Happy July 4th…or is it the 2nd? 1

July 4th at the fair

The Last Day of the San Diego Fair 2016


Well…apparently after re-reading the real history of America’s declaration of independence, I discovered that the date that appears on the Declaration of Independence but was not actually the day Congress voted for independence which was actually on July 2nd. 240 years ago John Adams, the founding father who later became our second john adamsPresident, wanted to celebrate it on the 2nd with “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

He would be proud to know that this is exactly what Americans do despite the challenges that lie ahead for them to keep their independence of spirit, enthusiasm and optimism.

And what about really getting into the mood? People magazine offered a video cooking lesson for a “Funfetti” cake from Pastry Chef Jenny McCoy who works for America’s own Institute of Culinary Education in the school of Pastry & Baking Arts which is one of the most important culinary institutes in the world.

Funfetti Cake

Jenny McCoy’s Funfetti Cake



Or Saint Patrick’s Day! St. Patrick’s day is a big deal in the United States a holiday during the month of March which is just after the February national days of celebration (the American Football Fest or Super Bowl and Valentine’s day which is just for sweethearts) and just before Easter. It’s an excuse to drink and be merry (as if people needed an excuse!!) and to dress up in Irish costumes.  As many of you know, Saint Patrick’s is one of the only “ethnic” holidays observed in the US paying tribute to the large Irish diaspora and the huge Irish population in North America (the Canadians take Saint Patrick’s day very seriously). Saint Patrick is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland having been credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Even though it has religious roots, it has become a secular holiday set aside to celebrate Irish culture and the important influence it has had in Anglosaxon culture.

So how do Americans celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day? By wearing green, indulging in eating and drinking (a temporary lifting of Lent traditions of fasting before Easter probably why Saint Patrick is such a popular saint’s day) and singing, putting on parades and processions (the New York Saint Patrick’s Day parade is probably the most popular one organized in the States and after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade) and displaying the symbols of Irish culture (in Chicago they really get into the holiday by putting green dye in the river…fortunately non-toxic to humans and fish!):

The Shamrock (the “Seamroy” in Celtic):  a sacred plant in ancient Ireland because it symbolized the coming of Spring. During the Irish famines and struggles against English rule which forbade the use of the Irish language and all Irish cultural manifestations (books, songs, poems, etc. which in their view could excite the masses) and the practice of Catholicism, it took on a more powerful political meaning of Irish nationalism and pride in Irish heritage.

The Snake: the legend goes that St. Patrick once stood on a small mountain (Croagh Patrick) and with stroke of his cane banished all the snakes from Ireland a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology from Ireland and the triumph of Christianity. 200 years after the Irish population was Christianized and his wish came true.

Corned Beef and Cabbage: a traditional Irish-America dish (the Irish ate bacon instead of Corned Beef) coming from the Irish boroughs of New York who adopted corned beef (a cheaper form of beef) from their Jewish neighbors.

The Leprechaun (“lobaircin” in Celtic meaning small-bodied fellow): a figure from Irish folklore and the belief in fairies, tiny men and women who had magical powers which could be used to serve good and sometimes evil. Leprechauns were known for playing tricks on people which they often used to protect their much-fabled treasure (usually hidden in tree trunks). Walt Disney transformed this figure of Irish folklore into a symbol of Ireland with its film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (released in 1959). Disney’s Leprechaun was cheerful and friendly and was quickly adopted as the embodiment of the merry Irishman.

Danny Boy: Irish music and folk songs are an important part of Saint Patrick’s day celebrations (as with many holidays) and the song Danny Boy is considered to be an unofficial signature song and anthem of Irish culture. It was written at the beginning of the 20th century to the air of Londonderry Air (Ernestine Schumann-Heink made the first recording in 1915). It quickly became one of the most popular songs in the new century. The American singer “Eva Cassidy” (who had Irish roots) gave new life to this song which is an enduring ballad about separation (Irish immigration) and sorrow, love and loss. Her talent was discovered posthumously when a BBC radio disc jockey “discovered” her, played one of her tunes from her ‘Songbird’ album on BBC radio and made her an overnight success (the album has sold over 10 million copies in Britain):

Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling. From glen to glen and down the mountain side. The summer’s gone, and all the flowers dying. ‘Tis you, ’tis you must go, and I must bide. But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,

or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow. ‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow. Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.

But when ye come and all the roses falling, and I am dead, as dead I well may be, Go out and find the place where I am lying, And kneel and say an Ave there for me. And I will hear tho’ soft your tread above me, and then my grave will warm and sweeter be.

For you shall bend and tell me that you love me, And I will sleep in peace until you come to me.

In Memoriam…

Meanwhile back at the ranch: Happy Thanksgiving Day! 1

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States which is always the 4th Thursday in November. Weather permitting, most people will try to reunite with their loves ones to feast and to give thanks for all of their blessings big or small. It’s particularly hard to be away from family on this quintessentially American holiday. As an American abroad, I try to commemorate this day by publishing the following article (published the year of my birth) so that others may learn more about this holiday (albeit in a lighthearted and humorous way…I leave it up to my readers to rectify the historical facts!).

Video: As an extra treat, scroll down to the bottom of this post to listen to President Obama “pardoning” Popcorn and Caramel 2 White House Turkeys (don’t forget to click on the subtitle icon to understand every word).

One of my favorite American humorists, Arthur Buchwald (October 20, 1925 – January 17, 2007) was best known for his long-running column in The Washington Post. He was so popular that his column got published by hundreds of newspapers throughout the United States and he became a syndicated columnist. He specialized in political satire and commentary. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Commentary in 1982 and in 1986 was chosen to join the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The following piece, which he wrote for the International Herald Tribune while working in Paris as a correspondent, has become a classic in American journalism. He wanted to explain to the French what Thanksgiving really represented for Americans. I’m not sure they understood better after this but…well…at least they got a laugh out of it. Oh…those crazy Americans (we still had a good reputation at that time)! See if you can understand the humor (you may have to fact-check his details and look up some words! It’s useful if you know a little French also).

Meanwhile: Chacun à son goût on Thanksgiving  by Art Buchwald 

First Published: Thanksgiving 1952

The Turkey Growers Association has approved this message.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pèlerins) who fled from l’Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their heart’s content.

Landing on Plymouth Rock

 They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pèlerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux- Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs).The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.

The First Thanksgiving

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

Miles Standish

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant:

“Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

“I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden.”

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission.Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l’étonnement et la tristesse).

At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: “If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?” (Où est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance?)

Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn’t have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Jean?” (Chacun à son goût.)

Norman Rockwell’s
rendition of Thanksgiving

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Art Buchwald. As I said before, this column first appeared in the International Herald Tribune many, many Thanksgivings ago when Art Buchwald was a correspondent and when life was “insouciant”. As an American living in France, I can identify with his feelings being away and missing out on the turkey! Oh well…we can celebrate in our own way!

So…how much do you really know about Thanksgiving? Go to Debby’s Corner to test your knowledge with a “Board” game or try doing a crossword by clicking here:

Pray for Paris Reply

pray for paris

There but for the grace of God go I (expression often attributed to Winston Churchill)  Par la grace de Dieu et du destin je suis toujours là

The atrocious attacks in Paris shocked the world and the world reacted:Des-monuments-du-monde-entier-aux-couleurs-de-la-France_exact1024x768_p

Giving blood, posing flowers, posting signs and playing music as a universal means of expression were some of the ways people paid tribute to all of the victims. Here we hear a man who transported his grand piano to the street in front of the   Bataclan concert hall in order to play John Lennon’s Imagine.


Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people Living life in peace You… You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope some day you’ll join us And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger Our brotherhood of man Imagine all the people Sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope some day you’ll join us And the world will be as one


Imaginez qu’il n’y a pas de Paradis, C’est facile si vous essayez, Aucun enfer en dessous de nous, Au dessus de nous seulement le ciel, Imaginez tous les gens, Vivant le présent…

Imaginez qu’il n’y a aucun pays, Ce n’est pas dur à faire, Aucune cause pour laquelle tuer ou mourir, Aucune religion non plus, Imaginez tous les gens, Vivant leurs vies dans la paix…

Vous pouvez dire que je suis un rêveur, Mais je ne suis pas le seul, J’espère qu’un jour vous nous rejoindrez, Et que le monde vivra uni

Imaginez aucunes possessions, Je me demande si vous le pouvez, Aucun besoin d’avidité ou de faim, La fraternité des hommes, Imaginez tous les gens, Partageant tous le monde…

Vous pouvez dire que je suis un rêveur, Mais je ne suis pas le seul, J’espère qu’un jour vous nous rejoindrez, Et que le monde vivra uni

Look Up and Rediscover how to Communicate Reply


Receptionist making no eye contact


Making Eye Contact A Smile is Worth a Thousand Words!

Teaching in a language school has always made me sensitive to how people communicate and develop interpersonal relationships. The other day I walked into the lobby of my school and noticed the receptionist was staring at her computer screen. Hypnotized by what she was looking at, my hello got no reaction from her. I then made my way into one of the school administrative offices to enquire about a class I was organizing, I was greeted by another group of people working at their desks staring intently into their computer screens…One or two mumbled a ‘bonjour’ (remember I’m in France…not always known for their ‘warm’ welcomes…)  but no one tore their eyes away from the screens that were bedazzling them. I was astounded. Not only did I feel that it was rude and inappropriate, but I also felt it was out of synch with what I have always tried to teach in my English classes…good communication practices.

Many communication experts have stressed that we communicate more with our body and facial language than with words. Of course body language can be cultural and sometimes we need to relearn how to interpret expressions and gestures. But there are some universal truths…a smile and eye contact can go a long way to making you feel warm and welcome. When I got back to my own computer, I looked up some want ads for receptionists. I found one that read like this: “Wanted/Receptionist for Hi-Tech Communications Company: The Receptionist “The Receptionist is responsible for creating a warm, responsive interaction between the facility and customers, meeting specific…, sensitivity…”A Receptionist ensures that customers receive courteous and prompt services…” Wow…am I living and working in the same world?

And then I began to think of how communication works. We first view others through our eyes.  Our eyes are the windows to the prefrontal cortex of our brain which governs behavior and our socialization process and without using them we are cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. Of course if we are blind, we have to rely on other sensory organs such as our ears and hands to communicate our feelings and thoughts. I often tell my students that the first thing they have to learn is how to “act” in English…that is to say…communicate with their body. You can read more about this theory in a book entitled The Theater Arts and the Teaching of Second Languages by Stephen M. Smith. But if students are to learn how to “act” in another language, they need to watch others, preferably native speakers,  “communicate” in English. And if those others are staring at a screen…

Interestingly enough, Montana State University Neuroscientist,  with Marc Zirnsak and other neuroscientists from the Tirin Moore Lab at Stanford University have published a paper in Nature Magazine describing their research into  how our vision stimulates the neurons in our prefrontal cortex (the most evolved part of our brain) which enables us to capture sensory information which is crucial to adaptive behavior. It also regulates our emotions and helps us to develop our personalities. ( Neurosciences.com).  Prefrontal CortexThose who have studied psychology and the different parts of the brain have read stories of how damage to the prefrontal cortex (located in the very front of the brain just behind the forehead), the part of the brain which diffuses the information we receive through our eyes, can affect people’s behavior. Despite having normal intelligence and cognitive reactions, these people never learn complex social conventions and moral rules.  When learning another language and culture, we need to learn new social norms and behavior in order to communicate. According to the scientists, the study offers evidence neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain start processing information anticipating the social response that is required in a given situation.  This is probably why images have far more impact than words which we need to process differently. But if we never look up?

To prove my point, I’d like everyone who hasn’t seen it to watch Gary Turk’s Youtube video entitled (appropriately) Look Up! (over 44 million views so far):


And of course I will take this opportunity to mention Kyu Sakamoto, a Japanese singer and actor (坂本 九 Sakamoto Kyū?, born Hisashi Oshima (大島 九 Ōshima Hisashi?), 10 December 1941 – 12 August 1985),who sang the International hint song “Sukiyaki” or “Look Up”, which was sung in Japanese and sold over 13 million copies in 1963. For the first time in history, a Japanese song was on the list of the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1963.  Tragically he died on August 12, 1985, in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, probably the deadliest single airplane accident in history. Here it is for those of you who have never heard it before (you may even learn a little Japanese!):


Soyonara Kyu!












Spring Forward Fall Back Reply

Move your clocks up!


I say it is impossible that so sensible a people [citizens of Paris], under such circumstances, should have lived so long by the smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive light of candles, if they had franklinreally known that they might have had as much pure light of the sun for nothing. Benjamin Franklin, US Founding Father (1706-1790)

You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe “Daylight Saving Time.” Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize winning American author and columnist (b. 1947)

Dave Barry

Dave Barry

Every year the same question rolls around: Why do we move our clocks around twice a year?  What’s the big deal? Daylight saving time has come again and we have sprung forward one more hour giving our biological clocks some adjusting to do over the next few weeks. But no matter how many times we change time…no matter really knows where it got all started…

According to my research, the first person to think of saving more daylight (probably a night owl) was Benjamin Franklin. He was inspired to write an essay called An Economical Project while sojourning in Paris as an American delegate. He probably was so taken by the city of lights (some say ‘light’ as a more accurate translation) that he wanted to enjoy more of it in the evenings.

Then in 1907 a London builder William Willett took the idea up again in his pamphlet Waste of Daylight. He wrote:

“Everyone appreciates the long, light evenings. Everyone laments their shortage as Autumn approaches; and everyone has given utterance to regret that the clear, bright light of an early morning during Spring and Summer months is so seldom seen or used.”

Actually the U.S. Department of Transportation proved that most Americans appreciated Daylight Saving Time because  “there is more light in the evenings / can do more in the evenings.” People usually attribute the institution of Daylight Saving Time to saving energy although many studies have shown that the savings are minimal. It probably all boils down to the fact that people, like me, look forward to enjoying long spring and warm summer evenings after a long winter’s work schedule. It’s nice to get home from work and feel that you’ve still got a few hours left to enjoy the day. So what is it with Daylight Saving Time? Watch the following video from HBO (US Cable Channel Home Box Office) to understand better why people get so worked up at this time of the year:


WE ARE CHARLIE: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword Reply

Stephane Charbonnier editorial director of Charlie Hebdo

(Fred Dufour/Courtesy Agence France-Presse)

black ribbon

I am Charlie

I Am Charlie…

We are so sad and all of us here in California send our heartfelt condolences to the families of those who suffered this great loss, to the nation of France who witnessed the disappearance of 10 of the greatest and most talented journalists in the country and to the world who has seen its freedom of expression jeopardized because of the barbarous acts of a few individuals.


From NoirCon.org

As this attack on our liberty went viral, on the ground here in the US it has sparked many spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity:

San Francisco I Am Charlie AP Photo Marcio Jose Sanchez


SAN FRANCISCO: Hundreds of people gathered outside the French Consulate holding up tiny French flags and brandishing signs which read “I am Charlie”. Others lit candles and placed them on the sidewalk spelling out “Je Suis Charlie” next to people who were placing pens, pencils and bouquets of white carnations and red roses in front of the Consulate’s door.

SAN DIEGO: People embraced and offered their condolences to all those who have connections in France…

LOS ANGELES: Spontaneous groups held vigils holding up signs and cell phones that read “Je suis Charlie” and “I am Charlie”…

Elsewhere in the US:

SEATTLE: More than 100 people stood silent outside the French Consulate holding up signs of support for the victims…

MANHATTAN: Almost a thousand people stood on Union Square chanting “We Are Not Afraid!!!” and holding signs saying “We Are Charlie!”…

WASHINGTON: The News Museum “Newseum” put together a display on its atrium screen as a show of support for free expression ” “#JeSuisCharlie”…

There are no words for the pain that we are feeling….

We are all Charlie…let this event make us more determined than ever to preserve our freedoms and to protect those who have none.


Bracebridge Dinner in Yosemite Reply

John Muir

John Muir Contemplating
Yosemite Valley

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
John Muir The Yosemite (1912), page 256.

ahwahnee hotel in the winter

Ahwahnee Hotel in the Winter

YosemiteNational Park is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a park located in California in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is where I spent many summers and where I long to return every time there is a special event. In the summer you have Lee Stetson playing as John Muir in a play at Yosemite Valley  and in the winter you have Bracebridge Dinner at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel.

Bracebridge Dinner in Yosemite

The Feast

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams Portrait
Yosemite Winter

This tradition was started in 1927 in order to attract ‘high society’ visitors to the valley during the snowy winter season. At that time British traditions were in vogue in America so the organizers decided to transform the dining hall into a 17th century English manor house in which Squire Bracebridge, the rich and generous host, invites guests to celebrate a seven-course holiday feast with his family. The great American photographer Ansel Adams directed the Bracebridge Dinner from 1929 to 1973 playing the role of the Major Domo.

Then Eugene and Anna-Marie Fulton directed the show from 1973 to 1978 and then let their daughter, Andrea, take over the responsibility of directing and producing the theatrical production. As well as directing the dinner performance, she now plays the leading role of the Housekeeper. She explains what this theatrical feast means to her, the cast and the guests:

Countdown to Halloween…! Reply

America’s favorite holiday is right around the corner and Do-it-yourselfers are dusting off their sewing machines and power tools in order to make their own costumes and decorate their homes. They’re also getting out their cookbooks and consulting online cooking sites to make homemade Halloween treats to please young and old alike (see my Halloween Pumpkin Bread which is perfect for this season!). A lot of my students don’t really understand the significance of Halloween in American culture as it’s seen as a rather pagan and silly tradition and wonder what all the ruckus is about. So…how much do you know about Halloween? Can you answer the following questions?

  1. What does the word ‘hallow’ mean in Halloween?
  2. What country did Halloween originate in? What was the Celtic Samhain holiday?
  3. Why did people wear masks on Halloween and dress up in costumes?
  4. Who was Jack O’ Lantern or Stingy Jack?
  5. What is the origin of ‘trick or treating’? Why did it become popular in the US?
  6. What is the day after Halloween called?
  7. What are the 2 traditional colors of Halloween and what do they symbolize?
  8. What big orange vegetable, originating in Mexico over 9000 years ago, is     traditionally carved on Halloween? Why? What was the first vegetable?
  9. Halloween is the 2nd most popular holiday in the US. What is the first?
  10. What is the most popular candy in the US given to trick or treaters?
  11. Ghost stories are popular at Halloween time. Which classic American author wrote The Raven’? Who wroteThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? Which British writer wrote this classic Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus’ when she was only 21? What American horror fiction writer achieved posthumous fame by creating ‘The Cthulus Mythos’ and ‘Necronomicom’?
  12. What famous American rock ‘n roll singer recorded ‘The Monster Mash’ in 1962 imitating actor Boris Karloff’s voice (the star in the movie ‘Frankenstein’) and which has become America’s favorite Halloween song?

(Scroll down for the answers)

Here’s my take on Halloween:

As most people know, Americans love to have fun and they also like to commercialize any event or holiday where people can kick off their shoes and celebrate (any excuse for a party…!). This commercialization of Halloween also adds to the enjoyment and festive atmosphere of October 31. It’s the first big holiday of the school year, the true end of the summer season as the fall vegetables turn up on the produce stands (pumpkins, apples, turnips, corn and beets to name only a few) and the kickoff of the holiday season which culminates in the ushering in of the  New Year on Times Square in New York City.

The origins of Halloween date back to a Druidic fire festival known as Samhain (summer’s end) from the Old Irish samain. This festival was a celebration of the end of the harvest season for the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Celts. As it was a time when leaves started to wither and annual plants died as the coolness set in, the Gauls saw fit to commemorate the dead and departed and soon the divisions between the living and the dead blurred. Little by little this day became associated with celebrating the recently departed until by the 19th century November 1 was set aside to pay respect to all Saints in heaven. Thus came the names All Saints Day, then Souls Day, then Hallowed Day (sanctify those departed day) from the Scottish Hallowe-en. Because the celebration was the night before it, wasn’t long before Hallowed eve became Halloween and thus began a tradition of   respecting ancient beliefs and rituals which were adopted by the Roman Christians who had earlier conquered the ancient Celts.

So this day became special for the Celts as a way of helping the spirits pass on to the other world. Some spirits though are not so benevolent or need a little special care in passing judgment day or purgatory, so the ancient Celts began the custom of carving turnips and beets and lighting the inside with candles as a way of remembering these lost souls. Americans started using pumpkins in the 19th century to mark the end of harvest time and in the mid 19th century pumpkins became the symbol of Halloween in North America.

This symbol of Halloween is also called a “Jack-o-lantern”. This term stems from an old Irish folktale about a man called “Stingy Jack” who one day invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Living up to his reputation, Stingy Jack refused to pay for the drinks and through his cunning convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so that Jack could pay his bill. The Devil accepted and turned himself into a coin. But Jack changed his mind and decided to keep the coin. He put it in his pocket next to a silver cross which prevented the Devil from changing back. But the Devil begged Jack to set him free and Jack did so on the condition that the Devil would not bother him for one year and that if Jack died the Devil had to promise not to claim his soul. Jack continued making deals with the Devil until he eventually died. Because of his bad deeds, as the legend goes, God would not allow such a horrible human being into heaven. The Devil though would not allow Jack into hell because of the promise that he had made to not claim Jack’s soul.  So Jack, now homeless,  was condemned to roam the earth with only a burning coal that the Devil allowed him to have. Jack put this burning coal into a turnip and has been wandering around the earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and then it was shortened to “Jack o’ Lantern”. The Irish American immigrants brought these traditions to America and soon discovered that pumpkins made the ideal “lantern” for Halloween as they were much bigger than turnips and could be carved out more easily. These lanterns were traditionally put on window sills or doorsteps to ward off or frighten away evil spirits such as “Stingy Jack”.

The legend of Stingy Jack gave way to other stories of ghoulish beings who played tricks on humans during this nightly celebration (see 18th century Scottish Glasgow poet John Mayne’s poems relating to pranks at Halloween “What fearfu’ pranks ensue!”, Scottish poet Robert Burns’ poem “Halloween” written in 1785 and 19th century American poet Edgar Allan Poe’s poems “The Raven” (go to The Raven page to hear it read), “Ligeia” and “Ulalume” to name just a few) and before you knew it Americans picked up these legends and the holiday took on themes of death, evil, the occult or mythical monsters. Black (for death) and orange (for harvest time) became the theme colors. Peasants in early 15th England and Ireland took advantage of these fears that people had of evil spirits, and went from door to door begging for treats (cake, fruit or coins) in exchange for the promise to pray for the souls of the dead and to keep the spirits from playing tricks on the occupants of the house. The custom was called “souling” and was a common practice at holiday time for beggars.

Here’s a reading of the

“Souling” was transformed into “trick or treating” as a reminder of what the beggars said when the homeowners opened their doors.

Children soon picked up this custom of going from door to door for food or coins and started the custom of “guising” or disguising themselves in elaborate costumes. They are usually modeled after supernatural figures such as monsters, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils. Over time, people started disguising themselves as popular characters from fiction, celebrities with sophisticated rubber masks, and generic images from legends. Of course commercialism had its hand in these traditions also and the first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in stores in the 1930s when the custom of trick-or-treating was becoming popular in the United States. Halloween spending is more “treat” than “trick” as people spent more than $6 Billion in costumes and candy in 2010. Wow!

Tim Burton, an American film director and producer famous for dark, strange movies such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Planet of the Apes, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to name a few. His latest film, Alice in Wonderland, was the 2nd highest grossing film of 2010. “This Is Halloween” is a song by composer Danny Elfman which Burton included in his film The Nightmare Before Chritmas (play on words of the Christmas poem “Twas Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clark Moore)  Sing along with Jack Skellington to practice your stress (a Disney re-cut):

[By the way…for all of my observant students…there were a few mistakes in the subtitles…did you find them? . Here they are: Everybody screm (sp)= everybody scream; Yours stairs = your stairs (possessive pronouns are always invariable); Something’s waiting no (sp) to pounce = now to pounce; Everyone screm (sp) = everybody scream…!]

In Los Angeles, California, folks from every walk of life flock to “Mr. Bone’s Pumpkin Patch” amusement park to spend a day with the family in a farm like setting and to leave with a perfectly shaped pumpkin to decorate their house.Here’s Paris Hilton leaving with her pumpkin:    

If Halloween falls on the weekend, people celebrate traditional games such as apple bobbing (with your hands tied behind your back you must “catch” an apple with your teeth in a pail of water) or playing fortune teller with Ouija Boards. It’s also an occasion to sit by the fireplace and tell Gothic ghost stories (Frankenstein and Dracula among others) or view horror films. Episodes of television series and Halloween-themed specials are usually shown before Halloween to get people in the holiday spirit. Or music videos. Here’s one of Michael Jackson’s best ‘Thriller’ which epitomizes America’s love of the occult:

So…how are you going to celebrate Halloween? Boo-oo-ooo!

Oh By the way…I almost forgot. Here are the answers to the quiz:

  1. The word ‘hallow’ means saint. Hallow + Eve became Halloween or the night of the celebration of the dead.
  2. Halloween originated in Ireland. Saimhain (pronounced /SOW:in/ ) was a celebration marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the dark days of the year.
  3. People wore masks and costumes to protect themselves from the spirits or ghosts who were thought to roam the countryside on Halloween. They wore masks and costumes to avoid being recognized as human.
  4. Jack O’ Lantern is a nickname for a carved turnip or pumpkin with a candle in it. It actually came from an Irish mythical character called Stingy Jack. He was a deceiver, manipulator and a drunk who had made a pact with the devil. Because of this he was doomed to wander the earth forever with only a hollowed out turnip to light his way.
  5. Probably comes from ‘guising’ in Scotland and Ireland where children would perform a ‘trick’ before collecting a ‘treat’ instead of praying for the dead. This is where the word ’disguise’ comes from. In the U.S. in the ‘30s, schools started encouraging youngsters to ‘trick or treat’ instead of playing pranks or tricks which caused a lot of damage to public and private property. The town councils and schools thought this created more of a fun community holiday event.
  6. The day after Halloween is called ‘All Saints’ Day’. People traditionally put flowers on the graves of their loved ones.
  7. The two traditional colors are ‘orange’ and ‘black’. Orange is associated with the Fall harvest and black is associated with darkness and death.
  8. The All American pumpkin is the traditional vegetable carved on Halloween and eaten on Thanksgiving. The Irish used to carve a turnip or a potato.
  9. Commercially speaking, Christmas is the number one holiday in the United States. Halloween is the 2nd most popular holiday. . People spend over $1.5 billion on costumes every year and more than $2.5 billion on Halloween decorations.
  10. The most popular candy given during Halloween is M&Ms. They got their start in 1941 to enable soldiers to carry their chocolate without it melting. They were named after Bruce Murrie from the American Hershey’s company and Forrest Mars from the Mars Candy company.
  11. The 19th century writer Edgar Allen Poe wrote the poem ‘The Raven’. He is best known for his tales of mystery and doom. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story by American author Washington Irving who published it in 1820. It was made into a feature film by Tim Burton in 1999 starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christopher Walken plays the Headless Horseman. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 as a bet. She and her husband Percy Shelley were at Lord Byron’s summer home, I believe in Switzerland. There was a thunderstorm one night and while cooped up in the house, they came up with a friendly competition. They decided to see who could write the best ghost story. I think we can say that she won the bet! Way to go Mary!
  12. Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. The song is a narration by a mad scientist who creates a monster that late one night, gets up and begins dancing. This song has been recorded by other musicians including the Beach Boys and the Smashing Pumpkins.

March to the Sound of your own drum 2


Sam’s Poster

To the beat of your own drumg The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, was probably the first one to write this now very pervasive tenet:  “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away. ” This saying has taken on a more modern interpretation as more and more people are coming out of their closets, choosing to lead their lives out in the open despite their differences and deformities forcing society to accept them as they are.

Yes…“different strokes for different folks” has become the modus operandi in our Western societies, social forums and  cyberworld contributing to the creation of  a global community which allows those who do not fit the standard mold to live among “normal” people who eventually learn how to overlook their  differences in order to see them as these people see themselves…

I was on a long haul plane flight between Paris and San Diego a few days ago trying to occupy my time by exploring the different options on the entertainment system. delta-dish-tv2After going through the movies, I stumbled upon the documentary section and started scanning the different titles in hopes of discovering one that would catch my attention and get me caught up on American life. One such one struck my eye entitled Life According To Sam. The smiling boy on the picture ressembled someone who was suffering from a rare genetic disease called Progeria (Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome)which causes its victims to age at a very dramatic pace. I couldn’t resist the smiling invitation to enter into Sam’s world and discover his life and how he and his parents, both medical doctors, turned a seeming tragedy into something positive and influential for many people in their community and the nation at large.

Sam with his parents

Sam and his proud parents

While his parents were searching desperately and relentlessly for a cure to his disease  as soon as they found out what they were up against when Sam was diagnosed with the disease at 15 months, Sam grew up to be a practically normal kid who loved building stuff with his lego sets, enjoyed playing the drums in his high school marching band, became an Eagle Scout and openly supported the local sports teams in Boston. His physical deformities were offset by a brillant mind and an outgoing personality that made people see beyond his exterior shell for the person he really was inside. His optimism and intelligence won him many friends and enabled him to excell in his studies and grow into an extraordinary teenager who inspired all who met him…including me who was meeting him for the first time.

Because of the extraordinary nature of this young boy and his dedicated parents, HBO produced a documentary in their honor entitled Life According to Sam. It was directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix. The documentary follows the parents’ courageous fight to save their only son from this rare and fatal ageing disease. Their faith and determination allowed them and their research team to not only identify the defective gene but also to find a drug to reduce the devastating effects of the disease and prolong the lives of those children suffering from it who came from all around the world. Here’s the trailer:

This extraordinary documentary has won many awards including and was introduced at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival:
Peabody Award
Chris Award
Award Winner, Heartland Film Festival
Audience Award, Nantucket Film Festival
Best Storytelling Award, Nantucket Film Festival
Best Doc Feature, Rhode Island Film Fest
Best of the Fest, AFI film festival
Audience Award, Woods Hole Film Fest
Grand Winner, Mountainfilm Festival
Indomitable Spirit Award, Mountainfilm Festival


NIH Director and Sam Berns

Because of this documentary, Sam became  known outside of his closeknit community and aroused people’s curiosity and desire to get to know him better. Consequently he was invited on many talk shows and  public forums to speak. The first one to invite him was Geneticist and physician Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health who wanted Sam to participate in his talk “We Need Better Drugs Now“. Then Sam appeared on the talk show circuit via the  Katie Couric show on October 13, 2013:

Lastly, he was asked to speak on Ted  Talks about his philosophy of life. As many of you know, TedTalks.com is a site dedicated to spreading good ideas around the world. It began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design crossed paths, and today it invites speakers from around the globe in more than 200 languages to speak about almost any topic from science to global issues. What better forum to advertise Sam’s special and inspiring philosophy of life:

It is so amazing that this young boy begged people not to feel sorry for him but to look beyond his exterior shell to discover his true identity and to rejoice with him for leading a very happy life. This reminds me of  Harold Kushner’s book:  When Bad Things Happen to Good People. His son also suffered from Progeria and was also blessed with a beautiful mind. He just couldn’t understand why fate would allow this to happen. His final conclusion was that underneath those dark clouds, the sun is still shining.

Unfortunately Sam passed away on January 10, 2014 but his legacy lives on. I’m hoping that I did a little bit to help in this endeavor through this Blog Post and through the Research Foundation in his honor.

RIP Sam!