Category Archives: San Francisco events

Do We Ever Understand History?

IMG_0632_edited-1Visiting the exhibit of  colored Greek statues at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco this week brought me a new perspective on classical statues.

Art scholars have known for years that the ancient Greeks painted their statues and that the pure white statues found in so many European and American museums today are not at all like the ones the ancient Greeks knew. Like every other human activity, sculpture changed over the years. The introduction of Christianity changed the direction of art in Europe and throughout the Western world. The image of snow white marble sculptures influenced the way people Socratesthought about ancient Greece. Is it possible to see the statue of Socrates as it is shown in this picture and not associate it with austere, intellectual philosophy? Would we think of Socrates in the same way if he were portrayed in an orange or red toga with a busy, bright pattern?

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Do we ever truly know what an historical period was like? Can we ever really imagine how people thought and felt in times gone by?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sculptures of ancient Greece were sought out by people from Western Europe. Many of them had been neglected for years. The Parthenon in Athens Elgin Marbles had been used to store arms and the pediment sculptures that make up the Elgin marbles were neglected by the Turks who ruled Greece for many years. Eventually, many of the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon were brought to Western Europe—most famously to England, but also to Denmark, Germany and France.

The 19th century is much closer to us in time than the ancient Greeks were. But much of

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Elgin Marbles British Museum

the story of the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England were still done in a period of history that seems foreign to us. Susan Nagel in her fascinating book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (2010) tells how Lord Elgin and his wife managed to persuade the Turks and some Greeks to help them move the sculptures to London. But their story also raises questions about how well we understand historical characters.

Lord Elgin was a noted spendthrift who had gambled away his own fortune and relief on his wife’s money to make his purchase and transportation of the Elgin marbles possible. The Nisbets were a devoted couple for several years, but bearing three children in three years made Mary very reluctant to continue having children. It is hard for us to realize how helpless wives of those times were in controlling their bodies and their frequent

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Mary Nisbet

 

pregnancies. Without access to contraceptives, Mary Nisbet was entirely at the mercy of her husband. She was the wealthiest woman in Scotland, but that was no protection. Lord Elgin wanted a large family and Mary had no power. Eventually he managed to get a divorce—which took an act of Parliament—and take their three children away from his wife. He married a second wife and had seven more children.

Whether it is ancient Greek color schemes or 19th century marriages, the past is a constant surprise. We are always discovering new truths about it. Historians are kept busy discovering new records and old remains that offer different glimpses of our ancestors. Someday, no doubt, historians will be search back through our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover what in the world 21st century people were thinking and feeling. Will they ever really know us?

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Pianos and Persistence–Clara Schumann and her music

Here in San Francisco the pianos are back in the gardens again—the Botanical Gardens. The idea of placing pianos in public areas and inviting passers-by to play them is now more than a decade old and it is still charming people around the world. Even thoughPiano_edited-1 piano lessons are not as common as they were a generation or two ago, many amateur musicians still enjoy playing when they have a chance.

Today I want to talk about a woman who helped to make the piano the major instrument that it continues to be—Clara Wieck Schumann. When she gave her first concerts in Vienna in 1838,  one critic described her “not a wonderchild—and yet still a child and already a wonder.” Clara was 18 at the time, so not exactly a child, but an accomplished young musician who had studied under her father’s guidance all of her life. From those early concerts, she moved on to a career in music that lasted for sixty years.

On the day before her 21st birthday Clara married Robert Schumann, the composer whose work she helped to make famous. She continued to perform and to compose music after she was married. She had little choice because she was the family

Clara Schumann

Clara Wiech Schumann

breadwinner. She also raised seven children (an eighth died in infancy). We often hear about the discrimination that women suffered during the 19th century, discrimination that kept many of them from fulfilling their early promise. But sometimes we need to think about the remarkable women who overcame the prejudices and oppression of the times and managed to have successful careers despite all the barriers.

If you ever feel discouraged about the difficulty of combining a career with marriage and motherhood, you can find inspiration by reading more about Clara Schumann. An excellent biography is Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich. The author gives a great deal of scholarly musical background, but even if you are not knowledgeable about music, the story of Clara Schumann’s life will hold your attention and strengthen your resolve to persist in your own ambitions.

And if you have a chance—try to find one of those pianos in a public place and give it a try!

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America’s Asian Legacy–the good and the bad

May is Asian Pacific Legacy month, so it was an especially good time to visit the Asian Art

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Jade tomb–Asian Art Museum

Museum in San Francisco. I saw their Tomb Treasures exhibit and was stunned by the remarkable beauty of objects created two thousand years ago. The graceful lines of a

dancer’s movements are immortalized in stone for us to marvel at. The beauty of a solid jade tomb and a set of jade armor is a legacy for all of us. Centuries come and go, but there is something heartening in knowing that across the centuries humans have created art that will enrich their descendants.

San Franciscans are lucky to have the magnificent Asian Art Museum in our city as well as so many other reminders of the Asian legacy like the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. All of these are an integral part of this country’s treasures that have been brought from so many parts of the world.

Americans haven’t always appreciated the value that Asians have brought us. One of the tragic heritages that lingers on in the memory of many people still alive is the

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internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine gives an unforgettable picture of what happened during the early 1940s. Otsuka tells a touching story about a Japanese-American family living in Berkeley, California, in 1942 who are sent to an internment camp in Utah. Although the family had been living  peacefully in their community for years, the father was suddenly arrested in the middle of the night and taken away. Then the mother and her two children are ordered, along with other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, to leave their home for a detention camp.

The book is beautifully written and painfully sad to read. When the family is allowed to return home, they find their lives drastically changed. The reader is left wondering how or whether they will ever be able to return to normality.

Otsuka’s book is a reminder of how many mistakes Americans have made in treating people as part of a group rather than as the individuals they are. Our Asian legacy is filled with light and darkness. We must not let the dark parts of its history be repeated.

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Japanese Tea Garden–Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

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Marching for the Facts

science march 2017The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.

In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.

Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.

Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer

education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.

Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.

It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.

Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.

It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth reading.science march02 2017

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Abortion through the years

Yesterday I joined a crowd of other people headed to the Berkeley Rep theater to see the play Roe, an account of the forty-year-old Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. Written by Lisa Loomer and performed by a group of

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gifted actors, the play makes the twists and turns of an old legal drama completely absorbing.

The drama focuses on the effects of the trial and its aftermath on the two central figures—Norma McCorvey the plaintiff, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who took her case to court. Most of us in the audience already knew the story—how Norma wanted an abortion to end her third pregnancy, and how Sarah wanted a case that would force changes in the restrictive Texas abortion law. Perhaps we didn’t all remember that Norma never did get that abortion because the case dragged on so long. The baby was born and given up for adoption before the court reached a decision. Sarah, however, did set in motion the legal changes that would change the landscape of women’s rights in America.

Over the centuries from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome and India up until the present, women have tried to control their own fertility. Without effective contraception,

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Aphrodite freed from her chains

abortion often offered the only release from an endless series of pregnancies and births for married women, many of them from families that were ill-equipped to support another child. And most women who sought abortions were married. Even today, when contraception is much more available, cheap and foolproof, the majority of women who seek abortions, according to figures from the Guttmacher Institute,  are married women who already have at least one child.

Those of us who lived through the 1970s and were aware of the Roe v Wade case assumed that it would put an end to all the arguments and restrictions on abortion. Most countries in the developed world have accepted the fact that many women will want to abort a pregnancy that occurs at a time when they cannot bear and take care of another child. People who are strongly opposed to abortion usually claim that a “soul” enters a fetus’s cells sometime soon after conception. They therefore claim that the fetus is a person whose life must be preserved. Many other people dispute this claim. For centuries people believed that a human being becomes human when it is born and most people believe that now.

The dispute about when human life begins cannot be solved by science because it is a religious argument. Why is it that the United States is one of the very few countries where large numbers of people insist that their religious views become the law of the land? Perhaps if more people could see the play Roe they might develop a greater understanding of the arguments on both sides of the question. And perhaps more people would be content to let women control their own bodies. Medical science has given women the means to have safe and effective abortions; the decision about whether or not to have one should be left in the hands of the individual, not determined by the votes of outsiders.

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Orchids and Mysteries

IMG_0265_edited-1On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.

Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.

no_more_orchids_filmposterWealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.

Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archiimg_0466_edited-1e Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.

One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.

death-calls-at-the-palace-small The time shall come when wrong shall end,

When peasant to peer no more shall bend;

When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,

And the Man no more their frown obey.

Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,

Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.

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Pianos among the flowers

Wouldn’t it be great if one day when you were wandering through a public garden you Piano player_edited-1came across a secluded piano where you could sit down and make beautiful music? Well, this week I had a chance to visit several pianos set in different locations around San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens.  I saw a quite a few people—from children to professional pianists- making music there.

Even though this is the first time I’ve seen any of the Pianos in Public Places, it is not a new ideas. According to a Wikipedia article, the idea of Pianos in Public Places originated by accident in Sheffield, England. The first piano was originally left on the sidewalk temporarily because the owner could not get it up the steps into his new house. As an experiment the owner and a friend then attached a sign inviting passersby to play the piano for free. So many people took advantage of the offer, that the piano became a community attraction. Piano_edited-1

In the last ten years, several cities around the world have placed pianos in public places and invited people to play or to listen. There are public pianos in Paris, London, New York, Toronto, and many other cities.

The pianos in the Botanical Gardens took various forms–some of them very strange and new, but all of them fun. Piano_jumble_edited-1

During a week when so much of the news is bad—I suggest that you try the music cure. If you live anywhere near a city with public pianos, visit them and join the fun! We all need beauty in our lives and music and flowers are among the best ways to find beauty.

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