Category Archives: Miscellaneous thoughts

What you should really be scared of on Halloween: A horror story

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

It was four days before Halloween and the spirits were tense, both those above and those lurking in the waters below. There was agitation and busy preparation everywhere, and a sense of gloom and doom was weighing heavily on everyone’s minds. Deep in the waters the heat was rising, and the lost ones were finding no rest. Provoked by the world above, they were ready to unleash their curse. Had the time come for the world as they knew it to end?

It was indeed four days before Halloween: October 27, 1962. The spirits were tense, both those above, in the eleven US Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, and those lurking down in the waters below in the nuclear-armed Soviet submarine B-59. There was agitation and busy preparation everywhere due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a sense of gloom and doom was weighing heavily on everyone’s minds. Deep in the waters the heat rose past 45ºC (113ºF) as the submarine’s batteries were running out and the air-conditioning had stopped. On the verge of carbon dioxide poisoning, many crew members fainted. The crew was feeling lost and unsettled, as there had been no contact with Moscow for days and they didn’t know whether World War III had already begun. Then the Americans started dropping small depth charges at them. “We thought – that’s it – the end”, crewmember V.P. Orlov recalled. “It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.”

The world above was blissfully unaware that Captain Savitski decided to launch the nuclear torpedo. Valentin Grigorievich, the torpedo officer, exclaimed: “We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our Navy!” In those brief moments it looked like the time may have come for the world as was known to end, creating more ghosts than Halloween had ever known.

Luckily for us, the decision to launch had to be authorized by three officers on board, and one of them, Vasili Arkhipov, said no. The chilling thought of how close we humans were to destroying everything we cherish makes this the scariest Halloween story. Like a really good Halloween story, this one has not a happy ending, but a suspenseful one in which we’ve only barely avoided the curse, and the danger remains with us. And like the very best Halloween stories, this one grew ever scarier over the years, as scientists came to realize that a dark smoky Halloween cloud might enshroud Earth for ten straight Halloweens, causing a decade-long nuclear winter producing not millions but billions of ghosts.

Right now, we humans have over 15,000 nuclear weapons, most of which are over a hundred times more powerful than those that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of these weapons are kept on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch within minutes, increasing the risk of World War III starting by accident just as on that fateful Halloween 53 years ago. As more Halloweens pass, we accumulate more harrowing close calls, more near-encounters with the ghosts.

This Halloween you might want to get spooked by watching an explosion, read about the blood-curdling nuclear war close calls we’ve had in the past decades, and then hopefully you will do something to keep the curse away, in the hope that one Halloween we’ll be able to say: nuclear war – nevermore.

Happy stepmother’s day!

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

On mother’s day we remember and celebrate motherhood, and there are plenty of things that come to mind when thinking of what being a mother means. However, a related, but much harder to concept to think of is that of step-motherhood. The scarcity of images that come to mind in relation to the step-mother role (with the exception perhaps of outdated stereotypes portrayed by Cinderella and Snow White’s evil step-moms) is quite at odds with the fact that stepmothers in the western world are no longer an exception to the family model. In fact, 40% of married couples with children in the US are stepcouples, and 12% of US adult women in the US are stepmothers – about 14 million total. So, who are these women? What does it mean to be a stepmother? And by whom (and when) should stepmoms be celebrated? These are the questions I find myself thinking about on mother’s day this year.

In terms of who these women are, I should first say that I am one of them. I am the stepmother of two wonderful teenage boys and I also have a step-mother myself. So that is two of us, two faces that I personally can easily put to this somewhat elusive notion. But beyond the numbers mentioned above, there are many faces and many stories. In fact, we stepmothers are a very diverse bunch. I remember the days when I was voraciously reading blogs of stepmothers on the internet preparing to meet my future step-children. Some of those stories I recognized myself and my own emotional propensities in, others were very foreign to me and my own emotional sensibilities.

So what makes us one group? What is this stepmother role about? I wanted to remain somewhat objective writing this post, not making it about my own idiosyncratic experience, so in answering that question I first tried to evoke the prevalent cultural stereotype related to step-motherhood and described it. But I failed, realizing to my surprise that culture and society offered little help with understanding stepmotherhood. To check whether it was simply my own memory or imagination that was lacking, I tried the same for motherhood and it was so easy: the person who gave you life, unconditional love etc.- all these images came to mind easily and rang so true, but when it came to stepmothers, the only two pop culture images that I could easily think of were Cinderella and Snow White’s evil step-moms, and the image of an overwhelmed Julia Roberts who was struggling desperately to gain the acceptance of her step-children. But none of those images felt particularly representative of my knowledge of flesh-and-blood stepmothers. My own stepmother, for example, is a wonderfully kind and very well put together person.

Prevalent pop-culture images had so little to offer, so I still had no answer to this question. I therefore went back to personal introspection. What did I have to say about my own role as a stepmother? The first thing that came to mind was the memory of a hot summer evening in NYC (around the time when my relationship with my now husband had started to become more serious), walking and talking with my sister and formulating this question: what positive thing would I be able to bring into the lives of these two kids (my now stepkids)? Having been a stepchild myself, this was a very important question for me to answer, and I felt strongly that my relationship and my future depended on the answer. Since then, I’ve tried to build my role as a stepmother out of answers to that question, seeking ways of being positively present in my stepchildren’s lives. That has at times made me the adult that was willing to watch Spongebob for hours, the person who makes new clothes magically appear in my stepkids’ closets, the one who picks them up from school with a paper-bag with one chocolate-covered marshmallow and a small stash of of Magic cards, etc.

This simple question has given me great opportunities over the years to be there for my step-children in a multitude of ways in which I felt they needed me or were able to enjoy my company or help, and in a sense I feel I’ve built my own role from scratch that way. But I’ve often felt that this fluid role was also very fragile and precarious and many times I’d feel an uncomfortable emotional sting caused by it’s fuzziness. There have been many times when I’ve been afflicted with questions such as: Do my stepchildren really need me? Am I really making a difference for the better? Am I adding anything of value to their lives? Am I everything a stepmother should be?

I am also a psychologist in training, and I know how important roles are for one’s identity formation, so in trying to analyze my own roles, I wondered what psychology has to say about stepmotherhood? One thing that I’ve discovered is that research has confirmed my own observations and feelings, and ambiguity seems to be a common attribute related to stepmotherhood. While mothers are aided by biology (think of all the hormones that help them bond with their children and forge that relationship) and also by culture (motherhood is elaborately defined and celebrated in all cultures), step-mothers have almost nothing to guide them in adopting this essential role. Moreover, their role and its nature hinges on a whole range of factors that they have very little control over. For example, Weaver and Coleman identified 6 factors that substantially determine the nature of the stepmothers role, factors that are often beyond the control of the stepmother herself: biological mothers, spouses, stepchildren, their own biological children, extended kin and experiences external to the family. In sum, ambiguity, lack of guidance (and role models) and lack of control seem to be the big challenges that stepmothers face.

I do believe, however, that these challenges are not insurmountable. I’m very much an optimist and feel that perhaps in all these challenges lie great opportunities:

1) Ambiguity gives us the opportunity to create complex, multi-faceted and original roles for ourselves that are not restricted to outdated stereotypes.

2) The lack of guidance means that our fairytale is still unwritten and that we have the opportunity to write it ourselves.

3) The lack of control is simply the illusion given by the richness of our lives – in fact we have the opportunity of exerting more control over how and who we are in relation to our step-children precisely because our options are more diverse.

To me these opportunities are worth celebrating. I feel that the celebration of stepmotherhood in our cultures should start with us the stepmoms – we are the ones who should celebrate our own roles and our own identities. I also think that it is great to celebrate on mother’s day, not because we are trying to steal the day away from the biological mothers, but because of the connection we have to those that share their children with us, the children that make it possible for us to experience and further define stepmotherhood.

Questioning authority in The School of Athens

This article can also be found on the Huffington Post.

On a recent trip to Rome, I was walking through the halls of the Vatican museums and after entering one of the Raphael rooms, I turned my head to discover, to my amazement, my favorite fresco: The School of Athens. I had somehow forgotten that this image resided inside the walls of the Vatican, so the unexpected encounter with it was the most delightful surprise.

The School of Athens has been one of my favorite artworks for a while, partly because of all the nostalgic memories of entire afternoons spent in my college library reading the works of the philosophers depicted in it. I had seen photos of it on computer screens and poster prints, but facing it in its grand, original enormity felt like I was there too, among my philosophy heroes.

However, it is not just the nostalgic memories of my own intellectual journey that make me love this painting. I love it also because I feel it represents the most exciting feature of the human spirit: the passion for knowledge, for figuring out the world. The other three walls of the room are also covered in gorgeous frescoes, representing theology, art and law, but to me the School of Athens is the grandest and most inspiring of them. This image represents the giants on the shoulders of which we climbed to reach for knowledge that has far surpassed their wildest imaginations. Sometimes those shoulders were flimsy and unstable, like Aristotle’s theory of motion, but the spirit of the School of Athens, the invitation to ask big questions, the public place to propose tentative answers and have them bolstered or refuted – that lives on and is still the engine behind any true quest for knowledge.

I spent a long time taking in the details of the painting, trying to recognize in the postures of the characters the spirit of different schools of thought or the personalities of different philosophers – a joyful exercise. The one charter that struck me the most was the poorly clad old man laying nonchalantly on the steps of the school, blocking the way of Plato and Aristotle who are approaching from the background. Rumor has it that this is Diogenes of Sinope, the “father of cynicism”.

On the plane back from Rome, I went back to the sources, the Lives of Eminent Philosophers (by another Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius) to read up on him and refresh my memories. The account portrays Diogenes of Sinope as a frustrating individual, devoted to a life of boastful simplicity (he was a beggar who slept in a giant ceramic jar in the marketplace) and unhindered defiance of social norms (when at a feast, certain people threw bones at him the way they would to a dog, Diogenes played a dog trick and urinated on them). He had a sharp intellect and an even sharper tongue that he used to taunt all authority figures of his time. He often disrupted Plato’s lectures and when Alexander the Great, leaning over him, offered to give him anything he wanted, Diogenes famously retorted “Stand out of my light.”. The collection of anecdotes about Diogenes of Sinope is a copious read, at times funny, at times outrageous, at times profound, and the central character, Diogenes himself, is a pain – an uncomfortable pebble in the shoe of all who have taken on an intellectual journey through the land of big questions.

The sentence that touched me the most in the entire piece on Diogenes was this: “Still he was loved by the Athenians.” The idea of this sentence is, I feel, beautifully reflected in Raphael’s fresco. I love first of all that Raphael chose to depict Diogenes, and I love how he depicted him. I love the fact that Diogenes occupies a central place in the image. I see this as a metaphor for a profound idea – that in the space of knowledge seeking, the uncomfortable questioning of authority has to take a central place; it has to be loved just like the Athenians loved Diogenes. An important part of seeking the truth is doubting, questioning, challenging. If the path you are on is never crossed by the authority-questioning spirit of Diogenes, it is not a path towards knowledge, and if you do not let yourself be crossed by him, you are not a knowledge seeker.

I also like a few other things about the way in which Diogenes is depicted. I like that he is the only one who has a split audience. While other characters are enwrapped in solitary contemplation, like the front left character writing at the table (thought to be Heraclitus), or demonstrating to a group of awe-struck followers like the front right character drawing with a compass (thought to be Euclid), Diogenes’ audience is torn. The man in blue points to the approaching intellectual authorities, Plato and Aristotle, while the man in green makes an exasperated gesture to acknowledge Diogenes. Questioning authority gives us options, alternatives, it will make us feel torn between competing theories. I also liked that Diogenes does not entirely block the path of Plato and Aristotle but he does force them into a slight detour, just like questioning authority does not stifle the quest for knowledge, but makes us seek new and better routes. Finally, I like the fact that Diogenes is defiant yet vulnerable, exposing his bare chest in a non-aggressive posture. This is just like questioning authority, challenging and doubting should be. The role of doubts is not to stay with us forever but to expose themselves to careful examination and to force us to take a closer look at what we think we know.

On the first day of teaching after spring break, I showed my students the photos I had taken of the painting, introduced them to Diogenes and encouraged them to question authority – my authority as a teacher, the authority of their textbooks and the hardest authority to question of all – that of their own entrenched assumptions about the world. I asked them to embrace the spirit of the annoying Diogenes and to love him just like the Athenians did, because the School of Athens would not be the powerful, inspiring place that it is without a Diogenes of Sinope.