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.



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.



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).


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


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.



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.


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.


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).


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.


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:


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 2008 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.


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.


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).


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.


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?!


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.


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?!



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!



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



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.



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).


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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!


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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.

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.


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.


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



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.


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.

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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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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