Category Archives: Whimsical Musings

Hero of the American Revolution, Marquis de Lafayette



The Hermione, a replica of an 18th century Liberty frigate, set sail on April 16, 2015 from Port des Barques, France for a transatlantic crossing of 27 days and 3819 miles. It will arrive in Yorktown, Virginia to commemorate the historic voyage of the Marquis de Lafayette who sailed in 1780 to support George Washington and the American Revolution. Lafayette brought 5,150 men and 5 frigates as reinforcements and he had financed the whole enterprise himself. He was only 22 years old.

In Yorktown, Lafayette’s frigate took part in the blockade that led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army, helping to turn the tide of the American Revolution. Lafayette fought for the principles of the American Declaration of Independence and became an American general. He also became a symbol of the Franco-American Alliance and a part of the mythology of the United States. His motto was “Why Not.” Of the Hermione he said, “She sails like a bird.”

When he returned to France, Lafayette wanted to expand the rights and liberties of ordinary people but he was also a royalist and wanted to keep Louis XVI on the throne. Lafayette was a moderate who believed in an empowered nobility and a constitutional monarchy, but France was then moving towards radicalism. Lafayette was eventually relieved of his command of the French national militia and accused of treason. He was imprisoned for 5 years. In 1824, he made a triumphal return to the United States and was celebrated everywhere.
During World War I, when General Pershing’s aide, Charles Stanton arrived in Paris in 1917 he uttered the famous words: “Lafayette, nous voici.” (Here we are)

Lafayette died in 1834 at age 76 and President Jackson declared a national day of mourning.
There are at least 36 cities and numerous counties and other localities named for Lafayette in the United States but in France he is not as well remembered. There is a small “rue Lafayette” in Paris, but when people on that street were recently asked whether they knew who it was named for, most did not. One person guessed that it was perhaps for the founder of the Galeries Lafayette (a Parisian department store).

Lafayette is also the subject of a statue in New York’s Union Square Park by Frederic Bartholdi (the designer of the Statue of Liberty). He is buried in Paris at the Picpus Cemetery. The American Flag floats over his tomb.

Recycling for Artists, Musicians and Cooks


Recycling is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the ages, artists have borrowed ideas, tunes and pictures and have incorporated them into their own art, building something original in the process. Musicians thought nothing of using a famous melody like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (also known as “Ah vous dirai-je maman”) or hymns like “God Save the King” and creating endless variations on them. There is an aria called “La Folia” which appears to have no known origin but was used in many countries by baroque composers to improvise and embroider upon. In his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky used two national anthems and a cannon.

The most beautiful quilts incorporate remnants skillfully stitched together into original patterns and transform the materials beyond recognition.

Cooks cleverly use leftovers and repackage them in novel ways. Think of wontons, blintzes, crepes and various soups and casseroles.

We have all seen “installations” in museums which consist of “objets trouves” (found bits and pieces) rearranged and camouflaged into new structures and sculptures.
In costume making you can use leftover material from older creations and you have a new outfit on your hands. Maybe that is the meaning of the saying: There is nothing new under the sun.

The artist Matisse found himself in a wheelchair after undergoing surgery in 1941. As a result he invented a new art form with his cutouts. He would cut out strips of paper, paint them in various hues and shape them into vast arrangements suggesting swimming figures, birds flying or a spray of flowers. He called it: Painting with scissors. He said, “This work constitutes my real self.”

David Hockney mixed digital photographic collages, film and paintings and created a totally original art form. Some of his works include multiple viewpoints so a figure can be seen from various angles. He also used his iPad to edit and rearrange various shots.

I have seen people sitting on a bench in a museum facing his creations totally transfixed by the constantly evolving images which vanish and come back in a different shape. Hockney does not consider himself avant-garde. He says, “In a world without rules it is impossible to be on the cutting edge. Every picture is an account of me looking at something.”

I like the idea of the fluidity of objects reshaping themselves in a kaleidoscopic dance.

Meandering Through Town Names


What do the towns of Naples (Italy) and Novgorod (Russia) have in common? Both their names mean “New City.” Starting with that thought, I was led to wonder why so many town names end with town (or ton), ville, city, burg or polis. Did their inhabitants want the world to know that they lived in an important, big metropolis and not in some God-forsaken village?

We have Daly City, Sioux City, Rapid City and many others. The French ending “ville” shows up in Emeryville, Louisville, Fayetteville and others probably because people wanted to honor the city founder or some other important historical figure. The Greek equivalent “polis” appears in Indianapolis and Minneapolis, and town (or ton) in Hampton, Middleton, Charleston and Georgetown. Finally the German “burg” is found in Gettysburg and Pittsburgh among others. Ham which derives from “home “attaches itself to Gotham, Effingham, Birmingham and many more.

The ancient city of Jerusalem (In Hebrew Yerushalaim) is thought to derive from Ir Shalom which means City of Peace. Alas, it has never lived up to that noble name. For most of its existence it has been fought over by too many tribes, nations and religions.

In the Middle East beyt or beit means “house of” in both Hebrew and Arabic, hence Beyt Lehem (House of Bread) which we know as Bethlehem and Beyt Shemesh (House of the Sun).

Israel has quite a few interesting place names: Tel Aviv means “Mound of Spring”, Beer Sheva “Well of Seven”, the oldest town is Rishon Le Zion which means “First to Zion.” Herzliyah honors Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and Caesaria, known for its Roman ruins, derives from Caesar.

Nowadays I live in the city of Oakland in California. Its older name was Encinal. In 1829 the land surrounding it was given to Luis Peralta by the Spanish governor to form a settlement. Later the land was divided among his four sons. Antonio Peralta received the portion which is now Oakland. It had a big grove of oak trees, hence the name.

As for our neighboring city, Berkeley, it was named for Bishop George Berkeley (pronounced Barklay) the eminent British philosopher who arrived in town in 1866. It was thought to be a fitting name for a University town.
Bishop Berkeley’s portrait hangs in California Hall on campus.

On Words and Miscommunicating

Words“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”. (words and music by Mac Davis)

Our Oakland mayor who was just defeated for a second term has a most assiduous staff which used to bombard me with emails almost every day. After our recent election an email showed up to thank me for my vote. It said: “I am humbled by your support”. In the first place I voted for her opponent, and secondly what has “humbled” got to do with the situation? Why not say “grateful” or “appreciative”? Truly humble and modest people generally do not run for office, do not put themselves forward in any way and certainly do not advertise their humility.

Churchill famously characterized Clement Attlee as “a modest man who has much to be modest about.” Business letters used to contain the closing phrase: I am Sir (Madam) your most humble and obedient servant. We don’t use this Dickensian phraseology any more.

Here is another “miswordism” It is not a spoonerism or malapropism. (I checked). Newscaster: “We’ll see you again at 9.” Doesn’t she mean: You’ll see us again at 9? I sure hope she is not peeking into my living room.

New words added to the Merriam Webster dictionary. In 2013: selfie. It may be a new word but not a new concept. Painters who could not afford models sat in front of a mirror and painted themselves. It was called self-portraiture.

And for a finish here is a quiz question. If you are, like me, a Jeopardy watcher, you may have seen it recently as it was a “final Jeopardy” question: What three letter verb has the most entries in the Oxford English Dictionary? By the way I picked the wrong one. The answer next time!

Women In Literature


When we think of women in literature it is usually in connection with adultery. Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina both leave dull older husbands to find love in younger men’s arms with accompanying social ostracism and eventually tragic deaths. Hester Prynne and Lady Chatterley are some other “adulteresses” in fiction.

It is much more difficult to find a novel that centers on male adultery. I can only think of Yuri Zhivago’s love for Lara. Besides, in men it is called infidelity, does not have tragic consequences and often does not necessitate leaving home.

But there are other kinds of women in literature, strong and loyal women. This story takes place in the early 1930s. Fanny is a young shellfish seller in the sunny Old Port of Marseille. In the background you can see the solid shape of Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica and the silhouette of the Chateau d’If, one time residence of the Count of Monte Cristo. Fanny is very much in love with Marius, son of cafe owner Cesar. They meet in secret in her room. But Marius only dreams of sea adventures. And so one fine morning he runs off to sea in a merchant ship leaving a pregnant Fanny behind. Enter Honore Panisse, a friend of Cesar. Panisse has always loved Fanny. He is quite a bit older. He offers to marry Fanny and raise her child as his own. His boating business is doing well and he dreams of adding “et fils” (and son) to the Panisse sign in his window. After a time, reenter Marius back from his nautical adventures. He has realized his mistake in leaving and wants Fanny to come back to him. Fanny now older and wiser says: No Marius, Panisse has been good to me and offered help when I needed it. I still love you. I always will but I shall never leave Panisse.

Fanny lives in a trilogy and a film in three parts by Marcel Pagnol. (Marius, Fanny, Cesar). As for Panisse he would be surprised to know that a restaurant in Berkeley is named after him.

This story takes place in the 1820s. Tatiana lives on a small estate in the Russian countryside. She is a shy, awkward young girl who spends her time reading sentimental novels and dreaming of love. Lensky lives on a neighboring estate and is engaged to Tatiana’s sister, a frivolous and shallow girl named Olga. One fine day Lensky comes a-courting, He is accompanied by his good friend Eugene Onegin.

It is summer. In the background the serfs are working in the fields and singing. Tatiana imagines herself falling in love with Onegin and writes him a passionate letter which she asks her nanny to deliver. Onegin is a vain and bored young dandy who is in love with himself. He casually dismisses her feelings and departs but not before he has managed to kill his best friend in a duel over a flirtation with Olga.

It is years later. Prince Gremin’s sumptuous palace is the scene of a ball. Prince Gremin is influential at court and an imposing figure. Reenter Onegin back from his aimless wanderings and still bored and listless. He notices Gremin’s elegant and beautiful young wife, recognizes a much changed Tatiana and realizes what a fool he had been in rejecting her love. He pleads with her, entreats her to leave the Prince and run away with him.

Tatiana is now much more worldly and wiser. She replies: No, Onegin. I once loved you. I still do. But the Prince is a good man. He has offered me his love and given me a place in society. I shall be faithful to him. I shall never leave him.

Tatiana lives in a novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin and in an opera by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Renee Fleming is a great Tatiana and sings it beautifully in Russian. She gives an outstanding performance in the final long scene of renunciation.

The Power of Music





A news snippet caught my attention…Somewhere in South Africa, baroque music was being played in a vineyard and was credited with stimulating the production and improving the quality of the wine. I had heard of cows giving more milk and hens laying bigger eggs when they were serenaded, but unlike grapes, they have ears. Also why baroque music and not Strauss waltzes or Gregorian Chants? I was puzzled and decided to do a little googling. It turns out that it is not at all unusual to play music in vineyards for better quality wine. It has to do with vibrations and low frequencies. Loudness does not matter but it seems that plants do not like rock .

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted tree” (William Congreve, 1697). Orpheus, it was said, could charm animals with his singing. The Pied Piper lured children with the magic of his instrument and don’t snake charmers control serpents with their flutes?

In “The Magic Flute” Pamino calls Tamina with his flute and Papageno pacifies wild animals with his glockenspiel. It also summons his bride Papagena to his side.

Do animals make music or feel its effects? Maybe their elaborate courtship rituals are accompanied by some melodic sounds. When we say that birds sing, is that what they really do? When dogs howl together are they performing in a choir? In laboratories it was found that rats did better and were faster after listening to Mozart. Pet owners know that their cats and dogs react to music. It sometimes agitates and sometimes calms them. But they are not really wired to appreciate sounds tailored to human ears. What strikes us as unpleasant or shrill may be music to them.

Researchers have found that music stimulates the brain and some are attempting to ascertain whether music can overcome depression or help people with Alzheimer’s since it can reach areas that words do not penetrate. Some melodies have traveled from so far away and so long ago that when we hear them we sometimes think we recognize them in a sort of ancestral memory.

In Robert Browning’s words: Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once.

Some Thoughts About Hair

Hairdress girl head4

Why are religions so concerned with hair?

Devout Muslims grow beards even though it is not specifically mentioned in the Koran and Arab women cover their hair at the onset of puberty. Religion commands Jewish men not to cut the hair on the side of the head, hence the dreadlocks called payot sported by the ultra-Orthodox. Pious Jewish women cover their heads or wear wigs over their own hair. They are not supposed to be attractive to men other than their husbands. In the Catholic Church, men and women have their hair cut when they enter a monastery or convent. For men it is a tonsure and women also cover their hair with a wimple. Apparently hair is associated with eroticism and sexuality and so has to be left behind when you devote your life to God .

I remember the movie “A Nun’s Story” where Audrey Hepburn’s long hair is savaged and falls slowly to the floor. I was thinking: Why must one abandon beauty in order to tend to the lepers in the Congo? Hair makes a huge difference to one’s appearance. In another film Cate Blanchette shaves her head and wears men clothes as a disguise because she is on the run for a crime. She is immediately unrecognizable.

For two centuries, royals and nobles wore elaborate powdered wigs which became a status symbol. But actually it was to hide the ravages to their own hair caused by poor hygiene and various illnesses. This custom was thrown out, as so many other traditions during the French Revolution.

The word “hair” is usually a plural in other languages, presumably because one has more than one hair on one’s head:

Les cheveux in French
Volossy in Russian
Saarot in Hebrew.
Capelli in Italian

The word for “hairdresser” also has a funny journey emigrating from one language to another:
In Russian it is “parikmacher” which comes from the German and means wig maker. The Germans however no longer use it. They have imported the word “Friseur” from the French where it meant “one who curls your hair”. The English word “barber” comes from the French word barbe which means beard. But the French now say “coiffeur”.

You may have heard that Man is the only animal who empathizes, mourns, reasons, experiences consciousness, makes tools etc. It turns out that other animals do these things too, but there is one area at least where man is still distinct from beast:

Man is the only animal who wears clothes because his body is no longer covered with hair.

Artist at work

Cartoons: A Laughing Matter?

Plastic surgeon to patient: Why would you want a new face? You look just fine.

Patient: I am the guy who drew the Muhammad cartoons.

In 2005, a Danish paper published 12 cartoon caricatures of the prophet Muhammad which were quickly reproduced around the globe. Violent protests erupted; cartoonists received death threats; offices of newspapers were attacked. The Great Mosque of Paris sued but did not prevail.

If you are a cartoonist for the New Yorker, your greatest fear might be that of rejection. In other parts of the world, the fear of losing your job, your freedom or even your life is very real. There is no liberty of expression in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia or even Tunisia where Islam cannot be attacked with impunity. Still cartoonists continue to take risks every time their irreverent pens put them in direct conflict with the objects of their defiant wit.

The Association “Reporters without Borders” was created to promote freedom of the press and has often taken aim at such retribution. Continue reading

Naming Names-Downton Abbey and Beyond

This is not scholarship, but rather some random thoughts that invade my brain as I am watching television. In Downton Abbey, the “upstairs” people are known by their first names: Lady Mary, Lady Edith etc. Downstairs, the male servants are referred to by last names (Bates, Carson) and by first name if they are women (Daisy, Ivy, Anna) except for the cook who is known as Mrs. Patmore.

(Does anyone know the whereabouts of Mr. Patmore?)

I also watch figure skating and notice in Asian countries people are called by their surname followed by their first name: Kim, Yu-Nah, Chen, Lu. I suppose that in these cultures you are a member of the Kim or Chen families first and an individual second. Continue reading