FREEDOM ISN’T FREE

The warm late May sunshine beat down, as we trooped along the road, the smell of hot asphalt mingling with the sweet scent of flowering lilacs from neighboring gardens. The streets were lined with little kids, families and friends, some waving American flags. I was marching with my high school band and Color Guard at the annual Memorial Day parade in our small New Jersey town. Our flags billowed in the slight breeze while the band played a Sousa march. As we neared the town cemetery, silence ensued. We filed in to stand respectfully for the five-gun salute, and the solemn playing of taps. The tombstones glistened in the blazing sun, some of those revered dead dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Many decades and many miles away, another cemetery comes to mind. My family and I often hike the Heritage Rail Trail at Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, where Abraham Lincoln passed by on a train headed to Gettysburg to deliver his famous speech, dedicating the newly formed Soldiers’ National Cemetery there. In sad irony, just a few years later, Lincoln’s funeral train would make the sad journey on those same tracks en route to his midwestern resting place.

Indeed, Memorial Day ( then known as Decoration Day) originated in the years following the Civil War as a way to honor the Civil War dead. On May 30th of each year, observances were held to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.

By the end of World War I, poppies became the flower of choice to remember the war dead, especially after the publication of the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Canadian poet John McCrae, stricken with grief over the death of a fallen comrade at a battle in Ypres, Belgium, penned those lines after seeing the final resting place of his friend, a cemetery where poppies grew in profusion.

“In Flanders Field the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below…”

Years ago, I was honored to have visited another of Europe’s most famous cemeteries, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the cemetery is the resting place of nearly 4.000 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. Emotions overcame me as I witnessed row after row of white crosses and Stars of David stretching to the horizon in orderly fashion. Unknown soldiers are buried among the service members, their headstones reading: ” Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”

The cemetery, of course, was featured in the film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

When I think of Memorial Day, I think of my Dad, Al, just a young 18 year old Wisconsin farm boy, aboard a Navy tanker traversing Pacific waters during World War II. The boat could have been a target for Japanese torpedoes at any time. By the grace of God he and his fellow sailors were spared.

I think of my father-in-law, Fred, in Patton’s Third Army, marching through war torn France, then liberating the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, where over 50 thousand met gruesome deaths. After the liberation, Fred often relayed how German citizens of neighboring towns were made to file through the camp to witness the atrocities that their feigned ignorance or silence had permitted.

And I think of my brother, Joe, who flew Navy planes over perilous skies in Vietnam and is now suffering with Parkinson’s Disease, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while there.

Memorial Day is more than the official start of summer, more than a 3 day weekend of cookouts, ball games, and family gatherings. No, Memorial Day should be the somber remembrance of the half a million men and women who have died defending American freedom through the years in far-flung battlefields from the villages of New England, to the fields of Pennsylvania, to the countrysides of Europe, to the jungles of Vietnam, to the deserts of Afghanistan. They were defending America, our America, that magnificent experiment of freedom, though flawed and imperfect, still the hope of the world.

FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.

Tea Time

Spot of tea, anyone? I’ve been enjoying tea since early childhood, when my Irish Mom introduced me to a warm mug laced with a little milk. According to my mother, a cup of tea was good for anything from insomnia, to relaxation, to healing a broken heart, and maybe she was right!

That wonderful elixir has a long and varied past, dating back thousands of years to Southwest China. Believe it or not, according to legend, in 2732 Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water.

Originally used for medicinal purposes, its popularity grew to become the favored drink for the masses, and tea plantations spread throughout China. Today, tea is not only widely enjoyed there, but it is ritually extolled in Chinese Tea Ceremonies, often held during important occasions like weddings.

“Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one.”- Ancient Chinese proverb

But how did tea’s reputation spread into Europe, particularly the UK? Through a series of ruthless economic and political moves, British botanist Robert Fortune, while on a visit to China, stole Chinese tea seeds in order to launch a tea trade in India, where Britain had secured a stronghold. The British East India Tea Company was established, and grew fabulously wealthy. As a result, tea became popular in Britain and the American colonies by the 17th century.

Tea continued to play a pivotal role in history, when, in 1773, in an act of defiance, patriots threw 324 chests of tea into the harbor at the famous Boston Tea Party, claiming, “No taxation without representation!”

Currently, in America, though not yet eclipsing coffee sales, tea has grown into a 10 billion dollar industry. In our health-conscious society, tea may be preferred for its benefits: tea is rich in compounds that act as antioxidants and may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And although many drink their tea hot with lemon or sugar, interestingly, 85% of tea consumed in the States is chilled. Personally, I don’t care for iced tea. Instead, I drink mine British style, hot with a little milk, no sugar. But why the added sugar? The story goes that in the 17th and 18th century, the china cups were so delicate that they would crack from the heat of the tea. Milk was added to cool the liquid and stop the cups from cracking.

I was recently pleased to learn that Queen Elizabeth’s favorite tea is Earl Grey, a black tea blended with lemon and orange peels, which she drinks with milk. Earl Grey is also one of my go-to choices. Her Majesty, of course, just marked her 95th birthday in subdued fashion, due to the recent passing of her husband, Philip. But I’m sure she’s still enjoying her afternoon tea.

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” claimed British writer Henry James. And who could argue with that? Originally served in Britain as a private event for the upper crust, the afternoon tea was eventually ensconced in society to include the common folk. Afternoon tea is traditionally composed of sandwiches, such as cucumber or smoked salmon; scones with clotted cream and jam; and sweet pastries or cakes, not to mention a variety of teas. There are four basic types of tea: white, green, oolong, and black, but there are literally hundreds of herbal tea flavors as well.

Flouncy hats, anyone? Although tea houses exist throughout the world, most American communities boast several, where customers can relax, perhaps dress up a bit, enjoy the genteel atmosphere, consume several courses of sweet treats, and essentially escape from the chaos of the world. I’ve been to several over the years, and although the choices vary, it’s always a lovely experience.

It’s tea time at my house every evening, when I relax with a warm cup of Lady Grey with a little milk. I think of my Mom, who was devoted to her tea, and my daughter, who also loves it. And I think of a quote by Bernard Paul Heroux: “There is no trouble so great that it cannot be diminished by a nice cup of tea,” or my favorite by an unknown author: “Tea is always a good idea.”

SPRING AHEAD!

“in Just spring

when the world

is mud-luscious

and eddieandbill

come running

from marbles

and piracies

and it’s spring…”

Over 100 years ago, American poet e.e. cummings celebrated the arrival of spring in these jumbled, magical words. Cummings famously defied the rules of punctuation, capitalization, and syntax in his erratic poetry, just as spring often follows its own mind, with some days warm and sunny, others chilly and windy.

In early spring, the trees sport a marvelous reddish hue, the buds not quite brave enough to display their green, but the resilient crocuses can be seen popping out of last year’s leaves and twigs.

Bird song fills the day, and though I have yet to see a robin, the blue jays, wrens, and woodpeckers are busy in nest building and in emptying the contents of our birdfeeder.

On a recent gloriously warm and sunny day, my grandson and I walked the Rail Trail past a running stream, where we spotted a large, brown crayfish. This handsome fellow was trying to sun himself after a long winter, undoubtedly spent under some mossy rock. Minnows darted to and fro in the clear water. Moving on our way, my grandson gingerly balanced on the railway ties, long in disuse, hopping from one to the next. Arriving back in town, we stopped for icy cold chocolate gelato at a local stand.

A few days later, my three grandchildren and their parents met us in the vast, early spring acreage of the famous Longwood Gardens for a cousin reunion. The kids cavorted on the newly green lawns and climbed to the top of stone towers. They threw coins and whispered wishes at a grotto wishing well. At one point, my son-in-law snapped a photo of our family group, standing single file on a wooden bridge, smiling despite our pandemic masks. A moment in time that we won’t soon forget. Then, we drifted past a field of buttery yellow daffodils, nodding in their near Easter glory.

The years roll back to another Eastertime, when these same parents were little kids, themselves. My daughter, attired in a frilly pink dress with a floppy white straw hat, my son in a little striped suit far too big for him, pose with cockeyed smiles in my in-law’s kitchen. A marvelous Easter dinner followed, featuring a pungent ham with brown sugar glaze, creamy sweet potatoes and tender asparagus, ending with a delicious New York style cheesecake with a crunchy graham cracker crust.

After the meal, we’d corral the kids in the car for a visit to the home of a local neighbor. The homeowners would famously dress as bunnies each Easter, distributing free treats to the children who visited. Their yard was a riot of color, with hundreds of yellow, pink, and purple plastic eggs hanging from trees, and blow-up bunnies situated near bushes and trees. The place was prime for photo opportunities, as we fondly look back now over the prism of time.

Spring and Easter- they’re almost synonymous, and now it’s time to spring ahead.

Spring ahead- to family gatherings and Easter egg hunts, to crab feasts and cookouts, to joy and laughter!

After such a long, cold winter, and an even longer dismal Covid year, we celebrate, as philosophers of all ilks have always done.

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, “The earth laughs in flowers.”

Former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, known for her beautification of America campaign, stated, “Where flowers bloom so does hope.”

But comic genius Robin Williams asserted, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’

Party on!!

SNOWED IN

No, we’re not exactly “snowed in.” In fact, by my count, we’ve only had about two feet of snow, all told, this month, and we haven’t suffered with icy roads and power outages like those folks in Texas.

Still, the frigid cold and windy days set the stage for several snowfalls. Oh, the peace of watching those big, fat flakes falling, turning the countryside, trees, and houses into a powdery white wonderland. Benches and bushes take on curious shapes with the onslaught of snow, and the brave little birds dart to and fro from the fleece-covered feeder.

“Snow was falling

so much like stars

filling the dark trees

that one could easily imagine

its reason for being was nothing more

than prettiness.” – Mary Oliver

Then, finally, the snow ends, and it’s time to don those heavy wool sweaters, the puffy coats, knit hats, striped scarves, bulky mittens, and tall boots. Winter is in full swing. Out comes my trusty blue shovel as I attack the piles on the sidewalk and porch. Whoosh! Up flies the snow, bright white against the blue sky and frosty air, then falls with a thud on the snowbank. My husband cranks up the old snow blower, held together with a wing and a prayer, and roars up and down the driveway, creating an arc of diamond like crystals in the icy atmosphere. Afterward, we watch the neighbor’s kids erecting a snow fort, then joyously indulging in a snowball battle.

The soft blanket of this snowy February conjures thoughts of winters gone by, and memories sift in, like the snow as it drifts by my window.

Just a turn of my head, and I am transported back in time. Our own kids are building that ice fort, bundled against the cold, their smiling faces glowing. Then, they tumble back into the house for a snack of hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream and some gooey Rice Krispies treats.

Decades later, those same kids are parents themselves, and although distant by miles and Covid concerns, they send on-line photo streams of our grandchildren, dressed in vibrant jackets of bright orange and green, falling into snowbanks to create snow angels. On other snowy days, in an effort to escape cabin fever, photos capture them tramping through snow covered Pennsylvania state and county parks, and fording paths by icy streams and lakes. If there is an silver lining to the corona virus pandemic, perhaps it is that families have been afforded the time to explore the beauty and simplicity of nature.

Seeing those little ones enjoy the snow sends me back to my own childhood.

A clear recollection comes to mind. My brother and I listening close to the kitchen radio to hear of school closings after a northern New Jersey snow storm. Screams of excitement, then, after a warm bowl of Cream of Wheat, pulling the heavy wood and metal Flexible Flyer from the garage. Arduously dragging the sled up our hilly street, then, flopping on, and screeching head first down the slope. The ride always improved after the snow got panked down for a while, but that hidden jagged rock could sometimes veer you off into a tree, resulting in the banged-up knees and hurt pride of a sledding accident. After hours in the icy cold, I’d trudge home, my hands frozen despite my two pairs of gloves.

But my snow memories could never top those of my Dad’s, who loved to tell tales of how, in the snowy 1930’s Wisconsin winters, he had to tramp two miles in knee deep snow to the one room school house, where the young school mistress had been stoking the pot bellied stove for an hour beforehand. No snow days back then!

At night, Dad and his two brothers, lying in their attic room, watched the snow sift in through the rafters onto their quilts.

Down through the years, winter memories- and a silent, white and frozen landscape, a wintry world, captures us in this moment.

But even now, the promise of spring lies waiting in the ground, and in our souls. In the words of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Uncorked

“A bottle of red, a bottle of white, perhaps a bottle of rose instead…” Billy Joel must have been drinking a large amount of wine in his “Italian Restaurant.” We may not be frequenting many restaurants these days, but we are still drinking plenty of wine; in fact, wine drinkers consume 2.8 gallons annually. And as of 2014, the United States became the largest wine consuming nation in the world. That’s a lot of wine and cheese parties, wedding celebrations, and afternoon happy hours.

Why drink wine? Relaxation, companionship, anxiety relief, joy- the reasons for drinking wine are endless. And why so popular? For one thing, wine is less expensive than other alcoholic beverages. It’s readily available, both in liquor stores and on-line. Wineries exist in every state, even Alaska, and those ubiquitous wine tours in vineyards nationwide will hopefully resume in ’21.

And despite my title, wine is not only offered in corked bottles. The popularity of wine in boxes, bags, and even cans continues to rise. Whether the outing- picnic, pool, or beach- consumers are starting to think outside the bottle.

Wine is even touted as a healthy drink, providing antioxidants, like resveratrol, which eliminate free radicals in the body. Then there’s the variety of kinds- red, white, rose, sweet, or sparkling, that can appeal to any palate.

I don’t claim to be a sommelier by any means, but my palate has certainly evolved over the years, from a sweet, inexpensive sangria in my youth, to a dry, oaky chardonnay today. A cold glass of rose is lovely on a summer’s day. And, of course, nothing beats a robust red chianti paired with my family’s spaghetti sauce and pasta.

A Wine Tour

Wine production dates back to China, 7000 B.C., and wine remains have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, where, amazingly, jars were found inscribed with the wine producer’s name. Can you imagine? Wineries were vying for popularity even then. The Greeks worshipped the god Dionysus in celebrations featuring song, dance, and wine, and the Romans carried on the cult with Bacchus. The Romans were instrumental in developing the wine producing regions of western Europe that exist to this day, and by the Middle Ages, wine was the common drink of all social classes where grapes were cultivated.

European grape varieties were first brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, where wine consumption eventually flourished in the southern colonies. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson was America’s first wine geek, claiming, “Wine from long habit has become indispensable for my health.”

Alcohol consumption was surprisingly high in colonial America, even in New England, probably because given the sanitary standards of the day, water was considered unsafe. That jokester, Ben Franklin, supposedly said: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, and in water there is bacteria.”

Wine in Culture

Wine has been extolled through the ages in music, art, poetry, and film.

“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou…” romantically proclaimed 10th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Rumi, another Persian mystic, merely said, “Either give me more wine or leave me alone.”

In Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper”, Jesus’ right hand is reaching for wine. Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” fame, painted a lady enjoying a pour in 1661’s “A Glass of Wine.” And in France, Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” captured a colorful, fun-loving ensemble of partygoers. In one of my favorite films, 2006’s “A Good Year”, Russell Crowe’s character, Max Skinner, reluctantly inherits a French winery, where he falls in love with it, as well as a lovely local French woman played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard.

The Future of Wine

But speaking of ‘good years’, it certainly hasn’t been. And not surprisingly, wine consumption has increased during the pandemic, as USA Today reports that people drink more “during times of uncertainty and duress.” Given the anxiety of our current age, it is unlikely that wine consumption will abate any time soon.

I have a feeling that wine, that wonderful elixir, enjoyed by poets, artists, philosophers, and common folk since the dawn of time, will continue to be enjoyed in good times and in bad.

So I say, Cheers!

ALL AGLOW

The winter night is long, dark, and cold- but into that gloom blazes the bright, twinkling sight of Christmas lights. Christmas lights! On the roofs and porches, on the trees and bushes, on the lawns and light posts. The night is suddenly all aglow.

My love affair with Christmas lights runs deep. As a child, I was mesmerized by those colorful bubble lights on our family Christmas tree. I would lie under the tree, gazing through the pungent, green boughs to the magic of the liquid-filled vials.

Fast forward to parenthood.

When our kids were small, we’d all tumble into the minivan, our big, red Plymouth Voyager, the two sets of grandparents, the kids, and us, for a drive through our neighborhood to view the Christmas lights. Oh, those memories!

My Mom in her big fur coat, my Dad’s cigarette smoke filling the air, a jumble of kid’s fluffy hats and mittens, we’d slide by the household displays to utterances of “ohh” and “ahh”!

Even our cat loved Christmas lights. In the last year of her life, Samantha perked up when she curled around the trunk of our tree, sipping the sappy water and gazing at the glittery expanse above her.

Does it seem like there are more Christmas lights this year? Indeed, Christmas light sales are up 238%. According to the New York Post, a deadly pandemic, civil unrest, and a nasty election period have people feeling that the Grinch stole 2020, and are turning to Christmas decorations to “make 2020 suck less.”

And with holiday celebrations of all kinds cancelled- those ubiquitous Christmas plays and concerts, the joyous parties, ornament and cookie exchanges, and even a cap placed on family gatherings, folks have turned to the one thing they can control- turning on the Christmas lights.

The tradition of Christmas lights dates back to Germany, when Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with candles, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed, “I am the light of the world.” John 8:12

The use of those lit candles on trees proved so dangerous and often tragic that it was a good thing when Thomas Edison, in Christmas 1880, strung the first strand of electric lights around the outside of his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It took many decades, but eventually electric Christmas lights were seen in communities across the nation.

Today, Christmas lights have gone high- tech, with laser lights, digital projections, and LED light shows.

But probably the most famous use of Christmas lights is on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in Manhattan, boasting the use of 50,000 LED lights. It’s been a New York tradition since 1933, except for 1944-45, when the tree went unlit due to wartime blackout regulations.

Speaking of regulations, in typical 2020 fashion, the annual tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center was virtual. So for my money, the saving grace of this year’s event was the discovery of a little northern saw-wet owl wrapped in the branches of the tree, newly delivered in November. The feathered stowaway was brought to a vet for rehab, then released back into the wild. “Rocky”, as she was named, is hopefully soaring above the vast New York state terrain as we speak.

On a brighter note, festivals of light are still available to the public even under COVID regulations. One can stroll, masked, through the dazzling expanses of light at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, in Rocky Ridge Park in York, and in locales nationwide.

But some communities have had to get creative with their light displays. In lieu of their annual Christmas parade, the residents of St. Michael’s, Maryland, took their celebration to the water, sailing their decorated sailboats, yacht, and skiffs in a glittery display on the Miles River.

This year, my husband and I, just the two of us, will probably hop into the car and tour around our local community, viewing the Christmas lights, some of them playful and silly, some simple and elegant, but all aglow. And maybe we will seek to dispel some of the darkness of this abysmal year.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

PIZZA, Anyone?

Thanksgiving is upon us, that great American feast day. Tables will be piled high with traditional holiday cuisine. But after several meals of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, rolls, and pumpkin pie, you might be ready for something else- like some spicy Italian fare.

Let’s call for a pizza! Millions do. On a typical American day, 15% of the population consumes pizza. Three billion pizzas are sold every day, and the US pizza restaurant business is worth $37 billion. That’s a lot of kid’s pizza parties, late night snacks, and Friday night family meals.

Who invented pizza? Baker Raffaele Esposito from Naples, Italy, is given credit for making the first pizza pie, but street vendors in Naples had sold flatbreads with toppings for many years before that. And pizza is not exactly Italian to begin with, since Naples was originally founded by Greek settlers around 600 B.C. Indeed, flatbreads were originally consumed by ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks.

But how did pizza become so popular in America? Italian immigrants- 4 million of them, arrived between 1880 and 1920, bringing their customs, and their food. Then, after World War II, soldiers who had been stationed in Italy came home with a taste for their favorite food, pizza, and demanded it here.

Pizzerias began to open up, beginning in New York and spreading across the country from east to west. Before long, pizza became a deeply imbedded part of American culture, and big chains like Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Papa John’s dotted the landscape, not to mention the family owned pizza joints that appeared in towns both large and small.

As the popularity of the quintessential American food took root, pop culture took note. In the ’50’s, Dean Martin famously crooned, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” The wacky 80’s sci-fi spoof “Spaceballs” had PIZZA the HUTT satirizing both Star Wars and Pizza Hut. In the comedy, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, Sean Penn’s character Spicoli orders a pizza to his classroom, much to the chagrin of his teacher, Mr.Hand. And “Breaking Bad” fans were amused when Walter White tosses a pizza to his roof after being rebuffed by his ex-wife.

Controversy rages about pizza types- which is best, Chicago’s deep dish, or New York’s thin style? And what about toppings? Pepperoni wins that contest, with 36% ordering it on their pies. But pizza toppings also run the regional gamut, from white clam pizza in New England, to crab and shrimp offerings in Maryland, to bison pizza in the West.

Fun fact! Pennsylvania has the highest ratio of pizza joints, with 3.63 per 10,000 people. A prime example is Old Forge in Northeastern Pa., who with its more than 15 pizza cafes in its 3 square miles, declares itself the “Pizza Capital of the World.” There, pizza is not called a pie but a tray. The pizza is baked on rectangular metal pans, and there are no slices, just cuts. The light crusted pizza is sold in two types- red, with a combination of tomatoes, diced onions and garlic, and a blend of cheeses; and white pizza, in which cheese in stuffed between two layers of dough.

Visits to Arcaro and Genell’s- one of Old Forge’s finest, are legend in our family. The restaurant is small, hot, and crowded, especially on the weekends. But after weathering a long wait, we are rewarded with the savory smell, taste, and crunch of a cheesy cut, followed by the best spumoni in town.

Indeed, pizza is personal in our family. My in-laws, Fred and Marie, owned and operated Buscarini’s Pizza on the southside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for 24 years, from the mid ’60’s to the late ’80’s. On many a summer Saturday afternoon, before the dinner crowd arrived, my husband, kids, and I would stop by for one of Fred’s masterpieces, a crispy crust with a savory red sauce and a combination of American cheeses that stuck to your teeth. The memory of eating that pizza echoes over the years. The place was small, seating only 12. But Buscarini’s Pizza had its many fans, then and now. Decades later, former customers on the website South Scranton Memories share their thoughts:

“We always got our pizza from Mr. B’s. My kids were lucky enough to enjoy it also. And to know Mr. and Mrs. B. Great memories. Miss it.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Buscarini were wonderful people and they knew us by name.”

“My favorite pizza ever! The alley gang would go there every Friday. Two slices and a soda for 60 cents. Loved it!”

The memories abound. Perhaps you loved those pizza parties after high school band practice, or your kid celebrated every birthday with a pizza party at Chuck E Cheese. Perhaps these days you often join girlfriends for pizza and wine sharing, and currently it’s your grandkids favorite meal.

Whether calling for pizza delivery, popping a frozen pizza in the oven, or enjoying a pie at your favorite pizzeria, however you slice it, pizza is here to stay, generating smiles, creating memories with each delicious bite.

Bats in the Belfry

Sitting on my front porch of an autumn evening, I watch bats swooping and swirling in the still air, careening through the crimson tinged trees, black dots in the grey sky. Synonymous with haunted houses, the supernatural, and all things creepy, bats have been feared throughout history.

Mammals of the order Chiroptera, with their forelimbs adapted as wings, bats are the only mammal capable of sustained flight. Nocturnal, they hunt at night to avoid predators, using echolocation to find food and hunt safely. “Anything that comes out at night is misunderstood,” according to Steph Stronsick, director of Pennsylvania Bat Rescue. They seek dark places, such as caves, to sleep by day, where they hang upside down, out of the reach of enemies.

Rock star Meatloaf had it right when he sang, “Like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone when the morning comes…”

“Blind as a bat?” Not really. Bats have both excellent hearing and good eyesight. And yet, idioms referring to bats are ubiquitous.

If you’re “batty”, you’re insane or crazy, probably derived from the tendency of bats to fly around erractically.

The term “bats in the belfry” refers to the belfry of a church which contains bells. The motion of the bats in that area caused the bells to ring.

Long seen as villainous in folklore and film, bats have never really escaped their spooky reputation as strange creatures, half bird and half animal.

According to the book of Leviticus in the Bible, bats are unclean animals to be detested and “abominated”, a symbol of darkness, desolation, and ruin. With such a write-up, the poor bat could scarcely escape its bad rep!

And, unfortunately, the bat’s dubious reputation is not likely to abate anytime soon, as experts surmise that COVID-19 originated in bats, and made its jump to humans at one of Wuhan, China’s infamous open air “wet markets.”

Yet, in general, most bats are a harmless, highly beneficial part of the ecosystem, a single bat consuming up to 1,200 mosquitoes per hour and also targeting bugs that damage crops. A fully grown big brown, the most common species in Pennsylvania, weighs only an ounce and can live up to 20 years. According to Frontiers in Zoology, bats are shy and intelligent, able to detect and respond to emotion.

But there’s a downside to every story. The fact is, there are two types of bats: microbats, that feed on insects, and megabats, that feed on blood.

Yes, vampire bats exist!

What do vampire bats call their friends? Blood brothers.

What does a vampire bat call a bloodmobile? Meals on Wheels.

The common vampire bat, generally found in Central and South America, mostly hunt sleeping cattle and horses, but have also been known to feed on people.

Vampire bats need a constant supply of blood- if they miss two nightly meals in a row, they will starve. Vampire bats seldom attack unless provoked, but a bite from a rabid bat can be deadly. Yikes! I may be “bat shit crazy”, but that’s scary stuff.

Which brings us to the iconic myth of Dracula. Originating in the 1897 novel by Irish author Bram Stoker, the cult of Dracula literally took off. According to the story, Count Dracula was a 15th century prince who, like the hapless vampire bat, is condemned to live off the blood of the living.

“I vant to suck your blood,” uttered Hollywood legend Bela Lugosi in the 1931 classic Dracula film. Remade several times, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, is one of the scariest horror movies ever.

The vampire legend lived on in “Twilight”, the series of horror novels by Stephanie Meyer, and the blockbuster film franchise that followed. A vampire family in the Pacific Northwest? Teens “ate” it up.

Speaking of eating, Dracula is even celebrated in a General Mills cereal, Count Chocula!

Let’s not forget the cheerier role of bats in pop culture: Batman! The fictional superhero first appeared in DC comic books in 1939, and has since starred in both TV shows and movies. Like his namesake, Batman is agile and intelligent, but unlike the mammal, he only glides, not flies. Regardless, the popularity of Batman is legendary, as he fights off the forces of evil, especially his arch enemy, the Joker.

And there you have it- the bat: historically, a victim of superstition and fear; culturally, a vehicle for campy fun and Halloween antics; and currently, the subject of scientific debate.

Feeling kind of “batty”? Everyone seems to be, these days. But now that we’ve “batted” some ideas around, perhaps you will be willing to appreciate the persecuted bat instead of villainizing it. In the meantime, watch your neck!

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A 9/11 Memory

Nineteen long years have passed since that fateful September day. In my memory, the weather was picture-perfect, an unbroken blue sky.

That morning, I was teaching English at a southcentral Pennsylvania high school, where my first period class was studying the ancient tale of Beowulf.

About 9am, my colleague, Connie, knocked on the classroom door, an absolute look of dismay on her face. “Turn on your TV, something awful has happened.”

The classroom TV went on just as the second plane directed its bullseye directly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The class sat in stunned silence, even the big, usually blase football players whose bulky limbs barely fit into the student desk chairs.

After that, class after class filed in. The TV stayed on the entire day, as in unbelievable horror we witnessed the collapse of the South Tower, followed by the North Tower. We saw the air filling with ash, like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. The faces on the street, stricken, stunned, walking zombie-like. Every so often, there was the unmistakable image of a body falling from the burning buildings, a soul choosing free flight over the excruciating pain of immolation.

Those in the student body who were Maryland residents were dismissed early that day, buses on the ready to deliver them safely home.

Because, almost simultaneously, hijackers of Flight 77 had attacked the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which now lay in smoldering ruin.

My husband, a civil engineer on a pre-bid meeting at the Indian Head Naval Station, not far from the Pentagon, was being held in lockdown.

In the meantime, our daughter, at her first chemical engineering position at a Merck plant in Linden, New Jersey, had heard the explosion at the World Trade Center across the river, and, with her co-workers, raced to the roof in time to see the second plane careening into history.

And our son, a student at Penn State York, was sent home as classes were cancelled for the day. America was under attack, and no one knew what would happen next.

Indeed, within the hour, an intense drama was unfolding over the skies of western Pennsylvania, as brave passengers of Flight 93 rushed the cockpit in an attempt to thwart the hijacker’s intent to take out the Capitol Building. A field in Shanksville immediately became a shrine to the valiant.

That evening, our family sat glued to the TV set as the horror of the day replayed. The heroism of the police and firefighters. The thick smoke and destroyed buildings piercing their jagged edges to the sky.

Years later, when 9/11 comes up in conversation, one is invariably asked, “Where were you when it happened?”, the same way that those of us old enough to remember were asked about JFK’s assassination.

Beyond the anguish of that day, what I remember even as much as the aftermath- the incredulity that it happened, the fierce patriotism that ensued.

Everyone, regardless of race or creed, was an American on 9/12.

Visiting our daughter in New Jersey later that month, every overpass, whether highway or expressway, was festooned with American flags. We were one nation.

In the following years, my husband and I visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, stood at the stark and solemn reflecting pools, the grave of thousands of victims.

We travelled to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, and looked out over the plain that mimics the 100 yard flight path of that doomed aircraft. That hallowed place, wildflowers stirring in the breeze, quietly heralds the great sacrifice of those passengers and crew.

9/11: a turning point for America in so many ways. A disastrous marking to the beginning of a new century- a challenge for the future, or an ominous warning of what may come?

Where were you on 9/11?

Poets and Philosophers: Seeking Tranquility

The summer is drawing to a close, and for once, I’m not sorry.  For the

summer was disappointing on all levels- no concerts, no vacations, no family get-togethers.  No shopping, no festivals, little joy.  The country and the world are in turmoil.  Pandemic, broiling temperatures, political and racial unrest.  No wonder we are all seeking tranquility, an end to the strife.

In times like these, it’s perhaps comforting to realize that mankind has suffered through even tougher times and come out stronger on the other side.  Indeed, through every conflict in human history, poets and philosophers have attempted, through their words, to inspire feelings of hope.

Even the ancients sought to spread a message of forbearance. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius  ( 161-180 AD), struggling to maintain peace, poetically stated, “Dwell on the beauty of life.  Watch the stars and see yourself running with them.”

I recently discovered Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, scholar, and mystic. He seemed the ultimate optimist with these words: “Do not worry if all the candles in the world flicker and die.  You have the spark that starts the fire.”  That may be my favorite of his quotes, unless it is this one: “Either give me more wine or leave me alone.”

Victor Hugo, the 19th century French poet and author of “Les miserables”, exiled after condemning Napoleon’s takeover, believed that “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”

American revolutionary Thomas Paine declared, “These are the times that try men’s souls”, while Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis felt that “…one day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”  Let’s hope so.

During the dark days of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany systematically murdered some six million Jews, yet Anne Frank had the courage to write: “I don’t think of all the misery, but the beauty that still remains.”

Faced with the global catastrophe of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill found cause for hope: “For myself, I’m an optimist- it doesn’t seem to be much good to be anything else.”

And during the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta spent her life ministering to lepers, AIDS victims, the poor and homeless.  Despite mounting challenges, she said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Poets and philosophers: their words calm our soul and give us hope.  And perhaps this quote, originating in Persia and subsequently adopted in many cultures says it all: “This too shall pass.”