It’s been a long two weeks– loads of extra hours at work, a job interview, care-giving three nights a week, all on top of the usual chores– but I did find time this last Sunday to view the solar eclipse. As luck would have it, the eclipse began around 5:40 p.m. at my viewing location, so I was off work and over at my parents’ house for my Sunday evening care-giving stint.
This eclipse was probably the third or fourth I’ve viewed, and I’ve always done so by using that stalwart staple of middle school science classes, the pinhole camera. All one needs to make a pinhole camera is a piece of heavyish paper, like a manila folder or a magazine cover, plus a blank sheet of paper and a heavy-gauge needle or pin. One pokes a hole in the heavy paper with the pin, enlarging the hole slightly by wiggling the pin around, while taking care that the resulting hole stays as circular as possible. (It’s also a good idea to carefully flatten down the rough edges of paper at the back of the hole with one’s thumbnail, so the hole is smooth.) Then, to view the eclipse, all one has to do is face away from the Sun, hold the paper with the hole above the blank sheet of paper, and adjust the focal length by moving the top sheet up or down until the image of the Sun’s disc appears in focus.
If the eclipse is already under way, one will see a clear bright crescent-shape on the paper, and using the camera at five-minute intervals as I did last Sunday, it is possible to watch the shadow of the Moon pass across the surface of the Sun– the bright crescent changed from a right-facing one to a downward-facing one to a left-facing one as I observed it over time. The beauty of a pinhole camera is that it is perfectly safe to use– one is never looking directly towards the Sun, and the amount of light the camera lets through to make the image is miniscule, so the little crescent on the paper is never too bright to look at comfortably, and can be observed for long stretches of time if one does not tire of holding the two sheets of paper at the right distance from one another.
Now one would think, given the fact that science teachers show their students how to make and use pinhole cameras on a yearly basis, that this would make viewing an annular solar eclipse a safe and fun family activity, but I regret to say that in my family, this was definitely not the attitude taken last Sunday. I made the mistake of being enthusiastic about viewing the eclipse when I arrived at my parents’ place, and when I suggested that my 90-year-old mother might want to come out on the front porch and take a look at the eclipse via a pinhole camera, my youngest sister (who I was relieving for the rest of the evening) became irate. She started issuing orders to me that Mom was not to view the eclipse, and when I explained that pinhole cameras are completely safe, she countered with her opinion that Mom “would do something wrong” and would wind up looking at the Sun and blinding herself– the implication being that Mom herself is too gaga and I am too stupid to keep such a thing from happening.
I tried at this point to explain how a pinhole camera works, thinking that once I had made clear the necessity of having one’s back to the Sun in order to operate the pinhole camera properly that all would be well. How very wrong I was. Not only was I not allowed to explain things, I was also lectured about going outside to view the eclipse by myself, because “the more you do it, the more interested Mom will be in doing it, and then she’ll go outside and look at the Sun”.
At this point, I stopped talking to my sister, and I made a quick-and-easy pinhole camera by poking the tip of a ballpoint pen through a folded piece of paper. I marched out onto the front porch, and began to observe the eclipse using the holed paper and a blank scratchpad. When I came back in, Mom asked me if I was able to see anything, and I drew her a little picture of what the crescent Sun looked like. My sister continued to be in a snit, so I ignored her difficult mood, and went out every five to ten minutes to check on the progress of the lunar shadow.
My sister finally left– she sat out front in her car for almost 15 minutes, no doubt thinking that she would prevent me from taking Mom out onto the front porch, but what she didn’t understand was that the eclipse was going to last for about 2 and a half hours, so when she finally took off, I helped my mother out onto the porch, had her turn away from the Sun, and then I worked the pinhole camera for her. She was delighted to see for herself that the Sun was “a perfect little baby crescent”. We looked at it for a couple of minutes, and then she was ready to go back inside because she needed to sit down for a bit. She was very happy to then let me continue to observe the Sun by myself, and I described the changes of the position of the solar crescent to her as the eclipse progressed.
The thing that I think is so darned sad about how this whole situation played out is that my youngest sister’s heart is in the right place when it comes to taking care of our parents and keeping them safe. My mother has done some rather weird, ditsy and unsafe things thanks to a drop in her critical thinking skills, but that being said, I do not think that’s any reason to dis-empower her further by not allowing her to do something that was a) completely no-risk, and b) a supervised activity.
Additionally, I resent the fact that I was also dis-empowered– the not-so-subtly implied message to me was that I am not capable of keeping my mother safe and I am basically not really fit to be looking after her, all because I suggested Mom might want to see a bit of the solar eclipse by means of a pinhole camera that I had made myself. In short, no assurance I could give about the safety of using a pinhole camera was worth anything, because the assurance was coming from me, and not some authority figure or other.
Yes, this bites, big-time. Yes, I understand that I will have to put up with more of the same in future, as I wish to remain part of the “care-giving crew” looking after my folks. And, yes, after both my parents pass away, I will be taking a long, long vacation from all of my remaining “immediate family”…