The Hobby Lobby Ruling Shames America

A hundred years ago Margaret Sanger distributed five thousand flyers in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood that read:

Mothers!

Can you afford to have a large family?

Do you want any more children?

If not, why do you have them?

DO NOT KILL, DO NOT TAKE LIVES, BUT PREVENT

Safe, Harmless Information can be obtained of trained Nurses at…

Advertisement for America's first birth control clinic, 1916.

Advertisement for America’s first birth control clinic, 1916.

On October 16, 1916, America’s first free birth control clinic opened. Rapidly a line of at least 150 women formed each morning. Ten days later, U.S. marshals closed the clinic and locked up the woman who had coined the term birth control. The principal charge against Sanger and her associates was that they had violated Section 1141 of the Penal Code, which specifically prohibited the dissemination of birth control information. At that time the U.S. Post Office enforced laws pertaining to the guardianship of America’s morals, which for forty years were masterminded by Anthony Comstock, U.S. Postal Inspector and founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Born in Corning, New York, a town neighboring Seneca Falls (known as the birthplace of women’s rights in America), Margaret Sanger discovered early on that wealth and small families went hand in hand. She never abandoned her belief. Sanger became a nurse, worked on New York’s Lower East Side and was traumatized by the deaths of patients who succumbed to botched abortions. Her poor clients begged her to let them in on the secret of how rich women managed “to keep the babies from coming.”

Using her own resources, Sanger went to Europe to investigate available methods of birth control. She was particularly impressed by “the Dutch, [which] had long ago since adopted a common-sense attitude…that having a baby is an economic luxury—something like a piano or an automobile that had to be taken care of afterwards.”* Holland had free health clinics for poor women and children. These clinics also dispensed diaphragms and other available methods of birth control.

During her long life, Sanger worked tirelessly at making these imperfect methods of contraception available to married women. Sanger also urged scientists to develop an oral contraceptive, and provided her recruit Dr. Gregory Goodwin Pincus, one of the three fathers of “the Pill,” with his first minuscule grant of $2300.

Margaret Sanger could not have fathomed the sexual freedom that effective birth control would engender among the population, including its young teens. Though there are now reliable contraceptives they are not always used or used properly. Thirty-seven percent of the live births in the U.S. are unplanned. Nevertheless we have been making encouraging progress. During the past 23 years America’s horrendous teenage pregnancy rate declined dramatically from a high of 61.8/1000 teens to 26.6/1000 teens.  Abortions, too, have declined from about 1.5 million to 1.1 million.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court that certain corporations don’t have to pay for birth control of their employees is anathema to the spirit of our founding fathers, who advocated religious freedom. It is also economically unsound. Many women who cannot afford birth control will either have makeshift abortions or unwanted babies. No one, regardless of their religious orientation, promotes abortions, which in addition to being emotionally distressing can lead to costly medical complications, especially when improperly performed. Unwanted children unfortunately often become a painful burden for our overstressed society and overcrowded earth. As Margaret Sanger would have predicted, costly contraception will further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Do we really want that?

*Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. Norton & Company, 1938.

In 1973 Suzanne Loebl wrote Conception, Contraception: A New Look (McGraw-Hill Book Company), which retells humanity’s millennial struggle to discover reliable methods of birth control.

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The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Being Polyglot

In April 2014 my husband and I decided to vacation in France. We spent a few days in Paris, visited with some friends in Normandy and then boated up the Rhône and Saone in the Buri, owned by Viking River Cruises. Being able to speak the language of the host country added to my pleasure.

The Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel as depicted by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

I owe my three languages to history. German is the language of my childhood; French that of my adolescence and young adulthood; and English that of my life ever since. Each one of my tongues is associated with a different me.

By now English is my dominant language. It was with English that my future husband won my heart; it was in English that we raised our children; and it is English-speaking America that provided me with permanent shelter, citizenship and the opportunity to earn a decent living. Nevertheless it is French that I love best. When I step off the plane in a French-speaking country, my heart beats a bit faster; it is as if the sun came out from behind the clouds. Between trips my French gets rusty and I hate listening to the way the guttural r’s roll off my tongue.

During that recent vacation trip I was surprised how rapidly French returned to my mental forefront and how readily my brain supplied me with words I had not used in decades. Soon I had to stop to ascertain whether I was speaking or reading French or English.

I feel very different about my German. My family had lived in Germany for centuries, the men having fought in its army, many dying in its wars. When I came along, however, my alleged compatriots mercilessly persecuted their Jews. I grew to hate and fear everything German, including the language and even the parts of myself that smacked of my family’s Teutonic past. After living through the Nazi occupation of Belgium from 1940-44, I even became physically afraid whenever I found myself in a German-speaking environment. Very, very occasionally the words of a poem or song will connect to my soul.

The effect my languages have on my personality may derive from the circumstances during which I acquired them. I learned French when I wanted desperately to be accepted by my peers. I fell in love with the rhythm and the poetry of the language and subscribed to the pride the French take in their tongue. I took pride in being taken for a native.

I arrived in New York at twenty-one with a rudimentary knowledge in English, good enough to attend Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where I eked out the required B average to enter graduate school. Within a year I made English my own, but the fact that I had left French-speaking Belgium reluctantly and among other things, had yet to learn another language, made me resentful.

Growing up with more than one language is mostly a good thing, but it permanently segments a person’s inner self. When I was younger, there were times that I wished that I had a single mother tongue. I always had an accent, and even today people feel entitled to ask me where I am from. When I embarked on a writing career, a well-meaning neighbor wondered aloud whether this was presumptuous, since I was not a native-born American. On the other hand, learning a language as natives do, is usually accompanied by an instinctive understanding of another culture and the ability to view problems from multiple angles. If I were given a choice I would opt for being polyglot–though, given the political and economic necessities of the world, those who are, seldom have options.

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The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom (www.gaykids-straightmom.com)

I am launching a new blog entitled The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom. Following the tradition of my Branching blog, I intend to publish a new piece every week or two. I hope that some of my regular readers will sample my new blog and/or recommend it to friends who might like its content.

The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom

Chances are that if my son had not been gay, I would not have become involved in LGBT affairs. This was not to be. David showed signs of being gay very early in life, and since he became sexually active during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, I lost him in 1993, when he was thirty-seven. David had been very sad that he could not supply me with grandchildren. To his joy and relief his sister gave birth to twin girls in 1987. My granddaughters were five when David died. Him not being able to share their lives has always been my family’s great regret, especially since his nieces turned out to be gay.

Gay people are like everyone else: good, bad, funny, mean, helpful, smart, dull, and loving. They, however belong to a special group, one that until recently was discriminated against. As a parent of a gay son, this prejudice reflected on me and I felt extremely lonely. Today, when it seems hip to be gay, being the parent of a child belonging to a minority and sharing is less of a problem. Still, prejudice and discrimination are hard to overcome and it may take awhile for some of us to feel comfortable with having gay children.

Though being gay is now legal and considered socially acceptable in most spheres, some members of the LGBT community may still have some difficulties in accepting themselves and/or coming out to their families. Even when everybody is on the same page, communication may not always be easy. Parents may have all kinds of questions; I did when I was getting used to my son being gay.

The Internet is flooded with information about gay marriages, female surrogates for gay men, gay dating sites, transgender hormone therapy, gay travel tours, butch clothes for women or even same-sex divorces. There is, however, little information for the invisible group of parents of this large LGBT community. Some may have questions they feel reluctant to ask. During the past fifty years, as a science writer, mom, grandma and friend of the gay community I have dealt with all aspects of this complex world. On The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom I will answer your questions to the best of my ability. If I don’t know the answer myself, I’ll consult the appropriate experts. Submit your questions and comments at www.gaykids-straightmom.com/contact-me. If you have no questions of your own, please recommend this blog to others who may have unanswered questions.

**

Social media update: you can find me on Twitter at @suzanneloebl or, for my new blog, @gaykidsstr8mom. I look forward to connecting with you.

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D-Day, June 6, 1944: Seventy Years Later

Listening to the BBC radio was strictly illegal in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Still, within hours everyone in Brussels knew that the Allied Forces had finally debarked in Normandy on June 6th. We had been waiting for that day for more than four years.

Allied forces approach Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Allied forces approach Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

I consider May 10, 1940 the most important date in my life. At dawn the Germans had invaded Belgium and the life of my nuclear German-Jewish refugee family was shattered.  Because we were German nationals, the Belgian authorities had arrested us mid-morning. They released women and children at the end of the day, but kept my father, whom I was not to see for six years. My mom, my 10-year old sister and I tried to flee to France via the Belgian coast. The German army outpaced us and trapped us, as well as 340,000 British and Belgian soldiers, in a small enclave surrounding the English Channel port of Dunkirk. The British, assisted by an armada of small privately owned boats, rescued their army between May 27 and 31. Their departure both relieved and horrified me. (For more on this experience, see At the Mercy of Strangers.)

During the ensuing occupation, the BBC became one of the country’s lifelines. Even during World War II’s darkest hours, the radio station’s messages, heralded by the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, were upbeat. One of its propaganda ploys was to make believe that rescue was imminent. It took four years!

In anticipation of the event the Germans had fortified the Atlantic coastline with bunkers, land mines and other paraphernalia. At immense cost the Allies established a beachhead in Normandy. On June 6th, about 160,000 Allied soldiers crossed the Channel, eventually numbering over two million.

British forces arrive at Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

British forces arrive at Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

During the next six weeks the fighting remained confined to Normandy and Brittany, then the Allied breached the German defenses, liberating Paris on August 25 and Brussels on September 3. I had survived in the Belgian capital during the entire occupation and welcomed the troops that I had seen depart Dunkirk in 1940. I had been a child when they left; now I was a young woman. My family had survived, but my joy was tempered by the immense cost humanity had paid for this victory.

The past April my husband and I visited the Normandy beaches. Evelyne and Jean-Pierre Grosfils were our hosts. His home had been my last “out-in-the-open” hiding place. I had been Jean-Pierre’s nanny and our current trip was a celebration of a long friendship. I expected to be terribly moved by visiting the beaches, but my reaction was more cerebral than emotional. Though there are museums, monuments, remnants of the makeshift Mulberry Harbor and remnants of the German defenses, nature has a way of erasing most scars. But the losses of this, the so-called Good War, are staggering and the rows upon rows of white crosses in the military cemeteries are heartbreaking.

After the carnage of World War I, people hoped that the world might come to its senses. This, of course, was not the case. The hopes engendered by WWII were more modest, and since then the world continues to be plagued by smaller slaughters. Personally, the older I get, and the more I watch my grandchildren grow, I continue to venerate June 6th as the day that insured my personal liberation from bondage.

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Winnie-the-Pooh Bear at the NYPL: Print books versus the Internet

The current exhibit at the New York Public Library is entitled The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter (through September 7, 2014). The show explores 300 years of best-loved children’s books. My favorite display is of the original Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger stuffed animals that A.A. Milne memorialized in the tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Other exhibits are equally nostalgia-inducing: a cow jumping over the moon, Alice making her way through her Wonderland, Mary, Dickon and Colin romping in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, and Maurice Sendak’s Max exploring an island filled with scary-looking Wild Things.

Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, on display at the New York Public Library.

Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, on display at the New York Public Library.

Since their creation, many of these characters have assumed lives of their own. They also forged international bonds whose effectiveness surpasses even those painfully established by politicians. For me certain books tied my nursery, which stood in Germany, to that of my American-born children. Pooh never vanished from my memory, but I had forgotten all about the wondrous Mary Poppins and remembered her only when I read her story to Judy and David.

Television characters, including the hard-working Big Bird and Kermit the Frog, populate the minds of the last two generations, though I hope that they won’t supplant those encountered in books. As a child I treasured my little library – at one point it numbered sixty books!

Not all parents can provide their children with books. To remedy the situation, singer-songwriter Dolly Parton started the Imagination Library in her native Tennessee in 1996. It provides children from zero to five years with free books. The program was such a success that by now the Dolly Parton Foundation and its partners have provided a total of forty million books to participating families in the United States and Britain.

Inspired by Dolly Parton, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF) founded its PJ (stands for pajama) Library in 2005. Recently the Library distributed its five millionth free book to parents who want to teach Jewish values to their children six months to eight years of age. To subscribe, visit www.pjlibrary.org.

In 2009, HGF founded Sifriyat Pijama in Israel. Since then the program has distributed 215,000 books to preschool and kindergarten children attending local schools. Again, as in the case of the Imagination Library, the books reached children for whom it was the first book they owned.

In 2013, the HGF undertook an almost impossible task: provide Israel’s Arab preschoolers with free books. The hero of Maktabat al-Fanoos‘s debut book introduces Sumsum, a storytelling mouse, who slacks off during the food-gathering season but pulls his weight amusing others during the dank winter months. The program is a big success. During its first months it reached over 49,000 children. Who knows, perhaps Sumsum and his Jewish counterparts will succeed in fording the war-torn gulfs that no one has been able to bridge during the past sixty-five years.

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The British Pre-Raphaelites (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, others) in a Micro-Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Small art shows are good for the soul. The current Pre-Raphaelite exhibition familiarizes the public with the Met’s small collection of the the neglected movement that galvanized Britain during the second half of the twentieth century. The members of the group were discontent with the shallow, meaningless, academic, and realistic art of their time. They harked back to what they believed was the spirituality and idealism of the “pre-Rafael” Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The artists celebrated beauty, especially that of women, depicted in most of the items displayed. They are gorgeous, sensuous and seemingly unattainable.

The centerpiece of the Met’s show is The Love Song by Burne-Jones, acquired in 1947. It is inspired by the stanzas of a French folk ballad: Alas I know a love song / Sad or happy each in turn. A stately dressed, harp-playing woman is flanked by an adoring knight wearing equally dramatic medieval clothes and a more scantily dressed maiden who listens attentively. A castle and a meadow dotted with sheep fill the background, while lovingly detailed flowers occupy the foreground. Experts compare the work to Venetian paintings of the 16th – 17th century.

The Love Song by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Love Song by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Sensuous portraits of women in pastels, watercolors, and ink demonstrate the matchless draftsmanship of these artists. Highlighted are three paintings by Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Burne-Jones. The composition of one of them, Rossetti’s 1867 portrait Lady Lilith, of a woman who combs her golden hair while examining herself in a hand mirror, is identical to that of Gustave Courbet’s Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl. The latter, painted in 1865, is one of the French painter’s most iconic works. One wonders whether the relationship is purely accidental.

Like many of the movements that would succeed them (Art Nouveau, Deco, Jugendstil, Arts and Craft), the Pre-Raphaelites advocated an overall approach to art. It is this aspect of their activities that descended to our own times. William Morris headed a workshop that produced stained glass windows, tapestries, fabrics and wallpaper. Some of these designs are still actively marketed. The couch in my summer home, for example, is covered in an authentic William Morris fabric.

The Pre-Raphaelites were largely ignored in America, despite the fact that the British Roger Fry, at one time an associate of the Met, bought a few drawings for the museum during the first decade of the twentieth century. The Pre-Raphaelites did have their American enthusiasts, though. Samuel Bancroft (1840-1915,) a Wilmington industrialist, assembled a stupendous collection, acquiring works directly from the artists. He willed his entire collection, consisting of 150 art works and related material, to the Delaware Art Museum. The institution now owns the largest Pre-Raphaelite collection in America and visiting is well worth it. (Suzanne Loebl: America’s Art Museums)

The show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art runs from May 20 to October 26, 2014.

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Arles Revisited

Fifty years ago, when my children were eight and ten, they, my mom and I drove from Oxford, England to Rome. We had a week to cover a thousand miles via Europe’s then old, double-lane, tree-lined highways. The trip was a gift to my children, whose best New York friends lived for a year in Italy, and to my mom, who had never taken a European car trip. None of my companions, however, were appreciative of the voyage or shared my enthusiasm for the picturesque French villages, the grand chateaux of the Loire, the Romanesque architecture or even the delicious food we ate in the Michelin-starred inns at which we dined and slept.

We stopped in Arles to search for Vincent van Gogh, who lived there from 1888-89. In 1964, his stay in this small Provençal town seemed forgotten. A mid-afternoon stop at a patisserie, where we gorged on pastry, was part of our routine. In our Arles pastry shop we met up with a German tourist with whom my mother had an almost incomprehensible conversation in French. (The ladies could have fluently communicated in German!) From their conversation I gathered that I had overlooked Arles’ Cloître de le Saint Trophime—the best medieval cloister in Provence—but visiting hours were over and we departed.

Half a century later my husband and I took a Viking River Cruise up the Rhône River. The boat docked in Arles. For me the Saint Trophime was the primary goal, though by now Van Gogh was much in evidence. To my horror I discovered that the cloister was undergoing restoration, however, we managed to gain access.

Legend has it that Trophimus became the first bishop of the Roman city of Arles in 250 CE. To house his sanctified remains, the church built a spectacular Romanesque cathedral and the adjoining aforementioned cloisters during the twelfth century. The charming, naïve capitals of the twinned columns of the cloisters retell the life of Jesus. I spotted him riding into Jerusalem mounted on a donkey. One of the restoration workers let me peek at the column decorated with a full-length statue of Saint Trophime. I am sad that the scaffolding, plastic sheets, and dust marred my long delayed visit, but consoled myself that the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval branch in New York features the Saint Guilhem-le-Désert cloisters, whose delicate twin columns are much the same as the Saint Trophime.

Tympanum

However, the façade of the smallish Saint Trophime church is pristine and, as the guide book states, “is one of the treasures of Provence’s Romanesque arts.” Christ in Majesty surrounded by the signs of the evangelists occupies the tympanum, flanked by saints including Saint Trophime. Elsewhere the devout and damned are respectively on their way to heaven and hell .

Like our current Pope Francis, a past archbishop of Arles felt that the fathers of the church lived too luxurious a life. He ordered them to build and sleep in a dormitory attached to their cloisters. Eventually they again built themselves private residences, turning their common sleeping quarters into a hospital. As the French would say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more it changes the more it remains the same.)

We too returned to earthly pleasures and went to the Café de La Nuit, where Van Gogh created the painting of the same name. That work, by way of a three-decade-long stay in Russia, now hangs in the Yale Art Gallery. With our aperitifs we toasted Van Gogh, Saint Trophime and our good fortune for being able to enjoy the past and present and to vicariously celebrate the characters that make our life so interesting.

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