Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Tingler and Other Tales of Horror

My husband recently dropped a small box of art pads at work and when he bent to retrieve it, he felt a twinge in his back. Little did he know, this hardly noticeable spasm would eventually become a personal re-enactment of the cheesy science fiction movie, The Tingler. You may recall, that was the movie where creepy centipedes were crawling inside of everyone, created by fear. (Vincent Price discovers they can only be killed by loud screaming.)
Where are maniacal doctors
when you need them?

My testosteroned other half finished his 10-hour work day without event. When he got home that evening, the pain had increased, but was still not that bad. At this point in the movie, discordant music was playing in the background, signaling impending doom. Darkness descended. We went to bed. Then it happened. At 5:30 in the morning, I awoke to hear his blood-curdling screams. Was he trying to kill a Tingler or had he thrown out his back?

His horror soon became mine. Just after his back viciously attacked him, we were hit with another snow storm and I was suddenly left with the lone task of shoveling the walkway and driveway. At 7:30 a.m., I bundled up and stoically trudged out into the blinding white to re-enact my own version of The Thing. That flick took place in Alaska where a DWI alien spacecraft crash landed. Unfortunately, the only way this invader-with-a-bad-haircut could survive was by drinking blood. (Kenneth Toby discovers it can only be killed through electrocution.)

One of my neighbors.
As I laboriously scooped up the thick covering of snow with my aluminum snow shovel, two men—one across the street and another in the yard next to mine—plowed away effortlessly with loud, smelly gasoline snow blowers. Something was wrong with this picture. Neither neighbor felt compelled to help a woman who was fecklessly flinging chunks of snow into tiny replicas of Mt. Everest. Perhaps they were really unfeeling aliens, touching down to tidy up my neighbors' yards. Then the blood-sucking would begin. Time to get the Tazer®.

As I ran around doing everything inside and outside of the house, my Beloved found solace in painting a model of a World War II Spitfire MK-II fighter plane, surfing the net and shooting off emails to his coworkers and friends. Unable to get up from his chair, he had surrendered to a peaceful existence within the confines of our kitchen. His injury forced him to sit and adopt a remarkably zen convalescence, despite the wriggling creature that was occupying his back.

Meanwhile, I sat bravely staring at the cable weather report, thinking about the blood-sucking aliens that must be lurking outside...waiting. The onslaught of snow was not over. It would return, again and again, plaguing our neighborhood all winter, like meteorological bedbugs.

NOTE: Special thanks to my husband, cheesy movie consultant and faithful, cranky companion.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mysteries from Canada

Recently, a family in the southern U.S. whose house was in foreclosure was cleaning out their basement to move when they found something remarkable. It was the first issue of the Superman comic from 1938. It was valued at a quarter of a million dollars—and saved their home. In Fresno, California, a grandmother, rummaging through a box of antiques, found an early collector's card of the 1869 Cincinnati Reds, the first professional baseball team. It sold it for nearly $65,000 and she got to tell her story on Jay Leno.

Stories like these abound in the news and are wonderful because they happen to people like you and me. They are feel-good tales of rags to riches. So when our family recently discovered something in an accidental time capsule from almost 90 years ago in our home, it naturally sparked the treasure-hunting fantasy of easy money. Here's how it happened:

I was helping my daughter clean out her belongings from our house because she has graduated from college and is moving into her own apartment. To say that she has piled up a mountain of junk would be an understatement. Hers is the K2 of materialism. As we scaled this monumental undertaking one of our final tasks was to sort through my late mother-in-law’s jewelry box, which was left to my daughter. I lifted up the cotton padding in an empty box she was going to discard to find two old Canadian dollars neatly tucked beneath. One was from 1917 and the other was from 1923.

Would these old Canadian dollars mean early retirement?
My mother-in-law had lived her entire life in Cincinnati, Ohio and rarely traveled. She and her husband once won a free trip to Hawaii in a national sweepstakes and they refused to take it. So how she came upon these old Canadian one-dollar bills was a mystery. We did not know how rare the bills were, but we were intrigued to find out. Two television sources of valuation—Pawn Stars in Las Vegas and the Antique Roadshow located who-knows-where, seemed a bit distant to be useful. We needed to draw on something closer to home—the Internet. This would be our magic portal to Canada. We agreed that if the old Canadian currency ended up being worth a fortune, we would split the spoils with everyone in the family.

I immediately began searching the web, and to my surprise, found a group called the Canadian Paper Money Forum where you can ask members to evaluate the worth of your money for free. Unfortunately, technology was not on my side. I had problems getting my scans to load onto the site, so one of the members gave me his email and was kind enough to load it onto the site for me. I would expect nothing less from our gracious neighbors to the North.

Within a day or so, two people offered estimates. The highest quote found that, collectively, they could reap about $200 Canadian dollars. While this is an impressive amount for two $1 bills, it would not underwrite my fantasies of retirement and a world cruise on the Queen Mary 2. My dreams shattered, it was back to work. Curses, decadent leisure, you evade me once more!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saying Good-bye to Childhood

Whenever I look back on my childhood, I see Gary. Gary was my favorite cousin. I suppose I liked him best because whenever we got together, we had more than a few good laughs.This usually occurred at the expense of the oblivious adults around us.

Be it weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals—we stuck together and entertained ourselves by mercilessly critiquing our eccentric relatives from the Old Country. Our mutual pact of sarcasm followed us through high school and beyond.

As is often the case with childhood chums, we lost touch with each other after college. I was pursuing a writing career in New Jersey; he became a lawyer in Manhattan. It took an unhappy event for us to turn our attention to each other again.

My parents told me he was in a hospital in New York.

I called him there and he explained that one morning while he was shaving, the blade skimmed over a bump on his neck. He didn’t think anything of it until he realized that he couldn’t stop it from bleeding. He was rushed to the emergency room. After a few days of testing, they told him he had lymph-node cancer and he underwent radiation treatments.

I was very pregnant at the time, so I couldn’t get into New York to visit him. I felt awkward talking with Gary on the phone about something so serious. All the while we spoke, I kept thinking, “Why him?” Just as I might have expected, in the midst of this nightmare, he continued to display his same charming, razor-sharp wit.

After the baby was born, I heard through the Relatives Grapevine that the treatments had been effective and Gary would likely be fine. Busy with two pre-school children, I allowed him to slip out of my life again. He was a lawyer helping the downtrodden in New York; I was knee-deep in diapers and Sesame Street plot lines.

Then, several years later, in mid-1990, I found out that he was back in the hospital again. The cancer had recurred. I couldn’t believe it.

How could this be happening to someone whose life should just be taking off? I thought about the times we shared at his grandmother’s house in Boonton: running around the yard, hiding in the root cellar, sitting in the kitchen watching the old women stir their huge pots of food on the stove. Weren’t we supposed to grow old and sit together at those same family gatherings, exchanging barbs about our neurotic clan?

A few months later, a relative slipped and accidentally mentioned that Gary’s latest medication, AZT, wasn’t working anymore. My heart sank.

AIDS. Gary had AIDS.

His immediate family must have carried that painful secret for years. Why? Yes, there were those in the family who might have rejected him. But there were also those of us who would have lent support and love. That sharing was denied us—and Gary.

By now, my cousin was lying on his deathbed in a hospital in New York. I had to talk to him. He was very weak and could hardly speak, but his sense of humor still glimmered through. I told him that I loved him—we all loved him—and that I just wanted him to know that. He thanked me. That was the last time we spoke.

When my father called to say Gary had passed away, I gasped. Funny how even when you know someone’s going to die, it still shocks you when it happens. Maybe hearing someone say it is what makes it so.

He was buried quickly as is the custom in the Jewish religion. Where and when I don’t know. I would have liked to have attended the funeral, but it was for immediate family only. To my knowledge, there will be no traditional unveiling at the gravesite either. Perhaps his family’s pain is too great—even after a year. There were those who said he “brought it on” himself. I wonder how many would say that of a patient with heart disease or lung cancer—other conditions often related to lifestyle.

Almost a year has passed and the reality has begun to sink in. Gary is gone. When our families get together again, there will be no co-conspirator with whom to sit and observe the idiosyncrasies of our Hungarian kin. No one with whom to laugh or share our unique personal history.

Perhaps at the next wedding, when I look away from the dance floor, a trick of the light will make me see him out of the corner of my eye—lurking gleefully in the shadows against the wall. He’ll be standing there, as always, casually observing us with those dark, twinkling eyes, mischievous smirk and ready wit. Then he’ll nod to me and we’ll share a knowing smile over all the good times we shared during our 36 years as cousins. There’ll be a lump in my throat as his image slowly disappears. Those years were special. He was special.

Postscript: Gary’s family finally did have the unveiling at his grave and the extended family was invited. A handful of us attended. This is a reprint of an Op/Ed piece originally published in the Daily Record in late 1991. Since 20 years have passed, it seemed fitting to remember him once more. Gary Reiner, esq.: October 10, 1954 - January 15, 1991, beloved cousin and khokhem.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Exercising Caution

Several years ago I decided that if I continued a life of all work and no exercise, I would probably end up with lousy health. I worked in advertising, which meant long hours at the office with an extra helping of stress. So I decided to join the 35% of Americans who partake in regular exercise. This involved signing up for a gym membership and enlisting the help of a personal trainer. Sadly, the personal trainer was necessary because if someone is not waiting for me—with the potential for being extremely upset if I don’t show up—I will not go to the gym and exercise.

Why bother exercising? Fear of illness and death are good motivators. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, moderate daily physical activity can reduce substantially the risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, such as colon cancer. It can also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent or retard osteoporosis, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The first personal trainer they gave me was male and worked on the side as a professional wrestler. He towered over me like a testosterone mountain. Craning my neck upward, I explained to this hulking specimen of manhood that I hadn’t exercised in a while. I was a middle-aged woman who worked in an office all day. This seemed too complex for him to grasp. He took me into the men’s side of the gym and gave me a workout that had me limping feebly for the next several days. Was this really good for me? Before I could go in for a second session of pain, I got a phone call that he no longer worked with the gym. He had been fired for doing something inappropriate with a customer. I could imagine.

The second personal trainer they gave me was a woman. She asked me what my exercise goals were. Did I want to lose weight? No. Did I want to build up large muscles? No. Did I want to push hard to challenge my personal endurance? God, no. Well, then, why was I here? Honestly, I replied, just to make sure my bones don’t crumble with osteoporosis and that my general health is maintained with as little effort as possible. I explained that, unlike her other clients, I was an underachiever and had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else. I just wanted to be healthy and feel energetic.

Personal trainer #3 says I'm a whiner. She's right.
She was clearly amused by this approach, but took on the challenge, sticking to the women’s area of the gym and giving me workouts that made me feel good rather than wounded. It is worth noting that the men’s area of the gym is filled with muscular people in tight, skimpy clothing who look like Greek gods and goddesses, making me feel puny and inadequate. The women’s section is occupied by middle-aged women in baggy attire who look like me. Instead of gazing longingly at ourselves in the gym mirrors, we discreetly avert our eyes.

People in my home state of New Jersey do not exercise as much as people from other states, according to a 2004 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. We rank 40th out of 50 states, just missing the bottom 10. The top 10 states in order of how many people said they participated in some physical activity in the past month were: Minnesota, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Colorado, Montana and Connecticut. Which were the least active states? Starting at the bottom and counting up: Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, New York, Arkansas, Texas and Georgia. So if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line, or in New York, you are probably a good candidate for diabetes and a coronary.

I am currently on my third personal trainer. My second one left her husband, ran away with a client and left no forwarding address. My third physical trainer is a tough New Yorker who used to work in advertising. I guess that brings me full circle.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wandering Among the Stars

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...." Shakespeare

This is abstract art; real planets don't have white outlines.
Several years ago, my husband became very ill and was bedridden. During that time, I had to find something that would help me retain my sanity while caring for him, battling with insurance companies, raising two children and working full-time. That ended up being two years of online study with the Faculty of Astrological Studies in London. I worked as a science writer by day, and distracted myself with mysticism at night. That’s right, in this Age of Reason, I learned classical astrology.

People often ask me if I believe in astrology. Well, I believe that we should all be the masters of our own destiny rather than relying on something outside of ourselves to make our decisions for us. That said, astrology can be a fascinating way to learn more about ourselves. In fact, there is an entire field of psychology that works with astrological symbols and meaning. The idea of an astrological natal chart is this: life is like a role-playing game. You come into this world with certain attributes, weaknesses and challenges. It is up to you how you deal with what life brings. The way you approach life determines what you will learn and how you will develop as a person. Most astrologers believe in reincarnation and so every life offers different personal qualities, challenges and potential lessons to be learned.

Astrological markings, in the form of Sumerian cuneiform symbols, have been found dating as far back as 3000 BCE.* In those days, there was not a lot to do other than farm and raise livestock for food, fight with neighbors and look at the stars (perhaps the earliest form of reality television). Since survival depended on the benevolence of nature toward crops, people began closely observing the sky and how it corresponded to good and bad natural events. This was the forerunner of astrology, but it was not yet an organized discipline.

The first astrology text that survives was written by the Chaldeans, later referred to as the Babylonians, around 1645 BCE. It described omens that affected national and political affairs. Astrology gave some basis for predicting weather, disease, hostile invasions from neighbors and anything else about life. The high priests who calculated the machinations of the stars became very powerful. They may have been the early versions of celebrities on a par with Britney Spears and George Clooney. Except if they made a really big goof, they could be put to death.

From Babylon, astrology spread throughout the ancient world. Some people think that astrology independently developed in Egypt around the same time, but no one knows for sure. The Greeks thought that Babylonian astrology was for charlatans and Egyptian astrology was the real deal.

Initially, astrology was exclusively used for public welfare and to help a ruler make decisions. It was the Greeks who developed astrology into the horoscope we know today and began to bring it down to a personal level. Once again, the Greeks were responsible for naming something. Horoskopos stands for ascendant. An ascendant—the horoscope sign rising on the horizon at the moment of your birth—is a key element in Western astrology. Thus, the word horoscope was born.

The Romans, known for taking Greek concepts and re-tooling them, took astrology and refined it to the point where the average person could use it to forecast various stages of life including marriage, riches or poverty, and type of death. While the oldest known birth horoscope dates back to the pre-Roman era, from the year 410 BCE in Mesopotamia, the Romans were the ones who disseminated the “everyman” version. It quickly spread throughout their vast empire.

This is a completely bogus drawing of Saturn.
It should be noted that in societies where people were allowed to express their opinions without certain death, there were always astrology skeptics. An Athenian philosopher, Carneades, back in 156 BCE, argued vehemently against astrology. His reasoning:

1. Heavenly bodies are too far from Earth to exert an influence.
2. Children born at the same moment lead totally different lives (his example: when Homer was born, so were other people, who became neither poets nor famous).
3. Many people simultaneously die in catastrophes and wars despite their varying horoscopes.
4. The fine fluid that wafts down from the heavenly bodies and which is breathed in at the time of a person’s birth and determines his character can be changed by different weather conditions at various birthplaces. Okay, I was with him until this last one, but let’s keep in mind that this very skilled thinker lived more than 2000 years ago, long before Carl Sagan and the Hubble telescope.

It is also worth nothing that Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) did not believe in astrology or fortune telling. Thus, when a soothsayer tried to warn him about the Ides of March, he dismissed it as superstition. We all know what happened to him.

Astrology was a pivotal tool in the decisions of rulers from ancient times through to the modern day. Every king and queen in Europe had a court mathematician who was essentially an astrologer. It takes a lot of math to calculate the correct positions of the sun, moon and planets through the 12 zones of the sky known as the zodiac signs.

Throughout history, astrology and astronomy were one “science” until observational astronomers came into being. Observational astronomy began with the invention of the telescope by Galileo Galilei, who was a practicing astrologer. Two other famous observational astronomers—also astrologers—whose work helped drive a wedge between astrology and astronomy were Tycho Brahe (my personal hero) and a man who built his career on the data that Tycho Brahe spent a lifetime meticulously collecting—Johannes Kepler.

Astrology began to gain popularity in the U.S. from 1900 through 1949. In 1914, a popular astrologer in New York City named Evangeline Adams contributed to this growing interest. (Trivia: She was the grand-daughter of President John Quincy Adams.) Since fortune-telling was illegal—due to many con artists who found it a handy way to make easy money—Evangeline was arrested for reading astrological charts. The court case was later dismissed when Adams correctly read the horoscope of the judge's son with only a birth date. Her acquittal established an American precedent that if astrologers practiced in a professional manner that they were not guilty of any wrong-doing.

This is how astrology looked in 1925.
You may laugh, but many famous people have believed in and/or relied upon astrology. They include Hippocrates, Richelieu, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Sir Isaac Newton, Albrecht Dürer, Pope Leo X and the popes who preceded him, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Benedictine Father Gerhard Voss, JP Morgan, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, Hitler and Ronald Reagan (who was also introduced to his wife by an astrologer).

For those of you seeking to make your fortune in life, JP Morgan, the first American billionaire was quoted as saying, “Millionaires don’t use astrology, billionaires do." Einstein’s endorsement: “Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge. It taught me many things and I am greatly indebted to it."

So what can we take from all this? Well, astrology has been around a long, long time. How valid is it? How valid is any belief? Who knows? I can say this. It taught me a great deal about myself and made me much less judgmental of others. People are what they are for a reason. Maybe it’s their circumstances, maybe it’s genetics, or who knows, maybe, just maybe, it’s in their stars.

*NOTE: Astrologers are aware that the positions of the zodiac signs from 3000 years ago have changed. This shift is referred to as the precession of the sky and is caused by the wobble of the Earth on its axis. There is a subset of astrologers who practice using the Fagan/Bradley geocentric (sidereal) system, which accounts for the current, shifted position of the zodiac. This, not always, but sometimes can shift your astrological sign by one month.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Feeling the Earth Move

My husband, Steve, is a strange man and he recently hooked me into one of his unusual past-times: earthquake tracking. He looks at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) every day to view the latest earthquakes that have occurred around the world. He is tectonic-plate obsessed.

I asked Steve why he is attracted to moving, subterranean rock. He replied: “The Earth is a living thing and its way of letting off steam is volcanoes. When it’s not comfortable with its weight, it shifts around and we get earthquakes. The planet is alive.” Wow. Very poetic. He then added, “I just have a fascination with watching the destructive power of Nature.” Okay. That sounds a little less New Age, but very guy-like.

As you probably know, the Earth has seven to eight major and many minor tectonic plates. Basically, everything on the surface of the Earth rests on those plates, but unfortunately for us, they move. When they do, the results are earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building and oceanic trench formation.

On the USGS “Latest Earthquakes in the World” web page,* all tremors magnitude 2.5 and above are listed. Anything 4.5 or above is in scary boldface. The really BIG quakes, 6.0 or above, are in alarming red. What grand purpose is there in tracking earthquakes? For the average person, none really, unless you’re sitting on top of a fault line. It does, however, give Steve and me something to talk about at the end of the day. For instance, this morning at 9:56 a.m. Universal Time, Santiago Del Estero, Argentina, had a whopping 7.0 magnitude earthquake. We looked that up on Google News and found that no one was hurt. That may be because it occurred at a depth of nearly 584 kilometers, or because no one lives in the area where it occurred.

Interestingly, Argentina is part of a large area of plate movements, around which, is something called the Ring of Fire. About 90% of the world's earthquakes and 80% of the world's largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire, which is actually shaped like a horseshoe. But Horseshoe of Fire doesn’t sound as good, thus the present name. This Ring of Fire extends from Peru up the West Coast of South America to the West Coast of North America, up around the southern coast of Alaska and across the Aleutian Islands, down the coast of Eastern Russia, down through Japan, across Indonesia, and back out to the Tonga Islands and down into New Zealand. Most of the world’s volcanoes sit on the Ring of Fire.
This is a map of the Ring of Fire, which actually looks more like a malformed horseshoe.
Map is courtesy of the USGS.

Here are some interesting earthquake facts from the USGS:

  • The largest recorded earthquake in the United States was a magnitude 9.2 that struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 27, 1964. The earthquake and ensuing tsunami took 128 lives (tsunami 113, earthquake 15). Alaska is the most earthquake-prone state and one of the most seismically active regions in the world. Its residents experience a magnitude 7 earthquake almost every year, and a magnitude 8 or greater earthquake on average every 14 years. These may temporarily obscure Sarah Palin’s view of Russia.
  • The largest recorded earthquake in the world was a magnitude 9.5 in Chile on May 22, 1960. When it occurred, seismographs recorded seismic waves all around the world. The earthquake shook the entire Earth for many days. Most of the casualties were because of large tsunamis which caused damage along the coast of Chile and in many areas of the Pacific Ocean. Puerto Saavedra, Chile, was completely destroyed by waves which reached heights of 38 feet and carried remains of houses as much as 2 miles inland. Tsunamis caused 61 deaths and severe damage in Hawaii, mostly at Hilo, where the run-up height reached 35 feet. Waves as high as 18 feet struck northern Honshu, Japan, about 1 day after the quake, where they destroyed more than 1600 homes and left 185 people dead or missing. Another 32 people were dead or missing in the Philippines after the tsunami hit those islands. Damage also occurred on Easter Island, in the Samoa Islands and in California.
  • The world’s deadliest recorded earthquake occurred in 1556 in central China. It struck a region where most people lived in caves carved from soft rock. These dwellings collapsed during the earthquake, killing an estimated 830,000 people. In 1976 another deadly earthquake struck in Tangshan, China, where more than 250,000 people were killed. The earliest recorded evidence of an earthquake has been traced back to 1831 BC in the Shandong province of China.
  • Only four states in the U.S. did not have any earthquakes, from 1975 to 1995. They were Florida, Iowa, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Florida and North Dakota have the smallest number of earthquakes in the U.S. Instead, Florida has opted for hurricanes and North Dakota for flooding, blizzards and tornados.
  • Earthquakes occur in the central U.S. Some very powerful earthquakes occurred along the New Madrid fault in the Mississippi Valley in between 1811 and 1812. Because of the crust’s structure in the central U.S., shaking from earthquakes is felt at a much greater distance from their epicenters than similar size quakes in the western U.S. The New Madrid earthquakes caused the ground to rise and fall, bending trees until their branches intertwined and opening deep cracks in the ground. Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. Only one life was lost in falling buildings at New Madrid, but chimneys were toppled and log cabins were thrown down as far as Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; and in many places in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. Had our news media existed at the time, people would have been predicting the end of the world, culminating in a made-for-television movie about it.

Apparently, Steve got his co-workers at the independent bookstore addicted to earthquake tracking as well. He has a tendency to spread his craziness wherever he goes. They check it every day and it is the subject of conversation. Perhaps the attraction is the reminder that Nature is very powerful and no matter what technologies we develop, a good earthquake will trump them every time. Earth is big; people are small. For all of us, that is a very humbling and implacable truth to remember.

*If you want to track earthquakes, go to:

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Nature's Snow Job

It’s snowing again. We had a blizzard the day after Christmas and now we’re getting another four to six inches of snow today. More is expected next week.

Snow was fun when I was a child and it meant a day off from school. Unfortunately, employers do not seem to share that same sense of wonder about snow. They expect employees to slog to their cars, make a suicidal drive to the office and commence working. And don’t be late.

Maybe if I skied, snowboarded, skated or enjoyed ice fishing, snow and cold weather would be a source of joy for me. Alas, I do none of those things, so I just consider it a cold, slippery inconvenience.

Jack Frost has his way with our backyard.
Some people think snow is worthy of study. Did you know that there is a National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)? It’s part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado where they get COPIOUS amounts of snow. They study snow, ice, glaciers, frozen ground and climate. They also compile some great snow trivia, and here it is:
  • Where are the snowiest cities in the U.S.? New York. Syracuse averages 115 inches of snow per year, and Rochester averages 93 inches per year. Several less populated areas around the country receive much more snow. For instance, Mount Washington, New Hampshire, has an average annual snowfall of 260 inches, and Valdez, Alaska, averages 326 inches annually. That may be why almost nobody lives there.
  • Where has the most snow fallen for one storm in the U.S.? Almost 187 inches of snow fell in seven days on Thompson Pass, Alaska, in February 1953. That is serious hot cocoa country.
  • How long do snowstorms typically last? Each year an average of 105 snow-producing storms affect the continental U.S. A typical storm will have a snow-producing lifetime of two to five days and will bring snow to portions of several states. Sadly, one of those states is mine.
  • Is there any part of the U.S. that has never had a snowfall? Practically every location in the U.S. has seen snowfall. Even most portions of southern Florida have seen a few snow flurries. That is karmic payback for my gloating brother, who lives in Florida and likes to recite the temperatures there when it is freezing up here in New Jersey.
  • Does snow serve any purpose aside from being great for winter sports and snow angels? In the western U.S., mountain snow pack contributes up to 75 percent of all year-round surface water supplies. Keep that in mind if you are thinking of writing your name in snow.
The Winter Wonderland takes our two cars captive.
As I write this, I gaze out my window at the wintry white blanketing our walkway and driveway in flaky splendor. A happily sparkling scene of snow that will have to be laboriously shoveled aside before I can hop into my car and drive anywhere.

To my many more optimistic neighbors, snowflakes represent nature’s magnificent artwork, winter recreation or a refreshing change from the other three seasons. With apologies to Al Gore, to me, the white stuff is nothing more than An Inconvenient Trudge.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Swaying to the Rhythms of Life

I have a secret to share. I’m a music-holic. It’s an addiction. I got hooked at an early age.

My father put a vinyl record of Big Band music on his stereo turntable. Then he lifted me up and put my tiny feet on top of his and we danced around the room to the sounds of Glenn Miller, Harry James, Jan Savitt and Louis Jordan.

Music has been around for a long time. Not surprisingly, the Greeks were the ones who finally got around to naming it for us. The word music comes from mousikê, which is derived from mousa, the Greek word for muse. (The Greeks believed there were nine goddesses called muses that inspired the arts and sciences.) In the European Middle Ages, music was considered a branch of mathematics. Fortunately, I was not aware of that when I was younger, or I might have avoided music altogether.

Music possesses many magical qualities. For one, it tends to bind people together. Most countries have a national anthem. Armies have had drummers follow them into battle to stir up patriotic fervor. Religions have chants or hymns to express devotion and celebrate holidays. Heck, even our high school football team had a song. The lyrics were not too profound, but the opening lines "We want a touchtown. Yes, we do, we want a touchdown!" got the general point across.

Songs tend to harbor memories. When I met my husband, there was a song playing. That is now our song. Whenever I hear it, my heart still melts, even though the song is actually quite cheesy. Tunes can remind us of a season, a place or a person. My father died in 1995, but whenever I hear Big Band music, it still reminds me of him.

My daughter, right, partakes in karaoke, a 
popular activity among drunken Japanese 
businessmen and today's youth.
Can you imagine life without the background of vocals and instrumentals? Like books, music transports us to another realm of existence. No matter how low I may feel, if I put on some lively tunes, I cheer up. If I have a boring task to do, like housework, I plug my iPhone into some speakers and get so caught up in the sounds that I’m almost sorry when the task is done.

Did you know that music can help with parenting? While I enjoy belting out a good tune, my family doesn't like listening to me. This, however, has worked to my advantage. When my children were small, if they didn't finish their meals, I threatened to sing and that would get them to gobble up every last crumb. Put that one in your book on child-rearing, Dr. Spock!

Music can be a source of comfort and strength. It is telling that when the Titanic was sinking, a band played on deck until the rising waters stilled the musicians. When a plane recently had trouble in mid-flight, a chorus on board returning from a performance began singing and everyone calmed down. When minorities in this country suffered from injustice and repression, they raised their voices in gospel and the Blues.

There is some part of the brain, or maybe the soul, that is stirred and soothed by music. Perhaps it appeals to something primitive in all of us. It may journey through our cell memories down generations of human existence. From the rhythmic beat of a stick on a hollow log and chanting to the development of instruments and choral harmony, music has evolved with us. It is as necessary as oxygen and food in nourishing and sustaining us. It begins with lullabies at the cradle and accompanies us through grade school, dating, weddings, anniversaries and finally bids us farewell at our own funerals. It is truly the rhythm of life.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reading Between the Leaves

My earliest memory of tea was when I was a young child and my mother brought a steaming cup with toast when I was sick. While being sick was not a pleasant memory, being fussed over by my mother certainly was. Tea was an adult drink that I was usually barred from having. It contained caffeine and my mother was afraid it would stunt my growth. Considering that I never topped 5-foot-3 in height, it would seem that refraining from tea was not enough to overcome my genetics.

Tea is my favorite drink, making me not so much fun at parties.
Legend has it that tea was first discovered in 2737 B.C.E., when tea leaves blew into a cup of hot water about to be drunk by the second emperor of China, Shen Nung. Fortunately for him, there were no hemlock plants growing nearby. By 400 A.D., demand for tea grew, as a medicinal drink. Toward that end, many tea drinkers added, among other things, onions to their teas. By 593 A.D., Buddhism and tea journeyed together from China to Japan. Japanese priests studying in China spirited away tea seeds and leaves. By the Sung Dynasty, 960 to 1280 A.D., Chinese tea drinking really caught on, with elegant teahouses and teacups carefully crafted from porcelain and pottery. By 1422, the Japanese tea ceremony was born.

A bit slower on the uptake, Europeans learned about tea in 1589 when a Venetian author credited the lengthy lives of Asians to their tea drinking. Knowing a good product when they saw it, in 1610 the Dutch East India Company marketed tea as an exotic medicinal drink. Due to its high cost, only the aristocracy could afford it.

In 1618, Chinese ambassadors presented the Russian Czar Alexis with many chests of tea, but lacking vision, he refused them as useless. In 1635, tea became all the rage at the Dutch court, but a German physician warned about the dangers of drinking tea. It's not clear what they might have been. By 1650, tea parties became quite trendy among women across the social classes. Husbands cried family ruin, and religious reformers called for a ban. After all, the ladies were having fun, so it had to be wrong. Unconcerned, the Dutch spread their leafy decadence to the New World when they settled in New Amsterdam, which later became New York.

It wasn’t long before the first tea was sold as a health beverage in London, England at Garway's Coffee House. A great debate ensued in 1661, when a Dutch doctor praised its curative powers while French and German doctors cautioned about its harmful side. Let’s keep in mind that these were the same medical professionals who recommended leaches and blood letting.

In 1662, when Charles II of England took a tea-drinking bride (Catherine Braganza of Portugal), tea became so chic that alcohol consumption declined. In the 1700s, the controversy over tea continued in England and Scotland where opponents claimed it was overpriced, harmful to one’s health, and might even lead to moral decay. Consequently, tea drinking thrived in British coffeehouses.

By 1735, Russia came to its senses and in order to fill the country’s tea demand, traders and 300 camels traveled 11,000 miles to and from China, which took 16 months. Russian tea-drinking customs emerged, which entailed using tea concentrate, adding hot water, topping it with a lemon, and drinking it through a lump of sugar held between the teeth. That can’t have been good for dental hygiene.

By 1765, tea was the most popular beverage in the American colonies. So naturally, two years later, the British Parliament enacted the Townshend Revenue Act, imposing duty on tea and other goods imported into the British American colonies. This disturbed the colonists, and after a town meeting held in Boston to protest the Townshend Revenue Act, Americans boycotted British imports and began smuggling in Dutch teas. Take that, King George III! In 1770, Parliament rescinded the Townshend Revenue Act, eliminating all import taxes except those on—you guessed it—teas. Now the colonists were really mad, and in 1773, disguised as Native Indians, responded by dumping British tea into Boston Harbor. Such “tea parties” were repeated in Philadelphia, New York, Maine, North Carolina, and Maryland through 1774. King George and the British Parliament decided to get even by enacting the Boston Port Bill, which said that Boston Harbor would be closed until the East India Company was reimbursed for every last penny of its tossed tea. Okay, enough, the colonists replied. You’re not the boss of me. And in 1775, after several British attempts to end the taxation protests, the colonists kicked off the American Revolution. All because of tea.

On the English side of the pond, in 1826, English Quaker John Horniman introduced the first retail tea in sealed, lead-lined packages. Not the healthiest of packaging. Still, tea drinking marched on. In 1840, Anna the Duchess of Bedford, introduced afternoon tea, which became a lasting English tradition. In 1904, Englishman Richard Blechynden created iced tea during a heat wave at the St. Louis World’s Fair. And in 1908, New York tea importer Thomas Sullivan inadvertently invented tea bags when he sent tea to clients in small silk bags, and they mistakenly steeped the bags whole. Doh!

Courtesy of
Flash forward to the 1960s. While many people partook of binge drinking or experimented with drugs, I and my friends were a bit tamer in our tastes. During our junior high years, my friend, Debi, and I had tea-drinking marathons. Nothing fancy, just black tea served with milk and sugar—cups and cups of it. We were two teenagers, teeming with hormones and caffeine, just carrying on an age-old tradition.

Today, tea is a ritual in my home. My husband and I drink tea as an entrée to sharing the events of the day. As we cradle our mugs, we contemplate with gratitude how the right to do so was hard-fought by our forefathers and their visionary counterparts across the Atlantic. For centuries, European doctors and community leaders cautioned a naïve populace against the impending harm of this amber liquid, from its insidious if not vague health dangers to its inevitable outcome of  moral decay and ruin. Knowing that a quiet cup of tea brewed in the privacy of our kitchen represents a steady and irreversible descent into depravity, only makes the act of drinking it all the more satisfying.