Thursday, December 29, 2011


Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of the well-loved author and humorist Sam Levenson.  It is also two days until we begin a new year, and one of Levenson’s sayings is appropriate for the season: “Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is; we’ll find it.” Do you make New Year’s resolutions?  Have you thought about them yet?  They have a lot to do with temptation and the resistance to it.              

I’ve known few people who actually kept their New Year’s resolutions. Have you known any? Not that my halo is on too tight – I’ve never kept any other resolutions – but, along with my husband who did it too, I gave up smoking over thirty years ago. Oh, I was tempted more than once to start again, but something kept me from back sliding. (Oscar Wilde once said “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” but he was an extreme example of too much giving in.)  Our resolution to stop smoking was a wise one. Our health is probably better for it, we probably smell nicer to the world, and just think of all the money we’ve saved over the years.

Though many of us don’t make any these days, I suppose it’s not a bad idea to make New Year’s resolutions. If we are tempted and we give into it, at least we can say we tried. As seniors we’ve probably got so many new years past, and relative few new years ahead, that it’s probably a case of “been there, done that”. If we haven’t given up the smoking or the drinking, or haven’t lost the excess weight, it will take a major health crisis, not the New Year, to shake us out of our habits.

I’m telling myself that I’ve gotten this far in life, so from now on I’d like, clichĂ© though it may be, quality over quantity.  I know, I know: I’d probably have more of both if I mended some of my ways, but I’m so set in them it will take that major health crisis to jolt me.  I’ll let you know if it happens.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


"Is this bacteria I see before me?"
 Louis Pasteur - not!

December is Hand-washing Awareness Month, and I have my own Germ Theory: aside from the really germy places and things in this world, we’re all better off exchanging germs and becoming immune to them.  We can’t escape germs. We’ve got to deal with them according to their threat potential. *
I sigh when I see a shopper sanitize the shopping cart handle at the super market, then go blithely on and touch all the items in the store.  She’s got her own germs on her hands - I didn’t see her sanitize them - and will spread them around the store. She’ll pick up the donations of others, and then she’ll bring them home to her pantry. 
Once upon a plane trip, I saw an unaccompanied youngster enjoy every bite of her bagged lunch. Then, dutiful little girl, she got out the sanitizer and de-germed her hands. Wrong way ‘round child!
The little girl aside, I sometimes think that these sanitizing souls are assiduous in their endeavors only when they are in a place where, consciously or not, they think that they might be seen and judged.  It is certain that once a bit of internally-applied alcohol takes effect, no one washes their hands while circulating at a cocktail party - although the rule for hors d’oeuvres is ”you touch it, you eat it”. Just think of all the hands you might shake, all the germs you might attract.  Do you care? Of course not: it’s a party!  

I’m not advocating the complete abandonment of sanitizing hands. It’s flu season, thus the main reason for this month’s observance. Sanitizing hands is de rigueur in many medical offices, especially those where you sign in using a palm scanner. This is logical. What better place to catch a bug than in a medical venue - some hospitals are notorious. The last time my husband was in the hospital, I was pleased to observe the regular use of the contents of the ubiquitous sanitizer dispensers by the doctors and staff there.

As I did my early-morning water walking in the pool, I look over and can see them in the gym: those fastidious folks who carefully sanitize the equipment handles before they even begin to work out. Turns out that this is the wise thing to do because the truth is that gyms, with all the sweat and moisture there, have become some of the germiest places around - and they’re not just ordinary germs: Fungi to cause things like athlete‘s foot, viruses for colds and flu, and really nasty bacteria like MRSA. Just push open the door to exit the gym and there are those germs awaiting you.


What I am advocating is heightened awareness and heightened combat with those really germy places and things: gyms, hospitals, rest rooms, packaged meats, kids’ diapers or runny noses - you know where and what. I am advocating a bit less paranoia, a bit less of the Howard Hughes hazmat mentality, and a bit more common sense elsewhere. Yes, be conscious of where you are and what you might touch with those germy hands.

The best advice is to remember your Mom’s words: “keep your fingers out of your mouth”, “don’t rub your eyes”, “wash your hands after you go potty”, or “dinner’s ready - go wash your hands. ”   You know the drill.

  * January 2012 - I was just made aware of this excellent article: The 10 Dirtiest Places in Your Home.   Full of common sense and good advice, it is an excellent tutorial. You can find it at   Go read it and heed it - You know the drill!

Sunday, December 11, 2011



I am of the personal opinion that the Norwegians are the greatest explorers who ever lived.  Much can be said for any explorers such as the Spanish and Portuguese explorers, or for the 15th Century Chinese, but the Norwegians took the cold and nasty routes. Picture the Vikings in their open longboats in the North Atlantic; picture Tor Heyerdahl out on a raft like Kon Tiki or a flimsy, sinking reed boat like the Ra; picture Roald Amundsen on the way to the South Pole.

When the ill-fated British explorer Robert Scott arrived at the South Pole only to find that he had been beaten to the prize by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team who had reached the pole the previous month, he said “Great God! This is an awful place.” “It’s a place that wants you dead,” said Robert Swan, the environmentalist who walked Scott’s route in 1985.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in December 1903, just eight years before Amundsen’s trek. Amundsen couldn’t wait until that mode of transportation was perfected, so he took his men and his dogs, sleds and skis, and proper Eskimo clothing and supplies, and, after setting up forward supply bases, headed south from the Ross Ice Shelf.  The first attempt failed because of extreme cold weather. 70 below zero is a bit extreme.  The second attempt began on October 19.  They took just under two months, covering about 800 miles, to reach the pole on December 14.  This trip was no picnic.  They got caught in a blizzard, suffered from frostbite, and had to eat some of their dogs, although this last had been part of the plan.
In his book, The South Pole, Amundsen wrote: "I may say that this is the greatest factor -- the way in which the expedition is equipped -- the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order -- luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck."  Amundsen had planned properly, Scott had not.

Things have certainly changed in Antarctica over the last hundred years.  Once a pristine place just for penguins, it is now an important scientific outpost and a bit of a tourist attraction. Most of the thousands of tourists to Antarctica arrive by cruise ship and do not venture beyond the coast.  The penguins and ice bergs are their main attractions.  This year the tourist numbers will spike because of the anniversaries of Amundsen’s and Scott’s arrivals.   The aptly-named Amundsen-Scott Research Station, manned by 50 scientists year-round, and about 150 more in their summer, is run at the South Pole by the National Science Foundation. The studies there include biology, glaciology, meteorology, geology and a lot of other -ologies. They are not too happy about all the hundreds of people who are arriving on their door step to commemorate the hundredth anniversaries of Amundsen’s and Scott’s arrivals.   Beyond accepting letters that will go out with a South Pole postmark, they have little or no provision for tourists or adventurers, especially those who run into trouble.   

Today’s scientists can fly, in the right weather, right to the South Pole or wherever on the continent their stations might be. This year’s special tourists will pay tens of thousands of dollars to get to this “awful place”. Some folks will take catered, gourmet flights to the pole. Some want to be dropped off a degree or two away so they can ski in.  Amundsen and Scott took the overland route, and this year’s adventurers will be able to do the same. There will be several different ski races, endurance races, over Amundsen’s and Scott’s routes. The competitors will be equipped with everything from the latest extreme-weather clothing and shelters to GPS devices. Of course it is comforting to note that there will be airplanes on hand if anyone needs to be evacuated. Too bad this wasn’t an option for Scott and his team.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


When I was in my high school chorus, years ago, we did a piece called December is a Month for All at our winter concert.  It’s been so long since that was part of the choral repertoire that I can’t locate it on the web, but it was a collection of songs from both the Christian and Jewish traditions.  Today I can’t remember exactly which Christmas carols were sung, but I do remember some of the Jewish songs especially the one about Judah “with his shield and sword” and Hannah and her “sons who glorify her name”, because they were new and interesting. 

The mix of winter celebrations has always been fascinating to me. Over the years, whenever I heard a new tidbit of lore, I’d do a bit of investigation to learn more. The winter solstice, when the sun begins to shine for a longer time each day, was celebrated in almost all of the cultures of the northern hemisphere.  Think of the many megalithic monuments that serve as calendars to insure the correct date of the solstice, and think of all the observation and study that went into the precise building of them. Inquiring minds wanted to know. Picture a tree growing from the base of the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The rites of the celebrations were many and varied and usually lasted for days.  Today’s winter celebrations are branches of that same tree.  They are all holidays - festivals or celebrations - rather than holy days or solemn commemorations.

Spring lambs springing
It is generally agreed that Christ was born when the shepherds were abiding in the fields, watching their flocks at night, so it would have been almost any time of the year except winter.  Most likely it was the spring, but the proselytizers, the spin-doctors of the early Christian era, in an effort to attract pagans to their way of worship and thinking, cleverly placed the celebrations of their major and most attractive events to coincide with those of the solar calendar.  The spring equinox became Easter, and the winter solstice Christmas.


The winter event was celebrated as Saturnalia in Rome, Yule by the Germanic people, as Lenaea, the Festival of Wild Women (I like that one!) in Greece, and under many other names by people such as the Druids, the Buddhists, and the natives of our own southwest.  Until the more modern spin doctors of the eighteenth century elevated it again and made it more lucrative, Christmas was celebrated as a very minor holiday; Easter was the major holy day.  In some places, such as Cromwell’s Puritan England of the 1700’s, the celebration of Christmas was banned.   Many Christian sects still do not celebrate it.

There is more real history associated with Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, than with Christmas.  Starting on 25 Kislev, a date on the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah, in its modern spelling, is an eight day festival commemorating an event in 165 BCE.   On that day the Maccabees drove the army of Antiochus IV, king of the Syrians, from the Temple in Jerusalem.  In celebration, they rededicated the Temple, and lit the eternal flame.  They had only one day’s supply of consecrated oil, but it lasted for the eight days it took to prepare and consecrate a new supply.  This miracle became a good reason for a winter celebration, and, minor though it was then, it was a good antidote to the Greek festival celebrating Zeus. Yes, it too was a minor holiday, but in the last century it came into prominence perhaps as another antidote - this time to all the Christmas hoopla.

Most winter symbols transcend religion. Greens, especially evergreens as boughs or wreaths in the north, were always a part of the solstice celebrations. Many rural homes shared their living space with the livestock.  In many homes the windows were for light, not air, so in northern climates the unglazed windows were covered over in winter. It was customary, probably downright necessary, to bring fresh-cut evergreens into the homes to freshen the air during the winter months.  Candles too are part of the winter celebrations.  Whether the eight on a menorah or the multitude on a Christmas tree, real candles or electric, they represent the light and joy of the season. 

“Chrismukkah” has become a slang term for the combination of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrated in religiously mixed households.  The word sounds like a phlegmy cough to me.  All commercialism involved set aside, both holidays should be enjoyed and celebrated separately and fully in all their beauty and colors and traditions. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011



     Many folks I know from other areas of New York City never heard of this, but where I was born in Queens, New York, we didn’t go out Trick-or-Treating on Halloween, we ragamuffins went ‘begging’ on Thanksgiving. In the morning we were dressed up as beggars or Gypsies, in whatever old clothes were usable, and we went from door to door asking “Anything for Thanksgiving?” I was only in the second grade when my family moved from the city out to the country wilds of Long Island’s Nassau County, but my city memories tell me that we came home with apples and oranges, nuts and cookies, and perhaps a cup cake to add to the bounty of the day.
        Some recall that the items collected were given, in turn, to the various churches to then be distributed to the poor. I don’t recall this. I do recall a lot of walnuts at the bottom of my bag.

The custom may have a connection to November 11th, Martinmas, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of beggars and the poor, or St. Catherine’s Day, November 25th, both of which dates are used by many European cultures to signify the end of autumn and the coming of winter.  On either or both days, depending on the country and culture, children would dress up - or down! - and go around the town, especially with lantern on St. Martin’s Day, singing appropriate songs and, in many places, receive donations of food or money to be brought to the church, or get sweets for themselves.  Many countries celebrated with large, festive meals.

        It’s a certainty that the ancestors of these children brought these customs with them when the emigrated here, especially to the east coast, and they were gradually merged with the Thanksgiving traditions already in place.  Depending on the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood, some or all of the traditions carried over.  I’m sure that the ‘large, festive meals’ were easily transferred to the last Thursday of November. 

       Halloween has become a big, commercial festival, costumes and treats galore, so I’m not too sure that children still go begging on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve probably got a lot of loot left over from Halloween, and the lure of the Macy’s parade on the TV is just too enticing to miss. We adults fondly recall the simpler times of our younger years.  I suppose that today’s children will recall these days as being the simpler times - and I can’t begin to imagine the times in which they’ll be living in the future, when what today’s adults call ‘excessive’ will to our grandchildren be ‘simple‘. It boggles the mind!



Tuesday, November 8, 2011


     As Popeye said – “I yam what I yam,” and I’ve tried to live by that since the time, years ago, when I cut out and saved an article from Real Simple magazine ( and I can't find a date on it) about Finnish women who, on the whole, rarely if ever agonize over their body image.  They are what they are. The article, by now Associate Professor of Writing at the New School, Elizabeth Kendall, was titled The Naked Truth.
    Truth be told, not many of us are happy with our naked bodies.  Oh, I’d like to be many, many pounds lighter, but my body likes the “set point” I’ve been at for over a quarter of a century.  Diets and I don’t get along too well. 
So I dress as neatly and fashionably and comfortably as possible, and let it go at that. My sister and I were always great fans of “gut hiders”, those blouses and other tops that deemphasized our more-than-bountiful embonpoint. Loose is lovely, comfortable is lovely.

    I yam what I yam, and, being diplomatic about it, I do suppose that most other women of a certain age feel the same way.  But ladies, I do wish more of you well-endowed gals would give a bit more thought to how you dress.  Don’t agonize over the body you have and how to change it. By this time, like me, you’ve got to live with it. Worry more about other things such as dressing that body presentably.
    First of all, if the clothes go around you that does not mean they fit. Spandex is, as they say, a privilege. Wearing any tight, knitted garments is for the very young and the very slim. You don’t want folks saying “Looks like she’s been melted and poured into it,” now do you? 
    O.k., that top is a size 16 and you’re a 14, but it’s a tank top and your upper arms are way past flabby. Why would ya?  And just because something jazzy comes in a size you wear doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

    I love to see a well-turned-out woman of any age or size. I must admit though, I do love to sightsee in places like Walmart. Talk about “why would ya?” You know the ones I mean. Some of those folks are a definite hoot. Nudge, nudge, wink wink. That one over there!  You know the ones I mean.

(Well, maybe my halo is on too tight.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Well, I am more than a little bit sad today: that curmudgeon of curmudgeons, Andy Rooney, a man I admired tremendously, has passed away.  He’s front page news everywhere, and even Wikipedia has updated his page there.  As the NY Times said, he was not everyone’s cup of tea, but he was mine, and I rarely disagreed with his stance on whatever was the subject of the week.  From kitchen gadgets and the proliferation thereof to organized religion and his disdain for it, I concurred. But then, I am a curmudgeon too. 'bye Andy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Let’s open Fibber McGee’s closet and see what falls out - hey folks, watch out - that’s a fork! says that the kitchen fork goes back to the ancient Greeks.  I’d think it went back to the first ancestor of ours who found a pointed, forked stick came in handy for grabbing his chunk of meat out of the fire. Table forks didn’t come into regular use until the seventh century, and it took several centuries more for the use of them to spread across Europe. The tool of choice - not counting fingers - was always the knife. Anyone who could afford even a crudely made knife used it to cut and then bring food to his mouth. In days of old when knights were bold, it became less and less desirable for folks to come armed to the table. It made for some nasty dinner hours. Thus the fork, handily provided by a genteel host or hostess, came into favor.

Forks started out two-tined, like the forked stick, and then tines were added to make handling food that much easier. In the Victorian era’s spirit of invention where dining became an all-evening event, the upper echelons of society came up with all manner of forks. They did it because they could, and because it provided a bit of one-upmanship in a time when it sometimes seems like that was all those folks had for amusement. I suppose it did make serving and eating easier. One wouldn’t want to eat the meat of an oyster with a dinner fork, or serve a slice of roast beef with a pickle fork, now would one? 

With all those forks - not to mention spoons and knives of various sorts - the Victorians also came up with what they decided was the proper setting for a table: knives and spoons to the right of the plate, forks to the left, glass ware of all kinds, starting above the point of the knife and working to the right, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.  There were rules for the placement of salad dishes and bread plates, for wine and water glasses, for side dishes and centerpieces. No wonder Upstairs needed all that help Downstairs. It became good manners - and also a good idea - to wait until your hostess took the first bite of any course: you could look to see what fork she used and then do the same without fear of embarrassment. It’s still a good idea today, though now we use table and serving forks of a lot fewer sizes.  Even at a state dinner at the White House they don’t eat as many courses as did some of those elite Victorians, but if you get invited to one and are unsure of the table protocol, be sure to watch the First Lady.

I’m not sure if it is a step in the right direction, but today they’ve come up with the ‘spork’: a utensil combining a spoon and a fork. And then they went a step further to deliver the ‘sporf’. This last one combines a fork, a spoon, and a knife. I think I’d be dribbling my soup through the ‘tines’ of either utensil, or slicing my cheek with the knife part of the sporf.  Until I’m on a rocket ship to Mars where space is at a premium, I think I’ll pass on those.  

Heaven help us, there’s even an Ode to the Fork.  In a spirit of silliness, I googled “ode to the fork” and, I kid you not, up popped a very poor poem with that title.  It reads like a columnar run-on sentence, but someone - the poet is not named - felt passionate enough about his fork to pen an ode to it.  Ah well, I do suppose that such a sturdy, utilitarian object deserves some recognition.  We use it with hardly a thought for its presence: there is no National Fork Appreciation Day, alas.  So give a passing ‘thank you’ to your fork as you have your dinner this evening, and tell this tale to the other folks at the table.  If nothing else, it will make for some interesting conversation.

Addendum: I just read a marvelous, much more extensive essay on the fork. Sara Goldsmith has written The Rise of the Fork, and I do recommend it to you.   June 20, 2012 


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


As a born and bred New Yorker it seems strange, but I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty.  I may have seen it way off in the distance, if you can see it from the Brooklyn to Staten Island ferry, that is.  Even then, I was on the ferry only several times when I was about twelve years old, in the pre-Verrazano Bridge days. I probably wasn’t aware that the statue was there: the ferry trip was much more exciting. Typical New Yorker, I lived there but missed a lot. But then I remember that I wasn’t just sitting around twiddling my thumbs – I had a lot going on.  I did once get up to the top of the Empire State Building, but that’s another story.  On with the essay.

The eighteenth of this month marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.  First conceived in 1865, 145 years ago, it had a hard time aborning. Frederic Bartholdi first got the notion from a law professor who thought it would be a great idea for the French and Americans to get together to raise a monument to American Independence. Yes it was a great idea, but what with one thing and another, a war, design problems, and financial setbacks, the work on the statue didn’t begin until the 1870’s. 

By the first Centennial of American Independence, Lady Liberty’s forearm and the torch were on display in New York City’s Madison Square Park. Two years later, in 1878, the head was on display in Paris. After a bit of fuss gathering the funds in America for the base, the body and its parts were finally united and raised and dedicated.

We all know about the French connection, but here are some facts, some arguable, surrounding the statue that may interest many of you, especially if your origins are in:
        Egypt - the body of the statue was originally conceived by Bartholdi for a lighthouse to be at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Obviously, it was never built, but it was to be in the form of a robed Egyptian woman, holding a torch aloft.

San Carlo


        Italy and Germany - Liberty’s 151 ft. construction, copper sheets hung as a curtain wall on an armature, is in the same method as the Colosso de San Carlo Borromeo, a 77 ft. statue of St. Charles Borromeo in Arona, Italy on the shores of Lago Maggiore (I've been to this one, and it is quite imposing.); and of the 87 ft. Hermannsdenkmal memorial to the ancient Germanic hero Hermann, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

Norway - The copper for the cladding was mined in Visnes, Norway. For a while this fact was in dispute because no records of the purchase could be found, but spectrographic analysis performed in 1985 confirmed it. Strangely enough, in 2007, a bike was commissioned from Orange County Choppers (O.C.C.) by the company licensed by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to handle commemorative items made from materials salvaged from the 1986 restoration of the statue. Among other salvaged pieces they used, O.C.C. had most of the bike plated in copper from some of the original copper saddles that held the cladding sheets to the armature.  I think this bike, after touring around the country, finally would up on display on Liberty Island. Nevertheless, I still file this one under "why wouldja?"

        New York and New Jersey - though the island where the statue stands is federal property, it is actually in New Jersey. Sorry, New Yorkers! Just the docks are in New York (close, but no cigar!), so transport to and from Liberty Island, formerly Bedloe’s Island, is handled by the City of New York. Starting in 1986, the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the statue, New York began using the icon of the statue on its license plates. Though it was a minor faux pas, nobody minded much. They changed the design in 2001.

Way back in history when few people could read, symbols, like pictures, were worth those thousand words. In these days of big corporate logos and emoticons we regularly use only a few national symbols: the flag, and the bald eagle, and Lady Liberty herself, but nowhere near the symbols that are there to be deciphered on the statue and base. From the thirteen original colonies represented by the thirteen layers of granite for the base, to the seven seas and seven continents represented by the seven points on her crown, they packed in a whole lot of symbols.  Today these may strike some as being a bit hokey and contrived, but the meanings are still strongly representative of us and our history.
The full name of the statue is “Liberty Enlightening the World”.  The torch and arm was the first part Bartholdi built. Were it the only part built it would still be as strong a symbol for America as the entire statue is today.  Lady Liberty strides forth, her torch held high, to light the way for the world.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


“Ya vi elsker dette landet”
               “Yes, we love this country”
This is the first line of the Norwegian National Anthem


October 9th is Leif Erikson Day. Let us now celebrate the Scandinavian stalwart - and he had to be stalwart to sail in one of those open Viking ships - who, as far as we can tell, brought the first Europeans to North America.  You can set up a fine debate among those favoring the Celts or the Phoenicians or even the Israelites as being the first, but it is sure as shootin’ that Leif Erikson’s early eleventh century voyages beat out old Chris Columbus in the late fifteenth.
              Leif was born a Norwegian in Iceland, and was the son of Erik the Red, that consummate salesman who named a not-too-green land Greenland, to entice settlers there.   Unfortunately, Leif couldn’t do the same sales job for Vinland, and the settlement lasted only a short while.  If it had prospered, we’d all be speaking Norwegian today.

Well, as it happens, we speak a lot of Norwegian or Old Norse words today:  starting the alphabet we have aloft, anger, awe, bylaw, cake, egg, gun, husband (but not wife), knife, law, odd, race, run, lots of S-words such as saga, score, shirt, skill, sky, starboard, and steak, on to take, trust and, of course, Viking.  There’s quite a list if you care to look further.  They all merged with the rest of the contributors to our English language, making it one of the richest and hardest to learn in the world.

Truth be known, you could celebrate things Norse on almost any day of the year. October 9th was chosen for Leif because on that day in 1825, the immigration ship ‘Restauration’ arrived in America from Stavanger, Norway.   One of the most wonderful people I ever knew emigrated from Norway.  She was my mother-in-law,  Mary Mortensen.  A lovelier, more gentle, giving woman there never was, unless, according to my husband, it was her own mother, Anne Tonnessen.   It was in honor of these two ladies that Frank and I ventured to Norway back in the eighties.   We visited their home in Ny-Hellesund, an island in off the southern tip of the country.  We visited the Statsarkivet, the state archives, where we researched the family and came upon some interesting entries.  Among them were the beautifully handwritten records of both their births.  

We visited Stavanger, the home port of that first immigrant ship, and found it a bustling town.  It is now home to much of Norway’s off-shore oil industry.  They build the drilling platforms in Stavanger, and they are truly huge.   On our Norwegian trips we visited the coast from Oslo, down around the southern tip at Kristiansand, on up to Stavanger. Then further north to Bergen, port for the late-middle-ages Hanseatic League, and the home port of the Hurtigruten, pronounced hurtie rooten,  literally ‘the express route’ or hurry or hurtle route. (See, you could understand that!).
The Hurtigruten ships, ours was the MV Midnatsol, take an eleven-day cruise along the Norwegian coast.  Carrying the mail, passengers, and freight, they sail beyond the Arctic Circle to the northernmost town of Kirkenes and back again, stopping at wonderful towns along the way.  Before the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, it was eerie to be able to see over into Russia from Kirkenes.  It was also strange to realize that, far north as it is, Kirkenes is further east than Constantinople. 

The Gokstad Ship
Our stalwart Leif and his companions braved the seas in those very open long ships.  We saw the Oseburg ship and the awesomely beautiful Gokstad ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.  The Gokstad ship has places for thirty-two oarsmen.  They say a ship of the same size usually carried around forty men, but could carry up to seventy people.  Can you imagine all those people on the cold Atlantic in an open boat?  It gives me the shivers just to think of it. 
The Norwegians have given us many things in addition to their contribution to our history and our language. There’s the aerosol spray and the cheese slicer, both very handy inventions.  Of course you know about the humble paper clip. Simple, but elegant.  
Simple, but elegant could also describe those great penny loafers we all wore way back when.  I’m sure you remember Bass Weejuns - that’s short for Norwegians, of course - still the best loafers around.
So now when you see that other beautiful red, white, and blue flag - the flag of Norway - remember Leif Erikson and the wonderful Norwegians.

 “Ya vi elsker dette landet”

Friday, September 30, 2011


Since I started this blog I often check the lists of holidays, anniversaries and observances for new topics to interest my readers.  In my search for the new and unusual, October comes up trumps. Of all the months of the year, it has the longest list of celebrations.  They range from the sublime and the expected, such as Columbus Day and Halloween, to the ridiculous and really unusual like Babbling Day and National Mole Day.  This last one isn’t about moles on your chin or under your lawn, but is an effort, they say, to increase interest in chemistry by celebrating Avogadro’s number, 6.022141527 × 1023: the mole. An unusual holiday, an unusual number, but has it increased your interest in chemistry? No, I thought not.

The holiday that first got my attention was Mad Hatter Day, which Carnegie Melon University’s website says is to be celebrated on October 6. It’s is an attempt to give the year a second day of silliness, six months later than April Fools’ Day. Why the sixth of October and not the first? Because in Alice in Wonderland, the Hatter has in his huge top hat’s band a label that says “in this Style 10/6” Ten shillings, sixpence.  Someone clever noticed the convoluted connection of dates and madness and took off with it. 

Foodie celebrations are rife this month: angel food cake, apple jack, bologna, brandied fruit, candy corn, cookies, country ham, eggs, frappes, mincemeat (you’d think that would be in December), nuts, pasta, pickled peppers,  pizza (isn’t that every month?), popcorn, pork, pretzels, pumpkin cheesecake, seafood, spinach, and, not in alphabetical order, eew! Moldy Cheese Day. Yes, of course bleu cheese and others are moldy cheeses, but mold, like mole, has unpleasant associations. Added fun for foodies can be found on World Vegetarian Day, the end of Oktoberfest, Cookbook Launch Day and National Dessert Day. 

How ‘bout Babbling Day?  On October 21, it is the day for endless conversation, not a day to be quiet.  There’s little to be found about the origin of this celebration, but it’s sure to be loved by teenagers with cell phones. 

Under the heading “Why Would They?” can be found days like Bald and Free Day, Moment of Frustration Day, International Skeptics Day (are you sure?), Wear Something Gaudy Day, Count Your Buttons Day, and Punk for a Day Day. You can bet your buttons that the guys in this picture are Punks for more than a day. Those are coiffeurs to make the “Saturday at the Salon” set envious. Those hairdos take time and work, and a definite loss of sleeping comfort.

Under the heading “That’s a Nice Idea”, we’ve got International Frugal Fun Day, Sweetest Day, Smile Day, Dictionary Day, Mother-in-Law Day, Family History Day (get the details from your Mother-in-Law), and Make a Difference Day.  In October we celebrate custodial workers, teachers, physicians’ assistants, TV talk show hosts, and the clergy.
There are many observances to make us aware of conditions like depressions, Down’s syndrome, and spina bifida. If you are of Filipino, Italian, German or Polish descent you don’t have to wait for Halloween to have a party.  Just be sure to serve some of the foods on the October list.

There are celebrations and observances for every day, every week, and for the whole month of October – many more than could be included in this piece, which has become something akin to a shopping list.  Some of these should be shared with December and July, the months with the fewest observances.  If I’ve mentioned any holidays that appeal to you I’m sure there’s an ecard you can send for the occasion. 

Monday, September 19, 2011


There are two reasons to celebrate September 28th this year. It’s the 37th anniversary of my wedding. (No gifts, checks to your favorite charity will do!) It is also the 945th anniversary of the arrival in England of William II of Normandy, known to us all, after the ensuing Battle of Hastings, as William the Conqueror. 

My wedding has had little or no effect on the great state of things in general, but the Norman Conquest had an extremely pronounced effect on all of us reading this article. Within a few hundred years of the battle, thanks to the French, the language spoken in England went from being mostly Germanic to one with a heavy mixture of the Romance or Latin languages. The Romans did invade the island in 55 BC, and more or less messed about there for about 450 years, but at that time they left little of their language behind. The subsequent invasions by all sorts of Germanic tribes saw to today’s English being classified as a Germanic language. The Latin of the Romans, along with a lot of Greek, came back to England via the Normans.

Language is fascinating to me. A representative map of just the major languages would have the colors of a small box of crayons. A map of all the languages of the world would have more colors than the paint chip racks at the local hardware store. I wish I knew more than English and a soupçon of French. In my European travels I’ve been able to get along with spoken and written language because of the similarities to the English words. I remember seeing the sign ‘Apotekit’ in Oslo - of course: apothecary – a drug store. I was pleased with myself for that one. I was also humbled when I learned that I was entirely off base with my assumption* that few Norwegians would speak English.  Four of us were standing on a street corner in Stavanger, going through the Norsk:Engelsk dictionary, looking for the translation of ‘battery’ because our Brit friend had forgotten to bring some for his hearing aid.  A Norwegian gentleman tapped one of us on the shoulder and quietly enlightened us: “Don’t worry, they speak English in the shop.” Too true. The study of foreign languages, especially English, French and German, is compulsory in Norway and many other European countries.  

When someone apologizes to me because of their poor English, I always apologize in turn.  After all, they speak my language, but I don’t speak theirs. The world seems to be using more and more English. It has become the default language for air and sea traffic. Though the Chinese are catching up - after all, they do have it over us in population - the highest percentage of internet users speak English. While the teaching of other languages in our schools may be declining, our own language is quickly absorbing new words from all over the world. It’s not the same old Germanic/Latin base it once was. Pity the poor editors of the Oxford English Dictionary - 22,000 pages or so, and increasing every day. From pajamas and khaki, safari and coffee, to gung-ho and feng shui, and origami and karaoke, our language just gets bigger and better.

* Of course you know what ‘assume’ does - it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me‘

** September 26th - by coincidence, this came up today on Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac": Today is the official European Day of Languages, which is a yearly event begun in 2001 to celebrate human language, encourage language learning, and bring attention to the importance of being multilingual in a polyglot world. On this day, everyone, young or old, is encouraged to take up a language or take special pride in his or her existing language skills.

There are about 225 indigenous languages in Europe, which may sound like a lot but is only 3 percent of the world's total. Children's events, television and radio programs, languages classes and conferences are organized across Europe. In past years, schoolchildren in Croatia created European flags and wrote "Hello" and "I love you" in dozens of tongues while older students sang "Brother John" in German, English, and French. At a German university, a diverse group of volunteer tutors held a 90-minute crash course in half a dozen languages, like a kind of native-tongue speed-dating, groups of participants spending just 15 minutes immersed in each dialect until the room was filled with Hungarian introductions, French Christmas songs, and discussions of Italian football scores.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


‘fI Were King of the Forest…
    …well, I’d never be king of the forest, but ‘fI had some more influence than I do, I’d take the Sun City Carolina Lakes HOA Board to task for not allowing solar panels within the community, South Carolina law not yet requiring they be allowed notwithstanding. This is from the latest HOA Board of Directors meeting (unapproved) minutes:  Discussion was held on whether to allow solar panels within the community if a request should be submitted through the modification committee.  The Design Guidelines deny the panels and there is no legislation within SC that required approval of solar panels at this time.  A motion was made and seconded and voted unanimously not to change the Design Guidelines in regards to solar panels.

Of course, I was not privy to the entire discussion or the thinking behind it, but I can guess that the main reason was that the solar panels might not look too elegant on the community roofs, and prospective buyers might think them a detriment to the area. (There’s no accounting for that kind of thinking, but it does exist.) Fate forfend that SCCL should look at all environmentally friendly. The board being composed of Pulte employees, their vision and version carry the day for now.
I must acknowledge that the Design Guidelines do allow for ground mounted solar panels in the "Private Area", but this option is difficult where sunward position of the house or the small size of the yard would prohibit installation. You could put panels on your patio if is gets the sun, but you'd have little room left out there.

Never mind the meek: the smart will inherit the earth, the boy- and girl-scout types will inherit the earth.  Come the day that a major solar flare aimed right at the earth knocks out all our mod cons, those with a bit of forethought will come out smiling.  Unless the power powers-that-be can detect the flare early enough to shut down world systems, the grids will fry.  Envied will be those who’ve got backup on water and food, or who’ve got suitcase-size solar chargers for their cell phones, iPods, PC’s, batteries, and radios – that is if there’s a worldwide web or a phone system working.  The man who has a generator and the gas to run it will be the man to know.  Were solar panels allowed here at SCCL, the house with them on the roof would be the place to go.  I’m not holding my breath on that one.