how close it came to passing at the excellent website at http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/

When the ERA went to the states for ratification in 1972, it looked as though it would be speedily accepted. During the first year, 22 states ratified the bill, but then the backlash

Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schafley

 

gained strength. Phyllis Schlafly was one of the bill’s fiercest critics saying that it “would lead to women being drafted by the military and to public unisex bathrooms“. Well, now we have unisex bathrooms in many public buildings and neither men nor women face a military draft, but the amendment is no longer an active item on the agenda. Will it ever be revived?

Why do women’s campaigns so often seem to fail or to take an inordinately long time to be accepted? It reminds me of the line from the World War I poem by Shaemas O Sheel “They went forth to battle, but they always fell.” Will the movement to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace also fail, or perhaps take a century to win? Women can’t change things by themselves; men have to understand the issues too. Social change is never easy, but at least there are some clues about how it happens.

It begins with education, early education before attitudes are congealed into rigid patterns. Perhaps we could start by not encouraging children to view life as a battle, or a football game, with winners and losers. Sports play a surprisingly large part in American education—more than in any other country. Children quickly learn about winning and losing, but not so often about working with one another and cooperating on projects.

By the time young people become sexually active, many of them have decided that sex is a competitive sport. A boy who “scores” thinks himself victorious and the girl is often shamed as a loser. Boys and men feed their power by forcing females to submit to their desires. Instead of being about intimacy, sex becomes a matter of exerting power and winning. It’s time for educators and parents to think more about what they are teaching boys and girls and how it will affect their futures.

As for grown men—better late than never. They can still learn to treat women with women powerfairness and respect. It will be a long struggle, but at least the women in black have made a start.

 

 

 

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What was good about 2017?

This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year 2017oldstarted with a presidential inauguration that we dreaded and feared. As the weeks and months passed, the politics didn’t get any better. Much of public life was tinged with disappointment and a level of discussion more suitable for a TV reality show than for normal social communication.

As if that weren’t enough, we were plagued by natural disasters—hurricanes hitting Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico; wildfires in major portions of California—and unseasonable weather in much of the country. The bills for coping with these disasters are still coming in and the suffering of people who lost homes and property will continue well into 2018.

But no year is entirely bad. Each one gives us opportunities for new experiences, encounters with people and with arts that bring us new ideas and emotions. To celebrate 2017, I’ve chosen a few of these encounters that have pushed my ideas in new directions.

Early in the year, I saw the play Leni by Sarah Greenman at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl,  the filmmaker who worked in Germany during the 1930s and produced pro-Hitler films such as Triumph of the Will, the play is an exploration of one person’s character.  Obviously she is not a sympathetic character, but Greenman’s play shows her as a complicated woman who always insisted that her

Leni

Leni Riefenstahl and Adolf Hitler

 

interest was in producing art rather than supporting any political positions. The argument is not very convincing, but the play made me think about the tangled motives of real people caught up in world events they cannot comprehend. More than that, this production of Leni was an excellent example of how live theater can make characters come alive with a minimum of background, scenery or narrative. It was a great example of the power of live theater during this period when electronic presentations dominate most art forms.

I had another unexpected vision of an old art form when I went to the exhibit of Gods in Color at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. As I wrote here a few weeks IMG_0632_edited-1ago when I blogged about the exhibit, it may seem trivial to see marble statues presented in a new way, but it made my imagination stretch. It is easy to think about familiar objects as set permanently in time, but it’s good to have our memories shaken occasionally.

One of the most recent books I read, and the one that left me with the most new ideas to ponder was Prairie Fires: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Fraser not only writes a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also gives a portrait of the lives of people who settled the plains states–Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I, for one, had no idea how extremely difficult it was to settle those plains and how the Homestead Act, pushed as a noble deed by the U.S. government, actually encouraged people to settle in areas unsuitable for agriculture. For many people, the move west was a disaster because the plains states were subject to plagues of locusts as well as tornadoes, and extreme weather all of which made it impossible to raise crops profitably. And the farmers did not know that by plowing the plains they were removing the topsoil and thus causing the dust storms that ravaged much of the west during the depression years of the 1930s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through a series of tragedies during her childhood and her early married life–loss of houses to fires and storms, loss of crops, loss of a stillborn baby. Only one child survived to grow up, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist and writer. It wasn’t until Laura Wilder was in her fifties that she started to write. When she did, she found that her daughter was her greatest help in shaping her memoirs for publication, but the relationship between mother and daughter was always contentious. The Little House books grew out of this tangle and eventually became amazingly popular. Their false, cheerful picture of the life of pioneers influenced (and continue to influence) generations of children growing up in the 20th century and are still going strong. The TV shows that were presented in the 1970s falsified the stories even more than the books did and were even more popular.

When Franklin Roosevelt became President, both Laura and Rose became extremely FDR_New Dealconservative politically. They were rabid opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that innovations, such as Social Security, which have become an integral part of American life were so controversial. Prairie Fires opened my eyes to a new view of American history. I strongly recommend it.

Looking back over these experiences that have enriched my life during 2017 gives me hope for the coming year. There will be more performances to hear during 2018, more art to see and, more great books to read. And above all, more new ideas to welcome and ponder.

Happy New Year!

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