I am thinking about famine. Although there have been famines throughout history due to crop failure, this is not only a phenomenon of the past. It is still happening. Today over 30 million people are experiencing acute hunger and malnutrition in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
And of course in the US, the pandemic has called on Americans to rise to the challenge of providing sustenance to tens of millions of people who now cannot afford food. This country has been pretty good at preventing its own people from starving and we are doing fairly well in the current crisis. (at least foodwise) It’s not a famine, but it reminds me of one.
The Bible is awash in stories of famine. It was one of the reasons the Israelites fled Egypt.
This view of God was promoted by the leaders of the time who were autocrats and ruled supreme over their people. It was easier to keep control in the name of God. Who could argue?
(Editor’s note: Asked Simone if “of the time” above referred to a particular time. She thought about it said, “Almost all the time.”)
The Irish potato famine devastated that country between 1846 and 1851 resulting in over a million deaths from disease and starvation. As a result, a mass exodus of Irish fled their country and arrived on the shores of the New World, settled and eventually prospered.
It wasn’t until two years ago that scientists isolated the pathogen that set off this catastrophe. I’m thinking the Irish were over-dependent on a single crop.
Many famines occurred in Russia and Ukraine despite the fact that Ukraine was so fertile it was called the “bread basket of Europe.” Joseph Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization was intended to abolish private property, but when what you plant is no longer yours, your motive for working hard no longer exists. Millions died because of this tragically misguided policy.
In 1932-33 and again in 1946-47, Stalin’s failed thinking in dictating crop choices caused artificial ideology-based famines. Powerful leaders can cause a lot of trouble.
Today’s famines are partly caused by water shortage and climate change, but also result from war and and political upheval. Refugees cannot stop to plant crops, when they are fleeing .
Nobody should die of starvation today and yet it happens because people cannot find ways to resolve their conflicts.
As I was looking at the sky last evening, I realized that I had not seen any stars in a long time. It is because of all the light pollution generated by our numerous illuminated buildings, street lights, automobiles and electric signs. Cities glow and pulse with light.
So how do I know that stars exist? How many other phenomena am I unaware of because I have only 5 senses with a very limited reach?
An eagle can see a rabbit from two miles away. I also learned that they adjust the curvature of their eyes as they descend to attack so prey is always in sharp focus. Bats navigate by echolocation which is completely alien to us. Vampire bats have proteins in their noses that lead them to food.
Our sense of smell is very rudimentary. Often it stops at pleasant or unpleasant and does not reveal edibility or harmfulness. Elephants’ feet and trunks are sensitive enough to pick up vibrations created by other elephants as far as 10 miles away.
Our hearing is also problematic. We often do not know how to follow it to its source or whether it signals danger or not. Our experience is often limited by the size and distance of the object being heard.
Because we long ago realized that much of the world is hidden from us, we knew we had to build instruments to expand our search abilities and learn the truth. But what is the truth of a star or the truth of a tree for that matter? Still we have to strive to understand that elusive reality.
Microphones and ultrasound devices capture unheard sounds. Smoke detectors can smell fires. Thermometers can measure exact temperatures beyond cold or hot. Litmus paper can tell if a substance is an acid or a base. In 1610 Galileo invented the telescope to examine the Milky Way and its vast collection of stars. He suspected that there existed many more heavenly bodies beyond our galaxy.
Since then telescopes have grown in size and complexity. The Hubble telescope which is suspended high in space is a most productive scientific instrument. It whirls around the earth and takes pictures through the haze of the atmosphere. It is only the size of a bus but it can look back to when the universe was only 3% of its current age. It can spot the dark energy that exists in space.
We have enlarged our horizons and will continue to expand our ability to apprehend and comprehend the world because we have one sense that is truly unlimited, our sense of curiosity.
Editors Note: Simone would like to know what you think about the seen and unseen worlds and about human curiosity. We encourage you to comment below.
When our children were little, we used to drive to the Berkeley Hills to watch the July 4th fireworks. Nowadays I have a wide window that allows me to see fireworks from across San Francisco Bay and in all other neighboring cities. They are colorful, dazzling, shimmering and noisy.
Still I find that after 5 to 10 minutes, my attention wanders and I tend to stop looking. Are explosions and bangs just a childish pleasure? Or do these displays last too long? Or perhaps nowadays there are too many competing events to attend to.
Fireworks were developed in China in the second century BC. (Sometimes it seems to me the Chinese invented everything.) These displays were used to celebrate births, weddings, coronations and deaths In 200 B.C. people roasted bamboo stalks till they sizzled and exploded.
But then they got smart, and 800 years later, between 600 and 900 A.D., they started filling the bamboo with gun powder and the big bang was born. They added metal salts to achieve the brilliant colors. This was all done to scare off evil spirits of course.
In this country Capt. John Smith set off the first fireworks in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, and the first Independence Day fireworks display was in Philadelphia in 1777.John Adams said that he hoped that the anniversary of Independence would always be marked by guns and bonfires. So it was for a while, but these were eventually replaced by fireworks.
In France, fireworks are traditionally used to celebrate July 14 French Independence Day. This year, displays were held in Lyon, Nantes, Marseille and many other cities. In Paris, because of crowd restrictions due to the pandemic, the display was started at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and lasted for 30 minutes. People were encouraged to watch from a distance, from their balconies. The display was dedicated to the “heroic daily fight against the corona virus”
Fireworks will continue to exist as long as the inner child in us keeps wanting them.
I’ll close with a Debussy prelude called “Feux d’Artifice.” (fireworks in French) This is a magnificent performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin. You don’t need to see the fireworks…you can hear them. This same piece was played in Paris on July 14th with colorful light reflections dancing in the River Seine. (lots of youtube of that available if you are interested)
TV News is different these days. It looks like we are watching a team in a single studio but in most cases, the anchors and reporters have separated themselves and are speaking to us from their own homes.
It’s interesting to get a glimpse of the rooms they are in, the art on their walls, or even of a cat or dog on the sofa. On the PBS Newshour as Judy Woodruff, Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the events of the day, I see a curious thing: they have all chosen to populate their rooms with books in order to add credibility to their comments and legitimacy to their prognostications.
This visual element of books is often used as a ploy by those who want to persuade us. In advertisements, there, in the background, is the shelf with the books. Sometimes the room is full of books, sometimes it is only two or three sickly worn paperbacks sharing shelf space with other bric-a-brac. The important thing is that books are present.
Why do we accord such respect to books?
I think it is because they allow us to look at the world from a different window from the one we habitually use. This different widow reveals insights and feelings which we often share but also shows us different landscapes which we had never seen before.
Mario Vargas Llosa wrote: “We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist; reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life,
a way of traveling without leaving home”.
Another way to measure the importance and power of books is through the people who would destroy them.
In 213 BC, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of books of poetry and history because he felt threatened by the ideas they represented. The library in ancient Alexandria was burned many times. After the invention of printing, it became more difficult to eradicate books when they were present in many copies.
John Milton said in 1644: “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature but who destroys a good book kills reason itself”. And Heine wrote, “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”
In 1933 university students across Germany burned 25,ooo books including authors such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway.
As long as there have been books, there have been men who burned them. As recently as 2012, in Timbuktu priceless manuscripts were being burned. People risked their lives to protect them and smuggled out 350,ooo of them. In China Mao Zedong ordered books burned if they did not conform to party propaganda.
Books pose a threat to some but procure delight and happiness to others. In addition to their contents they are a great artifact in and of themselves. The book is one of the most capable, easy, accessible, never-breaks- down technologies ever invented. You can read it anywhere, indoors or out. It does not need to be plugged into anything and so is always available. You can pick it up anytime or put it away. You can sit in the sun with it. You can go back and reread something that struck you. You can skip pages of boring material. If you can’t afford to buy one, you can borrow it from the library. As long as there are books in a library you will never be bored.
Books preserve the ideas and knowledge of all time, for all time.
It’s a good time to get away so I’ve been thinking about outer space.
When Christina Koch was five, she knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She became an electrical engineer and in October of last year, she and Jessica Meir, a marine biologist who scuba dives to study Emperor Penguins, made history by completing the first ever all-female spacewalk. They worked together for just over seven hours replacing a faulty battery charge/discharge unit.
Fifteen women have done space walks so far. It took awhile to get more women into space because of a lack of spacesuits that fit them properly. Spacesuits were designed in the 1970’s and all the original astronauts were men (and tall at that). And recently a NASA administrator has said there are “physical” reasons that make it difficult for women to perform spacewalks. I seriously doubt that and I’m not alone.
Here’s a quote from Christina that moved me. “I may not be the first woman to walk on the moon, but I think I will know the first woman who walks on the moon.”
Planet Earth is an oasis floating in the immense void of space and it is the only place that provides sustenance for humans. We can “walk” in space, but we cannot eat, drink breathe or sleep there.
We take our daily sensory inputs for granted until they are absent. The Big Void is not our natural living milieu. I learned that space suits are actually miniature spaceships for one person.
The flag just stands there like an unmoving sentinel. It has been planted in the vast nothingness of the moon’s surface and no wind ever ventures there.
Because there’s no air up there, the flag (original cost $4.95) was fitted with telescoping rods to hold it horizontally. They made the rods, they got them to the moon, but the lubricant on them was wrong so they couldn’t extend. So the flag looks like it is fluttering.
There are 6 other US flags on the moon, all intentionally designed so they will look the same as that first flag.
Part of the inscription at the base of the first flag reads:
”We came in peace for all mankind.”
I think I have found the perfect anti-Trump! She is his opposite in every imaginable way. Her name is Jacinda Ardern and she is New Zealand’s Prime Minister. Maybe being at the bottom of the world map allows a clear view of what is happening in the world above.
Breaking news from The Lancet, May 9th: “New Zealand has recorded its first day of no new cases of Covid-19”
Donald Trump is mean-spirited. Jacinda Ardern radiates empathy. His language is incoherent gibberish. She is clear-headed and articulate. She let the science lead and has built public trust. Her initial aim, which was controversial, was not to control the virus, but rather to eliminate it.
In late March, about one month after the country’s first reported case, Ardern imposed a strict national lockdown. At the time, New Zealand had only 102 cases and no deaths. The nationwide effort included extensive testing and contact tracing focused on problem areas. Now, with only 1500 recorded cases, they are slowly opening up. New Non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Christchurch start on October 20th.
Jacinda is the mother of a little girl whom she treats firmly and lovingly and her approach to governing is much the same: compassionate but effective.
Trumps’s main concern is “How is this virus affecting my image?” Ardren is trying to find ways to stop its spread. Trump believes nothing has changed in the world whereas Arden knows that nothing will ever be the same again.
Donald Trump wants to reopen the US economy in the next few weeks and is not worried that this reopening might lead to more Covid-19 deaths. But the situation is far beyond his control. In New Zealand, effective and early testing and tracing have brought the virus to a “near zero” status which can now be controlled with continuing testing and contact tracing.
Donald Trump’s strategy might be his undoing as more people see him as the selfish, self-centered self-promoter that he is.
Just after the Second World War, my husband David and I lived in France. Food was scare and a system of rationing was put in place. People had ration cards and distribution of various items was announced periodically as well as which cards entitled to us to particular foods.
The days when we got butter were particularly appreciated. It was also great to get chocolate because sweets were rare. On the other hand vegetables and fruit were grown locally and were readily available.
We could and did exchange one food for another by bartering. I remember trading milk and getting rice instead. Of course as is always the case, you could obtain almost anything on the black market at exorbitant prices.
Despite that somewhat challenging bit of history, I have to say today’s situation is unprecedented. I’m 98 years-old and I don’t think I have ever used that word except as a synonym for unusual.
But what is happening now has really never been seen before in my lifetime. When have we ever been required to separate from friends at the very moment when an embrace or a hug is needed as never before?
And why, I wonder, has French President Emmanuel Macron decided it is time to reopen schools and other institutions on May 11th? I question the wisdom of this. It is hard to keep children from playing and touching each other and spreading the infection.
Still, the world is slowly restarting. In Austria and Denmark, schools and universities are reopening. Germany is slowly returning to normal. Italy is reopening its bookstores. In Spain, construction work restarts. In the USA, there are spotty reopenings and a lot of fear.
So we have two contradictory forces at work; the wish to return to normalcy as soon as possible and the high risk of spreading the infection.
I tell myself to be patient. I tell myself that things will be good again. But, oh, waiting is so hard when you don’t really know how much more waiting is in store.
Editor’s Note: We’re happy to share a guest post from Simone’s daughter, Dina Cramer
In 1956 an American actress named Grace Kelly went to Europe and married a prince, Prince Ranier of Monaco, thus becoming Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. She gave up a highly successful acting career after her marriage although she was still offered acting roles and was tempted to accept. But in the end the palace pressured her to resist going back to acting, and she acceded to the pressure. She devoted her life to royal duties and to raising her three children.
Another American actress, albeit less famous than Grace Kelly, Meghan Markle, has taken an opposite tack. She too married a European Prince. When we last looked in on the adventures of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of Great Britain, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they were in the process of engineering their exit from Great Britain.
A year and a half into their marriage they informed the Queen and the world that they were setting up a new life in North America. The Queen, who seemed to be presented with a fait accompli, let them go without a fuss. But when they announced that they wanted to represent the Queen from their base abroad, she denied this request, saying they could not be half in and half out of the royal family.
So why did they leave? In England the Duchess, who is half-black, faced racist comments from individuals, a vicious tabloid press, and a relentless social media. She was also criticized for being an American, divorced, and older than the Prince. The couple compounded their troubles by keeping secret the birth location of their baby, the christening details, and the identity of the godparents. The British public was not pleased, especially after having just spent over $3 million to renovate their house.
But why did Harry so readily agree to abandon his country and family? We know that the Prince was deeply traumatized by his mother Diana’s death when he was only twelve, and that he blames the press for that death. He was then brought up by a succession of nannies when not in boarding school. He was left bereft in a family and a culture that believes in a stiff upper lip. He admits that he couldn’t deal with any of it until his late twenties and today has a great interest in causes dealing with mental health.
Harry, who is both a Prince and a Duke, was the second son in his family. His mother produced two sons, known as “an heir and a spare.” Harry’s older brother, William, was the heir to the throne. Since his brother already has three children, Harry is only sixth in line to the throne.
His flight reminds me of younger sons of landed nobility, in earlier days, who couldn’t inherit because of primogeniture. The whole estate would go to the first-born male. Thus the younger brothers would have to find a role for themselves if they didn’t want to live in their older brother’s shadow, perhaps managing the estate. There was a tradition of leaving the country by moving to the colonies or joining the military. Then they could potter about the family tea plantations or ride around with their regiment.
Nonetheless the flight of the Sussexes is without precedent. British royals, no matter how miserable they are, at least stay in England. The Queen’s four children have always lived there, through various ups and downs. Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, rebelled against the family by refusing to carry out her royal duties, but she never moved out of the country.
The only expat was the Duke of Windsor, who was exiled by his family after he abdicated the throne, and forbidden to return to England despite his desire to do so. The status of the Sussexes is different because they left voluntarily and without rupturing their relationships. The Queen even issued a statement praising Meghan for the work she had done as a royal.
After a short sojourn in Canada, the Sussexes moved to Los Angeles, the Duchess’s home town, the home of her mother, and the home of the movie industry in which they are interested. The Duchess has already recorded the narration for the Disney film, Elephant, and hopes to take up her Hollywood career once again. We have not been told what the Prince’s plans are, but together they have launched a charity and are interested in supporting causes they believe in, starting with contributing to the fight against COVID-19.
Why do we care about all this? The question answers itself. Because they are royals – rich, good-looking, titled and entitled – and because they left one glamorous life – Buckingham Palace, for another – Hollywood.