Halloween in America: Candy, Costumes, and Crazy Decorations

Halloween is in a few days and as usual (almost) everyone is getting in on the preparations. There are pop-up stores in the local malls — empty stores that get taken over for a month or so by Halloween costume and decorations vendors — and every other house in the neighborhood has some kind of decorations, indoors and out. I snapped pictures of a few while out with the dog this morning.

IMG_1845

As I’ve noted before (Happy St. Patrick’s Day!) Americans love any excuse to get dressed up and party. So, the stores are full not just of costumes for kids who plan to go trick-or-treating (superheroes, princesses, and monsters etc.) but also for adults heading to a party (sexy cop/nurse, and even scarier monsters). You can buy everything from cheap blonde wigs to vampire makeup kits; plastic skeletons to hang by the front door to fancy animatronic displays that light up and move every time a hapless kid runs by looking for candy. I read online that Americans spend over $5 billion dollars annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday. In addition, a quarter of all annual candy sales occur during the Halloween season.

fullsizeoutput_aaf

In the streets around us, decorations vary from low-key plastic pumpkins and “ghosts” made from sheets and old soccer balls (guaranteed to spook my dog whenever we walk by and the wind blows), to truly epic masterpieces. There’s one house that is covered every year in massive spiders (I couldn’t even take a picture of that one; shudder).

fullsizeoutput_ab0

This is one of the best ones I’ve ever seen: a bunch of skeletons playing basketball!

fullsizeoutput_aab

The Saturday before October 31 our little town’s business and community organizations put on events for the kids. There’s a “Scare in the Square” in the local town square, where kids get to wear their costumes, enjoy themed games and face painting, and collect treats; and local shops that display a “pumpkin paw print” will give out treats to kids and their pets.

fullsizeoutput_aac

I said “almost” everyone joins in; those with strict religious views don’t approve of the spooky shenanigans. Our youngest attended a Jewish daycare center when he was a baby; we were told very firmly not to send him to school on October 31st in any kind of costume because “Halloween is a pagan observation.” I also know of a couple of Christian families whose kids take no part in anything to do with Halloween because it’s “satanic” and unholy. I’m not sure how they come to that conclusion, given that Halloween is literally short for “All Hallow’s Eve,” meaning the night before the decidedly-Christian All Saints Day, but to each his own.

fullsizeoutput_aae

The weather forecast for October 31 currently calls for a cool, dry day and evening, which should mean we get plenty of trick-or-treat kids showing up in the evening. The record was close to 100 kids, but in recent years it’s been around 50. Some people give out bars of chocolate or pretty little gift bags filled with treats. The lazy among us (like me) buy big bags of Halloween candy — basically, mini-versions of popular treats, often in Halloween-themed wrappers — dump it all into a big plastic cauldron, and tell each kid to just grab a handful. The little ones carry plastic pumpkins or little treat bags to fill; teenagers are not ashamed to haul around pillowcases to gather their loot.

fullsizeoutput_ab1

The deluge usually starts at dusk, around 6:30pm, with the little toddlers, often carried by a parent. As the evening wears on, more and more show up at the front door, usually in groups of 2-10 kids, sometimes with a parent or older sibling in the background. By 9:00pm it’s pretty much over, with just the odd bored teenager showing up; their costumes no more than an attitude that says “costumes are lame but I still want candy.” If it’s been a busy evening they’ll be stuck with the leftovers that no-one else wanted (sticks of gum).

I’ll put up our decorations this weekend — a big “Happy Halloween” banner on the front door, a couple of fake tombstones, a giant plastic pumpkin, and a hapless skeleton nicknamed Henry who seems to be missing a foot.

fullsizeoutput_aad

By the end of the week, the shops will have replaced their Halloween candy and decorations with Thanksgiving-themed treats and turkey-shaped table decorations, and some will start putting out the Christmas stuff, too; including the little plastic Christmas trees that will be everywhere by early December. Maybe someone should tell the strict born-agains that the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol.

fullsizeoutput_a98

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Squirrel Season in America!

Although the weather is still mild during the daytime, the nights are getting cooler and the first signs of fall (autumn) are cropping up around the neighborhood. One sure sign that the season is changing: the squirrels are in hyperactive mode!

fullsizeoutput_aa9

Squirrels are a constant presence here in the mid-Atlantic suburbs — and, of course, they are all grey squirrels. In the spring and early summer you can hear them chattering and challenging each other across the treetops; in the winter their big nests are easy to spot in the bare tree branches; and in all but the coldest weather, you see them scurrying up and down the trees and dashing across the lawns.

But it’s the fall when they suddenly seem to be everywhere, frantically collecting food supplies and storing them for the winter. There are a lot of oak trees around here and in early October their acorns cascade down in waves, littering the ground with a veritable squirrel banquet of goodies. (If you want to see how high a 60-pound dog can jump, watch what happens when a random acorn drops on her rump as she ambles down the street.)

IMG_1842

I read somewhere that squirrels don’t actually remember where they bury the acorns they collect; they just dig around in the spring and hope to find them again. Which explains at least some of the little saplings that spring up around the edge of the lawn every year.

IMG_1839

Every day for the past two weeks I’ve had to hit the brakes at least once while driving around the neighborhood as some busy little squirrel darts across the street in front of the car.

IMG_1838

I tried to get some pictures around the neighborhood but as I’m usually walking the dog when on foot, the squirrels don’t hang about to get their pictures taken. (The two squirrel pictures here were swiped from a Pinterest board.) But I have managed to snap some of the beautiful fall plants that are now in bloom, mostly deep russet red and bright yellow/orange chrysanthemum.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve heard the squirrels chattering to each other; they all seem to have something stuffed in their mouths as they dash about.

fullsizeoutput_aa8

But I did notice this morning that there was a huge flock of birds at the top of one of the tallest trees on the street, all calling and chirruping to each other and excitedly getting ready to migrate before the winter. (I couldn’t tell what kind of bird they were, the tree was too tall, and I don’t know one bird song from another.) In the next month or so the trees will empty out of at least half of their bird inhabitants and the days will get quieter. Some of the long-term weather forecasters are saying we’re likely to get another mild winter, which would be a huge relief.

IMG_1849

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Update from Apocalypse Central

I haven’t written much on here in recent weeks, in large part because each successive news cycle seems to bring some event so devastating that I just don’t know where to start. But first, I should make it clear that all is fine in our cozy little corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Here, the most arduous challenge right now is negotiating the thousands of acorns strewn across the sidewalks when out walking the dog. And in a way that makes the recent news all the more dystopian, a feeling that we’re living in a safe bubble while the world around us falls apart.

First came the hurricanes. There’s a season for these every year, a roughly eight-week period when hurricanes are most likely to hit along the eastern side of the continent. Back in August the forecasters were warning that this would be a bad season, with Atlantic waters “unusually warm” and no sign in the Pacific of the periodic El Niño (which tends to temper the eastern storms). They were horribly right.

fullsizeoutput_a95Headline from a Weather Channel online article.

The USA is a migratory country; as people move around from state to state, they leave family and connections scattered across it. Everyone knows someone who knows someone in Texas or Florida, Puerto Rico or Nevada, or wherever the latest apocalyptic event is unfolding. And one of the side effects of being on social media a lot is that I learn about the experiences of an extended web of people, like the friend’s brother who posted pictures of the rising waters around his neighborhood in Houston when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas city in late August.

Then Hurricane Irma pounded into Florida in early September. This one was personal; with an aunt and a cousin on the east coast of the state and a sister-in-law in Fort Myers on the west, I spent two days obsessively updating the Weather Channel radar and hunting down news stories. The sister-in-law decamped to a hotel and her college-age son flew back here to Pennsylvania for a few days after his central-Florida campus was evacuated. Fortunately, even though Irma made landfall right over Fort Myers, their home was unscathed and the power came back on after a couple of days.

But then came Maria. And the contrast between the pace of the recovery effort in Florida and the one in Puerto Rico is mind-numbing.

One of my friends is originally from Puerto Rico and while her immediate family all live around here, her extended family are in San Juan. Two days after the devastation of Maria she’d had confirmation that everyone was OK: “Well,” she said, “everyone’s home is damaged or destroyed but thank God they’re all safe.” She then told me about friends who were frantically trying to find a flight back to the island, to check on family members they’d been unable to reach. Now, it’s been almost three weeks and many are still without power, running water, or basic transportation.

fullsizeoutput_a8f
This is a Reuters wire photo showing some of the devastation.

A few days ago I was at our local FedEx office (a private mailing company) to ship a gift to someone in New York. A young woman came in with a big bag of stuff: “I need to send this to Puerto Rico.”
“Well,” said the agent, “We can ship to the island but not deliver. Your recipients will have to go to the central collection point, do they know that?”
“Yes,” said the young woman wearily, “I’ve been doing this for days now. They know what to do.”

I looked over at the bag she’d placed on the counter: boxes of instant-use cold packs and antiseptic wipes, and cans of spray cleaner. Just imagine the story behind the need for those items. That’s when it really hit me — that in the 21st century 3.5 million citizens of supposedly one of the most advanced countries on the planet were dependent on what distant relatives could send in the post because the federal government just couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get its act together.

A couple of days ago Hurricane Nate came ashore along the border of Louisiana and Mississippi, but without the extreme impacts of its three predecessors there was almost no national news coverage, just some cursory stories about “heavy floods.”

Meanwhile, there was the earthquake in Mexico City on September 19. Not part of the USA but again, many people have family and friends there and there was heavy news coverage. That evening my 17-year old showed me a video shot by one of his young friends who lives in the city: two hours after a practice earthquake drill the sirens had sounded again, this time for real. She’d run outside to safety and caught a video of a building, maybe 4-5 stories tall and a couple of blocks away, that crumpled to the ground in seconds, billowing dust and debris. (The only earthquake I’ve ever experienced was in August 2011 when a 5.8 quake in Virginia sent its ripples across the eastern States. Here, it was just a prolonged rumbling that rattled the dishes in the cabinets and confused the dog but even that was pretty unnerving; a full-blown quake must be one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable.)

And then came Las Vegas. The worst mass shooting in US history, 58 dead and nearly 500 injured. I have a young friend who moved to Vegas last year; she was nowhere near the strip that night but she described the atmosphere in her classroom the next day, trying to find something reassuring to tell her 7-8-year-old students, many with homes just a couple of blocks from the strip. Another friend told me that her husband, a country music fan and gun owner, was weeping in despair as the news unfolded, devastated by his helplessness in the face of this carnage.

A day or two later I caught the tail end of a press briefing where someone in law enforcement said something like ‘we’ll be going back over everything to try to figure out what we missed, so that we can try to stop something like this occurring again.’ Because God forbid that anyone should wonder why a private citizen had amassed a veritable arsenal of powerful weapons in the months before the attack.

fullsizeoutput_a90

The shooting happened on October 1 and yet already the story seems to have faded from the news cycle — aside from breathless conjecture about the gunman’s motives and what the Mandalay Casino may do with the suite he used. There was a brief flurry of attention to the ‘bump stock’ that the killer used to modify his (perfectly legal) semi-automatic to make it fire like a full-blown automatic. The picture above is from a Reuters wire story on this. And gun control groups tried yet again to say, “This is not normal! We have to do something!” But the media frenzy has already moved on.

Now, the focus has shifted to the wildfires raging across California. Yet more apocalyptic pictures are filling the news feeds; yet more stories of devastation and loss, interspersed with incredible acts of heroism by first responders and by ‘ordinary people’ who have been caught up in something appalling and find themselves acting in ways anything but ordinary. This is just one screenshot from a social media account.

fullsizeoutput_a91

The firestorms are so bad that the smoke plumes show up in this picture from NASA, taken from the space station.

fullsizeoutput_a97

 

And I haven’t even touched on the craziness coming out of this administration. I fear that the constant pounding of dire news, along with the constant cries of “He said WHAT??” in reaction to the latest bile coming from the president, is starting to beat us down. On October 5, at an evening photo op with various military officials, Trump said this was “the calm before the storm.” When a reporter asked, “What storm, Mr. President?” he replied, “You’ll find out.” No-one knew what the hell he meant and the meme-makers had a field day with it on Friday morning. But, where was the outrage? How is this normal?

There’s just so much awful going on that you can’t react any more. Irony has pretty much given up and gone into hiding. This was the front of the New York Times website on October 10. Note the juxtaposition of the two main stories.

fullsizeoutput_a89

Ever since the election last year, the Spouse has insisted that we’ve somehow crossed over into an alternate universe where everything is out of whack. Like the TV show “Sliders” from the 1990s, he keeps wondering where the wormhole is that will take us back to the relatively-sane universe we’re supposed to live in.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sound of Summer

The heat of summer brings a distinctive sound to the eastern USA — not children playing or lawnmowers thrumming but the incessant shrill buzz of the cicada.

As humans we’re often not aware of the soundscapes that form the background to our lives — we react to particularly loud, unpleasant or evocative noises but tend to tune out the quieter waves of sound that can vary so much from place to place. Case in point: the sound of cicadas. While walking the dog this morning I found myself unexpectedly “tuning in” to a sound I’d never heard until I came to the US — the high-pitched whine that you hear everywhere outside the city throughout June-September, and most especially in August. The sound rises to an incredible crescendo around 9:00pm after a particularly hot/humid day, when the crickets join in.

(Click on the above link if you’ve never heard the sound. As cicadas aren’t exactly photogenic, I’ll illustrate the rest of this post with pictures I took of neighbors’ gardens showing off their summer colors.)

Cicadas — Magicicada periodical cicada to use the scientific name — are downright weird. Deposited as eggs in trees, the ant-sized young fall to the ground, burrow down near tree roots, and stay there for anywhere from one to 17 years. Yes, 17. The entire brood eventually reemerges at the same time, with ground temperature playing a key role in the cycle. The nymphs hike up the nearest tree, shed their exoskeleton, grow wings and (in the case of the males) start making a racket to find a mate. Apparently, the males have organs on their abdomen called tymbals. Muscles pop the tymbals in and out, which creates the distinctive cicada shriek, with different species having different sounds. (Yes, I looked all this up; the internet is a wonderful thing.)

IMG_1777

Cicadas are harmless, don’t fly very fast, and aren’t particularly destructive to human crops or plants. So, most of the time, we don’t really notice them; unless there’s a particularly big swarm, in which case there can be quite a few exoskeleton husks littering the patio or the sidewalk every morning.

fullsizeoutput_a2d

While reading up on cicadas before writing this, I found out that many of the big 17-year Swarm X (as in Roman numeral ten) appears to be emerging four years early this summer. Scientists’ best guess is that global warming is leading to longer periods of ground temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the grubs to grow faster and emerge sooner. We won’t know if this is a permanent change that will lead to the development of a whole new brood, until another 13-17 years have passed. Either way, they’ve certainly been noisy the past few weeks.

IMG_1784

On the other hand, I see the other summer noisemaker, crickets, far too often. Especially in our basement. People in the neighborhood claim that crickets are prevalent around here because there used to be a cherry tree orchard in the area; as that would have been 100-odd years ago, it doesn’t seem likely. Whatever their origin, I’ve found out over the years that the best way to get rid of them is to lay out strips of sticky tape, particularly duct tape. They jump on and can’t jump off. Sounds cruel, I know, but anything that looks that much like a large jumping spider deserves whatever it gets.

IMG_1804

Still, the sound of cicadas and crickets calling out their presence every evening is a reminder of just how much life is lurking out there in the quiet gardens of suburbia.

IMG_1791

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tipping in America

What’s with Americans and tipping? It’s one of the odd little quirks about this country that I still find baffling. You’re expected to tip not just the restaurant server but the guy at the bar, the hairdresser, the cab driver, the hotel porter (actually, everyone you encounter who works in a hotel); even the garbage workers and newspaper deliverers leave envelopes for “holiday tips” in December.

fullsizeoutput_a31Tipping is totally embedded in pretty much any service interaction here. The standard at a restaurant is 15%, with more for “good” service. If you’re paying by credit card, there will be a line at the bottom of your bill (which is called, confusingly, the check) for you to add the tip. Some places even have handy little calculators printed at the bottom of the credit card slip to help you figure out what 15-20% of your bill comes to.

fullsizeoutput_a30

If you go to use the credit card machine in a cab, they usually now include a stage in the process where you stipulate the size of tip you want to add (and in my experience this defaults to 20-25%, which can feel downright extortionate — unless you’re traveling on the corporate expense account in which case, why not?!)

fullsizeoutput_a32.jpeg

The only time I ever got a tip when working in the UK was when I was a student and working part-time in a big London department store, as a server at an “American Style Ice Cream Counter” (yes, really, the irony does not escape me). A young mother who spoke little English stopped by with her son, who gleefully pointed to the biggest sundae on the menu, a colorful concoction that cost about 3 pounds and came complete with red-white-and-blue sugar sprinkles and a little American flag decoration. When she gave me a 20 pound tip I assumed she’d made a mistake and tried to explain that this was too much, but she laughed and insisted, indicating that I had a nice smile and had made her son very happy. Needless to say, that 20 quid went right into my pocket, not into the near-empty shared jar where we were supposed to put any meager “tips” we received. (It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that a woman who appeared Arab, judging by her clothing and head scarf, may not have been used to getting friendly service in 1984 London, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, back to the States: why is tipping so prevalent in this country? Are Americans such generous people that they’re willing to fork over extra cash to anyone who does a good job? Well, no, not exactly. Some cursory online research suggests tipping actually took off in this country during Prohibition — definitely not one of America’s finer moments — when bar owners struggling to make any money encouraged tipping to help their beleaguered staff makes ends meet. Whatever the origin, it’s now actually enshrined in the labor laws in many states; which means that businesses are allowed to pay their staff less than the state minimum wage in jobs deemed to be partially-dependent on tips for their pay.

Given that most wait-staff in most restaurants work incredibly long hours for very little money already, this can be downright exploitative: “It’s not my fault you didn’t take home much money tonight, you should’ve worked harder and gotten bigger tips.” It also means the wait-staff take the brunt of any kitchen screw-ups that leave the punters less than happy. Doubtless restaurant owners will claim they couldn’t afford to stay open if they had to pay all the staff minimum wage, but I find this hard to (pardon the pun) swallow. If paying your workers minimum wage means you can’t stay open, then there’s something very wrong with your whole business model. And I can’t be the only person who would go out of their way to patronize any establishment where tipping was off the menu.

Either way, for Americans it’s automatic. So what happens if you fail to tip appropriately? The first (and only!) time I was guilty of this was not long after I first came to the States. Then-boyfriend and I were at a club waiting for the band to start up (Gil Scott Heron, I think). It was one of those places where you sit at a little table in the smoky darkness and a waitress brings your drinks. The young woman told me the total and I carefully gave her the exact amount, thinking I’d made life easier for her by not forcing her to scramble to find change. I got the iciest glare imaginable as she stalked off; the boyfriend recoiled in horror and hissed, “Why didn’t you tip her?” He then explained about the 15% rule and I just about passed out from shame. When the same waitress grudgingly delivered a second drinks order sometime later, I over tipped so massively out of embarrassment that I think our table got the best service for the rest of the evening.

fullsizeoutput_a33

Such moments make the whole tipping expectation excruciating for a Brit. We absolutely cannot bear to Do The Wrong Thing in public. So I still go into paroxysms of anxiety every time I go to get my hair cut, take a cab, or have a porter carry the bags to a hotel room. And probably continue to over tip massively as a result.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

4th of July: Flags, Hotdogs, and Fireworks!

Tomorrow is America’s birthday, which means three things will be ubiquitous across the country — flags, hotdogs, and fireworks.

But first up, let’s get one quibble out of the way: no, the Declaration of Independence wasn’t really signed on July 4, 1776. According to the History Channel’s ‘9 Things You May Not Know About the Declaration of Independence,’ 12 of the 13 colonies at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted in favor of the motion for independence on July 2nd. After a couple of days of debating and revising Jefferson’s draft, the Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4. However, the actual signing didn’t take place until almost a month later. Check out the full article here if you really like to know these things. But no-one cares because 4th of July isn’t about historical accuracy.

Wave the Flag

Back to the current day. The first thing you notice as July 4 approaches is that the flag starts to appear — everywhere. Americans cheerfully wave the physical flag far more often than Brits. The only time I can remember the Union Jack being plastered all over people’s houses and various buildings back when I lived in the UK was at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. (There was a similar outpouring of flag decorating at the 2011 royal wedding, followed by the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, and around the time of the London olympics that same year.)

The rest of the time, aside from some ironic t-shirts at the height of the punk era in the late ‘70s, overt public displays of the Union Jack in the UK are pretty much limited to fringe right-wingers. But not here. Many people put out Stars and Stripes flags at various times of year (Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day) and in the week leading up to the 4th the shops are full of flags, large and small. Many of our neighbors will be hoisting the flag on their own porch flag poles — the same poles that fly pumpkin-decorated motifs at Halloween, snowmen images at Christmas, and flowers, shells, or pictures of flip-flops (yes, really) as summer gets underway. This Alamy stock photo gives you an idea of what I mean.

fullsizeoutput_a23

For a real explosion of flag mania, you can’t beat the annual parade put on by most towns and cities across the country, usually led by local dignitaries followed by some floats from local businesses and other organizations. Interestingly, overt political displays or any partisan lobbying is Not Done. It’s the one time of year when no-one wants to see a banner advocating for/against anything. It’s all about the United part of the name USA. The Philadelphia parade lays claim to the city’s historic importance in all this, with period costumes and Independence Hall as a backdrop.

fullsizeoutput_a28

Our own little town has its own quirky take on the parade — after the local dignitaries, fire trucks, and band, the kids get to join in. There’s a competition for the best decorated strollers and wagons, tricycles, and bikes. (I swiped the picture below from the web to give an idea of how far some people go in this.) When our sons were young we spent many a July 4 morning attaching flags and streamers and other decorations to their bikes (having forgotten to get anything in advance and having to wing it at the last minute), then walking beside them as they proudly peddled around the town. They never won, but it was great fun.

fullsizeoutput_a24

Hotdogs

Which takes us to the food. There are countless fabulous food options in this country, reflecting the incredible diversity of its population. But hotdogs are the second key ingredient of any 4th July celebration. At the end of our town’s parade everyone gathers in the town square for hotdogs courtesy of the fire company. Across the country, in back gardens and public parks, families will be firing up the grills for cookouts large and small. This means hotdogs, burgers, and pretty much anything else that can be cooked over an open flame. And beer. Lots of beer.

As a vegetarian I can’t really opine on the best way to eat a hotdog (I’ve never been a fan of those tofu-based ones that are like tasteless rubber). Some combination of onions and/or relish (pickles) and/or mustard seems to be standard. But however you like your ‘dog, best not to ask what the thing itself is made of.

fullsizeoutput_a25

Light up the Sky!

Which takes us to the final essential component of the 4th of July — fireworks. Here in Pennsylvania you cannot buy ‘aerial fireworks’ without a permit (although there’s apparently a state law loophole that makes acquiring a permit pretty much as simple as downloading a form from the web, which explains some of the noises we’ll be hearing tomorrow night); but in other states you can buy almost anything. Hence displays like this one at a Walmart in Indiana.

fullsizeoutput_a2b

And yes, there will be news reports from across the country on the 5th about people losing fingers, eyes, and sometimes more, as a result of backyard firework accidents. Go figure.

For those less pyrotechnically inclined, there are plenty of public firework displays to go to come sundown. Our neighboring township puts on a great display every year and of course Philadelphia itself goes all out.

fullsizeoutput_a2a

fullsizeoutput_a29

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Mosquitoes Are Back: Summer in Philadelphia

Summer has arrived on the eastern seaboard. I know this not because of the date or the temperature (although they are both relevant), but because I’ve just been inflicted with the first mosquito bite of the season.

The calendar says the official start of summer is the equinox on June 21. Most Americans say it begins on Memorial Day weekend — roughly equivalent to the Spring Bank Holiday Weekend in the UK. The Monday of Memorial Day weekend (the last full weekend in May) is a Federal holiday to remember those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. But around here it’s mostly noted as the date when summer businesses start to open “Down the Shore” — which is how Philadelphians refer to the New Jersey beach towns.

The weather is certainly getting in a summer mood; it’s been climbing rapidly the past few days. This is today’s forecast (92 Fahrenheit means 33.3 degrees celsius) and the car’s temperature reading a few minutes ago.

fullsizeoutput_93f

fullsizeoutput_940

An orange air quality alert (issued by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) means that “air pollution concentrations within the region may become unhealthy for sensitive groups … children, people suffering from asthma, heart disease or other lung diseases, and the elderly.” The heat advisory means “hot and humid conditions are expected…heat and humidity may cause heat stress during outdoor exertion or extended exposure.” Lovely. The local news is reminding people to check on elderly neighbors and relatives. If either advisory turns red (which can happen come August, when the heat and humidity really build), it basically means don’t go outside today, and if you must then try not to breathe.

But for me, the real Start of Summer is the day of the First Mosquito Bite — which happened to be today. When I first came to the States, back in August 1985, I had no idea that mosquitoes were a serious concern. My first night in the graduate housing dorm I innocently threw open my bedroom window. Next morning I woke up with two massive bites on my leg — I freaked, grabbed my neighbor from the room next door, and asked if she had any idea what could have caused these? A New Yorker with a well-developed sense of disdain she laughed at me and said, “Mosquito bites of course. There must be a hole in your window screen.” I hurried back to my room, and as I slammed the window shut I realized that yes, there was a screen I was supposed to have pulled closed once the window was opened. Lesson learned.

So now it’s time to start checking regularly that there are no puddles of stagnant water collecting at the bottom of the drain pipes or around the garden furniture, and to put dunks in the bird bath (little rings of Stuff that gradually dissolve over the course of a month, harmless to the birds but lethal to mosquito larvae). It’s also time for the daily decision: stay indoors; spray self with lethal chemicals to keep the mosquitoes at bay; wear long sleeves and trousers and cook; place lit citronella candles all over the back yard (which are patchily effective at best and smell kind of icky); or risk getting eaten up. There’s a reason anyone who has the time/money tries to decamp Down the Shore as often as they can in the summer.

It’s also time to start closing all the blinds at the back of the house (which faces west) every afternoon, to try to reduce the heat radiating in through the windows in a bid to ease some of the burden on the air conditioning. Yes, we have central air conditioning — nice, cool dry air that blows out of the same vents that the heat comes through in the winter. My very first summer in a rented apartment in West Philadelphia, we had no air conditioning. Just strategically placed fans. I woke up one morning in early August nauseated and shivering from what I later learned was heat stroke. So we graduated to one air conditioning unit, placed in the bedroom window. We basically migrated to the bedroom for the summer, emerging only for quick forays to the kitchen for food. As soon as I got home from class or work I’d take a shower then stand and drip in front of that window unit to cool down. But now I’m a proper grown up and central air is absolutely essential for me to survive a Philly summer.

Meanwhile, the poor dog is Not Happy. She detests the heat just as much as she detests the snow. The last few mornings she’s gleefully bounded out of the back door, only to quickly slow down and visibly start to droop. Within minutes I’m getting the baleful doggie look: “Why are you making it so hot?” She can only get a walk first thing in the morning or late in the evening (when the mosquitoes are out. Joy). As soon as she comes inside she flops down in front of one of the air vents, where the wood floor is nice and cool.

IMG_0556

Yesterday I actually saw people walking their dogs at midday, which strikes me as pretty harsh for something that’s basically wearing a fur coat in 90 degree weather. I read somewhere that you should rest the back of your hand on the sidewalk; if you can’t hold it there for at least five seconds, then it’s too hot to walk the dog.

At least the humidity isn’t at its worst yet. When the glasses fog up in the five seconds it takes to walk from the house to the car, THAT’s when you know that summer is fully underway.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments