Monthly Archives: October 2019

QUINTESSENCE Theatre Group

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The Quintessence theatre Group operates in the lively Germantown section of Philadelphia. Their specialty is classical theatrical texts, which they define as works over one hundred years old. They are housed in the 90 year old Sedgewick Theatre, a giant art deco movie palace. The current performance space occupies only a small part of the sprawling building (there’s a warehouse to the rear). Architecturally, I’m glad at least part of the building can be maintained and used for entertainment purposes. The neighborhood provides convenient restaurants and bars (and a thrift shop). Check it out, friends! Live theater is such a treat! Accessible by SEPTA. Free parking.

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.

“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part One

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

300 pages plus notes, sources, bibliography and index. Some photos and maps.

Part One (Explorations) of this excellent and highly readable book covers the years 1888 to 1931, when wanderlust and scientific curiosity led a handful of explorers to climb up onto the Greenland ice sheet. It was a land so little known that people fantasized about finding an ice free tropical oasis in the middle. Greenland had a small indigenous population that had been there fewer than 1000 years, and was visited by the occasional trader seeking furs and tusks. The first “explorer” was Fridtjof Nansen. Looking at his photo, you see either an intense intellect or a totally fanatic lunatic. Both those attributes were necessary in an explorer of the far arctic.

The indigenous Greenlanders lived around the edges of the island, successfully exploiting natural resources including those of the ocean. Others (outsiders) went there at their peril, learned from the indigenous residents only slowly, and often died, even if they stayed off the mighty ice sheet.

Part 1 of this book ends with the Wegener expedition of 1931. The intention was to establish a research base on the ice, in a central location. The project was dogged by misfortune and ended in the deaths of two scientists. Amazingly, data collected was used to estimate how much worldwide sea levels would rise if the Greenland ice sheet should melt entirely. The answer turned out to be remarkably close to what contemporary scientists now conclude – around 24 feet.

After 1931, the Great Depression and World War II shut down scientific exploration almost entirely, except for strategic military concerns.

Part 1 is the easy part. Part 2, entitled “Investigations”, covers the years 1949 to 2018. I expect this to be frightening. Much as I love science, I think it’s going to be difficult for me to read.

“Courting Mr. Lincoln – a Novel” by Louis Bayard

Courting Mr. Lincoln: A Novel

What was the chance that my restless search for entertaining fiction would lead me to the Mississippi River (in the first half of the 19th century) TWICE in a row? Is there a message here? Time to book a riverboat cruise?

Courting Mr. Lincoln is mostly set in Springfield, Illinois, when that city was being built on the prairie. Mary Todd (eventually Lincoln) arrives to stay with her married, older sister. The family’s intent is to find Mary a husband, preferably with wealth and good manners. We see the courtship of Lincoln and Ms Todd through Ms Todd’s eyes.

The other character used to illuminate Abraham Lincoln is his close friend Joshua Speed. Sections of the novel alternate between the perspectives of Joshua and Mary. In some ways, they compete for Lincoln’s attention and affection.

Abraham Lincoln was… unusual? complex? troubled? So much has been written about him. Mary Todd Lincoln has also been extensively analyzed. The documents available have been thoroughly analyzed.

This book felt like ordinary historical fiction for a number of chapters, then suddenly took flight about 80% of the way through. Took flight, surprised me and romped on to a strong conclusion!

The turning point and surprise, for me, was the account of Abraham Lincoln becoming embroiled in an “affair of honor” which almost ended in a duel, to be fought with (of all things) cavalry swords. High drama, and in the end, no one was injured.

Louis Bayard has written a number of other books, and I’m looking forward to sampling them. One is entitled Roosevelt’s Beast. What on earth?!

Memoir – the Columbine High School massacre, April 1999

I found this document quite by accident. My computer, like my house, is cluttered with “stuff”, and I’m trying to get rid of some of it. I don’t remember writing this, but I find it to be entirely accurate and painfully relevant.

Why post it NOW? I’m under a general request (from a family member) to share memories. Every once in a while, I come up with something odd or interesting. “Write it down!” says my son. Okay… Another reason is that violence, especially among and directed towards the young, continues to prey on my mind. I follow the news, worry over loved ones, and recently overheard a conversation that disturbed my soul. More about that later. Maybe.

This is what I wrote in May of 1999, a few weeks after Columbine, when my sons, ages 9 and 14, went off to public school daily. I have not edited it in any way:

Since the disastrous murders in Littleton, Colorado, I’ve been thinking hard about schools, and one direction my thoughts have taken is the path of memory. What was it like to be a teenager? What worked and what didn’t in the school system I traversed? How did we get along? Who were the disaffected? The successful? How tight were our cliques? How hurt were our outcasts? I found one memory that seems to be important. It’s very clear and coherent. And I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone.

I was thirteen, sitting in math class. I was the kind of kid teachers want in class, well behaved and easily able to learn. I wasn’t “popular”, but I had friends. I was a “brain” in a town where that was mostly OK. I wore glasses and was a little off-the-mark in terms of dress and hairstyle, but nothing drastic. I was supported and protected by a home and community that were reasonably consistent in their expectations. There is nothing wrong with this picture. The important memory is what, in that idyllic time and place, I was thinking about.

Unfolding in my head as I sat there in math was a violent fantasy. I was very systematically destroying the school. I smashed (with a baseball bat?) everything breakable, overturned desks, savaged textbooks, broke windows. I was very, very thorough. I must have spent lots of time on this fantasy, to be able to find it waiting so clearly in my head, 35 years later. What was I so incredibly ANGRY about?

I don’t find an answer in any of the expected categories – abuse, change in family structure, etc. I think my problem was junior high school. After seven years in what is now called the “self-contained” classroom, we switched to a seven period school day. Ten different teachers when you add in homeroom, gym, etc. Three minutes to get from one place to another. I know I bitterly resented the regimentation, but I think my anger was based on the fact that NO adult knew me. Not the way (for better and worse) my elementary school teachers knew me. A kid with high test scores and a good behavior record merited no particular attention. All my other traits – creativity, capacity to love, longing for adventure – were ignored. And I was furious. The sociological term, I think, is alienation. I had a bad case of it.

To me the message of junior high (or middle school) is “You kids are poison”. Too nasty to be around the cute little tykes and not big and smart enough to mix with the high schoolers. What kind of a message is this for children on the brink of physical adulthood? Meaningful adult contact is lost and the peer culture moves into the vacuum. It was luck, not good rearing, that kept me from serious trouble.

From this derives my first suggestion for school change. Bring back the K-8 school. If its necessary to shift students around to fit the expertise of teachers, do it so a student has three teachers, not ten. Everyone says teachers “should have noticed” something wrong in Colorado, but a teacher who sees more than 100 students each day just isn’t going to.  Make seventh and eighth grade special by adding privileges and (much more important!) responsibilities. By eighth grade every student should do meaningful work for the school, and in a K-8 setting opportunities abound. Play and read with the kindergartners, run flashcard drills and clean up after art with the second graders, work in the Library and office. Plant a garden. Organize classroom parties and put on good assemblies. Eighth graders can do all this.

What to do about high school? I’m open to suggestions here – it’s time to try anything and everything. We know specialized schools work well in cities. Perhaps we should regionalize and specialize. Make high schools smaller – how about a top size of about 1000? Move some teachers along with the students when they enter high school. Selected teachers could alternate between 8th and 9th grades to provide continuity. Look for other opportunities to keep student/teacher groups together for more than one year. Increase guidance counselors and reduce teaching loads until meaningful mentoring is available for every student.

“Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” (by Lucy Kennedy, 1957) and “Audubon – A Biography” (by John Chancellor, 1978)

I’m such a sucker for romance! I picked up “Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” from the used book shelf at the Northwood Cape May Bird Observatory, a New Jersey Audubon Society Center located in Cape May Point (NJ). It is a fictionalized account of the courtship and first three decades of the marriage of Lucy and John James Audubon, told from the viewpoint of Lucy Bakewell Audubon. It covers events from 1800 to about 1830.

Lucy Audubon was a well educated English girl brought to Pennsylvania by her family. Audubon was a young Frenchman of uncertain origins, wealthy but spottily educated. Like Alexander Hamilton, he was born in the Caribbean. Audubon’s father returned to France a little before the Haitian revolution, which began in 1791.

At the time of their marriage, Lucy and Audubon intended to travel west and engage in trade. Kennedy describes in detail their journey, including river travel much earlier than described by Mark Twain. Wonderful to read!

Audubon was a wanderer and a dreamer and left Lucy and their two sons on their own for years at a time. In his biography, Chancellor asks whether she recognized and wanted to support Audubon’s unique genius, or if she was simply foolish. At this remove, we can only speculate. I am unreservedly impressed by Lucy’s success in supporting herself and her sons by teaching in wealthy households.

Chancellor’s biography of Audubon is a delight, because he provides extensive documentation, much of it visual – paintings by Audubon and others, letters and lists, photos of artifacts, woodcut prints…

Both these books are highly suitable for nature lovers and history buffs. Enjoy!