Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Source of book: I own this.

Every March for the past 5 years, I have read a selection for Women’s History Month. I have generally chosen works connected with Feminism. Although demonized by the Cultural Fundamentalist circles I was raised in (and sadly by an increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist Evangelicalism as well), it really shouldn’t be controversial. Feminism is simply this:

The Cultural, Political, and Economic Equality of men and women.

Of course, the problem with this for many is that this idea is anathema to them. Their worldview depends on a structural inequality of the sexes, one where men control the institutions of power and the money we use as a means of exchange. In order to justify this, they cling to ideas of a congenital inferiority of women (whatever euphemisms they use to deny this), whereby women are unfit for leadership, or even control of their own lives and destinies.

Here are my selections for previous years:

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (2015)
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (2016)
Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz by Barbara Babcock (2017)


This is a book my wife suggested I read. She read it a few years back, and realized that it in many ways describes our own marriage.

The plot is pretty simple. Evangeline and Lester are the parents of three children. The family is, shall we say, deeply unhappy. Lester works in finance at a department store, and absolutely hates his job. He dropped out of college to marry Evangeline, and never did get to be the English teacher he probably should have been. In any case, he likes poetry and children, and hates commerce and capitalistic striving. Evangeline is razor-sharp, type A, driven, and is being driven insane by her domestic duties. The children are in varying states of dysfunction as well. Henry’s digestion is wrecked by stress, Helen suffers debilitating lack of confidence, and Stephen obliterates rules with a savage ferocity.

Lester is passed over for a promotion in favor of a younger man, then loses his job altogether. He considers suicide, and has his opportunity when he is asked to help with a neighbor’s chimney repair. But he can’t even succeed at this: he ends up paralyzed from the waist down instead.

Since the family must be fed, Evangeline takes things into her own hands, and scores a sales job at the store. She is thoroughly suited for it, and quickly rises into management. Lester, in the meantime, finds his own calling as a “homemaker.” Sure, he can’t scrub the floors into oblivion like Eva did, but he is a natural with the children, and a little paid help on the most physical tasks takes care of that.

In short, the reversal of gender roles makes everyone happy. Well, except for all the judgy neighbors and relatives who are sure that this is all in defiance of the Way Things Should Be™ - and Divine Command™.

The Home-Maker was published in...wait for it...1926. That’s pretty darn close to 100 years ago. To be sure, it was ahead of its time. But it is also, in my opinion and experience, ahead of OUR time too, in many ways.

Before I get to that, let me mention some of the most perceptive passages in this book. First is one where the ladies guild (essentially the gossip gals) talk about Eva.

“Poor thing. She has so many burdens to bear. Mrs. Prouty often says that in these days it is wonderful to see a woman so devoted to her duty as a home-maker. She simply gives up her whole life to her family! Absolutely!”

And it is true. Eva focuses all her energy on her home and family. Which means her house is spotless, and her kids are so micromanaged that they are falling to pieces as a result. The thing is, this IS the expectation placed on Fundie women. I know. I have seen it. My wife lived it in many ways as a teen. (She was excommunicated from the cultic group when she went to college. Her parents have always supported her in this, but she lost what few relationships she had with her peers in that group over her refusal to be a home-maker only.)  I wish I could say this is limited to the cultic fringe. But it isn’t. Women are to a significant degree expected to give up their entire lives and personhoods to their families, both in our culture at large (although less than before) and particularly in an increasingly fundamentalist Evangelicalism. Pretty much universally, a woman’s worth will be judged by her status as a mother and as a home-maker, rather than her other qualities. (Okay, and her adherence to cultural beauty and modesty standards.) She will never get full credit for breadwinning like a man will.

Another thing to mention in this context: I do believe there is a significant correlation between helicopter parenting (and specifically women who take their entire identity from their mothering and have no other outlet) and sickly children. Let me be clear: obviously this isn’t the whole story. I was sickly and that is why I ended up homeschooled - which required my mom to stay home. Likewise, I know plenty of parents whose children have legitimate medical issues, from birth defects to diabetes. I get it. Not all illness is caused by stress and overparenting. But there is enough of a correlation that I do believe that a significant proportion of it is connected. A woman needing an outlet for her energies will find it. If there isn’t one outside the home, chances are, she will find one inside it, and this is rarely healthy, in my experience. I blame a lot of the shift toward cultural separation that plagues the American (white) church on this. Mothers who had to work to support the family would have little time to obsess about every detail of what their children are exposed to, bacterially or culturally.

Another passage in which Fisher absolutely nails it is this: Lester is perceptive enough to notice that his children are suffering. But he also knows that he has absolutely no right to say anything. Why not? Because he is a financial failure.

Well, he was bound and gagged to complete helplessness about everything in his life and his children’s lives, bound and gagged by his inability to make money. Only men who made money had any right to say how things should go in their homes. A man who couldn’t make money had no rights of any kind which a white man was bound to respect - nor a white woman either. Especially a white woman. The opinion of a man who couldn’t make money was of no value, on any subject, in anybody’s eyes.

 This is exactly the point. Anyone passingly familiar with history is aware that brown-skinned women (and immigrants, and low income women in general) have ALWAYS been expected to work. And work hard, grueling jobs for long hours. Being a “home-maker” has always been a privilege of upper-class (and eventually middle class) white women. It is a signal of privilege and wealth - but spun into a “virtue” like everything else connected with money in this country.

In fact, Fisher makes the other point here that male “virtue” has always been spelled “m-o-n-e-y.” This is one of the key explanations for how a morally appalling man can be excused - and elected to a high position. He has money. And that is evidence of his virtue. And, in contrast, a man without money lacks virtue. He has failed in his only truly important task, which is to make money. That this also justifies contempt for the poor and for those (say, African Americans) who are systematically excluded from economic opportunity is a feature of this system. It really is about signaling virtue and privilege.

Moving on to the next one, there is a great scene when Aunt Mattie shows up. She quizzes Helen and Henry about how they are getting on. Helen (happy in their new life) carefully explains that ALL of them do the cooking now. Lester reads the cookbook, and they learn more each day about how to do that task.

Aunt Mattie’s face instantly smoothed into comprehension of everything. She had wondered how they managed without a woman to keep house for them. Now she knew. They didn’t manage.

I would have been so tempted to slap that nasty woman right then and there. Fortunately, this particular bit of sexism is less common today. My late grandfather came of age in the 1940s, and he was always a fine cook. (An Army cook, to be exact, with a well-earned reputation of making anything edible.) All the men on my dad’s side of the family cook. Most of us quite well. We are expected to - it’s family pride at stake. I am no exception. I started cooking when I had to use a chair to reach the stove. As a teen, I cooked once a week. When my brother and I were batching it, we were fully capable of feeding visitors on a minute’s notice. My wife and I split the cooking since we were married (although the kids cook more these days - they have mad skills too.) Come to our house, and I’ll show you “not managing,” thank you very much!

So yeah, a little touchy about that one. Men in my family can also do laundry, ironing, dishes - the whole works. Because we take pride in our domestic skills. 

 Just one meal from earlier this month: 
Tabbouleh, hummus, grilled tomatoes, and lamb kebabs (plus pita from our local middle eastern grocery.) 
I can cook a little. 

On a related note…

Later in the visit, Lester, who has made a remarkable progression from a beaten-down man to confident father and home-maker, finally has had enough, and puts the smack down on Mattie, after she expresses horror that he is darning socks.

“Eva darned them a good many years, and did the housework. Why shouldn’t I? Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor, mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.”

EXACTLY! I have had discussions with Fundie sorts who lament that home-making is somehow disrespected. (Of course, they think it is because women choose to do other things…) But my thought is, no shit! Anything that is relegated to the category of “women’s work” will be disrespected, just as women are. Home-making will get respected just fine when men embrace it. (And honestly, there is a huge generation gap here. Few of my grandparents’ generation had men who cared for infants. Pretty much every 30ish man I know is fully capable of caring for an infant overnight without issue. And cooking dinner too.)

The final bit which I found fascinating was Lester’s thoughts on capitalism and materialism. It is particularly interesting because Eva seems perfectly comfortable with a life of selling possessions to others. Lester, though, is not so sure. He pretty much rejects the whole consumerist system outright.

He knew now what it decreed: that men are in the world to get possessions, to create material things, to sell them, to buy them, above all to stimulate to fever-heat the desire for them in all human beings. It decreed that men are of worth in so far as they achieve that sort of material success, and worthless if they do not.
For an instant he understood why Tradition was so intolerant of the slightest infraction of the respect due to it, why it was ready to tear him and all his into a thousand pieces rather than permit even one variation from its standard. It was because the variation he had conceived ran counter to the prestige of sacred possessions. Not only was it beneath the dignity of any able-bodied brave to try to show young human beings how to create rich, deep, happy lives without great material possessions, but it was subversive of the whole-hearted worship due to possessions. It was heresy. It must be stopped at all costs.  

Yep. Possessions make the man, and consumerism fuels our economy. And a male who defies that will be punished. (And a woman who defies the system by stepping out of her place will be punished too.)

Okay, let’s talk about the present.

On the one hand, having experienced Fundie culture, I can say that within that subculture, nothing has changed since 1926. (Or, more correctly, since the Antebellum South.) Women are still expected to pour their lives and their selves into their assigned role. And to forgo a career. More personally, much unnecessary friction was created with my own family when my wife went back to work three months after each of our kids was born. (I, like Lester, love kids - particularly mine - and wouldn’t trade those long nights of feedings and snugglings for anything.) My wife paid dearly for her choices, and some relationships will probably never be whole as a result.

On the other hand, in general, these days women in the workforce are embraced. My wife is respected in her profession (unlike in the Evangelical church, I might add) and outside of the Fundie/Evangelical subculture, few bat an eye at the idea that she has a career.

But the reverse isn’t true, at least yet. I have the best of both worlds. As a lawyer, I have a prestigious career. I don’t have a lot of wealth, though. Lawyers make less than most people assume (particularly in smaller towns), and I have chosen reasonable hours over a high income. Because of this, my wife makes more than I do. But, I don’t really pay the price for this, because people know I am a lawyer. As a result, I actually get brownie points for being domestic, and yet don’t suffer the contempt of being a low-income male.

However, if I were to quit my job and stay home full time, there is absolutely no doubt that I would suffer every bit the contempt as Lester would. It was only his catastrophic injury that saved him from being viewed as lower than low - an un-man, so to speak. While feminism has enabled (middle class, white) women to enter the workforce, it hasn’t changed the basic cultural dynamic that insists that men bring home the bacon, and women clean the house and care for children.

I do blame some of this on a deliberate and egregious mistranslation of Scripture, by the way. In the original, I Timothy 5:8 is NOT gendered. The idea is that expecting a relative to be cared for by limited church funds was a big sin. All should care for their own if possible. It certainly did NOT mean that only males had the responsibility of breadwinning. Fortunately, some modern translations have rectified this error. (And often been castigated by Fundies for it.)

On an even more personal note, let me return to what my wife saw in this book. From the beginning of our relationship, she understood that we would not have a “traditional” marriage. She was committed to a career - and really didn’t expect to marry. That I came along and she fell in love was a good thing for both of us. But we also had no illusions that we would now fit the cultural template. She was going to work, kids or not, and I wasn’t going to do the 100 hour weeks that making partner requires. It just fit BOTH of our personalities better. So I essentially “mommy tracked” my career, and she focused on hers. We both split the household and child care duties in a mutually workable manner - and we change it as circumstances change. The key point here is that we are BOTH happier this way. It took a while for me to adjust to it, I suppose, because I worried that her love for me was dependent on my being the primary breadwinner. But that wasn’t the case, actually. It was just my cultural insecurities - and the residual belief that my work is tied up in my paycheck.

I do not want to appear to be dissing female home-makers here. My mom stayed home during our childhood (although she loves her post-kid career too), and given the circumstances, she made a fully defensible choice. Every family is different. I get that. I also get that for those outside the middle class economic status, these choices aren’t available. What I do want to say, however, is that gender roles of this sort are NOT (contrary to Fundie doctrine) a matter of morality, but a matter of circumstance and choice. And personality and gifting.

There is a lot of insight in this book. However, I would not say that the writing is spectacular. It isn’t bad, but from time to time, Fisher tells rather than shows, and she can tend to moralize. The book is pretty short, too, so many of the personalities do not have time to be fleshed out fully. The focus in the first half is split, while the second half is mostly about Lester. At that point, Eva becomes kind of a super saleswoman, but her internal life is left mostly unsaid.

Likewise, the book leaves some things unexplored. After all, Lester is happy in his role as a parent, but what of the future? It is harder to see him fulfilled after the kids depart and he is left as a (more or less) cripple at home with little to do. An astute reader will ask the obvious question here as well: what about a woman in the same situation? True enough. Which is why I think that the very worst busybodies are women who have no job whose kids have grown up. (If we were honest about the meaning of some of Saint Paul’s teachings on this, we might realize that “rule one’s own household” means in 21st Century language, “get off your lazy ass and get a job.”) I can think of more than a few women who really should take this to heart. If you have time to tell everyone else what to do, maybe you should polish your resume a bit…

I also wished the book had explored the relationship between Eva and Lester a bit more. (Again, short book, limited space.) Clearly, they had something going before kids. And yes, circumstances damaged their marriage a lot. But what of things after the change? One almost gets the impression that Eva is so busy with her career she doesn’t have time for the marriage. At least, she doesn’t have time to micromanage the household, which is good. But what of the relationship? I know ours: while there are some adjustments we had to make, like all married couples, I think we both respect each other more as a result of our choices. We are partners, and respect each other more, if anything, because of our strengths, whether they fit gender roles or not. It would have been interesting to see that dynamic at work in this book. In my view, this is as much of the story as the facts of the gender reversal. It is obvious what the response of society would be. Less obvious is how Eva and Lester negotiated the significant change in the dynamics of the family.

I haven’t gone into too much detail regarding how Lester and Eva reflect Amanda and myself. But there are a lot more parallels which anyone who knows us personally can undoubtedly recognize.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is how Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s own marriage mirrored this book. Her husband too was secondary to her economically. He did spend World War I as an ambulance driver, and eventually served in Congress. But she was the primary breadwinner, while he managed the household. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage.

This book is both fascinating and uneven. It’s a quick read, and one well worth exploring. It is thought provoking as to how much has changed - and how much really hasn’t.


Our edition is from Persephone Classics. This British press has been re-releasing books by female authors, mostly from the years between the World Wars. I also read and reviewed Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson. There are some intriguing titles here, and I expect I will explore more of them in the future.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop

Source of book: I own the complete Elizabeth Bishop.

March is Women’s History Month, and, in addition to my official selection (stay tuned), I like to read works by female poets. Well, actually, I always like that. My first two poetic loves were Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. I fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in my teens. I have enjoyed a number of poets of the distaff set over the years. I think that because poetry was considered an acceptable outlet for intelligent and educated women in a time when more “serious” pursuits were off limits, many of the greatest minds ended up writing. 

I discovered Elizabeth Bishop as an adult, thanks to the work of former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, and both his Favorite Poem Project and his anthology, Essential Pleasures, which I highly recommend as an introduction to a wide range of poetry. You can read my post about Bishop’s North and South here. I won’t duplicate the biographical material from the previous post, but you can read more about her life there.

A Cold Spring is a short collection, as are all of Bishop’s works. She wasn’t a prolific writer, but what she did write is quite polished. I’ll just hit a few highlights.

First, her longer poem, “At the Fishhouses” is a tour de force of evocative description. In typical Bishop fashion, there is a sharp edge to things - she isn’t conventionally “nice,” and her descriptions bring to life the stinks and not-so-picturesque decay of her subjects. Cold, bitter, briny, and not quite safe. For example, this little bit:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the could hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

The whole poem is beautiful, in that not-exactly-nice sort of way.

In a similar way, the titular poem, “A Cold Spring,” gives a brilliant series of descriptions, but in an unexpected and edgy way. Here is the opening:

A cold spring:
the violet was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited,
carefully indicating their characteristics.
Finally a grave green dust
settled over your big and aimless hills.
One day, in a chill white blast of sunshine,
on the side of one a calf was born.
The mother stopped lowing
and took a long time eating the after-birth,
a wretched flag,
but the calf got up promptly
and seemed to feel gay.

I am particularly fond of the phrases “a grave green dust” and “a chill white blast of sunshine.” Unforgettable and brilliant.

These poems seem to have been written primarily about her native New England, rather than her adopted home of Florida. The sea is a constant companion, as are the denizens of small villages. But Bishop was such an introvert that she scarcely seems to interact with the people. She communes with nature, and sings to the animals. Here is one particularly nice introverted poem.

“The Bight”
(On my birthday)

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn't wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

I do not get the impression that Bishop thought much of the big city. The next poem was written about her sojourn in New York City, and the title refers to the cross street of her apartment.

“Varick Street”

At night the factories
            struggle awake,
            wretched uneasy buildings
            veined with pipes
            attempt their work.
            Trying to breathe,
            the elongated nostrils
            haired with spikes
            give off such stenches, too.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

On certain floors
            certain wonders.
            Pale dirty light,
            some captured iceberg
            being prevented from melting.
            See the mechanical moons,
            sick, being made
            to wax and wane
            at somebody’s instigation.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

Lights music of love
            work on. The presses
            print calendars
            I suppose; the moons
            make medicine
            or confectionery. Our bed
            shrinks from the soot
            and hapless odors
            hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

That haunting refrain: “And I shall sell you sell you / sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” It isn’t just about the city, but about consumerism, where we are all for sale. There is a solid argument to be made that cities have changed quite a bit since the 1940s. If anything, the factories have moved out to rural locations, and the political center of environment-destroying capitalism is now the small town in “red” states. My home city of Los Angeles, while still smoggy, is objectively much cleaner than it was when I was a kid. But Bishop captures a moment, and a feeling, and an idea of the individual as a cog in the money machine, that still haunts us today.

I’ll end with this short poem, perhaps my favorite in the collection. It is both introverted and deeply personal, and features Bishop’s skill at moving from the universal to the personal, from the nature metaphor to the details of a relationship. It is believed to have been written for Bishop’s lover, Lota Soares.

“The Shampoo”

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

Everything in this poem, from the line length to the like breaks at key moments, is carefully set up to enhance - and provide - the meaning. Again, we see the unexpected descriptions of nature, such as lichens as “explosions.” There is the contrast between the slow movement of time in nature, and the brevity of our own lives. I adore the description of gray hairs as “shooting bright formation.” Readers who want a more in-depth analysis of this poem might enjoy this one, by Kala Dunn.

I find Bishop to be rewarding every time I read her poems. They are best read aloud and savored.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski

Source of book: I own this.

This book is one of my wife’s random used book discoveries - she’s pretty good at that. She knew I liked the author, and the topic seemed interesting, so she picked it up.

A Clearing in the Distance is a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Perhaps you may have heard of him? Or maybe not. But you undoubtedly have heard of Central Park in New York City. Well, he and his partner Calvert Vaux designed it. Or how about the Chicago World’s Fair? Olmsted designed the grounds. Olmstead is considered the founder of the profession of “Landscape Architecture,” a term he disliked, but used because he never did come up with a better one. 

 Frederick Law Olmsted

Olmstead’s adult life overlapped with the second half of the 19th Century, so reading about his life brings in a lot of the culture, politics, and society of those times.

“I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future.” ~ Frederick Law Olmsted

I love this quote because it epitomizes the work of a landscape architect. As Olmsted noted, trees take a while to grow, and the final effect of a design is usually not seen for 40 or 50 years. Olmsted was thus working for future generations. But there is more here as well. I was struck at multiple places in this book at just how much our view of the public sector and the common good has changed since the late 1800s. I’ll get into that issue throughout the blog. I think that we used to have an idea of building for the future, for building for generations to come, to build for the public good, and not just for the good of the wealthy.

Perhaps the most pertinent example here is the way we approach parks. There was an era when creating large parks open to everyone was a priority for growing cities. And these were not cheap - they were quite expensive to design, build, and maintain. And they were huge. It is easy to forget that in 1850, New York City had a population of just under 600,000 - that’s about the same as the metro Bakersfield area. Likewise, when Montreal contracted with Olmsted to create a public park, it was a city of merely 120,000. Yet that is when large sums of money were set aside to build Central Park in New York and Mount Royal in Montreal. While Bakersfield has invested in some truly public parks over the years (and seems to be finally interested in improving Hart Park - which dates back many decades - these are all on a much smaller scale. And, as far as neighborhood parks, more and more of these are sequestered in gated communities, where the common riff-raff is carefully excluded. (In practice, segregation rearing its head again…)

One of the reasons for this shift is a change in the social contract between the classes. At several junctures, the book notes that part of being a “gentleman” was a responsibility to the common good. A man who didn’t use part of his wealth to benefit the commons was despised - by his peers. Not so much now. While there are exceptions, far too many of our own oligarchs believe they have zero obligation to the common good whatsoever. Ayn Rand has won their hearts.

Olmsted and others who worked for the preservation of wilderness (such as Yosemite) and creation of urban wilderness (through the parks) noted that in Europe at the time, all the best places were owned by the rich and carefully kept off limits to the commoners. Europe has since acted to change this - establishing its own national park systems and opening many formerly aristocrats-only parks to everyone. Now, it is the United States that is toying with privatizing public land and letting the wealthy buy up ever more of our public spaces.

Olmsted himself saw the beginnings of this transition, and it worried him. Always opposed to the institution of slavery, he noted that it “hindered the development of civilized communities” - not just among slaves, but among slave owners. (In my opinion, the support for the public sector and public good in the United States cratered after the end of Jim Crow. Whites were unwilling to share, and thus decided to oppose all public sector spending.) Olmsted further worried about the over-emphasis on self-reliance that went along with pioneering. It tended to degenerate into self indulgence and greed. Even the social and political institutions formed were based on self-interest rather than community. It is a problem that truly plagues us today.

Back to Olmsted himself. It took a while for Olmsted to find his career - and he did so in part because he was looking for a steady job. He dabbled for a number of years, taking a voyage as a common deck hand, gentleman farming, writing. He took a tour of the South and wrote about it in a mildly anti-slavery way. Actually, this trip served to make him even more abolitionist than he was. Back in his time, moderates called for a slow phasing out of slavery (by, for example, making the children free, and letting the existing slaves slowly die out.) However, he realized as a result of this trip that the Southern slave owners had no intention of any compromise. Rather, they required ever more land to work with slaves, and intended to make the United States mostly slave territory in the future. In what sounds all too familiar now, Olmsted wrote that the Southern gentry “do not seem to have a fundamental sense of right...Their moving power and the only motives which they can comprehend are materialistic.” Kind of like the modern Right...profit is all that matters. Olmsted made some money off his books and publishing ventures. But more than that, he got his name out.

I also found interesting Olmsted’s personal journey and concerns. Like most “moderates” of the time, Olmsted had misgivings about outright abolition. Some of their concerns turned out to be all too real. One of the main reasons he opposed outright, immediate emancipation was that he realized that vicious racism would prevent true integration. In addition, decades of suppressing the education of slaves meant that there was a huge task in mainstreaming a large population kept purposely unprepared for full civic participation. In the actual event, the necessity of a bloody war to end slavery meant a lack of political capital to finish the job of integration - and contributed to 100 years of Jim Crow and a nation that is still not fully integrated. One does have to wonder how things would have gone differently had the South agreed to phase out slavery and the North had truly invested in educating and integrating the children of slaves.

Olmsted’s fortunes changed dramatically when he was encouraged to apply for - and won - the position of designer and park superintendent for the soon-to-be-built Central Park. This would launch his career as a landscape architect, and provide much needed income for his family. (He married his brother’s widow around this time - it turned out to be a happy marriage, even if it may have started as a bit of a marriage of convenience.) 

 Part of Olmsted's original Central Park plan.

Soon afterward, he met a man who was to be his partner for over a decade, and an occasional collaborator thereafter: Calvert Vaux. Olmsted had a pretty good handle on the landscaping thing by that time, but he was trained as a surveyor, not an architect. And Central Park needed some buildings too. Vaux was an architect, and shared many of Olmsted’s aesthetic values. The two of them would eventually open a firm together and work on dozens of major projects. There is a list in the back of the book of projects Olmsted worked on, both alone and with various collaborators. It’s quite fascinating. While the collaborators are too many to mention individually, I do have to at least mention Jacob Wrey Mould, designer of a since-destroyed church nicknamed “The Church of the Holy Zebra.”  

 One of the most iconic Central Park landmarks: the Gothic Bridge, designed by Calvert Vaux

There are a few more unrelated things that made an impression on me.

First is that all of these major projects, public and private, had cost overruns. Every. Single. One. So, whenever a current public project goes over budget, well, this is certainly nothing new. It has always been the case. So, if you are complaining about cost overruns...maybe you really just object to the actual cost of public infrastructure. At least, you might want to think about it a bit.

The second is an interesting episode in Olmsted’s life during the Civil War. He was plased in charge of the Sanitary Commission. For those not familiar with the story, the military medical establishment turned out to be completely over their heads in dealing with the horrors of a large scale war - particularly the ravages of the minie ball. To cope with the high casualties, the Sanitary Commission was founded. The military lent ships and supplies, and the civilians provided the workforce. It was quite a success for the first part of the war, but was eventually supplanted by the military, which finally got up to speed. In part because of the lessons learned and taught by the Sanitary Commission. Anyway, Olmsted made a discovery that many have made before and since: even though they were largely volunteers, the female nurses were the backbone of the workforce. As Olmsted put it, “They beat the doctors all to pieces.” In turn, the nurses loved Olmsted for the respect and support he gave them. As the husband of a nurse, I thoroughly agree with Olmsted and his approach.

The final observation. The Chicago Exposition was an event for which we have no real modern analogue. At the time, the population of the United States was 63 million. In a period of six months, 27 million visited the Exposition. Nearly half! That’s incredible, particularly in an age when transportation wasn’t as easy or affordable for many. (Richard Peck wrote a book about it - one we really want to read at some point - his short story on the topic was great.)

There is so much more of interest in this book. Olmsted was a prodigious letter writer, so his own words appear often in the book. I have enjoyed Rybczynski’s writing on other topics for some time, but this book is a biography - a bit out of his usual type. The writing is good, however, and the author’s extensive knowledge and experience of architecture and design serves him well.

Anyone interested in landscape design, urban planning, or the Gilded Age will find this book fascinating. Whether you knew Olmsted before or not, his story and his influence on American planning is unmistakable.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Sarah Ruhl edition)

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”

So wrote Anton Chekhov, considered to be one of the founders of Modernism in theater. He practiced as a medical doctor for most of his life, but managed in his spare time to turn out some of the best regarded short stories and plays of his - or any - era.

My first Chekhov was his early play, Ivanov. Later, I saw The Cherry Orchard at CSUB. (Unfortunately, I didn’t blog about it at the time.) While Ivanov felt a bit like a first effort (which it was), the later four plays are masterpieces. (That group also includes The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.) The themes are clearer, and the drama seems more focused. Because Chekhov was an early Modernist, the language of his characters sound more like real vernacular (unlike, say, Shakespeare.) However, depending on the translation, this characteristic tends to get lost.

In this case, The Empty Space used a new translation/adaptation by Sarah Ruhl. It is considered an adaptation because Ruhl is (by her own admission) not fluent enough in Russian to do a real translation. However, she worked with several individuals who assisted in ascertaining the meaning of the original text and converting it to an English idiom. The intent was to render Chekhov’s words both fairly literally and yet also in a modern English vernacular. Oh, and also to restore some of the stuff taken out by Victorian Era censors.

Personally, I loved what Ruhl did with the story. It flowed well, even as there were so many lines that just screamed “Russian Literature!” in a familiar way. Although I haven’t read this one in another translation, I did run through some synopses of the plot, and it wasn’t a “retelling” in the way movies often are. It was true to the original in the letter and spirit.

I highly recommend reading Ruhl’s notes on how she approached the new version. She includes the first scene in that link, so you can get an idea of her language.

Three Sisters is a simple enough story, without much in the way of surprises. The drama is internal: what goes on in the minds of the characters. And, what is the meaning of life? That is a central concern of Chekhov’s, and his is a pretty pessimistic vision. (My middle daughter, who is pretty macabre, said, “well that was depressing” afterward.)

The three sisters are Olga, Masha, and Irina. Their father died a year before the play opens, leaving them and their brother Andrei living on the family property in a provincial Russian town. (Population, around 100,000, as it turns out.) This is in stark contrast to Moscow, where they were born and spent their formative years. The sisters all want to get back to Moscow, which they see as everything their current circumstances aren’t: sophisticated, adventuresome, and full of opportunity.

However, circumstances get in the way. Andrei falls in love with the lower-class Natalya (Natasha) and marries her, but the marriage goes sour. Natasha openly cheats on Andrei and abuses the servants. She manipulates and bullies the sisters. Andrei, for his part, escapes through gambling, which leads to him mortgaging the property and thus preventing the sisters from selling it and moving back to Moscow.

Olga works as a school teacher, but hates the job. However, the need to make a living means she has to stay on. She regrets not marrying when she had the chance.

Masha has married a teacher, but the bloom has come off that rose as well. He isn’t particularly smart or good looking, and she is bored. He is a good man, however, and one of the truly sympathetic characters in the play.

Irina starts the play with optimism, but this is eventually beaten out of her by life. She works first as a switchboard operator and later as a clerk for the city counsel.

The only bright side of their lives is the presence of a regiment of soldiers, who themselves represent the intellectual stimulation of outsiders from the great world beyond.

Masha is swept off her feet by the commander, Vershinin, who is married to a mentally ill woman. They have an affair which makes Masha happy for a time, but she is heartbroken when the soldiers are deployed elsewhere.

Irina becomes engaged to Baron Tuzenbach, who she does not love, in large part because he represents a ticket out of her boring life.

There are some fascinating themes in this play. The first is the idea of “Moscow.” As I noted above, Moscow isn’t so much a literal place as the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the sisters. It is the glorious Utopia that awaits them, if they only can managed to find a way there. We all have our “Moscow” in some way, though. Sometimes it is more literal than others, but we all have some idea of a move, a change, a growth, that will make things better.

One thing that particularly hit home was a line (and I can’t give you direct quotes) to the effect that “there are 100,000 people here, but they are all alike.” This goes with Andrei’s lament that when he was in Moscow, he didn’t know anyone, but felt like he belonged; whereas in the (unnamed) town, he knows everyone but feels desperately alone. Irina feels that she is becoming stupider the longer she stays. She used to be fluent in multiple languages, but she is losing her skill with nobody to talk to.

I can kind of sympathize. It has been a rough couple of years to live in Bakersfield. We are, as many have pointed out, the “Texas of California,” with a low average education level, high poverty, and, well, a lot of people with Truck Nutz and Confederate Battle Flags as their aesthetic. But this is an oversimplification. We also have a vibrant arts, music, and theater community, and plenty who are not dragging their knuckles and panting after an orange sociopath. I guess it was a bit ironic to be reminded of the frustrations of living in Bakersfield...while attending an outstanding dramatical production along with several friends who are intelligent, well informed, and thoroughly decent people.

That is the problem with our “Moscows.” As Vershinin notes, Moscow mostly looks attractive when you are not there. Once you actually go there, the shine comes off that too, and you are left with your former problems. Wherever you go, there you still are. Chekhov plays these two ideas off each other throughout the entire play. When we place the source of our happiness outside ourselves, we are bound to be disappointed. When we live in the past and the “if-onlys,” we will be unable to make beauty and happiness in the present.

Related to this theme is that of the future. The future is its own “Moscow.” The characters talk at length at various points in the play about the future and its meaning for those alive now. What will life be like in 200 years? Some characters think it will be glorious, while others believe that all the technology and progress won’t change what life feels like - it will be largely the same. In 200 years, will anyone remember us? Probably not, at least for most of us. I know a little about my ancestors on one branch that far back. Which is cool, but I don’t know them in any real sense. They are history, not memory. On the other hand, what will history do with the collective “we”? Will we be remembered with contempt, or with admiration? Chekhov makes both arguments. Will we end up making life better for our descendants? Or worse? (It’s early, but there are good signs that the Baby Boomers are not going to be remembered fondly…)

And then, the ultimate question: what is the point of all this suffering and unhappiness? Will we ever know? In fact, the play ends with this question, with the sisters begging the fates, as it were, to reveal these secrets.

As usual, The Empty Space put on an outstanding production. I have commended them time and again for their commitment to their particular approach to the theater: intimate space, low budgets and correspondingly affordable tickets, high artistic values, and a broad range of repertoire.

The three sisters were excellently cast. Cody Ganger is the daughter of long-time (and now retired) BC professor Randy Messick (also in this play as the drunken doctor, Chebutykin), and has been a favorite actor of mine for a number of years. Of particular note was the chemistry she showed as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew with her husband Kevin, which made a rather sexist play seem more like a tongue-in-cheek inside joke between lovers. Ganger directed Three Sisters, and was thrust into the role of Olga after the original lead had to back out. I was not disappointed with Ganger, who brought a pathos and gravity to the role of the oldest sister - the one who has always held everything together. 

 Olga (Cody Ganger), Irina (Brittany Beaver), and Masha (Mariah Jordan)

I don’t remember seeing Mariah Jordan in anything before, but she has appeared in a few I haven’t seen locally. As the middle sister, Masha, she was outstanding. There was real electricity in her scenes, particularly her passionate romance with Vershinin - very uncomfortable chemistry, both because this is an adulterous relationship, and because Rikk Cheshire is significantly older than her. I will be adding Jordan to my list of local actors I wish to watch. I am also pleased to see she teaches locally. That so many local thespians are passing their craft on to a new generation does my heart good.

As the younger sister, Brittany Beaver was one of the younger cast members. She is just a college student at this point, but she is showing definite signs of growth as an actor. I last saw her in Of Mice and Men, and she was competent, but a bit green. This part gave her a wider emotional range to play, and I thought she did quite well. And, more than anything, the three sisters had outstanding chemistry - the sisterhood was thoroughly believable. 

 Dr. Chebutykin (Randy Messick)

There were a number of the “the usual suspects” in this play, from Ryan Lee as a brooding Solyony, Carlos Vera in yet another small part (and playing piano!), Randy Messick looking good at whatever he does, Carolyn Fox filling in with another small part, Nolan Long as the frustrated and weak Andrei, and Shelbe McClain as the insecure and vindictive Natasha. (Last seen in BC’s Hamlet, McClain is best suited to small venues - her voice isn’t big enough to fill the outdoors, but she is compelling up close.) 

 Natasha (Shelbe McClain) and Andrei (Nolan Long)

I hadn’t seen Rikk Cheshire in a production before, but he was solid in his role, which was awkward on several levels. Obviously the adultery, but also the age difference, which our modern sensibilities see differently than Chekhov might have.

 Vershinin (Rikk Cheshire) and Masha (Mariah Jordan)

Two additional roles merit specific mention. Newcomer (to the Empty Space) Matthew Prewitt really shined as Baron Tuzenbach. Although he is pretty young, and the role probably was envisioned as older, he made the Baron into a sympathetic character. In addition, he played piano AND guitar at various times - and can play while carrying on a conversation (in the play) and acting with his body. Like his character, he isn’t much to look at (in the conventional sense) - he’s shortish and waifishly thin - but compelling as an actor. I hope he gets more parts in the future. 

Baron Tuzenbach (Matthew Prewett)

The one I really want to discuss, though, is Karl Wade in the role of Kulygin, Masha’s unfortunate husband. It cannot be easy to play the role of the cuckold in any case. But to play one who is a bit of a punchline, wearing a ludicrous mustache at first, then getting grief for shaving it, has to be a tough job indeed. And also to be the cuckold who goes from being oblivious to the affair to taking your wife back with “no questions asked” - and somehow not be laughable but genuinely sympathetic and noble - that is a feat indeed. Particularly since Kulygin is pedantic and condescending to Masha, and certainly not a naturally likeable character as written. Wade is physically perfect for the role. A bit overweight, and, like me, far from a heartthrob. A bit goofy, but sincere. It was so easy to see why Masha would go for the tall, handsome (if slightly creepy) Vershinin over the mundane Kulygin. And also to realize that Kulygin doesn’t deserve this in a moral sense, yet it seems inevitable that this would happen because of who he is. That is why when he takes the devastated Masha back, you just know she won’t be happy, and that this isn’t a good marriage. And yet, Kulygin is so good and sympathetic even while being ludicrous and boring and all, that you really wish that Masha could find it in herself to love him just a little. Karl Wade deserves an award for his work in this role. [Later note: I completely missed that Wade was in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour as the lunatic Ivanov.]

 Vershinin (Rikk Cheshire), Masha (Mariah Jordan), and Kulygin (Karl Wade)

There are a few “characters” which affect the action, despite never appearing on stage. Vershinin’s insane wife, for example, tries to kill herself, causing Vershinin to leave abruptly. And it is clear that Natasha is leaving for a tryst with her lover, but we never see him. Likewise, except for Andrei’s younger child (who probably isn’t his), who appears only as a sleeping infant, none of the children actually appear, despite their presence in the plot.

I wish I could remember all of the marvelous lines - it really is powerful when it comes to the philosophy, and the dialogue is quite witty. It might be worth buying Ruhl’s version just to re-read those moments. Chekhov is always witty and philosophical, but the translation can really enhance or detract from the experience. Ruhl’s version is definitely the former, and I highly recommend it.

Three Sisters also runs this upcoming weekend at the Empty Space. Locals will definitely want to check it out, and support local theater.


I couldn’t figure out where to put it in the post, but I do have to mention the line where the anti-social Solyony says:

“When a man talks philosophy you get sophistry but when a woman talks philosophy, or God forbid two, you might as well pull my finger.”

This is one of the lines that gets either cut or bowdlerized in many translations. Yes, fart jokes are pretty much the same in any language or time in history. Even if some (say, my wife) don’t get the appeal.


Just a note on the pictures: The Empty Space always has fantastic publicity photos on their Facebook site. One of my eldest daughter's classmates is one of their photographers, which is pretty cool. Anyway, while other theaters here in Bakersfield put on great productions, in most cases their publicity lags behind TES for publicity photography. Come on! This is the 21st Century! Put your photos online! 


One more thing: I love Clint Black - great songwriter, solid guitarist. And this is IMO his best album.

This is one of my favorites of his cuts, and it sure fits with Moscow and our inability to escape ourselves...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Fauna of Point Reyes

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can. 

I previously posted about Point Reyes National Seashore from our visit there in 2015. That post contains a good bit about the geological history, as well as some pictures of the various views.

We returned there in November 2017, as my wife in particular loves the coastal forest. This time, I was able to capture some of the animals that call Point Reyes home. Sure, we saw banana slugs last time, but this year, there were elk and elephant seals out. And also bugs and snakes and squirrels. Here are my favorites of the pictures.

 Banded Garden Spider

Banana Slug

 Western Grey Squirrel

Gopher Snake

 Tule Elk

Elephant Seals

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this.

This is the eighth book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia series. Here are the others:

As I noted in the very first review, Alan Bradley turned to writing fiction late in life. The first six books were part of his original contract, which has now been extended after the significant success of the first books. I strongly recommend reading both the books and my reviews in order, as the later ones assume the earlier ones.

Like all the books in the series, this one has its title taken from a line in an old book. This one continues in the Shakespearean vein with a well known quote from the Scottish play.

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Anyway, this quote gives the book its title, and a few other details. (A cat, a woman who fosters rumors she is a witch.)

Since the last book, Flavia has returned from a rather awful sojourn in Canada, only to find her father deathly ill. Soon afterward, while running an errand for the vicar’s wife, she discovers yet another dead body. (Well, this is a murder mystery series…) In this case, the victim is an old wood carver with a mysterious past, who apparently has some sort of connection to the (fictitious) children’s author Oliver Inchbald.

I did a little poking around regarding this character, and while he is definitely fictitious, he is a bit of a tribute to real-life authors. I would list perhaps Edward Lear (for the nonsense verse) and A. A. Milne (for the Christopher Robin type son.) But Google moves in mysterious ways, and I think I discovered where the name “Oliver Inchbald” came from. I perhaps don’t need to introduce author Oliver Goldsmith, best known for The Vicar of Wakefield. But the other half of the name appears to come from actress and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald. It appears that back in the day, among her other projects, she provided the “critical and biographical notes” to a collection of plays, including Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and The Good Natured Man. I suspect Bradley saw this somewhere and decided it was a perfect name. And it is.

The previous book was really quite dark - the series has generally gotten darker as it has gone on. This one isn’t exactly light, but the emotional territory isn’t as unrelentingly negative. Flavia is, after all, back on her home turf, and thus surrounded by familiar people. Dogger, her sisters, the vicar and his wife, her frenemy the police inspector. So she doesn’t feel as forlorn and alone as she did in the prior books. That said, all of the bad things happening in her life are still there, with more added. I’m still not sure how I feel about all of this - there was something charming and more innocent about the earlier books that I miss. But it has also been fascinating to see Flavia struggle with growing up. While she was always independent, she has had to learn some self control and social niceties - and she is getting there.

Just a few quotes I liked. One is when Flavia visits the office of the publisher of Inchbald’s books:

“Not surprisingly, his office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.”

I plead the fifth as to how much I resemble that remark.

Regarding growing up and gaining independence:

“Growing up is like that, I suppose: The strings fall away and you’re left standing on your own.”

Regarding a sudden burst of communication from her reticent middle sister:

It was a longer speech than I’d ever heard Daffy make in my entire life. Unless she was reading aloud to us from one of her favorite books, my sister was the kind of person who is sometimes described as “monosyllabic.”

Actually, my middle daughter is kind of like that right now.

I will also note with approval the mention of Gorgonians. Because those are cool.

There is one more book in the series that has been published, and the contract runs for one more after that. Given Bradley’s age - this was a second career after retirement - he may decide to hang it up. But who knows? He originally agreed to six, and then ten, so things could change.

As I noted above, best to read these in order. They are kind of quirky, bookish, and snarky. But they are fun as a light read.