Friday, February 27, 2015

I dreamed I saw Anita Hill last night...Darshan, part two

Actually, it wasn't a dream. I really did see Anita Hill last night. She had been invited to Santa Cruz to speak during the university's 50th anniversary celebration. Not surprisingly, it was an enormously popular event, filling one hall, and overflowing to another nearby where the event was livestreamed. By some good fortune and despite being far from first in line, I found myself sitting in the third row.

I am trying to remember just what my awareness was at the time of Hill's testimony during the hearings on whether Clarence Thomas should be chosen for the Supreme Court. I know I was aware of them, and the iconic images of her testimony are with me as much as the next person of that era, but I'm not quite sure why, as I know I didn't have cable and I did work, so wasn't watching the hearings during the day.  I suppose they were recapped on whatever version of the PBS Newshour was going at that time. So, though the general sense of the hearings remain with me, some of the actual details and players are pretty hazy. I hadn't remembered that Joe Biden had chaired the committee, for instance.

More than my own personal sense of identification with Hill, though, I was interested to go because women I know were remembering and getting fired up about that memory. They reinforced the feeling that Hill gave in her talk that though the battle may have been lost, in the longer view, things weren't that simple. Hill's own sense of what was going on with the men on the Senate judiciary committee is that they were handicapped in their understanding of how sexual harassment actually was relevant to this hearing. Sexual harassment had been declared illegal, but the world still hadn't come to terms with how to treat the perpetrators. Hill said later in the talk that it's an issue that in some ways we are still struggling with now. As my friend pointed out afterwards, though, ignorance is no excuse (and don't I know that better than anybody?) and the fact that, despite being ill equipped to weigh in on the subject, they refused also to hear testimony from people who had actually studied the whys and wherefores of sexual harassment, makes them something worse than merely naive. More on what Hill said last night can be read in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

For this friend and others, Hill's testimony was a pivotal moment in their lives, because it meant that people began talking to each other about it and about their own experiences of workplace harassment.

Several years ago now, I wrote a post on the word darshan, which is an Indian word conveying in Gretchen Rubin's understanding "the beneficial glow that comes from being in the presence of a great spiritual leader (or holy place or object). Merely looking at such a person – and even better, receiving his or her glance – bestows a blessing."

At the time, I was thinking about movie stars and other celebrities as sort of our replacement for the Indian pantheon of gods and understanding better why people are so drawn to them. But last night I think I understood the concept just a little better when I realized that all those people had come to that hall to receive darshan from Anita Hill's presence. It wasn't because of money or power or any of the usual things people want to get close to to see if it might somehow magically wear off. It was because she, I'm sure an ordinary fallible woman like everybody else in many ways, had also at a key moment become a vehicle for truth. She had made something available to us by her testimony that we had not, in some crucial way had access to before. And despite speaking about difficult issues, there was a lightness and transparency to her that was evident.

And if by chance you  happened to be sitting in the third row, at the end of the event, you were treated to a form of darshan that we never got from the hearings. You got a chance to see Anita Hill's gorgeous smile.

Obviously this was at Sundance, but you get the idea...

Saturday, February 21, 2015


I traveled a lot over the last week or so, in one of those odd swells of time when you have multiple significant events to attend in multiple places. It was looking forward to all of the events, several of which were culminations of a kind for various people close to me. But I wasn't looking forward to the travel, as public transportation isn't seamless here in the greater Bay Area. It's usually just a matter of waiting an extra hour here or there when you miss a bus or train by five minutes, so, though not exactly painful, it does get a bit wearing. Still a good book and a stoical attitude can go a long way.

The events were all wonderful as it turned out but the travels were, well, not. I lost my backpack in San Francisco, which was of course my own fault, but which happened in part because of a ghost San Francisco muni train which kept saying it had arrived, or actually, was 'departing' when it wasn't even there. I came back to Santa Cruz on possibly the worst day at the worst time, which was Valentines Day, the beginning of a warm holiday weekend, and at the end of an already long journey, it literally took me an hour to make what is normally about a ten minute bus trip because the roads were packed to the bursting point. And on my final return trip I was actually making a list of all the subpar things that had happened on the four trips I'd just made when the train I was on broke down in Redwood City. It didn't get better from there.

But of course, travel and travail are closely associated in our minds, and not just by sound. The good think about long trips is that they don't usually leave much of a mark once you get through them. But I started thinking about words like harrowing, ordeal and travail as a result of all this, and travail in particular caught my interest.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the derivation of travail takes the standard course back to Latin. In English it means 'toil or labor', the Old French of the same spelling has all that and more, including 'arduous journey', but the further back we go the closer we get to torture and torment ending in an obscure reference to something called a tripalium, which is supposed to have been a Late Latin instrument of torture, tripalis meaning "three stakes". However no one seems to have left a record describing it or its uses, and for that we should perhaps count ourselves lucky.

The word travel which originated in the late 14th century comes from travailen 'to make a journey', and of course goes straight back to travail's Latin roots. I liked what the Online Etymology had  to say about it:

The semantic development may have been via the notion of "go on a difficult journey," but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages. 

As with travel itself, looking up words takes you on some unexpected byways. I came across a website previously unknown to me called Language Log.The rather rambling entry included a bit about the word travail, but I am indebted to it for a different reason. It has introduced me to a line from T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, which I believe will in future be my constant invocation when blogging here:

"Think! Great Powers of Pedantry Assist Me Now!"

And I suppose I should really get to the book as well...

(Oh, that's Goya's  A Pilgrimage to San Isidro that heads up this cheery post. But I bet you guessed at least the artist already.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Quite typically of me, I didn't think of the obvious image for this page until Peter Rozovsky pointed it out.
Yeah, usually these words have some relation to my real life, but don't worry, no one has done anything treacherous, iniquitous or malicious to me lately, at least not that I know of. This word came to my attention from elsewhere recently, probably television. It's a great old word, one we should use more often when outraged, but what does it really mean? And from whence has it come?


Yes, it's got those old Latin roots, no surprise. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the Latin perfidia goes back to the phrase per fidem dicipere, which means "to deceive through trustingness". The Middle French was perfidie and it hit English in the 1590s. Perfidious Albion (la perfide Albion), as in, "Hey, looking at YOU, England!" came over from France a bit later in the form of a poem of 1793 by a Frenchman named Augustin, although it seems the sentiment predated the poem by, well, centuries.

Wikipedia tells us that there is a particular meaning to perfidy in war, which is actually a war crime. So you can't hold up a flag of surrender and then not surrender. You can't feign wounds or illness. You can't pretend to be a non-combatant if you are one, and you can't pretend to be a United Nations peacekeeper either. The reasoning is that it is hard to create an atmosphere of mutual restraint for all parties, including civilians, if one side can't believe a word the other side is saying.

Interestingly, though, ruses of war are not perfidious. What ruses of war? Well, things like camouflage and decoys, dummy operations and misinformation, according to the 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva Convention. Kind of makes me wonder how all these distinctions were hammered out.

You'd think that there would be a lot of great quotes on perfidy, and perhaps there are, but the one I liked best was the one at the bottom of the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

Combinations of wickedness would overwhelm the world by the advantage which licentious principles afford, did not those who have long practiced perfidy grow faithless to each other.

                                                                           --Samuel Johnson