Saturday, December 5, 2015

Robin Hood is not Brazilian


Robin Hood is a folk hero who stole from the rich to give the poor. With the laudable goal of lessening inequality between their citizens, many Latin American populist governments have institutionalized Robin Hood’s deeds with uneven levels of success. Brazil for its part has taken the opposite tracks: it steals from the poor to give to the rich. Culturally speaking, Brazil is closer to Ali Baba and his 40 thieves than to Robin Hood and his Merry Men! However, many in Brazil wish that there were only 40 thieves!

The thieves are a diverse but incestuous lot: senior public servants, “new money” oligarch families, bankers and above all politicians from every hue. They spend an inordinate part of their time devising ways to milk the state and loot state-owned companies, setting in motion a plundering process which becomes an end in itself. The high jacking of state institutions by special interest groups deprives the state of its capacity to improve the quality of life of its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable of them. Colluding corporate and political corruption is squeezing the poor at both ends. Brazilian fat cats live off the poor.

During the last decade, Brazil has been touting that thanks to its welfare programs, it has pulled 20 million people out of poverty. This is true, but its pervasive looting culture prevented many more from being raised, and now with the Brazilian economy in the doldrums (self-inflicted), many people are falling back into poverty. Education, healthcare, housing and infrastructure are the four most critical sectors for poverty reduction but they are the most affected by looting. What is not stolen is wasted by mismanagement. Because corruption increases the cost of the government’s programs, quality falters and their numbers are consequently reduced.

Brazil’s education budget is a bottomless pit: the country spends about 23 percent of it tax income well above the developed countries’ average for very meager results. Most students attend classes part-time, results are abysmal, the drop-out rate remains vexingly high and poorly paid teachers are not very dedicated. Educational failure does not seem to be high among the country’s concerns. Not surprisingly Lula da Silva, the former president, proudly claimed that he never read a book in his life before becoming president!

The multi-layered public health sector is dysfunctional as well. It is the largest public system in the world. Last year, a survey[1] indicated that 93 percent of the respondents found this sector mediocre or bad. To compensate for the shortage of doctors, the state had to import thousands of Cuban doctors to care for the population in the far flung parts of the country. The health system repeatedly failed to contain mosquito-borne cyclical epidemics like dengue and more recently the Zica fever which are both transmitted by the Aedes eagypti mosquito. Zica is an African virus which causes birth defect in babies, principally micro-encephalitis. Many regions in the poor north-east of Brazil are in a state of emergency and the virus has now spread to 13 states. While the government is desperately trying to contain the disease, one health official advised women not to get pregnant!

Social and low income housing is in worse shape still. Even Dilma’s government (Dilma Rousseff, the current president) admits to gross mismanagement, an official understatement for corruption practices. Government watchdog institutions have disclosed that building costs are grossly inflated in order to provide political kickbacks to local politicians and public servants. As a result, the housing policy meets neither basic demand nor people expectation. Shoddy buildings collapse before completion, stay vacant or are used for unintended purposes.

                   minha casa

                       Social Housing, current Brazilian standards

Not only do the poor have to do with bad schools, mediocre healthcare and lousy housing, they see their jobs disappearing. Some 1.5 million jobs were lost in 13 months as a result of the political and economic crisis[2]. To top it all, the 10% annual inflation rate eats into their meagre income. The crisis has been exacerbated by Dilma’s macro-economic mismanagement to gain re-election in October 2014 and the meltdown of the state-controlled oil giant Petrobras triggered by the disclosure of a mega bribery scandal[3]!

The covert financing of the re-election campaigns of national and local political bosses (i.e. vote buying) is the main reason for diverting public funds. The second is for feather bedding and pocket lining at a family scale. Corrupt politicians and oligarchs are joined at the hip, the first follow the instruction of the second, all paid by tax payer money. In such a state of affairs, money and favors are the key political drivers, elections are meaningless, and people are frustrated and disenfranchised. This pernicious system has allowed the tycoons of large construction companies to make tons of money and set up illicit cartels to rig contracts. Not surprisingly, the productivity of many Brazilian companies remains poor even by Latin American standards!

                              lula alibaba

    Ex-president Lula (da Silva) as many Brazilians would like to see him.

The Petrobras bribery scandal and its upstream and downstream developments have become an entertaining political soap opera with dozens of industry big-wigs and politicians in jail or under investigation. To save their skin, many defendants, businessmen and Petrobras executives have signed plea bargains with prosecutors, and their singing has been cacophonic. One tune led to another and more people are getting booked by the police. Recently, irked by the arrogance of the political class, the Supreme Court got involved and ordered jail terms for a leading politician of Lula and Dilma’s Worker’s Party and his alleged partner in crime, a famous investment banker. And the show goes on.

Thirteen years ago, the Worker’s Party won the heart and mind of low-income people by trumpeting its Robin Hood mantra and promising more socio-economic equality and integrity. Robin Hood must be rolling over in his grave.

[1] By the Federal Medical Council.

[2] November 2015 data.

[3] The management of Petrobras has put a price tag on this corruption, writing off US$ 2 billion. The total loss was estimated at US$ 7.2 billion in 2014.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

And the two bloody dams burst!


On November 5, 2015 two dams holding mine tailings[1] collapsed near the colonial city of Mariana, in the historic mining state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The dams belong to the Samarco iron mine. One would assume as with the 2010 Chilean mine disaster which buried 33 miners, that the mine was a fly-by-night undercapitalized operation. Very much to the contrary, Samarco is jointly owned by two blue bloods of the industry, Vale of Brazil and British/Australian BHP Billiton. BHP is the world’s largest mining company and Vale the largest iron ore exporter of the world.



Thirteen mine workers who were working on one of the dams were flushed away and twenty local people are probably also dead. The toxic mudslide[2] has devastated thousands of square miles of land and by flowing into rivers has cut the water supply of the downstream population. As of today, it is suspected that expansion work on one of the dams caused the breach.

Fifteen years ago, when I was taking a keen interest in mining shenanigans, I could easily point out the usual suspects of mine disasters. On the one hand, the mine management was notoriously “culturally disconnected” from the eloquent-talking headquarters staff who are responsible for drafting the company’s policies and code of conduct. On the other, a capacity disconnect occurred between the policy drafting entities of the central government and the local mining agencies which are required to oversee implementation and certify compliance. By enhancing their good corporate governance (i.e. corporate social responsibility) and environmental stewardship, mining companies were falling all over themselves to become good corporate citizens. However, environmental protection and social sustainability come at a price: they increase production cost. Although they are in charge of their implementation, many hard hat managers took a dim view of them. Modern mining generates a huge volume of waste, and efficient tailings management is critical to protecting the neighboring population and its environment.

Tailings management was not considered the sexy or testosterone-infused side of mining. This was an area where the occasional female mining engineer would have been employed, notwithstanding her credentials. Employees assigned to the dumps were not as highly paid as those of mining crews and proper training was often lacking. In other words, management regarded tailings as peripheral and tended to give it low priority, with maintenance and surveillance often falling by the wayside. A fact of mining life is that mining dumps occasionally burst. Miners could mimic Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous comment: “stuff happens”[3]!

Low priority was also given by government’s agents who often lacked updated expertise in tailings monitoring, an expertise closely related to civil engineering. Local offices were commonly understaffed, under trained, under equipped and under paid. When dealing with the deep-pocket mining management, public servants were sometimes complacent and negligent, subjected to bullying and exposed to bribes. In other words, surveillance was given lip service. Because too many technical sectors were involved, no one felt personally accountable. When confronted with an accident and subsequent liability, no one took responsibility for it (diffusion of responsibility).


Now, I wonder what has changed!

The mineral-rich State of Minas Gerais is known to have more than 735 mining dams[4], and some may not be properly monitored. The Samarco mudslide made headlines, but both government and company reactions were very slow at best. Although the causes of the burst have yet to be fully investigated, Vale and BHP have taken responsibility for the accident.

The people affected by the toxic mudslide were pretty much left to fend for themselves, caught between the callousness and misguided decisions of the corporations and the inefficiency of the administrative layer cake. The government will give Vale and BHP multi-million dollar fines, and they will face liability claims also worth millions of dollars. In a country which distinguished itself by a leviathan-size corruption, this money will probably not benefit the victims. They may come to envy the 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days buried under 700 meters of rocks but were pulled out alive by a caring government.

[1] There many names for the muck produced by mining: “Tailings, also called mine dumps, culm dumps, slimes, tails, refuse, leach residue or slickens, are the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction (gangue) of an ore”. Wikipedia.

[2] 62 million cubic meters (O Globo, November 17, 2015).

[3] Donald Rumsfeld is a former US Secretary of Defense. He made this infamous comment on the rampant looting which took place after the fall of Bagdad in 2003.

[4] Folha de São Paulo, November 7, 2015.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stranded in the Borneo Jungle.


We were stranded for two days in the Sarawak rainforest. On the first day, a thick haze resulting from the burning of the rainforest prevented planes from landing and on the second, planes were ground by heavy tropical rain. The rainforest is literally burning itself to death in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo and in Sumatra, the largest Indonesian island. September, supposedly the dry season, is the beginning of the slash-and-burn devastation, an ancestral technique of chopping trees and burning them in situ to clear the rainforest for commercial crops. The acrid cloud of smoke drifts over thousands of miles westward towards Malaysian Sarawak, Sabah and the mainland as well as Singapore and Thailand. Not surprisingly, Indonesia has become the fastest rainforest-clearing country in the world as a result of its illegal logging and palm oil plantations. The country also holds the dubious record of being the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas after China and the United States.

For the past twenty years, haze and smoke have disrupted people’s livelihoods. Because the smoke is thicker this year, it has increased the usual human misery and economic loss: respiratory illness, school closing, air travel disruption and global warming.


                                       Hazy day in Mulu.

Governments engage in their annual futile and dishonest political blame-game. Indonesia is blamed for being unable or unwilling to fight head-on the powerful corporations that run the palm oil and paper plantations. They are responsible for illegal slash-and-burn over large expanses of rainforest and peat land. Palm oil is a growing moneymaking business and a vital foreign currency earner for Indonesia. The decision to resort to slash-and-burn is a no brainer as it is much cheaper and faster than mechanically clearing the land. Many palm oil companies have been fined for resorting to this crude method to clear their own plantation! Every 15 to 17 years, palm trees are uprooted to give way to more productive new ones. Indonesia has tried to defend itself by blaming the investors who are behind the palm oil growth; many are from Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia which has a flourishing but better controlled palm oil business of its own. By destroying habitats, the unrelenting world demand for palm oil is threatening the livelihood of the indigenous people of Borneo and the survival of the mythical orangutan as well as increasing greenhouse gases.

In 2015, for the first time, the slash-and-burn issue is a front-and-center item on the regional political agenda. The new president of Indonesia has been more proactive and many lawbreakers have been sent to jail. Hopefully, when the rainy season resumes (November) this burning issue will not be put on the back burner as in the past.

For a tourist, Borneo’s dry season very much looks like the rainy season. Between daily rain showers, the sky remained dark (smog) and the air was very humid. Borneo’s jungle, or what is left of it, has a reputation of ultimate wilderness, roaming head hunters, infamous blood suckers like leeches, man-eating snakes, dinosaur-size lizards, carnivorous plants and millions of bat colonies to name a few of its less attractive denizens. We survived all of this. During our “downtime” at the airport, a 15 centimeters-long black scorpion paid a visit but was quickly surrounded by some 40 bored tourists eager to snap a close-up. After its five minute of fame, the scorpion was released unharmed into the forest.

So we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in Mulu National Park, a World Heritage site, near the border between Sarawak and Brunei. If the tarmac was idle, the 5-star resort was very busy with all the stranded tourists. We took it in stride, even knowing that our catch-up program was going to be less laid-back.

Borneo is an island of superlatives: the third largest island in the world (Asia’s largest) and the first for the rate of deforestation.  Fortunately most of Borneo is still covered by rainforest; tourists do not come to visit palm oil plantations and illegal logging camps.  Being the land of many exotic but severely endangered species, Borneo had been on my bucket list for some time, and I decided to sample the Malaysian parts of it, i.e. the states of Sarawak and Sabah. Unfortunately, many of Borneo’s exotic sites are only accessible to young energetic backpackers, so this blogger joined a package tour for middle aged and middle class tourists. What was sacrificed in discovery was gained in comfort. In addition to orangutans, we were lucky to spot pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, scores of other weird looking monkeys and the mysterious flower rafflesia, the largest in the world.


           Rafflesia Flower: 1m diameter. Kinabalu National Park

Borneo prompts comparison with the Amazon rainforest, with a plus: the orangutans (the people of the forest in the local language).  For visitors on a schedule, the Semengoh Orangutan Sanctuary near Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, is picture-perfect as the primates can easily be seen and photographed! For one hour, some 70 tourists from different continents were able to watch three orangutans at feeding time: a laid-back male and a mother and her seven-year old son.  It was this blogger’s first encounter with orangutans in their natural habitat and she was really amazed by their gentle demeanor. It was business as usual for the apes, selecting the fruits on offer and gazing at nothing in particular. Then they left for the tree canopy, their dwelling. The mother and her kid walked together for a while near us, a heart-warming sight (see pic).


                             Semengoh Sanctuary: Mother and child.

Orangutans and humans share 97 % of their DNA.  When watching these primates’ behavior, we were eager to see what difference the 3 % make.  Not much, if one considers the behavior of Richie, the group’s alpha male.  Richie recently strangled his wife because she refused to have sex with him. It seems that female orangutans also have headaches! The two off-spring are being taken care of by a sister-in-law.  Apparently, Richie now feels lonely and despondent.  The sanctuary’s orangutans will not be released into the wild until they can feed themselves without relying on food provided by humans.  Free board and healthcare may be too much to forgo for the uncertainty of freedom in the wild: that 97% may carry complacency and opportunism.

IMG_3740bis  IMG_3730

                              Sepilok Sanctuary: Enjoying lunch.

With his powerful binoculars, our guide spotted a wild orangutan when we were in Sabah state. It was very far away in a tree, a slow moving black shape. We were happy to trust his word. Not surprisingly in the past ten years, the ape population has decreased by fifty percent in Borneo and some thousand, mostly in Kalimantan, may be killed each year. Research indicates that the majority of the victims are killed by of palm oil plantation workers. Orphans are brought to rehabilitation centers like Sepilok where we saw many of them literally learning the rope.

Mulu National Park, a UNESCO Heritage site, is only accessible by turboprop plane, weather permitting, as we learned.  The park, which is in the middle of the rainforest, got its UNESCO credentials thanks to its mountains, sharp limestone pinnacles and mega-sized caves.  What these caves lack in beauty, they make up in size: some are kilometers long.  This blogger is not a cave enthusiast, holes in the ground don’t inspire her and without chauvinism, caves in the south of France are much more picturesque than that of Mulu.

IMG_3667  IMG_3675

                     Mulu National Park: Cave and evening bat flight.

This being said, one cave deserves attention, not because it is one of the longest in the world but because it is the creepiest.  From the entrance, visitors are put off by its foul smell and mucky soil.  The cave is named Deer Cave, but it is a misnomer, it should be renamed Bat Cave since it is home to millions of bats huddled together in the roof crevices, hence the stench and droppings.  However, there is a reward to visiting such a filthy cave, but it takes place outside.   Weather permitting, at dusk all the bats fly out of the cave to enjoy their daily mosquito dinner. They may eat some 30 tons of the insects every night.  Their snake-like flights are awesome to watch in a mosquito-free environment.

                         colin's bats

                            Deer Cave. Bat Family. (photo C.P.)

The wildlife exploration proper took place in the State of Sabah where many comfortable lodges have been built on the river banks. Most wildlife watching takes place on boat. Pygmy elephants are endangered, also victims of the palm oil obsession; fortunately they are not as easily disposed of as the orangutans. Plantation owners and wildlife organizations are increasingly establishing reservations where they roam freely. Many large families were seen peacefully but noisily foraging by the river.


                          Kinabatangan Pigmy Elephants, Sabah State.

The weirdest looking denizen of Borneo is without doubt the proboscis monkeys, endemic to the island. They live in trees near the waterways, and are keen swimmers. In a monkey beauty contest, the proboscis stands at the bottom; even baby proboscis monkeys cannot qualify as cute! Males display a prominent, bulbous and pendulous nose which grows with age hence their name. During the Dutch colonization, local people nicknamed them Dutch Monkeys! The larger the nose, the higher the male is in the pecking order! Lady monkeys cannot resist a big nose and a respectable sized penis always on the ready! Binoculars don’t trick. Both genders also display a very unappealing figure with skinny limbs, a long tail and a bloated stomach resulting from their odd diet. According to wildlife biologists, they fart a lot. All these unappealing attributes are compensated by a beautiful reddish coat, and big males look like they are wearing a bomber jacket.

The Borneo population (approximately 18 million) is a friendly mosaic of culturally distinct indigenous groups generically named Dayak. They have mixed with people who came from afar, mainly Malays and Chinese. Generations of Dayaks were head hunters, a tradition that persisted until the beginning of the 20th century. It was revived during WW II and many believe that the occupying Japanese soldiers provided the skulls which are still proudly displayed today. After spending ten days in Malaysian Borneo, there is plenty more to write on this exotic experience. Borneo is worth a trip except in September/October when visitors risk being both stranded and choked by toxic fumes. The Indonesian government estimates that this year the fires have cost US$ 30 billion to the country. It may be a blessing in disguise and next year’s fires may be better contained.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Josephine’s Last Dance


She swept an uncouth, power-hungry general off his feet and married him. She became his empress when he proclaimed himself emperor. Later, the heir-obsessed emperor dumped her for a younger lady. Finally, she dazzled a dashing young czar who had trounced her former husband in battle. While enjoying a stroll with the young czar she caught a bad cold which turned into pneumonia, and passed away a few days later after giving a ball in his honor.

This trio consists of Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), Napoleon Bonaparte’s beloved first wife; Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821); and Russian Czar Alexander I (1777-1225), Empress Catherine’s favorite grandson.


                            Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte

“A story of friendship, war and art” was the theme of the blockbuster exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (March 28-November 8, 2015). This blogger very much enjoyed the exhibition which pores over an unconventional relationship and casts a different light on these well-known figures. French visitors who still unconditionally worship Napoleon may have been taken aback by this exhibition.

In today’s parlance, Josephine would be a survivor, a socially-savvy trendsetter, a networker, a jetsetter, a style icon, a shopaholic and a serial debtor. Her aristocratic origins were enough to get her into a dreadful jail during the revolution where she narrowly escaped the guillotine. Freshly widowed, she met Bonaparte in a post-revolution soirée. Contrary to her predecessor, Queen Marie-Antoinette, also a notorious born-to-shop lady, the French had a soft spot for the charming Marie Joseph Rose, a Créole born in the Caribbean island of Martinique. In spite of her spendthrift lifestyle, Josephine (a name coined by Bonaparte) remained very popular with the people. Napoleon scolded her for overspending, but because of his unquestionable love and possibly his gratitude for having used her network of friends to advance his career, he kept paying her debts. She was a consummate and eclectic collector; tropical birds and plants, clothing, accessories, jewels, furniture, paintings and sculptures found their way into her exquisite Chateau de la Malmaison near Paris. Among her art collection were items which had been previously looted by her husband during his victorious military campaigns.

alexandre         notso    

    Dashing Alexander I                                            Napoleon,   less so

In 2014, to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of Josephine’s death, a major exhibition was organized in Paris. It focused on her exquisite tastes and charmed life. In addition to being a savvy art collector, Josephine contributed to the promotion of tropical botany in her Malmaison gardens. On the other hand, the Amsterdam exhibit explored the rapport between Alexandre I, Napoleon and Josephine through Dutch and Russian angles.

Holland had been conquered by Napoleon and was ruled by his brother Louis who was married to Hortense, Josephine’s daughter. In 1807, Napoleon and Alexander established a friendship. Admiration was mutual, but five years later the young czar became Napoleon’s nemesis. By crushing his Grande Armée on the frozen Russian plains he inflicted on the French Emperor his worse defeat. Approximately 30,000 Dutch soldiers took part in Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign, very few survived in spite of the Dutch bridge-making talents which saved the Grande Armée from total destruction. Records indicate that between June 1812 and February 1813 a million people died from both sides.

Napoleon was subsequently forced to abdicate during the spring of 1814, and France was occupied by foreign armies. Alexander marched his troops in triumph into Paris. Still an admirer of the wretched emperor, the francophone and Francophile czar prevented his allies from dismembering France. Alexander was 36, unhappily married and with a long-term mistress. How could he not resist paying a visit to Josephine, a woman renown for her charm and good taste, an ancient régime aristocrat, a revolution survivor and the great love of his archenemy? Alexander spent the whole spring in Paris and visited Josephine several times in the Malmaison until the fateful ball in his honor.

Alexander was captivated by a woman 14 year his senior. They became very friendly. It was springtime in Paris, love was in the air, and a little romance was probably welcome. However in this troubled period, Josephine needed more a protector than a lover. Alexander did his best to cheer up Josephine and alley her anxieties about her future and that of her two children, Eugène and Hortense. Being Josephine, her financial concerns were also high on her list of worries. The smitten young czar assured her of his unconditional devotion and even invited her to move to St Petersburg.

As a self-made woman, Josephine attracted the curiosity of France’s new rulers; she became the toast of the occupied town, the king of Prussia paid her a visit, as well as countless princes and dignitaries from the occupying armies. Even the new king of France, the brother of the beheaded king Louis XVI, sent his respects. She lavishly upgraded her wardrobe to shine at the ball she gave in Alexander’s honor which she regarded as the highlight of her social reemergence. A few days later, on May 29, 1814 she died of pneumonia. Alexander was heartbroken and grief-stricken having lost an “angel of goodness”.

As can be expected, Josephine left substantial debt. True to his word, Alexander purchased parts of Josephine’s art collection to refund her creditors. These arts pieces can now be seen at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. Eugène and Hortense, who was infatuated with Alexander received an allowance and were able to keep their titles and privileges. Most extraordinarily, Eugène’s children married into royal families.

Josephine continues to fascinate people, as the two popular museum exhibits make clear. She also inspired countless films, biographies, and novels. Since no additional information on her life has been unearthed, the most recent biographies are even reinventing her!


                   Alexander I, Josephine, Eugene and Hortense.

Her fabled rose gardens in Malmaison are still a source of inspiration for garden lovers. Her superb jewels and tiaras grace many royal heads.


                 Swedish Queen Silvia with Josephine’s cameo tiara.

Contrary to the two men who played a crucial role in her life, Josephine lives on. The emperor and the czar left no reigning heirs, but Josephine is the direct ancestor of all the European royal families except that of Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Felipe VI of Spain. This is the impressive legacy of a little girl who was frolicking with slave children on the beaches of a tiny Caribbean island. A true rags to riches fairy tale.


This blog is dedicated to my friend J.M.M. who accompanied me to the Paris Exhibit.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Modern Bull Worshipers


In the Age of Antiquity bull worshiping was widespread in Europe and Asia. Now, the cult is restricted to India and a small corner of southern France, on the Mosquito Coast (check previous blog for location). It takes place during the warm months of the year, from April to November at the occasion of the fêtes votives (village festivals). The initial purpose of these fêtes was to venerate the patron saint. Today, not only have the saints been forgotten after decades of republican and anti-clericalism fervor, but the Christian origin has been lost on younger generations. If asked, a local youth will reply that fêtes votives are bull festivals. At the same time, the know-it-all Parisian will perplexedly stare at you, as fêtes votives are considered exotic events to people living outside the Mosquito Coast region.

The locals take fêtes votives very seriously, the longer the better. They customarily last a week; however, some bull-mad villages in the Camargue offer entertainment for up to 9 days. Activities commonly start at 10 am and finish at 4 am the following day, every day. Since many fêtes overlap, competition between villages is fierce. In Languedoc and Provence, there are some 2 000 days a year dedicated to fêtes votives. Obviously, they give ready ammunition to primal French bashing: Are they not another indication of the French lackadaisical approach to work? Wrong. As stated above, the fêtes votives pre-date the much derided 35-hour-work-week, the icon of social conquest, and are hard work for the participants, including the bulls, their sidekicks the white Camargue horses and regrettably for some, the bartenders.


                                       Racing through the village

Bulls are worshiped like rock stars. The bravest ones receive accolades, medals and their exploits are reported in newspaper articles. The private life of the fête-votive-celebrity bulls attracts the attention of paparazzi as the picture below shows. Champion bulls die in their beds, so to speak, contrary to toros (Spanish bulls) which are expendable: some 7200 toros have died in corridas (bullfights) during the summer of 2015.


Up close and personal with Greco, the celebrity bull (From MIdi Libre, Aug, 9)

Top Camargue bulls have their own grave with a tombstone describing their achievements, and some have been immortalized with a statue. Before WWII, the town of Beaucaire in the Gard department had a bronze statue representing a famous racing bull, but it was melted (to make guns) by the occupying German army. So in the early 1960s, the undeterred inhabitants put up a new one in stone. Many villages have statues to “generic” bulls and there are more bull statues than those of Charles de Gaulle’s gracing Mosquito Coast villages.

The wild Camargue bulls are smaller but smarter than their Spanish cousins. Their shiny black coat wraps 300 kgs of muscles and their lyre-shape horns make them distinctive. They are the kings of the bull-ring during the courses camargaises (Camargue bull racing) where they face the razeteurs, the players dressed in white who try to snatch the threads pinned between their horns. Bulls make their fame by not allowing the razeteurs to reach their goals. After participating in a couple of races, bulls learn the trade, become “experts” and enhance their value and the bets placed on their name. Fans are drawn to the races by the fame of the competing bulls, whose names are written in big bold letters on the posters. The names of the razeteurs are in smaller characters, as they play second fiddle to the bulls.


                          Course camargaise: close encounter

In addition to the courses camargaises, anonymous bulls are drafted for village entertainment by running in the streets. They are let loose under the “protection” of the gardians (cowboys) on their white Camargue horses. The thrill is to stop the bulls literally by the horns in their run and get one’s picture taken. Youth fall over themselves to compete in these events which take place twice a day during the whole fête votive. Unlike in Spain where some nine men were gored to death this summer, accidents are few. However, village festivals are not risk-free. When chasing a razeteur, a bull can jump into the grandstands and hurt seating spectators or distracted picture-taking tourists can be knocked down by running horses.


                     To catch a bull: attrapaire in Occitan language.

Bulls, too lazy or too dumb to graduate into fête votive material end up in the pot. At least, they have the satisfaction of having their meat labeled AOC, a French stamp for Controlled Designation of Origin and certified organic meat. Bull meat is increasingly popular with health conscious carnivores.

Fêtes votives have a not so negligible impact on the rural economy; the activities are funded by the mairie (village town council) and the local trade benefits for the economic windfall. Dedicated to bull racing, the manades (the bull and horse breeding ranches of Camargue) are the main beneficiaries. Without these rural traditions and related tourism, there would be little commercial incentive to preserve the unique bulls and horses of Camargue.


                                    To cool off after the action.

The Languedoc and the western part of Provence are quite exceptional in France for aggressively preserving their rural traditions, even if deemed dangerous. Surprisingly, young people are the most passionate guardians of this bull racing folklore; the danger is part of the fun, a rite of passage.

However, these long village fêtes have their critics. Many believe that this bull worshiping is pretense for week-long bacchanalias where kids drink themselves unconscious and put their life and that of others in jeopardy. In this crybaby era, the village mayors are compelled to increase safety and security to protect themselves from potential lawsuits. But risk-free and unexciting races are not to the liking of the bull worshipers, whether clear-headed or intoxicated. Gallons of pastis, a local anise-flavored spirit are consumed during the fiesta, to the point many argue that pastis not bulls is the symbol of the region. To limit boozing related brawls and accidents, some mayors are trimming the duration of the fiesta. The final blow comes from the purists who claim that nowadays, fêtes votives have lost their soul, becoming a caricature of traditions and a show to attract tourists.


This blogger believes that it will be a cultural loss if run-away drinking leads to the demise of a vibrant tradition which sets this region apart from the rest of France. This pagan ritual centered on the bull is cherished by young people; it is up to them to protect it. The choice is theirs.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Mosquito Coast with a Gallic Accent


In 1981, American author Paul Theroux wrote a novel titled Mosquito Coast, which tells the story of a utopian American family destroyed by its patriarchal leadership in a tropical region. The name is derived from the local Indians, the Miskitos who lived on the eastern coast of what is now Honduras and Nicaragua where the family settles. The story has nothing to do with mosquitoes. The real Mosquito Coast is to be found in the South of France, in the Languedoc region on the Mediterranean coast between the city-ports of Marseille to the east and Sète to the west. Plagued by mosquitoes until the mid-20th century, it was known as the Malaria Coast. Some forty different mosquito species have been identified in the region.

During WWII, and the subsequent Nazi occupation, the region was regarded as inhospitable even by the occupying forces! In 1943, 200 malaria deaths were officially reported. Yellow fever was also endemic. Dreaded by people, this backwater region nonetheless offered an appealing and unique ecosystem with picturesque saltwater lagoons, pristine sandy beaches, swamps where white horses and black bulls roamed freely and more than 400 bird species mosquitoes’ sole predators! The fabled Camargue wetlands located in the Rhone River delta embody the rugged beauty of this land.


                                                                                                                                                            Camargue Birds (photo C.D.)                                                       




                                                                                                                                                                 Camargue Bulls in Swamps


The Languedoc was freed from both the occupying forces and the mosquitoes at more or less the same time. In 1944, the DDT pesticide was made available to France and was an instant game changer in the Languedoc. Development could start in earnest. In the late 50s, the government launched a mega-tourism project, and between 1960 and 1970, a number of new coastal resorts sprouted, of which the Grande Motte and Port Camargue are the most famous. Developers targeted middle class families which could not afford the French Riviera. La Grande Motte now receives over 2 million tourists a year and Port Camargue has become the largest European marina. In the summer months, some 6000 boats are harbored there.



                                  La Grande Motte Marina                                               

                                                                                                                                 In the early 70s, the mosquito-free resorts had become increasingly popular with the 30-day-a-year-paid-vacation French people when the bad news hit: DDT was banned. A carcinogenic chemical included in the DDT formula had entered the food chain. DDT was eradicating mosquitoes but people and birds had become its collateral victims. The pink flamingoes and water birds of Camargue are significant tourism attractions and had to be protected.

New generations of environment-friendly pesticides, used with abandon (though not as effective as DDT), have until recently kept the mosquito nuisance under control. In spite of this all-out fight, mosquitoes cannot be totally eradicated. Moreover, the globalization and global warming cocktail has stimulated the migration of aggressive species from Africa and Asia. In Languedoc, they are delighted to find warm weather, stagnant lagoons and plenty of victims freshly landed from Northern France or Europe. Among these unwelcome newcomers, tiger mosquitoes are the most feared, they bring diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya. Actually, the tigress mosquito is the one to fear; only the females bite, they need blood to mate and produce their eggs.



                                                                                                                                                         Aedes albopictus at work (Tiger Mosquito)


This summer, the Languedoc and neighborhood coastal regions deserved their moniker of the French Mosquito Coast. Mosquito attacks have been extremely disruptive, wreaking havoc on the French way of life. Mosquitoes predominantly launch their strikes during apéro time. Apéro is a major ritual in France, religiously followed by the French and eagerly adopted by the tourists. Apéro is short for apéritif, a relaxing moment to socialize with friends or strangers sipping rosé or pastis. It can take place twice a day, either before lunch or dinner, or on both occasions.

Scientists have recently discovered why these blood suckers love to target people enjoying apéro and how they chose their victims. At 50 meters away, mosquitoes can smell CO2 plumes coming from people breath and, when closer they select their next meal by darting in on a heat source, in this case body heat. The more revelers the better, the mosquito’s modus operandi is very similar to that of carnivorous mammals! To escape mosquito’s attack is mission impossible unless you generously spray jungle formula repellent on all exposed body parts. All the same, the unnerving buzzing of hungry and angry mosquitoes will spoil the apéro.

Fortunately, relief may be coming soon. A French company is testing a mosquito vacuum cleaner which mimics people breathing and perspiring (body sweat odor). When getting close, the mosquitoes are sucked into the receptacle where they die. According to the ongoing experiment in a Camargue village, 70% of the mozzies end up in the box. Price tag: € 500! Not cheap, but the French are ready to make the financial investment to protect their sacrosanct apéro

Friday, May 29, 2015

Friends'comments on Ms. Wednesday Martin’s op-ed in the New York Times of May 16, 2015. “Poor Little Rich Women”. Yes, wives bonuses are paid on Park Avenue!

Blog on The Marquises de Pompadour of Park Avenue is next.

(1) Beatrice, Quant à l'article du NYT auquel se réfère le Figaro -"Poor little rich women"- il est marrant mais facile et je déteste la façondont l'auteur qui se prend pour une anthropologue name drops les femmes autochtones Agta des Philippines, Kung del'Afrique australe ou Dogon du Mali. La comparaison qui tue: "As in the Kalahari desert and rain forest resources are the bottom line in the Upper East Side". A mon avis, elle (qui s'est tout de même rapprochée de Central Park pour être près de ses in-laws et mettre ses fils dans des nurseries) fait partie de la tribu des pestes. Rien de nouveau, on s'en doute de tout ce qu'elle raconte sur les femmes des financiers. Après les trophy apartments les trophy wives...Fabienne.

(2) I am not flabbergasted and it does not seem like Stepford Wives to me at all. If these woman want to act this way, let them. I may not want to do what they are doing, but it is their right to behave however they want, as long as they do not hurt anyone. And the ones engaged in charitable things are helping.Do your other friends agree or disagree with me?  Caryl.

(3) Sad, but I may raise the "bonus" concept with Richard
In some ways this sounds like the lives of many of the ex-pat oil wives and is definitely my sister-in-law. She is a Stanford Univ graduate and, while her children are now grown, she IMs them multiple times every day. They went to the best schools, are skilled musicians and she is pretty much a professional mom.  I have never understood it as I would be screamingly bored out of my mind.  What a waste of talent. Kathleen

(4) All I am saying is each person makes their own decision and though you might not agree with it is their choice and unless they are hurting someone you should not judge them. Yes, I am in agreement with working parents but I feel that everyone should make their own decision. There is nothing wrong with nonworking mothers volunteering at their children's schools. Someone has to do it. And you are wrong if you think that children of working parents, whether they have a nanny or are in child care, do not have many activities planned for them.
One tends to meet people like themselves, so most of my friends were working mothers. But if I had not been working I would have met more parents who did not do so. Of course, there are also cases where the father is the stay at home parent. There is nothing wrong with that although I do not like that a big deal is made when that happens. 

(5) Hi Caryl, don't get me wrong, people are free to do whatever they want as long that it doesn't hurt the others as you said. But in our organized society, i.e. in Europe, many people decide not to work and take advantage of the social safety net, this choice hurts those who work!!! Income taxes can only be to be raised on working people.

Kids'activites, this is exactly my point: they have too many activities as reported by the son of a friend of mine who studies at the exclusive French lycee in Manhattan.  According to him, many of his friends would like to get their mums off their back!  Beatrice.

(6) Children have thought this way throughout the ages, no matter what kind of mother (or father) they have.  Caryl.

(7) I think this anthropologist was desperately looking for a subject.  I have never came across what she calls <Glam SAHMs> - there may be women who opt for not working for a few years to dedicate time to their families when their children are young - and I see nothing wrong with that if you can afford it and are willing to take the risk to miss the train when you want to go back to work.   While in New York I haven t seen any expensive and exquisite outfits worn by <Glam SAHMs> - true, I was there only for one week, but there were no exquisite outfits in the streets, neither on Upper East Side nor anywhere else.  It was so cold, and all of N.Y. wears black when it is cold. I think sex segregation is not specific to a group but did observe that there is sometimes a tendency that after dinner two separate groups form:  men and women.  Why I don t know, perhaps this is something American?  About what the author calls the year-end wife bonus:  nonsense, this is a Christmas gift from husbands who don t know what else to give.  Marianne.

(8) Hey Beatrice

Thanks very much for sending this.  Very interesting to see it (finally) openly acknowledged and documented. Sorry to say I am not surprised, EXCEPT about the bonuses -- I had not heard of that before and am disgusted by it.  I’ve long resented that so many women go after the very best degrees, including law degrees, only to barely or never use them, taking up space that others would die for.  It’s the lost opportunity for other people that rankles me.  I am delighted to see it out in the open, a good start for an expose.  Donna.

(9) Hi Beatrice,

I know that you said that this is “the end” but you made some comments that I think are so “wrong” that I feel I must write again. Frist of all, are most of your friends mothers? If one is not a mother, one cannot understand the choices that they have. Stay at home mothers get upset at working mothers (such as I was) who think they (the stay at home mothers) are making a mistake. On the other hand, working mothers are not happy when stay at home mothers say that they are not “good” mothers because they work. So I guess this means that each group feels that they are right.  But the following statement that you wrote is just not correct: “These ‘bonuses’ wives remind me that if stay-at-home motherhood is a job, then that means your husband is your employer. He can fire you any time for poor performance (a subjective decision unless performance parameters are set!). It is not a very egalitarian relationship.”  Why is the working husband the employer? In a relationship where the spouses are equal, both staying at home or working should be considered equal.  You write, “Some friends on mine argue that women have choices, and to stay home is one choice.” Yes, this is true if one can afford it. We are lucky enough to be able to make that choice. But the majority of woman cannot afford to do that and have to work at low-level jobs and make arrangements for their children to be taken care of, unless they are married and can split working times with their spouse.

 One of your friends thinks that the “bonus” is nothing more than a large holiday gift. Maybe. I have never heard of such a bonus before and I wonder if it is just figuring out what the expenses for running the house will be for the coming year.  I would be interested in seeing what you (and your friends, if you want to pass this on) think of these additional thoughts. Caryl.

 (10) No time until now to comment on the Little Rich Women op-ed which I read of course.  I see these women at dinner in Upper East Side restaurants all the time.  Just by looking at them you can tell they are part of this phenomenon because they are roughly the same age as the husband, chicly dressed, not a hair out of place, etc. usually out with one or two other couples whose wives look the same.  The other class of women who look like them are trophy wives, but they are the much younger wives of older successful men (saw Tony Bennett with his at the theatre a couple of weeks ago) and frankly there’s not much difference in the way they lead their lives, though I would suspect that they have less choice because they are probably far less educated.  Working women look stressed, not as well groomed, etc,  understandable, they don’t have the time.  We’re back to the old story of women not being able “to have it all”.  Don’t we all personally know many cases among the daughters of friends who went to law school or got MBA s and now stay home tending their children.   Wonder what Sheryl Sandberg says about all of this with her lean-in theories.  She was able to lean in because no one ever knew how many nannies and household help she had and now she is dealing with another problem, being a single parent.  Anyway, all of this is endlessly fascinating, but whenever I see a married women with children and a successful career, I wonder which part of her equation had to “give” to enable her to “have it all”.  No one can have it all.  Linda S.

(11) Hi, Yes I read about the women who get bonuses from their husbands – and get it written in a pre nup. I just think how sad they are and how little they value themselves as people. Barbara.

 (12) I did want to chime in, Beatrice, but have been busy with family (still in Portland).  I read the NYT article when it first came out, and, at first, was appalled.  Bonuses?  allowances pegged to performance?  it all does seem to be a little extreme.  What would really be interesting would be to see the details of those pre- or post-nuptials.  My guess is that it is all more nuanced.  Aside from that, though, it did call to mind the earlier years of the Feminist movement when there was a demand for women's work in the home to be given a monetary value, ideally with actual pay (including benefits such as social security). The arrangement described in the article comes close to this.  It does at least acknowledge that what these women do has a monetary value.  Of course, there are also significant flaws. The most glaring one, I think, is that -- as you said and I agree -- it does put the husband in the position of an employer, and this completely upsets the notion of their being equal partners or of having equal power. Another is the notion of tying pay to performance, if, in fact, it is really the children's performance that may be measured.  But again, the whole system may be far more nuanced and equal than it appears. I would not try to compare these women to anyone else of a different class (and maybe not even a different geography!).  We know that the rich, esp the Wall Street nouveau riche, live differently from the rest of us. Mary Pat.

(13) Although I live just across the park from this particular tribe, I must say I do not know any of them, let alone their mores. Even our wealthier friends fall into the two-income category and have generally chosen to live on the more down-to-earth Upper West Side. (Any neighborhood where it's hard to get a cab is a no-go for me!) The idea of a "bonus" for being a "successful" wife seems especially odd. I have heard of non-working women of that class express concern over being left by their husbands, but this world is as foreign to me as it must be to you. That said, I thought anthropologists were supposed to be objective; this one seems to have an axe to grind. After all, what she dismisses as "free work" for charitable and educational causes is an essential part of life in all our cities. What would Central Park be like without the Central Park Conservancy? Perhaps she should have stayed in the West Village, which, like the UWS, has too much diversity for comfort for the Upper East Side animals she now associates with. (Donna’s friend).

(14) This is a question to which there is no correct answer - I agree with your friend's discussion (Caryl) of the never ending disagreements between working mothers and non-working mothers. That argument seems to bring out a defensiveness on both sides of the table and will probably never be resolved.  The bonus issue however is - to me - very troubling and demeaning. Household costs should clearly be paid by the income earning spouse and can be accomplished by a household budget, not a "bonus". I worked my entire adult life until Richard and I came into this gypsy lifestyle with the State Dept. I found it demeaning to have to ask Richard for money to buy groceries, pay the maid and so on. So we decided instead to set up a system whereby he wrote a monthly check for household costs as determined by me. I might have had to remind him about timing but that was it. It ceased to be my allowance, bonus or whatever and was instead characterized for what it was.  Maybe these other ladies, who have never worked, don't find the bonus offensive but I certainly would. nuf said!  Kathleen 

24 May, 

(15) Dear Linda, I love your belated comments which I will pass around as L.C. They make lots of good sense. My blog is hard to write because the subject is so emotional and women have strong views on the subject.  Our personal experience shapes our opinion. What bothers me is that too many women still “think inside the box”, the patriarchal box. Women have more options now, some can stay home if they wish (although often a short term-option) because other women (feminists mostly) spoke loud and clear and pushed the economic & social boundaries for all.  Women crave for more equality, they all have to fight for it either from the home or from the office. Of course, from the home is more difficult and it looks less credible.  Can one imagine Ann Romney going to Washington D.C. to request paid maternal leave? Beatrice.

(16) Dear Beatrice, I was so interested to read all the comments about the article.  I went back and read it again--I hadn't really focused on the bonus issue.  It's appalling!  I certainly don't know anyone in NY who does that.  It's treating your wife like an employee--shows a complete lack of trust on both sides.  Tom and I both put our money into our joint account--or as Tom calls it "the black hole,"  and then take out what we need, no questions asked.  It's interesting--everyone handles money differently, and no-one really talks about it--it's as taboo as sex.  As for working/not working, as you know I chose to stay home with my children, and I'm very ambivalent about it.  On the one hand, I absolutely loved having that much time with them, and was never bored--although I know that's not true with many women; on the other hand I did give up autonomy and leverage in the marriage (although ideally one would not need leverage--but life is not ideal). When I quit, Tom was on Wall St. and making lots of money, so my small salary from my publishing job didn't seem important, but when he left Wall St. and started his own business we certainly could have used the money from a second income.   I'll tell you one thing--I've told Biss never to give up her job!  I really don't see it as a viable option going forward.  Someone (I think it was L. S.) said that one always gives up something, and that's certainly true.  So those are my final thoughts on the issue! Linda C.

May 25,

(17) Hi Beatrice, Did you read the letters to the editor about this in today’s Times. Most of them seem to agree with me, not you. I think the author is not believed because no one knows anything about the bonuses and think she made it up from something she heard incorrectly.  Caryl

(18) I am pretty sure that no one wants to admit receiving a bonus to his wife, it is too shocking!  I have read a pre-nup on line and won't be surprised that bonuses in fact exist. Anyway my blog is nearly finished and won't change what I wrote as it is the way I think.  People's views reflect their own experience, which should be respected. In case Martin made up the whole thing it is a scientific fraud. Beatrice.

May 26,

(19) Beatrice, Tom sent me the same article!  She (W.M.) exaggerates for effect, but a lot of it rings true.  The private school admissions game is particularly frightful.  Can't wait to read the book.  Also can't wait to read Tom's comments on all this!  Dear Marianne,  I was very interested to read your response.  The bottom line is all mothers feel guilty one way or another.  I certainly feel guilty about not working...though I do enjoy it!  A thought:  you are obviously very close to your daughter, and you worked, and I am very close to my children, and I didn't--I think they sense the quality and constancy of your love either way, and that's what makes the difference. Linda C.

May 27,

Well, in this article you tapped into the secrets of the Upper East Side! We have a mafia pledge of Omerta to never discuss these things, except in cigar filled rooms with like-minded male plutocrats. These secret meetings are in obscure rooms of exclusive members only clubs, protected by secret handshakes. I understand that Boko Haram (definitely not to be confused with the 60s rock band Poco Harem) has similar clubs.
All of this is entrapment by aspirational social climbing.  It seems that this is the inverse of progress. Kind of like longing for the forgotten world of a 1950s awful meal. Sometimes you smell something in the air that takes you to a forgotten paradise of lousy food. Deja vu.
With progress comes un-progress. The problem is that women today have it easy because of the hard fights your generation had. So you have alpha women who stay at home dreaming up metrics for their lives: more kids, better schools, Harvard, etc. Ask Linda she’s been there, seen that in Ct and NYC.
Hope that contributes! Tom.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Marquises of Pompadour of Park Avenue

The Marquise de Pompadour was the pampered, glamorous, intelligent and cultured mistress of 18th century French king Louis XV.  She entertained him, took charge of his schedule, managed his household, groomed his children, organized his sexual activities and acted as the de facto minister of culture.  For her excellent performance, the king rewarded her with titles and money, like bonuses in today’s parlance.

The Marquise de Pompadour’s lifestyle is alive and well on Park Avenue and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City’s posh enclave of the well-heeled.  According to anthropologist and social researcher Wednesday Martin, these Pompadour-reincarnations are not actually mistresses but married women who unburdened by ordinary wife responsibilities (they don’t bake cake) indulge in all the mistress and kept-woman-type trappings and excesses. 

On May 16, 2015 the word got out that many of the Upper East Side wives received bonuses for “being a good spouse”.  The news went viral on line.  These gilded-cage creatures are married to young masters-of-the-universe husbands who allegedly reward them with generous bonuses to do tasks conventional and self-sacrificing wives do for free, whether working or stay-at-home.  On this important day for the advancement of urban anthropology, Ms. Martin published a titillating op-ed[1] to promote her forthcoming book Primates of Park Avenue.  In her op-ed she drew far-reaching analogies with other hierarchical societies in faraway lands. 

                                                           Jezebel Blog

The Park Avenue primates are Glam SAHMs (glamorous stay-at-home-moms) an acronym coined by Martin.  On the Upper East Side, there are twice as many reproductive age females than males.  So competition to catch unattached men is ruthless, very much like in the Disney nature film Monkey Kingdom where a female toque macaque outwits other females to mate above her rank.  In financial parlance it is a buyer’s market.  So pressure to shine and perform is enormous on these Glam SAHMs for whom managing the wealthy household is a full-time job.  While their high earning executive husbands run hedge or private equity funds, the equally talented wives with advanced degrees from top universities are the CEOs of the domestic firm strengthening the dynastic wealth.  However, their “intensive mothering” practice, i.e. “exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure” does not include menial work.  They concentrate on upscale activities like indoor cycling (“rich women don’t get fat”), shopping, hanging out with their girlfriends, organizing galas and charitable functions, newsletter editing, and compulsive grooming to deserve the glam part of their acronym.  “Intensive mothering” looks very much like remote control parenting.  Moreover, Glam SAHMs seem to enjoy their highly gender-segregated life (or is it by default?), interaction with their husband’s own world appears limited at best.

Female employment (age group 25-55) in the United States has gradually declined over the year from 75% in 2000 to 69% today, steadily leaving the US in a gender “dustbin”.  By contrast the majority of rich countries are going in the other direction.  The female employment rate is notoriously low in affluent areas like the Upper East Side of Manhattan where about half the women do not work outside the home.  Wealthy suburbs of Salt Lake City in Utah show similar figures.  Ms. Martin should be encouraged to check if wealthy Mormon husbands also pay wife (or wives) bonuses.  This blogger has some doubt because the deeply male-dominated Mormon culture is frugal by Park Avenue standards.  

In the posh Zona Sul suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, where this blogger lives, the Carioca[2] Glam SAHMs are easily spotted and their life style mimics the Upper East Side type.  They busy their days with vigorous work outs, Pilates and “appointments with dermatologists to get various beauty treatments.  On a more positive side, some of them volunteer time for charitable work”[3].  

So let’s go back to the bonus issue which has created the buzz in the media and went viral among my female friends.  According to Martin, these bonuses are set up in a pre-nup or a post-nup (I still cannot fathom the difference between the two, since most couples do not wait for the wedding night to assess one another’s bed performance).  The bonus amount is based on the wife’s performance in managing the household and bringing up her brood.  Key Performance Indicators (KPI for the insiders) must be agreed upon, e.g. zero defect product, customer satisfaction (i.e. the husband), progress towards specific goals, etc.? This indicator business is fairly opaque.  Do repeated failures to meet targets lead to divorce? Or does the wife go back to work as a less stressful option?  Alternatively, is the wife able to compensate for her performance shortcomings?  According to Martin, “there were jokes about possible sexual performance metrics”.  Madame de Pompadour must twitch in her grave.  She lived during a time when sexual performance was the bread and butter of mistresses.  “The wives of the master of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses-dependent and comparatively disempowered” Martin writes.

This blogger fully agrees with this comment.  Bonuses are performance-based financial rewards subsequent to an evaluation by supervisors.  Therefore the stay-at-home motherhood job is appraised by the husband cum employer.  This arrangement does not strike her as very egalitarian.  In the altruistic spouse partnership common to middle-class families, the stay-at-home mom enjoys a certain freedom by working free-of-charge, a compensation to her economic dependency.  Does it not defeat the purpose to be paid to be a mom?

Now let’s quote John McDermott, a Financial Times columnist who probably cannot afford to pay his wife a bonus: “I was thinking about how a wife bonus demeans the economic gains made by women across the world in the past 100 years and corrodes the romantic bonds between partners…so rich men can keep their wives in dependency….Is this dependency worth the bonus?.”[4]
Further along in his op-ed, Mc Dermott reminds us that “bonuses” paid to households are not new.  In fact, European governments give generous allowances to encourage families to have children, the KPIs being the number of children born, not mothers to stay home.  It is not a totally pro-women policy, as European countries face huge pension liability and need young workers to pay for retirees as the pay-as-you-go pension system is overstretched.  In fact, complemented with paid maternity leave, the allowance helps many mothers to stay in the work force.

Through its social welfare program Bolsa Familia, the Brazilian government allocates stipends to poor mothers to encourage them to keep their kids healthy and in school.  It has another non-official purpose, that of bribing families to vote for the government candidates. 

Why do rich highly educated women with skills to match, business connections, and household help decide not to take up an interesting job?  There are individual as well as tribal reasons for these decisions.  May-be it is because the glass ceiling is so hard to break.  The masters of the universe do not make the work environment women-friendly and until women’s participation reaches a critical mass, nothing will improve on this front.  Unfortunately, since professional women are increasingly opting out in the United States, the remaining working women will have to fight harder to stay afloat, and as a result the goal of equal pay for equal work will remain a concept.  You have gone a long way baby, but it is still a man’s world! So stay put, and direct your intelligence into pleasing a wealthy husband.  Is this the message behind Ms. Martin’s survey?

Ms. Martin may have sexed-up her survey, the bonus thing may be an exaggeration.  However, having read some pre-nups on line, I believe that there is some truth in her story.  The Park Avenue tribe is a minute population, part of the 1%, the richest Americans, who often marry each other, and work in finance.  However, its social model is a return to the old patriarchal system, with the commodification of love as a new element.  Only money and privilege make is bearable for the Glam SAHMs; they may enjoy their gender-segregated world, but the real divide is between those who can afford not to work and those who have no choice but work. 

Balancing work and motherhood for American middle-class women is nearly mission impossible.  Opting-out is regarded as New Feminism which holds that women should be valued in their biological role of child bearers, as individual equal to men in the economic, social and legal senses.  Notably, the concept promoted by the Catholic Church doesn’t reject women’s participation in the economic and social sphere.  From reading the comments on Ms. Martin op-ed in the NYT (May, 24) it seems that this fact is lost on many women.  The multifaceted New Feminism is the mantra of the post-feminist generation.  In this new parlance, this blogger is a dinosaur, an old fashioned feminist, object of scorn.  However, she may be right to regard New Feminism is an old gender based prejudice in new clothing.

If every American woman decides to opt-out, men will be more than happy to take back the modicum of equality the women fought for over the years.  If many women have choices now, it is because the 20th century feminists fought their battles.  Between Ann Romney and Sheryl Sandberg, this blogger chooses the second.  She worked all her life, enjoyed the stimulation, challenge and the friends she made.  However, she respects those women who took another track, should they remember the battles feminists won for them.  In Europe, women will continue to progress thanks to paid maternity leave (mother & father), crèches, better job opportunities, equal pay and a more audible voice in politics to keep the momentum. The marquises de Pompadour of Park Avenue could prove their usefulness by going to Washington DC and request the implementation of women-friendly policies for those less fortunate than them.

A study from the Pew Research Center (March 14, 2013) found “that 41 percent of American adults claim that the increase in number of working moms is bad for society”.  On the other end, a still more recent study by the Harvard Business School (2015) indicated that the daughters of working mothers were doing better at school and making more money than those of non-working moms.  Their sons were also better fathers.  The Economist of London seems to agree, it published several articles on hands-on fatherhood and children benefits pointing to society gains as a whole (May 16, 2015).

Blog dedicated to Linda C., Linda S., Marianne, Caryl, Donna, Kathleen, Inez, Fabienne and Tom.

[1] Poor Little Rich Women, New York Times op-ed, May 16, 2015.
[2] Inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro.
[3] Information provided by I.M.S.
[4] FT, May 22, 2015.