Middlemarch Diary #2, Chapters 14-22

George Eliot, circa 1849

Proceeding apace! After the evocative gothic image of the sanctimonious peaches-and-cream maiden marrying the cadaverous Casaubon, Middlemarch has quickly devolved into a village comedy with all the usual types: the aunt busybody, the congenial parson, the young rake, the dull but earnest suitor. I’m a jaded English Lit major, and have never been a fan of the Marriage Plot, general in 19th century novels, unless there is, say, a madwoman in the attic or an egregious breach of manners, say, nakedness in the drawing room. It’s all too genteel and proper, and I await some grisly murder or monstrous betrayal beneath the scrim of politesse. There was a recent interview with Emma Cline, whose first novel was The Girls, about a Manson-like murderer with a cult of young women. She has recently written a story from the perspective of a Weinstein-like protagonist, and her interviewer suggested there might be something wrong with presenting a predator and criminal in a way that might make him sympathetic. Cline rightly retorted that monsters and madmen are better subjects for stories than the upright and respectable, and doesn’t humanizing them serve us all better, enabling us to finally see them? I agree. Unless, say, the subject is repression itself. I’m thinking of Anita Brookner novels, or The Remains of the Day. There are no hard and fast rules anywhere in literature. But are we, with Middlemarch, headed towards Anna Karenina on the train tracks? The Ace of Hearts at the end of Tess of the d’Urbervilles? I know where this is going, I’ve read it already, and every other one of these Marriage Plot books. The women cannot win. 

Except, have you heard of Miss Marjoribanks, by Margaret Oliphant? I hadn’t either, until today’s London Review of Books arrived in the mail and I read this article by Tom Crewe, where he writes:

“The novel tells the story of Miss Marjoribanks, and of her return, after finishing her schooling, to live with her widowed father in Carlingford, where already

preparations and presentiments had taken vague possession of the mind of the town, as has always been observed to be the case before a great revolution, or when a man destined to put his mark on his generation, as the newspapers say, is about to appear. To be sure, it was not a man this time, but Miss Marjoribanks; but the atmosphere thrilled and trembled to the advent of the new luminary all the same.”

Doesn’t this sound good? Read on, that article has choice excerpts. Miss Marjoribanks never gets married! Or does she? I have ordered a copy. Apparently Mrs. Oliphant wrote 98 books, so this may be the start of something I can’t finish. But first, let’s find out what happens to Dorothea Brooke. I have forgotten the details. It’s not looking good for her, let’s all agree. 

And before I go, I quite enjoyed Chapter 13, and the argument between Mr. Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, with its suppressed insult, insinuation, veiled threat and oblique jabs. So English. Bulstrode is emerging as a villain, a character it gives one pleasure to detest. If the result of all this repression is vicious and amusing banter, and elegant eviscerations, OK OK, I’m along for the ride.

 

 

Middlemarch Diary. Prologue & Chapters 1-14

Middlemarch, like many many-paged books, seems to be a top candidate for lockdown reading these days, 819 pages in my Penguin edition.  I just read the long, dense, and repetitive Absalom, Absalom again, it being timely, given that it is about how great wealth and power requires the exploitation and degradation of women and black people–and by extension, all people of color, children and non-hegemons–but more on that book later. If you’ve decided to read a big book, by all means, leave us a comment and let us know what it is. A few friends of mine turned out to be reading Middlemarch too. Hooray! We will read together.

I’ve already read Middlemarch though. I read it in college for a Victorian lit class, but I remembered very little about it other than that I’d disliked it. I’d skimmed. And when I read the first 50 pages, I remembered why. Dorothea Brooke’s youth and beauty are extensively described in the opening chapter, as well as her priggishness and sanctimony. She has an admirable desire to live the life of the mind, and learn from brilliant scholars, and this is what leads her to marrying, against the hopes and advice of the surrounding community , the Reverend Edward Casaubon. He is about thirty years older than she is, near 50, and his physical repulsiveness and decrepitude is described by her younger sister Celia who struggles to hide her revulsion. He has hair growing from moles on his face. Fortunately she didn’t describe his breath, but it hangs miasmatically in the book’s atmosphere. And this is as far as I got, page 51. I am encouraging myself to continue after this unpromising beginning, though if it develops along gothic lines, well then that’s another thing. But George Eliot, famously, didn’t submit to the 19th century marriage plot so why does Dorothea Brooke?

I was also put off by discouraging passages encouraging defeatist positions on women’s potential and possibility. The prologue extols the admirable qualities and goodness of Saint Theresa, and how so many women are not given the opportunity to fulfill their promise. And what to make of epigraphs such as “Since I can do no good because a woman, Reach constantly at something that is near it” which precedes chapter 1, and casual observations by the characters that even a man’s ignorance is superior to a woman’s intelligence, whose intelligence is downgraded  to “cleverness”, like a dog performing tricks? Again, George Eliot’s anachronistically liberated life could have informed the lives of her characters. Why didn’t it?

So, we have begun. I’m sure to discover what is great about this novel soon. I just haven’t yet.

June Quarantine Reading

There was much to hate about a June spent mostly in lockdown, watching the COVID numbers go up and up, so many shattering revelations and injustices. If there was any consolation to be had for all the anxiety, outrage and despair, it was found, for me, in books. Many of the books pictured here I have read many times before (Chekhov, Calvino, Sebald) but I read my favorites repeatedly because I never fail to be fulfilled, pleased, educated, startled, surprised, enlightened, gratified and satisfied by them.

The Janet Malcolm was the fourth I’d read in a series of Janet Malcolms, of which The Silent Woman and The Journalist and the Murderer were the standouts. Aase Berg was a revelation, so animistic and weird, a shaman who would bury our strange age and unearth another, stranger, but better age, which is what we all need. And in Nilling, by Lisa Robertson, whom I met once at a party in the late nineties or early noughts–the essay about Hannah Arent + De Rerum Natura + Story of O was thought-provoking. And I am still processing Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor which left me stunned.

Occasionally my favorites fail me after many years; lately my loyalty to Nabokov has faltered–though the first chapter of Speak, Memory remains perfect and peerless. Maybe my tolerance of entitled white guys is flagging, in spite of the beauty and perfection of their prose.

Community-run testing for COVID-19

Here’s a brief summary of how we set up COVID-19 testing for the community  in our  town of about 1,500 people, with a partnership with UCSF. Why Bolinas? UCSF was interested in testing here because it is rural, and fairly isolated. It is not as wealthy as surrounding communities in the Bay Area. Households in Bolinas, CA have a median annual income of $56,250, below a U.S. median of $61,937. The next community UCSF is testing is The Mission, a dense urban neighborhood in San Francisco, with a median annual income of $92,000–but where the Latinx community has a median annual income of $24,000. This latter study is funded by UCSF grants.

But the real reason this happened is this is a community that takes care of its people. When coronavirus struck, a group got together to make sure vulnerable neighbors had food, and now serve regular meals. Community members distribute masks they have made, there is an emergency fund another resident started for local businesses and people out of work.  The disaster relief group made sure everyone had their contact info and a phone tree was set up to check on seniors living alone. If you have money, you give money. If you can make sandwiches, you make sandwiches. If you have organizational skills, you organize. Or you paint signs, direct traffic, make a web site, bring people food, pick up the phone. Someone’s the heart, someone’s the hands, someone’s the head, the pinky, the ears, the nostril–for snorting disdainfully–someone’s even the spleen.

It took about a month of planning to set this up. People keep asking about getting the tests, but the tests aren’t the problem—we actually had too many to choose from, and we’re going to run several tests on the samples we’ll collect. We realized nobody has access to tests because nobody was assembling all the other pieces.

These are all solvable problems, with a bit of work, creativity and collaboration. Let’s not kid ourselves–a lot of work. While diagnostics companies were shipping test kits and labs were ramping up capacity, no one was building an end to end solution for communities. We made it up as we went along. But none of this would have been possible without UCSF Infectious Diseases who is administering the tests.

Here are the missing links:

  • Popup testing sites (we sourced wedding tents)
  • Medical professionals to staff it (we found phlebotomists by searching online. Who knew?)
  • PPE (we went to a dozen small stores in Marin getting protective suits from hardware stores, gloves from restaurant suppliers, masks from friends who sourced them from China)
  • Tech that made it possible to recruit an entire city by SMS in a few days (a volunteer team of AirBnB engineers built the platform in 2 weeks)
  • Planning a physical setup for pushing through hundreds of people per day with minimal risk. We designed a 4-lane drive through “freeway” as in the photo above
  • Partnerships with local community organizations. In our case the Bolinas Fire Protection District, Mesa Park, Bolinas Community Land Trust, and the Coastal Health Alliance
  • Local volunteers to help in the planning process, getting the word out to the community, including some harder to reach communities. Volunteers are also doing traffic control.
  • Volunteer coordinator to manage all the people wanting to help!
  • Translators to spread the word in other local languages
  • Donors whose generosity makes it happen. We partnered with a non-profit (BCLT) to take donations.
  • It costs approx. $200 per person, all in. With economies of scale, and a site that is easier to manage it would likely go down significantly.

Today went well, but we still have over 1,000 people to do. Jyri says, “Hoping it will scale in a distributed way. Kind of like the internet used to be?” and Cyrus: “Hopefully this project serves as a model for other communities and as a wake-up call to organizations (cities, counties, states, federal govt, etc…) that _should_ be able to do all of this at scale with much greater efficiency than some ragtag group of volunteers supported by community donations, yet, up to now, haven’t.”

We will publish the blueprint as soon as we have it ready!

This is largely cobbled together from FB comments from Jyri and Cyrus. 

 

Freedom Colonies

 

As I was reading about Andrea Roberts’ research into “freedom colonies”,  the name bothered me. Freedom ––as I’d always understood it from elementary school, from the Pledge of Allegiance we recited every day, facing the flag and with our hands over our hearts, from Woody Guthrie songs and the Star-Spangled Banner–freedom should be general across the nation, from sea to shining sea, from the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters, one nation, liberty and justice for all–and not confined to a colony. The word “colony” (per my trusty Barnhart) means “a settlement dependent on another country”–though further back it’s found to derive from cultivation, tilling, inhabiting

Andrea Roberts is a Vassar graduate, and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Texas A and M University. She is researching the thousands of historically black settlements, often called “freedom colonies,” that emerged across the United States after the Civil War. There are hundreds of these kinds of communities, these colonies, formed for mutual care and support and protection after the Civil War. “These weren’t places where [African American families] were pushed to,” Roberts said. “They were created on purpose and had ‘anchors,’ such as schools and churches and cemeteries around which the settlements were built.” There are hundreds of communities like this, based on race or religion or gender or just shared values–formed by groups distinct from the dominant culture.

And the dominant culture during restoration the Ku Klux Klan also rose during Restoration in the South. The Freedom Colonies rose during this fraught period and protected their inhabitants against the generalized racism, violence and hostility of that time, which is still with us today, and rising. History and the past are not the same, and it’s important to bring them closer together. But when I see efforts like this one to restore a lost past, I think of what Toni Morrison said about racism:

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art. So you dredge that up. Somebody sats that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. 

If you’re black, or queer, or female, or a member of a group that is not the group controlling the story , you’re used to mentally rewriting or actively resisting/ignoring/correcting history as it is told. History and the past are not the same. Do your work! And if your work is history, and the history shows your kingdoms, so be it. 

A significant fight to preserve African-American history is playing out through the auspices of the National Trust and the National Historic Preservation Act, which through its criteria of “architectural significance” has blocked the preservation of modest buildings such as slave quarters, tenements and cabins. Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, is leading the charge on preserving much of this history, including Nina Simone’s childhood home, Joe Frazier’s gym, and John and Alice Coltrane’s home

——————

In my other alumnae monthly, from Smith, I was struck by a related quote from Deborah Archer (Smith ’93): “My parents…understood that access to opportunity meant entering spaces where we were not expected and were not welcome. And, of course, we were met with resistance.” You need to go places you’re not wanted, and say things that the people there don’t want to hear. Archer was a student at Smith a few years after I was–I spent my freshman year there. Even at Smith, Archer had a note slid under her door that said “N—— go home”. She was not surprised. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut “KKK” was once sprayed on the side of her house.

Help the Kelp and eat Purple Sea Urchin

A warm blob (is this what the oceanographers are calling it? This is what the KQED journalists are calling it)…a blob of warm water moving through the Pacific is killing off sea stars, which eat Purple Sea Urchin, which in turn eat Kelp…leading to a massive plague of Purple Sea Urchin and the decimation of Kelp forests off the coasts of California and Oregon. As we know, Kelp is great–it’s a habitat for fish, it creates oxygen, sequesters carbon, everything good. And the Purple Sea Urchin are starving.

Responding to this, a group called Urchinomics is working with UC Davis to prototype urchin farms, which they hope in turn will create a market for Purple Sea Urchins, a common delicacy in Japan, and a perennially popular item on sushi menus. If the urchins can be gathered and farmed, kelp will return, and kelp , unlike trees, regrow quickly. If the urchins are removed, the kelp forests can rebound in six months. The delicious “Uni on a Spoon” that we eat at nearby restaurants is delicious, and it is pricy: there is value in the urchins. Can we help the kelp?

Taking Action:

– Are you or do you know any chefs and restaurant owners who could develop some sea urchin recipes for their restaurant?
– Preserve Purple Sea Urchin, say, can it be canned? Then it could be used as a sauce. There is a fantastic Purple Sea Urchin pasta served at a great restaurant in our neighborhood, Rich Table. Let’s all eat that.
– Develop recipes for consumer packaged goods/
– Eat Purple Sea Urchin when you can! Let’s hope the price is declining!

Any other ideas? Please post in the comments.

San Francisco Politics, PG&E

  • In the always colorful world of San Francisco politics, I learned  that our new DA, Chesa Boudin worked for Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whose Wikipedia entry notes that:

    Under Chavez, Venezuela experienced democratic backsliding, as he suppressed the press, manipulated electoral laws, and arrested and exiled government critics. His use of enabling acts and his government’s use of propaganda were controversial. Chávez’s presidency saw significant increases in the country’s murder rate and continued corruption within the police force and government.

    Right? And his parents are both in prison–they were members of the Weather Underground, and were involved in the Brinks robbery which resulted in the death of two police officers. Boudin started visiting them in prison as a toddler, and so has seen the criminal justice system from the inside.

  • Camp Fire 2018

  • The story I have been following with the most interest lately, as it impacts all of us in California, is the PG&E story. Public utilities should not be for-profit endeavors, and bankrupt PG&E has been trying to evade responsibility for the fires it started in 2017 and 2018 (and undoubtedly this year’s fires as well.) Not only that it has been shutting off power, allegedly to prevent forest fires, a strategy from 100 years ago. A modern power company would not do this. A properly updated and maintained system would not require shutoffs. The 2018 Camp Fire was started by a 100 year old transmission tower, and this year’s Kincade Fire was probably started by a 43-year-old transmission tower. PG&E has dangerously old systems, and has been ordered to stop paying dividends.   I would like to see a system which did not require power lines from power plants running through forests to rural areas, and a new power grid of wind and solar–a distributed, decentralized system. I don’t know much about the power grid and how it works, but this seems obvious. The technology exists. 
  • Sam Liccardi, Mayor of San Jose, is getting a lot of public support for a proposal to take PG&E back, forming a co-op instead. Yes. PG&E should not be running our power any more.
  • Glad to see that San Francisco’s supervisors have reached an agreement for $100 million to go towards Mental Health reform. Which is long overdue. And of course it always shocks me to see how government differs from my general experience of “getting things done”, i.e. nothing specific will be enacted as a consequence of this agreement, but an 11 member committee will be formed to make recommendations. So it’s an agreement to make an agreement to address mental health. It’s a start. The main point of this article, though, seems to be that they didn’t go to the voters to decide. Up with representative democracy! There is waaay too much “going to the voters” in California. This is why we have elected leaders! So I can find a candidate with whom my values align, and I don’t have to decide if we need to invest in roads, or schools or hospitals or this proposal or that proposal. Thank you elected officials.

“This is where people can learn to rely on each other”

An interview with Jyri about Kahvila Siili, the café we run in the summer in our neighborhood in Helsinki came out this week. “Kahvila Siili” means “hedgehog café”–there are a lot of hedgehogs in the neighborhood, though we didn’t see any, as we usually do, at the end of the summer this summer–some people say they are being driven out by the increased heat from climate change.

“Our fortune, in the next decades, will be intricately connected to our community structure,” he says on sunny afternoon in the front garden of the café. “A place like this is not just about vegan food or recycling waste but allowing people to rely on each other as we face the challenges of climate change.”

Spoken like the entrepreneur, investor and sociologist he is. Here are our neighbors coming out for the opening party at the beginning of the summer:

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Planting a Trillion Trees

It’s been another summer of record-breaking heat here in Europe and the climate crisis comes closer and closer in our lived experience.

It’s been estimated that need a trillion new trees planted to slow the climate crisis. Ethiopia let many of their civil servants off for a day and planted an estimated 350 million trees, according to their government. Here is the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, planting a tree in Addis Ababa:

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There was also, simultaneously, an attempt to beat the previous Guiness World Record, set by India, who planted 50 million trees in one day. A map of the various regions and how many trees were planted in each:

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