ivy

ivy

15 December 2017

MeToo, Brute?

Every time another role model is unveiled to be merely (and pathetically) mortal, the shock and dismay of betrayal repeats (Et tu, Brute?).  Rather like the scandal that erupted some years past over the sexual abuse of children by clergy, we are appalled at the extent of a problem we had always assumed was, if not rare, at least manageable.  But just because a topic is taboo doesn't mean it's not out of control.

Perhaps because the taboo of sexual misconduct in the workplace hasn't worn off, we've not had a lot of time to analyze and digest it as a society.  It wasn't long ago that such behavior was still engaged in with complete impunity:  Bill Cosby remained beloved even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and despite SIXTEEN women making formal complaints against Donald Trump, he ended up President.  On the other hand, that oversight is precisely why so many people have decided they can't afford to not come forward anymore.  This has to change.

As victims emerge from the woodwork and we start to see fallout from their accusations, society will have to decide which scenario is least costly:

--a successful and prominent middle-age professional is fired and publicly shamed due to past transgressions (real or imagined)

--a promising up-and-coming professional is driven out of their job and privately shamed because our culture is behind the times


The former scenario is shocking, depressing, and could truly derail that person's life, and potentially those of their family and close associates.  The same, of course, can be said for scenario two.  I see at least three substantial differences:

1=timing:  Destroy someone's career at the end, and you cut off perhaps a decade of further income, prestige, and the joy of pursuing their passion.  Destroy someone's career at the beginning, and you cut off many decades of those same things.

2=scope:  Take down the accused, and you prevent the destruction of unknown additional lives (because most are repeat offenders).  Take down the accuser, and they are simply replaced by the next victim.

3=impact:  Make a clear statement about what is and what is not acceptable behavior, and future generations learn to do better.  Send mixed messages or no message at all, and nothing changes.

I'm not keen on anyone being frivolously accused or fired or publicly shamed because an accidental or mistaken gesture or joke gets blown out of proportion.  Unfortunately, these cases get tried in the press/social media without the benefit of full information, so undoubtedly some of the accused will prove to be victims.  But the stories of my friends and colleagues indicate that there are in fact far too many people (mostly male) who try to leverage their positions of power to get off.

This is definitely an area where, if you've never experienced it, you tend to brush it aside.  Unfortunately, far fewer men have experienced it than women, so there tends to be a gender gap in whether or not someone 'believes' the accuser, or what they think should be done about it.  I doubt there is a woman in this country who has not had someone "accidentally" brush against her ass or chest or hasn't been propositioned inappropriately.  Personally, I considered it inappropriate for my landlord to repeatedly invite me (and pointedly not my husband...) to his boathouse for the weekend.

But that kind of harassment, which is so pervasive many women write it off entirely, is not even what we're talking about.  We're talking about an abuse of power; about people taking advantage of the fact that the victim will feel powerless to stop it and therefore unable to report it.  The really awful part, however, is  how often they are right--because the institutional barriers to justice are immense.  Let me share an example from 1991.  

Once upon a time, a wide-eyed country bumpkin was repeatedly hit upon by her supervisor and blamed herself for failing to prevent it or nip it in the bud.  She was so ashamed that she avoided the man for years, ultimately choosing a different field of graduate studies just to avoid running into him in the hallway.  (Hmm, how might her career have panned out had she gotten the more marketable degree she originally wanted?)  A few years later, she met a woman who had also been a 'summer favorite' and together they felt strong enough to take their story of repeat offenses to the University.  Where they were promptly told by a white male administrator behind a huge desk that unless they were willing to make permanently public, non-confidential charges at the very start of the process, they would not even take a statement, let alone consider an investigation.  Consequently, the man continued to "mentor" a dozen 18-20 year old women at a remote location every summer for many years.

Developing better protocols for processing complaints is not the only work we have ahead.  As we grapple with defining appropriate behavior in the workplace, we're going to have to address quite a few thorny issues.  For instance, how can dating a teenager be considered child abuse when half of U.S. states have no minimum age for marriage and most of the rest set it between 13 and 17?  (By current pop culture standards, my 33-yr-old grandfather would have been called a pedophile for taking a 16-year-old bride--seriously?!?)  Or, in a world in which 15% of people meet their future spouse at work (and 15% have slept with the boss...), where do you draw the line between courtship and misconduct?  It cannot be that it's courtship if I reciprocate, and misconduct if I don't.



Our society has deep, structural problems in this area with roots reaching back many centuries and yet tremendous strides have been made in the past century alone.  Each time progress was made, it got ugly for a while (no pain, no gain).  So I hope we're in for some rough times--another mini-sexual revolution in which the rules become clearer, institutions become less biased, and the taboo finally dies.  Maybe in so doing we can benefit the next generation.

After all, between climate change and the national debt, we're gonna owe 'em!

15 November 2017

Pride before a Fall

I feel a bit like a citizen of Rome, teetering on the edge right around the time of Christ (i.e., shortly before the Republic fell and became an Empire). 

The parallels with our own nation are strong:  an intensely arrogant civilization capable of tremendous technological progress that took what it wanted through overwhelming force and promoted nation building in its own image.  Sure, the scope of our empire has been a bit narrower:  decades to conquer Native American tribes in North America and various islands here and there vs. centuries conquering kingdoms throughout much of the then civilized world.  But we have followed the Roman model in dotting the globe with strategically placed military bases and creating a web of treaties offering carrots (direct aid, trade deals) counterbalanced by those threatening sticks (sanctions, withholding defense).


With so many parallels for our rise, might they exist as well for our fall?  Rome slipped irrevocably under the rule of an emperor after ~500 years as a republic, while our republic is but 240 years old.  After 2000 years, is an acceleration of the process the only thing that material and technological advance has brought us?  Two thousand years later, do we still countenance Pride before a Fall?

OK, maybe I'm just thinking about Rome because I've been tucking away a few more installments of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series.  However, you can't really miss the parallel between the consulship of Cicero and the near-election of Catilina with the presidency of #44 and the election of #45.  Cicero was an elegant and persuasive orator who had campaigned as a reformer and won by a landslide, but once he got into office proved to be more moderate and pragmatic than the lower classes had expected, resulting in considerable disappointment.  This frustration culminated in very strong populist support for Catilina, a ruthless, unprincipled opportunist who, shunned by his fellow 1%, instead courted those who had lost out in recent recessions by promising debt relief.  Hmm, vaguely familiar.


Luckily for Rome, this parallel ends there.  Because the rich had more votes than the poor, conservative candidates won over the wildly popular Catilina.  Moral:  no, unlike some of our Republican representatives, I'm not proposing we disenfranchise the poor, but rather I am heartened by the contrast between their respective legacies.

Cicero's speeches were right next to classical philosophy as a mandatory component of education for nearly 2000 years, famous for their masterful use of both logic and manipulation.  Although riddled with flaws and both loved and hated in his time, he nonetheless made very important and lasting contributions to not only Roman life but western civilization as we know it. Even among those who opposed him, Cicero was considered a uniquely Roman product.  In contrast, Catilina's only claim to fame is his attempt to overthrow the republican Senate (having led a failed coup the year after his electoral defeat), and the best that can be said of him is that he was "not really any more corrupt than any other politician of his time".

I suspect that even these legacies have their parallels:  posterity will one day view Obama with greater favor (already seen as our least embarrassing President) and acknowledge that for all his horrors, Trump was not in fact outside the normal range of modern day politics, which has sadly reached a low-point.

In the meantime, we'll just have to wait and see if this nadir coincides with the peak in Pride that presages our Fall.



15 August 2017

Road Trip: IT to DE

In early June, we spent a day in a suburb of Turin, Italy meeting with colleagues from the University of Turin, giving a seminar (E.), eating real pizza, and experiencing an ice-cream induced moment of pure nirvana (...immediately followed by a sugar coma).  The next day, we turned northwards to join  colleagues from the University of Padua as they converged with 80 students on the site of an unusually large ~2002 wildfire north of Turin in the Aosta Valley.

After a grueling hike, a tremendously knowledgeable Forest Service fire expert (foreground; colleague EL in background) explained the natural disturbance regime, what happened that day and why the fire got so out of control, and the subsequent management that was dictated by pure politics (like cutting down the dead trees just so they'd look like they were doing something).  At least I think that's what he said, since he spoke in Italian.  E. claims to have been able to follow him, whereas I recognized about 12 words.
Nonetheless, among the more interesting tidbits was the regional economic development plan, which included things like cutting canals across the slope to enable locals to fight future fires--and to irrigate their pastures, all of which have been seeded with a non-native 'alpine flower mixture' that the cows love.
After a nice long evening chat with more colleagues (and more pizza), we departed the next morning to cross the Alps into Switzerland over the 8100' Great St. Bernard Pass.  Although every stretch had guardrails on the Italian side, there was virtually no protection on the way down on the Swiss side.  Perhaps they figure it should not be necessary on a route that has been used since the Bronze Age.

After skirting around Lake Geneva and cursing our way through Lausanne, we strolled around the 1000-year-old old-town of Cossonay.
Although we had visited the abbey at Romainmotier back in 2012, since it was en route we paused this time to take in the medieval village surrounding it.
Not far away is the Dent de Vaulion, a 4900' peak in the Jura mountains that provides a unique view (well, on a clear day) of Swiss (the dark blobs below the clouds) and French alps as well as no fewer than 8 lakes.
The clouds only added to our appreciation of the medieval core of the small town of Vallorbe, which was struck by the plague no fewer than 9 times.
After getting caught in the rush-hour flow of French streaming back into their homeland after a day of gleaning Swiss Francs, we encountered Chateau de Joux commanding the pass.  Remodeled and expanded many times since it's 12th century origins, the castle/fort remained strategically important right through WWI.
A bit further north the next day we came across the source of the Loue River, which suddenly springs out of the karst formations of the Jura mountains.  The site has long been an important source of hydroelectric energy.
From there we drove further northward through the limestone mountains eroded by the Loue,
to reach the village of Mouthier-Haute-Pierre, which takes its name from a 9th century monastery.  Like so many ancient towns, it was destroyed by fire (in the early 18th century) and rebuilt of sturdier material. 
Further downriver is the village of Lods, which thrived growing grapes until the exotic (North American) Phylloxera aphid epidemic wiped it out (along with most of the rest of Europe's vineyards) in the late 1800s.
Continuing north along the river brought us to a 17th century stone bridge across the Loue in the small town of Ornans, with views of the old houses built on stilts along the river's edge.  
Just a tad further north is the city of Besançon, which was settled during the Bronze Age within an oxbow of the Doubs River that is bordered by a hill.  The Citadel atop that hill was built around 1700 by the Spanish and French on a typical star-shaped Vauban design.  It is now a family-friendly museum packed with small children on the weekends.
From there we hightailed it north and east back toward Freiburg im Breisgau, pausing on the French side of the Rhine to look across vineyards and over villages toward the Black Forest.
Having recharged with champagne, good company, and plenty of croissants, the final push began the next day back in France with a pass through Alsace.  Established as a center of viticulture by the Romans, the region has been alternately dominated by German and French influences throughout its history, retaining a Germanic language until after WWII despite being part of France for most of the time since the 17th century.  Towns such as Itterswiller draw tourists to their immaculately maintained, brightly colored houses draped in Geranium baskets.
The core of Andlau, an old abbey and pilgrimage town, features half-timbered homes.  The local forest ranger is credited with having killed one of the last bears in the Vosges Mountains in 1695.
Plopped on a hillside surrounded by vineyards, nearby Mittelbergheim stands out precisely because the houses do not; they have been left the original (smud) color of the local limestone stucco.
The central core of the small town of Barr, in the wine-flanked foothills of the Vosges, is filled with 18th century half-timbered houses, and a patisserie that produces a wonderful marzipan-laced raisin coffee cake.
Our final stop of the journey was 2500' up in the Vosges Mountains on Mont Saint Odile, which overlooks Alsace (and was overlooked that election day by 4 policemen carrying assault rifles).

Once the site of a 7th century convent, the current abbey dates to 17th and 19th centuries and once again includes gilded mosaics that sparkle even in the dimly lit chapel interiors.


31 July 2017

Road Trip: DE to IT

After reaching out to colleagues in Turin, Italy to test the waters for possible sabbatical posts for 2019/20, E. was invited to give a seminar there this June.  But a quick look at the map reveals that France is in the way, so we were forced to take in a few sights along the 500 mile drive.

We took our first break in Toul to view the lichen-encrusted (note the yellow on the stone of the towers) 13th-15th century Gothic cathedral, which unfortunately lost all 139 portico statues during the French Revolution.
Continuing south, we paused to walk the city wall (all 12 towers and 7 gates) of the limestone hilltop town of Langres, which overlooks Lake Liez and the surrounding fields and forests.
Which is well, because inside the wall (as per usual) there isn't a scrap of green to be seen.
Some time later we tripped across the lovely, tiny, and clearly ancient village of Beze.
Just before turning eastwards, we slipped into the heart of Dole, another tight and crinkly medieval small city, which happened to be the birthplace of Louis Pasteur (which they like to hype, although he moved away at age 4...).
The sun apparently went to bed with us that night, because upon rising the next day and continuing south, the rains began just as we slipped into the bowl of 650' limestome cliffs that surround Baume-les-Messieurs.
Although the former abbey (above) is the main tourist attraction, this tiny 1000-year-old village is considered one of the most beautiful in all of France.

Unfortunately, as we continued southeast and rose in elevation onto the windward west-facing subalpine Jura (as in Jurassic) mountains, the showers turned to rain, and then the rain turned into a deluge that reduced visibility to a white-knuckle 20 feet while sheeting water blocked the side-windows.  This continued for hours.  I fed E. a lot of caffeinated mints.

Eventually we found ourselves on the south side of the Vanoise National Park, which was lost to us somewhere in the clouds.  But we could see Redoute Marie-Thérèse and Fort Victor-Emmanuel, built in the early 1800s under pressure from the Austrians to protect the Kingdom of Sardinia (a precursor to Italy) from France.
From there we slipped up and over the Col du Mont Cenis.  Although the road we took was first built by Napoleon, this pass was once traversed by untold pilgrims (including Martin Luther) from northern Europe en route to Rome.
Just as we crested the pass and took our first peek at Italy, the sun emerged--and stayed with us the rest of the trip.

Once down in the Susa Valley between the Graian and Cottian Alps, we took in its namesake town, which has long been an important transportation hub.
Our final destination for the day was the old-town of Avigliana, clustered below the ruins of a 6th century castle.  Although now a thriving town with tourism centered on two neighboring lakes, the old-town appears to be slowly crumbling away.
One thing I look forward to having explained to me by our Italian colleagues someday is why they take meticulous care of the insides of their homes (every house we've been in has been scrumptiously renovated on the inside), but permit the exteriors to deteriorate into apparent dilapidation.

Next time:  IT back to DE!


15 July 2017

Road Trip: Into the Eifel

Although you might think that we have chosen our friends strategically, luck alone has distributed them in geographically alluring regions.  To spice up getting there (and facilitate hourly stretching breaks), we never take the direct route, but wind our way from A to B via as many stops as we can squeeze into a day.  For example, in late May we rendezvoused with SB & GM a couple hours from their home for a lovely afternoon of coffee, chat, and snapshots.

Our first stop was practically in the backyard, in that it was at a cathedral that we drive or walk past at least once a year.  Yet it had been seven years since I last popped in, which means I couldn't remember ever have been there before.  Although the Cathedral of Trier, first built in the 4th century on Roman foundations and destroyed and rebuilt several times over the subsequent millennium, is probably most famous for the relic known as the Seamless Robe of Jesus, we were drawn to the 18th century wooden marquetry work, which covers the extensive walls of the Nikolaus altar.
From there we swung northeast and began to wind our way along the Moselle River, stopping off in the small town of Bernkastel-Kues to take in the old-town.
Further north, just above the town of Alf on the river, we toured the medieval Arras Castle museum.
And then we just happened to drive past the Cochem Castle from above.
Our next stop was the village of Monreal and the start of our pilgrimage to the region known as the Eifel, which had become dear to us through a silly G-rated cop show on German TV.
Due to the proximity to the highly industrial Rhine River valley (about 10 miles away), the city of Mayen was unfortunately bombed to smithereens during the war.  But the bridge across the city wall to the Genovevaburg remains!
Our final stop for the day was a series of shallow mine shafts into 13,000 year-old, 200' deep volcanic tuff deposits near the town of Brohl.  Although the Romans were the first to discover this regional "trass" (shipping it deep into the Empire), the Trasshöhlen we visited were dug out to use for Dutch dyke construction in the 1600s because tuff mortar binds well even under water.
The next morning we stopped in Ahrweiler, which is surrounded by a defensive wall and has had four city gates since the Middle Ages.  Nonetheless, the town was razed to the ground during the Thirty Years War, so only 10 houses date to before 1690.
By mid-morning we had entered the >700 year-old spa town of Bad Münstereifel.  Although it was bombed 25 times during WWII, it was well rebuilt and still retains many old structures.
But the real reason we were there was to meet up with SB & GM, who arrived on the noon train.  That gave us the chance to have lunch while it was raining and then tool about, Nikons in hand, until we were ready to refuel with coffee and ice cream.  What a great visit!
Shortly before dusk, we paused in the woods near the Belgian-German border to appreciate one of the few remaining vestiges of the Battle of the Bulge, which was the last major German offensive of WWII.  Although trenches like this were spread throughout this region, agricultural cultivation and development have smoothed over most.
The next day we explored the small town of Monschau, which contains many structures that have changed little in over 300 years (much to the chagrin of homeowners wishing to make changes but constrained by 'historical monument' status).  This is slate-country, so every roof and many an exterior wall is sheathed in the variable local light-grey slate.
Just outside town lies the highly irregular border to Belgium, right on the edges of an extensive, protected moor.  We strolled along the boardwalk in Im Platten Venn, taking in the cotton grass and hunting down the occasional tree.
Our target was the German town of Aachen, which lies at the three-country-corner of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.  Dating to at least 700, Aachen was Charlemagne's favorite residence and thereafter the site of the crowning of 31 Holy Roman Emperors as kings of Germany.  Although rebuilt in Baroque style after a fire in the 17th century, the city was largely destroyed during WWII and has relatively little to recommend it.  Except the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Dom, which is worth a visit every 10 years or so. 
Construction was completed around 800, but it was restored following a Viking raid in 983, enlarged in 1355 and later, and restored again starting in 1881.  At the center is an octagonal mosaic-tile domed Byzantine chapel, from which the later Gothic choir hall extends.
What takes my breath away are the arches and walls of the passages, which were covered with mosaics (many gilded) of both biblical scenes and floristic themes around 1900.
Turning south from this point, the most direct route back home was through Belgium and Luxembourg.  Although the Belgian countryside and villages are not so picturesque, we did pause in the town of Malmedy to appreciate the renovated town hall (a better mental image than the "Malmedy massacre" in which 84 US POWs were gunned down).
The nearby village of Stavelot, also in a grey-slate region, has tremendous touristic potential (code for "nearly every other building and street was a dilapidated catastrophe").
We shortly entered Luxembourg and took in the typical landscape of villages interspersed with neatly maintained agricultural fields, woodlands, and the increasingly common European windmill.
Our last stop of the day was the town of Clervaux.  Although initially the American tank and flag may seem a bit odd, Clervaux was strategically important and the site of heavy fighting during the Battle of the Bulge (which destroyed much of the town and left a few tanks behind).  Although the Allies were caught off guard and it was the largest and bloodiest engagement by US troops, the failed offensive used up the last resources of the Germany army and air force and marked the beginning of the end.

Next time:  southwards into Italy.