Halloween in America: Candy, Costumes, and Crazy Decorations

I’m cheating a little here and posting an update of last year’s piece on Halloween in America, with a few new pictures from the neighborhood. As usual (almost) everyone is getting in on the preparations; every other house in the neighborhood has some kind of decorations, indoors and out. Skeletons seem to be a dominant theme for 2018.

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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.

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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The weather forecast for October 31 this year is for a mild, dry evening, which should mean we get plenty of trick-or-treat kids showing up as the sun goes down. 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.

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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).

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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.

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Voting in America

Americans are very proud of being a democracy—”land of the free” and all that—and voting is the bedrock of the democratic system. So why, in this most vibrant of democracies, is the actual act of casting of a vote so difficult?

To start with, you have to get yourself registered. This might seem obvious to Americans but in countries like Chile, Israel, and Sweden (and many others) you are automatically registered when you hit 17 or get a national ID number (the equivalent to an American social security number). In America, you have to fill out a form and provide proof of residence and of citizenship.

If you move, you have to submit a change-of-address form (your polling place will likely have changed) and if you’ve moved to a different state you have to re-register all over again. This may not seem like a big deal but remember, America is a migratory place where a lot of people move across town/state/country. According to research at FiveThirtyEight, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to move—non-whites also tend to move home more often than whites. Which raises all sorts of questions about who is more likely to vote.

Back to registration. One of the questions asked on the registration form is political party affiliation—Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian, None, or Other are listed on the Pennsylvania form. This is so that you can vote in a primary. (If you pick None, you won’t be able to vote in any of the primaries, and I have no idea what “Other” might include). The specifics of how primaries work and when they are held varies by state but basically, it’s when the voters choose the candidate who will stand in a local, state, or federal election on the particular party ticket. Primary elections are held sometime in the spring and full elections in the fall.

I live in the state of Pennsylvania. Back in May, the state held its primary elections, to choose who the respective parties’ candidates would be for the five state and federal elections coming up next month. On November 6 I’ll vote in the general election (same date across the country). These are called “mid-term elections” because they fall mid-way through the four-year presidential term.

So, I live in Montgomery County, a mostly-suburban area just north of the city of Philadelphia. My polling place is a local church hall. Below is what I will see when I get to the voting booth in on November 6. The Pennsylvania governor and the (federal level) senator are chosen state-wide. In addition, I’m in the 4th congressional district (federal level representative), the 154th district for the state assembly, and the 4th district for the state senator. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, with all the different districts and levels of government, but this is actually a pretty straightforward ballot with just five offices to vote for.

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All voting in this part of Pennsylvania is done using an electronic machine. Across the state and the country as a whole some places use paper ballots; at my polling place the machines look like this:

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This is a screenshot from a recent article in the Intelligencer (a Montgomery County newspaper). Note the headline. Not all voting machines are created equal and some are more secure than others. It’s still up for debate whether there were vote manipulation and machine tampering in the 2016 elections but for sure the system is way less secure than it should be.

So, there are a lot of things to vote for and getting on the register can be a hassle but otherwise, the whole thing looks relatively straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast. The upcoming vote is for a general election; these are held every two years in even-numbered years. Aside from the presidential elections, which are held every four years, exactly what you are voting for will vary—congressional and state representative elections are every two years, but the state governor and state senator elections are every four years, and the state’s two federal senators are elected to six-year terms (and not at the same time). It gets really confusing trying to remember what you are supposed to be voting for each time. And this is just the even-numbered years.

The odd-numbered years are used for local and municipal elections. Back in May and November 2017 the Pennsylvania primary and then full elections were held for various judges—magistrates, court of common pleas, commonwealth court, and superior court—along with local school boards, councils, mayors, tax collectors (yes, really), and election judges. I pay close attention to local races like the school board and council, but how am I supposed to choose judges? I’m not even clear on what the various courts do.

It sounds great, getting to exercise your citizen’s right to vote at so many levels of government—but the reality is that, with so many things to vote for every six months, most people don’t bother. Voter turnout in the USA has been declining steadily since the 1960s. In a presidential election turnout usually hits around 60%. Standard turnout in a mid-term election like the one next month is 40% of eligible voters; in odd-year, primary and local elections turnout averages around 20%. For comparison, in the likes of Sweden turnout regularly comes in over 80%.

And, young people are the least likely of all to vote. Close to 50% of Americans aged 18-29 voted in the 2000 presidential election—the first year that Obama ran—but the usual number is around 30% or lower.

All of which helps to explain the massive efforts currently underway to “get out the vote” for next month. Younger Son’s university campus (in New Jersey) has sponsored a big “Vote100” effort to try to get all eligible voters registered and signed up for absentee ballots. Older Son reports “all” of his friends on campus (in Maryland) are comparing notes on how to get an absentee ballot for their respective states. Both have been incensed by what they see going on in American politics in the past two years, and I’m proud to report that both mailed in their requests for absentee ballots last week. Whether they get them in time remains to be seen—there were numerous reports of our county absentee ballot system not working in 2016, including Older Son who never did receive his.

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Theoretically, you stay on the registration list until you file for a change of address or to register in another state. But, in recent years there have been reports from across the country of people finding they’ve inexplicably been dropped from registration. There are plenty of ways to check that you’re still registered, but you’d only know to do that if you’re paying attention to e.g. social media.

And then there are the reports of outright voter suppression. As with many of the problems in America, this is mostly a function of racism. This article in Slate highlights some of the most egregious examples underway right now, attempts by Republican incumbents in Georgia, Kansas, and elsewhere to dis-enfranchise “minority” (i.e., non-white) voters.

When you look at what’s happening on the American political scene right now, it’s hard not to conclude that voting in America is a flawed process that can lead to deeply flawed outcomes. The only thing that might save us all is if those 18-29-year-olds do, indeed, channel their rage into the ballot box.

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Pumpkin spice season

It’s been a rough few days on the American political scene so, naturally, I feel like writing about something orange and kind-of-disgusting that deeply divides the country. No, not that one: I’m talking Pumpkin Spice.

The calendar says it’s fall, though you wouldn’t know it from the weather, which is still topping out well into the 70s Fahrenheit every day (21 to 26 Celsius); or from the trees, with most of the ones in our neighborhood still resolutely green. However, America’s retailers are never slow to cash in on something, and as soon as mid-September rolled around they once again turned the shops and malls resolutely orange.

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This is the display that greets you when you walk into our local Trader Joe’s supermarket. Pumpkin baking mix; pumpkin spice snack bars; and pumpkin spice cookies. There’s pumpkin butter, pumpkin breakfast cereal, something called pumpkin spiced almond beverage (I have no idea) and, god help us, pumpkin spice tea.

Yes, you can nibble on pumpkin biscotti with your cup of pumpkin spice coffee (shudder).

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There are pumpkins and squashes everywhere—most of the more colorful ones are more likely to end up as decorations than as ingredients (note the “shellacked gourds” sign). These are at the local Trader Joe’s and the Acme supermarket.

 

Side note: Our first fall in this house in the suburbs I cheerfully “decorated” the front porch with a collection of pumpkins of various sizes, like the ones below currently on offer at the local Acme. Within 24 hours all of the smaller ones had disappeared. I couldn’t fathom who would steal tiny pumpkins—until I heard a chattering overhead and saw a squirrel perched on a branch of the maple tree, clutching a half-eaten pumpkin. So, I bought a large plastic one and put that outside every year, instead.

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Back to the pumpkin spice obsession. Check out the Trader Joe’s dessert options. Apple spice jam and “rustic apple tarte” actually sound quite nice (even with that annoying “e” tacked onto the end), but pumpkin marble mousse? Pumpkin cheesecake?!

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I know people who are ecstatic about Pumpkin Spice Season. They compete to see who can be the first to score a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks, with all the zeal of a bird-watcher looking for the first robin of the spring. Now, I do like the apple-cranberry scents they waft around in shops like Bed, Bath & Beyond and the lovely fall-color plants and decorations are a treat. And, I have no problem with a well-made pumpkin pie; personally, I prefer pecan, but each to their own. But coffee should taste like coffee, not some overly-sweet vegetable concoction.

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Pumpkin flavored ice cream sounds horrendous to me—but the worst pumpkin item ever was the bottle of pumpkin beer a sister-in-law gave the Spouse a few years ago. She thought it was funny. Always one to try something different, Spouse did eventually try a mouthful. The rest went down the sink.

Looking for an image of pumpkin beer I found this: a pumpkin spice latte stout courtesy of Breckenridge Brewery of Colorado. I’ll just leave it here with no comment.

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America and the Royals

Why are Americans so obsessed with the British royal family? You’d think, having fought a whole war over the issue of getting out from under a capricious royal-led government, that Americans would be oblivious to the goings on at the House of Windsor. But no. Every royal marriage, birth, scandal or demise gets treated with extensive and often downright fawning coverage by the U.S. media.

Case in point: the recent birth of Louis Arthur Charles, aka Wills and Kate’s youngest and the prince who is now fifth in line to the throne. There was extensive coverage in local and national media of the impending birth; the vigil some Brits were keeping outside St. Mary’s Hospital in London; the announcement of his name; and, of course, the first official pictures. (Surprise! He looks like a Baby!)

Back in 2011, when Prince William and Kate Middleton got married, I actually had friends and neighbors gleefully telling me about their “wedding parties” – groups of women who got together at the house of whoever had the biggest TV to watch the whole thing live. Bear in mind that the main ceremony started at 11:00 a.m. U.K. time, which is 6:00 a.m. here on the U.S. east coast, and you get an idea of just how early some people started their celebrations.

I must admit, I did catch a few videos of the proceedings, but only later in the day and strictly in the interests of gleaning some sociological insights into the shifting ways in which the royals portray themselves in our society. Or something like that. But get up at 5:00 a.m. to watch it all on TV? God, no!

I remember back in 1997 when Princess Diana was killed in the car accident, people here in the States actually asked me if I was ok, and the spouse had co-workers anxiously asking how I was “holding up.” Admittedly, the paroxysms of grief that seemed to engulf much of the U.K. may have led them to believe that anyone with a British accent would be devastated by the tragedy, but I was busy dealing with a toddler at home and a burgeoning regional financial crisis at work – the death of a royal, albeit a popular one and in tragic circumstances, was not real high on my list of things to worry about.

But, all of this has been surpassed by the attention now being paid to the courtship and upcoming nuptials of William’s younger brother, Prince Harry, to Meghan Markle. Since the announcement of their engagement back in November 2017, the American media has been absolutely agog over all things royal – what it means for an American to be joining the British royal family; the “bizarre, ancient customs” she’ll have to abide by; what she will be called after she’s married; how well she might be able to “play the role of princess”; which royal tiara she might wear on the Big Day; and, the fact that all of her social media accounts have been closed down (hint: a good idea for a person who’s about to be thrust into the spotlight, looking at you Donald).

And, of course, there are endless, breathless, saccharine-fluff articles about the royal love affair and the wooing of a “commoner” by a prince. Cable channel Lifetime is rushing out a made-for-TV movie, “Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance,” which is being screened repeatedly and is being touted as the story of the romance of “the world’s most famous couple.” Most famous? Really?!

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The somewhat-upmarket magazine Vanity Fair did an entire special issue last month on The Royals; Harper’s Bazaar recently did a big spread on the house they’ll be moving to (21 bedrooms!); and the more down-market weekly magazine People has been pretty much obsessed with all things Meghan for months: Her humble beginnings! Her estrangement from her half-siblings! How her mom is coping with all the attention! Her new royal wardrobe!

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And, every editor is desperate to find a local angle on the Meghan story.

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I guess it all comes down to the fact that the U.S. threw off the yoke of monarchy over 240 years ago, far enough in the past that the doings of the royals are now pure entertainment. Plus, of course, this is a celebrity-obsessed culture, so all the coverage does attract readers and viewers.

I have to admit, it is kind of cool that a mixed-race career-woman is joining the royal family. And, I did chortle with delight imagining the fits of horror that must have engulfed some unpleasant corners of the British populace – as evidenced by the foaming-at-the-mouth hysteria from some sections of the British media when their engagement was first announced. Oh, you’re pretending that it’s the fact that she’s a divorced American that makes her “unsuitable?” Yeah, no, not buying that!

Until I came to the States, I called myself a staunch republican – that’s with a small r, please note, meaning one who is firmly in favor of a form of government where sovereignty resides with the people, and not with, well, a sovereign. Then came my first experience with an American presidential election in 1988, an interminable process that took many months and chewed up millions of dollars (See this post from 2016). Gradually, I came to see a modern constitutional monarchy as not THAT insane.

And today? Dear lord, I’ll take HRH Elizabeth – in fact, pretty much any of the royals – over the current incumbent in the White House. Thinking about it, maybe that explains the sheer volume of royal-obsession currently engulfing America. Given the choice between reading DT’s latest insane rant on Twitter or looking at cute pictures of Princess Charlotte with her new baby brother, I’ll count myself a royalist.

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Philadelphia Bleeds Green!

Americans are huge sports fans, not just the big four sports — baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, and (American) football — but pretty much anything that involves competition. They also love underdogs and stories of teams/players beating-the-odds. Which explains why the greater Philadelphia region has turned resolutely green in support of the football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. (“Football” here is short for “American football” — yes, non-Americans, I know it makes no sense, just go with it for now.)

On January 13, despite being the underdogs, the Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons, so making it to the coming weekend’s Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings. The winner will go on to the Super Bowl on February 4.

 

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I stopped in at the local supermarket a couple of hours before the game against the Falcons last weekend and found the store full of Eagles-themed stuff, from flags and paper plates to bags of chips (crisps) and cookies (biscuits). The bakery section was full of Eagles goodies. If you wear Eagles gear on an Eagles game day, the supermarket gives you a 5% discount on your total grocery bill. I think every other person in the store that day was wearing an Eagles shirt, hat, or coat (yes, I had an Eagles cap perched on my head).

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At one point, the person who does the announcements over the store speaker (usually something like “attention shoppers, discounts available this week on chicken”) encouraged everyone to do the Eagles chant: E A G L E S, Eagles!!! About half the store enthusiastically joined in. Even the Philadelphia Orchestra got in on the act, with a clip of them playing the Eagles’ fight song all over social media before last week’s game.

 

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Incidentally, the Eagles logo is the only one in the NFL that faces left (the others are either centered or face right). A quick online search suggests it’s because the feathers behind the bird’s head make a stylized capital E; so now you know.

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The Championship game this Sunday, January 21 (kickoff at a 6:40pm local time) will be an even bigger deal. Our school district will encourage kids to wear Eagles gear to school on Friday; teachers and staff can do the same if they put a dollar in the charity envelope.

We have Eagles season tickets, thanks to the Spouse’s passion for the team. I think “bleeding green” is genetic; his late mother was a huge fan and I remember in the late 1980s whenever the team did something dumb on the field, she’d have to leave the room to calm down (yelling at the TV being Not Good for her heart). Firstborn son has inherited the passion. He and his dad came home from the January 13 evening game against the Falcons frozen, exhausted, and jubilant.

They’ll be in the stands again this Sunday evening. And this time, Spouse is frantically trying to find a dog mask to wear to the game. Allow me to explain. The Eagles were dominating the season this year until star quarterback Carson Wentz was badly injured in a game in early December. Without Wentz, analysts assumed the Eagles would lose to the Falcons last week. After the game, two of the players appeared in these dog masks, gleefully calling out the assumption that the Eagles were the underdogs.

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It is now impossible to find one of these masks anywhere in the greater Philadelphia region. They’re even sold out on Amazon (despite the price doubling in the hours after the game against the Falcons) and other online retailers can’t deliver until sometime next week (too late for the Vikings game). The Eagles organization has announced that fans can, indeed, wear the masks into the stadium on Sunday, as long as they take them off to go through the security checkpoint.

All teams have a home field advantage when they play, and that’s particularly true in Philadelphia. Eagles fans are passionate, dedicated, and LOUD. Imagine the stadium on Sunday evening: a sea of green with dog masks everywhere.

Fly, Eagles, Fly!!

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Deep Freeze Update

The word ‘cold’ doesn’t begin to describe it. We got about three inches of snow yesterday morning then the temperature plummeted. As I write this post at midday on Friday it’s warmed up to all of 15 degrees here in southeastern Pennsylvania, with a wind chill of 5 (-9 and -15 in Celsius).

This is the view from the window of my home office. The lacy ice patterns are quite lovely — from this side of the glass.

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The local school was closed yesterday and initially planned to open two hours late this morning; but, at 6:30am we got the alert phone call (and text and email) saying that with the extreme cold and icy roads, school is closed again today. Needless to say, the teenager has yet to emerge from under the covers.

Earlier this week I learned a new weather term: ‘bomb cyclone’ (not as spectacular as it sounds). When a low-pressure rotating storm system, or cyclone, experiences a fast and dramatic drop in pressure, it’s known as ‘bombogenesis’ or ‘bomb cyclone.’ One of those brought the big storm that churned up the coast yesterday and froze everything along the eastern seaboard.

It’s all relative, of course. In Chicago, where we used to live, it’s currently 8 degrees with a wind chill below zero. The only time I remember the Chicago schools closing for severe weather was when the wind chill was below -20, too cold even for hardy midwestern kids to be waiting around for the school bus.

Meanwhile, Florida has been hit with unusually-chilly weather, with temperatures around 40 degrees overnight. There’s a corner of the internet where people are debating what to do about the frozen green iguanas dropping from the trees. I kid you not. Some people are saying “move them into the sunshine!” while others point out that these are wild critters and will bite you if you wake them up. And, others point out that iguanas are not native to Florida, so you should save the ecosystem by letting them freeze; or, take them home to keep as pets. Which is how green iguanas became such pests in parts of Florida to begin with (who knew).

This picture, picked up by a lot of the news sites, sums up Florida this morning.

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Happy Freezing New Year!

Winter arrived with a vengeance a couple of weeks ago in this part of the USA, and it doesn’t look like leaving anytime soon. The temperature has stayed below freezing for days and everyone is huddled in heavy coats, hats, and scarves. Of course, there are parts of the country where it’s been a lot colder for a lot longer: according to weather.com, Minnesota saw a temperature of -45 on Sunday morning (that’s -42.7 Celsius); North Dakota saw out the old year with a wind chill reading of -58; and Chicago enjoyed its coldest New Year’s Day on record with a HIGH of just one degree (that’s -17 Celsius).

A friend who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, took this picture of his local harbor on New Year’s Eve. Yes, the water is frozen.

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In comparison, our corner of Pennsylvania seems positively mild. December/January temperatures usually hover between 30 and 45, but we’re now on track for the longest deep freeze since at least 2004. The local county issued a Code Blue Declaration on December 25 and has now extended it to January 8. (A Code Blue means the authorities expect the temperature and wind chill to be below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, posing “a threat of serious harm or death to individuals without shelter.”)

The latest forecast shows we might actually nudge up to 32 degrees tomorrow, with snow on Thursday and some epic deep cold on Friday and Saturday. Yesterday, our oldest son (home from college on winter break) went for his five-mile daily run, and as usual, sat on the front step for a few minutes to cool down when he got back. Big mistake. He found chunks of ice in his hair when he came inside; the sweat had literally frozen in his hair. Lovely.

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Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, we’ve had just two snowfalls so far this winter season, both no more than a couple of inches and easily cleared. In most towns and cities, it’s the responsibility of the property owner to make sure the sidewalk is clear of ice and snow. In our town, you have ten hours after the snow stops falling to clear a path 30 inches wide along the sidewalk in front of your property. In the northwestern corner of the state, the town of Erie had five FEET of snow dumped on it over the course of two days on December 25-26. I’m guessing their local authority gave everyone extra time to shovel.

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In our town you can tell when snow is expected because gleaming white streaks appear down the center of the roads: that means the Borough workers have been out brining the streets, spraying salt water to cut down on the ice and snow buildup after a storm. One of the benefits of living in a small town (less than one square mile) is that pretty much every street gets brined in advance and plowed after the snow falls. In contrast, there are side streets in the city of Philadelphia that never see a snow plow all winter.

The neighborhood does look very lovely at this time of year, particularly in the evenings when all the Christmas decorations light up. Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas puts up some kind of decoration, which will start to come down now the season is over. Some go for massive inflatable Santa Claus figures and plastic reindeer, others festoon their house and trees with colored lights. Fortunately, our neighbors go for understated wreaths and white lights; I think the result is very elegant, especially in the snow.

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A few months ago my sister-in-law decided she’d had it with cold weather, and moved to Fort Myers, on the southwestern coast of Florida. Apparently the temperature there will top out at 62 degrees this afternoon (16 Celsius). She’ll probably complain it’s too cold to go to the pool. I may have to stop speaking to her until the spring.

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