Archive | Jul 2014

Major and Minor Tools in Wicca

Wiccan altar with candles, chalice, cauldron (bowl), wand, and athame

Wiccan altar with candles, chalice, cauldron (bowl), wand, and athame

When most people hear the word “Wicca” or “witch” stereotyped images typically come to mind. Whether it’s a green skinned hag with warts or a beautiful seductress using magic to overcome the will of others, few people unfamiliar with Wicca/Paganism have clear and accurate images of who these people are and what they believe. Central to these stereotypes are tools used by Wiccans in their practice. Whether it’s a cauldron, a magic wand, a cup, or a dagger, outside of “the Craft” and often even inside it, the primary and secondary tools used by the majority of Wiccans remains poorly understood. Here’s a quick primer on some of the most common tools:

Athame: a dull-edged knife or dagger (typically more dull than your typical letter opener), often with an ornamental hilt, athames cut only air and spiritual energies. They are used to define and sanctify a space for worship and release the area back to its normal use after. Hence there is a “calling” and “dismissing” of spiritual energies with the athame. Unlike the wand whose job is to invite energies, the athame is used primarily to repel unwanted energies and spiritual entities. In other words, it serves a protective function, cleansing the defined inner space and warding against everything outside the defined boundaries so that only positive energy can enter and negative energy is kept away. Masculine, yang force tool.

Wand: typically made of wood or crystal, wands also define worship spaces, but differently than athames. While athames repel unwanted energies and spiritual beings, wands invite desirable energies into the worship space. For that reason, many rituals begin by “casting the quarters” first with an athame, then with the wand to first repel what a person or group does not want, then invite what the person/group welcomes. The type of material a person uses for a wand affects the direction of the invitation (see for several wands with their associated wood meanings and uses). Masculine, yang force tool.

Cauldron: a bowl or cooking pot, often made of cast iron with tripod feet, the cauldron originates as the primary household cook pot used to prepare meals. As such, cauldrons tend to retain their traditional associations with foods and food stuffs. Sometimes used as a brazier for burning incense, candles, or herbs, the primary focus of most cauldrons remain on food, hearth, and home. Symbolically the cauldron represents female, yin force energy as the cauldron closely resembles a woman’s womb in appearance. Regular, modern cook pots can be used as cauldrons, particular in kitchen witchcraft.

Chalice (cup): probably the most universal religious tool, the chalice’s ritual use transcends time, space, culture, and religion. Intuitively, the chalice’s first and primary function is that of a drinking vessel, holding the milk, juice, water, or wine called for in religious ceremonies. As such, it is the most versatile. A female, yin force symbol, the chalice resembles the female reproductive track in appearance and therefore is the most feminine of the tools used in Wicca.

Candles: from small chime candles to thick column candles, the variety of candles individuals may use is limitless. Usually the type of candle used is decided by functional needs and the color(s) is decided by spiritual or symbolic considerations. For example, green candles may represent balance, harmony, money, wealth, or nature. Pink candles are often associated with love-both romantic and non-romantic. Purple candles tend to have spiritual connotations-and so forth.

Candle snuffer: a safety tool, candle snuffers may be large or small, silver, brass, copper, or another preferred metal. Their function is implicit: to extinguish candle, incense, and other small fires by depriving the flame of oxygen.

Incense: whether in powder, cone, or stick formats, incense is a blend of herbs and/or resins that are burned for the aromatic and/or spiritual properties. Used broadly across numerous world religions, Wiccans often interpret the smoke of incense as symbolic of air (element).

Boline: a sharp ritual knife or dagger typically used to cut plant materials such as fruit, vegetables, prepared foods, and/ or plant stalks. Unlike the athame whose purpose is purely symbolic and spiritual, the boline is a practical object, a cutting implement used in sacrificing plants or simply to facilitate the serving of ritual foods such as a loaf of bread or a pomegranate.

Essential oils: part of the herbalism aspect of Wicca, essential oils are concentrated oils derived from plants and resins used for their spiritual and aromatic properties. Most oils need to be blended with a carrier oil such as almond or olive oil before they can be applied to the skin for healing. Oils can also be mixed with water and sprayed in a spray bottle or sprinkled into an area for a spiritual or physical impact. For example, lavender oil mixed with water and sprinkled onto a pillow or bedding is a well-known remedy for sleep disorders. Spiritually lavender is known for its protective qualities (see

Herbs: important to kitchen witchcraft and its focus on herbal healing, herbs/spices are more than just flavorful for your ordinary cooking. Herbs have both physical and spiritual impacts, promoting health and healing on all levels of the person when used mindfully. The number of resources on herbs and herbal healing are too numerous to list, but one nice one for beginners is at My favorite source for herbs and herbal teas is at

Mortar and Pestle: used to grind whole herbs into a powdered form and mix herbs together, mortar and pestles are important tools for making herbal teas and combining spices for cooking. An essential tool in kitchen witchcraft.

Bells: used in numerous religious traditions, bells can serve many different functions. They can define spaces using sound. They can signal the start of worship. They can represent the element of air. They can also be used purely for their musical tones. The uses are almost endless according to individual preferences and outlook.

Besoms: also called “brooms” or “broomsticks,” ritual besoms are probably the most stereotyped of the tools used in Wicca. Contrary to stereotype, besoms are not used to mix toxic brews or for riding on at night, but are used to sweep away unwanted negative energies and form protective spaces. Many Wiccans keep their besoms in places of honor-above chimneys, doorways, or other entry-points of energies. They are literally used to sweep an area-but not free of loose floor debris like their non-religious counterparts. Instead a besom sweeps spiritual energies. They are typically round and may be of any number of sizes or compositions.

The tools of Wicca are often the same tools used in other religious traditions, just used for different specifics. They are highly individual in design and function. Yet together they help individuals and religious groups shape religious and spiritual experiences.

For more information on Wicca and its tools, please consult:,

Witch in the City: Seven Tips for Adapting Polytheism to Urban Environments

April 21st, 2012Beltane altar in downtown Brooklyn


Many earth-centric religious traditions, including Wicca, help us connect deeply with nature with outdoor worship. But where green spaces are sparse or sometimes inconvenient to reach, how does a Wiccan or other polytheist find the balance? Here are things I’ve done over the years:

  1. Use less fire and more water: instead of burning specific herbs, candles, or essential oils, mix them with water and disperse by libation or through a small spray bottle such as a travel sized pump bottle.
  2. Barbecue grills at parks are your friend: when you do need to burn something for a prayer or ritual, consider travelling to a public park that offers a barbecue grill and light your fire in the grill space. This greatly reduces your fire risk and makes it easier to control your fire.
  3. Use ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams for food sacrifices: one of my favorite rituals for holiday worship is to cast a libation of food and drink (non-alcoholic) into a pond or lake as a gift of thanksgiving to the deity/deities associated with the holiday. This is not only very historically accurate to what many cultures have done for millennia, but your gift is often greatly appreciated by the area wildlife.
  4. Keep incense lighting to indoor contexts: when you light incense outside, you risk not only fire that can more easily get out of hand, but mis-interpretation by passersby. Also recognize that many parks have strict rules against any sort of burning outside of fire pits/grills; you can get into a lot of trouble over fire-even incense!
  5. Replace bonfires with symbolic fires: when a ritual or custom calls for a bonfire, consider using lit or un-lit candles and incense.
  6. Embrace plant life: all life is connected. Connect to it-and deity–with your touch. Caressing a plant is a wonderful way to remind yourself of the beauty, wonder, and divinity around you.
  7. No matter what you practice or believe, prioritize safety over ritual. Accidents happen, especially when working around fire. Invest in those little aids like snuffers and water vessels that make you safer!

Distinguishing Between History and Theology

Distinguishing Between History and Theology

Creationism, Biblical Literalism, and History

June 18th, 2012


On May 15th, Gallup completed a poll on American attitudes on the role of divinity in creation. Respondents were asked if they believed deity had no role in human evolution (evolution), a guiding roll in evolution (theistic evolution), or if they believed deity had created humans in pretty much the same form as it is now less than 10,000 years ago (creationism). 46% of the respondents answering accepted the creationism explanation of human evolution. 32% took the theistic evolution position. Only 15% of Americans surveyed believed in straight, no deity, evolution. Demographic data from the poll revealed that more than half of people with a high school diploma or less, and of those who attend religious services regularly believe in Creationism.

I too once believed in Creationism – when I was an evangelical christian attending church weekly. My university explorations of many spiritual traditions paired with my requisite science courses changed that position to “theistic evolution.” But perhaps the greatest influence in my own shift from Biblical Literalism to Biblical Minimalism came during my junior year of university when I took Dr. Stephen Burnett’s “Hebrew Heritage” course.

Hebrew history is one of those areas where the Bible is presumed to be literally authoritative by orthodox Jews and Christians alike and where every word of the Hebrew Bible is traditionally taken at face value. Creationism stems from a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible; the origins of humanity, let alone Hebrews and other Semites, is not really a focus in the “New Testament.” In Dr. Burnett’s class we paired Biblical texts with archaeology and primary source material from adjacent cultures.

History, Dr. Burnett taught, was not the same as religion or theology: documents must be critiqued for their authorship, bias, and collaborative physical evidence (or lack thereof). He asked us, as students of history, to consider who wrote whatever we were looking at, what they did for a living, what their socio-economic backgrounds were, and other details of context. Was this person a priest? A politician? A ruler? Male? Female? What other events were (near) contemporary? What was the world view of this culture?

In asking these questions, we learned how to evaluate primary sources and decide if a source was truly primary (such as a diary entry) or secondary (written about something not personally experienced). Important in evaluating these sources was the addition of collaborating evidence – both archaeological and textual from other sources.

This multi-faceted approach to sources is what defines the historian’s craft from the theologian. Theologians evaluate a holy book based on spiritual, religious, or moral consideration. In theology, the aim is to discover divine intent and moral wisdom. History asks the questions of “what happened, to whom, and how do we know what happened?” History applies the scientific method in evaluating sources, physical evidence, and literature. Biblical Minimalism is a literary and historical approach to the Bible which regards those parts of the Bible that cannot be collaborated by other sources as literary or metaphorical. In other words, not to be taken as literal truth, but more spiritually or psychologically true.

For me, the Bible doesn’t have to be literally true to hold value for our society. Indeed, it can teach us much about how Hebrew culture. Yet in understanding the Bible’s limits, I find myself freed to explore the breadth of knowledge being slowly revealed through archaeology and the lost cultures and ideas concealed beneath the surface of our world. As a scientist, I am thrilled!

Medieval Militias: a Brief History of England and Europe’s Primary Defense Forces

This article published on June 21st, 2012 was originally written in response to the raging gun control debate exploding at the time.  In that debate, I kept hearing ardent defenses of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution which states in full, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Being a history person, I therefore took the time to look into the history of militias in hoping of shedding light onto the context behind these most controversial words in the US Constitution.


Medieval Militias: a Brief History of England and Europe’s Primary Defense Forces

When most people hear the word “militia,” Colonial America minutemen probably come to mind. Others may remember that it was the Massachusetts militia that Congress adopted and assigned to George Washington in 1775 in order to free Boston from occupying Crown forces. To this Massachusetts colonial militia, Congress merged the colonial militias of the other twelve colonies, forming what became the “Continental Army.”

But this new Continental Army was not an army in the modern sense nor did it form in a historical vacuum. Instead, the American militias that became George Washington’s forces all evolved out of a much older tradition that goes back more than one thousand years before the Founding Fathers and Founding Mother’s time.

It all began in antiquity, as most things ultimately do. Celtic and Germanic peoples competed for resources across Europe, each with very distinct war traditions. Medieval England would take most of their traditions from the Germanic tribes.

Ancient Germanic cultures maintained a tradition of calling forth every able bodied man to fight in times of crisis; professional soldiers were not part of this equation. This tradition became part ofEnglish Common Law even as a more codified feudal system emerged. These first militias were the backbone of defense across Europe; mercenaries were hired sometimes but were so expensive that they were particularly rare in the first millennium of the Common Era. Starting in the eleventh century, the numbers of professional, mercenary soldiers grew thanks to the evolution of a new practice called “scutage.” In scutage, a vassal pays money to his liege lord in exchange for being excused from personally providing military service. With this money, kings and nobles bought more mercenaries than they ever could before. As with most things, Europe’s transition from barter to money-based economics facilitated that shift. Soon it became common for the wealthiest to pay their way out of putting their own necks on the line on the field of battle, increasing the number of mercenaries a king or noble could employ.

But mercenaries were no solution to the problem of how to defend a nation. In England, non-feudal militias were encouraged through laws requiring every able bodied man to keep weapons and train with them. The Welsh longbow became the natural weapon of choice; they were relatively inexpensive and could be owned by even the poorest Englishman. Laws were passed to encourage proficiency with bows. By the Hundred Years War, the result of generations of encouraged archery proficiency rang clear with English victories against the French rooted in the skill of English bowmen – nearly all of these longbow men serving in the militia. As mercenaries became more ruthless in their treatment of civilians, resentment against professional soldiers grew; only the militia made up of their peers could be trusted.

This belief that militia, not professional soldiers, could be trusted stayed with English society through the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming part of colonial American attitudes towards professional verses non-professional soldiers and, ultimately made its way into the United States Constitution through the Second Amendment guaranteeing, just as 13th century English law, the rights of ordinary citizens to defend the country instead of a professional army.

Parrots and Popinjays: a Brief Look at the Role of Companion Birds in Medieval Europe

This next article about medieval aviculture comes from my years as Society expert on medieval aviculture in the Society for Creative Anachronism.


Parrots and Popinjays: a Brief Look at the Role of

1310s illumination from the Queen Mary Psalter showing a popinjay (Psittacula parakeet) at Christ's right hand and opposite a falcon.

1310s illumination from the Queen Mary Psalter showing a popinjay (Psittacula parakeet) at Christ’s right hand and opposite a falcon.

Companion Birds in Medieval Europe

An Overview to the Role Parrots, Finches, and Doves Played in Medieval History

June 7th, 2012

Medieval illuminations rarely depicted species- specific details as this 1236 illumination of a popinjay shows.

Medieval illuminations rarely depicted species- specific details as this 1236 illumination of a popinjay shows.

When most of us think of companion animals, a dog or cat probably is the first animal to come to mind. What few people realize is just how recently our canine and feline obsession really is, dating back only about three hundred years or so. In the middle ages, nearly all the animals in our lives were kept for practical reasons. Medieval Europeans distrusted cats as agents of Satan. Dogs were raised for specific jobs such as herding, guarding, vermin control (the terriers in particular were bred to kill rats and mice), hunting, and even transportation in icy and mountainous regions. Horses were transportation. Oxen pulled plows and were slaughtered for food. Chickens provided eggs and meat. Sheep were shorn for wool and slaughtered as veal or mutton. Even birds of prey served humans as hunting companions.

But three orders of birds were raised primarily for their companionship qualities: Passeriformes (includes sparrows, canaries, and finches), Columbiformes (pigeons and doves), and Psittaciformes (parrots). These were the primary “pets” of the Middle Ages and Renaissance adored by all levels of society — from the poorest to the richest, and royal down to the poorest peasant.

Birds served many companionship functions in medieval life. Among the most humble in society, the family bird kept women in the household company while engaging in the labor-intensive needs of the home. Whether it was spinning, weaving, cooking, laundry, or cleaning — the family bird broke up boredom by providing beauty, song, and social interaction.

Nobles too kept birds, especially parrots (called “popinjays” before 1500). Noble women and noble men kept birds for very different reasons which are perhaps somewhat predictable. For the men, exotic species of birds were prestige animals through which to display wealth and power. Every royal and every noble man wanted the most rare and most expensive parrot, finch, or pigeon/dove that money and aviculture could produce. By contrast, their wives and daughters kept and demanded these birds for their species-specific social and verbal abilities.

In between, the emerging bourgeoisie pursued parrot aviculture as a means of improving and displaying social standing and wealth. As trade and crafts people flourished in cities, so did their need to show poor and very rich alike that they themselves had risen above poverty; possessing parrots served that function quite nicely, particularly as the dietary and shelter needs of the parrot species kept (in Europe, the available parrots were all from genus Psittacula, aka Asian parakeets, birds adapted to Asian rain forests) required consistent warmth and access to fresh foods and grains.

Medieval Europeans raised four species of Psittacula parakeets before 1500: the African ringneck parakeet (Psittacula krameri krameri), the Indian ringneck parakeet (Psittacula krameri manillensis), the plum-headed parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala) and the Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria). The highest echelons of society had access to African grey parrots (Congo and Timneh subspecies). England’s Henry VIII notoriously kept an African grey.

But the rarest parrot of the European Middle Ages belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (von Hohenstaufen). In 1229, this noted lover of falconry received as a gift a rare bird indeed — at least to Europeans: a white cockatoo from genus Cacatua. Many believe the bird was an umbrella cockatoo, but my reading of Frederick’s “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus” (Art of Falconry) leads to a different conclusion. Nowhere does Frederick provide any detail regarding his cockatoo that applies only to the umbrella cockatoo; details like white and having yellow under the wings applies to nearly all members of that genus. He does not even tell us if the bird had a recursive (curling away from the head) or a recumbent (crest laying flat against the head) crest nor are the illuminations in the book particularly detailed in that respect. So while many believe his cockatoo was an umbrella cockatoo, I don’t see enough in primary sources to identify exactly what kind of white cockatoo it was.
The story of companion birds in our lives is long and deeply entwined with our own histories, shaping our world in subtle ways few people understand. Yet these beautiful and special birds have, indeed, been part of our lives for millennia in symbiosis with us. For our fates and fortunes are deeply intertwined with theirs; when they suffer, so do we.

This story of birds in the middle ages has just began. But one thing is certain: we must stop poaching them from the wild, destroying their habitats, and mistreating them in our homes. Only then may we all find peace and harmony.

Mulling Over Wine: Three Favorite Recipes for Your Happy Holidays

Written December 12, 2012, this set of recipes for mulled wines is especially great for warming a cold winter’s day and for bringing holiday cheer.  But why wait until November to enjoy a delicious cup of wine?


Mulling Over Wine: Three Favorite Recipes for Your Happy Holidays

Classic Medieval Beverage Stands the Test of Time

 The holidays are here…along with the darkness of winter, biting cold winter storms, and frozen toes. It’s also a time of year when we look back on the year that was as we welcome a new year. In December, we celebrate Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, and Kwanza, typically in that order. It’s a festive time focused on spending time with family and friends; the gifts we might exchange are secondary, contrary to what a plethora of TV advertisements may tell us.For centuries, a critical part of spreading that holiday cheer has been a cup of warmed, spiced wine. Typically red, it can also be white, depending on personal preferences, and infused with any number of fragrant herbs and spices.

For me, three recipes really stand out among all the many mulled wine recipes you can find. The first recipe is medieval. It’s an example from 1660 with doubtless origins stretching back several centuries before it was written down. Unlike most recipes you’ll find on the web, this medieval recipe adds cream to the mix, something I don’t see very often, but really adds to the flavor of the wine. Second, it’s written for a large gathering — an entire GALLON of (red) wine. This makes it perfect for serving at historical re-enactments where typically at least 40 people are sitting at feast at any given time. Not hosting a yuletide event? No problem…just serve it at whatever festive gatherings you choose to host. I can tell you from experience that few things make you feel warmer or happier coming in from a brutal storm than a nice cup of hot or warm mulled wine. For parties, I suggest using a crock pot to prepare and serve the medieval recipe. Your guests will thank you for serving the wine at just the right temperature to drink right away!

The second recipe is a favorite of mine because of all the extra information I found along with it. But it’s also just a really nice, flavorful mulled wine choice. This version calls for three full liters of red wine; I usually make 1/4th of a recipe (one regular 750 ml bottle). It features cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg for a very classic taste that is palatable to almost anyone who enjoys red wine. Choose your favorite budget priced vintage for this one; the cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg add so much flavor that you don’t really need anything more pricy than $18 per bottle!

The final recipe, for mulled riesling, is my all time favorite. Like many people, I prefer lighter flavors; the tannins in reds just don’t agree with me as well as the lighter blushes and white wines do. For many people, white wines are also better tolerated, especially if a person takes prescription medications on a regular basis. But more than that, I love the combination of rosemary, honey, and lemon with riesling. Riesling is a very flavorful, light wine to begin with. Those flavors really come alive when you add rosemary, honey, and lemon to them. For someone with a refined palate especially, the combination is just spectacular! I love the nuances you get with this third and final recipe.
Medieval Recipe:

“1 gallon wine
3oz cinnamon
2oz ginger, sliced
1/4oz cloves
1oz mace
20 peppercorns
1oz nutmeg
3lb sugar
2qt cream

“Take a gallon of wine, three ounces of cinamon, two ounces of slic’t ginger, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, an ounce of mace, twenty corns of pepper, an ounce of nutmegs, three pound of sugar, and two quarts of cream.”

In essence, mix all ingredients and heat slowly in a large pot. Serve warm. You can also let it ‘settle’ for a few days and serve it cool, depending on which way tastes better to you!”

Anything Wine’s Recipe:
3 Liters red wine (we use Merlot) but you can use something like a hearty burgundy also

· 8 sticks of cinnamon

· 32 cloves

· 3 cups sugar

· 1 cup lemon juice

· 1Tbs nutmeg

· 3 cups water

“Combine all of the above in a pot and bring to a low boil with the cover on. I put the nutmeg and cloves in a small bag for easy removal and strain out the cinnamon sticks with a spoon. Boil for ten minutes.”

Let stand overnight and then take out the spices. Serve warm!


Riesling Rosemary Mulled Wine1/2c water
1/2c sugar
2 Tbsp rosemary
1/4 cup honey
2 lemons
2 bottles riesling white wine

Simmer (but not boil) the water, sugar, rosemary, and honey for 10 minutes. Add in the wine . Peel the lemons and add in the peels. Let sit for a length of time to seep in the flavors, without boiling. Strain out the larger bits and serve warm.
No matter what your mulled wine indulgence is, these three recipes are absolutely certain to please. Whether your interest is in making a historically accurate beverage, a family favorite traditional mulled red wine, or in the delicate flavors of the mulled riesling, there is something for everyone with these mulled wine choices.As the weather grows colder yet and the snow falls once more, try a cup of warmed mulled wine at your next holiday party or celebration. Long before egg nog (an American invention), the holidays were filled with generous cups of hot/warm mulled wine. Discover the tradition and you’ll know why it’s been the beverage of holiday cheer for over one thousand years!

Flexible Isolation: Sound Absorption Options for Apartment Dwellers

One of my most popular articles on Yahoo Voices, this article looks at how we can better sound isolate our homes to make them quieter from our neighbors’ noise.


Flexible Isolation: Sound Absorption Options for Apartment Dwellers

These Sound Absorbing Options Make Apartment Tenants and Landlords Happy

July 4, 2013

If you’ve been listening to me on social media lately, you would think that the only thing going on in my life is my relentlessly loud and borderline sound-harassing next door neighbor. Growing up and living in cities, noise is nothing really all that new to me. Psychophysics tells us that women like myself tend to be more sensitive to noise than men. But over the course of my life, I’ve found that most neighbors (except for a few best described with profanity) usually will try to be nice and at least attempt to make things better.

So what do you do when talking to your neighbor is just not enough, when a discourse on the physics of sound and the impact on the human body of low frequency noise (LFN) reaches deaf (perhaps literally as well as figuratively) ears?

There’s lots of advice out there, most of it absurdly expensive. Most of the advice and products out there are for keeping your noise in, not absorbing structurally-transmitted sounds caused from without.

Here are some things I’ve found that I’m hoping will work for me – when I can afford to do more of them:

  1. Use a sound absorbing rug pad under your rugs and any new carpeting you lay down.

Carpeting seems to be one of the best ways to absorb sound. The thicker the rug, the better. Rugs and carpets can get pricey, of course, and by themselves may do nothing for your problem if they are low pile (read that, economical). Fortunately, there are sound absorbing rug pads that protect your apartment’s hard wood floor and are designed to reduce that structural noise – both what you transmit (walking, a/c, TV, music, etc.) and what others transmit to you. Check out the selection ofhigh density Jute felt rug pads at Rug Pad corner. What I like about Rug Pad Corner is they can cut your rug pad to whatever size your particular rug happens to be. So if you find a great deal on a 6 foot by 8 foot, 9 inches rug, you can still get the pad cut to fit without additional cost.

2. Try sound absorbing “vibration isolation feet” for your bed, couch, bird cage, or other piece of furniture that sits on casters that you do not need to move around much. Needle doctor has several sizes, based on weight, sold individually. Use size 5 for any furniture weighing more than about 50 lbs.

3. Sound absorbing “Quiet Barrier” is rubber/foam sheeting specifically designed to reduce noise transmission between rooms and apartments. Apply on the ceilings, walls, and floors. There is one big downside to the quiet barrier: cost! A 4 x 8 foot sheet is over $60 before shipping with a 30 feet roll costing over $250!

These three options seem to be the best and most economical for apartment dwellers, especially as they do not involve altering the apartment unit itself. Do they work as well as ripping up the floors to apply sound absorbing foam or filling drywall with sound absorbing materials? NO! But then again, odds are really good your landlord won’t let you re-model your apartment for sound anyway.


Finally, there is a lot of support for wall to wall carpeting, especially thick carpeting paired with the jute carpet pad mentioned earlier. The more your home is carpeted, the more sound-resistant it will be. Concrete floors, bare wood stairs, and hard wood floors by their nature sound the loudest. Finally, when searching for your next apartment, look for and ask about these simple measures. Landlords can be flexible and reasonable once asked. I have known many friends in New York City who petitioned for and receivable approval to carpet their apartments – generally at their own expense – but with really good results. Not only are their thickly carpeted apartments more pleasant to walk on, but they really are quieter than hard wood floor homes!


Bon chance in your quest for a quieter home.



Merida’s “Brave” New World

Originally posted June 26th, 2012, I wrote this review of the movie “Brave” after watching it opening weekend.  In the first two weeks of the film’s release, it received an outstanding 5000 hits on Yahoo Voices.


Merida’s “Brave” New World

Princess Merida and Queen Elinor have a problem: when they speak to one another, neither is truly listening. To Merida, her mother seems like all rules and discipline. To Elinor, her daughter Merida seems reckless and rebellious. Merida doesn’t seem to process that she is a princess and heiress-apparent who must someday rule with wisdom and grace and would rather ride her horse, explore her beautiful kingdom, and practice her archery.

In other words, Elinor and Merida are just like most young women and their mothers, each feeling she is right and neither wanting to walk in the other’s shoes. Merida is so convinced her mother won’t listen to her that she seeks to change, anyway she can, what she feels is an inevitable imposed life of misery scripted by her mother. Along the way, mistakes are made and mended to the transformation of both.

If none of this sounds to you like your typical Disney princess movie, you are absolutely correct!“Brave” is, indeed, a brave new world for Disney-Pixar. Traditional Disney princesses are pursuing romantic love; finding a husband and having a wedding have been the focus of countless Disney-animated films. But “Brave” is different. In “Brave” our heroine feels she is much too young for marriage and fights to preserve her maidenhood, to stay young and feel for as long as possible, shirking adult responsibilities instead of throwing herself into them headlong. Merida is strong, independent, and a bit unruly; a strong departure from Cinderella, Princess Aurora, and other beloved Disney heroines.

Another feature to “Brave” is its beautiful rendition of medieval Scotland. Here the art is resplendent, full of Celtic knot-work and stone carvings. Celtic stone circles feature prominently in the film. In “Brave” they are holy ground, sanctuary against dark forces with our heroines often retreating to them. Without any particular references to religion in any direction, “Brave” uses the stone circle as a sort of symbol of Celtic culture, powerfully connecting the clans to both past and future. The climactic battle at the end of the film happens inside the great stone circle seen across the film with good prevailing against the apparent odds inside its borders.

In “Brave” Disney-Pixar create a new kind of heroine, strongly Celtic and true to ancient Celtic culture, yet feeling equally modern and timeless. Every girl and woman can relate to Queen Elinor and Princess Merida. Boys and men will love its constant action. It even addresses that age-old question of “what do men wear under their kilts” both tastefully and comically. Humor can also be found in King Fergus and Merida’s triplet brothers, all of whom will have audiences of all ages rolling in the aisles!

I have been a fan of Disney animation for most of my life. Yet I will come out and say that of all the Disney films I’ve seen, THIS ONE is the film I cherish most. Without relying on musical numbers, it speaks to the heart and soul of everyone and reminds us that no matter how difficult communicating with our mothers or daughters may be, in the end, the quest is worth it!

Chamomile and English Lavender Iced Tea

Chamomile and English Lavender Iced Tea

Winning Recipe from the Barony of St. Swithin’s Bog (SCA) Tea Brewing Competition at 2012 “Spring Thing”

July 15th, 2013


Recipe Used for tea brewing competition at the Barony of St. Swithin’s Bog (Aethelmearc) 2012 “Spring Thing” event:

2 TBSP loose chamomile

1 ½ tsp English (culinary) Lavender

¾ cup granulated sugar

4 trays ice

1 quart cold water

Follow manufacturer instructions or your favorite method for brewing

Makes 1 quart

Medieval Period usage:

Chamomile and lavender were both well known medicinal herbs in period. In her paper, “Medieval Use of Herbs” Mistress Jadwiga Zajaczkowa outlines and documents how dozens of herbs, including lavender and chamomile, were used in period.

Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla: a short, creeping fringy plant with daisylike flowers. Used in handwashing waters and for headaches. Lawns and garden seats were planted with chamomile, for it ‘smells the sweeter for being trodden on’. Scientific testing indicates that it really may help settle the stomach and soothe the nerves, which may be why it was used in fevers.”

“LavenderLavendula vera, Lavendula spica, Lavendula stoechas: dried purple flowers. Used in food, and in refreshing washes for headaches; a cap with lavender flowers quilted in it kept headaches at bay. Used extensively in baths, as a personal scent and as a moth repellent.”

Third-Hand Smoke: The Hidden Danger to Apartment Living

This article I wrote after becoming very ill from my west end Johnstown neighbor’s smoke which filtered into my apartment.  As I researched, a learned a great deal about how second and third hand smoke makes non smokers sick.


Third-Hand Smoke: The Hidden Danger to Apartment Living

Neighbors Smoking Tobacco, Drugs Literally Makes You Sick

 August 28th, 2013
Monday August 19th. An odd putrescence fills my bathroom and home office through the walls and ventilation system of my apartment. The smell is semi-sweet, but also nauseating, an intense grassy stench. My heart starts pounding out of my chest. I lose all ability to concentrate. I feel light headed and generally sick.I do not take drugs — not even Advil — my system does not tolerate anything stronger than homeopathy — like the Feverfew and vitamins my migraine specialist prescribed for me after years of prescription Topomax sickened me without alleviating my severe and crippling chronic daily migraine caused by the head injury that took my eyesight. Even simple antibiotics and over the counter cold medicines make me intensely sick. I do not smoke. I consume fewer than 10 drinks of alcohol in an entire year and do not like the effects of alcohol when I do take that occasional glass of wine or champagne with my dinner or during the holidays. In short, my own body’s intolerance means I live a very clean life.As the odd chemicals from my neighbor’s apartment seep into my home, my body starts to experience terrifying symptoms. It feels like I’m having a medical emergency. What on earth could be creating these sudden symptoms?

In search for the answer, I remember my college days when I very briefly experimented with tobacco under peer influence. I know what tobacco does to me; none of my symptoms overlap with that.

Continuing my quest to understand this sudden illness accompanying the stench, I come across an August 11th article by Aaron Brachfeld on something called “third hand smoke.”

Third hand smoke is smoke you neither take in directly nor inhale from close physical proximity such as being in the same room as the smoker. This includes any air you may share — including and especially the air in apartment buildings, townhouses, condominiums, co-ops, and other residential communities.

The effects of third-hand smoke depends on exactly which drug or drugs are in the smoke and how much exposure is required to physically affect you, your family, and your companion animals (companion birds, then human infants and pre-natal humans being the most intensely affected at the lowest levels of exposure). With regards to third hand exposure to marijuana, Colorado-based journalist Aaron Bachfeld cites,

” 3rd and 2nd hand exposure is potent. 3rd hand exposure usually results in something in the neighborhood of 1/100 of the dose received by 2nd hand exposure. 3rd hand is accomplished by inhalation, ingestion and osmosis: particulates bind to dust or dirt or clothing or whatever, and are consumed as well as breathed. This dust also allows it to enter the blood through the skin. Furthermore, the effect increases as more particles are ingested and inhaled, creating an increasing effect. The particles, even when not ingested, inhaled or touched, result in exposure: off gassing by the dust created by the use or storage of aerosols creates gasses which are then inhaled – even without dust as a carrier. (Third-hand smoking: indoor measurements of concentration and sizes of cigarette smoke particles after resuspension, M H Becquemin, et al. Tob Control 2010;19:347-348 doi:10.1136/tc.2009.034694, and Indoor Air Pollution: Problems and Priorities, edited by G. B. Leslie, F. W. Lunau, 1992, etc.).”

On September 2nd, 2012, in the midst of Colorado’s consideration of legalizing marijuana, Mr. Bachfeld cautioned,

“Marijuana has been and remains a valuable tool against disease for many doctors, and the public should never prevent the use of medicine. Yet the abuse of marijuana is prevalent, and preventing that abuse is impossible except by a path of limited tolerance.

There are numerous dangers to marijuana, and not just to the user who exposes themselves to higher cancer rates (even if it is not smoked), diabetes, psychological disorders (depression, anxiety and schizophrenia are inevitable with long-term use of marijuana due to permanent changes to the brain caused by the drug), heart disease and other disease. The high cost of legally grown marijuana makes it difficult to afford, leading to demand for illegally grown marijuana.

With this in mind, there is an urgency to regulate through governmental control the growth of marijuana. And when even proponents of legalization admit that legalization will not likely reduce illegal grow operations, but increase them (just because stronger and safer marijuana is grown in legal labs does not mean that people will stop buying inferior marijuana if it is cheaper), we must admit that the dangers and responsibilities of marijuana use belong to all Americans, and it is right that that regulation should be placed wholly in the hands of the public.”

While marijuana was likely (though wholly untested and unproven) the culprit of my illness on Monday, smoking any drug — including tobacco — holds dangers to those who breathe it. Since we cannot control the distribution or concentrations of airborne chemicals, all smoke from all substances create numerous and wide-spread hazards to the health and well-being of everyone within a certain chemical proximity of the smoker.

Or, put another way, there is no such thing as “safe” smoke — to the user or anyone else. All smoking of all substances holds health risks extending well beyond the person who lights up. Second and third hand smoke kill. Who will be next to die?

For more information, please consult:

Having symptoms*? Don’t ignore them; seek out professional medical help for evaluation and treatment options for you, your family, and your companion animals.

*If you are exposed to second or third hand smoke, consuming a high fiber diet may help your body eliminate some of the toxins from your body. High fiber parrot foods include sunflower seeds, almonds, and other nuts. If your bird suddenly starts craving high quantities of these, she could be instinctively trying to eliminate smoke toxins from her body, much as her wild cousins use clay licks to counteract toxins found in their diets.

We Need to Free Teachers: How Micro-managing Teachers is Undermining American Education

Originally posted June 26th, 2012


Recently a 16 year old friend complained about spell check trying to insert an apostrophe in one of her contractions on facebook. Whenever I speak to her in facebook chat, I find her words are so filled with mis-spellings and incorrect grammar that I cannot understand her. When I try to speak to her about this, she ignores me (typical of a 16 year-old!).

Dismayed, I spoke to several public school teachers and university professors I know through both my education and facebook games. I asked them about what is happening in the classroom. Their answers revealed just how much has changed in public education over the last 20 years.

During my education in the 1980s and 1990s, teachers were trusted as the professionals they are, allowed to adjust their lessons to each class they were teaching, accelerating or slowing down the pace, providing enrichment activities that made learning fun, and above all else, free to do whatever they felt would be effective in empowering their students to think critically and apply lessons to the real world. Standardized tests were issued from time to time, but never focused upon. Instead, my teachers focused on making sure every student grasped every subject competently.

Things have changed. Since my high school graduation in 1990, governments on all levels have decided to supervise and micro-manage to levels unheard of in previous decades. Today’s professional educators no longer possess the freedom to adjust their lessons to specific classroom situations and specific student needs in order to maximize student learning. Instead THE TEST has taken over class room time to a degree I find barely plausible. Now, instead of engaging and challenging students, both teachers and students are frustrated and bored. More importantly, students are advancing to the next grade with few critical thinking or researching skills, no ability to apply the classroom to the rest of their lives, and little permanent knowledge.

This trend is so severe that university professors now have to dummy down their curricula. If this seems unimportant, then consider that our most sensitive professions require graduate degrees. Do you really want the doctor operating on you to graduate with less knowledge and competence than a physician educated in the 1980s? Do you want your lawyer to not know the law expertly?

All professions build upon the foundation our public school teachers provide across a person’s early life. We cannot afford for university professors to dummy down anything; doing so puts every aspect of our lives in danger.

It is time to reverse course in education and return the classroom to our dedicated education professionals. It is time trust our teachers to know their jobs. It is time to get government, even local government, out of the classroom and restore control to those best able to handle the responsibility of educating our youth: our classroom teachers. When we remove teacher control from their classes, we undermine our entire society. Let’s stop politicizing education and let teachers teach. Not the politically correct version of their subjects, but each subject taught to prepare each student for the high standards expected of them in university. We all deserve nothing less.

Chocolate and Vanilla Egg Crèmes: Brooklyn’s Best Kept Secret

One of the most enduring parts of my experience living in Brooklyn, New York for over four years is in food.  In that time, I was introduced to one of the most delicious beverages ever:  the egg cream.


Chocolate and Vanilla Egg Crèmes: Brooklyn’s Best Kept Secret

July, 2012

Go into a diner in Brooklyn and they are hard to miss! They are a Brooklyn tradition since the turn of the 20th century. They were a staple in drug store soda shops. What are they? Brooklyn’s best kept secret: egg crèmes!

What pray tell is an egg crème? A delicious, non-alcoholic soda you can make cheaply and easily in your own home. Dining out and they are not on the menu? Ask for one anyway. Most restaurants with a bar tender have the ingredients right there – they just may need the recipe from you. The Altoona, Pennsylvania Olive Garden recently made them for my dining party after I asked. The rest of my group was skeptical about this Brooklyn invention…that is, until it arrived and we each drank one!

Here’s what you need to make your own egg crème:

12 oz glass

Whole milk (or really indulge with a splash of half and half with your milk)

Seltzer soda water (club soda is more salty, but will work if you cannot find seltzer)

Fox’s U-Bet chocolate or vanilla syrup (Hershey’s can be substituted, but be aware that the Fox’s product is more of a semi-sweet chocolate and Hershey’s is more a milk chocolate that tastes sweeter and less bitter)

  1. Begin by pouring from 1/4th to 2/3rds of your glass with milk and/or milk and half and half.
  2. Add about one to three tablespoons of chocolate or vanilla syrup. The more syrup, the richer and sweeter the taste.
  3. Stir vigorously.
  4. Add seltzer to the top of the glass, tilting the glass to maximize the carbonated head. A thick head of about 2 inches is considered ideal.
  5. Stir vigorously.
  6. Drink immediately.

Some purists I know from Brooklyn say to stir only once and to make the dryer version with only 1/4th of the glass in milk. I personally love the richer, sweeter version created by using at least half a glass of milk and more syrup. You add more calories this way, but it’s a tastier soda.

Egg crèmes can make a great party drink. Simply mix the milk and syrup into a pitcher with a heavily chilled 1 liter or 2 liter bottle on ice on the table. Then ask guests to simply pour their milk/syrup in first and top with the seltzer. Those swizzle stick stirrers are great if you are serving egg crèmes this way. For a fancy touch, chocolate shavings make the perfect garnish. Simply set out a small dessert bowl of the shavings for your guests next to the egg crème ingredients.

Egg crèmes are the perfect balance between chocolate milk and regular sodas, giving you the best of both worlds. They are a delicious treat for your meal, your party, or just the end of a hard day.

So try the Brooklyn egg crème and discover what most Brooklynites have known for decades!

Getting the Most Out of Telephone Customer Service

This article written January 3rd, 2013 was the product of first hand experience working at a call center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania for the December holidays.  In it, I reveal helpful tips for making your next call to customer service a success.


Getting the Most Out of Telephone Customer Service

Four Tips for Making Your Next Call a Success

We all do it: call up the companies we deal with and speak to a customer service representative. Whether it’s our utilities, our credit cards, or just a purchase we made somewhere, it’s almost impossible to go through life without talking to a customer service representative on the telephone. In fact, most of us prefer to speak to a representative over scrolling through website FAQs, automated telephone menus, and email/chat service options – at least for a few specific areas of our lives. We as Americans like real people at the end of the line, especially those who can hear us, understand us, and we can understand when talking to them.

Yet most of us go about these calls the wrong way. Caught up in the heat of whatever is provoking the phone call, we make mistakes when talking on the phone to customer service and often ignore the humanity of the people on the other end in ways we tend not to when getting help in person at a store.

The following four tips are things I discovered first hand working over the holidays in a call center for making your next call to customer service more successful:

Be prepared:

When you call customer service, the representative will need certain key pieces of information in order to locate your account and help you. Until she or he obtains this information from you, her or his system simply won’t display your account, your order, or whatever digital information is necessary to assist you. Depending on the type of call you are making, you will need to have ready things like your account number, phone number or email address as listed in their files, confirmation number, or any other applicable pieces of information. If you are calling regarding healthcare, expect to be asked for the name of your primary care physician and/or date of service if you are making a billing-related call.

Knowing why you are calling and then being ready to provide key information relating to your call will make things easier – for you and your representative.

Speak slowly, clearly, and loud enough to be heard:

Customer service representatives have to enter your information into a computer. This often involves transcribing information you tell them. Transcribing takes longer than reading; our short term memory for hearing is less than 4 seconds. So slow down, speak up, speak clearly (using formal language helps), and verify with your representative that s/he has heard you correctly and transcribed your information accurately, especially with number-based information which most people type more slowly than they do with regular words and phrases.

Customer Service Representatives are SPECIALISTS:

This may or may not seem obvious, but it’s important to understand when you make that call. Ever wonder why so many companies use touch-tone automated systems to direct your call? The reason is specialization. Customer service can be extremely specialized with groups of service representatives trained and able to assist with only specific segments of your service. For example, a billing representative typically works just with billing questions. They are there to handle financial aspects of your account. Likewise a technical support representative is there to handle operation of and problems with some sort of device (computer, music player, cell phone, etc.).

This means that each of these individuals or groups of individuals can only help you with their specific expertise. Their knowledge and authority to assist you is limited to their specific area. When calling, pay attention to where you are being directed and ask, if need be, if you have been directed to the correct individual who can handle your needs. Often more than one person in more than one area may be needed to handle all of your questions or concerns. If this is the case, patiently handle one item at a time with each person you need to talk to. Customer service people are friendly, empathic, and caring. We want you to be happy with all your questions, concerns, and issues resolved before you hang up.

Customer Service Representatives are PEOPLE:

It seems obvious, but we tend to forget the humanity of the customer service representatives on the end of the phone line. When they answer our call, too often our first impulse is to vent about whatever it is that is provoking us to call their company. This blinds us to both the specialized nature of what they can do for us and to them as people who are there trying to help us. We may yell, complain about some aspect of product or service we are unhappy with, or even vent with them about things not directly related to the reason for our call.

What we fail to understand is that all of these things interfere with the customer service representative’s efforts to help us. Instead, we get better results when we recognize the independence of the customer service individual from whatever problems we are facing. Customer service representatives are there to help us fix problems; they are NOT the source OF our problems.

When we treat our service representatives as partners working to help us resolve our problems, we help them help us.

So next time you make that phone call to customer service, remember these four tips. You’ll get better service and hang up a happier customer.

K-cup (pod) Coffee Verses Drip Coffee: a Cost Comparision

Not surprisingly, this is one of my most popular articles ever.


Folgers ground coffee in a washable muslin coffee filter.

Folgers ground coffee in a washable muslin coffee filter.

K-cup (pod) Coffee Verses Drip Coffee: a Cost Comparision

A Look at the Costs of Brewing Your Morning Cup of Coffee

Posted January 21st, 2013

Single cup coffee makers are all the rage right now. Whether you go for a Keurig, a Cuinsart, or any other popular brand, “k-cup” coffees are the quick and easy way to brew high quality beverages. Typically all a person needs to do is select the desired beverage, insert the cup, set the correct brew size, and then press one button! It sounds terrific.

But is it a good investment, particularly in this economy where so many families are struggling to afford the basics? Let’s break down the costs and compare them with traditional coffee makers.

Initial cost:

K-cup style coffee makers range in price, depending on brand, model, features, and retailer, between $100 and $300. To get a sense of overall prices, I checked major retailers Walmart and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Their entire K-Cup beverage makers fell within this range, though sales can reduce this somewhat.

Traditional basket and cone drip coffee makers, by contrast, start at around $15 and can go as high as $200 for top brand units offering extensive features – such as built-in coffee grinders, duel carafes, specialized water displays, and other specialized extras. Non-powered single cup drip coffee makers (perfect for camping) can sell for less than $10, making this traditional choice also the most economical.

Coffee cost:

K-cups offer a broad range of beverage choices, all using the unique k-cup pod. Depending on the beverage chosen, brand, and quality, these k-cups cost anywhere from $8 for 16 k-cup servings to $60 for a package of 72 servings. Since literally dozens of brands and styles of beverages are available, it pays for k-cup users to shop around to find the best deal.

Compare this with your typical 10 oz. can of automatic drip coffee from a major brand sold at your favorite supermarket. A 10-oz can yields from 50 to 90 servings, depending on how much coffee you put into the basket at one time. These ten ounce cans typically sell for $3 to $7, depending on brand and store promotion. Specialty brands may cost more, but typically yield no less than 30 servings per pound and usually far more than 30 servings per pound.

Extra expenses:

Traditional basket/cone drip coffee makers typically use disposable paper filters which sell for anywhere from $2/package to $10/package, depending on brand, retailer, and number of filters. Over time, these disposable filters add up. Fortunately the options for permanent filters has increased with time. Manufacturers now sell nylon or gold-coated nylon permanent filters for a modest cost of around $10-$20. These filters do wear out over time and are not biodegradable.

In response to the high cost of buying k-cup pods, permanent k cup filters similar in design to the ones used in regular drip coffee makers are now starting to become available. I found one set of two permanent k cup baskets on Amazon for about $15, similar in cost to what a nylon permanent filter (1) will cost you for a drip style coffee maker.

The newest coffee filter options are machine washable cotton filters for drip coffee. Major retailers do not yet sell them, but you can find hand-made coffee filters at craft shows and on for typically less than $5 each. Simply insert the filter as you would a normal paper filter, with the closed seams facing the coffee (right side towards coffee), fill with coffee, and brew as usual. After the coffee is finished, simply dump the grinds (your acid loving plants love used coffee grinds), rinse out, and set to dry. Hand or machine wash about once every week or two. I use these and alternate between two such filters, enabling me to launder one while using the other.

Unlike paper filters, these fabric filters let the coffee oils come through, producing a richer and more pleasing flavor. Best yet, cotton coffee filters are 100% biodegradable, making them the greenest of all choices for making your morning coffee.

Because of the size and shape involved, fabric style permanent filters are unlikely to be producible for k cup makers, even with a minimal seam allowance. These coffee makers require a ridged pod to work properly.

In summary, k cups are your most expensive home brewing option. If you drink just one cup of coffee per day every day, you will spend $20 or more in the month for your coffee compared with about $5 with drip coffee. Entry level k cup machines cost around $100 compared to entry level drip machines which average around $20. Even with the cost of filters, k cup coffee costs you at least 5x what drip coffee costs, an expense that may be greater than buying ready-brewed coffee at your favorite restaurant, convenience store, or coffee shop.

For me, the choice is clear: I’m sticking with my drip coffee maker and fabric filters!


Shaming Poverty: One Person’s Stereotypes Leads to Personal Humiliation While Buying Food

This was another one of my Yahoo Voices articles where the trolls lingered.


Shaming Poverty: One Person’s Stereotypes Leads to Personal Humiliation While Buying Food

Myths Concerning Unemployed, Poor Persist Despite Prolonged Great Recession

November 3rd, 2013

Saturday October 26th. After working all week at my holiday temp job, I go to my neighborhood Dollar General to buy some milk and a couple frozen dinners for work. Earlier this month I stocked up on groceries, knowing my work schedule offered little time for cooking, reducing my food stamp total to less than $15 for the rest of the month.

At checkout, my total exceeds my remaining balance by about three dollars — nothing major — until the clerk asked me a question no one asked me since I was six years old buying a soda from my allowance. “Do you have money to pay for that?” she snarled unapologetically.

What? I thought to myself, keenly aware she was talking about just three dollars and change.

Caught off guard, I replied yes simply, showing her my debit card while she scowled over the split payment transaction. Leaving the store, the humiliation set in. Despite my professional dress and demeanor, this woman assumed (incorrectly) that I had no way to pay the three dollar balance owed, something no one ever communicated to me since I was a child buying small items from my allowance. Across dozens of mixed food and non food purchases at the same store, my capacity to pay for the non food items never came into question — until this purchase.

So why assume I could not pay — especially in face of my clean, well-cared for clothes and professional conduct?

The answer has to be rooted in persisting stereotypes about the poor, working poor, andunemployed. Despite the length of this Great Recession and high unemployment numbers, especially here in Johnstown where the unemployment rate in August was 8.7% (1.4% higher than the national average, and 1% above the Pennsylvania average), our culture still equates poverty with laziness, criminal activity, mental illness, and drug addiction — none of which apply to me, something self evident in my prolific work for Yahoo Voices and the seventeen editions of my twonovels, all self-published within a span of just eleven months.

On the flip side, my white cane leads to the assumption by those with little experience with the differently abled that my sight loss is sufficient for me to be dependent on federal disability payments. Few people realize that the federal definition of “legally blind” is 20/200 vision — compared with Pennsylvania’s 20/70 threshold which my 20/80 vision meets.

That is to say, I’m too blind to drive and too blind to work in industrial settings (where most of the few local jobs are) — but not blind enough to receive cash assistance from the federal government, Instead, the assistance I’ve received comes through Pennsylvania’s vocational rehabilitation program offering me some adaptive technologies (such as my white cane, large ruled paper, and a special desk lamp) designed to help me re-enter the work place.

No matter how you cut it, the words cut sharply at my pride. For I understand that while abuse of unemployment assistance, food stamps, and other programs designed to support the poor happens, the number of people who actually fit the stereotypes are very small — despite what politicians may claim. Most people receiving food stamps do so because the alternative is starving, not because they do not want to buy their own food.

Given a fair chance, most people receiving government assistance would prefer not to — regardless of age. Ask anyone struggling to scrape by on social security if they would rather be living off saved money in a pension or IRA — or off social security and nearly every person would prefer the former. Ask any long term unemployed person (such as myself) if she or he would rather be working or trying to make do through the help of others and nearly every person would rather be working. As any person working for minimum wage and not able to feed her or his family despite working full time if she or he wants food stamps and you will also hear a resounding “No!”

Americans do not want entitlements. Americans want to pay their own way. We want jobs and living wages. We want to support ourselves. And we want the system to be fair — rewarding hard work, education, and good choices instead of bad choices. For it is truly ironic that a heroine addict on the street readily gets disability assistance from the federal government — something that person chose to do — but my sight loss and hearing loss only affords me scorn and shame.

We can and must do better.

Sexism, Bullying, and Devaluation of Women by Women

Sexism, Bullying, and Devaluation of Women by Women

February 1st, 2014

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Senator Rand Paul argued against the so-called “War on Women” and Hillary Clinton’s qualifications to become the next president of the United States by attacking Bill Clinton’s infidelities.

Women know these arguments all too well; the fight against laws denying women recognition of existence separate and different from fathers, husbands, even sons form the core of women’s movements around the world and across centuries. From the dawn of American history and stretching back centuries before, thousands of pages of women’s history tell the tale of women’s efforts to be recognized as full and equal human beings, history rarely even taught in our schools.

One of the most damaging arguments in western cultures argues that a woman’s value as a person, her character, and her professional abilities are defined by her appearance. We see this music, television, and films when female performers (including “extras” in music videos) feel compelled to wear as little as possible and behave as sexually suggestive as possible in order to attain “success.” We see this in the way we evaluate athletes like British gymnast Beth Tweddle are labelled as “ugly” or criticized for not being sexy enough.

I’ve recently experienced this same sexism in remarks made to a recent article I wrote about the inner transformation I’ve found by making some small changes to my looks.

The consensus: the quality of my writing, professional success, and personal worthiness as a human being has everything to do with my looks (hair, makeup, clothing) and little if anything to do with my education, my talent, and my personal accomplishments.

None of these scathing remarks bother to look at the underlying message of the piece: that the smallest change to your appearance affords the opportunity to change how you look at the world. Instead, the focus sits on which cosmetic changes I made. Or put another way: surface over substance.

I am not bothered by these remarks as such. People are entitled to their opinions. But it speaks volumes to me that one or more people are willing to equate my worthiness as a human being and talent based entirely or almost entirely on what amounts to a haircut and my first attempts to apply makeup.

This is sexism in its most basic and often vicious form. Sadly, it is almost the rule in our culture and not the exception. From preoccupation with the shoes and clothes worn by women in Congress to the way we label professional women according to how “hot” they look to the prevalence of bullying women of all ages over hair, makeup, fashion, weight, and body shape, we as women are rarely judged by our inner persons.

What is perhaps more alarming is the way we women are the first ones to judge and bully based on appearance. The trolls who equate my professional worthiness with the way my hair looked on one day when I was not spending much time styling it are not men — but women.

If we as women are the first to bully and demean, how can we expect men to see us as more than just sexual objects? As Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it, “We are the only class in history that has been left to fight its battles alone, unaided by the ruling powers. White labor and the freed black men had their champions, but where are ours?”

We have the world we want to live in. We create it by our attitudes, our beliefs, and our actions.

But we can change this world with a single thought: I/we are not less human, not less worthy of love, success, and happiness than anyone else.

Perhaps one of the most empowering quotes of all comes from Mohadesa Najumi which I saw on one Facebook wall proclaiming, “The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.”

Live by this mantra, my friend. For we can and must do better.

From Orthodox to Reform: an Introduction to American Judaism

Changing gears, here is a post exploring Judaism in America.


From Orthodox to Reform: an Introduction to American Judaism

Exploring the Basics of Judaism in the United States

 September 6th, 2013
Growing up in Nebraska I knew almost nothing about Jewish cultures — even after taking a full year of Hebrew/Jewish history as part of my history major at the University of Nebraska. It took a 2005 move to Midwood, Brooklyn and a concerted effort on my part to discover and appreciate the enormous diversity in Jewish life, diversity most gentiles never explore. In the news, all Jews (ethnic and/or religious) are portrayed as the same. But in fact, there is at least as much diversity in Jewish life as there is Christian life, if not more so. There are Jews who live by very strict guidelines set by their denominations and Jews whose religious lives (or lack thereof) have absolutely no correlation with their heritage — and everything in between.To further enhance my understanding of my neighbors, I took time out in 2010 to regularly attend services at Temple Beth Emeth located only a few blocks away from the Church Avenue Station on the Brighton line (B/Q trains). Here are a few things I learned along the way:

  • Dietary rules vary greatly across Jewish denominations. The secular Jews I know usually eat no different than others in mixed Jewish/gentile groups. At Beth Emeth, the Reform Jews I met ranged across the dietary gambit from absolutely strict kosher to non-kosher. By contrast, the most orthodox and conservative congregations tend to practice a kosher diet.
  • Gender segregation, while common in orthodox congregations, is not practiced in reform congregations. At this time, I have not located definitive information one way or another concerning segregation or a lack of segregation among conservative congregations.
  • While there are certain cultural and core theological ideas across the gambit of Jewish congregations, how these ideas manifest greatly depends on both the denomination of Judaismand the specifics of an individual congregation.


Jewish Congregations tend to fall in one of three categories: orthodox and ultra-orthodox sit at the most traditional end of the spectrum. In the middle are conservative congregations that retain many of the ideas and practices of the orthodox, but not all of them. At the most liberal end of the spectrum are reform congregations like Beth Emeth. The European equivalent of “reform” Judaism is called “progressive.”


Not surprisingly, conservative and reform Judaism are both more popular in the United States than orthodox.


In day to day life, these differences can be dramatic. In orthodox Judaism, the rules for living can be very exacting and detailed, especially during shabbat or during a particular holiday like Yom Kipper. So as you might expect with anyone whose life experience centers on interacting with people of the same cultural and religious background, I noticed it was difficult for my orthodox neighbors to understand why I would, for example, go off to catch the train on a Saturday — or even take the train to go to Temple.In reform congregations, there is no problem with driving or taking public transportation during shabbat. So no one blinked an eye when I took the B train to get to services. Under orthodox Judaism, it is not allowed to travel by train or bus during shabbat; orthodox Jews tend to walk to services.

These sorts of rules are probably one of many reasons why American Jews often prefer conservative and reform temples.

Fortunately there is a lot more to Jewish life an culture than just rules and theology. In my five years in Brooklyn, I discovered the many beauties of this culture — along with delicious cuisine that all gentiles should really give a try to.

For some reason, Jewish culture and Judaism remain mysterious among gentiles. I would like to suggest to you that it is time for that to change. Regardless your opinion about the particulars of one denomination of Judaism or another, the wonderful truth is that Jewish culture is beautiful and precious, its food delicious, and its holidays of value to all cultures around the world. As we enter the high holiday days that fill September, I wish you peace, joy, and enlightenment.

Shalom! May you have peace.
Learn more about Judaism at:

Less Than Human: Complacency, Poverty, and Human Rights

More about poverty.  You see a theme going?


Less Than Human: Complacency, Poverty, and Human Rights

A Look at Conditions Face by and Attitudes Regarding the Poor and Unemployed

September 16, 2013


Sunday September 1st was a beautiful day. A friend came over and together we went to an area golf driving range, my first opportunity to leave my home for a reason other than grocery shopping or job interviews in over six months. After a full year of not practicing, my hits were off, but I enjoyed the practice, never thinking anything was wrong with using the natural grass section to learn how to hit a golf ball off an actual tee.

Monday, September 2nd, the first bites came. I changed my bedding and started the arduous process of trying to hand wash my sheets, still clueless fleas hitched a ride in my things and on me while golfing. Until, that is, around one am on Wednesday morning when twelve bites woke me. Using a flashlight I found the culprits: fleas! At dawn, I stripped the bed and started washing, the other set of sheets barely dry. At as soon the management office for my public housing community opened, I phoned the manager and asked for help with the bugs, spending all of the day washing as best I could from a bucket and leaving 90% of my blankets unwashed for the lack of access to washing machines.

Thursday September 5th, the exterminator came. When I spoke to him, he chided me forvacuuming my bed, one of the well-established techniques advocated in a multi-pronged approach to eliminate fleas. Instead, he insisted it had to be bed bugs, despite my descriptions of what I found each day and despite my solid research (which included his company’s own website). When he found my bed clean of bed bugs, he seemed almost mad at me, especially as I asserted myself and asked him politely to please please spray for fleas. Even showing him my dozens of bites did no good. It never entered this man’s mind that I could be intelligent, educated, and pro-active about my life — just because of where I live right now. Just because I am poor and still unemployed.

Poverty and unemployment does not signal a lack of intelligence. It does not mean a person dropped out of school. It does not make a person a drug addict, drug dealer, or even an unwed parent creating child after child to collect government benefits. Poverty doesn’t make a person mentally or even physically deficient in any way.

Poverty only means a person lacks money sufficient to provide food, healthcare, proper housing, and so forth. Unemployment simply means you are looking for work and have not found it yet. No more!

Are there people who are unemployed or are poor because of some sort of “deficit” such as just described. Yes, of course. But any connection between the aforementioned and poverty/unemployment remains limited. That is some poor people deal drugs. Some poor people have different fathers/mothers for each of their children. Some poor people have some sort of mental or physical challenge.

The problem socially is the bad habit of generalizing to the overwhelming majority of the poor, unemployed, and working poor who do none of those things.

These are the people who work for minimum wage. These are the moderately disabled like me who have physical limits due to accident, injury, and/or illness — but do not meet the Federal definitions for “permanently disabled.” These are the huge numbers of people laid off by the Great Recession from industries and in geography still waiting for the recovery to start.

We number in the millions.

So why are we less than human?

Less than human because we need nutritional assistance. This means struggling to feed our families on the meager allowances from food stamp programs constantly assaulted by politicians who feel “entitlements” such as food are not deserved by those receiving them. This means our children failing in school because school-based nutritional help reaches too few children on too few days of the year. This means obesity created by a lack of whole, fresh food availability.

Less than human because we cannot afford pristine houses with big yards. Instead, large numbers of us live in sub-standard apartments, public housing, and subsidized housing. These homes tend to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. They amplify and transmit low frequency noisefrom neighbors. They distribute toxic air from neighbors, traffic, and beyond. Inadequate, infrequent vermin prevention and treatment leads to disease and misery such as mine.

Less than human because employers assume internal defects, not the recession, create long term unemployment, compounding the problem and ignoring the talents and professional backgrounds of the long term unemployed. Recent job gains in low-paying sectors mean most of those previously laid off and now in new jobs now work too few hours for too little pay to afford the most basic of human dignities.

Those of us lucky enough to earn enough money to avoid all this squalor complacently respond to these conditions with condemnation of those afflicted, seeing those suffering from poverty as little more than “surplus population” to quote Charles Dickens rather than as humans living under inhumane conditions.

Let me declare in no uncertain terms: poverty does not make you less human.

Every person is born with the inalienable right to breathe healthy, clean air free of toxins. We are born with the inalienable right to whole, nutritious, healthy, quality food. We are born needing and deserving to live in safe, sturdy, healthy homes devoid of hazards such as second/third hand smoke, toxic noise, vermin, and disease. As Americans, we are born deserving the opportunity to better ourselves through hard work and education. All people who work and apply themselves need to be able to live independently and securely — regardless of physical abilities or challenges.

Whatever you want to think of me personally, I am worthy of all these things. Unemployment does not strip me of my humanity, nor does poverty. Today I live in squalor and misery under the most unhealthy and inhumane of conditions.

But I am human. I am bright. I am educated, I am talented. I deserve better than this. I am better than this. I am not the sum of my present environment. Somehow I will persevere through this — and so will you.

We can and must do better. It is time we stop looking down our noses at people and come together to make our world better. For every blessing in our lives is a gift given for but a time. Each decision each of us makes changes both our blessings and our challenges. Even the greatest wealth may disappear in the blink of an eye.

Poverty is not someone else’s problem, someone else’s pain. It is everyone’s problem, everyone’s pain. it is time to stop treating the poor as if they deserve the conditions they (we) live in, an inconvenience to our pride.

All people are human. It is time we treat each other that way.

The 3 Best Walking Tours for Your Vacation/staycation

May 23rd, 2012

One of the advantages of living in six states across my adult life is the amount of travel it’s allowed me to pursue. In total, I have traveled through, over, or in over 22 states and seen both the Atlantic Ocean (in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) and Pacific Ocean (in California). With my bachelors in psychology and history, I favor historical sites and tours and enjoy the exercise of walking tours in particular. Here are three of my favorite walking tours I’ve personally taken:

The Battle for New York tour (New York City). Spanning Brooklyn, Manhattan, and beyond, this walking tour by Barnet Schecter is found in his book “The Battle for New York” is a combination step-by- step walking tour and guide to New York City’s role in the American War for Independence (the better term for “the American Revolution” since the war was a civil war between Americans even more than it was a conflict between the Crown and the Patriots). Look for the walking tour online at or just buy Barnet’s book at your favorite book retailer. Cost of the book is around $30 for hardcover. The cost of the tour itself is just what you spend in bus/subway fare for the sections of this comprehensive “revolutionary” war experience, making it an economical New York City vacation option.

Honorable mention: Big Onion Tours features a very good walking tour of Revolutionary WarManhattan for $18 per person along with dozens of other New York City historical and neighborhood walking tours also available. See for more information.

The Freedom Trail (Boston). A costumed guided tour of Boston’s most significant “revolutionary” war sites, the Freedom Trail is an exploration of Boston’s 17th and 18th century history and its role in the War for Independence. The classic tour is the “Walk into History Tour” which departs on the hour from Boston Commons (see schedule at Tickets currently range from $11 for adults to $5 for children and are purchased on a per person basis. Tours last about 50 minutes.

Allegany-Portage Railroad Museum (Gallitzin, PA). Pennsylvania is famous for its railroads and its role in the evolution of transportation in the United States. Among its most famous railroads was the Allegany-Portage line which ran from Hollidaysburg in Blair County to Johnstown in Cambria County. From 1834 to 1854 the Allegeny-Portage served as a vital rail link connecting the water route between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg which only ran in two sections: Pittsburgh to Johnstown and Hollidaysburg to Harrisburg. Covering 1249 acres and run by the National Park Service, visitors enjoy a free self-guided walking tour using their cell phones and typing in the location code along each stop. Don’t feel like walking all day? Check out the park’s history museum for just $4 per person (

Shock Fiction: What Popularity of Horror and Erotica Genres Say About Our Culture

Next up is my look at why sex and violence seem to outsell more conservative fare.


cover art to Fifty Shades of Grey -- one of the worst written and most poorly edited bestsellers of all time

cover art to Fifty Shades of Grey — one of the worst written and most poorly edited bestsellers of all time

Shock Fiction: What Popularity of Horror and Erotica Genres Say About Our Culture

A Look at the Popularity of Sex and Violence in the Media

 February 8th, 2014

Sex and violence sell. For decades we’ve seen the connection between book/movie/music popularity and graphic violence/graphic sex. Can it be any wonder why Miley Cyrus bares all or why a song implying that women don’t mean “no” to sex when they say it topped the charts in 2013? We relish in treating women as bodies for male gratification; it’s shocking and therefore appealing to us, like some sort of dark sexual fantasy.

Except the fantasy does not match with our experiences. Rape is not fun. It’s not sexy. It’s an act of brutal violence that stays with us, often for the rest of our lives. Rape is about power, control and domination over another living being. In the real world, there is nothing fun about being on the receiving end of it.

Violence too is also not the fantasy the media we consume tells us it is. Speak to any woman or child in a battered woman’s shelter and ask her how “fun” it was to be beaten, raped, intimidated, controlled, or worse. Violence may be entertaining to hear about, read about, or watch on the big screen, but the actual experience is far from something you want for yourself. If it were, post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) would be as rare to psychotherapists as smallpox to American hospitals.

Given this disconnect, why do we need to consume these fantasy experiences that, ultimately, further callous us against the suffering of others? Why do we buy the sexually violent and poorly written “Fifty Shades of Grey” over better written books modeling healthy relationships between women and men?

Perhaps we have closed ourselves off to our emotions, to our ability to feel in our own lives, let alone sympathize and empathize with others. Rather than face the challenges in our own lives, we find it easier to wall our emotions away – much as the fictional Vulcans repress their emotions. Once repressed, our own emotions become difficult to access. We lose touch with those things that bring meaning to our lives and no longer remember how to relate the experiences of others to our own lives – a critical form of learning that other primates find exceedingly difficult if not impossible to attain.

If we cannot see ourselves reflected in other living beings, it becomes easy to ignore experiences we would never wish for ourselves. In essence, we de-humanize everyone else. Others have no real value. It is profoundly selfish of us.

We become completely emotionally disconnected. Can it be any wonder we seek to fill this void with whatever excitement we can find – sexual or violent?

But we can do better than this. We can embrace our feelings better and learn how to deal with life’s challenges in ways that keep us connected and related to other people. One simple way to do that is to turn off our electronics and return our focus to attentive in-person and voice-telephone contact. Yes, this means we need to learn to listen again instead of constantly broadcasting everything in our heads. Yes, this involves more self-control. Rather than bullying from afar, we have to re-learn the humanity of others by keeping our remarks civil if not kind and spoken from much closer physical distances.

Once we achieve this we will find ourselves able to respond not only to the breadth that literature has to offer us, but the breadth and depth of the human experience. We will not need cheap and shallow thrills or instant fame anymore. We will grow to appreciate the subtleties in humor and plot. We will come alive once more.