Category Archives: Current Events

Bonjour! Revolution? Our French Origin Story

 

France’s role in American life predates the birth of the United States. Our founding Fathers were greatly influenced by French Philosophers of the Enlightenment- Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau.

Thomas Jefferson loved everything French; Benjamin Franklin loved quite a few French women and spent many years in France. These founding Americans absorbed the concepts of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and played them back as they created our country.

The French, in their turn used our Declaration of Independence  as a model for drafting their “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.”

During our revolution, The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in America bringing many ships loaded with arms and supplies and enthusiastically joined George Washington’s troops to fight for the Revolution. His participation was crucial in winning the war.

Welcoming parade, in New York, for Lafayette.

 

In 1831, French thinker and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the length and breadth of America analyzing and appreciating its special character. He reported on the considerable success and growth of our recently born country, particularly the way the standard of living was improving for all American citizens and advised Europe to look at what we were doing here.

Alexis de Tocqueville

 

More currently, French President Emmanuel Macron sings the Marseillaise with his right hand clasped on his heart a la Trump. Macron also adopted the American gesture of raising both hands in the air as a victory sign.Macron worked in an American investment bank for years and speaks American fluently. In another change,  France’s “First Ladies” were previously  invisible, but Brigitte Macron has stepped onto the stage and acquired an official status .

 

 

Brigitte-Macron

 

Before Macron, French President Francois Hollande adopted  our concept of televised presidential debates inspired by the Kennedy/Nixon debates.

Going back further we come to Nicolas Sarkozy, also an Americaphile who loved popular music, Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. He was even dubbed “Sarko L’Americain.”

It wasn’t always so. France’s President Charles De Gaulle had disdain for everything American and once proclaimed “Long live Chicago” while he was in San Francisco.

And of course America’s latest President is a French admirer….when it comes to military parades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine: Comedy By Election, Meddling By You-Know-Who

Ukarine. (note Crimea is not shown within its borders.)

 

I first wrote about Ukraine in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution, a response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the establishment of two pro-separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. Since then the pot of revolt has been boiling furiously while still being, somehow, contained.

Now Ukraine has elected a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. This fellow is a television actor who once played the role of a school teacher who was unexpectedly elected president. It was a comedy of course, but now it is really happening. Zelensky, is 41 and was put forward by a political party which is called “Servant of the People”.

 

Volodymyr Zelensky

This unconventional new President has no program or agenda except for the usual “end of corruption” mantra. Since this party now also controls the legislature, he was able to dissolve Parliament.

The Pro Russian party only collected only 13% of the vote and this strengthens the hand of the new president.

That’s a good thing. Ukraine’s economy is bad. The country is suffering from a brain drain as its citizens run for the exits. Those who remain must continue to fight and deal with the Russian meddling. (where else is that a problem Senator McConnell?)

Our President’s good friend Vladimir Putin still considers Ukraine a part of Russia. President Zelensky supports Ukraine’s membership in NATO, another sore point for Putin.

But as we now know better than ever, Russia does not give up and continues to meddle and will always be an existential threat to Ukraine.

 

The Secret Life of Trees

From my window I see a very tall tree with contorted branches. It looks the same throughout the year so there is really nothing to “observe” about it except for the visiting crows and sparrows who perch on it on their way somewhere else. I have found out that it is a twisted oak tree. People have told me that it spoils my view of the San Francisco Bay but I think it is part of that view.

A tree is the oldest living organism. California has the world’s oldest living tree. Here’s a picture of Methusela, a Birstlecone Pine which is 4851 years old.

Until 2013, it was the oldest, but now another Bristlecone has been found in the same area. That one is now 5068. It probably doesn’t worry much about birthdays.

Also in California, the Wawona tunnel tree was a giant Sequoia that stood in Mariposa Grove of the Yosemite national Park in California until 1969. A tunnel was cut into it as a tourist attraction. It was 2,300 years old. Now it is a habitat for insects and small animals.  General Sherman, the biggest tree in the world is in the same area.

Trees take care of each other, even across species. Forest ecologist Suzanne Sinard explains the concept of a “mother tree” who acts as a hub and takes on the care and protection of the tree community and looks out for younger trees. For instance, birch trees receive extra care from Douglas firs when they lose their leaves.

In The Hidden Life of a Tree, Peter Wohlleben describes how trees fight for nutrients, water and sunlight. The winners live long enough to reproduce, but they also form friendships, and larger trees supply younger ones with nutrients like sugar. Using a complex network of chemical signals trees communicate by emitting sounds and distress signals inaudible to humans. They talk to each other through their roots and form alliances with other trees and with some animals as well.

Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory describes people who come together to fight the destruction of trees. This is a truly marvelous read.

All trees use the “fungal web” as an underground connection, a reciprocal exchange to provide nutrients and improve health and resilience in a symbiotic relationship with fungi. Even though we, humans, cannot really “talk” to trees we can see to their welfare and provide them with all the care they need.

Kipling, British Empire, Superstition

The task of making a huge, alien land a friendly and cozy one was never easy. Colonialism mistakenly assumes that a conquered territory has no civilization of its own and has to have one imposed on it. In this scenario, the governing and the governed actors each play their assigned roles in a well-oiled machine. However, situations evolve and conflict arises.

When I was in grade school in Beirut we had a teacher who regularly read us stories from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Through these wonderful stories, I met Mowgli, the naked feral child who lives with a wolf pack.

Rudyard Kipling was born and lived in India which was the setting for his novels As a child I, of course, never picked up on his paternalistic and essentially racist view of that extraordinary country. The wisdom of those days was that “the white man knows best.”

 

Indian women in colorful saris walking up the stairs at Ranthambore Fort, Rajasthan, India

 

Some considered Kipling to be second-rate as a novelist. George Orwell wrote that “five generations of enlightened people” despised Kipling as “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Oscar Wilde said his writing showed “superb flashes of vulgarity.”

 

England’s role and rule in India was always a murky, ambitious and ambivalent one. It started in the 18th century with the East India Trading Co and gradually extended into wars of conquest through which vast territories were acquired until India became “The Jewel in the Crown” of the largest empire in the world. From 1858 until 1947, the British Raj (or rule) controlled most of the sub-continent.

And then, change happened. Less-educated British people arrived and clashed with highly-educated Indians who had been brilliantly schooled by the British. This contrast is depicted in E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India where characters no longer know what their assigned roles are and totally misunderstand and misjudge each other.

In such a climate it is not hard to conjure up aggression. The British in their snobbishness rapidly retreated to their exclusive and segregated country clubs and Indian doctors and other intellectuals were left in a sort of no man’s land, estranged from their own countrymen.

Crowd of pilgrims at ghats on River Ganges

 

Today, Indian local customs and values culminate in the cult of the ancient river Ganges which is considered sacred and personified by the goddess Ganga. This is where people come to wash off their sins and be purified in a frenzy of devotion. They do this in water that has been highly contaminated by humans and animals washing, bathing and eliminating as well as toxic waste and untreated sewage. Still, they come.

India is no longer occupied by conquerors, but it is weighed down by ancient superstitions and apathy in the face of outdated beliefs and customs.

Nursery Rhymes and Crimes

Have parents really been listening to the nursery rhymes they read to their children at bedtime? Do they truly want them to hear that after Jack and Jill climbed up the famous hill, that Jack sustained a head injury while Jill was left careening down the hill behind him?

Things going downhill for Jack and Jill.

How about the maid in the garden minding her own business and hanging the clothes to dry when a blackbird snaps off her nose? And what about those poor people who are walking on London Bridge when it falls down?

 

Bad Day At London Bridge

 

And what would they make of the spousal abuse when Peter the Pumpkin Eater imprisons his wife in a pumpkin shell? Consider also the me-too implications of Georgie Porgy who kisses the girls and makes them cry. And can we talk about religious vengeance when Goosey Gander throws an old man down the stairs for not saying his prayers.

 

The goose is loose.

And we’re happily relaxing with Rockabye Baby until the disastrous breaking of a tree limb sends baby and cradle crashing to earth. How can anyone go to sleep peacefully knowing that disaster awaits?

How about the overcrowded conditions and corporal punishment visited on the children of the “old” (ageist) woman who lived in a shoe? She apparently had more kids than she could handle and I would not want to be one of them.

 

Not a happy place for the kids.

 

The Mother Goose rhymes were first published in 1697. Was the world more cruel then? Were people more used to violence, trickery and mayhem? Isn’t it scary and sinister when London Bridge falls down? These questions are whirling in my brain.

Could it be that from the safety and warmth of your own bed you can comfortably contemplate the misfortunes of others and rejoice that they are not happening to you? Maybe it is like sitting by the fireplace watching a raging storm from the window and feeling dry and contented.

Which brings me to the ultimate mystery writer, Agatha Christie. She saw these contradictions and used them in her tales of crime, murder and horror.

In Ten Little Indians, the characters are marooned and die one by one each day. (This also appeared under the title And Then There Were None.) We are wondering who is doing this to them. In One Two, Buckle My Shoe, she has the shoe buckle become an important clue. She also used Hickory, Dickory, Dock as a book title.

And of course in her books, the seemingly innocent ones often turn out to be the criminals.

For me, tales of wickedness are more fun to read than the lives of Saints. There is just not much to say about Goody Two Shoes or Pollyanna’s good deeds. Excessive virtue does not a good story make.

 

Editor’s Note:  We hope you’ll make a comment or ask a question. These comments make Simone happy and she responds to all of them. Thank you. 

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?