Sunday, September 27, 2020

Pause for Breath

-- Susan, every other Sunday 

"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process, (s)he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back at you."--Nietzche

"Perception of an object varies according to the mind. When the mind is polluted, the object becomes tainted." -- Kōbō Daishi

Today, I am turning my back on the abyss, to cleanse my mind with a (virtual) walk in the woods. I hope you'll join me.

Shinrin-yoku (lit. "forest bathing")

The Japanese practice of entering nature (specifically forests)

for the purpose of cleansing and healing the mind and soul.

Take a walk in the trees.

Sit in silence. Contemplate the mountain. 

Breathe fresh air.

Listen to the wind in the reeds.

Follow a trail to a destination you cannot see.

See the grasses turning gold as summer gives way to autumn.

Feel the breeze on your cheeks and the sunlight on your head and shoulders.

Pause for breath.

Find a place to be alone, if only for a moment.

No phones. No Internet.

Walk off the beaten path, and feel the earth beneath your feet.

Go past the place where the trail ends.

And when you're ready, begin your return to civilization. 

Eat the pancake. Drink the coffee. Remember that life is sweet as well as bitter.

Remember that when you need them, the mountains and the trees will be waiting for you.

And remember . . . it's OK to take time to breathe.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Tale of Two Leaders


Greece has 16,627 reported Covid cases and 366 deaths. The US population is 30 times that of Greece, which after adjusting for comparative purposes, equates to approximately 500,000 Covid cases and 11,000 deaths in Greece--compared to 7,000,000 cases and 203,000 deaths in the United States. Bottom line, after adjusting for their different populations, America has 14 times the cases of infection and more than 18 times the deaths than Greece.

Why is that, one might ask.  I think the answer lies in the different approaches taken by their respective national leadership as reflected in the following excerpts (edited to eliminate opinion from fact) drawn from reporting by Greece’s newspaper of record, Ekathimerini, and CNN (US).

Ekathimerini on Prime Minister Mitsotakis:

Prime Minister Mitsotakis

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appealed to the public on Thursday to wear masks and comply with health safety regulations so that stricter coronavirus containment measures can be averted, saying that it is a choice between “self-protection and lockdown.”

“The mask is our vaccination until we have a vaccination,” Mitsotakis said in a televised appeal to the public, warning that failure to comply and brings down the number of new infections and hospitalizations will lead to lockdown measures.

Lockdowns mean closed businesses and unemployment,” Mitsotakis said, warning of the damage to the already beleaguered economy by stricter restrictions and of the impact on society.

“The weeks ahead will likely determine the months and maybe even years to come, so we need to stay a step ahead of the coronavirus rather than behind it,” the prime minister added. “Managing the pandemic is not a pendulum that swings from total lockdown to total complacency,” he said.

CNN on President Trump:

President Trump and Dr. Fauci

As the US death toll from the pandemic passed 200,000, Dr. Anthony Fauci [America’s top infectious disease expert] warned Tuesday that he was worried that the high base level of infections could make it difficult to keep the virus under control in the colder months…

Fauci spoke while medical indicators head in a perilous direction as the US approaches its 7 millionth infection. Cases are rising in 24 states, Washington, DC, and two territories…. And there are now more than 59,000 cases of coronavirus on college campuses, after many schools decided to open despite adopting insufficient safety measures. 

Notre Dame canceled its game on Saturday against Wake Forest after seven Fighting Irish players tested positive for the virus. The move comes just a week after Trump claimed he had orchestrated the return of football for many of Notre Dame's Midwest (and battleground state) neighbors in the Big Ten conference…

"I think we've done an amazing job ... in my opinion we're rounding the turn," the President said in an interview… On Monday, he had claimed the virus "affects virtually nobody" while doubling down on previous claims that young people are "virtually immune" …

Asked about the 200,000 deaths as he headed out to another campaign event Tuesday in Pittsburgh, with a non-socially distanced crowd, the President said "it's a shame" but claimed he had nevertheless saved millions of lives.

And on Tuesday evening, the President mocked his election opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has been observing the safety protocols recommended by Trump's government, for wearing a mask…

Trump's repeated predictions that a vaccine will be available before or around Election Day significantly outpace the optimism of most health experts and understate the complicated, months-long process that will be needed to get it to most Americans…

The President has in recent days taken to highlighting an alarming rise of new Covid-19 cases in Europe, … But he appears not to have considered that signs of a second wave abroad could be a worrying omen on this side of the Atlantic, which has a far higher baseline of infections and did not enjoy Europe's summer respite.

In other words, May God have mercy on our souls.

Hart Island, NYC.  Photo by Lucas Jackson, Reuters


Friday, September 25, 2020

Confused dot com


There’s bit a seismic shift today in politics here. The SNP has backtracked on their ill-conceived Hate Crime Bill.  It was badly put together and would curtail any kind of freedom of speech, ANY kind. Indeed, I could go to prison for seven years just for saying that ‘I dislike the SNP’, as the word Scottish is in there and therefore I am being critical of a national identity and therefore racist. You are probably thinking that I’m taking that too far but it was one of the examples put forward in a very well written newspaper column. Even Val McDermid, a huge nationalist and a friend of Nicola says the bill is a real threat to creative freedom. It was simply all encompassing and the bill has today been sent back to be reconsidered.

From today’s Daily Record

“We applaud any attempts to tackle bigotry and sectarianism in Scotland but the climb down on the Hate Crime Bill is welcome and necessary. It is not the first time the SNP Government has found itself reversing out of these difficulties. The challenges of balancing the rights to free speech and civil exchanges with the need to tackle the most extreme hate speech are well known. The proposed new crime of “stirring up hatred” against protected groups could mean that old jokes about a Scotsman, an Irishman and an Englishman walk into a bar could be considered more than just lame patter. More seriously, considered criticism of individuals could be interpreted as an offence against a whole group, while open debate on issues from trans rights to religious views could be curtailed. Policing the law, as was the case with the ill-fated Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, could be a nightmare too. As with that ill-judged piece of legislation, there were already existing laws that if enforced could deal with the problem of hate speech and bigotry.  Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has made the right decision to pause now and rethink the bill before the legislation becomes an unworkable mess.”


And now I believe we have such a person as a sensitivity reader for novels that are err… well what? 

I had one of those lunches yesterday, the ones were you cheer up a friend who has just had a difficult email from the editor of the new book.  The editor was female. She liked the book, but wanted the lead female character to be more upbeat, positive and be a good role model for women. I’ve read the book and thought the main character was fine. In the previous two books, that character is devastated by the death of her dad, she suffers a miscarriage and then somebody bleeds to death in her arms; she’s at a crossroads in her life, emotionally and professionally, and there’s sense of deep vulnerability, and that fuels her to do what she does in this book. I’d be rather surprised if she was full of jokes and the joy of life; she’s still determined and pushes through her personal pain to get the job done. The editor thought this might be a weak role model.


Then, I was reading a review of one of my books by a lady was outraged that my book was even published at all, as I am one of the ‘most sexist writers’ she has ever read. Me?  Ok, so I read on wondering what had rattled her cage so much. She had ignored the other three female characters in the book - professional cops written in a very neutral way, and she focused the entire review on one female cop whose behaviour and appearance are indeed described in a rather sexual way, simply because she was that kind of character. And here we start to walk in the mire.  There is, whether we like it or not, a type of woman, who wears clothes a little too tight, not enough buttons being done up, who flirts with make colleagues and disses her female ones.  They will crap on their female colleagues in meetings, but be as nice as nine pence to them one to one. And of course woman do have the right to dress as they wish, as do men but in the professional context, I think society likes a certain  code of conduct  from both sexes, or any identifying gender.  The character in the book was that type of person. Those people do exist. End of.

Would I be allowed to write that now?  What should my friend do? Write all women to a super strong stereotype?


And I’m not sure we are fighting the right war. There’s a glossy magazine in front of me that has an article in support of  the right  of women to have facial moustaches and beards if they desire while every second page in the magazine  is an advert featuring size  6/8 ( Size zero in the US I think) female models, all five feet ten with no body hair.  

Meanwhile, in the day to day world, Scotland has gone into another mini lockdown. Out at the coffee house to meet somebody as we are not allowed in each other’s houses, a man came in with another man; a carer and a vulnerable person. The latter had that ten yard confusion of dementia (he wasn’t very old), his eyes trying to make sense of the masks, the distance between the tables, a table with nothing on it. His carer tried to make it all ok, pointing out the familiar, ordering tea and shortbread, his hand never leaving  the forearm of his charge, a comforting touch in a world that must be so alien.  


Caro on the Clyde.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Good news, bad news, and in-between news.

Michael - Thursday 

The bad news

Another shooting of an innocent Black person by police has caused protests and demonstrations that turned violent in some places. The president said, “While communities have a right to express dissent, anger should not spill over into action that could worsen the trauma already experienced by citizens. Justice can only prevail if community workers work with our criminal justice system to address alleged injustice or abuse.” Police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators, even – according to the demonstrators – when no rioting was taking place. Sound familiar?

Demonstration remembering Nathaniel Julies

I’m talking about the shooting of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies. If you think this is a BLM case that you somehow missed, you’re right. The thing is that it took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Nathaniel was a severely disabled Downs syndrome young man. Initially, the police claimed that he was hit in the cross fire during a shootout with a gang. They expressed regret. Not as much regret as his mother expressed when she saw his sandaled feet sticking out from under the white sheet that covered his body. However, now the two of the three police who were present at the scene have been arrested and charged with murder, obstruction of justice, and attempting to discard evidence. One of the officers claimed she was told to shoot by the sergeant, who had previously threatened her. I was only following orders...I've heard that somewhere before.

Riot that led to more injuries

One can only speculate as to what happened at the time, but it’s inconceivable that the three officers  could have believed their lives in danger. Perhaps they asked him what he was doing hanging around, and he tried to ask for a few rand to buy his favourite cookie. Maybe he walked up to them – three trained(?) officers – waving his hands about. How does that possibly lead to him lying on a slab with more gun shot wounds than his mother could count?

Everything in South Africa is complicated by race. Nathaniel was coloured (mixed race), and two of the police were coloured and one was a black African. But I’m sure race wasn’t the issue. Sadly, the people running the police may have changed, but the culture towards Black people – particularly poor Black people – hasn’t changed much. The police minister said, “We will spare nobody. Whoever has committed a crime will have to face the law.” 

Let’s hope that happens. People here have a low enough opinion of the police as it is, and this just makes it worse.

The in-between news

Elephants at a waterhole in northern Botswana

There was shocking news from Botswana a few months ago of terrible elephant deaths. Nearly three hundred carcasses were found scattered around waterholes in the north of the country. The immediate reaction was that it was the work of poachers, who sometimes poison waterholes to kill elephants to grab their ivory. This is an incredibly destructive form of poaching because other animals drinking at the waterhole are also killed, as well as scavengers who eat the meat. But none of the carcasses had been disturbed, and no other animals seemed to have been affected. Anthrax was ruled out, and the idea of a novel virus was raised. That was not a popular suggestion. A novel virus is just what we need right now.

Waterhole polluted by algae

The Botswana authorities announced this week that the matter had now been resolved. The source was a cyanobacterium that causes poisoning of algae infested water holes. It’s good news because we know all about those and they aren’t going to get us locked down. Just avoid drinking at waterholes. The bad news is that we still don’t understand why it just affects elephants. The even worse news is that the bacteria flourish in warm, nutrient-rich water that grows plentiful algae. As things warm up, it may become more common. According to recent estimates, Africa is heating up at twice the rate of global warming. Water will become scarce. And it might contain some very nasty pollution. So stick to wine and beer. Those of us who can afford it…

The good news

I share a bungalow in the Olifants River game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park with friends. Recently, Stan and I were there with two of my partners, Jenny and Aron Frankental. (I posted a few of Aron’s magnificent photographs a few weeks ago.)

I’ve noticed that the longer the game reserve remains protected and safe for the animals, the less notice they take of the visitors who drive around watching them. We become part of the landscape, safe to ignore as they go about their lives.

While we were there, we were  excited to have multiple excellent leopard sightings. Seeing one is always a thrill since leopards are elusive, nocturnal, and shy. Except when they are not. 

One of these leopards hangs around the area of the river near our bungalow. Make that at our bungalow. Here are pictures from this week from Aron.

Taking a look around from our shower under the deck
I think I'd prefer to be dressed for that encounter...

Checking out the back door...CLOSED

A comfortable roof for a nap.

 I'm feeling more cheerful already!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

You Can't Have Truth Without Ruth

 Sujata Massey

Portrait of RBG by Joan Baez

She promised us she would not give up. Cancer hit her four times, yet she stayed on the job, conscious of the Americans who relied on her power within the U.S. Supreme Court. She strengthened herself by lifting weights, made from iron, and from authoritarianism.

 Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 87 years old, appointed by President Bill Clinton as only the second woman justice on the Supreme Court. she leaves behind Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan as two other women on a court that now numbers eight.

A number of women friends have expressed to me that this death is "devastating." While RBG became an icon for young women, many of us in our fifties and older remember life before laws were established for gender parity. In the 1970s, institutionalized sex discrimination meant there were fewer sports opportunities for girls in public schools and colleges, and women could be fired for pregnancy or even what they looked like. It was almost impossible to challenge pay discrimination. There was injustice in lending to women, and credit cards and credit ratings. Men also suffered at times from the lack of gender parity. Some cases that RBG won actually improved life for men, such as the right for a widower to access the same government benefits as a widow.

I write reality-based mystery fiction about a woman lawyer practicing in India during the early twentieth century. In those days, a scant number of women were studying in law schools in Asia, Europe and the United States. In some cases, they would do the all the coursework as males, yet be considered ineligible to get degrees. It was almost impossible for a law graduate to be hired by a firm that wasn't run by her father or brother.

In my mind, I believed the matter would be greatly improved after World War II. It's shocking to hear Ruth speak in the great documentary RBG about how a Harvard Law professor demanded she feel guilty for taking a place in the law school that should have been granted to a male. Ruth was a married mother--another factor that made life as a lawyer challenging--and she chose to leave Harvard for Columbia in order to accompany her husband to New York as he began his law career. Ruth switched to Columbia Law and tied for first place in her graduating class, yet the twelve New York law firms she applied to all rejected her. RBG went to work as a lawyer for the State of New York, then academia, then the American Civil Liberties Union, and finally, earned the penultimate power of confirmation to the Supreme Court. 

I live in Maryland, just an hour from Washington, D.C., and it was cheering, during Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life, to think of her being fairly by. I might attend a concert at the Kennedy Center and wonder if RBG had recently been in the same space. I marveled at the stories about her and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, so diametrically opposed, enjoying time together at restaurants, parties and the opera. I was awed by news photos of her working out with her trainer. I also got a kick out of hearing how her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, enjoyed cooking more than she did. 

Here are some of the many brilliant things Ruth said. For more like this, from quotes to cartoons to op-eds, check out the the Washington Post's emporium of RBG

"Every now and then it helps to be a little deaf...that advice has stood me in good stead. Not simply in dealing with my marriage, but in dealing with my colleagues."

"I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of my brethren is that they take their feet of our necks."

"Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."

"It's not women's liberation. It's women and men's liberation."

"Real change, enduring change, happens one step a a time."

Monday, September 21, 2020

Prisoners of Art

Annamaria on Monday


Perhaps they did it out religious fervor.  Perhaps out of homesickness for their faraway land that boasts fabulously beautiful churches in every corner of the country.  Perhaps because so many Italians seem to be compulsive builders of beautiful buildings and makers of art. This I know for sure: during World War II, Italian prisoners found ways to express all three of these motivations by building tiny churches on three continents!


Africa: Kenya


Stats: 55,000 POWs in eleven camps. (BTW, there were only 21,500 British subjects in Kenya at the time!)

Mai Mahiu



I’ve previously given you a glimpse of this one, which I have seen in person, thanks to an Uber driver.  This tiny church was built by Italian prisoners in 1942. They had constructed a corniche road overlooking the Rift Valley between Nairobi  and Naivasha and asked for permission to build it in gratitude for having completed the dangerous project without injury.  It is positively beautiful.





In researching today, I discovered that there is second tiny chapel in Kenya, near Thika of Flame Tree fame.  There, prisoners were put to work on coffee plantations and dairy farms.  They also made bricks, but they built their tiny church of stone they themselves quarried.  It seats sixty.


Great Britain



This beauty is on the Orkney Island of Lamb Holm, which housed 500 POWs.  It’s only 16 feet wide and 72 feet long.  Like all these structures, the prisoners’ materials of construction were whatever they could scrounge from the environment.


As to motivation, one of the builders of this absolute gem is quoted as saying, “It was the wish to show to oneself, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free.”






The exterior here is just a (now restored) Quonset hut.  The artist who did the painting—Mario Ferlito—was self-taught because his parents were too poor to pay for art school.  He was one of 1200 Italian POWs in this remote village in north Wales.  They made the paint by boiling fish bones to make an adhesive and mixing in pigments made with fruit, vegetables and tea leaves.


The United States


Franklin, Indiana


Some of the 3000 POWs, built this tiny chapel in rural Indiana out of leftover brick and stucco.  They decorated it with paint pigmented with flowers and berries from the local swamp and their own blood.



They also volunteered to decorate the local Catholic church, which—while beautifully constructed—was until then without interior ornamentation.


Camp Hereford, Texas 


The 79 POWs in this Texas town cobbled together enough materials to build this little gem.