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Archive for May, 2015

Petrichor and Me

As an observer, I’m always cataloging my experiences. Even at a tender age, sights, smells, and sounds became embedded in my memory. Sometimes I tap into those sensual impressions and am transported to a different time and place. Here’s an experience that brought me much joy. I wasn’t quite dancing like the dog in the photo, but maybe some other time I could join him.


As the building’s porter hosed off the warm sidewalk last week, a particularly welcome scent tantalized me. “Wet pavement” is one of my earliest scent memories, slightly metallic, with a tinge of the organic. The smell of wet pavement or rain is called petrichor. It’s caused by the aerosols released by water droplets–plant oils, bacteria and their products, organic  matter from soil, and perhaps ozone. The calcium in cement, too, may contribute to the smell. Yum!

The scientist me wants to analyze  the smell and quantitate the sources. The observer me wants to smell and sniff and breathe deep, never stopping. It’s heady, like Chanel No. 5. It’s sensuous, like the first bite of a ripe fig. It’s the smell of the city at her best.

I’m waiting for a promised thunderstorm to bring on the sharp smell of ozone to the air. Aaahh, one more summer scent to anticipate!


Memorial Day

American Flag

American flag, proudly waving.

I got married on Memorial Day. A Monday holiday’s convenience for time off and travel made that the most feasible choice. No barbecue,  but lots of sunshine… and humidity. The food was good, the guests had a good time, and we did what we set out to do. Now we are guaranteed a day off to celebrate the day every year, too!

Memorial Day has devolved into a day of national leisure and big $ale$. I sense we’re less concerned about remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces than we are interested in satisfying our own indolence. The grand parades of earlier times are figuratively replaced by red, white, and blue bunting on some stores. How many of us make the effort to go to the big parade in town?


Getting ready to fire up the grill! “Grilling” by Adam Henning, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rather than sounding like a crotchety old granny, I’m happily remembering Memorial Day last year. We spent the afternoon at Van Cortlandt Park. It was packed! So many families came to enjoy the day together. Grills, bags of charcoal briquettes, picnic baskets, coolers, blankets, chairs, games, balls, and radios magically appeared. How was all of this stuff transported? Did people actually drive there? If so, where did they park (parking being my perennial concern)?

I have a humorous vision of people pouring out of the A-train burdened with all these chattels. Plus babies, toddlers, strollers, and diaper bags. Also sports equipment like bats, soccer balls, badminton nets, and whatnot. Picture that flood erupting and spilling down the steps at 242nd Street!

A beautiful orchid to grace our home with its lovely blossoms in honor of Shavuos.

A beautiful orchid to grace our home with its lovely blossoms in honor of Shavuos.

This year Memorial Day is coincident with the two-day Jewish holiday of Shavuos, or Pentecost, which starts after the Sabbath on Saturday night. It is when we celebrate the bringing of the law down from Mount Sinai. We traditionally eat dairy meals, as opposed to the meat meals of typical holidays. Imagine a holiday where people wax poetic about cheesecake! Not only that, but  we have flowers and plants in our homes because tradition says that Sinai bloomed with beautiful flowers and greenery while waiting for God to give the Torah to Moses on the mountain. I bought a gorgeous orchid for the occasion to enjoy for some time to come.

Whether shopping, picnicking, grilling, or just being lazy, I hope all have a wonderful Memorial Day! That’s one of the freedoms our soldiers fought for. So if you grill this weekend, enjoy a hamburger for me. I’ll be having quiche and cheesecake!


3-Strand Crystal Bracelet

I bought some lovely crystals on Sixth Avenue in “my” colors and decided to practice crimping at the same time as making a bracelet for the holidays. I’m pleased with the results.

3-Strand Crystal Bracelet(3).jpg

3-Strand Crystal Bracelet with Silver Links

First attempt at a complete bracelet with my new tools and colors! I made the silver links myself, making me realize that if I want to continue with this fun, I’ll need a better side cutter—for smoother joins—and a second flat-nose or bent nose pliers.

3-Strand Crystal Bracelet

3-Strand Crystal Bracelet, draped over wrist

The links are rough but I proudly made them all.

3-Strand Crystal Bracelet, view of links and hook

3-Strand Crystal Bracelet, view of links and hook

A Street’s Face Changes

Fire at Forward & Shady 5-14-15

Fire at Forward & Shady 5-14-15

Last night’s news shocked me: an iconic building in my Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill burnt and was demolished overnight. With this loss, the landscape of my childhood and adult world changed forever.

Now, changes to my new neighborhood threaten my mental map. Every time I walk in Washington Heights I take in the sights. Already in the 4 years I have been here the cityscape on the short blocks between 181st and 187th Streets on Broadway has changed: the Crystal Party Supplies store is gone, with its remarkable rainbow-colored awning; the Rammco gas station is now an Exxon; and Hobby Land next to that is closed. Two seemingly successful restaurants near the corner of 184th Street closed: Altus, and El Condé Steak House, although recently remodeled. The movie theater I never went to on 181st Street is long gone.

In my old neighborhood, I walk down the streets and remember what stores used to be there: a butcher, a bakery, a typewriter repair shop. When strolling the side streets, I recall landmarks by my childhood pals: Beverly’s family lived on such-and-such street; Frani’s old house’s trim is now painted blue; my friends have lived in Gail’s house longer than Gail’s family lived there. I note what landscaping has changed and which stores are new. Empty storefronts niggle me like loose teeth.

However, I lived in Pittsburgh most of 40 years and changes went more slowly than what I now perceive as a racing trend. So, too, do the empty storefronts and the changing landscapes in my new neighborhood tug at my sensibilities. If so much change has occurred over only four years, instead of the forty years in Squirrel Hill, what anchors will current residents have for their memories?

In Pittsburgh it’s common to give directions in terms of where something “use ta be.” “Ya know where that Gulf Station use ta be near where the Isaly’s was?” Or, “Go three red lights dahn past where the Foodland use ta be.”  But if you haven’t seen the Gulf Station, Isaly’s deli, or the Foodland supermarkets as landmarks, how do you mentally map your space? Already I can’t remind myself that Social Security’s in the block just past the Party Store… because it’s gone.

It’s hard to feel settled, even after 4 years, when there’s not much distinguishing to anchor my mental map. I want a mental map as robust as that I have of Squirrel Hill and am finding flimsy material instead. But still, I persevere.

What I’d tell my 22-year old self


Fear” by Kevin B 3, used under CC BY 2.0

That self-assured girl I was at 22 knew everything. She was afraid, however, she’d be seen for the impostor she was. Set loose after post-college dreams of Ivy League grad schools were dashed, she lacked direction. She wanted love and marriage, because, that’s what you do when you’re grown up. She expected to have a stellar career since she went to a name-brand university where they created the aura of superiority. She had good health and an open road ahead. But she refused to stretch her wings to the fullest and coasted on the breezes cast in the wake of others.

If I could have spoken to her then I would have told her to not give in to fear. Fear of trying due to fear of failure or imperfection stalled her and clipped her wings.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

Failure. Fear keeps us from doing things that are out of our reach. We are a culture driven by success and aptitude. Nobody hails the second place winner. Ability and cunning outpace agreeability and geniality. Fear freezes our ambition and whispers, “Don’t go there. Don’t try that. You might fail.”

So what if we fail? I’m not of the “no pain, no gain” persuasion. I don’t advocate creating pain or difficulty. If we fail… the first time we do something…we leave room for improvement, for mastery of a technique. Skill builds itself through trial and error. Think of the musician practicing hour after hour. Think how baseball players practice hitting the ball over and over again. Think about learning to ride a bicycle. After all, who hasn’t fallen off the bike once or twice before getting the hang of this skill?

What are we afraid of? Who said “good enough” wasn’t good enough? We illogically fear not being totally adept at the first try of something new. We fear imperfection because of potential ridicule or being shown to be vulnerable. Perhaps, too, we fear competition. Not only do we need to be perfect, but we need to be perfect ahead of others. This sets us up for failure, something we fear above all. But that’s not all.

Our society demands perfection. I think some of this attitude comes from expectations created by the nascent machine age. Once upon a time craftsmanship was valued and individual variation was expected. Suddenly, mass production allowed conformity and constancy of product. “As good as store-bought” became the measuring stick for handmade items. Our expectations rose as machines could produce items better, faster and cheaper.

Our schools pit students against each other. We are taught to vie for the highest marks, to outshine our peers. If we do not achieve as well as the others in our group, we are “less than.” Nobody wants to be an underdog. Everyone wants to be first in the class. Harvard accepts the cream of the crop. Accolades go to perfect SAT scorers.

Analog, September 1995

Analog, September 1995

Sports set teams or individuals against each other, too. You may assist your teammates, but the other team is the enemy, to be defeated. There can only be one winner. I read a science fiction story where three teams compete for victory at the same time, but the highest scores were awarded when two teams worked cooperatively!(1) What an alternate world scenario that was!

I would have told my 22-year old self that half the fun of the trip is getting there. It’s alright to travel into uncharted lands and test the waters of seas not yet sailed. If I had quit the first time I fell off my bicycle I would not have had the hours of enjoyment and freedom of travel that the bike afforded me. If I had thrown down my knitting needles at the first dropped stitch or wonky scarf I would have missed the satisfaction of wearing items I made by my own hand. If I never committed my thoughts to this blog I would be poorer for not even trying.

I’ve spent countless hours “in the zone” fixing a seam or painting, practicing a guitar piece, learning computer code. Flow (the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity) feels great! You can lose yourself in something for hours and come out refreshed as if time had not passed. A way of getting into flow is the natural repetition of practicing a skill, repeating what you don’t know—and it doesn’t require mastery, just attention.

On the other hand, fear quenches flow and its attendant happiness, putting doubt, timidity, and uncertainty to the forefront. “You can’t grow when fear binds ropes around your hands and heart,” I would have said to my younger self. “Stretch your wings and try everything once, twice, maybe a few times more. Taste the world and savor its sweetness and variety.”

Stepping out of our comfort zone can be terrifying. But as President Roosevelt said, it can be unreasoning and unjustified. For today, I shall dip my toe into the waters of uncertainty…and sail upon a new sea to destinations unknown.


(1) Touchdown, Touchdown, Rah Rah Rah! W.R. Thompson, Analog/Astounding Science Fiction, September 1995, pp. 12-64.

Origin of Mother’s Day

Cover of sheet music, 'That wonderful mother of mine.'

Cover of sheet music, ‘That wonderful mother of mine.’ 1918. M. Witmark & Sons. Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 (from Duke University), Library of Congress.

With this weekend being Mother’s Day, I thought I’d post some odds and ends about the day that honors mothers.

  • Mother’s Day originated in the United States although there were various older religious and pagan ceremonies that antedate the modern holiday.
  • The acknowledged founder, Anna Jarvis campaigned vigorously for a day honoring mothers after her mother’s death in 1905.
  • Mother’s Day was first celebrated with a ceremony on Sunday, May 10, 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia, Jarvis’ home.
  • West Virginia was the first state to officially recognize Mother’s Day in 1910.
  • In 1912, Jarvis incorporated her own association, trademarked the white carnation and the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day.”
  • Placement of the apostrophe in “Mother’s” is intentional.
  • It was made a national holiday in 1914 by President Wilson, to be observed the second Sunday in May.
  • It started to be observed by sending greeting cards and flowers, or chocolates and photos. but that was becoming too commercialized for Jarvis’ taste.
  • Jarvis hated the commercialization of “her holiday” and threatened lawsuits to various entities planning large celebrations, including New York Governor Al Smith in 1923!
  • She accused Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935 of “crafty plotting” to abuse Mother’s Day by using it in fundraising material for charities trying to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, “the expectant mother racket,” as Jarvis called them.
  • Jarvis spent her considerable inheritance and the rest of her life fighting the commercialization of “her” holiday.
  • By 1948 when she died, Jarvis was bitter, blind, partially deaf, and completely penniless in a Pennsylvania mental institution.
  • Mother’s Day continues to be celebrated as a “Hallmark Holiday,” complete with sales of everything from A to Z.

Source: Mother’s Day creator likely ‘spinning in her grave’. CanWest News Service, May 11, 2008, (accessed May 7, 2015).

Happiness Is My Choice, 7

Heather Garden early May, Fort Tryon Park

Heather Garden early May, Fort Tryon Park

Death is imprecise and scary. It’s an unfathomable mystery. Yet I think it holds a lesson on happiness. I’ll tell you in my sideways fashion, ending with flowers.

I think we can learn about happiness from comments made about the deceased, rather, and incorporate them into our lives to live a happier life.

Funeral on the Corner

A life well-led impacted many others, bringing goodness, kindness, and happiness into the world.

Why is this on my mind? A funeral was held on the corner across from my building today, and the turnout was large. An elderly man passed away, the founder of one of the synagogues. His coffin was borne out of the sanctuary that he helped establish and set out before the mourners. A microphone and speaker conveyed the comments made by one after another.

I regret I never got to meet this man. From the comments made by rabbis, community leaders, people who knew him,  I gleaned he was kind, charitable, gave attention to people in an undemonstrative way, and did hidden good deeds. Certainly his sons and sons-in-law who spoke had appreciated and given honor to their father during his life and told him how much he was loved. But here, in front of the community, they wailed how much more they should have appreciated the father. They weren’t posturing for the crowd. These heartfelt words rang out to alert us all how much we must act to cherish people in their lifetimes. No amount of love or regard is too much.

So there is a lesson how to gain happiness: cherish others, give love, appreciate.

What is love? Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler said, “We don’t give to someone because we love them; we love them because we give to them.” I think there is some sideways corollary here about acquiring happiness. We gain happiness not because we are pleased with something, but we become happy because we do something to make a pleasant situation happen.

Here’s simple example: I like to look at flowers and plants. Yesterday I attended a tour of the Heather Garden at Fort Tryon Park. It added to my happiness because I consciously had in mind that I was going to appreciate the beauty and glean as much as I could from the experience. I wasn’t going just to go for the sake of going; I prepared myself for the experience of enjoying the garden. My appreciation of the garden fed my happiness.

Another: How do I get happiness in relationships with others? I thank them, they like being appreciated, it creates good will. Next time they deal with me there will be a kernel of kind regard for me. Simple equation. Be nice, get nice back. That’s a good basis for happiness.

I’m learning about happiness from everything around me, even funerals and flowers. Attitude has everything to do with happiness. I can choose to be happy.

Sitting in the Middle of Traffic

Glowing tulips on a sunny day at Columbus Circle

Glowing tulips on a sunny day at Columbus Circle

The sun shone brilliantly through the tulips and they radiated an ultra-intense color. I basked in the sun on a not-too-hot afternoon. The CNN sign showed 46 °F and there was a gentle breeze. I didn’t need a jacket; it was one of the rare times I sat in the sun to soak up the light. The Traffic hummed, horns blared, taxis whizzed around, and Columbus witnessed it all. That is, the statue of Christopher Columbus, perched atop its 75 foot granite column, anchored the spot.

Sometimes I just like to sit in the middle of traffic. Where better to do so than Columbus Circle? Maybe, like a wheel from its hub, the city radiates from this spot. So many types congregate here, like pigeons in a park.

It’s a great place for people-watching. I’ve seen:
• An African man with a drum, tapping it slowly in no discernable rhythm
• Japanese anti-nuclear protesters, asking people to sign petitions
• Silver-clad “spacemen” strolling through, on their way to Central Park
• Persistent skateboarders, grinding on the statue’s steps, inexpertly
• Ballet dancers, one wearing a tutu and the other tuxedo-clad, dancing their way across
• American (!) tourists led by a red-vested tour guide

Columbus Circle, NYC

Columbus Circle, NYC

A webcam records Columbus Circle night and day. I found it at http://earthcam.com/usa/newyork/columbuscircle//?cam=columbus_circle.

The fountain water wasn’t dancing that day. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters glittered on the bottom of the pools in the brilliantly sparkling water. Pigeons landed, people chatted on phones, coffees were sipped, eyes looked up. Columbus gazed over his dominion, the gateway to midtown.

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