Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Celebrating Five Years of Same Sex Marriages in Iowa

This map is slightly behind the times, but I still love it. The federal district courts are starting to play havoc with states where the legislative agenda would never allow this to happen (Utah, did you see that coming?), but in any case, it has been an eventful five years since the first couples in Iowa who share not just love but also a gender could become not just happily but also legally married.

In many ways the title says it all--at this point marriage equality is becoming a part of the fabric of the state, and remarkably, the same thing is happening in almost domino like fashion around the country.  When talking about change within an organization it is said that when 15% of the workplace share something--a race, a gender, an idea for change, whatever it might be--that then they have the power to be heard.  Since 2009 marriage equality has been legalized in enough states that it has the power to be heard.  Unfortunately, the South is nowhere to be found in thiscascadeof change.  They remain first in poverty and last in civil rights.  The only hope is that companies in the future will seek out states where civil rights are clebrated rather than reviled.  I also hope that the reprisals against judges who uphold constitutional rights are not successful in the future.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Once again this semester I find myself reading a book that I have read twice before, and once again I see that I am approaching the book in a way that I had not previously.  Part of it is the familiarity with the story that I have, which allows me to notice other details in a light that I hadn't previously and to think about characters in a different light, knowing what is to come.  The other influence for me was the 2013 movie with Leonardo Dicaprio portraying a strikingly different interpretation of Gatsby from that of Robert Redford's.  Di Caprio's Gatsby is clearly a gangster who is depserately clinging to his ill gotten gains because they are what allow him to compete for Daisy's affection.  Without them he is nothing--both in her eyes and in his own, but the fear that he will lose them both--Daisy and the money--makes him irritable and edgy.  His final act of protecting Daisy makes his life and his death all the more tragic.

This time around I noticed immediately the significance of the opening lines, where Nick quotes his father who said that you have to be generous with people because not everyone had the same advantages in life.  Then the book launches into a character assault on Tom Buchanan, a man who has had every adavantage in life--tremendous family wealth, a Yale education, athletic prowess to name a few--and yet he has squandered it.  He is painted as the villain whereas Gatsby is the anti-hero. 

I wish that I could say that I will take this lesson learned and go back to read some of the classics from my youth to see if I find them altogether different, but somehow I doubt it. There is so much that I have never read and so little that I get read that I just don't see it happening in the near future.  But it would be a great idea.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Donald Sterling Isn't Very--But Then, It Isn't Actually His Name Either

I really have nothing to say that isn't obvious and doesn't go without saying, but I am so incensed that I feel compelled to say it anyway.  First of all, if Donald Sterling doesn't bring any black people to the game, there is no game.  He has no team.  So he is both a racist and not very bright.  Or maybe, at 81, he is cognitively impaired and disinhibited.  Or intoxicated.  Or does this reflect the trend of open disdain that the super rich feel for those who are not? Whatever the reason, may he reap what he sowed.  Sell the Clippers, change Sterling back to it's original Tokowitz, and get out of LA, a city known for its multiethnic culture.

The New York Times today reports that Sterling is well known for his racial intolerance.  In 2009, Sterling paid a $2.725 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department accusing him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.  He has been sued by two former coaches, one of whom declared that Sterling strived for a "Southern plantation style" organization. 

In the 21st century, where everyone's phone is a video recorder and there is a 24/7 news cycle to fill, you have to know that what you say publicly is just that.  Public information.  You have no expectation of privacy in a basketball arena even if you feel that you own the place.  The man is an attorney, after all.  No excuses to be had, and no excuses for being bad.

The worst part is that I am not impressed with professional sports holding players responsible for their actions, so I am not holding my breath that there will be any higher standard for the owners, but here's to hoping that I am wrong, wrong, wrong about that.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Berber Rugs

The Berber people have been weaving rugs since the Paleolithic era and that tradition continues to this day--the rugs are made largely for personal use, but also for sale. 

Morocco's history, and the story of Moroccan weaving begins with the Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa who had inhabited Morocco for centuries before the first Arab invasion in the seventh century. Today, the major weaving groups of the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountains are Berber tribes, many of whom still live much as they did centuries earlier.
There are around forty-five different tribal groups, each of which has distinctive designs and sometimes varying weaving and embroidery styles.  While remarkably diverse, Moroccan flatwoven and knotted pile rugs are almost without exception bold in color and lively in pattern. Designs are made up of geometric motifs arranged in seemingly endless variations. Each tribe has its own distinct repertoire of designs and colors significant to the ceremonial and day to day life of the group. These same patterns can be seen in the art forms relating to other areas of tribal life such as in ceramics, architectural decoration, and tattoos worn by Berber women. Although a weaver draws from the vocabulary of designs particular to her tribe, she works at her loom without a diagram or pattern to guide her. As a result, each rug is a unique creation, a celebration both of her tribal identity and her own artistic imagination.

The rugs pictured above have been washed with water and are drying in the sun--they are stunning to look at, and wonderful to walk on.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1599)

Two of my four sons read Hamlet this semester, so I too returned to the play.  The last time that I read it we watched all the readily available film productions at the time, and I was struck by two things.  The first was the depiction of Hamlet's state of mind--mad or not mad, that is the question?  The second was that they all omitted scenes.  'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' was eye opening because their scenes get eliminated routinely, and without having read the play recently you might miss that (I know that I did).

This time around the first act struck me.  Hamlet is by all accounts taking the death of his father very hard, and then his mother, Gertrude, marries his father's brother, Claudius, who becomes king. I am exceptionally poorly schooled in royal ascention, but suffice is to say that the Scandanavian countries shared kings at various times in the centuries leading up to the time of Hamlet, and Denmark had a charter (a sort of constitution along the lines of the Magna Carta) and kingships were appointed rather than inherited.  Hamlet is morose and it could be solely because of his father's death and it could be over the whole family situation.  When he hears the ghost of his father tell him  that Claudius and Gertrude colluded to poison him and requires that Hamlet avenge his death his behavior becomes noticably more erratic.  Crazy or crazy like a fox, that is the question.  Also, did the ghost appear to Hamlet or was it his imagination?  Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo also caught glimpses of the ghost on more that one occasion, but after Hamlet's encounter we don't hear from it again--a clue about how to exact revenge would have been useful, especially as Hamlet does a very poor job of it when all is said and done.  The older I get the more Shakespearean tragedies seem to be about parents screwing up the lives of their children.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Rome--The Series (2005-2007)

This series is great, and it represents the convergence of two things that were working for my youngest son this semester--the saw the first episode in his class on Film Sounds of the Past.  Another of his classes is about the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Republic, which is right about where this movie starts  (ok, it actually starts with the rivalry between Sulla and Marius, which predates Julius Caesar, but not by a long shot.  Caesar was a young soldier at the peak of their power struggle).

The series opens with the end of the Gallic Wars.  Caesar and his men have been in France for 7 years and they are about to ride into Rome victorious.  The first season covers the reign of Caesar, up to his death at the hands of Brutus and Cassius.  There are a few details that do not quite match what the historians say (which is apparently why historians hate historical films--they would rather that people remain completely ignorant rather than that they learn a largely realistic rendition of what happened.  Weird.  Because the more people crave history, the more historians we will need, and not all historians can agree, so why be so uptight about it?  Well, it is posited that they are).  The second season delves into the struggle for power that happens after Caesar's death and ends with Mark Anthony and Cleopatra's suicide and Octavian beginning a long and stable reign in Rome.  Since we have four more emperors to study, we are sad to see the series ended, and that we are left to learn history without visual aids.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reflections on Earth Day

I have sifted through all the postings of my friends for Earth Day this week, and there are some remarkably beautiful pictures of profound natural beauty on our amazing planet.  That is my usual approach to the remembrance day as well, to focus on the grandeur that is ours.  But not this year. 

This year I am using the post from my friend David Grinspoon, the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology chair and all around well educated schience guy.  I have always said that the truth is stranger than fiction--as a psychiatrist, I have reason to know that humans often do things that make no sense.  But as conspiracy theories go, does this particular one ring true?  Not for me, because the incedulous things that people do that are hard to beleive are against their own self interests--that is what makes them sound fictional.  In this case, the entities that directly profit from business as usual are the ones who are climate change deniers.  Already we are past the point to respond, so we are reaping the consequences of inaction and will continue to do so for the forseeable future, while these guys are most likely busily buying up water rights around the world.

I just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book that focuses in part on the role that progressive journalists played in unmasking the corporate corruption at the beginning of the 20th century that led to profound differences between the rich and the poor.  They mobilized public opinion for change that mattered.  Who are the Ida Tarbells and Sam McClures of our age?  We need them ASAP.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Fes Medina, Morocco

The medina in Fes has two areas--a 9th century area and a 14th century area. The old part is entered through these magnificent blue gates.
The other side of the gate is done in green tiles.  Why?  Blue is the color of Fes and green is the color of Islam and of peace.  It is a wonderful way to start an adventure in the narrow crowded medina, which houses thousands of people as well as hundreds of businesses.  Our guide told us that if we got separated from the group that we were to stand still.  They would find us.  If we kept moving it would be impossible to decipher where we might end up and we would be on our own.  "Does everyone have cab fare and the name of the hotel?"

This is the clock house, which is where Maimonides lived when he was a student in Fes after fleeing his home in Cordoba after the Spanish Inquisition.  It is just one of many cool architectural structures that the Fes medina contains. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Frozen (2013)

This movie won best Animated Film for 2013 and the song 'Let it Go' won best song.  In addition, I heard all sorts of film people talk about just how fabulous this movie was, I real return to the old halcyon days of Disney animation with a strong plot and music that supported the plot and propelled it forward.

I heard the song writers, Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez talk with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and I really liked them.  They were writing songs that break free of the princess waiting to be rescued by a prince and into the realm of controlling your own destiny.  Bobby did songs for 'The Book of Mormon', so they are not mono dimensional composers, and they had a good sense of humor about the whole Oscar event, describing in hilarious detail what it is like to be walking behind a big name star on the red carpet, like Sandra Bullock, and when she stops at the appointed 'X' stops the cameras  are going crazy for her, and then you stop, and one guy takes pity on you and clicks one photo.

The problem I had with the movie was the parents.  They have a daughter who has special winterizing talents which she is ill equipped to control and one night while playing with her sister, she almost gets her killed.  So the parents decide that the family should hide themselves away from the world and that the sisters should have no contact with each other.  Not a very empowering approach to a problem, and not one that teaches the sisters how to deal with life once their parents die.  So as a parent I thought it was a terrible story, and even good music and an exotic setting could rescue it for me.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

When I turned 50 and started realizing that I had been out of school for a very long time indeed and that it might be prudent to do something about my education that went beyond reading the paper and a good magazine or two, I started to pick up non-fiction books, mostly things that were recommended by people who actually like non-fiction.  In the handful of years since that started, the one person I have read more about than anyone else is Teddy Roosevelt.  But this book is not so much about him but about his role in the time that he lived.

The subtitle of the book is 'Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism'.  I knew little about Taft and absolutely nothing about the journalists that wrote at the time they were rising to their respective golden ages, and it is a very good story that is well told here. The thing that is best about the book is that it reminds the reader that there was a time in the not so distant past that public opinion about social injustices perpetrated by companies who owned politicians could change the way those industries wer regulated.  The change agent in Roosevelt and Taft's time was a combination of the President and investigative journalists.  The catuionary tale here is that it appears that the hey day of investigative journalism is well behind us.  The advent of the internet and with it people who write content at no charge has led to the decline of people who write content for a living, and those are the people we need on the job in order to uncover irregularites.  Now that the Supreme Court has lifted any cap on how much a company can openly contribute to a Congressional candidate (not to mention what they get behind closed doors), we are going to need investigations into accountability.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Rabat Medina. Morocco

Rabat was the first city in Morocco where I entered a medina--I was ill prepared for the onslaught of people aggressively selling goods to me, and our guide had failed to share his approach to successfully warding them off.

I got sucker punched right away--a woman grabbed my hand and started to apply an intricate henna design to it.  I was not mean enough to rip it my hand out of hers.  I say this as a failing--I should have been offended by the invasion of my personal space, but I was at once hesitant to respond and I was moderately fascinated with what she was doing, the design on my left hand emerging quickly despite all the yelling and pulling and denying that I wanted it done.  The upside was that the design came out well and lasted throughout my entire trip, and in the end I actually liked it.  Something to put on my to do list--learn to do henna designs that are beautiful.  Much later in the trip I saw some far more talented artists on the streets of Casablanca, which is where I should go in Morocco for such instruction.

The medina in Rabat is distinctive for the whitewashed walls and the dark and light blue doors and highlights--it is a twisty, curvy, hilly part of Rabat that affords occasional glimpses of the Atlantic coast line that are breathtaking to see.  We had traditional Moroccan tea, which is hot water poured over a glass full of fresh mint, then doused in sugar or honey, and carefully imbibed while simultaneously holding the rim and the bottom of the glass. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

All is Lost (2013)

This is a very tedious movie to watch.  The whole of it revolves around one man lost at sea, and there is not much in the way of inner dialogue that goes on, so we are basically watching him as he makes choices about what to do.  The movie opens with him giving up, addressing his impending death as he has run out of food.

In a deus ex machina move quite early in the film, he comes upon a container floating in the ocean that has canned food in it, and so his death is at least postponed.  He patches his ship's hull, he eats freely, and he attempts to repari his communication equipment.  He gets maps out and studies them, even using instruments, but there is little progress there.  Then there are a couple of near misses (or hits, in his case) where boats come within eyesight of him and fail to see him--despite his flare, they sail on by, and while he doesn't have much in the way of dialogue, you can see the deflation of hope for survival.  Then comes the storm, where he is forced to abandon ship and take up life in what appears to be a very well constructed and equipped life raft (having been on a number of evacuation vehicles on my trip to Antarctica, my main thought was that I hoped to God we never had to live out of them, because they did not seem all that well designed.  And they were woefully understocked with both sea sick pills and aspirin).  It all comes to a somewhat anticlimactic end, reinforcing the fact that one never wants to be lost at sea.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dirty Love by Andres Dubus III

No kidding, dirty love.  This book consists of 4 linked novellas and a story of love is not to be found amongst them.  What makes the book well worth reading is the straight forward crisp writing style and the unflinching look at the blemishes that each of the depicted relationships encompass.

One story is about love gone awry.  The wife has been caught cheating on her husband with a married man, and she is really not sure that she wants to stop the affair.  It drives me crazy when men walk away from their homes in these situations--she is the one who is eating her cake and having it too (there is a pun in here that I will not explain).  She should leave.  Falling out of love or chasing an ephemeral idea of love is one thing, but don't expect to keep everything you like about your current life.  Not okay.  I don't like the man in this story, but I like his wife a whole lot less.

One story is about the real issues related with living with someone else--do you love them, or is the sex good and the rest of the relationship drives you a little crazy?  There are aspects that I think everyone can relate to, although I went from living with tons of people in college to living with just my spouse, so it actually seemed kind of quiet and easier, so in some ways I don't really relate, but it is a very well told tale.

The other two are more about the beach and bar community that defines the north of Boston coastal towns; the in and out of bed casual relationships that develop in that sort of environment, and how some people really do not quite get to the grown up part of their lives when they live there.  This is a quick read with a lot of truths in it and something for everyone to think about.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Volubilis, Morroco

The Romans were everywhere around the Mediterranean, and they were not shy about building things whereever they went, and Morocco is no exception.  These 2,000 year old ruins are amongst the oldest things still standing in Morocco, but apparently not many tourists venture here, so consider a side trip here if you are in either Fes or Rabat. 

This city of 20,000 was the westernmost extremity of an empire that once stretched to the gates of Persia. The sprawling floor plans of its buildings and brilliant and numerous floor mosaics suggest great wealth.

The site is dominated by the remains of the grand public buildings around the forum, with the impressive arches of the Basilica courthouse arrayed in front of pillars of the temple to the god Jupiter – now topped by bushy stork nests. Every old ruin in Morocco appears to host its own of population of the large black and white birds, which soar over the sites or preen in their nests as tourists snap away with cameras.  When they start clacking their beaks in chorus, it sends an eerie chattering noise across the ancient stones.

Emperor Caracalla, who bestowed citizenship on the empire's inhabitants in A.D. 212, marks the beginning of the city's main street, with houses with gorgeous mosaic floors.  For those used to seeing such mosaics painstakingly wrought out of tiny colored stones in museums, it is a surprise to see them set in the ground marked off by little more than a moldy barrier of rope.  In one massive floor mosaic, Orpheus charms wild animals with his harp while in another room, dolphins frolic through the waves of what must have been the bathroom.

Greek myths predominate as subject matter. In one villa, licentious nymphs carry off the handsome Hylas, son of Hercules, who looks shocked.  In another, the hunter Acteon surprises the goddess Diana bathing – an unfortunate story that ends with Diana turning the hapless interloper into a stag to be torn apart by his own dogs.  Depictions of Greek and Roman gods of wine, Dionysius and Bacchus, are everywhere, suggesting the inhabitants liked their grape. Nearby Meknes remains the center of Morocco's wine production.  Other mosaics depict geometric patterns that are repeated in the Berber rugs that can be bought in nearby mountain villages.  The quality of work attests to the wealth of the town, which came from olive orchards and wheat fields that fill the valley around the ruin.

The city's other main export was wild animals, including lions, jaguars and bears that went to fight and die in Rome's colosseum. Within just 200 years, the beast population in the area was devastated and indigenous species like the Barbary Lion and Atlas Bear had all but ceased to exist.

Volubilis was once the capital of Berber king Juba II, who was raised in Rome and went on to marry the daughter of doomed lovers, Anthony and Cleopatra. After his successor Ptolemy was murdered by the unstable Emperor Caligula for the crime of wearing too beautiful a robe, Morocco was made into the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitania in A.D. 40.  The site continued to be inhabited even after the embattled empire pulled out its legions 240 years later, and was reported to still be speaking Latin when the Arabs arrived in the eighth century.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Gravity (2013)

Once again, I am not with the masses on a movie. One of my kids pointed out that I did not smoke any pot before I saw the movie, and I did not go to see it is a 3-D theater.  That is true and true.  Either or both might have helped, but neither is on my movie going agenda.  It did make me I wonder how many people who voted for it were in either of those two states.

'Gravity' is visually stunning in an other worldly slow moving sense.  The scenes of two astronauts out in space, dodging debris and calmly fixing something broken while floating in a zero gravity atmosphere is both serene and surreal.  That was cool.  If it had lasted for 1/2 an hour I would probably have loved it.  Sandra Bullock is in incredible physical shape, period, and when you consider her age, it is astounding.  She floats around in very little clothing, and if I found that more entertaining it might also have helped.

I do love the work of Alfonzo Cuaron.  'Y Tu Mama Tambien' and 'The Children of Men' are incredibly different and visually striking, which this movie shares.  It just failed to hold my attention for the 90 minutes required to get to the end.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

China in 10 Words by Yu Hua (2011)

In preparation for my upcoming trip to China, I am trying to do some reading that gives me a flavor of what this most populous and ancient nation is all about.  I read Hua's book "To Live" and I have seen the movie adaptation starring Gong Li, so I came to the book knowing something about the author.  He is not a man to mince words.  He has grown up in Mao's China and he continues to live in Beijing, so he offers an unflinching and intelligent account of how his country has changed over the past 40 plus years,a s well as an approach for a foreigner about how to try to attain cultural competence.

The ten words are as follows:
  1. People
  2. Leader
  3. Reading
  4. Writing
  5. Lu Xun
  6. Revolution
  7. Disparity
  8. Grassroots
  9. Copycat
  10. Bamboozle
It is a fascinating blend of memoir and insight. The chapter on revolution is personal, and very much like other accounts of what childhood during Ma's regime was like ('The Girl with the Red Scarf' is my favorite version).  Reading and writing are also personal, but illustrative.  I knew nothing about Lu Xun, and the ubiquity of his writing and no one else's during the Cultural Revolution, so very enlightening.  The chapters on people, leaders, and grassroots are wonderful, but the very best chapters are copycat, bamboozle and disparity.  I have new eyes on China.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Percy Julian, Chemist Extraordinaire

Hooray for Google--they taught me something.  Percy Lavon Julian was an amazing man who was born in April (1899) and died in April (1975), so it only seems right that he should be celebrated in April.

Here is what he did that was revolutionary in his lifetime and still relevant today.  The first thing that he did of note was to isolate medications with clinical value  from naturally occurring plants.  In the 1930's he isolated phisostigmine (a treatment for glaucoma) and went on to identify plant based options for the manufacuter of progesterone and testosterone. 

In 1948, the Mayo Clinic announced the discovery of a compound that relieved rheumatoid arthritis. It was cortisone, very difficult to come by. Julian and his team created a synthetic cortisone substitute in 1949 which was radically less expensive but just as effective. Natural cortisone had to be extracted from the adrenal glands of oxen and cost hundreds of dollars per drop; Julian's synthetic cortisone was only pennies per ounce. 

These compounds are all widely in use decades later--when Julian died he was the author of 130 patents and could say that he had made the lives of millions of people better through his discoveries in the lab.  The fact that he was born in the American South at a time when an African American man could not obtain an education beyond the 8th grade makes his story all the more remarkable.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Delivery Man (2013)

Vince Vaughn is one of the few actors that could pull this plot line off.  The story is that when he was a young man, he sought a way to earn enough money over a short period of time to bank roll a trip to Italy for his entire family.  His parents had planned to honeymoon in Venice, but not only were they not able to afford it when they were married, but it wasn't until his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness that they attempted to remedy that oversight.  So how did he do it?  He made almost 700 sperm donations, that is how.

So now, years later, he comes to find out that he has fathered almost 600 children--who have filed a class action suit to reveal his identity.  Simultaneous with this his girlfriend discovers that she is pregnant and he is under close scrutiny as to his ability to be a functional father to his most recent child.  Up to this point, he has not really contemplated fatherhood, and suddenly he is overwhelmed with a bevy of young adults, as well as the task of convincing his girlfriend to allow him to participate in the raising of the current baby, all the while trying to preserve his anonymity.

His response to all the stress is to 'accidentally' meet some of his biological children--what he discovers is that he is really interested in them, he is surprised by the diversity of who they are and the talents that they have, and he wants to be involved with them.  He becomes particularly fond of a son who is severely disabled, and in the guise of his 'adoptive' father, he goes to a meeting of the larger group, and suggests that even without a father, they are all half siblings and should have a relationship with each other.  It is a very funny idea for a story that is as well carried off as possible.  Not too deep, but I found it diversionary.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilgman

The novel is set on Maryland's Eastern Shore, more specifically on a farm that's been in Tilghman's family since 1657 where he's been going since he was a child. It's a landscape to which he keeps returning– or perhaps can't escape– with this prequel to his 1996 book, 'Mason's Retreat'.  I didn't realize that there was a personal connection to the house and the property when I read the first book, but it makes sense--the obsession with the land is something that the author and his characters share.  My husband has a much shorter time on American soil, but we have a house that falls into that kind of category--where what would make sense to do is to tear the whole thing down, but that is not what is going to happne because it means more than the sum of it's parts.

The story is set on the eve of the Civil War, and the house's slaves have all been freed, left to manage on their own rather than freed with jobs, homes and skills.  The house is habited by a family that is dysfunctional--the wife shuns her son and takes off to Europe with her daughter, leaving the father to raise and educate the son.  He does so with a brilliant young black boy, and thereby sets in motion a series of potential and real disasters by virtue of his good intentions.  The realtionships between former slaves and their former owners ring true and the book is well written with a story that has some good, some bad, and some ugly parts.  Highly recommended.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Meknes, Morroco

Meknes is an ancient city, founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement.  It is one of a number of cities in Morocco that are UNESCO World Heritage sites.  I began my recent trip to Morocco on the eve of Purim, and so the second day entailed a trip to Meknes for a very swift and entertaining reading of the Megillah by a member of the Jewish community there.  The sanctuary was nothing special, but it always causes pause when I see an ark with the Torah in it in my travels around the world.  Jews have inhabited Morocco for longer than Islam has existed, and while in the post WWII world, where Israel is an option for every Arab Jew, it is very nice to be in a synagogue.

The Historic City of Meknes represents in an exceptionally complete and well-preserved way the urban fabric and monumental buildings of a 17th century Maghreb capital city combining elements of Islamic and European design and planning in a harmonious fashion. It has exerted a considerable influence on the development of civil and military architecture (kasbah ) and works of art. It also contains the remains of the royal city founded by Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727). The presence of these rare remains within a historic town that is in turn located within a rapidly changing urban environment gives Meknes its universal value.

The name Meknes goes back to the Meknassa, the great Berber tribe that dominated eastern Morocco as far back as the Tafilliet and which produced Moulay Idriss I, founder of the Moroccan state and the Idrissid dynasty in the 8th century AD.

The Almoravid rulers (1053-1147) made a practice of building strongholds for storing food and arms for their troops; this was introduced by Youssef Ben Tachafine, the founder of Marrakesh. Meknes was established in this period. The earliest part to be settled was around the Nejjarine Mosque, an Almoravid foundation. Markets congregated around the mosque, specializing in firearms, woodwork and metal products. Like other settlements of the time, Meknes was not fortified: walls were not added until the end of the Almoravid period.

Behind the high defensive walls, pierced by nine monumental gates, are key monuments including twenty-five mosques, ten hammams, palaces, vast graneries, vestiges of fondouks (inns for merchants) and private houses, testimonies to the Almoravid, Merinid and Alaouite Periods.  Meknès is distinctive by the monumental and voluminous aspect of its ramparts reaching 15 metres in height.  It is considered as an exemplary testimony of the fortified towns of the Maghreb. It is a property representing a remarkably complete urban and architectural structure of a North African capital of the 17th century, harmoniously combining Islamic and European conceptual and planning elements. Endowed with a princely urbanism, the Historic City of Meknes also illustrates the specificities of earthen architecture (cobwork) of sub-Saharan towns of the Maghreb.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

This is an authorized biopic that faithfully walks through Mandela's life until his ascension to running the whole country.  The movie opens with childhood, so as you might imagine, it is a lengthy movie. Elba does not look much like Mandela, but his voicing of the character is spot on.

The young Mandela enjoys a traditional tribal upbringing in rural Xhosa before settling down to life as a firebrand lawyer. It doesn’t take long beside the inequities of South Africa’s apartheid system serve to radicalise Mandela (Idris Elba).  The movie goes on to give a clear, strong narrative of Mandela's life, showing the burly young trial lawyer and amateur boxer joining the ANC to fight apartheid and police brutality, getting radicalised by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, passionately leading an armed struggle and then once in prison transforming his anguish and rage into a Zen mastery of exile. He disarms his guards with a politician's knack of remembering their children's names and birthdays. His very retreat from the world gradually feeds his prestige and once free he is able to bring off a remarkable new metamorphosis into South African president and inspirational world leader.

Idris Elba conveys as much as any actor could of the enigma of Mandela's long experience in prison: it is a performance of sensitivity and force: his impersonation of the walking, talking Mandela is sharply observed, though it isn't just mimicry, and Naomie Harris is very good as Winnie, who (mostly) outside prison did not have the luxury of saintly inactivity and had to do what she saw as the dirty work of getting violent with the ANC's enemies and also with those traitors on her own team. It is a thoroughly well-managed movie, although it sees events purely in South African terms: it steers clear, for example, of the fact that US intelligence forces helped the 1960s South African government to arrest Mandela in 1962 and a lot of the out-of-prison activities that were going on--but the central character is Mandela himself, and it fulfills that mission nicely, and it came out just before Mandela's death.  A fair and fitting tribute to a remarkable man.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The book follows a group of friends who first meet at a summer camp called Spirit-of-the Woods designed for high school teens with promise in the arts--so a nerdy enough slice of people that you might continue to be friends well into the future.  The book covers the life of it's central characters from age fifteen until they are well into middle age.  They have relationships, careers, children, successes and failures along the way.

The cast of characters which numbers six in total includes Jules, who was an aspiring actress at 15 who switches to social work when her acting teacher asks her one day why she is bothering with lessons, that she has no passion or talent for the stage.  She has a friendship with Ethan, a talented cartoonist who has been imagining his animated alter ego since he was in diapers.  They veer towards romance but never quite achieve it and remain friends.  Jules has a brief affair with Josh, who later comes out, and Ethan goes on to have a love affair with Ash, who is also a great friend of Jules.  Ash's brother Goodman and his girlfriend Cathy round out the group.

The first fracture occurs when Cathy accuses Goodman of raping her one night long after they have broken up but they are out on a sort of date with each other anyway.  Goodman denies it, but then flees the country before the trial, and the group essentially ends up siding with Goodman, despite his potential guilt and Cathy is more or less out of the picture.  The remaining four are friends well into adulthood, with the book largely focusing on the inner life of Jules and how everyone else more or less relates to her.

The second tension is that Ethan makes it big, really big, and has more money than any of the rest of them can imagine.  It is the book version of 'Friends with Money' except that Ethan gets that no one can afford his lifestyle and bankrolls their relationship--with no strings attached and minimal hard feelings on the part of everyone else.  That is the first stretch of the imagination the book requires, but it is well written with a lot to say about what exactly friendship is and how to maintain it over a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tagines, Olives, and Spices--The Moroccan Food Experience

My SIL looked at me askance once when I asked about the food where they were headed on vacation.  They were making a return trip to a place that I find a bit unappetizing from a culinary perspective and for the life of me I could not figure out why they would go back.  She, on the other hand, could not understand why that would be such a priority.  This perhaps explains why she is a vegan marathon runner who travels to compete, and I am an overweight middle aged woman. I do love to walk for miles and miles in cities across the globe but I would never consider entering a competition in any of them--neither intellectual nor physical!  When I was a high school and college athlete, I loved the training but really loathed the competition.  The food is where it is at for me.  I've walked miles for a good meal.

A culinary vacation is my preference.  It is not a necessity (at least for a first go round in a country) but it is certainly a plus.  With that focus, Morocco is a paradise.  The olives are amongst the best that I have ever had (it is probably just as well from a salt load standpoint that I was only there a couple of weeks!) and I indulged at least twice a day.  Fortunately for me when one sits down at a Moroccan restaurant, the bread and olives come right away--they agree, no one should have a meal without them.

The second thing that is fantastic are the many varied slow cooked dishes that a wonderfully spiced, with layers of complexity in flavor and fall apart meat and delicious fruit to accompany vegetables and cous cous.  I had Moroccan food everyday and was ready to cook more when I returned home.  It was fantastic.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Catching Fire (2013)

This suffers from middle book syndrome (which is much like middle child syndrome in that it is struggling to keep up with it's older sibling, but has a much less well defined purpose).  With that in mind--that there is not a satisfying ending and that everyone knows there will be a third installment, the movie is a competent follow up to the first one (which I thought was spectacular, especially when you consider that it is focused on a group of teenagers who are out to kill each other in a state sanctioned tournament.  The minor miracle is that you could emerge with any sympathy at all for the victors, which is what happens).

Katniss Everdeen is a heroine in her own time.  She tries to shun the lime light, but her ability to retain what was good in herself all the while outfoxing the leaders of her dystopian world has become the fuel that sets off a revolution.  President Snow (played to evil perfection by Donald Sutherland) is baffled by her popularity and attempts to kill her off in yet another tournament, misunderstanding that whatever the outcome, she would be the victor.  She would be a symbol for the revolution, whether as a martyr or a reluctant leader.  Jennifer Lawrence has done a lot of work between the first and second Hunger Games movie, but she manages to pull her role off here beautifully, the center of attention in a frightening tale of what can go wrong with dictators.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chellah, Rabat, Morocco

Chellah is a ruin that is very near Rabat and a gorgeous place.  Do not miss it when you are in the neighborhood.
Chellah was the site of ancient Roman city named Sala Colonia, as evidenced by a few key Roman architectural elements. Before the Romans took reign of the area in 40 AD, the Phoenicians were believed to have inhabited the banks above Bou Regreg river.

In the 12th century, the Romans left the city and moved to Salé.   But Chellah was resettled and re purposed as an Islamic site in the 14th century by Abu I-Hasan, a Merinid.  In order to get it into shape for Muslims, they needed to build a mosque, a zawiya, and a sacred burial area.
The site was badly damaged in the Lisbon earthquake.  The site is home to not just tourists and gardens, but to an entire rookery of storks, many of whom were rearing young in nests atop the ruins.

There are two things that I learned early on in my trip to Morocco (and Chellah was one of my first stops)--the building style has lasted 1000 years and is still quite beautiful, even when in ruins.  The Moorish arches are ubiquitous and quite attractive,a nd the tile work is phenomenal--all of that can be seen in Southern Spain as well, although not with the density that Morocco accomplished.  The addition to the landscape that I love is the painted woodwork.  I love the designs and I love the whole "no inch left untouched by an artist's hand' approach to decorating.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Nabisco Warms the Heart with Wholesomeness

If you haven't seen this video yet, please watch it.  Such a nice touch.

Nabisco made a commercial for Honey Grahams that featured wholesome families with parents and children that raised some eyebrows amongst those who have ancient definitions of what both 'wholesome' and family' might be defined as.  They are not the first to do this (I still love the JC Penney ad with two dads that came out for Father's Day--they will be forever endeared to me for doing so--it should not be a bold step, it should be a normal one, but someone has to do it first for the path to unremarkable to be begun, and they did a beautiful job of it), but they did it and I give them a round of applause for it.

When the mail started pouring in, some of it was hateful.  So what did they do?  They turned the other cheek.  They made the hate into something to celebrate; they made it into love.

The first thing that I love about this is that corporations are taking stands on civil rights issues, and that means that it is good business to do so, and that is what we as a nation need in order to have marriage equality throughout the land.  Businesses will leave places where it doesn't exist because it doesn't make sense for them to stay.  Hallelujah!

The second is that instead of ignoring the hate or denying the hate, they embraced the hate and turned it against those who hate.  This is not about you being in a gay marriage or a mixed marriage.  You can make your own choices for yourself.  This is about everyone being able to make choices, making our nation a fair and just one.  Since the Supreme Court decision this past week gave people with money the opportunity to buy the government, it is more important than ever that people who don't have a lot of money to buy influence use what they have to support things that they believe in.  Oh, and do not forget to vote.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Enough Said (2013)

Wow, I really really liked this movie, and I may be in very slim company, but I have not watched The Sopranos, and was not a big James Gandolphino fan.  His sudden death at age 51 last summer was startling to me, but more because he was younger than I am than that I would miss him as an actor.  So the sob factor does not play into my enjoyment of the movie.  For example, at the end of the movie when it said 'For Jim', I didn't realize that they were referring to him.

He plays Albert, a divorced man who meets Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), also divorced, at a party.  They tentatively start to date, and build first a friendship and then the beginnings of a realtionship with each other.  Eva also meets Marianne (the ubiquitous Catherine Keener) at the same party and she becomes her client (Eva is a masseuse).  Eva really likes Albert despite the fact that he is not her dream guy, but then she discovers that the horrible ex-husband that Marianne keeps describing is in fact Albert.  And as he puts it, it poisons the well of their relationship--not only doe sshe start to respond to him differently, she keeps up both friendships without telling hte other that she knows their connection to each other.  The thing that I really like about the movie is that the dialog seems very natural and believable. Relationships are hard work, and they do not get easier as you get older.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Moroccan Medina

The ramparts of a 1,000 years ago are alive and well all over Morocco.  It is breath
taking to see them literally everywhere. 
Pictured here are the ramparts of Fes and Merakkesh.

It was the Almoravid sultan Ali ben Youssef who gave Marrakech its famous surrounding walls in 1132. Enlarged during the reign of the Almohads, then by the Saadians, these 19 km of fortifications enveloping the city are flanked by 202 square towers and endowed with nine gates. They are made of adobe, in warm colors ranging from pink to red depending on the light.  Certain sections have been well preserved, particularly near the "Hivernage", a masterly row of bastions that stretch out for nearly 1,300m without a breach and continue beyond Bab Doukkala.

Inside these fortifications lies the medina.  A medina is the old part of a town or city, found in many countries of North Africa, not just Morocco. It is typically walled, and contains narrow streets, fountains, palaces and mosques. Many medinas are car-free as there is not enough space in the alleyways for cars to pass. The word "medina" means city or town in modern-day Arabic.  Many of them have such narrow streets that motor vehicles, even scooters, are not permitted.  The first word we learned as tourists entering the medina is the word 'Balack', which means that a cart or a donkey laden with supplies is coming through and you are to immediately hug the wall or risk being bowled over.

The medinas have both commerce and residential living, and are great fun to walk through.  Some are organized by products sold and some are not, but the level of activity is astounding--and the majority of it is not from the tourists but from the natives.  The hardest part is to know where you are at any given time, and if you go with a group, stick together or you might never meet up again until back at your hotel room.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Moroccan Landscape

I spent a vacation in Morocco recently and while I did not think that it was a country that was entirely made up of sesert, I was surprised by what I saw of the landscape.  The sea coast I expected, and I also expected the abundant agriculture, if only because of what I know about traditional Moroccan cuisine--they must grow enough fruit and vegetables in order to have tagines made up of those incredients and cous cous is also traditional fare, so they must grow wheat, which they do, and rice as well.  What surprised me was the mountains--which run throughout the country and at some points they attain impressive altitude.  Mount Tobkal is almost 14,000 feet high, second on the African continent in height only to Mt. Kilaminjaro.  The Atlas mountains runs from the Atlantic coast to the Sahara Desert and are populated largely by the Berber people, the native inhabitants of Morocco. 

Let's be clear--there is a portion of the southern part of the country that is the classic Sahara Desert terrain.  Sweeping sand dunes that look all th more picturesque when there is a string of camels walking across them.  That is the part that I would love to see should I return.  There are "tent camp" experiences to be had there that I think are much like what my tent experience was in the Serneghetti--that is, luxury in the middle of nowhere.  The ability to erect a truly opulent tent goes goes at least to the Roman Republic, and is highly dependent on having a lot of man power to attend to a very few guests.  But I am no explorer, and a pampering in the desert--perhaps with the aforementioned camel ride, is something I could aspire to.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

12 Years a Slave (2013)

This film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013, and it is a very good film. It is also incredibly violent and painful to watch.  Not to mention long.  It is based on the true story written by Solomon Northrup before the Civil War about his kidnapping into slavery and his eventual freeing twelve years later.

The problem with complaining about the violence is this--no matter how you feel about the movie, no one contends that it is historically inaccurate.  Slaves were  whipped to within an inch of their lives by sadistic owners and treated even worse by field masters.  Women were repeatedly raped.  Women became concubines as a step up from the brutality of their ordinary lives.  Children were sold away from their families and the structure of slave society was such that they offered each other few comforts.  It was every man for himself.  The risk of helping others was just too great.

The depiction of life in the North for black Americans at the time was far too generous, at least to my reading of history, although  Frederick Douglass' biography notes that the fate of free black men in the North was far better than in the South, so it may not be an out and out lie. The fear that whites had about speaking out about slavery in the South is also probably historically accurate--the risks that Bass (Brad Pitt) takes in helping him obtain his freedom were very real.  The legacy of this chapter in American history are alive and well in the 21st century and while it hurts to watch this, it is 2 1/2 hours well spent.