Prologue: When you wear a mask you are stepping out of your usual self and and becoming someone else. You can look around through different eyes and those around may see you as a stranger. It emboldens you to say things and behave in ways that you had never imagined because of fear of looking ridiculous, overstepping some boundary or displeasing someone. Suddenly there are no limits. You are liberated. No disapproving comments can touch you; your thoughts come out of hiding. Someone else is there and expressing them. Are you evading responsibility? Perhaps, but you have traveled to another country where you know the language but nobody knows you. You are incognito.
You are free.
Images of people wearing masks have been found on rock paintings in many parts of the world with some going back to 700 BCE. Neanderthals decorated their faces with masks for camouflage during hunts or skirmishes. All cultures have used transformational masks for disguise.
A masked fool is found in many cultures. His task is to keep order and to keep children from being unruly and noisy during ceremonies and observances. Sometimes masks were meant to represent the spirits of ancestors who were thus invited to participate in the festivities.
In the theater world the masks of comedy and tragedy were created in ancient Greece and exhibited during performances. Sometimes, masks started out as a religious ceremony, but later evolved as entertainment.
Often masks were also worn for protection against a disease just as we do today in the case of the Covid 19. Plague doctors wore a mask to prevent them from being infected by the deadly disease during the plague of 1656 which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.
Many of these masks had birdlike beaks that were stuffed with herbs and foodstuffs to protect the wearer or at least dilute the odors. Some believed these masks would purify that air. Other believed that Death would not recognize them thus transformed.
In Jewish culture, the holiday of Purim celebrates deliverance from captivity and is marked by a parade of fancifully costumed and masked men, women and children enjoying their freedom.
Today we also have many mask wearing ceremonies like the Venice Carnival which features a procession of elaborately costumed revelers parading in the streets.
An entire opera by Verdi, The Masked Ball celebrates this joyous custom. I would think, though, that it is not easy to sing with masks on.
I am thinking about famine. Although there have been famines throughout history due to crop failure, this is not only a phenomenon of the past. It is still happening. Today over 30 million people are experiencing acute hunger and malnutrition in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
And of course in the US, the pandemic has called on Americans to rise to the challenge of providing sustenance to tens of millions of people who now cannot afford food. This country has been pretty good at preventing its own people from starving and we are doing fairly well in the current crisis. (at least foodwise) It’s not a famine, but it reminds me of one.
The Bible is awash in stories of famine. It was one of the reasons the Israelites fled Egypt.
This view of God was promoted by the leaders of the time who were autocrats and ruled supreme over their people. It was easier to keep control in the name of God. Who could argue?
(Editor’s note: Asked Simone if “of the time” above referred to a particular time. She thought about it said, “Almost all the time.”)
The Irish potato famine devastated that country between 1846 and 1851 resulting in over a million deaths from disease and starvation. As a result, a mass exodus of Irish fled their country and arrived on the shores of the New World, settled and eventually prospered.
It wasn’t until two years ago that scientists isolated the pathogen that set off this catastrophe. I’m thinking the Irish were over-dependent on a single crop.
Many famines occurred in Russia and Ukraine despite the fact that Ukraine was so fertile it was called the “bread basket of Europe.” Joseph Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization was intended to abolish private property, but when what you plant is no longer yours, your motive for working hard no longer exists. Millions died because of this tragically misguided policy.
In 1932-33 and again in 1946-47, Stalin’s failed thinking in dictating crop choices caused artificial ideology-based famines. Powerful leaders can cause a lot of trouble.
Today’s famines are partly caused by water shortage and climate change, but also result from war and and political upheval. Refugees cannot stop to plant crops, when they are fleeing .
Nobody should die of starvation today and yet it happens because people cannot find ways to resolve their conflicts.
As I was looking at the sky last evening, I realized that I had not seen any stars in a long time. It is because of all the light pollution generated by our numerous illuminated buildings, street lights, automobiles and electric signs. Cities glow and pulse with light.
So how do I know that stars exist? How many other phenomena am I unaware of because I have only 5 senses with a very limited reach?
An eagle can see a rabbit from two miles away. I also learned that they adjust the curvature of their eyes as they descend to attack so prey is always in sharp focus. Bats navigate by echolocation which is completely alien to us. Vampire bats have proteins in their noses that lead them to food.
Our sense of smell is very rudimentary. Often it stops at pleasant or unpleasant and does not reveal edibility or harmfulness. Elephants’ feet and trunks are sensitive enough to pick up vibrations created by other elephants as far as 10 miles away.
Our hearing is also problematic. We often do not know how to follow it to its source or whether it signals danger or not. Our experience is often limited by the size and distance of the object being heard.
Because we long ago realized that much of the world is hidden from us, we knew we had to build instruments to expand our search abilities and learn the truth. But what is the truth of a star or the truth of a tree for that matter? Still we have to strive to understand that elusive reality.
Microphones and ultrasound devices capture unheard sounds. Smoke detectors can smell fires. Thermometers can measure exact temperatures beyond cold or hot. Litmus paper can tell if a substance is an acid or a base. In 1610 Galileo invented the telescope to examine the Milky Way and its vast collection of stars. He suspected that there existed many more heavenly bodies beyond our galaxy.
Since then telescopes have grown in size and complexity. The Hubble telescope which is suspended high in space is a most productive scientific instrument. It whirls around the earth and takes pictures through the haze of the atmosphere. It is only the size of a bus but it can look back to when the universe was only 3% of its current age. It can spot the dark energy that exists in space.
We have enlarged our horizons and will continue to expand our ability to apprehend and comprehend the world because we have one sense that is truly unlimited, our sense of curiosity.
Editors Note: Simone would like to know what you think about the seen and unseen worlds and about human curiosity. We encourage you to comment below.
When our children were little, we used to drive to the Berkeley Hills to watch the July 4th fireworks. Nowadays I have a wide window that allows me to see fireworks from across San Francisco Bay and in all other neighboring cities. They are colorful, dazzling, shimmering and noisy.
Still I find that after 5 to 10 minutes, my attention wanders and I tend to stop looking. Are explosions and bangs just a childish pleasure? Or do these displays last too long? Or perhaps nowadays there are too many competing events to attend to.
Fireworks were developed in China in the second century BC. (Sometimes it seems to me the Chinese invented everything.) These displays were used to celebrate births, weddings, coronations and deaths In 200 B.C. people roasted bamboo stalks till they sizzled and exploded.
But then they got smart, and 800 years later, between 600 and 900 A.D., they started filling the bamboo with gun powder and the big bang was born. They added metal salts to achieve the brilliant colors. This was all done to scare off evil spirits of course.
In this country Capt. John Smith set off the first fireworks in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, and the first Independence Day fireworks display was in Philadelphia in 1777.John Adams said that he hoped that the anniversary of Independence would always be marked by guns and bonfires. So it was for a while, but these were eventually replaced by fireworks.
In France, fireworks are traditionally used to celebrate July 14 French Independence Day. This year, displays were held in Lyon, Nantes, Marseille and many other cities. In Paris, because of crowd restrictions due to the pandemic, the display was started at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and lasted for 30 minutes. People were encouraged to watch from a distance, from their balconies. The display was dedicated to the “heroic daily fight against the corona virus”
Fireworks will continue to exist as long as the inner child in us keeps wanting them.
I’ll close with a Debussy prelude called “Feux d’Artifice.” (fireworks in French) This is a magnificent performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin. You don’t need to see the fireworks…you can hear them. This same piece was played in Paris on July 14th with colorful light reflections dancing in the River Seine. (lots of youtube of that available if you are interested)
When I was a little girl, I loved reading a series of books written by a woman who was born in 1799 to a noble Russian family and was said to be descended from Genghis Khan. Her name is Rostopchine Comtesse de Segur.
She received an aristocratic education and spoke five languages including French. (Russian nobles found it fashionable to have French governesses for their children.) Exiled from Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, she married into the French family of the Count Eugene de Segur.
The Countess had eight children and many grandchildren to whom she frequently told morality-based stories that she made up on the spot. At age 58, encouraged by her family, the Countess began to put her beloved storytelling into storybooks for the wider world.
She started by writing about simplistic characters representing good and evil. (“prince disguised as pauper” type of tales.) But her characters escaped from those restrictions and acquired a life of their own. I loved her stories about a donkey named Cadichon who was ill- treated by his family, rebelled and grew wise in the process. Other stories were about General Dourakine (Dourak means “imbecile” in Russian).
Then her fans requested stories about “model little girls” to serve as role models for aristocratic girls. So she created “Les petites filles modeles,” Camille and Madeleine. She also invented their foil in what became her most famous work, “Les Malheurs de Sophie.” Sophie was to be the negative role model who fell into one scrape after another.
But the readers had little interest in Camille and Madeleine, and perversely the misbehaving Sophie became a great literary favorite.
Didn’t the Countess know that misadventures are always more fun than exemplary lives? I doubt that any of the children who read her became little “Goody Two Shoes.”
Oh boy, how I loved that rebellious little girl.
TV News is different these days. It looks like we are watching a team in a single studio but in most cases, the anchors and reporters have separated themselves and are speaking to us from their own homes.
It’s interesting to get a glimpse of the rooms they are in, the art on their walls, or even of a cat or dog on the sofa. On the PBS Newshour as Judy Woodruff, Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the events of the day, I see a curious thing: they have all chosen to populate their rooms with books in order to add credibility to their comments and legitimacy to their prognostications.
This visual element of books is often used as a ploy by those who want to persuade us. In advertisements, there, in the background, is the shelf with the books. Sometimes the room is full of books, sometimes it is only two or three sickly worn paperbacks sharing shelf space with other bric-a-brac. The important thing is that books are present.
Why do we accord such respect to books?
I think it is because they allow us to look at the world from a different window from the one we habitually use. This different widow reveals insights and feelings which we often share but also shows us different landscapes which we had never seen before.
Mario Vargas Llosa wrote: “We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist; reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life,
a way of traveling without leaving home”.
Another way to measure the importance and power of books is through the people who would destroy them.
In 213 BC, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of books of poetry and history because he felt threatened by the ideas they represented. The library in ancient Alexandria was burned many times. After the invention of printing, it became more difficult to eradicate books when they were present in many copies.
John Milton said in 1644: “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature but who destroys a good book kills reason itself”. And Heine wrote, “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”
In 1933 university students across Germany burned 25,ooo books including authors such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway.
As long as there have been books, there have been men who burned them. As recently as 2012, in Timbuktu priceless manuscripts were being burned. People risked their lives to protect them and smuggled out 350,ooo of them. In China Mao Zedong ordered books burned if they did not conform to party propaganda.
Books pose a threat to some but procure delight and happiness to others. In addition to their contents they are a great artifact in and of themselves. The book is one of the most capable, easy, accessible, never-breaks- down technologies ever invented. You can read it anywhere, indoors or out. It does not need to be plugged into anything and so is always available. You can pick it up anytime or put it away. You can sit in the sun with it. You can go back and reread something that struck you. You can skip pages of boring material. If you can’t afford to buy one, you can borrow it from the library. As long as there are books in a library you will never be bored.
Books preserve the ideas and knowledge of all time, for all time.
It’s a good time to get away so I’ve been thinking about outer space.
When Christina Koch was five, she knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She became an electrical engineer and in October of last year, she and Jessica Meir, a marine biologist who scuba dives to study Emperor Penguins, made history by completing the first ever all-female spacewalk. They worked together for just over seven hours replacing a faulty battery charge/discharge unit.
Fifteen women have done space walks so far. It took awhile to get more women into space because of a lack of spacesuits that fit them properly. Spacesuits were designed in the 1970’s and all the original astronauts were men (and tall at that). And recently a NASA administrator has said there are “physical” reasons that make it difficult for women to perform spacewalks. I seriously doubt that and I’m not alone.
Here’s a quote from Christina that moved me. “I may not be the first woman to walk on the moon, but I think I will know the first woman who walks on the moon.”
Planet Earth is an oasis floating in the immense void of space and it is the only place that provides sustenance for humans. We can “walk” in space, but we cannot eat, drink breathe or sleep there.
We take our daily sensory inputs for granted until they are absent. The Big Void is not our natural living milieu. I learned that space suits are actually miniature spaceships for one person.
The flag just stands there like an unmoving sentinel. It has been planted in the vast nothingness of the moon’s surface and no wind ever ventures there.
Because there’s no air up there, the flag (original cost $4.95) was fitted with telescoping rods to hold it horizontally. They made the rods, they got them to the moon, but the lubricant on them was wrong so they couldn’t extend. So the flag looks like it is fluttering.
There are 6 other US flags on the moon, all intentionally designed so they will look the same as that first flag.
Part of the inscription at the base of the first flag reads:
”We came in peace for all mankind.”
I think I have found the perfect anti-Trump! She is his opposite in every imaginable way. Her name is Jacinda Ardern and she is New Zealand’s Prime Minister. Maybe being at the bottom of the world map allows a clear view of what is happening in the world above.
Breaking news from The Lancet, May 9th: “New Zealand has recorded its first day of no new cases of Covid-19”
Donald Trump is mean-spirited. Jacinda Ardern radiates empathy. His language is incoherent gibberish. She is clear-headed and articulate. She let the science lead and has built public trust. Her initial aim, which was controversial, was not to control the virus, but rather to eliminate it.
In late March, about one month after the country’s first reported case, Ardern imposed a strict national lockdown. At the time, New Zealand had only 102 cases and no deaths. The nationwide effort included extensive testing and contact tracing focused on problem areas. Now, with only 1500 recorded cases, they are slowly opening up. New Non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Christchurch start on October 20th.
Jacinda is the mother of a little girl whom she treats firmly and lovingly and her approach to governing is much the same: compassionate but effective.
Trumps’s main concern is “How is this virus affecting my image?” Ardren is trying to find ways to stop its spread. Trump believes nothing has changed in the world whereas Arden knows that nothing will ever be the same again.
Donald Trump wants to reopen the US economy in the next few weeks and is not worried that this reopening might lead to more Covid-19 deaths. But the situation is far beyond his control. In New Zealand, effective and early testing and tracing have brought the virus to a “near zero” status which can now be controlled with continuing testing and contact tracing.
Donald Trump’s strategy might be his undoing as more people see him as the selfish, self-centered self-promoter that he is.