When I was a child in Bangkok, we lived for two years in a big house on a small soi (side street) with a dozen or so similar houses, mostly rented to foreigners. I was seven or eight years old, and the family next door had two teenage boys.

One day one of the neighbor boys invited me over to see his collection of butterflies and moths. I had no idea what it meant to collect insects, and was horrified to learn that it involved capturing them, chloroforming them, and pinning them to boards. The boy (who seemed very grown up to me) proudly showed me the jar where he gassed them to death, and how he spiked them on pins through their thoraxes onto cardboard.

More horrors were in store. He didn’t go out and catch adult butterflies and moths – it would be too difficult to capture them without damaging the delicate wings. He collected them at the caterpillar or chrysalis stage, nurtured them through to hatching in jars, and then killed them. They never flew, and lived for only as long as it took him to notice that they’d hatched.

Thailand was home to what was then considered the world’s largest moth species, the Atlas moth. These beautiful creatures were thought to be auspicious, especially if one visited your house at the Thai (lunar) new year. We had such a visit one new year – I remember the moth, wings spread against the trunk of the giant rubber tree in our yard that I loved to climb.

The neighbor boy had found a lunar moth chrysalis and brought it home to hatch in a jar as usual. Before a butterfly or moth hatches, its wings are (of course) crumpled up in the chrysalis. Upon hatching, the wings slowly unfurl as blood pumps into them, and must dry and harden before the creature can fly. It’s critical that the wings be able to extend fully before they dry completely.

You see where this is going, right?

The boy had planned to take the giant chrysalis out of the jar before hatching, but he mistimed it; the moth hatched inside a space much too small for it. Its giant wings had no room to spread, and had hardened into sad, shriveled clumps before he discovered it. The moth would never be able to fly, nor, with its damaged wings, was it any use for his collection. He planned to kill it, as a mercy; there was nothing else to be done.

I was devastated. Such stupidity, such a meaningless waste. A beautiful winged thing, ruined and robbed of flight, and then of life.

I have ever since had a horror of such collections, and of artifacts made from insect parts or butterfly wings.

And also of golf. The two brothers were both avid golfers. I’ve never gotten past my subconscious association of golf with callous cruelty.

A Private Eclipse

I won’t be seeing this year’s totality – can’t take time out from other commitments to go to where it’s happening. But I feel I’ve already had the peak eclipse experience of my life, even though I wasn’t in the path of totality for that one, either.

I was in Delhi in February, 1980, with a bit of time to kill between the end of a six-week tour of India and the start of the school semester up in Mussoorie. I was staying with the Roemmeles, a missionary family with three daughters at Woodstock, one of them my classmate, Anne. I don’t remember exactly how long I stayed; it was not uncommon for students at loose ends to stay for weeks with school friends during our long winter holidays.

So I was with the Roemmeles as Delhi prepared, with some degree of hysteria, for the solar eclipse of February 16, 1980. Whether an ancient superstition or a new rumor, one widely shared belief was that a woman should wear green glass bangles to protect her husband from the evil effects of the eclipse. All the bangle wallahs in Delhi had sold out of green several days beforehand.

The day of the eclipse, everyone stayed home. I mean EVERYONE. Not as in “home on their balconies and roofs watching the eclipse” – home as in indoors, with shutters and doors closed tight.

Even in 1980, Delhi was a huge and bustling city with tons of traffic: cars, trucks, three-wheelers, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, oxcarts, horse carriages, and pedestrians filled the streets and sidewalks with chaos and cacophony.

Not on this day.

There was an eerie silence in the deserted streets.

The Roemmele girls and I rode bicycles up a nearby traffic flyover that was usually full of vehicles. We had it entirely to ourselves. No life showed in the adjacent buildings or streets.

The day became dim, and later on we looked at the reflection of the crescent sun in a bucket of water. It was interesting, but the natural phenomenon didn’t make nearly as much impression on me as the unnatural one: Delhi without people.

Someday I’d like to see a totality. But nothing will ever top that eclipse experience.

The Playboy

Most babies seem to go through stages in how they interact with other humans: early on, they cling to parents and other familiar people, but are interested in strangers and don’t seem to imagine that anything in the world wants to hurt them. Then they become more cautious and reserved for a while.

Then there’s the flirty stage. Our daughter at age 15 months was out to charm the world, and she was very, very good at it. She knew full well how to deploy her big, brown eyes and rich, deep laugh. She could get adults who usually showed no interest in children to play with her for hours.

One such occasion was our going-away party when we were leaving New Haven (where Enrico had completed his PhD in mathematics at Yale) to move to Milan. Friends and colleagues came by for drinks, food, and talk.

One guest was a man who, while being a post-doctoral student in mathematics, also embodied the cliché Greek playboy – right down to wearing turtlenecks with jackets. He was (probably still is) smooth and handsome, and had boasted about his amorous conquests worldwide.

Ross, smiling and burbling, had him wrapped around her little finger. He sat on the floor and played with her, utterly entranced. At some point he seemed to realize that we were all watching him with deep amusement. He looked up from the floor.

“You’re going to have real trouble with this one someday,” he prophesied. Then, after a second: “Oh, not with me!”

Karma has had its revenge for his womanizing ways: he later became the father of three daughters.

sunset over a plane wing

Conversation on a Plane

Once, about 20 years ago, I was on a long-haul British Airways flight, probably from London to San Francisco, or vice-versa. I don’t sleep much on planes, so during a quiet night I ended up in the galley, chatting with one of the flight attendants. We exchanged the usual origin stories. He was half Indian, half Pakistani, a situation whose complexities I could intuit, given my own history in India and Bangladesh.

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The Makeup Problem

A couple of years ago, I took part in an all-woman training session at my company on “how to present to executives.” A small part of the session consisted of the trainer giving us advice on “dressing for success,” including: “You should wear makeup – otherwise it looks as if you don’t care [about how you look].” I pointed out that wearing makeup is not an option for everyone. For me, it mostly isn’t. Continue reading