Category Archives: Current Events

Catmania

 

When I lived in Beirut in the 1930’s, I used to feed a stray cat who hung around outside our house. I would lower a container of leftovers to him from a kitchen window.

People’s relationship with cats goes back to antiquity. Cat images are found on walls of ancient caves as well as in stone carvings. In ancient Egypt and ancient Greece there was a cat goddess named Bastet and killing a cat carried an automatic death sentence. Cats helped control snakes, scorpions and other pests. By saving crops from mice and rats, cats protected humans from starvation and death.

There are many beliefs about cats. They always land on their feet; they have nine lives. I recently learned that the superstition about a black cat crossing your path was because some believed such a cat was actually a witch.
But in Slavic folklore seeing a cat brings good luck because it drives away evil. Cats are considered “clean” in the Islamic world and permitted to live indoors with their owners.

Of course cats don’t consider themselves “owned” and prefer to think that associating with humans was their idea. Cats often think they have a better idea. For example, they won’t tolerate being washed, but very effectively lick themselves clean.

The place where cats lead the best lives is in Istanbul. They roam freely everywhere. It is said that there are 30,000 0f them being taken care of by people but not adopted. They are allowed to keep their independence and live as they please, wherever they prefer. They are protected but not imprisoned.

Cat at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Writers are often depicted with their pet cats nearby, on chairs, bookshelves, or laptops. In return the cats get to figure in their writings, often as the main character as in T.S Eliot’s Old Possums’ book of Practical Cats featuring Macavity the monster of depravity, the Napoleon of Crime, who is also known as the Hidden Paw and is wide awake even as he is half asleep.

And let us not ignore Puss ‘n’ Boots and Dr.Seuss’s red and white cat who always wears a top hat. The Seuss books were conceived to make it easy for children to learn to read because they are written in verse and are simple to memorize. And finally I mention the mysterious Cheshire cat who lives with Alice in Wonderland and can appear and disappear at will.

I have read that cats only meow to humans because they have better ways to communicate with other felines (rubbing, tail flicking, growling).

Dogs are more devoted and obedient than cats but also more needy.

Famously cats are not amenable to herding.

I say hurray for Felis Catus. (or was that Felix?)

 

Editor’s note: We are breaking with past practice by providing a cat video below.

 

The Dramatic Presence of the Cathedrals

While we are still feeling the sadness of the Notre Dame fire, let me mention a few things about Cathedrals in general.

A definitional element of every Cathedral is that it is the site of the Bishop’s residence from which he spreads the word of God as revealed by the Pope from his throne. Thus ex cathedra means “from the teacher’s chair” with complete authority. Such decisions are supposed to be infallible and unquestionably true.

The Reims Cathedral

The Rheims cathedral is the very epitome of what a Gothic Cathedral should look like. It was the site for the coronation of many French kings. During the Hundred Years War between France and England, when England occupied much of France’s territory, Joan of Arc presided over the coronation of Charles VII in Rheims.

From history to art. In 1892-1893 Claude Monet rented a flat across from the Rouen Cathedral and created a series of paintings trying to capture its many moods throughout the day. From the crystal clear morning light to the descending darkness, he created over 30 canvases.

 

Rouen Cathedral in 12 different lights.

In Britain young Turner painted some sweeping views of cathedrals including his series on Salisbury cathedral. John Constable was also moved by Salisbury and created a memorable painting of it.

Many other historical figures, artists, painters and sculptors were deeply affected by Cathedrals. In Germany in 1770 a young Goethe was overwhelmed by the beauty of the cathedral of Strasbourg. He climbed its tower many times in order to challenge and ultimately overcome his vertigo.

The 466 foot tower of the Cathedral at Strasbourg.

These great Cathedrals are as rich a repository of art as any museum. They offer us remarkable collections of sculpture, frescoes and stained glass masterpieces. We will continue to cherish these iconic structures as they continue to speak to us.

Our Lady Lives On

 

 

Rose Window of Notre Dame

I saw Notre Dame Cathedral for the first time in December 1946. I had just arrived in France from Tel Aviv and cathedrals were not part of my life experience. I did not know a gargoyle from a chimera. As I stood on the vast esplanade in the piercing cold and looked at Notre Dame, I felt I had been struck by a physical blow. Carvings, statues and intricate decorations were everywhere.  I knew I would come to this place many more times because there was just too much to absorb.

This was a wholly aesthetic revelation. Religion was not a part of it.

 

Victor Hugo

Notre Dame has stood on the Ile de la Cite for more than eight centuries. Victor Hugo was fascinated by it and believed it represented all of France’s history.  In 1792, during the French revolution, the interior of Notre Dame was entirely gutted and many statues were decapitated. Victor Hugo led the campaign for restoration.

Notre Dame and other major churches were rebuilt in the 1800’s and are sometimes called 19th century cathedrals. For instance, Notre Dame acquired its monumental spire, now so sadly lost, in 1859.

Artists, painters and sculptors were deeply affected by cathedrals. Renoir said, “no modern building can be compared to Notre Dame.” According to Rodin, “the whole of France can be found in its cathedrals just as the whole of Greece can be found in the Parthenon.” Starting in 1892, Claude Monet created a series of paintings of the Rouen cathedral trying to capture its many moods by painting it at different times of the day.

At the end of World War II,  Pablo Picasso painted Notre Dame many times. Here’s a beauty from 1945 you might not have seen before.

 

Oil by Pablo Picasso 1945

Napoleon had himself crowned in Notre Dame and when  Charles de Gaulle returned to Paris after its liberation, his walk through the city ended at Notre Dame. 

This enduring Cathedral will continue to inspire us all.

 

Editors note: More on France, Art and Cathedrals next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Algeria in Chaos

Algerian President  Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently announced that he would be running for a fifth term. He did not make the announcement personally. In fact, he has not spoken a word in public for the last five years.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika

He spends most of his time in Switzerland, being treated for an unknown illness. His only public appearances are in a wheelchair. At these times, with his vacant eyes, he looks more dead than alive.

Algeria has lost half of its oil revenue while young people have no jobs and no prospects for a better future. Bouteflika’s corrupt administration has recently erected a magnificent new mosque in Algiers. This may have been the last straw.

 

New Algerian Mosque

Street protests exploded and overflowed.  The police were not sure whether they wanted to fight the protestors or join them.  Journalists were arrested. A female broadcaster was interrupted and contradicted while she was on the air.  The protests have since spread to Tunis and to Marseilles which have large Algerian populations.

Bouteflika then chose to leave (or maybe it was chosen for him.)  An interim government is in place until elections can be held. But things are breaking down. Everyone and everything in Bouteflika’s government is suspect. The people are tired of the system of cronyism and are demanding a clean slate, real elections  and the rule of law. Most recently, the demand is that new elections should not be held until present governmental system is eradicated. They have no faith in interim President Abdelkader Bensaleh.

 

Massive Street Protests

What’s next? There seems to be no promising alternative. The opposition is weak and divided. And the money to implement solutions is simply not there. Many are afraid that Algeria could once again descend into violence as it did in the 1990’s when the country went through a terrible civil war. 200,000 people died and election results were overturned.

The omnipresent Army is the sole source of power and will  oversee the new elections if they are held.  But the Army has its vested interests to protect and will probably continue to run the country no matter what the elections may bring

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Editor’s note: Here is a video showing the mosque which is now nearing completion. It is a very remarkable building and worth enjoying.

https://youtu.be/DYYIv2MSl7c

 

 

Abby, Ann, Ben and the “Agony Aunts”

Advice columns in newspapers have always been popular. Some readers skip the news and go to the advice columns to see what problems are bothering other people.

It’s amusing to postpone looking at the answer imagining how you might respond before you look at what Dear Abby or Ann Landers has to say.

The British call advice-giving writers (mostly women) “agony aunts.” This suggests a kind and elderly relative dispensing bits of wisdom. One can almost hear her say “Ah my child, when you have lived as long as I have, you cannot help having acquired some experience and knowledge of the ways of the world.”

Sometimes, the advice givers take the easy way out suggesting you consult a specialist: Alcoholics Anonymous, a marriage counselor or an abused women’s shelter. I prefer more original approaches.

The questions are sometimes surprisingly naive. Someone might write: “I have been married for 15 years to a very nice man but he often belittles me in front of other people.” (That is a nice man? and why did you wait 15 years before complaining?) or “I have a wonderful wife but she never stops talking when we have guests.” (One wonders what other “wonderful” qualities she has.)

Some columnists specialize in a practical topic: “Miss Manners” will tell you all about etiquette, how to decline an invitation graciously, how to seat people at dinner and who to serve first. And of course what to wear for different occasions.

The New York Times Magazine has a section called “Sunday Styles” in which readers ponder awkward social situations: Who should pay at restaurants, what to do with unwanted gifts, how to respond to questions you do not like. Sometimes the questions veer toward the ethical: “Should I tell my best friend that his girl friend is cheating on him?” “Can I cut off a relative who has hateful views?” “If I have been overpaid, should I keep the money?” Answers to such questions are often to go with flow, not to obsess, giving the questioner permission to follow their own inclination.
The best advice givers are the ones who identify the problem, get to the crux of the matter and propose a common sense solution of the kind that makes you say “Why didn’t I think of that?”

 

You might say that Benjamin Franklin was a sort of “Dear Abby.”
Poor Richard’s Almanack provided wit and wisdom, aphorisms and
proverbs as a form of advice albeit unsolicited. Mark Twain also wrote this “Advice to Youth: Obey your parents when they are present because they think they know better. Respect your superiors if you have any. Do not lie until you are a perfect liar.”

When someone starts a sentence with:”If you ask me,” I have an irresistible urge to respond: So, who asked you?

Asking Simone About Opera….

I have been asked by my editors to introduce the “Ask Simone” feature. What better way to do this than to ask myself some questions which I will then proceed to answer.

Today’s topic is OPERA. So here goes!

1. If you wanted to introduce a total novice to opera which one would you select?

There are two possibilities: One is “Carmen” by Georges Bizet because it has a popular theme and is very easy to follow. I would rather choose “La Traviata: by Giuseppe Verdi because it is melodic from beginning to end and tells a love story with a tragic ending. There was also a very good film by Franco Zeffirelli that was made of it in 1983 starring Theresa Stratos and Placido Domingo, and you can watch this if an actual opera performance is inaccessible.

 

 

2. Which do you think is the most overrated opera?

Definitely “Tosca” by Puccini. The story is not credible. It is melodramatic and overblown from beginning to end. It does however have great arias.

3. What is your favorite feminine aria and why?

I think Santuzza pleading with Turridu not to abandon her. This is from Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Turridu is leaving her to return to Lola, his first love and Santuzza is devastated. This sounds like a tearjerker but when expressed musically it acquires a poignancy that no mere spoken words can convey. This opera is also one I would recommend to a first time opera audience. It is about ordinary people rather than mythological heroes. About the middle of the 19th century opera was turning away from “Opera Seria” (Serious Opera) to “Opera Buffa” or “Opera Comique” (which in this instance does not mean “funny” but rather ordinary)

 

4. Favorite male aria?

There are two…The tenor in “La fille du Regiment” by Gaetano Donizetti sings a very difficult aria requiring musical agility and stamina. In this
famous aria that starts with “Ah mes amis…
he tells of his joy at having been accepted by the regiment he applied to, and of his proposal of marriage having been accepted as well.

 

 

The second aria is “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from “L’Elisire d’Amore” (The Elixir of Love) also by Donizetti. Nemorino, a poor peasant laments his fate. He is in love with Adina a very popular girl who plays games with him, and he drinks a love potion which he thinks will alter his fate. I think this is the best example of bel canto (beautiful singing).

5. Favorite chorus?

I choose “Va Pensiero” also called the Chorus of the Slaves by Giuseppe Verdi in the opera “Nabucco.”
In this opera, he recounts the period of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity after the loss of the First Temple in Jerusalem in about 500 BC. Some saw in this an echo of the longing for reunification of Italy known as Risorgimento in the 19th century. It is by far the most moving choral work I know.

 

Swimming Against The Currents

 

To think and act against the fashion of the day is the beginning of wisdom.

It is said that to get to the source you have to swim upstream.  Salmon swim that way to lay their eggs and to maximize their offspring’s chances of survival. Other fish too swim from the ocean to the stream where they wait for little insects to fly by.

Dead fish float downstream but it takes a live one to swim upstream.

Humans often make decisions not to settle for the obvious but to go counter to prevailing opinion. Often, this works out well.

I can think of three occasions where I had to make a choice between the beaten track or taking a different road. The first time was when my younger daughter was born premature and stayed at the hospital after I went home. At that time, the fashion was to bottle feed babies and that is what the staff did. They told me that because she was apart from me for a couple of weeks, I would not be able to breast-feed her. I ignored them.

I thought babies should be breast fed. After all cow’s milk was intended for calves, not humans. So I pumped my milk to keep it flowing and as soon as my daughter came home, we switched to breast feeding. My baby was happy and I was happy to live without sterilizing baby bottles. Swimming upstream gave me a good result.

My second little rebellion against convention happened when I discovered a book by Rudolf Flesch called Why Johnny Can’t Read. Flesch was critical of the way reading was taught in schools using he visual method instead of the phonetic one. Children were asked to memorize whole words instead of breaking them down into sounds. This method relied on memory instead of logic. Remembering each word by the way it looks is much more difficult and less efficient than recognizing the letter combinations that sounds are built with and then being able to do your own combining.

So, going counter to what was then current in schools, I used the techniques in the book to teach my younger daughter to read. By the time she entered kindergarten she was quite proficient at it. Her teacher was astounded when one day she drew a picture of butterflies and printed the word correctly at the top of her drawing. She pointed out to the teacher that words that end in “ly” have their plural in “lies.”

My third example occurred much later in my life. For 9 years around 1970, my husband David’s job took him to Africa to introduce the concepts of trade unions and credit unions to African workers in Senegal. At the time I was pursuing a career at the University of California Berkeley Library. I loved my job, I was good at it, and I was on track for a promotion.

The expectations of the day and of my husband’s employer were that I was to abandon my career because a  wife was supposed to follow her husband wherever he went.

I realized that I was not going to sacrifice my job, erasing all that I had achieved, and losing my retirement benefits as well. I remained  at my post.

Because we both had long vacations, we usually spent the month of August in Europe and I cobbled  together enough holiday and vacation days to spend Christmas time in Dakar, Senegal.

 

My moral…Sometimes, you just have to think for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 97th Birthday Simone!

From the Editor….Here’s a video of Simone coming down the middle part of the 52 stairs from her front door to the street (taken about two weeks ago)  Our author turned 97 on January 14th and we wanted you to see her in motion. I complimented her on how well she was navigating. She replied, “I’m even better on the way up.”

Happy birthday to our dear author.

Simone On The Stairs

Send In The Women

Alexandra-Ocasio-Cortez

Political scientist Valerie M. Hudson wrote: “Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” It is because of male domination at home and in the political arena that women’s march toward full equality has been painfully slow and tortuous.

This year 110 women, nearly all Democrats, were sworn in as members of Congress. Among them is 29-year-old Alexandra-Ocasio-Cortez of New York who has cheerfully taken arms against the cavemen, including Caveman-in- Chief Donald Trump. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi has regained her gavel as Speaker of the House and Elizabeth Warren has stepped forward as a Presidential candidate.

Our valiant “leader” has taken up arms. He is leading the battle against women as he revives his kindergarten tactics of name calling and personal insult. Trump has also boasted of groping and making unwanted advances toward women. Other politicians have had to leave the political scene after admissions of sexual harassment, but Trump survives (for now), sitting defiantly in his chair with arms crossed and glaring.

During the campaign, Trump tried to silence two women by paying them off. But Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal have now told their stories and others have been encouraged to speak up.

Elizabeth Warren

In the global arena, dictators have bolstered their power using overt sexism. In Brazil, newly elected President Jair Bolsanaro includes in his “revolution” the fight against “uppity women.” In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte allowed his soldiers to each rape three women on the island of Mindanao. Viktor Orban in Hungary instructs women to bear more children. In Italy the right-wing regime seeks to eliminate child support and domestic violence laws.

Of course, it isn’t just now. During the French Revolution, the next order of business after toppling the monarchy was to ban women from inheriting property and holding senior teaching jobs. When fighting for their rights and liberties men have a willful blind spot. They do not include women in their demands and even go out of their way to remind them of their inferior status.

Before we give in to despair, let me mention that there are countries in Western Europe where women have a significant representation in Parliaments: 48% in Iceland, 44% in Sweden, 42% in Finland and 40% in Norway. These countries have a long tradition of gender equality at home with household chores and child-rearing shared equally. I think this is part of the reason for the political equality in these Parliaments.

Research shows the women in Congress have been more effective than their male counterparts at securing spending for their districts (The New Yorker, January 2019). This is good news for possible infrastructure projects.

Nancy Pelosi

Whenever and wherever possible we should find ways to contribute to the advancement of women in politics. This can only lead to the betterment of women overall.

Here are some names and links to organizations that help women run for political office at all levels:

Emily’s List

She Should Run

Mozart and Mambo

Gustavo Dudamel Conducting

Music is a contact sport. An electric current passes through the conductor to the orchestra and through the orchestra to the audience. Audiences clap or shout “Bravo” (unless they boo and hiss.) This response in turn rebounds back to the performers. Gutsavo Dudamel understands this phenomenon extremely well and maximizes the connection.

Dudamel is the conductor and music director of the Orquestra Sinfonica Simon Bolivar and (by the way) of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. He was born in Venezuela in 1981. His mother was a singer and his father a trombonist. He played violin but showed an early aptitude for conducting.

Watching him conduct, hopping, jumping, dancing, with curls bouncing, you are struck by his enthusiasm, immense energy and sheer joy at sharing his passion.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and its Ode to Joy is the perfect vehicle for a man who throws himself into the music with such abandon.

Dudamel’s introduction to classical music was through a program called El Sistema founded by Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela, which features total immersion of children in ensemble music – a hundred people working as one.

Dudamel believes that music can transform lives. He has become a champion of the arts for young people around the world. He is also committed to exposing audiences to new and nontraditional music. In 2012 he set up the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation to promote access to music as a fundamental human right.

In 2007, Dudamel founded YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which provides access to music to underserved communities. He then worked closely with architect Frank Gehry who has designed a new facility for YOLA. It’s a glass fronted box with a glass pop-up roof which allows sunlight to stream into the 260 seat hall below. The facility will be located in Inglewood, California with construction expected to begin in 2019.

YOLA Concert Hall

Gustavo Dudamel has been criticized for his continued ties to Venezuela. This is a country suffering from a horrific economic and social crisis most of it engineered by former President Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. These regimes have insisted on adhering to authoritarianism and to outdated communist values. As a result most of the population lives in poverty.

Dudamel performed at the Hugo Chavez funeral, but otherwise tried to remain uninvolved with the woes of his country of birth. Then in 2017, a group of musicians was protesting Chavez rule and during an ensuing riot, an 18 year-old  viola player and El Sistema pupil Amando Canizcle, was killed.

Dudamel was moved and in a New York Times article, he condemned the violence and denounced the Venezuelan Government’s planned Constitutional Assembly as outside the law.

It is not easy to be involved in too many battles and every person must decide how and where to devote their energy so they can participate in what matters most to them.

 

Editor’s note: Below is an exciting and inspiring clip of Dudamel conducting a Venezuelan youth orchestra through some classic mambos. The whole scene is a feast of joy. It will make you happy for sure.