Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Science and the Great American Eclipse

Earlier this year, Science was under attack by the new administration.  Gag orders were issued to scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments who might wish to air “inconvenient truths” about climate change and more. Severe budget cuts were proposed for not only the EPA but also the National Institutes of Health and other scientific agencies. In response, thousands took to the streets in cities and towns across the country and around the globe to March for Science. That science needs protection in the country which first put a man on the moon (and dropped the first atomic bomb), the country that is the birthplace of the iPhone and the Google search engine seems ironic, if not surreal.

Of cours, there are those who refuse to believe that we are the cause of climate change even as they comment on the weird weather, those who refuse to vaccinate their kids out of fear or paranoia even as they spray disinfectant everywhere, those who insist that their religion’s creation story be taught alongside Darwin, even as they take medications that would not exist without the theory of evolution. There are even those few who, like the Amish, largely abjure technology altogether.

And yet, science is still embedded in and entwined with our civilization, even if we disagree with or are frightened by some of its discoveries and applications.

To see this, we need look no further than the upcoming eclipse.

Nicknamed The Great American Eclipse, the August 21, 2017 event will be the first total solar eclipse in decades to be visible across much of the continental U.S. An estimated two-thirds of Americans live within an easy drive of the path of totality, that diagonal swath from Oregon to South Carolina, while those outside the band should be able to witness a partial eclipse, weather permitting.

News media as diverse as The New York Times and Fox News are putting out eclipse guides and gearing up to cover the event.  Amazon, Loews and others are doing a booming business selling, or in the case of libraries and science museums giving away, disposable eclipse-safe eyewear.

Not even the White House is questioning NASA’s eye safety instructions.

By contrast, the early colonists would have seen an eclipse in an altogether different light. Living as they did on the border between the medieval and the modern, the Puritans would have seen the Great American Eclipse as part of the cosmic battle, as well as a direct message, from either God or Satan to their community. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to have been any solar eclipses visible in New England during the 1600s, so I can only imagine the dire warnings of ministers and magistrates that the end was near. Their reference point for eclipses would have included the Biblical account of the sky darkening during the afternoon of the crucifixion, as though the hand of God was showing His displeasure by momentarily obliterating the sun. The fact that the story is set during Passover, a full moon holiday, and that a solar eclipse requires a new moon-- and a lunar eclipse only happens at night-- would not have fazed them.  

Needless to say, they did not have eclipse-safe eyewear.

That most Americans view this solar eclipse as an exciting, if not quite rare, astronomical event (the next Great American Eclipse is only seven years away after all), one to be observed with appropriate precaution, rather than feared as a sign of the apocalypse, is just one example of how the scientific revolution and its technological applications have shaped our minds, our nation and our future.

Just don’t forget your eclipse-safe glasses.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Supreme Court and Whippings

In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the upcoming fight over his replacement,  let’s not forget that not only are abortion rights at stake, but also access to contraception. A brief look at the confluence of religion, women, and the law in one decision by the last Supreme Court reveals how the Puritan legacy continues to play out in American politics and in women’s lives.

 Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that privately-held corporations may refuse to pay for certain forms of contraception for their female employees, if doing so would be against the owners’ religious beliefs. This was despite the fact that the federal government’s Affordable Care Act requires contraceptive coverage. The decision was made not on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom—a concept that would have appalled the Puritans---but on the basis of the Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress. Judge Samuel Alioto, writing for the majority, which included Scalia, claimed that this was a narrow ruling, effecting only contraception, and only closely-held corporations without public shareholders. However, the dissenting judges pointed out that any religious group could make claims beyond those related to contraception, expanding the scope of the law, and that many of the country’s largest corporations are closely-held.

The case, brought by Hobby Lobby Inc., a family-owned crafts supply retailer, is a stark reminder of how the Puritan concern with other people’s business, especially their sexuality, lives on in modern America, albeit alongside a consumerist culture that uses sex to sell nearly everything. Why would the owners of this company care if some of their 16,000 workers use the IUD, a contraceptive device generally recommended only for women in monogamous relationships, or the hormonal contraceptive known as Plan B?  Yes, these may interfere with fertilization, but according to U.S. law, life begins at implantation, not at fertilization. But so what? How do the choices employees make in their private lives concern their employer? Not surprisingly, this ruling only affects women, not men, who, for example, may want to use Viagra, inside or outside their marriage.

This concern with a female subordinate’s sexual behavior harkens straight back to the early 1600s when both Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, two early theocratic English settlements in what would become the United States, were established by members of the Protestant sect known as the Puritans. Not only was there no right to privacy, the very idea of privacy was suspect. Everyone was expected to pay attention to everyone else’s affairs.  The Puritans saw themselves as having made a pact with God: their good behavior in exchange for His protection, and so any bad behavior was believed to threaten the entire community.  And having sex before or outside of marriage was near the top of their list of sins.  Trials were public and penalties designed for maximum humiliation. While a man might be given the opportunity to pay a fine, a women, as a seductive daughter of Eve,  was more often whipped.  

Even married couples in New England could be tried for fornication, with both partners subject to being whipped, if they had a full-term child less than 32 weeks after their wedding. However, since English law allowed couples to marry without the benefit of witnesses or clergy, many ordinary people believed that once a couple had “pledged their troth,” publicly or privately, they were as good as married and entitled to enjoy conjugal relations.  Puritan officials vehemently disagreed with this and with the custom of informal divorces where a couple simply separated and took new partners, charging the latter with either bigamy, if they remarried, or adultery—a capital crime—if they did not.

This battle between official standards and popular attitudes, which Richard Godbeer describes as a “culture war” in his book Sexual Revolution in Early America, continued through the 18th century, and, in my opinion, resurfaced after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, itself the result of widespread access to reliable forms of contraception.

We may think that we have come a long way from the worldview of our Puritan founders who punished sex outside marriage with whipping or even hanging, that we are a long way from those societies that attempt to control female desire by mutilating the genitals of girls and punish women with honor killings and stonings.  But in allowing employers to discriminate against female workers by denying them access to their choice of birth control, we are still minding other people’s private lives and punishing women for being sexually active, within or outside of marriage.  

Let’s hope the next Supreme Court sees such cases as Hobby Lobby and the more recent Texas restrictions on abortion for what they really are: attempts to undermine women’s rights to self-determination, and perhaps even revive our own version of a theocratic state.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Power of Place: A Lapsed Catholic in Italy

For a lapsed Catholic, traveling to Italy can seem a bit surreal.  I instantly recognize most of the ubiquitous religious images, from the bust of a blue-veiled young woman (the Virgin Mary, of course) to the painting of a blonde maiden holding her eyes on a plate (who other than Saint Lucy?). But though familiar, I see them less as objects of devotion, and more with the dispassion of a classical archaeologist viewing a statue of the Roman goddess Juno or the Etruscan Minerva.

Nowhere is this feeling stronger than at the Vatican Museum.

Intent on seeing the Sistine Chapel, I enter the museum on a sweltering afternoon in July, the height of the tourist season. Although I am traveling alone, I am herded through turnstiles, past ticket windows, along corridors, through halls filled with priceless works of art. The power and wealth of this papal legacy takes my breath away—and makes me feel ashamed. Two themes run through the collection: classical gore, think the The Rape of Europa, and papal glory, expressed in gold-embroideries of crossed keys and papal crowns. There are few, if any, images of the Madonna or the pious saints, let alone the humble carpenter who started it all.

After a couple of hours of winding through this stifling treasure gallery, my section of the crowd  finally nears the Sistine Chapel. At the entry, signs in several languages remind us that this is a place of worship, but inside the scene is more akin to an airport terminal. A lone guard periodically shouts, in English and Italian, “Silencio!”  “No photos!” Next to me, a young woman asserts, “We’re from Queens and we don’t listen!” as she and her friend take photos of each other, as do other groups of tourists.

In fact, the only people not armed with cameras are the groups of nuns in long black habits standing in small clusters against the high walls, presumably trying to have a religious experience in the midst of the international cacophony. As for me, I crane my neck and squint at the images of Adam and God on the ceiling high above.

I start to count the number of people in the room, but give up; there must be at least 500 of us. How different the experience might be for me, not to mention the nuns, if the guard let in only a few dozen people at a time.

Over the next few days, I find my feelings towards religious art remain largely dispassionate, although I am drawn to one painting in a side chapel of Siena’s cathedral in which a young woman saint wears an enraptured look while her parents’ faces express fear and worry: the juxtaposition of youthful bliss and parental anxiety resonates with my own experience.

This theme is certainly present in Italian director Franco Zefferilli’s tribute to Saints Francis and Clare: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” Lapsed Catholic or not, I am still thrilled to be in Asissi, home of my favorite childhood saint. Entering the Saint Francis Basilica from the top of the three-story structure, I walk into a soaring Gothic cathedral with its famous Giotti frescos. Although cracked with age and earthquakes, the paintings still shine with pale jewel colors of peridot, topaz, tourmaline, and aquamarine. I am touched by their beauty, but the content leaves me feeling distant.

Descending to the next level, I come upon the stout pillars, rounded arches and lowered ceilings of the earlier, Romanesque era. In the central sanctuary, a priest is celebrating Mass. I am not comfortable joining in, but not yet ready to leave the church. Looking around, I notice the stairway leading down to the crypt. With the masses of tourists occupied, this seems to be the perfect moment to visit the saint’s grave. I grab the iron rail and follow the stone steps down.

The small crypt is lined with bricks bare of artwork and furnished with a dozen folding chairs facing a rock cleft. I am not alone, but nearly so.  In the relative stillness, I hear or sense a murmur, a pulse that seems to surround me like a low hum. Is it creaks from the aging ventilation systems, or vibrations of worshippers from the floor above? Is it emanations from the buried saint, or perhaps the power of an ancient deity or the land itself? Whatever the cause and whatever its meaning, the feeling of something more, something deeper continues the entire time I am in the crypt.

As I leave the cathedral, moved by the wordless experience, I dab my forehead with holy water in a gesture to the ambivalence of belief and the power of place.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Other Worlds of Glastonbury

Fairy wings flutter in the audience as the “burlesque fairy” at the front of the room blows kisses of green glitter. In the crowd are pirates, flower fairies, and even geishas as well as aficionados of Steam Punk style (think Victorian in goggles a lá Jules Verne). A man in moon boots and a woman in a tutu, are dressed all in white with strands of blue LED lights. In a corner, two mermaids are combing their long tresses, flapping their tails, and showing the few children in the room their treasure box of shells. The band comes on, the blonde lead singer in black leather opening with an Irish jig that gets the crowd moving, and then switching to hard rock that keeps them dancing until the clock strikes midnight. Welcome to the sold-out Avalon Faery Ball of 2012 in Glastonbury.

A mid-sized English town, west of London, in the Somerset Levels on the Salisbury Plain, Glastonbury is best known for its eponymous music festival. Every other summer, thousands of young people camp on a field outside the town, braving mud and rain for a chance to hear some of the best contemporary bands. Late at night the recorded music, spun by one or another of the DJs simultaneously performing, is piped through special headphones, so the dancers move to different beats in silence.

But on this weekend just before Halloween, we are here not for the music, but for the fairies. Also known as All Hallows’ Eve, this night before All Saints Day is a time when the veil between the worlds, the living and the dead, the human and the fey folk, is thought to be at its thinnest. What better time to visit this New Age center with ancient roots, a place where belief in the otherworldly springs like indigenous flora from the land itself.

For in ancient Britain, the Somerset Levels would flood, and the North Sea was much closer then than now, so that Glastonbury, with its sprawling Abbey and Tor hill, appeared to be an island shrouded in mists. The Lady of the Lake supposedly lived in the waters; she was the Faery Queen who gave King Arthur his magical sword, while a plaque in the Abbey ruins marks the graves of the legendary king and his lady, Guinevere.

Our first day in Glastonbury, we woke before dawn to climb the Tor, a grassy hill topped by St. Michael’s Tower, the only remains of a nunnery that thrived here before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including the great Glastonbury Abbey. After breakfast at our B&B, we attended mass in a small, whitewashed Anglican chapel with frescos of early Saxon saints on the grounds of the Abbey.

In the afternoon, we entered Chalice Well Garden, named for a goblet found in Victorian times, supposedly of ancient Near Eastern origin. Some believe this same cup was used at the Last Supper and that it is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. This garden also houses the spring of iron-rich water that flows over the rocks, turning them red. The fount of the Red Spring is covered with a lovely glass-and- oak lid, decorated with two overlapping ovals, a design known as the Vesica Pisces, which has become a symbol for Glastonbury itself. Given its illustrious history, I somehow expected something grander than the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of this rather small property.

But the biggest surprise of the day was the White Springs temple, although I had never even heard of it before coming to Glastonbury. The small, nondescript white-washed building that houses the calcium-rich White Spring  is around the corner from Chalice Well Garden, on a side street leading up to the Tor. The only indication that this is a special place is the tree outside decorated with a multitude of colorful ribbons, presumably representing prayers or thanks to the spirits of the place. Whereas Chalice Well Garden is peaceful and airy, the White Spring temple is chthonic and dark, a place of palpable earth energies, lit by candles and adorned with natural offerings.  Both springs are known for their healing properties.  At the pipes on Wellhouse Lane,  we filled a bottle with water from each spring.

On this, our second visit, the weather was cold and wet, and we had head colds, leading us to spend much of our time indoors.  At the annual Faery Fayre in the converted town hall,  a score of artists plied their wares. One painted my face with green vines and silver glitter. From another I bought a silk scarf hand-painted with a petulant fairy poking her head up through the flowers. Meanwhile, my partner, Michael, found a claw-shaped pendant recycled from a piece made for one of the Harry Potter films - a perfect gift for a friend who loves the Hogwarts crew.  (Love this!!-S.)

We wandered the high street of Glastonbury, browsing in shops selling Buddhist Kuan Yin statutes, Wiccan chalices, and Native American dream-catchers. There were crystals, herbs and incense galore. But best of all were the bookstores. We spent the last rainy afternoon going from one to another.  The bookstores were filled with used and remaindered as well as new books on everything from the I-Ching to Stonehenge, from goblins to Mary Magdalene. I found the hilarious  Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur,  a “mythological dating guide” by Francesca Lia, which left me wondering if I am more of a wood nymph or a fairy or even - yikes -  a banshee.

As we boarded the bus back to London the next morning, laden with our books and containers of water from the Red and White Springs , we looked forward to our return to Glastonbury, with its unique mix of legend and history, archaeology and magic. 

Note: This piece first appeared on the travel blog,

Sunday, November 24, 2013

On Fifty Shades

Emerald may have been declared the color of  2013, but the color I’m seeing everywhere,  from sweaters to bed linens, is grey. Fifty shades of it, to be precise.  In this year between the novel becoming a bestseller and the movie’s filming Fifty Shades of Grey, has clearly become a cultural reference.

I bought the book the summer before last at Heathrow, hoping that the erotic tome would distract me from the inevitable bumps of transatlantic and transcontinental flight. Suffice it to say that ten hours later, I had only made it through the first 70 pages.

 The fact that it took 70 pages to get to the first kiss suggests that author E.L. James was aiming to write a mainstream book.  However, this reader could not suspend her disbelief long enough to step into what novelist John Gardner called “the dream” of fiction. Take the characters, for starters. Christian Grey is not only drop-dead gorgeous, but, at 28, a billionaire. Not a millionaire, which would require only a stretch of the imagination, but a billionaire. Like a younger Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook merged with Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard of True Blood fame. Or perhaps Ian Somerhalder, whose character Damien Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries smirks nearly as often as Christian Grey. In fact, Grey reminds me of nothing so much as the current spate of fictional bad-boy vampires, with their rock hard abs, ancient wealth and tortured souls.

And then there is the protagonist: Anastasia Steele, a college senior who is not only a virgin, but one who has barely been kissed. Anyone old enough to remember Leonard DiCaprio carousing  with models after the success of Titanic will find it hard to believe that a young, handsome billionaire would choose a girl who trips over her own feet to be the object of his desire.

Ah, but there’s the crux of the matter. For the reader (female) is meant to identify with the clumsy, innocent naïf.  Despite it’s S/M overtones, the Fifty Shades plot is all too familiar: beautiful girl is lifted from her ordinary life into the stratospheric world of the rich and powerful-- only this time the prince not only sweeps her off her feet, he also ties her to the bedpost. 

At least she doesn’t have to cook.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Waiting for Grandbaby

Waiting, in a liminal space, on the threshold, betwixt and between. This is where I find myself now, in mid September, waiting for my first grandchild to be born. His due date is the 22nd, ten days away. The doctors thought he would be early, but he is in the safe zone now. Every time the phone rings or beeps with a text message, I jump, wondering if this will be the call from my son, telling me that labor is underway. And then I will return to waiting, for news about his wife and the birth,  for when I can catch a flight to England to meet my grandson, my next generation.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Chilling Out in Stockholm

Each winter, deep in the boreal forests of northern Sweden, a hotel is built anew, all of ice. Reindeer hides cover the ice beds, where guests are ensconced in down sleeping bags. There is even a wedding chapel, akin the Snow Queen’s palace in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Or so I imagine, for the touch of frostbite I got at the Norwegian Olympics in 1992 has left me with little inclination to sleep on ice, no matter how well insulated.

However, I was still curious, so I did the next best thing and visited the Ice Bar in downtown Stockholm.

“Your feet will freeze,” the attendant said with a laugh, looking down at my sandals. The weather in Stockholm was unusually warm, 80 degrees and no wind, practically sweltering by Swedish standards. But we were about to leave all that behind, as my 26-year-old daughter and I pulled on blue hooded ponchos that hung below our knees with attached gloves - but no foot coverings.

Nonetheless, we walked through the double doors. About a dozen people were standing around, including a group of women from Southern California. The room lived up to its name: the bar was made of ice; the shelves behind were ice; there were blocks of ice topped with reindeer skins to sit on and more blocks of ice forming alcoves and walls. Some of the blocks had designs carved into them. And yes, my feet were rapidly cooling.

The first drink was included in the entry fee, and the beverages fit the theme, with such evocative names as Torne River (a version of a lemon drop named for a northern waterway), Wolf Paw (lingonberry jucie and lime with Absolut 100), and Snow Flake (vodka with coconut, peach, pineapple and cranberry juices). All but the three virgin drinks were based on Swedish Absolut vodka. Tina had the Husky Sledge (vanilla vodka cinnamon, and apple), while I went for the Northern Light (raspberry vodka, crème de cassis, lime and raspberry puree).

The drinks were rather strong. That, plus the prices (95 or 125 Swedish per drink , depending on whether you retained the same glass, or about $15 and $20 at the time) and the cold kept us to one. Despite my lack of appropriate footwear, I enjoyed our brief sojourn in a winter wonderland. We walked through the exit, returned our ponchos, continued past the gift shop, and back out into the still-warm summer twilight. 

This piece first appeared in the travel blog, e-Picaro  ( Please check it out.