Letters to Juliet: A Project of Love for the Lovelorn

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One of my favorite things that has been going around the internet for some time is the EMO person who posted, “What if he’s your Romeo, but you’re not his Juliet?” The lightning-fast response was, “That means you’re his Rosaline and you survive the friggin’ play.”

Despite the reality of what happens to the “star cross’d lovers,” the persistence in thinking of them as the romantic ideal lives on.

See?

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Most people, even those who have never read or seen the play, are more likely to conjure up this image, or something close to it, than gruesome deaths:

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I didn’t know, however, until I heard a story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday, that men (mostly, I guess) have been penning letters to Juliet for centuries.  Initially, shortly after the play’s performances, people left notes at what was thought to be her tomb. The numbers of letters left became so great that the post office of Verona established a special office to handle the volume. 

The remarkable thing about the letters left for Juliet is that she actually answers. Well, understudies for Juliet do. Dozens of volunteers in Verona, who call themselves “The Juliet Club” answer, by hand, each of the 6,000+ letters addressed to Shakespeare’s heroine each year.  All of the letters are retained in a massive archive, to which more letters are regularly added.

The job must be tough but many of the volunteers have been at it for ten and twenty years, some even longer. What do they say to these heartbroken people? Here is one of their answers to someone who was driving herself crazy asking, “What if?”

“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if? I don’t know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it’s never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn’t it be true now? You need only the courage to follow your heart. I don’t know what a love like Juliet’s feels like – love to leave loved ones for, love to cross oceans for but I’d like to believe if I ever were to feel it, that I will have the courage to seize it. And, Claire, if you didn’t, I hope one day that you will. All my love, Juliet”

You can read more about the long history of the Juliet Project in Lise Friedman’s study,  Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love


Vestal Virgins Ain’t Got No Weaves: Ancient Hairstyles Re-Created for the First Time

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If you’ve ever crooned along to Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” you might remember the line about the “sixteen vestal virgins.” Probably, you happily sang along without a clue as to what “vestal” really means.  In ancient Rome, “vestals” were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, who was the goddess of the hearth. Her priestesses attended an eternal flame that was never allowed to go out. These attendants took vows of chastity and devoted themselves to religious tasks that were off limits to priests and other men. Vestal virgins could be easily identified by their elaborate hairstyles composed of six intricate braids which were artistically wrapped around the head.

A few years ago,  professional stylist and amateur archaeologist Janet Stephens became interested in just how the hairstyles were physically possible. She practiced on dozens of mannequin heads, but despite her laborious attempts, none could hold the shape for very long.  She ensconced herself in college research libraries, looking at everything she could find about hairstyles of ancient Roman women. As she soon discovered, until very recently, most scholarship has been conducted by men who had little interest in the fashions of women other than the very elite, and even that was scarce. For seven years, Stephens came up empty handed in her research and frustrated as she continued her attempts at re-creation on mannequins.

Until one day, she happened upon a little fragment of a mention from an scholar who had been writing several hundred years prior. This scholar mentioned a long needle that was made for both embroidery and for sewing of hairstyles. With a little more detective work, Stephens was able to track down the type of embroidery needle. Excited, she tried it on her wigged heads and voila! It worked!

Not completely content with her discovery, Stephens wanted to try it on a “live” head. She placed an ad in the college paper asking for models.  One woman answered and through what was surely trying for both of them, the hairstyle was finally achieved:

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First, Stephens found, the Vestal’s hair would be separated into sections, each of which would be braided into six separate braids, including a pair of cornrow braids that ran flat across the head above the ears. The hair around the hairline would then be wrapped around a cord, which would then be tied at the nape of the neck. Leftover loose hair from around the face would then be weaved into a final, seventh braid.

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Next, the first six braids would be brought around the back of the head and tied in pairs in half square knots. The ends of the braids would then be wrapped up to the front of the head and secured to the cornrow braids above the ears. Then, the seventh braid would have been tucked up and coiled at the back of the head underneath the knotted braids.

The entire process takes about 35-40 minutes, but Stephen feels that two slaves were probably able to do so in about ten minutes. Interestingly, she also discovered that only women with waist-length hair had enough hair to achieve the style.

Check out Janet Stephen’s YouTube channel to watch her fascinating work on the “vestals” and many other ancient hairstyles.


Stuff that Keeps Smart People Awake at Night

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I don’t know about you, but when go to bed at night, my brain goes into Super Worry Overdrive. I worry about my bills, my kids, my  first drafts (like Anne Lamott, I am afraid someone will find my unedited work and will assume I have committed suicide when I realized my talent was gone).

One of my favorite Tumblr’s,  This Isn’t Happiness,  recently posted a list of things very intelligent people worry about.  Spoiler Alert: Whether they can continue to continue paying for HBO is not on the list. I had to look up some of the things they worry about. Suddenly, whether my cats need therapy or not (they do) is not as pressing. Apparently, I, and you, have more troubling things to keep us on edge:

  1. The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.
  2. Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb
  3. That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher
  4. That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher
  5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist
  6. Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society
  7. The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor
  8. Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology
  9. That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist
  10. That smart people—like those who contribute to Edge—won’t do politics. –Brian Eno, musician
  11. That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT
  12. That search engines will become arbiters of truth. —W. Daniel Hillis,

Scientists Determine Publication Date of “The Iliad”

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Homer’s ‘Iliad’ codex from approximately the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. Image: Public Domain

Evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and his colleagues, geneticist Eric Altschuler (Univ. of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) and linguist Andreea Calude (also of Reading as well as  the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico) have dated  one of literature’s most ancient works, The Iliadto 762 B.C. “give or take fifty years.”

You might be surprised to learn that scientists have applied the same techniques used to track how genes mutate to dating the codex. “Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes,” Pagel says. “It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer’s vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does.”

Pagel and his team explained to Inside Science how the process worked:

“[We] used a linguistic tool called the Swadesh word list, put together in the 1940s and 1950s by American linguist Morris Swadesh. The list contains approximately 200 concepts that have words apparently in every language and every culture, Pagel says. These are usually words for body parts, colors and necessary relationships like “father” and “mother.”

[Then we] looked for Swadesh words in the Iliad and found 173 of them. Then, [we} measured how they changed.

[We] took the language of the Hittites, a people that existed during the time the war may have been fought, and modern Greek, and traced the changes in the words from Hittite to Homeric to modern. It is precisely how [we] measure the genetic history of humans, going back and seeing how and when genes alter over time.”

The other thing that researchers have determined is that a single person named “Homer” is unlikely to have existed.  Brian Rose, professor of classical studies and curator of the Mediterranean section at the Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum, says “it is clear the Iliad is a compilation of oral tradition going back to the 13th century B.C.”  Rose contends that The Iliad is an “amalgam of lots of stories” — about Helen, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax, and others — that “focused on conflicts in one particular area of northwestern Turkey.”

While researchers are unsure about the authorship of The Iliad, they are relatively certain that the city of Troy actually existed and think they know where it was located, thanks to the nineteenth century work of two archaeologists, Heinrich Schliemann and the Frank Calvert, who excavated the Citadel of Troy and found evidence of a battle. Schliemann and Calvert dated the conflict to the twelfth century b.c. but whether the artifacts are from the epic war described in The Iliad or are the remnants of a civil war remains unclear.


Nothing good gets away: Advice from John Steinbeck on Love

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John Steinbeck adored his two sons, Thom, the eldest, and John (better known by his nickname, “Catbird”).  After a tumultuous divorce with his second wife, Gwyn, the mother of the boys, and a long and usually loving marriage but also difficult relationship with his first wife, Carol, Steinbeck had found true love with his third wife, Elaine. The two were married until his death, from 1949 to 1968.

My dissertation is on Steinbeck and in my research, I have spent months perusing his vast collection of personal letters, most of which are housed in the Special Collections at Stanford University. In addition to the disciplined daily composition of his novels, Steinbeck typically wrote six to eight letters a day: to friends, family, and colleagues. Almost everyone kept the letters.

I got to know the relationship between Steinbeck and his sons very well through those letters. He was a marvelous father. When he saw traveling could offer his boys a better education than traditional schooling, he took Thom and Catbird with him and Elaine to Europe and elsewhere. Their tutor was the very young playwright, Terrance McNally.

Here is a letter that fourteen-year-old Thom received from his dad, before those traveling years, when Thom was at boarding school in Connecticut and was just beginning to be interested in girls.  It has been widely published before, but it is such a beautiful thing…everyone should read it.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

There are many things I love about the letter: he is to expect a response from Elaine, as a woman’s point of view will also be helpful; that he is wise enough to know to not dismiss Thom’s feelings, just because he is young; that he can tell him in language a boy of that age can understand, and really, speaks plainly to anyone of any age, about the types of love.  There is not just one kind; some are negative and destructive, some are positive and constructive.

And in closing, he does not forget the object of Thom’s affection. He acknowledges her by name and welcomes her.

Here is a recent picture of Thom Steinbeck, who, like his father, also became a writer (The Silver Lotus, Down to a Soundless Seaand favors John in many ways.

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