All content on this blog is copyright by Marci Andrews Wahlquist as of its date of publication.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Playing in Puddles

Winter is coming at last. My dog and I went walking on the day that the weather changed here, and while we were out walking, the cold rain turned to snow. We were soaked anyway, so we played along our walk in the puddles. It was fun for me to contemplate reflections of trees and houses and sky.

Not coming down hard yet

The clouds right down on the mountains

Something interesting in the wet leaves?
The tree inverted

Tree and dog and me

Have a great week everybody, and to all my U.S. friends, happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Who Does What for How Much?

A friend just posted a link to an article on Facebook today that analyzes a United Nations report and concludes that the United Nations is trying to mandate a worldwide scenario that forces all women to work outside the home whether they want to or not and whether they have minor children at home or not. The author attempts to alarm its readers with a dystopian future in which all children are reared by government workers, a popular element of dystopian fiction.

One problem I had with the article other than its similarity to the aforementioned fiction is that it distorts and misrepresents some of the statistical data used in regard to equal work for equal pay. I have friends who think this is a non-issue, that it does not exist. I have no idea whether they think it never existed at all. But I myself have personal experience of the problem in the course of my own work career, so I know that it has existed, and I believe it is not entirely extinct. It’s pretty easy to search and click a number of reports that set out the data regarding the status of equal pay for equal work in this country, and the report loses its credibility on that problem alone.

But it also loses credibility when it misses the opportunity to make a point about something in line with what it wants to advocate, which is that women should have the choice to stay home and rear their children if they want to. Before I talk about what is missing from the argument, Let me state that I believe that their main point is valid, and that I further believe that it is not something we have to fear will be outlawed in the near or even distant future. I don’t see a society in the world today that is taking the step of outlawing care of one’s own children in the name of gender equality. It is absurd to think that that is a fear for this generation.

(However, I didn’t see coming the election of such a president as we have in this country today, who advocates such backward-looking policies as trickle-down economics; who tacitly approves racism and sexual harassment; who not only cares nothing for vulnerable populations but explicitly mocks and denigrates them; and who has such a retrograde sense of our obligation to the planet that he reverses our progress on climate change, shrinks our national monuments, cancels policies protecting our air and water quality, and reverses protections on endangered species. So anything bad could still happen.)

What is missing from the article’s argument is the opportunity to explore the issue of what value is contributed to society, both economic and social, of supporting women in rearing their own children in the best way they know how. The article talks about this opportunity being in danger of being lost because of an economic idea that the work women do for their families is somehow lost by reason of its not being paid work. The article says that the United Nations wants all childcare to be done by governments. It then drops the idea and fails to explore what that statement means, as if all children are delivered to Congress or something.

If childcare were done by governments, obviously there would have to be massive numbers of childcare centers built, childcare workers trained and hired, and a gazillion laws passed regarding regulation of the same. Certainly childcare wages would be a hot topic. Nobody is going to work for the government for peanuts. If childcare were to become a government function, then it would have to be well paid.

As with all government entities, there would be enormous opportunity for corruption among the levels of management of such centers and staff. Imagine the fun of running a center and being able to bill the government for millions of diapers and Wet Wipes and zinc creams and so on each year. The past scandals of military organizations that billed thousands of dollars to the government for equipment wouldn’t touch this one.

Intrinsic to the picture is the millions of women “freed” from the bondage of home labor now enabled to work in this new government department, doing the same thing they used to do at home, but now for wages that can be taxed. Forget equal work for equal pay--how many men do you think will apply for a new governmental career in childcare? Depends on how well it pays, for one thing. Still, it’s pretty reasonable to imagine that fewer men than women would do this type of work as a career. So this will probably be perceived as a woman’s type of job, and it will probably be given a pay scale that is lower than, say, the facilities management department that takes care of all the new childcare buildings. In other words, the janitors will be better paid than the childcare staff workers.

Managers, though, will be paid more. They will be mostly male, if this industry follows the same pattern as all other governmental industries. The glass ceiling will remain in place, with a few exceptions of course.

The supposed major gain in the entire scenario is supposedly that women who otherwise would be home earning nothing will be out in the workforce, doing whatever they are trained to do in the fields they most enjoy (aside from care of their own children, that is, unless they opt for a childcare career and get to have their own children under their care for a time). This is supposed to be a major economic boost to the nation.

One little matter is forgotten in the entire picture. What sort of upbringing do the children experience? If it is at all like public school, then some of the children will have excellent care, some will have mediocre care, and a lot will have bad care. Differences will exist along racial and economic lines in terms of location. Children from affluent areas may have better care than children from inner cities. Some will experience mentally and emotionally supportive and enriching environments, but most will not.

Plenty of reputable studies have shown that children do best when cared for by their own parents in a home where both parents are present and supportive of each other and the children themselves. This is the ideal that is so often discarded because it is so often unattainable. But it should still be sought, and it actually is still supported by current laws in almost all developed countries today, even those that are supposedly so focused on gender equality that they are supposed to be on the brink of enacting just such dystopian laws as described above. They haven’t enacted such laws anywhere that I could find. Society today still knows that children grow up and reach their best ability to function in society when they have plenty of the right kind of support in their formative years.

That many don’t have the right kind of support is a problem to be worked out, but not by denying the children who do have a parent who wants to stay home with them and rear them for “nothing.”

Now what about that “nothing”? The economics seem to be clear that parents taking care of their own children are paid nothing in monetary terms. However, we all know that there is another currency operating in this case. For the children, the rewards of having a loving, attentive person whose interest in them is incalculable is so great as to be, perhaps incalculable. For the parents, the rewards of childcare can be great, especially when all goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t for a number of reasons, but we’re talking still in ideals here. Therefore, the rewards to the parents for doing their best at a job they know they can do better than anyone else are perhaps the greatest.

But without discussing the subjective subject of love, we can identify some absolute benefits of childcare by parents. Studies have shown that such children are better socially and emotionally adjusted, perform better in school, and achieve a more stable adulthood according to a number of objective benchmarks than those otherwise reared. Statistics regarding imprisonment show that people cared for as children in stable homes by a stay-at-home parent are far less likely to commit crimes that result in imprisonment.

One most interesting issue in the original article was the fear that parenthood, and specifically the day-to-day care of small children, is denigrated. Leaving small children to the care of government workers is described as if it were the most obvious and desirable solution to the disposal of some unwanted commodity. But these are human beings who are being discussed. They are the future. They are deserving of society’s best efforts. If their own parent wants to care for them, such a choice should be celebrated as the securing of the future of all of society that it represents. These points are missing from the article, and of course they should have been there to solidify the point that every woman ought to be respected for the choice she makes whether to be at home with her children or not.

It also bears repeating that women who cannot or do not want to be at home with their children should be respected as well. Mostly this is the attitude of our society at present. But in some circles it still is a problem, precisely because the range of choices is presented as an opposition, not as alternatives.

Whatever progress we make toward true gender equality, we must come together and support one another in all the range of opportunities and choices we have, and we must remember the children, to do the best for them that we are able to do.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Sight Treats

My dog and I went walking as usual this morning, but I made him stop a lot and sit, because I wanted to take pictures of the Halloween decorations in my neighborhood. We seem to have a mix of minimalist and maximum decor people around here with a bunch of us in the middle. I like them all!

Here are some of the Maximums I saw.


I have been watching this house because the owner has a business doing landscape and yard care, and part of it is decoration. So here is what they came up with.

I have another picture of this house before the dying flowers were taken out. I kind of like the dying flowers look for a Halloween theme, what about you?

The elaborate set pieces deserved a couple of close-up shots.

Check out the guy with the fish on the line at the bottom, and the one with the shrunken head at the top. Then the one at left with the shades on. Very cool.









I really like the dancers in the center, and my favorite is the kid pulling the dog in the red wagon.

Here is the other house in the neighborhood that is well decorated. These people always go all out for every holiday. They always provide the neighbors with a visual treat year around.

I like this one. These people took the skeletons that appear to be the latest rage and gave them a ghoulish tea party, complete with the dog begging for crumbs under the table.

Then the skeleton-of-a-witch riding overhead adds a nice touch as does the evil clown hanging at the side.





At this house the graveyard is the big thing, along with all that spider-webbing over the bushes. I would have put this house into the middle decoration category except for the labor involved in what they put out.




Here is a close-up of the web in the yard pictured more fully below. I also made a close-up of the ghoul hanging in space. My dog thought it was threatening enough to bark and growl at it as we paused. In fact, he did not want to cooperate with me to take its picture and pulled on my arm as hard as he could to get me to move away.

It’s a wonder this isn’t blurry. Thanks, dog.











The house is pretty well decorated.


Next come some of the minimalist decorations. These are houses where the trick-or-treating people are going to have to look carefully to see if this house is participating or not. Sometimes it’s only the house lights that are going to be the deciding factor.

The pumpkin lights on the garage wall and porch are going to be a tip-off, but when you get close to the porch, there are a quartet of monsters (a ghost, Frankenstein head, vampire head, and large spider) to greet the little trick-or-treaters.




This really is minimalist. A couple ghouls looking like nothing in particular hang from the lamps. But then a close-up reveals a skeleton in that flower pot.


Also in the minimalist tradition, a couple flags proclaim the season (autumn), and a single pumpkin labeled Halloween hangs on the door. Only the pumpkin counts as a Halloween decoration.












This next house has a different minimalist effect with tiny decorations. There are a witch, a black cat, two jack-o-lanterns, a ghost, and a bat hanging around. The fall flag and the autumn-hued wreath don’t count as Halloween decorations.

Now I have pictures of what I figure are the middle of the decor spectrum.

Bridging the gap of minimalism to middle are these ghosts coupled with
decorations that will last until after Thanksgiving.

Window decor, haunted wreath, bats, and jack-o-lanterns

More skeletons, and is that haunted tree from the Wizard of Oz?

Jack-o-lanterns

Hey, you can use a watermelon instead of a pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern!

Great use of paint on the pumpkins

Is this a crime scene?

I really like the look of the little things hidden in the dying vegetation


I should have put this one in the maximum category. It must have taken quite some time to hang all those things, unless they are all part of a single mobile? I like the effect!


A really lovely web in the morning sunlight


These people get the prize for jack-o-lanterns in my book.
My favorite neighborhood mailbox.


These are my favorite ghosts in the neighborhood.

And finally, what is at my house?

The black cat on the door,
with a jack-o-lantern face my mom made

Bats on one window

Pumpkin faces and cats on the other window

Our welcoming porch with a grinning lighted jack-o-lantern, a brick ghost in the middle of a row of tiny pumpkins, lit window ghosts, a giant spider, and window stickers: skeletons, bats, spiders, jack-o-lanterns, and cats . . .

It is clear we are not in the minimalist camp. Are we maximums or middles?

(Those little pumpkins are staying there until Thanksgiving, so they dont count. Neither does the clump of autumn leaves on the door. I hate decorating for Christmas until after Thanksgiving is over, so the leaves are my way of being festive and keeping my holidays somewhat separate.)

Update:
My neighbor told me while I was handing out candy that I needed to walk around again and see things that had been added . . . so here are some!

Large spiders!

This is hard to see, but there are purple and green witches flying at left.

Some familiar faces!

Added to the Maximum House that were not there earlier

The Maximum House with additional figures

I like the "Boo" on the skeleton with the shades on the roof

This was not there earlier today

Neither was this scene

I totally overlooked house lights!

Here is our house again, with lights.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Intrigue and Mysteries

This post is a series of three reviews, a movie and two books.

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Recommended to do so by my best friend, I recently watched Whit Stillman’s 2016 movie Love and Friendship. This is a brilliant production of the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. It captures the black-humored satire, some of Jane Austen’s harshest, of how a woman’s wit must be pitted against the society of the day in order to achieve basic security. Lady Susan, as described by her sister-in-law in the movie, Catherine Vernon, is a genius at manipulation, sabotage, seduction, revenge, wit, and charm. Kate Beckinsale captures her perfectly; in fact, she nails the part and carries the movie.

One of my favorite lines, one that the writers added to story, is the one about how no male sees through Lady Susan except a few tradesmen who have banded together and forced her to sell her last piece of jewelry to pay their bills. The women see through her and abhor her, including her conflicted daughter, but Lady Susan is such a force that all are powerless against her until she acts in her own interest and it fortunately aligns with something that other characters would like to achieve. There is no anti-heroine like Lady Susan. She is an original; she is wonderful and terrible together.

The movie begins subtly by presenting Lady Susan by reputation as a coquette. This is not a compliment in those times and in that society. We soon meet the lady, and she is all charm and smiles. We see her being forced to leave a residence under some duress, but it isn’t fully clear why. Slowly, carefully, her true character is revealed to us, and we recoil at the same time as her charm beguiles us even as young Reginald DeCourcy is beguiled despite being forewarned.

You can’t dislike Lady Susan, until her daughter, Frederica, comes on the scene and it becomes clear that she is heartless towards the innocent girl. Initially the unpleasantness is well covered by Lady Susan’s charm and devious explanations of her actions. Coupled with plenty of very funny lines and business by other actors, especially in the person of poor Frederica’s would-be suitor, James Martin, the seriousness of Lady Susan’s real mistreatment of Frederica is held off until near the end. It is simply brilliant the way Whit Stillman crafted this movie to build so slowly to the full revelation of how bad Lady Susan really is.

And yet, Lady Susan’s motives ring true for many of Jane Austen’s later heroines. The stark reality of her world is that she needs security, and she can gain it only through an advantageous marriage. She wants her daughter in a position of financial security as well. Same deal. Jane Austen was a genius at presenting variations on the theme of marriage as a business proposition. But she was soft-hearted enough to hope that love could have a chance to be present in the marriage of young Frederica. It’s only hinted at in the novel, but the movie carries that hint to its nuptial conclusion.

There are so many great lines in this movie. I love the way Stephen Fry delivers this line to his wife, “I hear the North Atlantic passage is particularly cold this time of year.” His look adds to the chill and the effect is very drily funny. (Of course anything Stephen Fry does is brilliant.)

Lady Susan assesses the marriage of Alicia Johnson to Stephen Fry’s character this way: “Too old to be governed and too young to die.” It’s another chilling line and wickedly funny.

The character of James Martin is amazingly funny. He is sketched so lightly in the novella that he owes his lines to Whit Stillman and his laughable delivery and incredibly hysterical mannerisms to the acting of Tom Bennett, whose very posture is funny.

Lady Susan reveals her personality in a speech to Alicia railing against young Mr DeCourcy for doubting her—it is a view into her power that she expects to be believed against the facts, against reason, against good sense, and against all considerations but loyalty to her. In creating such a character, Jane Austen reveals an amazingly broad understanding of human nature—even though she wrote this novella when she was still only a teenager. Others have mentioned that the character of Lady Susan is unique in the literature of the time and place. Maybe not since Shakespeare created Lady MacBeth was there a woman character so powerful and dangerous in English literature and arts until Jane Austen created Lady Susan.

There. I’ve set Jane Austen on a level with Shakespeare. I think that’s where she belongs.

************

Spoiler Alert! Don’t read my review of these books unless you don’t mind finding out the secrets. I discuss the solutions to the crimes in the course of my analysis, but in a veiled way. You have been warned.

1. Louise Penny, Glass Houses

I have read all of Louise Penny’s mysteries featuring Armand Gamache in order, and I suggest you do the same. They build on each other, although each is a standalone crime-and-solution mystery. The bigger picture is the development of the characters of Gamache, his wife, his son-in-law, his colleagues, and the wonderful, quirky citizens of the village of Three Pines.

The current crime is set mostly in Three Pines, but much of the story is told through testimony in a Montreal courtroom. The framing device of flashback is well handled, with the courtroom narrative interrupted by narrative set back in those past events, allowing us to explore the thoughts and impressions of the people of the village as they face the threat of both the black figure on the village green, and later, the murder of that figure, as well as to explore Armand Gamache’s psyche as he undergoes his own inner trial in the courtroom, giving testimony in the murder case. The double narrative device allows the author to slow down the plot a great deal in order to go deeply into the court of conscience, which needs careful, detailed consideration to understand. The action in this book cannot go at the same breakneck pace as others in the same series.

In this story, the figure in black brings back the old European legend of the cobrador, or debt collector that uses public shame as a lever. The cobrador gets murdered in the church, discovered by Madame Reine-Marie Gamache. Because there are only two characters who haven’t appeared in previous novels, they of course are the reader’s prime suspects, and of course they do end up having something to do with the crime. But all this is a front for a forceful statement about the institutions of society, especially those in public service, being complicit in today’s terrible opioid crisis. Gamache wants badly to turn the tide, but it may already be too late.

The strength of Louise Penny’s novels are their psychological explorations into timeless truths, and the way in which she continues to develop all her characters. The villagers sometimes seem in danger of becoming parodies of themselves, and then Penny pulls something like this to pull each one out, shake them all up, and force them all to grow after all. Even Ruth Zardo, the crazy poet.


2. Sue Grafton, Y is for Yesterday

One problem with my reading of this series is that I haven’t gone back and reread earlier books yet, and I no longer remember the plots and characters that are referenced in this particular book. Most of the references are explained; however, some need me to have a better memory, or to have read the earlier books more recently than 20 or 30 years ago.

However, once I set aside that problem and ignore the references, I am happy to barge into this plot with its double narrative, one set in Kinsey’s present, 1989, and the original crime set ten years before.

A group of high school kids in 1979 have made some typically stupid teenage decisions stemming from their various positions of privilege or lack thereof, coupled in almost every case with parents not paying much or the right kind of attention. (The parenting in this story is in fact abysmal in every case.) The kids end up killing one of their own, and ten years later the repercussions strike down another couple of the participants, now in their mid-to-later twenties. Happily for two of them, ten years has added a tiny bit of belated caution to their judgement, and it kicks in at the end to allow them a reasonably happy ending. They aren’t particularly likeable people, but then nobody in this plot is except the 1979 murder victim.

It isn’t hard to see who is responsible and and to guess that the prominent suspect is a red herring, but that doesn’t ultimately matter here. It’s essentially interesting to see how Kinsey goes about nailing the culprit, who stays carefully neutral enough not to be suspected until late in the game.

Also featuring in this novel as a subplot is the killer from X, still after Kinsey and a couple of others whom Kinsey tries to protect from him. Satisfyingly, he gets his comeuppance at the end of this novel, in a wonderfully black-humored way. I like that Grafton includes this as a subplot, showing that loose ends don’t always get tied up at the artistic end of a story, but ravel on and interrupt the narrative of another case.

What I worry about in this series is that something will happen to Henry, or Rosie, or William, or any of the regulars that I like. I’m happy that nothing dreadful has happened to them yet. It was bad enough that Henry’s cat had to suffer in this book, though it could have been a lot worse. I like that Kinsey ends up adopting the dog, and that the cat seems to put up with him too. That dog made me feel a lot safer about Kinsey’s home situation. It also made me feel a lot better that she and Henry had a good alarm system put in. The alarm system at her office provided that same feeling of safety coupled with humor as she goes through an OCD ritual to arm it and disarm it—and then that all the alarm systems and the dog end up being useless against that clever sociopath adds to the black humor at the end.

The black humored sub-plot for me saved this book from ending with a feeling of sadness and morbid brooding over the state of society today. But it’s good to see that sometimes life throws Kinsey into conflict with a lot of unpleasant people, and then she gets to fall back on her circle of supporters who end up saving her from the most unpleasantness of all.

We all need our supporters in times of crisis; perhaps that is the truth that we all need in the end.

*****************

Later Note:

It occurs to me after writing the above analysis that Kinsey and her circle facing the killer of X are set as foils against the victim of the 1979 murder and her circle of so-called friends, none of whom stand up for her or try to stop her killing. The parallel is poignant and perhaps comforting to Kinsey’s fans.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Flavia’s Dream House

I have talked about my great uncle Roger who was a rather rich businessman in the late 1920s through the 1940s. In fact, it looked as if the Great Depression had little effect on his worldly wealth, if the house pictured below is anything to judge by.

Roger seems to have been a go-getter. At the age of 20 he was a superintendent of a factory, according to the 1910 census. He and Flavia got married that year. When Roger had to register for the draft in 1917, the form revealed that he and Flavia were living in Erie, Pennsylvania, and he had become sales manager and engineer for the Northern Equipment Company. The 1920 Census shows him still there, but renting a house in Pittsburgh on Emerson Street.

Sometime later he joined the Riley Stoker Corporation, manufacturer of boilers, and now notorious for having incorporated asbestos in its products, leading to thousands of lawsuits today. But back then people were still innocent of the dangers, and Roger’s skills led him to the top of the corporation. The 1930 Census lists his occupation as the assistant president of the corporation, and he and Flavia now owned a house on Waldheim Road in the suburb of O’Hara, now a part of Pittsburgh.

The house is still there, but this is how it looked in the 1930s when Roger and Flavia decorated it with the things they had acquired in their European travels. The rooms seem to be large and beautifully proportioned. There is grace and elegance evident throughout.

Flavia reading near the library
Daughter Joan in late 1930s