Can you follow your dream too far?

A new school year is beginning all across America and children are pouring into their classrooms to start, or continue, their journey toward knowledge and a good life. One of the standard pieces of advice given in schools is “You can be anything you want to be.”

Hillary Clinton has set a new goal now that she is running for president and has a good chance of winning. She posted on Twitter To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want—even president.

The trouble with telling children they can do anything is that it’s just not true. Strangely enough, we have a popular movie out this month with an example of the limitation of

Florence Foster Jenkins

dreams. Florence Foster Jenkins chronicles the story of a woman whose dream was to be a concert singer. Because she was wealthy, she was able to achieve her desire to give concerts. But no one would say that she had achieved her dream of being a great singer. One of the attractions that brought audiences to hear her is that she simply could not sing and many people found pleasure in watching her fall short.

Jenkins was lucky to have been able to cushion the failure of her achievement because she had money, love, and friends. Many other people discover that they have to move on to new dreams. The boy who dreams of becoming a major league pitcher, discovers his throwing arm will never get him beyond the tryouts. That’s when the real test of the dream occurs. Some people sink into bitterness making their lives, and the lives of their families and friends, dismal. Others use their athletic prowess to become great gym teachers and coaches. And a dream of making your high school team the state champions is not a bad one to follow.

Most people’s lives take many twists and turns. You start out with one dream, switch to another, and move on sometimes to find far more success and happiness than you had expected. Sergei Diaghilev, the world famous producer and founder of the Ballets Russes, was a man with many dreams. Born in 1872, he grew up under the czarist regime in Russia. When he was a teenager, his father went bankrupt, so Sergei had to help support his family. His first love was music and he dreamed of being a composer. He studied composition, but was told by his teacher (the famous composer Rimsky-Korsakov) that he lacked the talent to compose music.

Unlike Florence Jenkins, Diaghilev decided to give up his first dream and to pursue his interest in the arts and dance. He started a magazine to publish Russian writers and later

Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Diaghilev

founded the innovative dance company the Ballet Russes. With the ballet company, Diaghilev toured France and other European countries. He worked with famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and Claude Debussy to produce unforgettable ballets, using modern music and modern artistic sets. His innovations revolutionized the dance world. He seemed to have a hand in all of the artistic ferment of 1920s Europe. If you want to read a good biography, you can’t do better than try Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen.

The trouble with telling children they can become “anything they want to be” is that, when they don’t reach that goal, it seems as though they fail. But no one is a failure because she, or he, doesn’t become President. In fact, it is a mathematical impossibility for every child to become President, or for every child to win a gold medal at the Olympics. So why do we tell them they can all reach these impossible dreams?

Perhaps we should be honest with children. Instead of telling them “you can achieve anything” we should tell them the truth: “you can dream and build a good life if you are willing to stay flexible and let your dreams change and grow.” Perhaps we ought to encourage them not to have one dream, but to have a bouquet of dreams. If one dream wilts and dies, another will take its place. Happiness is usually found not by holding onto one unchanging dream for a lifetime, but by being open to new dreams and new hopes and being willing to work to reach them.bouquet-of-flowers-drawing




Women want to compete

Much of my attention this week has been focused on the Olympics in Rio. They are quite a relief from the two political conventions we just watched because in the Olympics, people olympics-superJumbo-v3keep moving instead of talking and we can see for ourselves who is winning. There is no need for lengthy commentary about who said what and who scored points against an opponent. There is something very satisfying about a clear cut win like Katie Ledecky’s brilliant 800-meter swim that smashed the world record and won her another gold medal.

Women weren’t always so prominent in the Olympic Games. In the ancient games, of course, only men were allowed to compete and when the games were reinstated in 1896, the organizers thought it would be foolish to allow women to compete. Four years later, however, a few women managed to participate in the 1900 games in Paris—22 women out of a field of 997 athletes.

The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—olympics 1904 posterthe only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate. Almost everyone who took part was an American and a true amateur; many signed up at the last minute without training or knowledge about how to compete.

As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not

UK Women swimmers 1912 olympics

allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards. The UK women’s team won the medals that year.

What women athletes wear has always been an issue at the Olympics. This year, for the first time, all of the countries that have Olympic Committees have sent both men and women to the Games. For the first time, women from Saudi Arabia have been allowed to participate. This means that some of the Muslim women have competed while wearing outfits that look quite different from many of their European and American counterparts.

Athletics - Women's 100m Preliminary Round

It is a pleasure to see the freedom women have finally found, being able to wear gear that makes them comfortable while competing on even terms with all participants. Three cheers for freedom of choice!


Boston Marriages to the Rainbow Flag

The events in Orlando this past week focused people’s minds and the media attention on the LGBT community as well as on terrorism. I am not going to write about that tragedy except to say that, like many others, my heart goes out to the friends and families of the victims. There is no excuse for the violence we have witnessed this week.

June is the month for LGBT celebrations across the country. In many cities and towns there have been and will be parades and demonstrations. Members of the LGBT community no longer have to hide their feelings or try to fit their relationships into an julia ward howeunyielding pattern of what used to be considered “normal” family life. And it has made me think of the ways in which women, who did not find happiness in the stereotypical marriages of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have tried to write and express their feelings.

Julia Ward Howe is remembered now only as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which became the most popular song of the Union forces during the Civil War. She was also a writer of popular poetry and articles as well as an activist for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. In many ways she lived the life of a traditional nineteenth century wife and mother, but behind that façade she struggled with her ambition to be a writer and artist. I have been reading Elaine Showalter’s fascinating and eye-opening biography The  Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe (2016) and learned of an unfinished manuscript that was found among Howe’s papers many years after her death.

Howe’s untitled manuscript tells the story of a Laurence, a character who has both male and female characteristics. The story is tragic as both men and women are attracted to Laurence, but none can accept the ambiguous nature of his sexuality. It is easy to see why the book was never completed. It seems as though Julia Ward Howe, although unambiguously a female, was unable to accept and understand her need for an active intellectual public life—a life that was considered suitable only for men. Howe lived a more or less conventional 19th century life, but her marriage was very unhappy. She could not accept the limitations placed upon women, and could not devise a life that would combine domestic life with her creative needs.

Some 19th century women managed to build what appear to be happy lives for themselves by avoiding marriage and finding emotional satisfaction with another woman. Sarah Orne Jewett, whose well-wrought stories of New England life were popular throughout the

Sarah Orne Jewett

country, lived for many years with the widowed Annie Fields. This was one of the famous “Boston marriages” (a term coined by Henry James) in which two women established a household of their own. We probably will never know whether or not most of these relationships had a sexual component. It doesn’t really matter. The revolutionary part of the Boston marriages was just the fact that women could live satisfying lives without depending on men for either financial, emotional, or legal support. Of course, the women who pioneered these lives had to independent means, whether inherited or earned, to enable them to live this way.

Well into the 20th century many women writers had difficulty reconciling their artistic

willa cather
Willa Cather

ambitions with the limitations imposed by their gender. Willa Cather, whose novels were both popular and won critical acclaim including a Pulitzer Prize was one of the writers who found it difficult to accept a conventional female role. As an undergraduate she had sometimes used the name ‘William’ and cut her hair so short she was mistaken for a man. She wrote several of her stories from a masculine point of view and at times seemed scornful of other women writers. Most of her closest friendships were with women, but she never described herself as a lesbian and she protected her privacy so fiercely that critics and biographers still quarrel over whether or not she had sexual relations with women.

Looking back it’s hard to understand why it took so long for society to recognize the wide range of people’s gender identification and emotional lives. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that the gay liberation movement began to be noticed and to gradually become acceptable to most Americans. And as it has grown, it has become more inclusive so that now we have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people joining together to remind everyone of the great variety of human lives and emotions. We can finally see that the rigid rules that required all women and men to act in certain prescribed ways are unnecessary and hurtful. Young people growing up today are not required to hide their gender preferences the way earlier generations did.

There is still a long way to go before equality is achieved, but at least we can celebrate the long road that has been traveled already.

Fairy Tales with a Difference

When I clicked on the Google search site a few days ago, I was surprised to find that Google was honoring the 117th birthday of Lotte Reiniger. Who was she? One of the early animation artists who made films out of fairy tales. Her pioneering work in the 1920s was an important part of the movement that led to the torrent of animated fairy tale films from the Disney studios and others.

Now that we are drowning in highly colored, loud, fast-paced versions of fairy tales on screens everywhere, it’s worthwhile to look back and think about how children encounter Grimms fairy talesfairy tales. For most American children—at least the ones who are lucky enough to have a parent or caregiver who reads to them—their first experience of a fairy tale is an unamplified voice telling the tale while showing still pictures in a book. Often the story is read over and over again.

Fairy tales are usually told in a bare, straightforward style. “There was once a poor widow who lived in a lonely cottage. In front of the cottage was a garden wherein stood two rose trees, one of which bore white and the other red roses.” That’s the beginning of Snow White and Rose Red and the story continues in the same bare, clean style.

Lotte Reiniger’s adaptations of fairy tales  started with a silhouette animated Cinderella in 1922. You can see the short film on YouTube and watch how Reiniger brings the viewer into the story—showing how

Scene from Reinigers “Cinderella”

the black paper is cut into figures who act out the story. The process is almost like that of a child who wants to draw pictures to illustrate the story she has just heard.

Of course Lotte Reiniger was not a child; she was a skillful artist who conceived the idea of telling a story through the traditional art of the silhouette. But unlike the silhouettes that were popular during the 18th and 19th century as portraits or as illustrations in books, Lotte Reiniger wanted to make her silhouettes move and so she invented a new form of animation.

Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin in 1899. As a child she was attracted to art and to the movies, the new art form that was developing in Europe during the early years of the 20th century. As a young woman she worked in the movie industry and specialized in making silhouette title cards for the silent movies of the era. Then she moved on to making her own movies.

After marrying Carl Koch, a fellow artists who became her collaborator, she produced several more films in Germany. The couple left Germany when the Nazi party was rising to power, but were unable to get permanent visas to live in any other country, so for several years they lived in France, Italy and other European countries. But always they continued to work on their films. After the war, they moved to England where Lotte Reiniger made a number of silhouette films based on Grimm’s fairy tales and shown on the BBC.

Lotte Reiniger had a long and fruitful career. Her work influenced early animation films and deserves to be recognized as an important precursor to the work of later animation studios. But more than that, her films are still beautiful works of art that can be appreciated by children and adults today. Quite a few of them are available on YouTube.

Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s children could see some different ways in which fairy tales can be changed from words into pictures? Cinderella need not be the blonde glamour girl shown in American pop culture. The story doesn’t need to be puffed out with extra characters or elaborate songs. The magic is in the simple story itself. Fortunately, there are many talented artists who have given us different versions of the images our imaginations paint when we listen to the story. Thanks to Google for reminding us of the work and vision of Lotte Reiniger.Lotte Reiniger quote

Is it history or is it fiction?

History isn’t easy. It’s always fun to jump on mistakes that pop up in books, tv shows or movies. Many movie fans have pointed out a scene in the 1989 movie Glory in which a Civil War era soldier is seen wearing a wristwatch. It is only a brief glimpse in the movie, and

civil war soldier
Civil War soldiers (image by Philip Katcher)

it slipped by the filmmakers, but now that the shot is posted on the Internet, we can all laugh at the mistake.

Anachronisms appear often in famous books and plays. One of the best known is the clock that chimes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That makes a good joke for a classroom, but it doesn’t detract from the experience of theater goers. But sometimes anachronisms in historical fiction annoy readers and detract from the reading experience. Reading groups and discussion boards jump on mistakes such as having a soldier in the American Revolution smoking a cigarette, or a housewife in colonial New England serving orange juice for breakfast.

I recently came across a fascinating book called Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn, which is designed to help authors avoid the kinds of anachronisms that are so easy to fall into. The chapter on underpants—medieval and otherwise—is

Helen Jewett
Ladies of the evening 1840s

fascinating. Like so many aspects of history, we seldom think about the nitty-gritty details of how people in earlier times handled the everyday tasks of personal hygiene in the days before toilets and running water. If you were wearing a hoopskirt, how would you manage to use a chamber pot? There’s something to think about.

In my own writing I haven’t had to worry about the underpants problem, but I’ve spent lots of time researching other details. Although the leading characters are fictional, I like to stick to the truth about what was going on in the world at the time—to present an honest picture of events that might have happened.

All of the books in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series are set in the 1840s, but

A Death in Utopia Final (Small)

Charlotte moves from Massachusetts to New York City and then to London in the first three books. I have found myself searching for details about what the people living in an idealistic vegetarian community in 1842 would serve for a Sunday supper. It turns out they were very fond of Boston brown bread and milk, which is what appears in A Death in Utopia.

And then when I came to write Death Visits a Bawdy House, which takes place in New York Death Visits a Bawdy House (Small)City, I spent some time looking for a suitable place for the burial of a murder victim because the well-known cemetery at Trinity Church was already overcrowded. It’s doubtful that my readers would have known that, but I like to make the details in all of these stories as authentic as possible. It’s fun and I have learned so much about the 1840s, one of the most turbulent decades of the 19th century.

Railroads were just being developed at this time, so I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed of about the railway system in England after Charlotte and her new husband, Daniel, move to London. For my newest book, Death in Victoria’s City, which will come out this summer, I had to find out whether a working man could make a trip from London to Bristol and return in one day. Sure enough, a Google search led me to the history of British railways and I learned that the government had decreed that all railways had to offer third-class tickets at cheap rates for working people. For the first time in the 1840s, ordinary people could visit friends and family even if they lived some distance away.

I highly recommend Susanne Alleyn’s book, but of course that is only the beginning. Whether you are writing historical fiction or reading it, you will find that Google search and Wikipedia can be your best friends. Not only do they help you find details about life in other times, but they can lead you to the people and places that have shaped the world we live in today. Wikipedia may have some mistakes, almost all reference sources do, and Google may sometimes lead you to unreliable sites, but these two places can give you information to get you started. Your local library can help you find more in-depth accounts and background.  The more you find, the more your curiosity grows and the harder it is to stop. There is always another story just over the horizon.


All kinds of books

Few art forms have quite as split a personality as book publishing does. In the spring, the season of literary awards and prizes, we can read the lists searching for books that have
book prizesbeen read by most readers and find almost nothing. The prize-winners often languish in libraries and are assigned in classrooms, but remain unread by the majority of American readers. Instead it is genre fiction that reaches the mass of readers and enriches the authors who are lucky enough to reach huge popularity.

Today’s New York Times published an article about the phenomenon of  a fantasy writer, Cassandra Clare, whose book tours, as the article points out, are more like those of a rock star than of a writer. She writes books that touch the lives of far more people than those of the authors whose books are reviewed in the newspapers book review section.

This is nothing new. The phenomenon of the author who has wild success with a so-called sensational book while a literary figure languishes in obscurity has been going on for centuries. Here are the opening lines of a book by a well-known 19th century American writer that I doubt you will recognize:

To and fro, like a wild creature in its cage, paced that handsome woman, with bent head, locked hands, and restless steps. Some mental storm, swift and sudden as a tempest of the tropics, had swept over her and left its marks behind. As if in anger at the beauty now proved powerless, all ornaments had been flung away, yet still it shone undimmed, and filled her with a passionate regret.

Louisa May Alcott


Does that sound like the staid author, Louisa May Alcott, whose books have been read by so many young readers over the years? Alcott did not stick to the sensational mystery stories she started out with but switched to writing family stories aimed at young girls. She found great success with these and was able to support her whole family for many years, but there is some evidence that she would have liked to write a different kind of book for adults. Unfortunately she was never free enough from economic and social pressures to do that.

Many women, over the years, have turned to genre fiction rather than aiming for high literary quality.  Today’s romance fiction is dominated by women writers, and women readers too. It is one of the most successful areas of publishing yet it is almost never seriously discussed as literature.

Mystery stories are another highly successful form of fiction. Did you know that Agatha Agatha Christie, surrounded by some of her 80-plus crime novels.Christie, according to UNESCO,  is the world’s most translated author? It is interesting to consider that while many prize-winning books remain unknown outside of the English-speaking world,  Christie’s books have presented a version of English life to audiences around the globe.

Although the mystery genre is not as closely associated with women as the romance genre is, according to the organization Sisters in Crime, almost 70 percent of mystery readers are female. And if you look at the lists of mystery books published, you will find that about half of all mystery story writers are women. Of course with all the sub-genres of mystery story from hard-boiled detective to the cozy kitchen mysteries, some are associated far more with women than others are.

What does all this mean? Just perhaps that those of us who think of ourselves as avid readers ought perhaps to try different genres once in a while. We might find that the ones we have avoided all our lives may be just what we are ready for now.

the_female_detectiveAnd I’d like to offer a cheer for the British Library which has begun publishing a series of historical mystery stories that add to our knowledge about the history and background of mystery stories. Perhaps eventually they will do the same for other genre fiction.

Elizabeth Fry and the Prisoners

One of the saddest sentences in the obituaries for Merle Haggard that appeared after his death this week was “He spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement”. Somehow Haggard turned his life around and eventually became a successful country music star Elizabeth Fryinstead of spending much of his life in prison,. Not many prisoners are as lucky. We now know that spending time in solitary leads to mental and psychological consequences that often last for a lifetime. But deciding what kind of punishment is appropriate for men and women who have committed crimes is a problem that has not yet been solved.

Public shaming, such as having people wear a red letter to let all their neighbors know about their crime was a favorite punishment during the eighteenth century. Anyone who has read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter will remember Hester Prynne and the red letter “A” for Adulteress that she was sentenced to wear. As society became more urban, public shaming was less effective—people didn’t care so much what their neighbors thought of them.

Countries then turned to harsher punishments. In England the death penalty was given for crimes such as stealing even small items. But this did not deter crime either and sometimes encouraged people to commit larger crimes. If you could be hanged for a theft,

Prisoners in Newgate prison. Date: 1735 Source: Painted and engraved by William Hogarth 

you might as well kill any potential witnesses. Samuel Johnson wrote during the 1750s,  “If only murder were punished with death, very few robbers would stain their hands in blood; but when by the last act of cruelty no new danger is incurred and greater security may be obtained, upon what principle shall we bid them forbear?”

By the beginning of the 19th century, many people were calling for a change in the prison system, but few people had ideas about how this could be done. Most improvements in prison life have been the result of  the persistent work of individuals, many of them Quakers, who insisted that even people who break laws should be given a chance to reform instead of merely being punished. One of the earliest pioneers in this work was Elizabeth Fry.

Born into a prosperous Quaker family in England in 1780, Elizabeth Gurney would have been expected to be satisfied with life as a wife and mother. After she married another Quaker, Joseph Fry, she settled down to bear and raise eleven children. Many women would have felt this was quite enough work to keep her busy, but Elizabeth wanted to contribute more and wrote in her journal, I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose.”

A visit to the notorious Newgate Prison convinced her that prisoners, especially the female prisoners, who often had their babies and small children with them, could be taught useful skills. She persuaded prison authorities to have female guards for the women prisoners and she founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate which ran a school in the prison and taught useful skills such as needlework.

At first many people opposed her work. The Home Secretary complained that she was removing “the dread of punishment in the criminal classes”. Eventually, however, she

Elizabeth Fry visiting Newgate Prison
Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners


found support among important people including the Prime Minister,  Robert Peel. Elizabeth Fry testified before a Parliamentary Committee, which influenced the Goals Act of 1823 which specified that women prisoners should be governed by women and that jailers should be paid a salary so they would not need to take money from prisoners.

Not all of Elizabeth Fry’s proposals have been accepted. She was a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and she argued against keeping prisoners in solitary confinement, or as it was then called, the “Separate System”. Prison systems in Europe and America have never returned, however, to the cruel conditions that prevailed before her work started.

As a final tribute, since 2001 Elizabeth Fry’s picture has appeared on the British five-pound note, so probably far more people recognize her face than know what she did to earn the honor.

Constance Markievicz and the Easter Rising

On April 26, 2016, in Dublin, Sabina Higgins, wife of Michel Higgins, the President of Ireland, laid a wreath at the grave of Countess Constance Markievicz, who is buried at Constance-Markievicz-quoteGlasnevin Cemetery along with many other veterans of the 1916 Easter rebellion. This tribute was one of the first steps in the national celebration Ireland is holding to commemorate the Easter uprising that happened 100 years ago.

Markievicz is not an Irish name and you may find it hard to understand how a woman born into a wealthy Protestant family, raised in luxury,  and married to a Polish Count is now lying in a grave close to the burial sites of many of the revolutionaries who fought for Ireland’s freedom from Britain. Constance Markievicz’s transformation from a famous beauty to a hard-fighting, hard-working social activist is one of the romantic stories that has become part of the legend of Irish history.

Like many of the other fighters in the Irish rebellion, Constance first became involved with the cause of Irish independence through the arts. She joined Sinn Fein and became enthusiastically anti-British, refusing to stand up in public places when the National Anthem was played, for example. And she embarrassed some of her family members by declining to drink the king’s toast at the end of formal dinners. To further Irish culture she supported the famous Abbey Theater and worked with Maud Gonne to see that the works of Irish playwrights were presented there. Her husband Casimir Markievicz was a portrait painter and interested in writing for the theater, but after a few years of working together, the couple gradually grew apart. In 1914, after fourteen years of marriage, Casimir returned to Poland and never again lived in Ireland although he and Constance continued to be friends.

When World War I broke out, some nationalists in Ireland saw the Germans as natural allies to help the fight for Irish freedom. Constance was among many others who tried to buy arms and supplies from Germany to help the Irish cause. Unlike many of the other women working for Irish freedom, Constance knew how to shoot and was comfortable using a gun. She started a national scout organization to teach teenaged boys and girls how to shoot. When the Easter uprising started, she was ready to join the military and served as second in command to Michael Mallin, a captain of the Irish Citizen Army.

The Easter rising was a brief war, but the consequences for Ireland and for the men and women who fought in the rebellion were dramatic. When, after a week of fighting, the rebels surrendered, the British decided that all of the leaders should be made examples to demonstrate the fate awaiting rebels. Almost all of the men were summarily executed, but Constance Markievicz’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment on the grounds that she was a woman.Easter_rising

Constance was sent to prison, first in Ireland and later in England. There she scrubbed floors and sewed prisoners’ nightclothes. One of her few solaces was embroidery. She used to draw colored threads from the rags she used for cleaning and kept white pieces of material from the nightclothes to embroider on. Oddly enough, this echoed the activity of Mary Queen of Scots centuries before who passed her time in prison by embroidering elaborate scenes. Perhaps both of these women understood the idea of art therapy many years before psychologists recognized its value.

When Constance Markievicz was released from prison in 1917, she continued her work for Ireland. The Easter uprising marked the beginning of Ireland’s successful journey to independence and Constance was an honored leader. She was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, although in a protest against accepting the British parliamentary rule, she did not take her seat. Later, when Ireland had its own Parliament, she became the second female government minister in Europe.

Although she died at the early age of 59, she continued her active life until the end. By the time she died she had given away all of her early wealth and died, as wished, among the poor of Dublin, in a public ward of the hospital. Her life story is well told in Anne Marreco’s biography The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz. It is a life well worth remembering.

Celebrating Elegant Orchids

What a wonderful way to spend a summer-like day in San Francisco—looking at hundreds of orchids in bloom! IMG_0251_edited-1There are few flowers that have the complicated appeal of tropical orchids. Some of us can remember the times, years ago, when girls going to their high school proms wore a wrist corsage of a purple orchid as the finishing touch to their dresses. But those days are gone and orchids today are of more interest to gardeners than to the average teenager.

IMG_0240_edited-1The theme of the 2016 Pacific Orchid show is “The Legacy of Orchids” celebrating the dramatic effect orchids have had on society. During the 1800s, dozens of daring orchid hunters scoured the jungles of South America and Southeast Asia to find exotic orchids for Europeans and Americans to grow at home. The orchids sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars and the hunts were cut-throat battles. Some orchid hunters destroyed or burned thousands of plants in the jungles so their rivals could not find the treasures they had discovered. Scarcity kept up the price for European orchid collectors.


Charles Darwin wrote about orchids and used their variations to demonstrate the evolution of species over time. One particular species, Angraecum sesquipedale, from Madagascar is called “Darwin’s Orchid” because Darwin announced, after studying the plant, that a specific moth must exist with an unprecedented 13 inch long proboscis in order to pollinate it. Twenty-one years after Darwin’s death other botanists found the moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta,  which has exactly the kind of proboscis Darwin had predicted.

Scientists are still studying orchids and learning more about the more than 27,000 species that exist. For the rest of us the most important thing we can do is to support the U.S. Endangered Species Act and international treaties which protect rare orchids. With deforestation continuing in many countries, there is continual pressure on many orchid species and fears that some of them may disappear.


This is the season for orchid shows across the country, so take advantage of the spring to view some of the loveliest flowers that can be found anywhere in the world.




A Valentine for Good Friends

Yesterday was a tumultuous day for politically-minded Americans. First came the shocking announcement of the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And then within a few hours of that news, we were confronted with another debate among Republican candidates for the presidency. The debate participants paid a short tribute to Justice Scalia, but soon moved on to rancorous disagreement. For many viewers the level of insults and name-calling made the debate unwatchable after the first hour or so. Surely this is not the way a democracy should elect its leaders. There must be a better model for giving opinions and navigating different ideas. Perhaps we can get some clues from the Supreme Court.

Justice Scalia has been one of the most important and well-known members of the

Antonin Scalia

Supreme Court, a man who was well-known not only to the legal profession, but also to the general public. Unlike many earlier justices, Scalia was not afraid to make his opinions known both inside and outside of the Court. He was an active and energetic participant in the Court activities and in his private life right up until the day before he died in his sleep while on a hunting trip in Texas. His bereaved family must still be struggling to accept the fact of his loss, and the our usual news commentators and reporters have been scrambling to write appropriate statements about his life and achievements.

Justice Scalia was an outspoken supporter of the concept of originalism—the belief that the United States Constitution meant what the men who signed it thought it meant at the time. He claimed that neither he nor other judges should interpret the Constitution so that it meets modern questions and needs. The Constitution he told a Southern Methodist University crowd in 2013 is “not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”

Many observers have suggested that Scalia might claim to honor the beliefs of the authors of the Constitution but that in fact many of his opinions changed  accepted interpretations of the Constitution in a very activist way. The most notorious example was his support of changing the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s statement on the right to bear arms to enlarge its scope to include individual citizens as well as militias, which had been the standard interpretations for a hundred years.

Justice Scalia was genial and well-liked. He enjoyed the controversies he inspired.  As he once pointed out to an interviewer from the New York Times, “I love to argue. I’ve always loved to argue. And I love to point out the weaknesses of the opposing arguments. It may well be that I’m something of a shin kicker. It may well be that I’m something of a contrarian.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ideological spectrum on the Court is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been a strong voice for examining the ways in which the Constitution can meet the challenges of modern times. Before she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she proved herself a brilliant lawyer and a staunch advocate of the rights of women and of all citizens to equal treatment before the law. Unlike Justice Scalia, she does not believe that the Constitution is an unchanging text set in stone, but rather a document written by

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

humane leaders setting forth the basic principles of democratic government. As the world and society changes, Justice Ginsburg believes that interpretations of the Constitution should not be bound by the 18th century meaning of words but rather by the deepest values of our ever-changing population. Perhaps it is almost inevitable that women would tend to take this view because it is difficult to believe that the Founding Fathers gave much thought to the rights of women of their time, much less to the challenges that women face in the 21st century.

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—two very different people with opposing ideas and yet they were never known to call each other names or to question the motives of their opponents. In fact, over the years, they became friends, visiting one another’s homes and families as well as attending operas together. Both of them had close, happy family lives and seemed able to enjoy social events even while they disagreed on many issues in their shared work life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of our public servants and politicians could handle their differences as well as they did?

So on this Valentine’s Day, let’s offer a Valentine wish to two colleagues who liked one another and who worked together for many years in a spirit of friendship that I am sure St. Valentine himself would approve. And let their lives be examples for all of us today—candidates, voters, and all Americans.  Valentines-Day-630x472